It was probably inevitable that a silly blog war between our humble site and professional crimefighter/muscle shirt aficionado Alonzo Washington would result in some kind of accusation. And it came (sort of) this morning in the form of a perfectly logical defense of Alonzo over at Tony’s site. He’s right, of course: Alonzo has done some great work — clothing choices notwithstanding — in and for the community, and it’s important to have local figures unaffiliated with law enforcement who can help bring in tips. Our criticism (if it can be called that) of Alonzo was tw0-pronged: first, that his self-aggrandizing posturing can often seem more self-serving than anything else, as if he’s gotten to close to his characters; second, that his (and indeed everyone’s) blogging credibility is weakened by his total lack of basic grammar skills. Minor points all. So why the racism card? Well, Alonzo is a well-known black figure and we are anonymous and admittedly white figures — or as Alonzo puts it, “dry, burby & square.” While I’ll admit to being an insufferable grammar snob (I prefer to avoid “Grammar Nazi,” as Tony puts it, if only because it strays so close to Godwin’s Law), I must categorically deny that any writer for this site possesses even an ounce of racist thought. But more importantly: how did we start to conflate criticism of a minority figure with criticism of minorities?
The diagnosis of white liberal guilt is now commonplace in American society. It’s the reason rock critics (predominantly white liberals, no question) make lame attempts to treat the music of someone like Lil’ Jon as advanced social commentary instead of calling it what it really is: total garbage. We white liberals like to think of ourselves as totally free of prejudice and indeed as highly evolved creatures who don’t see color, which is of course a total self-deception. We become highly sensitive to the plight of minorities, who’ve largely been spared the advances of capital accumulation in this country, and this leads to the rise of things like political correctness — which, for all its moral nobility, is at its core an attempt to equalize competing social groups by eliminating prejudiced language and terms.
Thus we tend to assign extra weight — in a manner similar to affirmative action programs — to minority-produced cultural elements (cf. in particular the way we exalt and sacralize works like Their Eyes Were Watching God or Beloved, which are simply awful books, or the way we white liberals all pretend to love Afro-fueled bands like TV On The Radio, which is undeniably a terrible band). Further, we tend to create false barriers of criticism and exempt figures from otherwise logical attacks. Despite our support for Obama last fall, even we can admit that his defenders were far too quick to declare as racism some of the opposition’s critiques. When one cannot criticize a minority figure for something wholly unrelated to his status as a minority figure, it weakens our national communication and subverts our discourse. In the same way we’ve allowed irony to become our dominant cultural theme, weakening the inherent worth of attempted meaningful statements, we white liberals seem to have tolerated the rise of a no-critique zone around significant minority commentators.
This is a worrisome societal problem. Our criticism of Alonzo has nothing to do with his race; it has everything to do with his relentless publicity campaign. It’s true that we’ve never done anything to help the urban core, but isn’t that criticism merely a straw man? We’ve never helped the urban core because we’re not community activists. We’re bloggers, writers, students, and media professionals. One need not be directly involved in the lawmaking process to critique the way health care reform is being handled, correct? So why must we be crimefighters ourselves before we can make inconsequential observations about those who do that work?
But even if we were to make an unwise attempt to rectify this city’s staggering wealth stratification, it would probably just be a further manifestation of white liberal guilt. Many are quick to decry crime on the East Side, but are perfectly content to tolerate mandatory sentencing laws that skew highly in favor of whites, or take no action to correct the stunning differences in socioeconomic status among the races.
No, we’re not racists. But we’re also not going to tolerate the continuation of the hands-off approach to criticism of minorities. Sometimes Obama makes terrible decisions, but so did Bush. We criticize them as elected leaders, not as a black man and a white man. We poke fun at Alonzo because of his self-promotion, not because of his skin color. Our treatment of minorities in this country has been shameful, but exempting them from criticism doesn’t assuage our collective white liberal guilt, just as promoting Toni Morrison doesn’t make up for centuries of white dominance in literature.
There is no racism, tacit or otherwise, in our jokes about Alonzo. There is merely an accurate summary of a situation: local man does good work, but seeks cameras a tad too often. Snarky? Maybe. Factual? Definitely. Racist? No.