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Race, Racism, and the Prospects of Transforming America

Started by Austin McCoy, January 06, 2009, 12:21:53 pm

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Austin McCoy

I wrote a piece questioning the idea of a 'post-racial' America shortly after the election of President-elect Barack Obama. I argued in the short article, and this is a point I still maintain, that determining whether or not the United States had entered into a "post-racial" phase in its development was too soon, even though there are many people today who are persistently still trying to write that narrative. After I published the article in a variety of blogs, I received a response from a gentleman named Ray Zwarich who had some very interesting feedback.

In his response, Mr. Zwarich argued that race and racism are concepts that are were connected to human instinct. He also acknowledged the social, political, and economic aspects of the construction of race in the United States Zwarich maintained that as many individuals who secured resources needed to survive and ascended up the socio-economic ladder, they were less likely to hold onto such views. So, many people in the upper and middle classes were less likely to be racist while the various ethnic and racial groups among the lower classes retained this instinct. Ultimately, he concluded, anti-racist activists should focus more on eradicating poverty among the lower classes because racism is part of human nature and therefore immutable.

I agree with the premise that we should work to fight against poverty and I hope to spend more time talking about solutions later in this piece. However, I do take issue with racism as something that is so natural and ingrained in our consciousness that it is inescapable, and thus, a futile cause. When I hear the human nature argument or someone making the case that racial prejudice has existed everywhere for a long time, we tend to miss the point that racism, along with all of the other -isms, sexism, heterosexism, class prejudice, ageism, etc., are phenomena that people learn (think Jane Elliot's "Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes"). I would be hard-pressed to find a lower class child in the United States who was essentially racist from birth. I concede that humans in the modern periods of history have tended to divide and characterize themselves;, however, much of the categories we deal with today specifically emerged in the age of Western colonization and imperialism. I argue that if these present categories were not instilled in us, but created, resisted, and reproduced over a number of centuries, then why could we not struggle intellectually, psychologically, and mentally, to work through this discourse?

I also disagree with the implicit assertion that the richer someone gets, the less prone they are to prejudice. Racism in America is not just individual prejudice that is bigotry. Many virulent racists in the South and North did not fit the "ignorant, pot-bellied, and backward" stereotype that many people like to associate with individuals holding these views (this is a way for whites who are uneasy about their views on different groups to "other" whites and separate themselves from who they think are the "real racists."). In fact many of the mouthpieces of racism during the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements were prominent figures in their communities, some holding office, others wearing a sheriff or police badge, others descendants of prominent rich families. The assertion that racism is endemic in the prison population is not as clear-cut. While there is a history of bigotry inside prison walls, one must acknowledge some of the external factors of its development. At the height of black political imprisonment during the Black Power Movement, bigoted guards helped stoke racial division. As Staughton Lynd has written about, and many observed about the 1993 Lucasville prison rebellion, there are moments of racial solidarity in the fight against oppression. If poverty does not know race, then racial prejudice did not know any class, but neither does solidarity know any race, class, gender, or circumstance. And I'm sure, even in spite of all of the progress, we could find that point to be true. But just as race and racism were created, we must build solidarity across class, race, sex, and gender.

The confusion of systemic racism and individual bigotry also hinders discussion on race and prejudice. Many individuals tend to conflate the two concepts. Racism does not just include the individual bigotry, but it is also the historical and structural disadvantage that was built into American political, economic, cultural, and social systems and institutions. We have all heard the stories of the 3/5ths clause in the Constitution and the various other laws and court cases that solidified the racial boundaries in the US. We have also heard of the false science that was used to reinforce this notion. We all know that American democracy at its founding, was white, male, most likely heterosexual, and upper-class. Since then, however, the US has come a long way, from slave resistance and revolt, abolition, the struggle for respectability, the demands of self-determination, the Brown case, civil rights, black power, black entrance into politics, and finally the election of Barack Obama.

