Paul Fanlund: Racist Bogeymen and the ‘Limits of Liberalism’

July 19, 2021   |   By Paul Fanlund, The Capital Times

Gloria Ladson-Billings

Gloria Ladson-Billings

​From the Cap Times:

My columns regularly extend olive branches to conservative Republicans willing to push back against the noxious and at times violent cult of Donald Trump.

My rationale? A yearning for democracy to once again be safe, for a country that can debate taxes, spending and regulations without the specter of clownish thugs with automatic weapons and camouflage costumes threatening violence. Think Jan. 6.

To get there, Trump and his sycophants must be deprived of political oxygen. So we must win elections, especially in suburbs and other swing areas where capable left-of-center Democrats can campaign as safe and patriotic choices. If that puts me at odds with some on the Bernie Sanders left, so be it.

But I’ve been thinking: How would I feel were I not white and economically comfortable? What if I were Black, and reminded every minute of every day that racial animus remains a motivating factor for so many?

My demeanor, I’d admit, would be less sanguine.

Anyway, I’ve been observing a pattern recently. Those who traffic in racial division gin up outrage and then feign hysteria over one after another bogeyman, most recently that teaching the history of race in America makes white children feel bad.

Two years ago the target was “The 1619 Project,” a brilliant long-form journalism project developed by the New York Times and published on the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved African-Americans in the Virginia colony. The project’s stated goal was “to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States’ national narrative.”

The radical and racist right understands that most of its target audience will likely never read the project, but can be convinced the whole thing is unpatriotic and anti-white.

Its primary author, Nikole Hannah-Jones of the Times, recently became immersed in a tenure controversy even though her 1619 work won her a Pulitzer Prize for commentary. Her role sparked such right-wing backlash at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that she was initially denied tenure. By the time UNC reversed its position, she opted to instead take a tenured position teaching journalism at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Since last fall, the bogeyman for the racist right has been “critical race theory,” which, again, is probably not understood by most of its critics, but serves as a convenient catch-all for white grievance and racial animus.

“Whatever it is, it sounds bad and we can use it to scare people,” seems to be the Trumpist tactic.

Enter Gloria Ladson-Billings, respected professor emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, current president of the National Academy of Education and a longtime national expert on critical race theory.

She was interviewed recently on National Public Radio. Host Audie Cornish asked: “So first, tell us. Someone lands on this planet. They’ve never heard of it. How would you describe your scholarship on critical race theory?”

Responded Ladson-Billings: “So critical race theory is a series of theoretical propositions that suggest that race and racism are normal, not aberrant, in American life.”

Wow, that’s controversial: Race and racism are a part of American life. Who knew?

Later in the interview, discussion turned to the worry that teaching the centrality of racism in American history might make white kids feel bad.

Ladson-Billings said “the Little Rock Nine, they were feeling bad too,” referring to Black students who integrated a previously all-white Arkansas high school. “I think about the young woman who integrated the New Orleans schools for us. These brave people were willing to fight against racism in a very direct way, put their own bodies on the line. And yet what I’m hearing bears no resemblance to the work that I’ve been dedicated to studying for the past 30-plus years.”

The roots of blame for the white sensitivity around race precede Trumpism by decades, in my experience.

Schools taught baby boomers like me that America is perfect, that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights and not slavery and that there were, as Trump might say, “very fine people on both sides.”

We were taught America never lost wars (this was pre-Vietnam) and that Americans won World War II in Europe almost single-handedly, even though the Soviet Union had many more troops and defeated many more Nazis.

America’s acts of genocide against Native Americans weren’t discussed but George Armstrong Custer’s “bravery” was. Defenders at the Alamo were uber-patriots, we were taught, even though a prime motivator for the Texans was their desire to own slaves.

And so on.

So I posed two questions to Ladson-Billings, whom I’ve known for years. First, how do she and other Black leaders stay committed and not grow cynical or despondent, as I suspect some might?

By taking the long view, she responded. “I am old enough to remember the hate that was spewed at Martin Luther King,” she said. “Now there is practically no major city in the country that does not have a street named for him.” The same for Malcolm X, Paul Robeson and Muhammad Ali, she added, referring to prominent African-Americans of the past.

“One of the hopes I have for Joe Biden is that he could do stuff that Barack Obama never could,” she added. “I’m not kidding myself as to why he can do it and Obama could not.”

I then asked her about white liberals and racial progress.

“I use this phrase with students — the limits of liberalism,” she said. “Most of them (liberals) will express what I think of as good democratic values, but they are only willing to go so far.”

She pointed to how as president Bill Clinton felt it politically expedient to support right-leaning positions on welfare and crime.

“You get invested in society and there are certain elements you don’t want to lose,” she said. “Everyone is for the most part self-interested. You can only go so far before people start seeing it as an erosion of something they have or have access to. There are those limits that we can’t seem to get past.”

She summed up the attitude: “I’ll do X and Y, but please don’t ask me to do Z.”

I think she’s right. We’ve all done that, not wanted to do Z, haven’t we?