America to Me

America to Me

What, exactly, does America look like to people like Michael Richards, Mel Gibson and Richard Viguerie?


“With the feminists, the homosexual groups, the other interest groups, you put it all together with the black interest groups, and it does not look like America,” says Richard Viguerie, referring to the Democratic Party. It’s an interesting question at this moment in history, the little matter of what America looks like. If one pursues Mr. Viguerie’s point to its logical end, “real” Americans must be male and straight and white and not especially interested in any “other” group (except, presumably, Mr. Viguerie’s own ConservativeHQ). This division between supposedly authentic Americans and those “others” is, according to a report in the New York Times, the new but ever-so-old line henceforth to be “pounded” into the media by certain Republican strategists, of whom Viguerie is a prime player. The Democratic Party is to be figured as a ghetto of women, wusses and macaca-lovers. Republicans are straight arrows whose manly brows glisten with the pale dew of impartiality.

At the same time, Viguerie insists that this is not about race or gender. He’s just against “special interests.” If you are so crass as to think it’s about prejudice, well, that’s just because you’re one of those annoying people who see isms under every rock. This rhetorical spinmanship is ubiquitous right now. Everywhere, there are protestations of high-mindedness while embracing the de facto resegregation of this entire nation. It can be seen in the endlessly reductive discussions about the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, an anti-affirmative action measure voters endorsed in the last election. Like the one passed in California some years ago, it eliminates not just affirmative action but all mention of race in most every publicly funded arena, for any purpose including remediation (except law enforcement–got to leave that window for police profiling). It even bars collection of demographic data involving housing, health and schools. Talk about killing the messenger. Ward Connerly, lead architect of the initiative, is a black man himself, and so, the argument goes, how on earth could the initiative be bad for black people? Don’t you like black men? And what an exceptional black man he is! When the Ku Klux Klan formally endorsed the initiative, Connerly returned the embrace: “If the Ku Klux Klan thinks that equality is right, God bless them. Thank them for finally reaching the point where logic and reason are being applied, instead of hate.”

What a bridge-builder, that Connerly.

Of a piece with this is a cluster of school integration cases just argued before the Supreme Court. The plaintiffs are white parents who have challenged the constitutionality of voluntary integration plans in Seattle and Louisville. The plans in question are representative of those implemented in hundreds of other school districts around the country, so the ruling will have enormous impact. Based on questions asked by the Justices, most observers agree that the new conservative majority seems likely to rule that integrating public schools, even voluntarily, is no different from intentional segregation and therefore should be struck down. “Try to understand it as an extension of the reasoning in Brown v. Board of Education,” says one of my loopier friends. “You’ll just get all weepy if you think of it as outright reversal.”

It’s odd, this parallel universe of equal opportunity “logic,” this refusal to remediate as itself the new remediation. The statistics indicating our growing social divisions are horrific and bode ill for what this country will look like in the future. Yet in the mainstream public imagination, integration is the same as segregation. Speaking about race is exactly the same as racism. When Ward Connerly endorses the Ku Klux Klan as the poster child for the spirit of Kumbaya, it’s an exciting new brand of coalition politics. When, in New York City, three unarmed black men are wounded, one fatally, by fifty rounds of police gunfire, we’re supposed to look on the bright side: It’s not racism! One of the five officers involved was black! What a relief!

Then there was Bill Montgomery’s successful bid for Attorney General in Arizona. During the campaign, he was accused of hiring undocumented immigrants to play the part of, um, undocumented immigrants for a political advertisement decrying the flood of, yes, undocumented immigrants crossing the border to take away “our” jobs. Montgomery was shocked and a tad injured that anyone would find either hypocrisy or irony in the situation: “It simply did not cross my mind to interrogate anyone who had a skin shade darker than mine while I was shooting video.”

There is some strong element of mental dissociation in all this. I suppose one could call it a failure to take responsibility. Perhaps, as with Richard Viguerie, one may hazard a guess that it’s calculated. Still, there’s a weird disembodiment to it, exemplified by comedian Michael Richards’s and actor Mel Gibson’s disclaimers in the wake of their viciously racist and anti-Semitic diatribes: They just didn’t know where it came from. Something came over them. They channeled it. It seized them out of nowhere. Demons rose from the ground and possessed them.

This is either outright mental illness or something just a hair shy of O.J. Simpson’s taunt, “If I did it.” Even if we Americans are as colorblind as we profess, even if we are as racially innocent as the driven snow and if indeed our only problem is the occasional moment of temporary insanity when cops, comedians and Connerlys are suddenly attacked by rogue racist spirits roiling in the collective unconscious, then we still may want to pause to absorb and mourn the statistical mischief they make in the material world.

These musings bring me back to Richard Viguerie’s hypothesis about what America “looks” like in the year 2006. I can’t help thinking of Frank Sinatra, who, in 1945, sang Abel Meeropol’s song “The House I Live In” in a short patriotic film of the same name. The movie studio excised the second verse: “The house I live in/A plot of earth, a street,/The grocer and the butcher,/ Or the people that I meet;/The children in the playground,/The faces that I see,/All races and religions,/That’s America to me.” It was much too controversial.

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