Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Soft Bigotry Of Low Expectations.

In September of 1999, Texas governor George W. Bush was already running for president. On September 2 he gave a major address on the subject of education to the Latin Business Association Luncheon in Los Angeles. During that speech, Bush introduced a memorable phrase, “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Here’s what he said:

Some say it is unfair to hold disadvantaged children to rigorous standards. I say it is discrimination to require anything less – the soft bigotry of low expectations. Some say that schools can’t be expected to teach, because there are too many broken families, too many immigrants, too much diversity. I say that pigment and poverty need not determine performance. That myth is disproved by good schools every day. Excuse-making must end before learning can begin.

It is great political rhetoric because he defines a set of beliefs, allegedly held by his political opponents, then easily repudiates them on high principle. I don’t know who was saying those things, about schools not being expected to teach, surely no one, yet the phrase “soft bigotry of low expectations” rang true.

It came to mind today because the Geraldine Ferraro pot is still boiling. On “The McLaughlin Group” today, Pat Buchanan kept pressing the point of, “if he were white, with his resume at the time, would he have gotten the keynote speech in ’04?” The thrust of all this, still being argued with vigor by Clinton supporters in so many words, is that Obama’s is an Affirmative Action candidacy, possible only because of White Guilt and consequent soft treatment by the media.

Obama called Ferraro’s original statement “ridiculous” and that is the correct word for this whole line of reasoning. The most cynical part of the Clinton strategy is that many, perhaps most, of the people making the argument know it is disingenuous, but they’re making it because it resonates with whites of a certain age whose racism takes the following form. Although they do not practice racial discrimination as they perceive it, they still hold a deep-seated belief in white superiority and, therefore, they believe non-whites can only achieve positions of power and authority if they get extra help, i.e., an unfair advantage, i.e., an Affirmative Action pass.

I have seen this in every sphere of life, from people who aver in the most aggrieved way that they are not racists. Yet every time a non-white receives a promotion at work or is singled out for recognition in some other sphere, they grumble about Affirmative Action and Diversity.

That, too, is the bigotry of low expectations, and it is not so soft. The great irony of this flame being fanned by Clinton supporters is that high-achieving women are plagued by the exact same prejudice. About the only time you hear about this is when the speaker is arguing for the abolition of Affirmative Action programs, but it is a lot more pervasive than that. I know many people who react this way to any achievement by a non-white in any sphere.

This attitude seems to be most prevalent in people my age and older. (I’m 56.) I hope I’m right about that, which means it may die out eventually. Many see signs of this in Obama’s success.

Many American whites of my generation grew up hearing overt racism in our family and community, and consciously rejected it. By comparison with that, we’re not racist. But how can we make sure we’re not guilty of “the soft bigotry of low expectations”?

I think it begins with recognition and acceptance of racial awareness, recognizing that no one is “color blind,” either by birth or by training. We have to examine our own beliefs and reflexes with honesty. As white Americans, we have to recognize that the subject of race doesn’t arise only when a person of color enters the room. We have to recognize that all this racial “stuff” is a construct created by whites and racism is primarily a white problem.

So, the seemingly meaningful point being made so earnestly by several commentators, that Barack Obama “wouldn’t be where he is today” if he was white, is ridiculous. Why? Because he is not white. He is who he is just as every other candidate is, and there is only one sense in which that statement is true, and that is by the exact same logic that says Hillary Clinton would not be where she is today if she was black, and John McCain would not be where he is today if he was black, etc.

This is, in fact, a very handy test to determine if you are a racist or not. If you don’t see the statement about Obama and the parallel statements about Clinton and McCain as saying the exact same thing, if you see one as meaningful and the other as spurious and irrelevant, then you are a racist.

Thank you very much. So glad I could help.

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