with its April 9 radio episode, Inside Job. The program This American Life, if you've not listened to it on NPR, is a brilliantly genre-busting exercise in the telling of true stories – sometimes outrageous, sometimes poignant, but always creative and memorable. (The subsequent NPR shows Next Big Thing, Studio 360, and now The Story have all riffed on the TAL idea.)
One of the stories in the TAL Inside Job episode, "Eat My Shorts," dissects the innards of one of the stinkingly unethical practices behind the housing collapse, that being a scheme by which clever investment firms would work with commercial banks to create the riskiest possible mortgage-backed securities funds and then bet against these very funds in the market. Sure enough, the funds would fail, the firms would win big, and the banks would collect fat fees and perhaps even join in on the lucrative betting. The TAL "Eat My Shorts" story, with scads of personal insider interviews and commentary based on seven months of investigative work by TAL reporters and the independent newshound team ProPublica, tells the harrowing story of how one particular firm made a killing at this and walked away with the money while its investors lost their shirts and bad mortgage holders lost their homes.
Lo and behold, a few days after the TAL story ran, the New York Times and other major media reported that the Securities and Exchange Commission is suing Goldman Sachs for having been part of just such a scheme – not only allowing a shark investment firm to help them concoct a sure loser of a mortgage-backed fund, but then joining the firm in betting against the fund themselves. Talk about a nuclear conflict of interest. Goldman Sachs, slinking out of the henhouse with fresh pullets in its mouth, has indignantly replied to the press that it did nothing wrong. Regulatory law, such as it is, may yet allow GS to dodge the charges in court.
But if you want a riveting look at how this chicanery works, and what some of those who witnessed these tricks now have to say about it, give a listen to the TAL story. Beyond the power of the story itself, you won't want to miss its scathingly original Broadway tune, "Bet Against the American Dream."
It is interesting to me how "non-news" creative shows, such as TAL and the late great TV series The Wire, increasingly do a better job at revealing the bloody workings of societal dysfunction (e.g., the Wall Street wildings, the urban War On Drugs) than the journalists who largely limit themselves to dutifully breaking the "news" of official responses to the problems.
Perhaps this is because, in today's corporate-bossed realm of public life, more artists and independent reporters than mainstream journalists have retained their convictions.
Here is the second in my series of suggestions for combating bigotry in everyday life:
2.) Be prepared to screw up.
Or, to put it another way, don't wait to get "cured" of all your bigotry before you get busy resisting it. The truth is that, immersed as we are from birth in a culture of explicit and implicit bigotry, none of us will ever be entirely "cured." You and I will never be bias-free creatures. As my mother used to jokingly quote the farmer who saw his first giraffe, "There ain't no such animal." At least not here, in the land of white flight and glass ceilings and the Washington Redskins football team and the casual acceptance of its being controversial to speak about equal rights for gays.
I have racial prejudice and sexism and homophobia and ethnic chauvinism in me and so do you. The only question is, Are we willing to look at it in ourselves and in others and do something about it, or aren't we?
You're going to say and do some bigoted things. So am I. It's inevitable. And admitting this is not an excuse for being bigoted. To the contrary, refusing to admit it becomes the ultimate excuse for failing to face our biases or to change them. When white people grin at me and say they Don't See Color and they're Not Racially Biased, I brace myself for whatever racist silliness might come next. When a Korean-looking woman approaches me and addresses me in plain Ohio-sounding English about how we both have the same hometown, that slapping sound in my head is me tamping down my little flutter of bigoted surprise.
My own cultural screw-up stories are too numerous to number: The time I appeared surprised upon meeting an Asian-American woman I'd only talked with on the phone and she (correctly) called me out for my having assumed she was white; the time I heard a Native American person casually use the word "'skin" (a shortening of "redskin," sometimes used in slang self-appellation the way some blacks use "nigga") and I then thought I was entitled as a person of color to use it myself and was summarily dope-slapped for it; the times I have run smack dab into other well-dressed black professionals in white-dominated corporate hallways and I have felt an unpleasant thing inside myself and then realized it was a silent voice in me saying, I don't want to see this person here. They remind me of how different I look.
That's bigotry, folks. And I dare you to claim that you carry any less of it than I. I double-dare you.
We are trained to deny how we have to buck up and face the music. We take a couple of workshops or we read some books or we make a few new friends and we pronounce ourselves all better. Sometimes the diversity industry is complicit in these shenanigans. I know diversity consultants and facilitators who do deep and courageous work. I have also seen some who sell $10,000 band-aids and then move on to the next well-paying customer.
Anyone who is honest will tell us that fighting bigotry – in ourselves and in other people – is a process that never ends. We learn as we go; we purge and we struggle; we cast aside more and more baggage over time; we become, hopefully, both fairer and happier. But we are never totally "cured" and we are never done. Not with this country's history in our bones and its nonstop messages in our ears.
