A friend of mine emailed me this morning to share one of those internet “jokes” that make the rounds. He was astonished–and disheartened–to think that the relative who’d forwarded it evidently agreed with what might loosely be called its “message.”
On opening the attachment, the first thing I saw in large letters was “What a dumbass!”
In slightly smaller type, the text went on: “The problem with public housing is that the residents are not the owners. The people that live in the property did not work for it, but were loaned the property from the true owners, the taxpayers. Because of this, the residents do not have the “pride of ownership” that comes with the hard work necessary to earn the money to purchase the items.”
Following a couple more paragraphs of this were posted pictures of the President in the White House, with his feet up–a pose that evidently demonstrated his lack of pride and his usurpation of the premises from the “rightful” owners.
Let’s deconstruct this. Not only is the premise both incorrect and stupid–plenty of renters show a lot more respect for property than many “owners” (and plenty of “owners” are for all intents and purposes renting their homes from their mortgage holders)–but a President who won an overwhelming majority of both the popular and electoral vote is as “rightful” as a White House occupant gets.
But those are just factual objections. What is most distasteful is the obvious racism–the implicit message is that renter=black person=person who doesn’t respect property=illegitimate President. And what is even more irritating is the strong likelihood that the people who forwarded this particular bit of bilge would indignantly deny any racist intent–indeed, they probably don’t admit it even to themselves.
I think the only way to combat this ugly underbelly of what passes for political discourse is to call it what it is. When people of good will receive this sort of unAmerican bilge, we need to respond to the sender. We need to ask “why would you forward something like this to me?” And when the sender protests that their animus to this President is based upon “policy differences,” we need to press them on precisely what those policy differences are, and why they justify a portrayal that focuses upon the race of the President rather than on the failings of his policy proposals.
When we fail to respond, we enable the ongoing denial of racial motivation. It’s no different than remaining silent when someone tells a “joke” about “kikes” or “wops” or “spades.” If we don’t make clear that such labels are offensive–and not at all funny–we are complicit. If we simply hit the delete button, and don’t respond, we are equally complicit.
It’s time to talk back. We probably won’t convince the senders–they have demonstrated their obtuseness–but we may at least make them think twice before forwarding the next one.
And we’ll feel better.