Roseanne Barr and others worked their way up to blatant racism after becoming emboldened by lack of pushback along the way. Each time nonracists didn’t speak up, bigots assumed the nonracists agreed with them, or at least accepted their behavior. Meanwhile, both groups’ kids were absorbing these attitudes.
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“susan rice is a man with big swinging ape balls.”
(Barr, Roseanne, sitcom star; Twitter post, deleted by Barr within minutes of posting; 12/22/2013.) (referring to Obama national security adviser Susan Rice)
“muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj”
(Barr, Roseanne, sitcom star; Twitter post; 5/28/2018.) (referring to Obama presidential sr. adviser Valerie Jarrett)
“Roseanne’s Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel her show.”
(Dungey, Channing, ABC Entertainment president; press release; 5/29/2018.)
The 1980s-‘90s Roseanne show re-emerged in March 2018 as a mid-season replacement, to run for eight episodes (then extended to nine). The new Roseanne Barr character was a rabid Trump supporter — as Ms. Barr is in real life — doing comedic battle with witless anti-Trump characters surrounding her. High jinks ensued. The new version became a ratings phenomenon, bragged about by Donald himself.
Then Roseanne thought she was untouchable, irreplaceable: She exceeded her already lofty levels of inhumanity and indecency by tweeting a blatantly racist “joke” dehumanizing a well-known black woman. The business recriminations came swiftly. Within 12 hours the network canceled her new show and reruns, another network canceled her old reruns, and ICM talent agency dropped her contract.
Two days after ABC canceled Roseanne Barr’s controversial pro-Trump sitcom, the president took to the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room for an impromptu Q&A with White House press pool reporters:
[REPORTER]: “What do you think of the network canceling Roseanne’s show after her tweet about Valerie Jarrett?”
[PRESIDENT]: “I think there is blame on both sides — on both sides.”
[REPORTER]: “How do you view Roseanne’s followers who support and retweet her racially charged comments and conspiracy theories?”
[PRESIDENT]: “What about the alt-left that came charging? Do they have any semblance of guilt?”
[REPORTER]: “But Mr. President, Roseanne’s tweet comparing an African-American woman to an ape has been forwarded thousands of times.”
[PRESIDENT]: “You have some very fine people on both sides.”
[REPORTER]: “Aren’t you concerned that by not directly condemning Roseanne’s bigoted tweet you are giving tacit approval to her followers’ blatant and latent racist tendencies?”
[PRESIDENT]: “I don’t want to go quickly and just make a statement for the sake of making a political statement.”
[REPORTER]: “Mr. President, why did you wait so long time before responding to this controversy?”
[PRESIDENT]: “I didn’t wait long. I didn’t wait long. I wanted to make sure, unlike most politicians, that what I said was correct, not make a quick statement. I wanted to see the facts — it is a very, very important process to me. Besides, I didn’t know David Duke was there.”
Back to Reality
Of course, this is a fictionalized news conference, using President Trump’s well-known statements from his August 15, 2017, post-Charlottesville Trump Tower “infrastructure” news conference. But c’mon, admit it: This could have been a real Donald Trump Show episode. You wanted it to be a real Donald episode. You needed it to be real.
This was not Roseanne Barr’s first racially epithetic rodeo. She’s been right there with Trump in the gutter spouting disgusting, dog-whistled comments and conspiracy theories since Barack Obama’s first (2008) presidential election cycle. As shown by her 2013 missive above, she’s delved into the occasional blatant racist tweet, only to delete it like a coward within minutes. Up until Tuesday, Roseanne had become progressively emboldened by 1) the lack of pushback from her nonracist friends and fans, and 2) the validation of her vicious bigotry by the current president of the United States.
Let’s talk about racism.
