Sunday, July 18, 2010

Striking the Roots of Racism

Several days ago I had a fascinating conversation with a good friend regarding the origins of racism and the optimal methods for ameliorating its impact. The following post is largely based on that conversation, but also draws heavily from my study of such anti-racist thinkers as Tim Wise, Arthur Silber, and Cornel West.

Due to the human tendency towards "in group" and "out group" thinking, just about every human is to an extent racist. This does not mean they hate people based upon race, or that they harbor any ideological racism. But they do hold some emotional bias. This unconscious, unintentional racism has been confirmed by studies. As they say on Avenue Q, "everyone's a little bit racist," even far left, anti-racist bloggers like me.

And so, if we're all racists, whites make up the majority of our population, and whites are conferred with greater power than blacks thanks to years of slavery and Jim Crow, economic inequities between races should not be surprising. It should disturb you that a study by economists at MIT and the University of Chicago found that resumes with "white" sounding names were 50% more likely than the same resumes with "black" sounding names to lead to call backs for interviews. But it should not surprise you. It likewise should not be surprising that when minimum wage laws decrease the amount of people businesses can profitably employ, blacks are the ones hurt most (And in fact whites are often helped). But it should certainly give you pause.

Power of course only exacerbates the problem, particularly power involving authorization to use legal force, break the law with nearly guaranteed impunity, and imprison individuals. Yes, breaking news from the department of "Fucking obvious, but unremarked upon by respectable politicians": The criminal justice system is really racist. Michelle Jones thoroughly documents this in The New Jim Crow, specifically focusing on the war on drugs and the mass incarceration state to which it contributes. A few damning facts she points out include:

*There are more African Americans under correctional control today—in prison or jail, on probation or parole—than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.

*As of 2004, more African American men were disenfranchised (due to felon disenfranchisement laws) than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race.

* A black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery. The recent disintegration of the African American family is due in large part to the mass imprisonment of black fathers.

*If you take into account prisoners, a large majority of African American men in some urban areas have been labeled felons for life. (In the Chicago area, the figure is nearly 80%.) These men are part of a growing undercaste—not class, caste—permanently relegated, by law, to a second-class status. They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits, much as their grandparents and great-grandparents were during the Jim Crow era.

But there's a problem with all these facts: Humans want to consider ourselves and the things we love good and moral, and in our society, racism is deemed the height of evil. So we resort to denial. Admit to racism? It's hard to save face with that confession. Unpack the invisible knapsack of privilege? We might no longer feel we earned all we have.

And so, the white establishment must smear those who challenge their delusional vision of a fair and equitable America. Why, accusing white people of racism? These "civil rights activists" must be racist! Conservative firebrand David Horowitz wrote an entire book based on this premise titled hating whitey.

Similarly, employment difficulties of blacks must be denied. The truly skilled white privilege denialist will here play the victim, noting affirmative action programs as a form of "reverse racism."

The most illustrative example of the vehemence of our racial denial is the debacle surrounding Jeremiah Wright. Many politicians on both sides of the aisle are connected to preachers who compare my LGBTQ friends and I to pedophiles or who wish death upon us. Billy Graham had connections to multiple presidential administrations and had a repeated record of explicit racism against blacks. Yet when Reverend Wright told the reality, albeit in an incendiary manner, of American imperialism, war crimes, and racial oppression, that was too much.

And so the denial permeates our political spectrum. Even that radical socialist Barack Obama, known for his "deep seated hatred for white people", operates on the factually dubious assumption of a post-racial America. His most famous line of oratory hinges upon this PC delusion: "There's not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America." As Arthur Silber wrote yesterday on this matter:

Second, and of equal significance, is the fact -- acknowledged by almost no one, and certainly not by good liberals and progressives -- that Obama himself is a notably vicious racist: "All this means that it is Obama himself who has adopted the white racist framework. Yes, I repeat that: Obama has adopted the white racist framework with regard to every issue of importance."

This is true because Obama denies the truth of American history in some of its most essential aspects and fully embraces the myth of American exceptionalism -- which is a myth of white American exceptionalism. It is also true because Obama has intentionally adopted more particular racist tropes, such as the myth of "irresponsible" black fathers. (And follow some of the many links provided near the beginning of this article for much more on this topic.)

Please don't say Obama can't be a racist because he's black, or half-black, or however the hell you want to describe it. Just don't. I know you can be smarter than that, if you'll only try. In America today, the fastest path to power is via the white, male ruling class. Obama wanted and wants power, period. So in every way that matters, he identifies with the white, male ruling class. Now he's the leader of that class. See how that works?

So, how do we deal with all this racism? Certainly addressing symptoms such as the drug war and poverty would help. However, with deep seated problems, we must strike the root. This requires that we view racism not as an epithet to hurl at political opponents, but instead as an idea and structure of domination to seek out and ameliorate. For how else can we honestly find the racism lying latent in our psyches and our favored institutions? And if we can't even admit to the problem, it will be damn hard to solve.


  1. I wish you wouldn't use acronyms like LGBTQ and PC without explanation. Although I like the Glen Beck quote thrown in sarcastically. However I think you should have further explained the minimum wage laws and gone into further detail about affirmative action programs and how racists like to play the victem with the idea of "reverse racism."

  2. I believe we disagree in the definition of the term "racist," but that is semantics. However, in your quote by Silber where he identifies Obama as a racist, I think it's important to point out that he's saying Obama's racism is toward Black people; he's really calling Obama an "Uncle Tom." Most whites would assume that if Obama is racist he is racist toward whites, that being, of course, of what Glenn Beck, et. al., accuse him. The distinction is important.

  3. Yes, the distinction is very important, Laurie. I assumed it was obvious enough from Silber's words to let them speak for themselves on that matter, but I suppose I should have spoken more on how denial is less personal and more systemic first as a prelude.