Amherst Life Blog

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Perceptions: Response to Reader's Second Point

The next point (point 2 in the “Town of Amherst: Reader Perceptions” post) is quite long, so we will break it up and answer each area that we feel needs some addressing.

Commenter: Calling someone a bigot is a good way to avoid addressing what they're saying.

Amherst Life: It is also a good way of expressing oneself, if in fact one believes that another person or group of people are truly “bigots” or racists.

: I'm not suggesting that there's any point in debating with Nazis, but you use the term "racist" very freely.

Amherst Life: We are not following your point on “debating with Nazis” and it needs some clarification. It seems you are tossing around words (as you accuse Amherst Life of doing) carelessly. We use the term racist freely, yes, because racism is pervasive. And, if you are sensitive to its practice, it is on the rise. Uncovering racism does not take much work, but once it is translated into the language of dominant groups -- into the range of perception of dominant groups -- it is amazing to see how uncomfortable dominant groups become. They declare reverse racism instead of addressing the real problem.

Commenter: An accusation of bigotry is a quick way to dispense of someone whose ideas you find threatening without ever actually engaging with what they have to say. Obviously there are real racists in the world, but throwing the term around lazily is anti-intellectual.

Amherst Life: Or it could be that an accuser has engaged what another person has to say and truly find that person to be a racist or a bigot. This is not out of the question and the person has a right to voice that opinion. You make the point for us: “Obviously there are real racists in the world.” And you make another good point: throwing around the term “racist” or “bigot” “lazily” or without grounds is problematic. But what happens when racism and bigotry is in fact there? What is “anti-intellectual”, as you call it, is racism.

Commenter: Your blog does far too much of this kind of name-calling.

Amherst Life: OUR blog (we are a group of Amherst-based writers) is not afraid of talking about racism and racist practices that we perceive on multiple fronts and in multiple forms.

Commenter: Take the parking issue. You may be right and the town counsel may be wrong, but this doesn't make them racists. In this context, it's an irresponsible accusation. Part of growing up is figuring out that not everybody who disagrees with you has nasty motives.

Amherst Life: We never said that the town’s “wrongness” on the parking issue is due to a racist elected body (we will look closely at that post and see how that could be interpreted, as it is not the opinion of the Amherst Life Blog ). We are not saying that “because they are racists, they don’t want to give a group of people a place to park their cars.” Their lack of action may reveal classism at its finest, but it des not show us that they are racists. That is revealed in other practices, such as WHO IS ON THE BOARD, who is given what licenses in town, who is required to do what to get those licenses, who is voting to discontinue bus service from Holyoke to Amherst, etc. Racism is in our local government, yes, but it does not appear to be a factor in the town’s lack of interest in letting people park somewhere, anywhere in Amherst.

Commenter: A related point: If everybody's a racist, then nobody is. When you throw the term around as loosely as you do, it stops meaning anything.

Amherst Life: if everybody is a racist, then everybody is! “Racism” may cease to have meaning to you, but it continues to have a great deal of meaning to those who are on its receiving end, to those who have to fight it on a daily basis while being told that it does not exist.


  • At 2:43 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    There's a purely practical reason why it's terribly counterproductive to accuse well-meaning people of racism. Let's say you disagree with someone in your town about how to handle some disputed issue. If you call someone a racist, they have no incentive to listen to you or talk to you. You've already accused them of bad faith. Why should they take you seriously? Such accusations don't open discussion; they kill it.

    This point is beside the point if you're dealing with actual bigots. A Nazi won't be offended if you call him an anti-Semite; a Klansman won't be hurt if you call him a white supremacist.

    But if you're dealing with someone who tries very hard to do the right thing with regard to racial issues, they're no longer going to take you seriously if you accuse them of racism. I'll use myself as an example: I happen to know that I'm not a racist, so if somebody calls me one because we disagree on some political issue, I'll be irritated and I'll think they're a jerk. It's a bad way to start a dialogue.

