Real Racism and Fake Racism

Real racism:

The Short Pump Middle School has shut down its football team after circulation of a Snapchat video showing white players pinning down black players and simulating anal rape while making racist slurs. The only saving grace to this reprehensible episode is that members of the school community are universally disgusted by the boys’ behavior. Henrico County Public Schools convened a meeting last night, attended by 400 people, to discuss how the community should respond. (The Richmond Times-Dispatch has the story here.)

Fake racism: Democratic candidate for governor Ralph Northam stands by his characterization of Republican rival Ed Gillespie as in league with white supremacists. As the Times-Dispatch describes the slander, Northam issued a mail piece that “superimposes images of Trump and Gillespie over a photo of torch-wielding white nationalists marching in Charlottesville in August. The message says Virginia voters have a chance to ‘stand up to hate’ in the Nov. 7 election.” On the back of the mailer, another message urges voters to “stand up to Trump, Gillespie and hate.”

While Northam did not explicitly call Gillespie a racist or white supremacist, the message was clear. But in actuality, Gillespie had denounced the white supremacist rally, even before it turned violent. “Having a right to spew vile hate does not make it right,” said Gillespie at the time. “These displays have no place in our commonwealth, and the mentality on display is rejected by the decent, thoughtful and compassionate fellow Virginians I see every day.”

(It’s only fair to point out that Gillespie is not an innocent when it comes to slanderous campaign ads. His ads have depicted Northam as a sympathizer of the violent Salvadoran street gang MS-13.)

Sadly, when given a chance to distance himself from the Northam campaign’s slander, Governor Terry McAuliffe responded, in effect, that one vile mischaracterization deserves another: “I think the hatred and bigotry that we saw — and I personally saw firsthand — of the hatred, the white supremacists, the KKK, the ‘alt-right,’ is the same divisive Trump politics that Ed Gillespie is doing in his ads today. There is no difference. They are bringing hatred, fear, bigotry to our state.”

Both candidates need to apologize to the other. The fact that neither is willing to do so is what turns people off to politics today. (I would note that one candidate, Libertarian Cliff Hyra, has taken the high road by refraining from such inflamed rhetoric.)

More fake racism: A self-described “peoples tribunal” will assemble this weekend in Charlottesville to address “environmental racism impacts of fracked-gas pipelines.” A panel of three human rights and environmental pollution experts will preside as judges at a daylong tribunal examining the multiple social and racial injustices afflicted by the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast pipelines.

The proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline route will traverse through varied populations: mostly white but also African-American and Native American. Focusing on the impact of African-American and Native American communities, pipeline foes have leveled charges of environmental racism.

According to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) environmental impact statement, minority communities will be exposed to temporary increases in construction dust and longer-term exposure to combustion emissions from compressor stations, though within permissable air-quality limits. States the EIS: “No disproportionately high and adverse impacts on environmental justice populations as a result of other resources impacts would be expected.”

It’s hard to show that the ACP route as a whole disproportionately impacts one group over another. The trick is to adjust the frame of reference as needed. Thus, critics argue that about 30,000, or 13 percent, of the people who live within one mile of the proposed route of the pipeline in North Carolina are Native American, even though Native Americans represent only 1.2 percent of the state’s total population. In this case, critics have narrowed the frame of reference to the section of the pipeline in North Carolina. In Virginia pipeline foes have narrowed the frame of reference to African-Americans living near a compressor station in Buckingham County.

If living within a mile of construction noise and dust is sufficient to characterize a project as environmentally racist in the case of a pipeline, then every construction project near a minority population is racist because any project that requires clearing land and digging will generate dust. This logic is a recipe for shutting down all construction near minority populations, effectively creating economic no-go zones… which sounds pretty racist itself.

Of course, pipeline critics have no desire to shut down all construction everywhere. They just want to shut down the pipeline. Now, there are respectable reasons for wanting to block the pipeline — you can read them in this blog. But tarring the project as environmentally racist is not a respectable reason.

Bacon’s bottom line: As the Short Pump Middle School episode shows, racist words and behavior are not the exclusive domain of torch-bearing white supremacists. What happened at Short Pump was shocking and the community needs to express its outrage, as in fact it appears to be doing. But communities’ efforts to enforce acceptable codes of behavior is undermined when anyone and everyone is being called a “racist” or a “hater” these days. Ralph Northam loses all moral authority to talk about racism when he ties Ed Gillespie to white supremacists. Social Justice Warriors lose all moral authority to talk about environmental racism when they cherry pick their data to heap onus upon a pipeline project they don’t like.

The public discourse has so debased the meaning of the word “racist” that many people distrust the dominant narrative. I would bet that some Henrico citizens, like the villagers who ignored the boy who cried wolf, don’t trust the media and county authorities to provide a fair and accurate account of what happened at Short Pump. And that’s not a result that any thinking or caring person should desire.

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