So don't listen to the happy talk, and don't listen to the radio and TV rage-talkers, either. Go ahead and have the conversation, or ask the question, or put up the challenge, when it feels like the thing to do. And know that no matter how respectful and aware you try to be – as is your responsibility – you are still going to sometimes screw up. When you do, take your licks. And learn from it. Because the test of your being serious about fighting bigotry isn't whether you fall down. It's whether you get up again and keep fighting.
As today's Tea Party and "Patriot" militia members and sympathizers try to dodge the meaning of the obvious thread of racism and homophobia among some of their rank and file -- protesters spitting on black congresspersons, calling them and the President "niggers," calling a gay congressperson a "faggot" -- we would all do well to look back upon another era in which panicked and enraged whites took their lead from hateful demagogues in trying to stop social progress.
Terrified reactionary white "fighter" groups are not new. They were around during the furor over Reconstruction, the fight for the New Deal, and the black Civil Rights Movement. They also mobilized during the Clinton presidency, to take a more recent example. But let's take a look at this. Bill Clinton had oral sex with an intern in the Oval Office and lied about it under oath. First Lady Hillary Clinton crafted a massive proposed health care overhaul that was more universal in its government ambitions than Barack Obama's. Both Clintons were despised on the far right. And yet, with the exception of the Oklahoma City bombing, the anti-Clinton movement is dwarfed by the numerical explosion in "Patriot" and militia anti-government groups since 2009, the current calls for assassination, the massing of spitting-mad protesters, the calls of "nigger" aimed at a sitting president, the hauling of assault weapons to town meetings, the absurdly desperate "Birthers" movement, and the yelling of "You lie!" by an elected official in the middle of a president's televised speech in the congressional chamber -- all of which follow the ascension of President Barack Obama.
If you believe it is mere coincidence that this huge and in some ways unprecedented wave of white extremism coincides with a black man becoming the face of government power, then I've got some prime swampland I want to sell you.
Prior to King's assassination, a gaggle of white soapbox screamers made hay (and public reputations for themselves) by exhorting ignorant white mobs to rise up against the "tyranny" of federally-enforced rights for blacks. Similarly, today's snake-oil slingers -- Glenn Beck, Sarah "Reload" Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Ann Coulter -- are enriching themselves on the bile of frantically fearful whites. As of now, they have mud and spit on their hands. Let's hope it will not soon be blood.
Opinions, opinions. I'm in one of those moods right now where I am tired of opinions, tired of arguments and the rationalizations we use to create them. Not that there is anything wrong with opinions and arguments. We would have little progress or justice without them. But sometimes you just need a break from opinionizing. At least I do.
So today I want to start a Practical Project. In the coming week or so I will offer, for what they're worth, a list of straightforward things I think each of us can do, on any given day, to fight our inner bigots. I can't promise I won't feel a sudden need at some point to throw in an opinion post or three. But I will follow through on these Practical Tip posts to their completion.
Here is the first:
1.) Understand that most of us are good people with bad ideas.
Yes, I know: the Hutaree, and the head-case tea partiers who spat upon congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis at an "anti-health-care-reform" rally, and other assorted wackonistas, are people twisted into possibly irreversible states of inner badness. But the rest of us -- and it's a BIG rest of us -- are people who mean well but who inevitably behave and believe badly in a society that nurtures racism and rage from birth. Such as, to take one example, the millions of white folks who do not see or acknowledge the ways that white privilege shapes their days, from the ways they are not pulled over at face value by cops or summarily offered higher-interest mortgages to the ways in which non-whiteness is considered culturally peripheral and "ethnic" while whiteness is taken for granted as invisibly central. (Take a look at what's in the "ethnic" hair care aisle in your nearby big-box store, and what's in the plain old "hair care" aisle, and you'll get the idea.) Or, to take another example, the millions of black folks who allow the agonizing decimation of poor black communities (including the literal caging of a huge proportion of eligible young black men) to send them into a tizzy of blaming gays for the social undermining of black community life -- as if black gays created the poverty, drug addiction, unemployment, crime, and ensuing cynicism and trauma that afflict so many low-income black neighborhoods.
What if we, the non-wingnut-but-still-often-bigoted majority, confronted one another's bad ideas while acknowledging the basic goodness of one another's personhood? What if, to take the two examples I've mentioned, blacks called well-meaning whites to task for ignoring their own white privilege -- not from a presumption that such whites are amoral or selfish (although some whites are) but precisely from an expectation that well-meaning whites ought to pursue greater awareness and justice? What if those who respect gay rights called anti-gay blacks to account for their prejudice -- not from a presumption of the deliberate hatefulness of such blacks, but from an expectation that blacks who have themselves fought persecution ought to damned well do better than kicking the next available target?
What I am trying to point to is the difference between merely saying, "You complacent white racist!" and saying, "I expect more of you than a complacent ignorance of your own white privilege." It's the difference between saying, "You pathetic black homophobe!" and saying, "I expect more of you than your simply taking your own turn at kicking someone else down the stairs."
There is a powerful secret at work here that you and I can use: Recognizing the essential goodness of someone's personhood gives us the power to give them hell about their bad ideas and bad behavior.