Roseanne Barr and the Soul of America

Maybe we should have seen it coming.

Roseanne Barr was meant to be the voice for Trump supporters. And her show was wildly successful, earning higher ratings than any new television show in years.

But Barr is infamously controversial. ABC executives knew what they were getting into when they hired her. They knew their star money maker could not be controlled. It probably shouldn’t surprise anyone that she tweeted that if the “muslim [sic] brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby” it would equal Valerie Jarrett.

It shouldn’t surprise us for two reasons. First, Barr has a history of being controversial. And the second reason is that racism is part of the soul of America. I’ve come to realize that I need to admit that racism is part of my soul, too.

Indeed, I’m a progressive, but in many ways I’m more like Rosanne Barr than I’d like to admit.

Racism and the Soul of America

The historian Jon Meacham’s latest book is titled, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels. Meacham says that the soul of America has always been in this battle. We have a history of racism that infects our present reality. Slavery led to Jim Crow which led to the racism of the prison industrial complex. Throughout American history black people have been treated as less than human. And yet the American ideal is that all people are created equal.

Barr’s tweet was racist. She has apologized. And then she denied that her comment was racist, stating, “I’m not a racist, just an idiot who made a bad joke.” She also said Ambien was to blame for her bad joke.

As a Progressive, I’m tempted to go on the attack. I’m tempted to get angry and blame Barr for being a racist and deflecting responsibility for her racism by blaming Ambien.

Rosanne Barr a Scapegoat?

But that is how we scapegoat guilty people. Rosanne Barr is guilty. But John Meacham has helped me understand why I am guilty, too.

I think of myself as a good, progressive person. And, as a progressive, pretty much the worst thing that anyone can be in the United States is a racist. But here’s the truth – racism infects me just like it infects Rosanne Barr.

We are all formed by our culture. The United States has had been infected with racism from the beginning. I grew up in this culture as a white person, as did Rosanne Barr. We are both infected by American racism.

Fortunately, there are consequences for racism in present day America. Barr lost her show. Unfortunately, the consequences of her tweet meant that her co-stars, along with everyone else involved in the show, lost their jobs, too. But part of “the battle for our better angels” is that there are consequences for racism, including the cancellation of an extremely popular tv show.

But the more I accuse Barr, the more I deflect the racism that infects me onto her. Rosanne Barr isn’t the problem. If we got rid of Rosanne Barr tomorrow, we would still have this problem. That’s because the problem is racism on a personal and structural level.

Personal Racism

By personal racism, I mean the racism that infects individuals. Barr is guilty of a racist tweet. Is she a racist? At the very least, I think she probably does harbor some racist tendencies. Saying that a black person is like an ape is obviously a racist comment.

Barr’s racism may be on full display via Twitter, but my racism remains hidden. I have a friend who says that he’s a “recovering racist.” Barr’s tweet, along with the Trump era, has forced many of us to do some self-reflection and come to the truth that we are “recovering racists.” The first step to recovery is admitting the ugly truth. It’s far too easy to project my own racist tendencies upon someone else. But it’s far better for me to look deep within myself so that I can take responsibility for the racism that infects me.

Structural Racism

Racism infects me, because as Jon Meacham states, it infects the soul of America. Barr is not alone in her racism. Racism is rooted in the United States’ constitution where citizenship was racialized. In order to be a citizen, one had to legally be a white male. The New Deal of 1935-1955 excluded black people from reforms that expanded the white middle class through social security, labor laws, the GI Bill, and the Federal Housing Administration. Structural racism persists today in the war on drugs and crime, education, housing, and employment.

Rosanne Barr, Racism, and Me

So, is Rosanne Barr a racist? At the very least, I think she is infected by the racism that contaminates the United States. I’m grateful that ABC decided to cancel her show as a consequence of her individual racism. The battle for the better angels of our nature means that we need those types of consequences to dismantle structural racism. But what’s just as important is for white people resist the temptation to demonize Barr. Because if we do that, it will blind us to taking responsibility for the racism that infects us, too.

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