[Editor's Note: This is a response to Evening the Score When Playing the Race Card by Milton Gray, which originally ran in PMjA Issue #246]
Racism is a complex issue, and so again we have a generous and assumedly well-meaning chap who is concerned about the racism perpetrated by purportedly racist groups. Groups like the assumedly well-meaning but (apparently) incorrect 6 in 10 African-Americans who believe that the New Orleans' catastrophe after Hurricane Katrina and FEMA et al.'s feeble response had to do with most of New Orleans' citizens being black. These benighted unenlightened folks think that ineptness in handling a catastrophe that was preventable is connected somehow to race and class, to the disparate vulnerability of the poor and underrepresented. White poor people were stranded too — and these groups just ignore this, as if the intersection of race and class actually mattered in this case, as if the predominance of poor black people left behind and predominance of white people in the richer, fleeing classes somehow reflects larger problems. Reflects racism.
Sigh. This is a version of an argument that has been made and addressed, time and again, in the endless Japanese Kabuki play that is US discourse (I'm not sure the Kabuki metaphor is apt here, but it reads damn good so we're going to hope that it is). ( . . . Please hold, googling . . . . . . . . . Thank you.) Like Kabuki, the set pieces are acted out again, and again, with little or no variation or change, the important point to hit upon an idealized performance of US tropes of individualism, freedom, equality, or capitalism. Not that Mr. Gray is performing his article and question by rote, but rather it is a question driven into our cultural unconscious time and again, and the various answers given seem destined to never be used, or understood, so that the play can continue, each time, unchanged and unanswered.
The short answer to why people would think racism played a part in the Katrina disaster, in all of our inner cities, in our schools, in our government, in our jobs, is simply this: Institutional Racism. Now, surveying blogs, you might think this is a liberal boogey-man made up to, I don't know, perpetuate some sort of weird liberal elite phoney class/race struggle. But don't be fooled.
Institutional racism at its most simple means only that the conditions of racism in a group are such that they do not need explicit, or even strong implicit racist actions to maintain racist outcomes. That is to say: advancing that status quo advances racism, no matter what your intent, if the status quo is inherently unfair to a given group or groups.
Let's break this in two parts:
A. Signs Racism Is Still With Us, and Why It Doesn't Matter That This Isn't Your Father's Racism
Few, if any, of any political stripe would be so out-of-it as to suggest that racism was not a huge and continuing problem in pre-Civil Rights US. Presumably, then, groups to help advance those people that were statutorily unequal, discriminated against, poor, the grandchildren of slaves, underrepresented in government, employment, and important positions in society generally, were OK in those times. That is, I doubt Mr. Gray would think that the Congressional Black Caucus, the NAACP, Black Baptist Churches, or many other black-centric groups were inherently racist in that context, as it is plain that in 1950s US and before, and not just in the South, that few white people in any given place would help black people achieve equality, making it necessary and desirable to form groups for our own betterment. If no one else will help you, you must help yourselves, no? And depending on the group, they may or may not be accepting of other groups, specifically Caucasians let's say. But again, given the circumstances, it would be understandable if people beaten and brutalized, people whose living memory or those of their forebears contained slavery itself, didn't want white people as a group involved as they were not that far removed from having their primary contact with whites be as subservient animals. Despite the examples of many abolitionist, pro-equal-whites throughout history, a people who had rocks thrown at them on the way to their meetings can be forgiven for stereotyping their oppressors. (Of course, in the present day, allies are more commonly accepted from any stripe — but the very existence of them seems to bother Mr. Gray. So we'll continue.)
Here's the thing: many of those people are still alive. It is true all former slave owners and former slaves are undoubtedly dead today; it's true that many, or likely most of the sons and daughters of former slaves are dead today as well. Possibly even their grandchildren. But my own mother, who is a vision of grace and beauty merely in her, er, middle years (barely!), has her own memories, even if they are not of slavery: of having rocks thrown at her by the white kids who went by in the school bus, as she walked to her smaller school for black children. Of having people tell her to her face that she should be lynched. Of all the types of struggles one sees on TV in storied documentaries of Racism That Was. Of course none of this happens to people in our society nearly as often as it did. It happens rarely, and to great outcry from all races and creeds. But be that as it may — the people, the very same fucking people who threw rocks at my mother, who lynched those hundreds who are the subjects of Billie Holiday's haunting song "Strange Fruit," people who fought all they could to stop desegregation, who called MLK Jr., Malcolm X and others niggers, and threatened them, and firehosed, fought, or killed their supporters or just cheered at their death, they're still fucking alive today. Let's be charitable and assume they aren't in positions of power, in general, or that those that are have reformed their attitudes and actions to the point where they aren't even subconsciously carrying on the abuse of the past ages in the form of more subtle discrimination today. The fact that a society is still peopled by citizens who, in living memory, knew a world of separation, of abuse, of institutionalized superiority, peopled by citizens who may have liked that world, or fought to maintain it — can you seriously look me in the eye and say that society has been restructured such that 400 years of slavery and Jim Crow have had all vestiges wiped from the subconscious and conscious deep structures of ourselves and our foundational rules, codes, and principles?
