On Sunday afternoon, I received several e-mails, all of which began something like this: “Can you believe the Washington Post is publishing this racist garbage!?” This morning, Andrew Sullivan began his online observations with a spleen-venting paragraph about the “Racism at the Washington Post.”
So what’s going on?
Well, a Post writer, Natalie Hopkinson, has penned a first-person account of her and her husband’s efforts to keep white people out of their neighborhood, in a piece called “I Won’t Let D.C. Lose Its Flavor.”
“Flavor” is a reference to a community activist’s flyer, which had asked the question, “Is the Chocolate City Turning Vanilla?”
By “chocolate,” she means black. By vanilla, she means white. By “turning vanilla,” she means, “becoming more white.” And by becoming more white, she means becoming worse. To which she says: “Not if I can help it.”
To which I say: “You go, girl!”
Now, alas, there are several problems with her article and with the responses to it. The chief drawback to her essay is that you get the sense she really doesn’t know what she’s saying. Andrew Sullivan is absolutely correct that neither the Washington Post, nor any other mainstream newspaper in the nation, would dream of letting a white reporter — or any honky for that matter — publish a diatribe against too many black folks moving to town.
Just imagine if the Salt Lake City Tribune ran a piece caterwauling about how the Vanilla City was getting too “chocolaty.” Within a week, Jesse Jackson would be spotted walking out of the publisher’s office with a couple of those canvas sacks with dollar signs on them. Not long thereafter the New York Times Magazine would run a cover story on “Salt Lake Hate.” Bob Herbert or Joe Conason would be spoon-fed some Blumenthalian story about how “Big Mormon” money had gotten Bush elected. Etc., etc.
Okay, maybe, maybe, that’s a slight exaggeration, but not by much.
Nonetheless, is what she wrote really racist? Well, yes and no. Yes, in the sense that if, for example, I had written such a piece, I would be called a racist by all the usual hissy-fitters — and few people would come to my defense except, that is, for a lot of racist people whose support I would not want. More importantly, Ms. Hopkinson thinks an increase of (wealthy) white people — even a tiny percentage of them — is prima facie evidence that the city is moving in the wrong direction. Such sentiments are generally considered racist (and from an economic standpoint, idiotic).
But there’s another sense in which Ms. Hopkinson isn’t a racist (or idiotic) at all. This is clear simply by the fact that she wrote the piece in the first place. A real racist would be much more careful about exposing herself.
And that’s the point. We need a word for Ms. Hopkinson and others like her. And “racist” isn’t it.
The problem here is that the word “racist” has been stripped of all but one of its gears. Being a little racist is like being a little pregnant. There’s no room for ambiguity or shades of gray (except, of course, when you’re apologizing for something you didn’t realize was “racist” when you did it, like: “I did not mean to offend anyone with my racist and insensitive remarks when I said ‘Double Stuff Oreos were better because I like the white parts the best’”).
Ms. Hopkinson doesn’t think the government should do anything to keep white people from buying homes in historically black neighborhoods. She simply feels that the black middle class should stay put in D.C. rather than head out to the suburbs. And she’s right. D.C. would be in far better shape if the black middle and upper classes chose to remain there rather than head for greener pastures. One of the ironies of the fabled Harlem Renaissance, let us not forget, was that it was largely a product of de facto segregation.
The black middle and upper class remained in Harlem in part because they couldn’t move to the suburbs. The black Washington middle and upper classes have more options today, and that’s a wonderful thing for them, though not for the city — a fact Ms. Hopkinson recognizes. Indeed, the trend she is fighting is the reality that many individual families — individual black families — rationally conclude that raising children among the black lower class is a bad idea.
And this raises that pesky double standard again. When white families conclude they do not want to raise their children among the black lower class, its called racism. When black families do it, its called reaching for the American dream.
I know what you’re thinking: “This reminds me of Jimmy Carter.”
Okay, maybe not. But it reminds me of the toothy wonder.
It’s long forgotten now, but in 1976 Jimmy Carter committed a terrible gaffe that almost cost him the Democratic nomination. He said that he was in favor of allowing white communities to “maintain their ethnic purity,” and that the government shouldn’t be in the business of injecting minorities into historically “pure” neighborhoods.
