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Sunday, July 06, 2008
Matthew Yglesias has a bunch of stuff on him and I recommend all of it. Basically, Jesse Helms, now being praised by conservatives, was a racist and homophobe of the first order, and unlike some of the other racist politicians of the pre-civil rights South, he somehow got away with never really moderating his views.
The key to understanding why Helms is important is to look at Yglesias' comment threads. You will see his conservative readers bringing out all the old canards, including that opposition to affirmative action is not racist (true, but (1) that falsely assumes that all Helms ever did was oppose affirmative action, and (2) some arguments against affirmative action certainly are racist, and Helms made those), and that Democrats like Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, etc., are the "real" racists.
I don't think that conservatives are evil-- not at all-- but if there was a single strain of American politics that I would say comes closest to pure evil, it's this idea that the "real" racism in America comes from blacks. Not that blacks can't be racist-- Louis Farrakhan comes to mind-- but the idea that this word, this concept, which was coined to describe a system of organized, systematic white supremacy, which kept black Americans down for over a century, is only really appropriate to describe what a few fringe black political figures (who, by the way, have less influence in the Democratic Party than fringe religious figures have in the Republican Party) believe about American race relations.
Take your pick-- this is Humpty Dumpty saying words mean what he says they mean or Orwellian Newspeak taking a word and using it to mean its opposite. But it is truly corrosive to American discourse, because in a country where so many blacks are still getting the short end of the stick, on issues ranging from the fundamental (terrible underfunded inner-city schools) to the esoteric (blacks can't catch taxis in American cities), we desperately need to be able to discuss these issues in good faith. And someone who claims the biggest racist in the country is Jesse Jackson is trying to torpedo that discussion and instead have a different discussion about how bad black leaders are and how the Democratic Party should be shunned by white Americans for associating with them. Meanwhile, black kids across the country continue to go to schools full of drugs and guns and gangs and dilapidated classrooms and outdated textbooks where they can't learn.
Jesse Helms is the hero of people of this mindset-- the man who never changed, who never pretended to give a crap about the problems of the millions of black residents of his state or the country. Because we all know that it is much, much worse that Al Sharpton gets invited to a Democratic presidential debate than it is that so many black Americans still live in squalid conditions.
I guess the one thing about this is that at least it is more honest than the other conservative trope on race, which is to piously invoke Martin Luther King on affirmative action but ignore everything else he ever advocated. The Jesse Helms supporters, at least, know which side of the civil rights struggle they are on-- the wrong side.
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