If the answer is no, then you may see the reason for these groups: they are persisting from a time when society told them they were unequal, into a time when society tells them they're equal but that the society that profited from their despair for 400 years claims it no longer owes them anything; or perhaps nothing more than the fabled 40 acres and the apocryphal mule that few were awarded and fewer able to keep on the unlevel playing field immediately after the Civil War. When someone beats you for 8 days (or 400 years) and lets you up from the ground you've been smashed into on the 9th day (or past 50 years), does it seem unreasonable for you to want to retreat to those who were in a similar position? To form an alliance with them, with those who presumably know what happened to you, to guarantee that it never happens again, to help find healing and aid? Would you perhaps be cautious, even unjustly so, around the progeny of those who beat you, and their system? My allegory is attempting to say this: it is a farcical proposition that the problems of the first 400 years of Europeans in North America have been solved by steps in the last 50. One simply cannot, reasonably, see groups that have formed to try and advance their own stake in equality the same way as groups that are already "more equal than others".
What is the Congressional Black Caucus for? It is for addressing the concerns of the underrepresented African-American constituency, and for increasing the power of that constituency. Is it racist to want to increase the power of a group who has less than their fair share? There is one, one, 1, uno, um, une, Black Senator right now. What's more: he's the 4th black on the Senate in our history. (The 3rd elected since Reconstruction.) There 38 black Congressional Representatives out of 435. Microsoft Excel tells me that's 8.7%; blacks are supposedly 12.8% of the population. To achieve equality, frankly, truly, to get to our 12 or 13 black senators and 20-22 more black representatives means to achieve more power. And in terms of representation and use of society's resources, for us to gain more power means whites must lose some. All things are not zero-sum games, but at least in terms of number of people in representative government, representation cannot be shared (unless you talk about mixed race or . . . well, let's just stay simple for now).
Of course, this brings up another favorite stalking horse, our conservative arigato in the US Culture Kabuki play, the question: If you're looking for equality, why are you so concerned then with exact representation? Shouldn't the best person simply get the job? Can't a truly neutral or enlightened Caucasian do as well fighting for equality as a black senator, or a person of any other color? And what about Clarence Thomas? What the fuck's up with him?
The answer of course is, "I don't know, what IS the fuck up with Clarence Thomas. Seriously, dude, that guy is horrible." The longer answer is: of course people from any race who have an identification with or understanding of or perhaps even solely a strong desire to help may be able to represent another race, i.e. a white man (or woman) doing well by a black constituency. But this itself raises two questions I challenge to the arigato: 1) This may be theoretically possible, and there are plenty of counter-examples (i.e. Clarence Thomas). But could Thurgood Marshall have been white? Or Martin Luther King Jr.? Or Hiram Revels? (Learn your history.) Any person of any race may indeed be able to best or at least adequately work towards the interests of all races or a given one (i.e. the previously-pointed-out underrepresented US black population). But it is also true that, as a general rule, black people understand black "issues" (that is to say, black inequality) better. Hell, they understand black people better, on average. African-Americans are still a population with attitudes, beliefs, desires, and needs distinct from other groups, and as such, should have people to represent their distinct interests at all levels of the government, no more or less than different industries, different arts, different scientists, shit, different distinct rich people try and lobby for their distinct interests. These people who represent us (African Americans/blacks) don't have to be black, but . . . 2) Why shouldn't they be? Skin color shouldn't be the only issue — and guess what, it's not. Clarence Thomas is not well-regarded by anyone black that I know. And while approval ratings for this JOTSCOTUS (Justice of the Supreme Court of the US) seem hard to come by, article implies I am not alone. Knowing CT as he is known now, few blacks would support him for further public office. Given the choice between a regressive black and progressive white, black progressives will choose the white. But since there is such dramatic underrepresentation of blacks in government, a choice between two supportable candidates of different races will go to the black one. That is, the question is "Why not me? Why not now?" If there is a qualified black person, why not give them preference over qualified white people? And the same argument — that color itself shouldn't matter in representation — goes the other way. Why don't we, then, push for a disproportionately black government? It shouldn't matter! Try selling that to Middle America. The fact is, race does have real social consequences in the US, and for symbolism as well as practicality's sake, preferring blacks to represent black interests only makes, well, sense. Especially since there are no black Republicans in Congress right now — and most blacks don't vote Republican — hence, voting for a black person, as a black person and a Democrat, would give you good odds of similar views; this simply isn't the case for white politicians or white voters, who are internally more diverse because of their numerical and representational superiority.
B. It Doesn't Matter What You Think, But What You Do
Institutional racism doesn't require that you be biased, or even white, or even non-black. Just like with women (see the report "STRIDE Reading List: Understanding the Problems of Non-conscious Bias and the Low Numbers of Women Faculty in Science and Engineering"), bias doesn't have to be conscious or intentional, and it may not take much to cause problems. Indeed, there is probably about as much evidence that very slight biases lead to extreme segregation as there is that unconscious bias maintains racism. See, for example here, here, works by Schelling, and a study from the Santa Fe Institute that I can't for the life of me find. This last study, which I hope you'll believe me on, found that a small bias (I think 1%) was, over time, the cause of a disparity within a modeled institution where the lower ranks ended up being somewhat even, but the percentage of the top hierarchy that was made up of this small bias' beneficiaries was something like 80%. That is, an ever so slight bias in a system, one so slight as to be totally unconscious, can lead to wildly unequal results. That means, in line with intuition, with math, with social science, that we must work hard and overcompensate to provide for equality.
