Modern Racism and “12 Years a Slave”


I was not as blown away by 12 Years a Slave as Jonathan Chait was, but no matter. Tastes differ. However, in a long piece yesterday, Chait used the film as a springboard to talk about modern-day conservative resistance to the idea that racial discrimination is still a problem. Here’s his final paragraph:

Conservatives can transport themselves for two hours into the hellish antebellum world of 12 Years a Slave and experience the same horror and grief that liberals feel. What they cannot do, almost uniformly, is walk out of the theater and detect the still-extant residue of that world all around them.

Chait is quite correct that conservatives mostly refuse to acknowledge the reality of modern racism. Not the bullwhips of 1850 or the fire hoses of a century later, but the constant, petty abuses, police stops, lousy schools, social wariness, and legal injustices that remain part of daily life for most African-Americans. These things are hard for most whites to detect—I imagine I’m fairly typical in understanding them mostly as cultural abstractions, not because I ever encounter them in my personal life—and conservatives rarely even try. Instead, they mostly choose to view them as mere partisan inventions brought up to make the right look hateful and bigoted.

Odd as it sounds, movies like 12 Years a Slave may confirm this worldview more than they challenge it. After all, the point of the film is to show us the unrelenting horrors of slavery: the beatings, the fear, the subjugation, and the degradation. But the more horrific the on-screen portrayal, the more difficult it is to see parallels with the modern world. Regardless of how pervasive institutional racism still is, it shares little emotional resonance with the appalling cruelty of the antebellum South. Because of that, the obvious reaction of anyone walking out of the theater is a sense of relief that this has all been relegated to the ash heap of history. 

12 Years a Slave was a fine film. But expecting it to change anyone’s views on affirmative action or voter ID laws is expecting too much. Ironically, it’s more likely to do just the opposite. In many ways, it’s basically a license to view racism as a horror uniquely of the past.

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SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

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