Roseanne, Racism, and the Problem of False Dichotomies

by Rich Rubenstein on June 7, 2018 · 1 comment

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Note: the ABC Network canceled the revived sit-com, “Roseanne,” after its eponymous star, Roseanne Barr, tweeted a grossly racist insult aimed at former Obama administration chief of staff Valerie Jarrett. “Roseanne” was a comedic series about the adventures and mishaps of an American white working class family.


It is difficult to talk sensibly and accurately about the role of racism and xenophobia in Trumpland. The latest sign of this is an article in The Nation by Edward Burmila, who writes that the Roseanne Barr affair gives the lie to media efforts to explain the economic basis for Donald Trump’s support among many white workers.

Roseanne is inseparable from this quest to find evidence that Trumpers are ultimately good, kindhearted people whose fears and economic insecurity are being exploited by a charlatan,” says Burmila. “Journalists and researchers are now finding that the veneer of ‘economic anxiety’ among Trump supporters is built on a foundation of hate.” The masses support far-right regimes like Trump’s, he insists, because they are authoritarian racists, not because they are suffering economically or in any other way. Their beliefs are “malevolent and dangerous, not mere differences of opinion that can be resolved in 20 minutes, with a hug.”

What should a sharp-eyed editor have done with this strangely simplified approach to a complex problem? First, write in the margins, in large red letters, the phrase “FALSE DICHOTOMY.” People are not either racists and authoritarians or the victims of exploitation and insults; the whole problem is that they are both.

American working people have been taught for generations that when things go badly for them, they are expected to exonerate their social “betters” and blame their “inferiors.” This means seeking consolation and justification in racial, nationalist, and religious solidarity rather than challenging a system dominated by billionaires and their political toadies.

Burmila asserts, quite rightly, that many white workers (and businesspeople) are eager and willing to follow Trump’s racist lead. But this is not because their suffering and insecurity is a mere “veneer” disguising a “foundation of hate.” Trump defeated Clinton by capturing six industrial and semi-industrial states that Obama won handily in 2012. In all these states, deindustrialization, wage stagnation, job insecurity, and the social ills accompanying a depressed economy were major issues.

It is perfectly true, as Burmila implies, that racism and xenophobia are habits of thought imbedded in American culture. But his critique fails to recognize that these are learned responses to a social crisis – responses that the Democratic Party’s peculiarly classless brand of identity politics has done little to mitigate. Hillary Clinton’s program to solve the underlying problems of Middle America consisted, essentially, of three points: defend the status quo, raise the minimum wage, and double-down on insults to the “deplorables.” Little wonder that so many of those effectively abandoned by the liberals were persuaded to “kick down” instead of challenging that system.

Finally, still wielding the red pen, Dr. Burmila’s editor should write the query “SOURCES?” next to his statement that “journalists and researchers” have discovered that Trump supporters are really malevolent racists and xenophobes rather than social sufferers. I have seen no studies that would support this peculiarly angry and despairing “either/or.”

There is no doubt that racism, chauvinism, and paranoia are still alive in communities of Americans bearing the weight of the world’s most inegalitarian socioeconomic system. Learned responses can be unlearned, to be sure – but only if we find ways to help fellow-sufferers identify the real causes of their suffering. We cannot call out the racists and xenophobes without also calling out the capitalist elite.

Rosa Luxemburg, who died almost 100 years ago, was right. The choice that confronts us is still “Socialism or Barbarism.”


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Christie December 16, 2018 at 2:41 am

Mr. Rubenstein;

You end this blog with a quote saying that we have only two choices: Socialism or Barbarism, but why not Democracy even if it is in the form of a republic? In your book Aristotle’s Children, you write about the uncovering of ancient thought for a people who would soon develop from being bararians to being sophisticated. I have heard that a free people must be an educated people. We all know that Socialism always has its ruling class. Why force those being ruled to beg at the Socialist ruling class’s table instead of being free to work for food of their own? Can we not believe the people we fight for to have justice are more than victims? How can we say that we really believe we are equals if we do not believe that our fellow Americans can become educated and enjoy citizenship in freedom? Why do they need to be rescued by some benevolent, Socialist government if they truly have this ability?
Thank you.


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