The Infantilizing of African-Americans

In the ongoing debate about the Wright/Obama relationship, I am most concerned about the apparently widespread idea that we should not hold African-Americans to the same intellectual and moral standards to which we hold white Americans.

Obama has a serious chance to serve as the next President of the United States. He has repeatedly described Wright as his mentor. Yet, many seem willing to dismiss Wright’s conspiracy theories and even outright hatred as minor matters when it seems highly unlikely they would accept a white person with such views so close to a white president. Clearly, many hold the African-Americans Obama and Wright to lower intellectual and moral standards than they do whites.

I think this strong evidence that racism still persists in the American Left.

Images of the Klan and Nazis so dominate our contemporary conception of racism that we forget that a benevolent racism that viewed non-whites as permanent children in need of constant oversight by whites proved equally powerful in the past. At least among whites, we’ve driven a stake through violent, aggressive racism that views non-whites as a threat but we’ve preserved and updated the benevolent infantilizing racism.

Equality and respect depend one upon the other. If you do not respect a person, you do not view them as your equal and if you do not view someone as your equal, you do not really respect them. We love and protect many people in our lives whom we do not view as our equals: children, the mentally handicapped, old people in their dotage, but when it comes to decision making we do not fully respect their views and we do not treat them as equals. If we disagree with their decisions we override them and do what we think best. We never behave that way with those we respect as our equals.

When we view someone as an equal we do not withhold criticism. We do not pull our punches. We drive them to wall and make them defend their ideas vigorously. We let our equals make their own decisions and suffer their own consequences, and we expect the same in return.

People who argue that we should not take Wright’s views seriously essentially argue that we should not take Wright seriously as a person. They argue we should not respect him as an equal.

The Left’s benevolent but infantilizing racism has trapped African-Americans in a kind of social and political nursery. African-Americans, especially current and future leaders, grow up in an insular intellectual-hothouse which allows them to hold and promulgate views that most white Americans find ludicrous. African-American politicians can succeed in African-American dominated areas, but they find themselves laughed at when they try to assume their due on a larger stage.

Few African-Americans seem aware that white Americans view politicians such as Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Marion Barry not as threats to a cherished white-bread status quo but rather as embarrassing jokes. Social conventions grounded in benevolent racism require us all to treat them as equals but we do so in the manner of people trying to include children in an adult conversation. To the extent we fear them at all, we fear the damage their naive world view would lead to if they obtained power. We fear them the way we fear a twelve year old driving a Porsche.

(African-American rightists largely escape this trap by escaping the intellectual nursery and going out into the wild rough-and-tumble debate of equals. No one infantilizes Colin Powell or Condi Rice.)

I think that for many white Americans Barack Obama seemed at first to break the mold. He seemed to define himself not as an African-American leftist politician but rather as a leftist politician who was African-American. He defined himself as an individual with a heritage instead of the exemplar of a group. He seemed an African-American politician whom white Americans could debate and criticize just as they would a white politician without being called a racist. He appeared at first to be the first African-American with whom white people did not have to pull their punches. In short, he seemed like the first African-American white Americans could fully respect and treat as an equal. The Wright controversy (as well as other controversies involving people around Obama with similar views) threatens to destroy Obama by making him seem like another infantilized African-American politician who can’t keep up with the grownups.

We will see if he can truly break the shackles of the old benevolent racism or if the old chains forged by white leftist intellectuals will bear him down. He seems destined for either the Oval office or the kiddy table.

7 thoughts on “The Infantilizing of African-Americans”

  1. he’s already proven he belongs at the kiddie table, tho he might wind up in teh oval office. He had his defining moment a couple of weeks ago when he crafted abnd delivered his response to the Rev Wright issue, and he dealt the race card, while throwing his own grandmother under the bus (to mix metaphors). While surrounding himself with American flags in an incredibly hypocritical display after explaining a few months before how wearing aflag lapelmpin would be meaningless.

    He made his choice long ago, to read his first book, and he just decided to stick with it.

    Case closed, there’s really nothing more to say about this. He made his choice, now the rest of the people in the country will each make theirs.

  2. There are two elements here that need to be separated out and examined in order to make sense of this controversy.

    The underpinnings of current identity politics derive from the collectivist assertion that everyone is a product molded by external factors. Whether class, race, gender, or some other ethnic/cultural identifier, people are molded by structural factors beyond their control, and are, therefore, members of blocks whose experiences make them interchangeble victims with identical interests and viewpoints.

