Racism: Real and Invented 

Herenton's exploitation of the term does a disservice to bona fide victims.

Racism (or at least accusations of it) is back in the news, both locally and nationally. Our mayor trotted out that old saw, for the nth time, because he was ticked off at the City Council for taking him at his word about "retiring" on July 30th and passing a resolution declaring the office vacant as of July 31st.

The gall! Obviously, there's no other explanation for that action than racism. Oh, and he embellished the accusation, this time, by adding the charge that the council's action was "perverted." Who knew a resolution declaring a vacancy in the office of the mayor was on a par with child pornography?

On the national scene, there have been two prominent racial incidents: The first was the exclusion of a group of black children from an apparently "whites only" swim club in suburban Philadelphia, and the second occurred when our president entered the fray over the arrest of prominent African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates by suggesting it was possibly another example of racial profiling.

Imagine: an African-American male suggesting that law enforcement officials occasionally target people of color for "special" treatment. How dare he! It couldn't possibly be because there's hardly a black person alive who hasn't been harassed for the "crime" of being black, could it? But the media, looking for a controversy about Obama when the only other thing on their radar was the "birther" goofiness, jumped on the president's remarks as if he were channeling Jeremiah Wright.

It's a sad fact that our mayor's ubiquitous hurling of the racist accusation has had the effect of inuring us to instances where the charge may actually be meritorious — like the incident in Philadelphia. It's not unlike the way the villagers in the Aesop fable stopped believing the boy who kept crying "wolf."

I am the last person to scoff at charges of bigotry or intolerance, being the child of Holocaust survivors and having had experience with anti-Semitism. But I also have enough life experience to know that just because you are a member of a group that has been historically discriminated against doesn't mean that everything bad that happens to you is the result of discrimination.

I also know that just because a black person cries "racism" every time something bad happens to him or her doesn't mean it isn't the result of discrimination. The saying is: Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean everyone isn't out to get you. Eventually, even the boy who cried "wolf" was right, even if, by that point, he couldn't get anyone to believe him.

There are lessons to be learned in these episodes. For Obama, it's that discussing issues of race may not always be welcomed, even coming from him. Oh sure, everyone admired his confrontation of race in that memorable campaign speech in Philadelphia. But that was as much because it put distance between himself and Wright — someone many white folks saw as a virulent black racist — as because it spoke to broader issues of race.

We palefaces liked that speech because it made us feel Obama had common cause with us in decrying the kind of racism we're not used to, the kind that threatens us. But identifying with a prominent black scholar because he may have been the victim of the kind of racism we would prefer to believe is mostly anecdotal? That was a bridge too far. But the fact is, Obama's foray into the subject of racial profiling may end up having the salutary effect of making us (black and white) realize that we may not have made as much progress toward becoming "post-racial" as the pundits would have us believe.

The lessons in the Herenton episode are harder to glean, if only because his accusations of discrimination have become so indiscriminant. After all, the mayor has enjoyed a record-breaking tenure in office in no small part because whites, as well as blacks, have repeatedly reelected him and because he has been the beneficiary of the white power structure's largesse.

Nonetheless, the lesson in Herenton's incessant invocation of the race card, especially in juxtaposition with the incident at the Philadelphia swim club, may be that racism is still alive and well in this country, even if the carriers of that message may see that wolf at the door, even when he's not.


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