In Defense of Carol Swain

James Taranto, Wall Street Journal, October 26, 2009

“Carol Swain is an apologist for white supremacists,” Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center tells the Tennessean. Carol Swain is also a friend of this column. To our mind the charge seemed awfully far-fetched, so we decided to get to the bottom of it.

Swain, who is black, is a professor of law and political science at Vanderbilt University. She is an expert on white supremacists, having written a book on the subject, “The New White Nationalism in America: Its Challenge to Integration,” which was published in 2002 by Cambridge University Press and drew plaudits from scholars both liberal (Harvard’s William Julius Wilson) and conservative (Princeton’s Robert P. George).

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The current kerfuffle involves an hourlong documentary film, “A Conversation on Race,” whose Web site prominently features a blurb from Swain: “. . . Outstanding. . . Meticulously done. . . I highly recommend this film. . . ” Deeper in the site is the full review, which is more qualified:

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According to the Web site, the filmmaker, Craig Bodeker, “redefines the conventional wisdom on Race and Racism” by asking “a diverse group of Colorado residents” questions about their attitudes toward and experiences of racism.

The SPLC strongly disapproves of the film. Sonia Scherr, in an Oct. 8 entry on the organization’s Hatewatch blog, describes it as “a hit among white supremacists looking for a smart-sounding defense of their beliefs” and takes issue with several of the arguments Bodeker made in the film. In an Oct. 9 Hatewatch entry Scherr makes a case against the filmmaker. A reader discovered Bodeker’s comments on various YouTube pages, which, Scherr writes, “expose him for the bigot he is”:

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Scherr provides several specific quotes, and readers in the Hatewatch comment section post screen shots to these and others. For the record, Bodeker, in a post on the Web site of the National Policy Institute (which describes itself as “the right’s answer to the Southern Poverty Law Center” and is described by the SPLC as “a racist think tank” and by the Associated Press as “a white-advocacy group”), issued this response:

[Scherr] relied upon an anonymous cyber-stalker to gather “quotes” attributed to me from the comments section of unrelated political videos from Youtube. She called this piece of journalism “A Peek Behind the Curtain: Views of a Racist Filmmaker . . ,”

Some pretty strong statements were quoted–as well as MIS-quoted, surgically and deceptively edited,, taken out of context, and even made up! And once again, these “quotes” that represent proof of my “racism,” were found on the comments section of Youtube.

Have any readers ever been to the comments section on Youtube? Does anyone NOT KNOW what a mosh-pitt of “free expression” it is? There are, sometimes, actual screaming matches, even though they’re conducted in written form. Sometimes people say harsh, mean things there, in that last remaining refuge of Free Speech. Am I to assume that the SPLS’s Sonia Scherr has never made a sarcastic comment? Or even a distasteful one? Or that anyone who EVER has should be stereotyped, marginalized and disenfranchised? This seems to be what the SPLC suggests.

Bodeker does not disavow any specific quotes, and he acknowledges that some of them were accurate. No reasonable person can deny that the comments quoted were invidious. {snip}

Carol Swain wrote her review of “A Conversation on Race” in August, two months before Bodeker’s YouTube comments surfaced. In a Puffington Host post on Oct. 12, Swain responded to the revelation:

The racist comments attributed to Mr. Bodeker are ugly and vile. Would I have reviewed his film and given it a positive endorsement had I known more about his background? With the knowledge I have today, I would recommend the film be shown along with background information about Mr. Bodeker’s hostility towards racial and ethnic minorities.

Because we think highly of Swain, we decided to watch the film and draw our own conclusion. Our reaction was mixed: We found the interviews fascinating but Bodeker’s narration disagreeable. We do, however, see Swain’s point about the film’s value in illuminating the subject of race in America.

In the interviews, with people who responded to a CraigsList ad, Bodeker makes a compelling case that much of what he calls the “conventional wisdom” about race consists of prejudice–not racial prejudice per se (although Bodeker attempts to frame it that way), but unthinking assumptions about the nature of American society and the racial attitudes of others.

Bodeker probes the interview subjects for contradictions, and finding them isn’t hard. They agree that racism is pervasive, but are unable to give a clear definition of the term. He asks them to describe examples of racism in their own lives. They oblige–but their stories are ambiguous or innocuous. The most convincing anecdote turns out to be a case in which a white man describes overcoming his own prejudice. Lane, who looks to be around 40 and is originally from the South, describes a childhood episode in which a teacher warned him not to put his mouth on a water fountain because “black people do that.” Years later he was a lieutenant in the Army, and a black fellow officer had run out of water. Lane remembered his teacher’s admonition and hesitated to share his canteen. The black officer, noticing Lane’s discomfort, offered to drink from a cup. “I said, ‘No. You’re my comrade in arms.'”

Later, the subjects readily answer in the affirmative when Bodeker asks them if blacks are better at basketball than whites. But when he asks why whites score better than blacks on standardized tests, they insist the tests are biased because they are written by whites. Then he asks why Asians do better than whites. {snip}

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Bodeker presents his interview subjects more sympathetically than he presents himself. Whereas they come across largely as good-natured but confused, he seems bitter and sarcastic. He makes clear that he nurses racial grievances–not necessarily against minorities but against social conventions that he sees as oppressive to whites.

He is angry about the imputation of historical guilt: “I can trace my earliest ancestors here in America to the 1870s, after our Civil War. No forefather of mine ever killed an Indian or owned another human being–ever.”

But he also asserts that “America was founded as a white nation,” and that “her founding principles, which separate America from all other nations, were also developed by white men, not by a multicultural rainbow.” Actually, the founders were almost all British, and their principles drew heavily on British intellectual and legal traditions. But their claim was a universalist one: All men are created equal, not all Englishmen or colonists. In any case, how can Bodeker take racial pride in America’s founding but deny racial guilt on the ground that his ancestors didn’t arrive until a century later? To borrow one of his catch phrases, that’s a large disconnect.

Bodeker seems to envy groups that enjoy an affirmative sense of identity: “Hispanics can be pro-Hispanic without being anti-anybody; Jews can be pro-Jewish without being anti-anybody; blacks can be pro-black without being anti-anybody. But with whites, it’s different. White people cannot be pro-white without being anti-everybody-else.”

This is a matter of historical contingency. We’re hard-pressed to think of an example in American or European history in which the affirmation of a “white” identity, as distinct from a specific national, ethnic or religious identity, has meant anything other than being “anti-everybody-else.” {snip}

One segment of the film is inflammatory and invidious. After asking his interview subjects about race and crime, Bodeker cites federal statistics showing that the number of reported rapes involving a black perpetrator and a white victim is vastly higher than the number involving a white perpetrator and a black victim. He then says, “If selecting people for discrimination based on their skin color is racism, and it’s a bad thing . . . isn’t selecting people for rape because of their skin color also a bad thing? In fact, isn’t it a much worse thing?”

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So the film, while interesting, is seriously flawed. Yet its shortcomings as a persuasive vehicle may enhance its value as an object for study. Bodeker makes a strong case that politically correct orthodoxy on race is vacuous, but by openly displaying his own resentments and prejudices, he shows that rejecting that orthodoxy does not necessarily yield a more enlightened and sensible view. {snip}

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[Editor’s Note: Other articles on the Swain-SPLC-Bodeker matter are listed here.]

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