San Francisco Chronicle Book Review

Ordinarily, we post in this section book reviews from the NY Times and the Washington Post. [In addition, we usually post book reviews from the Wall Street Journal if the month’s book focuses on a financial issue and several British newspapers if the focus is on an international issue.]

However, it appears that neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post reviewed “What’s the Matter with White People?”

Accordingly, there is posted a review from the San Francisco Chronicle, the only newspaper in the same league as the NYT or the WP that appears to have reviewed “What’s the Matter with White People?”

In addition, there is posted a Joan Walsh OpEd article in the NY Times regarding a speech by President Obama on gun control.

Finally, the initial set of postings includes a book review from The New Republic, an excerpt from which was included in Utah Owl’s original proposal.
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San Francisco Chronicle Book Review

Post by johnkarls »

. – 8/27/2012

[Reading Liberally Editorial Note: is the on-line version of the San Francisco Chronicle.]

'What's the Matter With White People?'
By Joel Whitney -- a founding editor of Guernica: A Magazine of Art and Politics.

Downtown New York may be the site of Occupy Wall Street and the 9/11 memorial. But writer and MSNBC commentator Joan Walsh wants you to remember another New York event as a prism of American politics.

By the time the 1970 Hard Hat Riot erupted, Walsh recounts in her new book, "What's the Matter With White People?" GOP tricks had already unglued white middle- and working-class voters from the Democratic Party. Walsh's father, "an unlikely corporate peacenik," left work to attend a rally at Federal Hall to show solidarity with Kent State protesters killed days before by National Guardsmen. There he saw his own brother among construction workers who made up a counterprotest, some of whom shouted slogans like "love it or leave it" and used their hard hats to bludgeon protesters.

The Hard Hat Riot is crucial, Walsh writes, "because it symbolized the culmination of a Republican political strategy that has worked nearly flawlessly for almost my entire life. No matter what's going on in the world, the right can find a cultural issue that will get the left to fight itself." The strategy would divide not just Walsh's party but also her family.

Take progressive criticisms of President Obama. Given the backstory of Nixon and Reagan-era race baiting, and the backdrop of well-funded Tea Party and birther obstructionism today, we can hardly hear each other with neutral ears. Decades after the New Deal, many trade unions remained a haven for whites. When well-meaning public servants sought to right this, notes Walsh, Nixon strategist John Erlichman "praised the ... plan for its 'great style' in pitting the AFL-CIO against the NAACP and leaving the GOP in 'the sweet, reasonable middle.' "

Reagan wielded the phrase "welfare queens," and pushed a false view that most recipients were black, lazy and happy not to work. This helped galvanize a false sense among working-class whites that they themselves had never received government help on their way to the middle class. "I once blamed the conflict solely on wealthy capitalists and their politician-servants such as Nixon and [Pat] Buchanan," Walsh writes, "pitting the two groups at the bottom against each other." No more. Her own side, including the race-obsessed left, played, and plays, into this.

In a sense, Walsh sees herself taking up the actual "sweet, reasonable middle." She describes a whiplash, "one day calling out the racism of the president's worst critics, the next day being accused of racial bias by Obama's defenders if I described his disturbingly centrist political maneuvering."

Much of Walsh's argument turns on what she and some detractors have called white privilege. She acknowledges that even as minority representation climbs in a number of arenas of American life, white policymakers and leaders have long stacked the cards in their own favor, and therefore will maintain a dominance in those institutions for decades more.

Walsh looks at this trend against the feeling many working whites have of being ignored and cast aside by politics. Nor does she miss that her place within the dynamic above may itself represent white privilege. But to focus on something Walsh did not choose - to be born white - is to divide, she argues, and play into the hands of the GOP. The argument from the place of identity is the argument of victims, Walsh writes, of factions.

Walsh holds up Shirley Sherrod as a positive, if tragic, example. Vilified as racist in a doctored video published by Andrew Breitbart, the black U.S. Department of Agriculture official had actually looked beyond race in the contentious speech that got her too quickly fired by the Obama administration.

"Sherrod had told the opposite of a racist tale; she shared the moment she realized that poverty, not race, was the main factor keeping Southern farmers down and decided to help a white farmer on the verge of losing his land."

Walsh likens the left's obsession with identity - instead of class - to a "Democratic circular firing squad," and it's clear she doesn't like being called racist. A cautious opinion journalist, Walsh is particularly moving when she tells the story of American politics through family. When the dying wife of a New York City cousin and cop makes her last phone call to Walsh to congratulate her for standing up to Bill O'Reilly, or when discussing her daughter Nora's multicultural declaration, "I'm everything, mom!," Walsh humanizes her class through her family and persuades through empathy-arousing story.

When Walsh generalizes, she is less effective, as on multiculturalism. "Universities became the center of political battle," she writes dismissively, "over the issues of representation for excluded groups in the student body, on the faculty, in curricula. ... No one seemed to spend a lot of time thinking about our common future." Walsh misses the point that multiculturalism is the empowering version of the conversation on race.

It is a brief infraction, a distinctly anti-intellectual moment in an otherwise thrilling and moving family and political memoir that will help those who read it decipher the political spectacle that will unfold over the next two months.

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