Carter defended the comment for two days, saying he supported anti-discrimination laws but opposed “the intrusion of alien groups” or “black intrusion” into, say, Czech or Polish or Italian neighborhoods.
It took public denunciations from Carter allies like Congressman Andrew Young and then-National Urban League President Vernon Jordan (later Monica Lewinsky’s invaluable mentor, you’ll recall), to get Carter to apologize for the statement.
The word “purity” was legitimately controversial because of the eugenic baggage it carried. But the sentiment behind it was far less so. Even President Ford agreed: “Ethnic heritage is a great treasure,” he said on April 13, 1976, “and I don’t think that federal action should be used to destroy that ethnic treasure.”
And, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford — two honorable-yet-squishy men I’m not accustomed to agreeing with — were right. Ethnic pur…er, ethnic heritage is a wonderful thing. The ability of communities to maintain some cultural norms and traditions and impose their own social order is a big part of what makes this country interesting and wonderful. There are limits to what a community can do legally and even stricter limits on what a community should do morally to maintain some level of social cohesion, but let’s not kid ourselves about the fact that social cohesion is often necessarily maintained by letting strangers know they’re, well … strangers.
Ms. Hopkinson seems to agree with Messrs. Ford and Carter also. She doesn’t think the feds should keep whites out, but she does think that blacks should do what they can as families and as a community to make it a little harder for whites to come in. That’s what she means when she says, “We damn sure are not about to let white folks buy up all the property in D.C.” And, by doing this she and her husband admit that they are willing to pay more money for a home, assume more risks in terms of crime and sub-par schools, and take on a higher level of community responsibility.
And again, I say, “You go girl!”
I firmly — maybe even passionately — believe that the federal government must be completely blind to race. It should not be in the business of picking groups as superior, inferior, deserving of help or hindrance. And it should be zealous about this. All men should be equal in the eyes of God and the law. But what is unjust and evil when practiced by the state is not necessarily unjust and evil when practiced in the private sector. Korean grocers favor Koreans. Turks probably prefer to do business with Turks. Jews survived inquisitions, pogroms, and really bad deli by helping each other out. I see black guys wearing “Buy Black” T-shirts all the time.
Other identity groups follow this pattern too. Gays do more for gays (stop giggling) than, say, Baptist groups do for gays. It’s a rule of thumb in D.C. that some of the best rentable apartments are only advertised in the Blade — the official newspaper of lavish Oscar parties. There’s nothing wrong with gays wanting to give first crack to other gays (I said stop giggling). Feminists, it seems to me, only smile when helping other feminists. Gallaudet, a school for the deaf in Washington, shut down from protests about a decade ago when its board appointed a new president who wasn’t deaf. They wanted to be led by one of their own. Makes sense to me. And I sincerely doubt anyone would be screaming racism if they discovered that historically black Howard University insists on having a black president.
Often having a nostalgic and conservative love for traditional communities requires economic and social sacrifices. A Korean could probably get a better employee by advertising to a wider pool of applicants. A gay guy could conceivably get a better tenant and charge a higher rent if he advertised in the Washington Post instead of in the Blade. And Ms. Hopkinson could probably live, in many respects, a better life in the suburbs. But preserving what’s important to you requires trade-offs. These trade-offs may be irrational or misguided or based in sentimentality or something I don’t understand. But I don’t think they’re necessarily racist.
1. My apologies for the delay today. As the primary caregiver to Cosmo, I had a few errands I had to run and a couple of radio interviews. I know, I know, it’s a weak man who blames his dog or his radio for his own shortcomings.
2. Indeed, I believe tomorrow there will be an “Ask an Editor” item explaining why I’m always late with the G-File.
3. I just wanted to remind people who care about such things that my friend Michael Lynch and I will be discussing, debating, and nerf-batting the question, “Are Libertarians Part of the Right” this Wednesday night at a roundtable discussion for the America’s Future Foundation. For further info, contact Jerry Brito at email@example.com.
4. I’m pleased to announce that I will be going to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in a couple of weeks. Anybody with interesting (factual) 411 for me to keep in mind while I’m out there should let me know. I received a fascinating e-mail a few weeks ago about the Gwich’in people but I can’t find it. If you wrote it, please send it again. Thanks.
5. If you would like to know just one of the reasons why prisons are good, click here. And then demand that your local newspaper carry my syndicated column.