However, despite those gains, the rate of poverty among black Americans is higher than whites, there is a larger proportion of black men in prison than white men, the infant mortality rate is higher, etc., etc. etc. I have not even brought up disparities in education and in the professional arenas (not athletics or entertainment). It would be easy to explain these disparities by telling black people to be more responsible, but individual responsibility can only take a group of people so far. When Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP won the fight against school segregation, many whites in the north and south sought to blunt its impact. Black people still could not choose to go to a nicer school of their choice. Not every single black person had the means to move from a ghetto that was created by a variety of local, state, and federal policies. Only those who were lucky enough to be able to use their individual liberty and prerogative had the ability to get out.

We also tend to forget that, like wealth, poverty also reproduces itself, especially in tax-depressed areas. African Americans have only had the right to vote in reality for forty years and there is still only one, maybe one black person in the Senate, depending upon who ultimately replaces President-elect Obama, and it took the US forty years to elect its first black president. I have not even brought up the amount of governorships that people of color do not have. Ironically, if one wants to bring the idea of institutional racism into bold relief one should look to college football. A majority of the players are black and there are still less than ten black coaches with jobs out of the one hundred and eight Bowl Division schools. Major General William T. Sherman was aware of this after the Civil War (Special Field Order, Number 15 also known as "Where's my forty acres and a mule?!?!"). President Lyndon Johnson knew that some sort of radical economic and political action would make it possible to shore up these inequalities (Johnson said, "You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and say, 'You are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe that you have been completely fair."). I think we forgot this step on our way to electing Barack Obama. This is part of the racial reality that many Americans have discredited and/or refused to face.

So, why did I just spend a lot of time bringing up those examples? Racism, as well as sexism and class prejudice, is embedded in the American system. Yes, Mr. Zwarich is right. Anti-racist activists cannot change the hearts of men, women, and children. But that has not been my intention as one. Anti-racist activists must attack a system that reproduced, and continues to reproduce, inequalities, usually at the hands of non-racists. That is right. This country could be run by a bunch of non-racists and this system would still reproduce the inequalities and the discourse. Why? Because, as a point of agreement with Mr. Zwarich, many non-racists are usually conformists who may not see color, but who are well-adjusted to American institutions and society and are contented with working within the various structures of racial/free-market/patriarchal/heterosexual hegemony (not overt domination), not transforming them. Shockingly, we should be holding ourselves accountable as comfortable Americans for the historical inequalities and present economic mess as the "evil" and "greedy" investors on Wall Street and virulent racists. And another danger of ignoring racial discourse is if there is no one around to question the racial discourse, then there will be people around who would gladly write this post-racial narrative because it only allows those who are interested in these racial divisions to play all Americans, no matter what class, against each other.

The rewriting of racial discourse by conservatives--blacks and whites--has led to the desegregation of many schools, the assault on affirmative action (including the demonization of beneficiaries--except for white women), which helped Clarence Thomas, Condoleezza Rice (and she virtually admitted it), and Barack Obama ascend to the highest political offices in the United States, and it further contributed to the dehumanization of black Americans. This dehumanization has allowed conservative Republicans to declare war on black male youth (the war on drugs) and paint black women as undeserving and perpetual victims (welfare mothers, "too aggressive," etc.). And we wonder why Katrina happened, or why Michelle Obama was attacked for being "too aggressive"? Unfortunately, racial prejudice is not, as many liberals during the Cold War liked to assume, a disease that could be cured. Racism, or even race talk, in America is manifested in our language and discourse and it is used to discipline any aspiring stakeholders within the system. But, as the struggles against slavery and Jim Crow proved, the persistence of structural and discursive racism can be defeated through talking about race, political protest, and the eradication of (hetero)sexism and poverty.