All-Caucasian Family Get-Together
I recently attended a large, all-Caucasian family get-together. The conversation was light, the food heavy but comforting. The subject of parental influence on moldable young children came up, and my third cousin, once removed, on my mother’s side, mentioned that her father regularly used racial epithets throughout her childhood, even though he had a few work buddies that were non-Caucasian. I commented wryly that her father probably thought of those non-Caucasians as some of the “good ones” or as “credits to their race.”
Knowing this relative — third cousin, once removed, on my mother’s side — was anything but racist, I commended her for not allowing that toxic childhood atmosphere to taint her own ethnic outlook. Third Cousin’s husband (third cousin, once removed, on my mother’s side, by marriage) chimed in that he didn’t think the occasional use of epithets, alone, made someone a racist. And he didn’t think his father-in-law was racist. I immediately averred that if someone uses, even occasionally, racial epithets (notwithstanding certain exceptions, which I’ll address shortly) — about an ethnic group other than their own — they are, at least to the degree they use them, racist.
Third Cousin’s husband said, “Well you have your opinion, and I have mine, and not every white person who uses the N-word is a racist.”
Voice slightly raised, I countered: “There is no opinion involved here. If you are Caucasian and use the N-word — or the S-word, W-word, name your slur initial — in even a casual or semiregular manner, you are racist to some degree, by definition. That is a fact.”
At this point, even Third Cousin conceded that her father is probably a smidgen racist (Third Cousin does the universal smidgen sign: one hand raised, thumb and forefinger extended about an inch apart). And it’s this writer’s contention that she only used the qualifier smidgen to soften the embarrassment to her husband.
It got a little heated for a moment. But the conversation lightened quickly, and Third Cousin-by-Marriage and I let the subject drop.
There are, however, important issues to be pondered from this conversation. First, there were six or seven children present and listening. I do not want any child — my own, my relatives’, or a strangers’ — ever to hear a respected adult say it’s all right to use racial slurs, occasionally or semiregularly, and still be considered a non-bigot. That’s like saying you smoke cigarettes semiregularly, but you’re a nonsmoker.
Second, I know Third Cousin’s husband to be a good Christian, whatever that means, and probably an antiracist. This is important because they don’t always go together.
(By the way, the best antonym Merriam-Webster.com could come up with for racist was antiracist. I mix that term interchangeably with nonracist. But c’mon, we can do better than that. I hereby coin the term critical racial thinker or CRT, since it is a fact that if one consistently thinks critically, one cannot be a racist, and conversely so.)
So, why would an antiracist, or CRT, want to express the opinion — in front of kids — that one could ever use racial slurs and still not be racist? I have a theory. Want to hear it? I’m gonna sing it for ya (— thanks to In Living Color): He’s consciously or unconsciously defending, or intellectually inoculating, Caucasian friends or individuals he respects who use slurs. And Third Cousin-by-Marriage doesn’t want to admit to himself the true nature of those friends’ or respected individuals’ unhumanitarian view of race and race relations. In effect, he won’t acknowledge that these friends or respected individuals believe that some ethnic groups are less equal than Caucasians. If Third Cousin-by-Marriage did admit this to himself, he would have to question the very foundation of these relationships.
And this, my friends, is one of the most insidious aspects of individual and institutionalized racism: apparent nonracists actively or tacitly defending the bigoted attitudes of certain friends and individuals they respect. When the nonracists don’t speak up, bigots assume the nonracists agree with them, or at least accept their behavior. Meanwhile, both groups’ kids are growing up absorbing these attitudes, consciously or subconsciously. What’s that little parable Glenn Beck likes to quote?
They came first for the carpenters,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a carpenter.
Then they came for the librarians,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a librarian.
Then they came for the critical thinkers,
and I didn’t speak up because I definitely wasn’t a critical thinker.
Then they came for the demagogic, fearmongering, mendacious talk show hosts, and by that time no one was left to speak up for me.
