Community standards exist in even the largest of cities. Discussions about
them tend to concentrate on whether they’re good or not – whether they’re
epitomised more by friendly neighbours looking out for each other, or by redneck
homophobes beating up guys they suspect of being gay. But there’s another, less
dramatic, side to community standards: an unthinking assumption that everybody
else in my community is basically just like me.
Living in New York, for instance, I generally assume that anybody I meet is
going to be broadly liberal and broadly secular. Every so often I’ll meet a
Republican, which is fun in a kind of "fancy that" kind of way; very
rarely do I meet people who take their religion very seriously and who go to
a house of worship on a regular basis. On the other hand, I make no such assumptions
if I travel down to, say, Washington DC.
Right-wingers are often highly attuned to these kind of assumptions: they say
that since journalists are generally liberal, and they generally hang out with
other liberals in liberal media enclaves, there’s going to be a low-level seepage
of liberal bias into the news on a regular basis. They might be right. Certainly,
anybody who thinks it’s the job of journalism to afflict the comfortable and
comfort the afflicted (and that’s a lot of journalists) will probably have something
of a liberal bias in their work.
Dig down a bit deeper, below the assumptions about political leanings, and
there’s another assumption which I think most of us make: that the people we
meet are not racist, or at least are very uncomfortable around any kind of overt
racism. Whether we live in New York or Washington, we might meet people who
react differently to a black kid approaching them to ask the time than they
would to a white kid asking the same question. But we generally assume everybody
agrees that such reactions are a bad thing: something it’s right and proper
to feel bad about having.
William Saletan, the chief political correspondent of Slate, is a white guy
in Washington who’s surrounded by a lot of other white guys in Washington who
all basically believe the same thing about racism. He has a general assumption
that anybody he’s likely to meet isn’t a racist, and he’s carried that assumption
all the way through into an astonishing article
which gets prime placement in the e-zine over the weekend. Trent Lott isn’t
a racist, says Saletan: he stands up "for the autonomy of neighborhoods,
states, and religious schools," and gives speeches to racists "because
he wanted to be nice".
This goes way beyond the standard contrarianism we’ve learned to expect from
Slate. Because he wanted to be nice? This is willful blindness of the
first order. Saletan should read the front-page history
of Lott’s racism in the New York Times today by David Halbfinger. It’s a great
piece of reporting: Halbfinger went down to Mississippi and found out all about
the kind of person that Lott used to be: his racist mother and father-figure,
his racist political mentors, his racist campaigns against desegregation of
Lott now says that he repudiates such things – of course he says that,
he’s a national politician. But we’ve seen precious little evidence, beyond the
simple fact that he says he’s done it. He’s had a great deal of electoral success
by pandering to the white racist part of his constituency, and his response
to the recent calls for his resignation seems to have followed the pattern of
saying as little as possible, seeing if that will do, notching up the apology
a little bit, and repeat. And he still hasn’t answered the question of when,
exactly, he changed his views. It can’t have been easy, making a 180-degree
U-turn on what was probably the single most important issue in Mississippi politics,
especially considering the large number of close friends and family he would
have disappointed in the process. But somehow Lott seems to have done so effortlessly,
to the point at which he can barely remember it any more.
"If politeness to bigots, comfort with principles congenial to them, and
amnesia about struggles for equal rights are now crimes worthy of ending people’s
careers, then let the inquisition begin," says Saletan. "Lott’s accusers
will be sorry they started it." In doing so, he seems to imply that Lott’s
resignation as majority leader of the Senate would be the end of his career.
Far from it: he would remain senator for Mississippi, in an august institution
which has happily housed the likes of Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms and Robert
More interestingly, however, Saletan shows the depth to which community standards
can seep into commentators’ views. Anti-racist sentiment is so ingrained that
Saletan simply takes Lott’s latest repudiation at face value, without seemingly
ever even considering the alternative hypothesis – which has been well
supported by Josh Marshall,
among others – that Lott is, in fact, a racist.
The fact is that just as there are church-goers in Manhattan, there are racists
in Washington. Does Saletan really believe that of 100 senators and 435 members
of the House of Representatives, precisely zero are racists? Especially considering
the number who, like Lott, are 60-something white men who grew up in areas where,
as one resident puts it in the Times article, "everybody’s racist, black
and white"? Or is he simply giving in to a quirk of probability theory?
Let’s say there’s a 5% chance that any given senator is a racist. Confronted
with a specific senator, the responsible journalist then gives him the benefit
of the doubt, 95% certain that he’s not racist. And the five racist senators
continue to serve unchallenged, safe in their minority.
To assume that everybody shares one’s anti-racist views is easy. But although
it’s not racist in and of itself, it protects racists and makes it less likely
that they will be held to account. It’s wrong to assume that blacks won’t be
able to perform as well as whites academically; it’s also wrong to assume that
all senators, by virtue of their position, are anti-racist. Both assumptions
serve to perpetuate institutionalised racism, to use the term which was applied
so famously to the Metropolitan Police in London. In general, thinking well
of others is a positive trait. It’s less positive, however, in journalists.