    The essence of existence as a member of the black community is victimization by white society awash with racism in every nook and cranny, according to this view, and the understandable reaction is rage. And, indeed, several of the apologists for Wright have mentioned his understandable anger at the depredations of racism, and excused his various eccentric statements and ideas as acceptable within the black community, and, as such, off limits to criticism from outside.

    As you allude to in your post, blacks who do not buy into this hostile rage, Powell, or Rice, or Thomas, are summarily drummed out of the “authentic black” designation, and are outliers from their own ethnic subgroup. Identity politics demands conformity.

    In fact, the major objection to Wright’s ideology from conservatives that I have read was his hatred for America, and the loony conspiracy theories he repeated as fact. His racial antagonism was merely a subset of that overriding view of the US as a force for evil in the world.

    The other facet in this situation is the status of the black community as a special ward of the state, a process which infantalizes, and demands continuing infantalization, of any group unfortunate enough to be so designated. (The other major societal group so classified has been Native Americans, and we all know how well that has worked out for them.)

    The collectivist impulses enshrined in the enormous programs collectively described as the “War on Poverty” have so relentlessly ground down the social structures of the black community that there is widespread acknowledgement of the crisis, but an abject refusal to confront the true source of the problem.

    The collectivist mentality cannot accept the possibility that its basic postulates are themselves so erroneous that enacting them results in an assured path of destruction for anyone cursed with their allaged concern, so they must, in cognitive self-defense, find an endless supply of villians who are responsible for all the negative consequences of their policies and ideas. Thus, incomprehensible conspiracies, with shadowy and malevolent villians lurking behind every tree, and an evil and dangerous country which can do nothing right, ever, because it is so tainted with non-collectivist features like individual responsibility and private property.

    The Obama/Wright controversy is valuable mainly becuse it highlights the bizarre state of academic and political collectivist thought which runs through and under so many of the counterproductive policies which the left constantly demands be enacted, even when similar policies have been disastrous anywhere else they have been put into effect.

  3. I think that the handling of the Rev. Wright situation by the news media was very unfair. Yes you are correct in your statement that had a white politician said those things, he would have been held to higher standard. However, white politicians have said these things of this magnitude for many, many years and now it is something that we cannot tolerate. Now, Rev. Wright is seen as crazy and is quickly dismissed as such.

    I think it was dismissed so quickly because white america wants to think that all people are created equal and slavery and Jim Crow were so long ago that we as African Americans need to get over it. However, they fail to understand that over 200 years of such treatment ( and still suffer mistreatment in many ways today) is something that is very hard to get over. I don’t think we are seen so much as children but rather as less capable even though the majority feels we have the same opportunities as everyone else and unfortunately many of us buy into this mentality that someone like Barack Obama strongly proves that theory wrong and therefore has shocked the country.

  4. M.J.,

    I don’t think we are seen so much as children but rather as less capable…

    You can phrase it however you like but the fact remains that most on the Left (and many on the Right) don’t really look at African-Americans with all the same rights and responsibilities as white Americans.

    Ultimately, it us responsibilities and not rights that grant equality and power. Everybody has rights but not everyone has responsibilities. We give children or the mentally incompetent full rights but we don’t ask they share the responsibilities.

    A follower has rights. A leader has responsibilities.

    Wright hurts Obama by making Obama seem like a kind of cripple, someone who, for whatever reason, cannot assume the same responsibilities as others.

  5. Dan Tdaxp,

    Is viewing a group as less capable of responsibility because of historical conditions racism?

    Technically no. Racism is the belief that negative behaviors arise from biology. Believing a group less capable due to history does not qualify.

    For example, significant negative stereotypes exist against people of Scott-Irish descent who settled in the Appalachian mountains aka hillbillies. Many of the these stereotypes have a statistical basis and it is easy to see the historical events that led to a group of people having low educations, low productivity, prone to violence and drug abuse etc. Yet no one would describe the very real and widespread prejudice against hillbillies as racism.

    The problem comes in how we relate to others, If we treat deal with people as individuals then we can treat all as equals. If we think someone stupid we can just call them stupid. However, if we view individuals has members of group first most, we my cut them some slack but we devalue them and put them below us on the responsibility ranking.

  6. Shannon,

    Racism is the belief that negative behaviors arise from biology.

    Are you sure about this definition? Not only does it make nearly every psychiatrist racist, it confuses human value with whatever behaviors one considers to be positive.

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