(If you're not familiar with Cliven Bundy, a Google search will quickly give you the back-story.)
As political theater, the spectacular implosion of erstwhile conservative darling and welfare rancher Cliven Bundy was exquisite. But it is important to understand the limitations--indeed, the dangers--of using instances of outrageous racism as cheap entertainment. It is notable that Bundy's words immediately rendered him a toxic laughingstock. He surely remembers a time when this was not the case. Words that used to be deployed to gain power over others now only weaken their author. This is a real achievement, and it ought not be overlooked. But the strength of this taboo--don't say racist stuff--is enforced by giving it an outsized importance. Simply put, the taboo against acting racist is much stronger than the taboo against being racist. And it is the latter that has the greatest effects on the lives of real people.
Let's think about what Bundy represents to liberals and conservatives, and then explore why the media spectacle is so problematic.
The appeal of the Bundy implosion for liberals is obvious enough. He seems to represent the very id of a certain sort of right-wing conservative, and delivers the standard critique of the welfare state in its most concentrated and unvarnished form. The fact is, most conservatives do believe the Great Society and its descendents have wrecked the black family, even if this belief doesn't lead them to embrace Bundy's absurdities about slavery. The chance to tie mainstream conservatives to a blatant racist is too good for liberals to pass up. And, after all, conservatives embraced Bundy aggressively and of their own volition. As political games go, it hasn't been unfair for liberals to have a little fun about it as conservatives disavow their former hero.
It is less understood that Bundy would, were it not for the now embarrassed embrace of many mainstream conservatives, serve as a perfect embodiment of what conservatives believe racism in the United States looks like. He's old. He's eccentric. He even said "Negro" just like Harry Reid. And if Harry Reid said it...
By attempting to tie Republican politicians to the outlandish racism of an elderly rancher, liberals win a tactical victory but unwittingly play into the larger conservative narrative about what racism is in the modern United States. Rather than a set of deeply embedded and largely impersonal social and economic forces, racism becomes the product a few isolated and backward individuals. After all, we rarely seem to see racism, do we? If racism is as rampant as people like me say it is, then why do the irrelevant ramblings of an old man become a cause celebre? That's the best we've got? If Cliven Bundy is in any sense important, then racism really is essentially gone.
But of course it's not gone. The racism that permeates our lives and devastates so many Americans is too amorphous to fit in a sexy news story. When another minority student embarks on an inferior primary school education, it's not news; it's just the way things are. When a black couple with excellent credit gets turned down for a housing loan, they can't even know for sure they've been discriminated against. It only emerges years later when you glance over an obscure headline at the bottom of the business page saying that Bank ABC paid out 100 million dollars in a discrimination settlement. When the HR professional glances past that resume with the foreign-sounding name, she makes a split-second decision without becoming aware of her unconscious bias. When black children grow up in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty at 20-30x the rate of white children, it is a fact too astonishing and diffused to be reported on the evening news. These and other issues are clearly revealed in rarely-read academic books and journals and depressing newspaper pieces that no one wants to wade through. It's a lot easier to talk about Cliven Bundy.
The fact is, I am dramatically more invested in securing the best for my own children than I am for the children of others. This is only natural. But when the incumbent power brokers and holders of wealth are overwhelmingly white, it doesn't take a lot of imagination to figure out what this only natural behavior accomplishes on a collective scale. It is easy to talk about trying to expand opportunity, but it is more than a semantic quibble to point out that expanding opportunity necessarily involves redistributing opportunity. There are a finite number of selective enrollment high schools, elite college openings, graduate fellowships, CEO's, and senators. In a society in which the wealthy and white possess pervasive unearned privileges, expanding opportunity for others implies trade-offs that we're reluctant to admit.
We must move away from obsessing over the racist things people say, and call ourselves to account for the actions we take. Cliven Bundy is suddenly beyond the pale by virtue of his words, but I can purposely take advantage of my white skin by securing for myself and my family a good neighborhood and good schools, and yet I remain fully respectable. We must move past the day when we who have done little or nothing to try to tear down our privileges are granted the presumption of innocence. The majority of white Americans are invested in racism. And if we're going to give it up, we want a pay-out, thank you very much.
You see this in our politics if you look closely enough. The apparently large divide between the two major parties on the national level is in some respects superficial. On the local level, there is a deep and abiding bipartisan consensus in favor of a politics that favors the wealthy and white over the poor and brown. It goes without saying that conservatism opposes efforts to achieve racial equality. But show me the wealthy liberal community that voluntarily rezoned to allow low-income housing into the neighborhood. Show me the wealthy liberal community that voluntarily redrew school district lines so it could share its resources with a poorer neighboring community. Liberalism in the United States is not just hypocritical; it is itself a defender of racial inequality.
If Americans in any broad and tangible way valued racial justice these ideas would be common-sense. Back here in the real world, they sound hopelessly utopian.
It's easy enough to see why these things don't happen. It's because of people like you and me. We just want the best for our kids. We've worked hard for what we have. These feelings are as natural as they are anti-Christian. And for me, as a Christian, the real scandal is not that we find it hard to live up to our faith. It is that we often embrace a false faith that baptizes our selfishness and encourages us to indulge in our privilege.