    The reason that there's no point in debating with Nazis is that they aren't going to be open to arguments that appeal to general principles of human rights. But some of the people in Amherst that you call "racists" are extremely open to arguments based on such principles. They will respond well if, in the process of debating an issue, you make human rights arguments or appeal to general principles of justice. They will respond poorly if you unfairly accuse them of racial bias. (And who can blame them? In our country, that is a uniquely damaging accusation.)

    The only way that throwing around accusations of racism is "effective" is if you want to coerce your political opponents into doing what you want. This is what I talked about in my first comment. It's a form of intimidation; an accusation of racism carries great social opprobrium, especially in places like Amherst (as it should, if it's justified).

    People who use these tactics may get their way in the short run, as they sometimes do in Amherst, but ultimately this leads to deep bitterness and mutual misunderstanding. The community has a responsibility to ensure that making unsubstantiated accusations of racism is not considered socially acceptable. If nothing else, this helps ensure that genuine racism will be taken seriously.

    We have a disagreement about when the use of the word "racist" is appropriate. I don't really see how to resolve that from a purely terminological standpoint; either you think Amherst as a town can fairly be described as "racist" or you don't. (I don't, as you know.) But I think my practical point stands whether or not you agree with me on how broadly the word theoretically ought to be applied.

    A tangentially-related point: Even the best-intentioned white people aren't born knowing how to deal with subtle and complicated racial issues. Most of us (I'm white) try hard to say and do the right things, but these issues are nuanced, and sometimes, inevitably, we screw up. It doesn't mean we're nasty people; it's just garden vareity human frailty. Making all of this more complicated is the fact that questions about how best to be sensitive don't always have an agreed-upon answer.

    You say that racism is "on the rise." To maintain this position, you would have to argue that America is more racist today than it was in 1950, which is untenable.

    I've never liked it when white people whine about "reverse racism," so we're on the same page there. Human beings apparently have a natural desire to play the victim. (Even white Christain conservatives -- quite possibly the least victimized group of people in the world -- seem to love talking about how downtrodden they are in America.) It's one of our less attractive tendencies as a species.

    Naturally you have a right to voice whatever opinions you like. I certainly hope you didn't get the impression that I believe otherwise. You have the right to voice your opinions, and I have the right to disagree. And so on and so forth. It's one of the wonderful things about liberal democracy.

    Racism is, indeed, anti-intellectual. And my point here has never been to deny that it exists -- even in Amherst. But the way that racism is discussed on this blog is hyperbolic and ultimately counterproductive.

    My other point regarding your casual use of the word "racist" is that if the word is used as broadly as you use it, there is no way to distinguish between an actual racist and well-meaning but misguided person who makes a gaffe out of ignorance or disagrees with you on some question of public policy. You're left with no word to distinguish between Amherst in 2007 and Mississippi or Berlin in 1940. I think that's a problem. I guess you don't.

  • At 4:57 PM , Blogger The Crew said...

    This is a fascinating post, and we agree with almost all of the points you are making. One thing that we will change (after reading the post) is the comments regarding the classist and racist selectboard. We may have gone overboard in that arena, and as such, our arguments regarding CLEAR racism in Amherst are weakened. Also, there are people on the selctboard like Ms. Greeney who are really interested in the well-being of the town and the people who live here. Thanks for pointing that out. We will go ahead and ammend a few of our points.

    One thing that did jump off the page was the insistance on not calling well-intenioned people racists. It's the first line of the comment above/below. If statements or actions disturb a person, should that person feel obligated to accomodate what they perceive as racism or what IS racism? Why must the person build into their reaction to what they perceive as racism, a certain respect for the posibility that the perpetrator is well-intentioned? If the person who is "well-intentioned" came to the table knowing that he/she might also have to accomodate the other person, it might not come to name calling... Just an idea. It goes both ways. Not having both ways is what "kills it", as you put it. Do to the history of this country, state, and general area, the well-intentoned party needs develop a way of letting dialogue continue even if he/she is called a racist. That is the least that one can do.


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