(— apologies to Pastor Martin Niemöller; 1892–1984)
Dangerous Tacit Approval
Yeah, something like that. The tacit defense of racist attitudes by nonracists is nearly as dangerous as the white-supremist skinheads who leave no doubt where they stand. In 2008 we elected an African-American president. We broke a social barrier, right? But breaking the barrier has only brought the problem of bigotry to a head and put the spotlight on once-passive bigots who now feel emboldened to come out of the closet.
Let me fully disclose that I love President Obama and what he tried to do. I break with many of my fellow hard-core progressives who feel he didn’t do enough or wasn’t aggressive enough. But put that aside for a minute. I believe the following: 1) President Obama had issues and hurdles within the presidency that none of us could know about; and more importantly, 2) he had to overcompensate for being African-American, that is, he had to bend over backward to avoid even the fleeting appearance of confirming any stereotypical racist beliefs about a black man’s behavior.
To quote myself: “Like James Meredith, Ida B. Wells, and Jackie Robinson before him, President Obama had to exhibit superhuman restraint and abuse-tolerance — in addition to stellar abilities — to succeed where Caucasians need only be good at what they do.
One thing this country must learn from our first experience with a non-Caucasian president is that we non-bigots cannot passively let racism — or even “racism-lite” — go unchecked. This is a matter of consciousness-raising. We have advanced, but we have so much further to go.
The Tea Party
After Obama’s first inauguration, many closet bigots who were rarely called out by their nonracist friends came out of the closet in full force. Many joined other bigots to support an important but plausibly deniable plank of the tea party platform. Throw tomatoes and epithets at me if you want, but this is documented. Look at any collection of tea party rally signs. Sure, the obvious bigots were in the minority, but that significant minority influenced policy.
And within the tea party was the age-old problem of which I’ve been speaking: tea party leadership and non-bigoted rank and file would not speak out and denounce the racism. They were so afraid of alienating part of their base that they remained mute to the despicable behavior and speech by this subgroup in their ranks.
Now meet President Donald J. Trump, brought to you by the makers of birtherism, death panels, Kenyan anti-colonialism, and other wholesome Obama-era Republican products. Mr. Trump’s support of institutionalized racism within his administration and today’s (Trumpist) GOP makes the tea party look like a tea party.
What’s that old saying again? “They came first for the carpenters, and I didn’t speak up,” … yada, yada … “Then they came for the demagogic, bigoted, mendacious talk show hosts, and by that time no one was left to speak up for me.”
Politics aside, if we let passive — and now, blatant — racism influence government policy, we set our country back decades. It’s time America regains its moral ground as a world leader and ousts bigoted politicians, starting at the top. It might not be our fault that a Donald Trump was elected, but it is now our responsibility to cripple him and vote his congressional supporters out.
It all Starts Here
It starts with acknowledging that racial-epithets-by-Caucasians-equals-racism is a fact, not an opinion. And we had better be role-modeling the humanitarianism of that fact for our kids and our nation’s future. When racial epithets are spoken, they represent the heart, the nature, the very definition of racism. The use of (even occasional) slurs is how racism is expressed. To the extent that one uses ethnic slurs, that one is signaling the existence and degree of his or her own bigotry. Period.
Racists, blatant and latent, will go to their graves denying their bigotry or that of their friends and individuals they respect. Whether Third Cousin — once removed, on my mother’s side, by marriage — admits it or not, his father-in-law is a racist.
Oh, by the way, here are the existing legitimate reasons to use racial slurs:
1) You’re citing a quote that is absolutely necessary to the conversation, issue at hand, or artistic or historical work — and the quote or work is for the purpose of educating about, or eliminating, ethnic and racial bigotry.
2) There is no No. 2. ■
Quotes of the Week
“It was 2 in the morning and I was ambien tweeting-it was memorial day too-i went 2 far & do not want it defended.”
(Barr, Roseanne, sitcom star; Twitter post; 5/29/2018.)
“While all pharmaceutical treatments have side effects, racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication.”
(Sanofi US, manufacturer of Ambien; Twitter post; 5/30/2018.)
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