In essence, I agree with Mr. Zwarich, poverty has to be among the first targets in the fight for political change and racism. We can take an approached that Paulo Friere and Myles Horton used in their book, We Make the Road By Walking. When it comes to eradicating racism, we may have to go through the back door. We take the fight to poverty-stricken areas. When we organize we must encourage people to analyze their immediate situations from not just class-based perspectives, but also race and sexed-based perspectives. Like I said, the fact that many black Americans were trapped in the ghetto in the first place was not just because they were poor, but because they were also black. Many black women found themselves in compromising positions not just because they were poor, but because of the circumstances of being black, poor, and female. Now, our analysis may pivot slightly when we think of a poor white person. But white men, women, and children are also raced and dehumanized by white people for not representing the "best "of America. We have not even brought up the historical circumstances of Mexicans (land taken), Hawaiians, Puerto Ricans (virtually colonized), and Native Americans (land taken, genocide, and hyper-concentrated on reservations). Our analysis of structural poverty would have to pivot along these points. Not one isolated "macro" theory such as Marxism or meta-language such as race, class, or gender, can convince me at this point because every layer of one's identity helps to shape his/her life chances in America.

Correct analysis and responsible action ("responsible" not to be confused with refraining from mass protest, direct action, or even force) has to be coupled with dialogue (which is kind of indistinguishable from correct analysis) and popular education. Only through dialogue will we all be able to learn how to dismantle the discursive practices of race, class, gender, nation, and sexuality, or at least render those practices incapable of inflicting harm on human beings. (because if most people are on the same page when it comes to the meanings of particular terms, then there will be less conflict and misunderstanding). Political struggle is indispensible to political education and the formation of building solidarity, but discussion should not be dismissed as some sort of "utopian" ideal. We should take a cue from feminists and try consciousness-raising. These real conversations on race could allow us all to get critical, get real with each other, and grow together.

Activists for a more democratic community and union must also hold each other accountable. Today, former Black Panther Party member and U.S. Representative from Illinois, Bobby Rush, challenged the predominately white Senate not to "lynch or hang" Governor Rod Blagojevich's selection to replace President-elect Obama, Roland Burris. Now, I respect Representative Rush and the contributions he made towards the struggles for black freedom and equality. However, his challenge did nothing to help the cause of black Americans. Why? Because he hitched the cause (that he helped fight for) to the criminal and politically toxic Blagojevich. By standing in front of that podium, Rush endorsed Blagojevich's alleged attempts to sell Obama's seat. Rush and Burriss's attempts to cede Blagojevich's moral authority is also deplorable and should be denounced. It is like I told someone in a prior conversation, each time a person of color uses race disingenuously, they make it difficult for a person of color victimized by racism to secure justice, it hardens the racial boundaries that we need to be more permeable, and it allows racial conservatives to reemploy their wannabe 'color-blind' and soon to be liberal and conservative 'post-racial' discourse. And these frivolous attempts to gin up support along racial lines distracts us from creating new knowledge and theories of American structures of domination, fighting poverty and homelessness, and fighting for a more humane health care, education, political and economic system, and sustainable environment.

So, in many ways, I agree with Mr. Zwarich and I hope to discuss the ways in which we can build knowledge and facilitate action in the future. Yes, during these times of economic uncertainty, we must fight poverty. However, I believe we can use the fight against poverty as an entrance point to eradicating racism, (hetero)sexism, and class prejudice from the American system, not necessarily from the hearts and minds of the people. We will win the hearts and minds only through democratic action, discussion, and reflection. If we have made it this far, then that is possible. But, remember, this fight is about the system, it is about the particular language we use to dehumanize different people. It is possible to empty these labels of their negative meanings. That was vital to the cultural flank of the Black Power Movement. "Negroes" made themselves into blacks and African-Americans, and they made "black" beautiful. Black was not beautiful in the "I reject white" way, but in the self-affirming, "this is the manner my higher power made me and I'm proud" way. Race, along with other forms of difference, has not ever been a zero-sum proposition for all groups of people. This is another reality that the comfortable American must come to grips with. Identity and difference does matter to everyone, whether it is a person embracing their racial identity in a self-affirming and non-oppressive way, or a person employing a "colorblind" language in order to discourage another person from emphasizing their racial self-identification.

Ultimately, this fight must be all-encompassing as dialogue and the many available forms of direct action should never be taken off the table. So, if Zwarich is correct, and the more comfortable Americans who do not hold on to intolerant views actively participate, then we may be able to create the change we can believe in.