Just to give a few further pertinent examples, Eric Alterman, in his book "What Liberal Media?", found that a majority of white TV news watchers thought that blacks were, on average, as well off or almost as well off economically as white people. The truth is, of course, that blacks are on average worse off than white people, and numerically commit less crimes than whites, despite disproportionate coverage of blacks committing crimes, among other misrepresentations. Alterman goes on to point out in his book, pertinent to our discussion here, that if one were going to be "unbiased", then that may require extra coverage of the black plight, in order to educate a public who, in a majority, believes incorrectly that there isn't one, by and large. And as Stanley Fish said in "Reverse Racism" in "The Atlantic Monthly," in 1993, it is quite simply incorrect to view hostile or biased attitudes within a repressed or formerly repressed population the same way as hostile or biased attitudes within the former repressors. His basic argument is: one has a rational experiential reason for existing, the other does not.
You don't have to be white to maintain a racist system, as Chuck D and Rachel Maddow on Tucker Carlson's show apparently didn't realize. New Orleans is an example of the heritage and structures of racism we're stuck with, whether a given person in the present is racist or not. More blacks are poor, as a percentage, than whites. Women are vastly underrepresented in Congress, like blacks. Women and blacks and other minorities, Arabs for example, suffer from more hate crimes than white males. Can we then understand why such groups feel a need to group together? Identity politics apparently is odd to Milton, but unlike many or most White Americans, minorities and immigrants did not choose to leave their homeland for the states, or did so under reasons of extreme duress. Maintaining this part of their culture is very important to them, and the expression of being a blank-American, while apparently galling to him, is an expression we identify with maintaining our heritage. We should no more have to give up our hyphenated appellations for his comfort than he should have to give up his last name, or than anyone named Jacobovich should in this day and age have to change their name to Jacobs. British and Western Europe culture in general are already the foundation of the United States; why is being proud of your non-European lineage, making it part of your self-definition, any worse than keeping a last name from a non-European country? Than singing the folk songs of your ancestral people at home? From reading books and plays from your heritage, as well as others? Why is it any more offensive to honor and cherish your cultural heritage and identification than it is to honor your own family above others? Why have Irish bars? Indian food? It should all be "American food"!
I can love my family more than others, and maintain my respect and love for all my friends' families, just as I can love African and African American culture above European and Eurocentric culture, yet love parts of all of them. It is a fundamental misunderstanding of heritage and culture to say that because someone identifies themselves as Asian-American, they're creating a barrier or not truly American or patriotic. A Jazz musician is not assumed to be ashamed of all other types of music, or to be distancing himself negatively from, say, classical, or aboriginal didgeridoo music for that matter. Why do multiple identities confuse white Americans so? Why is identity and culture zero-sum?
Many of us, especially the descendants of slaves, are descended from those ripped from the womb of our previous cultures, unwillingly. The drive to know of this, to cherish and honor it, to emphasize it — is this really less understandable than the idea of an adopted child searching and cherishing a long-lost biological parent? If one of this child's parents were abusive, would it be any wonder that the biological parents' identity and spirit became a large part of the child's identity and image of his- or her-self?
I am proudly African American. I'm proudly American — proudly a dissident, progressive American. There should be no contradiction here. Any more than the idea that allowing to continue and, indeed, neglecting to take positive steps to remedy structural racism is congruent with black politicians being party to racism. New Orleans' is famously corrupt, and allowing its segregation and poverty to continue is as racist in Nagin as it would be in any white person. As it is in Bush: he has cut down on the Civil Rights Commission and the Civil Rights branch of the Justice Department; he dithered about federalism while people were in trouble; he held to the conservative belief that individualism would trump racism, that in fact (until recent statements) racism does not cause poverty, and even if it did that federal spending is not the solution to that. Our government, in its very Constitution, delineated my ancestors as part of a man — but only in terms of representatives for White people. In terms of voting, we were of course, no man, no one. My women ancestors, like women of all heritage at the time, were even less than that, however that's possible.
If a government who itself benefited from and tacitly or avidly supported slavery and racism for years isn't responsible to help spend to fix it, then who is? If it's not racist to avoid or deny responsibility for addressing this, then what is? Flagrant disregard for the welfare of a fellow human is not only immoral, it is a crime. The lack of steps to address the actual, physical structural problems of New Orleans was only part of Bush, the mayor, the governor, and FEMA's crime. The other part, where they are undoubtedly guilty, as are many of the rest of us, white or black, is not doing enough to oppose and change a racist system.
Until we all realize this, and until we work tirelessly on a grand cultural product to fully address it and finish the change in the face of America, God Help Us All, whoever She is, because the system won't.
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