Monday, December 8, 2014

The challenge of discussing racism is finding definitions under which you and your friends don't qualify as racists.

We are probably all guilty of the above from time to time but among the commentariat it's more or less a job requirement. One popular technique is to couch racist statements in terms of class. Arguing that poor people are genetically inferior -- less intelligent, less disciplined and less moral -- has somehow become an acceptable position in publications like the New York Times

Other times, journalists avoid acknowledging the racism of colleagues by simply pretending to ignore what's in front of their faces. This leads us (via Brad DeLong) to a couple of pieces on the New Republic.

Here's Ezra Klein writing in 2009 about TNR and its editor-in-chief Marty Peretz [emphasis added]:
[Jeffrey ] Goldberg's article was a particularly weird piece of work, but it fit neatly into the "anti-anti" Israel genre. The thing about criticizing Israel is that you get called an anti-Semite rather a lot. This doesn't happen when you criticize sugar subsidies or come out against the stimulus bill. And make no mistake: Anti-Semitism is a serious charge. A genuine anti-Semite would be, should be, drummed out of political journalism, just as a legitimate racist should find no home at a serious opinion outlet. For that reason, being called an anti-Semite by hobbyist Zionists who happen to own and control prestigious domestic political magazines seems like it would be a bad thing. But the charge has been rendered tinny through overuse.
That 'should' gives Klein a bit of wiggle room but a reader could certainly come away with the impression that this sort of thing is not tolerated.

Via Max Fisher (who provides a notable exception to my first paragraph), here's a sample of what Peretz was routinely printing in one of the country's most prestigious journals.
The truth is that no one has ever really cared about the lives of Africans in Africa unless those lives are taken out by whites. No one has cared, not even African Americans like [Jesse] Jackson and [Susan] Rice. Frankly -- I have not a scintilla of evidence for this but I do have my instincts and my grasp of his corruptibility -- I suspect that Jackson was let in on the diamond trade or some other smarmy commerce.
Well, I am extremely pessimistic about Mexican-American relations, not because the U.S. had done anything specifically wrong to our southern neighbor but because a (now not quite so) wealthy country has as its abutter a Latin society with all of its characteristic deficiencies: congenital corruption, authoritarian government, anarchic politics, near-tropical work habits, stifling social mores, Catholic dogma with the usual unacknowledged compromises, an anarchic counter-culture and increasingly violent modes of conflict.
But, frankly, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims. And among those Muslims led by the Imaam Rauf there is hardly one who has raised a fuss about the routine and random bloodshed that defines their brotherhood. So, yes, I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.
I actually believe that Arabs are feigning outrage when they protest what they call American (or Israeli) "atrocities." They are not shocked at all by what in truth must seem to them not atrocious at all. It is routine in their cultures. That comparison shouldn't comfort us as Americans. We have higher standards of civilization than they do. But the mutilation of bodies and beheadings of people picked up at random in Iraq does not scandalize the people of Iraq unless victims are believers in their own sect or members of their own clan. And the truth is that we are less and less shocked by the mass death-happenings in the world of Islam. Yes, that's the bitter truth. Frankly, even I--cynic that I am--was shocked in the beginning by the sectarian bloodshed in Iraq. But I am no longer surprised. And neither are you.
Fisher goes on to spell out the reaction of fellow journalists to this "overt racism."
And no one resigned — including me, while I was an intern at the magazine for four months. Though I was unpaid, I eagerly accepted the resume-boosting prestige that came from working there. And, like the rest of the staff, I did it knowing it meant turning a blind eye to Peretz's frequent screeds on the magazine's website, fully aware that they were not just the crazy rants of an old racist but were in fact palpably damaging to the minority families who had to live in a society that was that much more intolerant because Peretz enjoyed a platform that legitimized his views.

I am thinking about this today as I watch senior editors and contributing editors resign en-masse from the magazine, in response to the firings of Foer and Wieseltier. Many of them are friends, and many never worked under Peretz at all.

But a number of the journalists who are resigning their positions as "contributing editor," typically an honorific title granted to former staffers who are no longer actually contributing or paid, did work under Peretz, or did accept this same honorific title from him.

Some of these resigning editors chose to tolerate and lend tacit support to Peretz; I am in no position to critique them for this. But the fact that many of them found Peretz's promulgation of racism to be tolerable, whereas Chris Hughes' firing of two beloved colleagues was not, speaks to a larger problem of how we think about racism in American society and particularly in the elite media institutions that have badly lagged in employing people of color.

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