A long plane trip is an oasis of enforced guilt-free idleness. During much of our flight from London to Raleigh-Durham, I simply sat and thought. I reflected sadly on the striking ugliness of contemporary American public discourse -- the hateful things said about Obama, the nakedly hysterical and despicable remarks about gay men and women, the vicious, unrelenting assault on the reproductive rights of women, the astonishingly ignorant, juvenile statements about rape, abortion, contraception, the emergence into the light of appalling beliefs and attitudes to which the catchall term "racist" hardly does justice.
I found my musings merging with the reaction I have been having to the doctoral dissertation being written by Megan Kelly Mitchell, a very promising young doctoral student at UNC Chapel Hill who has worked for me on several book projects as a research assistant. Seven weeks ago, I suggested that Ms. Mitchell start writing her dissertation with page 1, and that each day she send me one page, which I would read immediately and to which I would reply by return email. I have just read page 46, and we are nearing the end of chapter one. [This method -- "a page a day" -- is one I have used with other students over the past ten years or so as a way of helping them to complete their graduate studies and avoid the doldrums of the endless ABD.] Megan plans to ramp up to two pages a day shortly, and by the end of September, she should have a complete first draft.
Megan's topic is "institutional racism," a subject much discussed these days and about which I have myself written [in my little book, Autobiography of an Ex-White Man.] Intellectuals like the concept of institutional racism [or structural this and that] because we make our living from complexity. It is really not interesting, not challenging, to explain what goes on in the world as the result of the sheer hatefulness of so many people. So we talk endlessly about "socially constructed categories," or explain with great sophistication that the increasing impoverishment of workers is the result of objective features of capitalism rather than a consequence of the greedy amorality of the bosses.
But from time to time, it is useful to take notice of the fact that a very large proportion of the people in this country [and others, heaven knows] are just hateful. What is interesting, and worth reflecting on, is why all those hateful people feel so much less constrained about expressing views and attitudes that they know will be judged offensive. The saga of Paula Deen is a case in point. I had never heard of Paula Deen until she found herself in serious trouble for girlishly giving voice to her unreconstructed views about Black people. Deen was apparently the star of the Cooking Network, on which, until the world fell in on her, she was the host of a very popular show about Southern cooking.
I know, I know, I must try to understand that they feel threatened by the loss of the world they grew up in, a world in which they felt comfortable and at home. But that was a world in which people sneered about niggers and queers and spics and took as their birthright the deference that their servants were forced to pretend they felt for them.
Perhaps I am simply suffering from moral exhaustion as I grow ever closer to my eightieth birthday, but as I read Megan's really very well done discussion of the concept of Institutional Racism, I find myself just wanting to say, "No, they are flat out bigots, structure or no structure. They have just been keeping their mouths shut for a while."