Also See: “I’m a Racist” Part I
“My Name is Ed. I’m a Racist.” That’s the title of an article I recently wrote about living in a society where no one escapes racist conditioning. Now I want to continue those reflections.
Years ago, I hitchhiked through Africa. I spent several weeks each in Sudan, Uganda, Nigeria, Namibia, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and apartheid South Africa. For a year – between treks – I taught peasant kids in a remote one-room school in Kenya.
My experiences with people all over Africa were diverse, but generally positive. They were different from those I had had with black people back in the United States.
At the time, struck by the contrast, I drew up a list of all the encounters I could recall having had with U.S. blacks. A manageable task – as for most middle-class white North Americans (and even an itinerant like me), such encounters had been sparse.
That list included separate incidents in which I was
- punched in the face;
- beaten to the ground;
- confronted by a burly knife-wielding drunk determined (he said) to “get whitey”;
- called a “racist pig” by a middle-aged student for questioning her impeccable term paper (it was most unlikely she had written it herself).
A black person scanning this list might wonder how many of those incidents would have been avoided or defused if race conditions in the U.S. weren’t so flammable. Or if I hadn’t seemed so entitled. On the other hand, a white person might wonder why those incidents didn’t make me an out-and-out racist.
One reason I have escaped the racist trap – not that any of us escape entirely – is that I do a lot of reading. I’ve read many books on black Americans and black Africans, and on capitalism and colonialism. Those books expose a scarring history; they expose the impact of organized power (white) over the lives of the less centralized and less weaponized (people of color). Those books expose the historical impact of men with guns on those without.
Another reason I haven’t succumbed as much to racism, I think, is all the low-budget travel I’ve done. I’ve gotten out of what I call “the bubble” – those self-imposed limitations, geographical and otherwise, typical of so many Americans. The bubble, partly constructed by our mainstream media, leads many into jingoism and into U.S. exceptionalism: the illusion that U.S. people are somehow different from – somehow more decent and precious than – others.
Travel provided me the opportunity to observe the human condition. I’ve seen how people can live in penury – due to social, economic and historical factors – through no fault of their own. And do so with dignity and neighborliness. In part because I was often on the receiving end of hospitality, I could better see people as human beings and not as “other.”
I should point out here that, thanks to a privileged head start, I’ve been able to have some professional training. But such training can be a mixed bag. Take my (former) field – anthropology. The field basically originated in the 19th century in the context of the expansion of well-armed white people over much of the globe. Anthropology was an adjunct to colonialism.
Here in the U.S., there are two kinds of anthropology: physical and cultural. During its early decades, physical anthro fixated on racial traits and typologies. In effect, physical anthro was seeking out and quantifying anatomical differences between “us” and “them.”
Cultural anthropology carried the white supremacist mission in still another direction. In origin, and by its choice of problems and selection of data, cultural anthro fostered the conceit that Anglo-America was the peak of cultural evolution. Further, it served colonial administration, intentionally or not, by inventorying the resources and manpower of conquered peoples and identifying indigenous pockets of compliance…or resistance.
At times, anthropology has facilitated physical and cultural genocide. To the detriment of the communities they studied, during the Vietnam War, anthro and other academic research in Southeast Asia was financed by a very goal-oriented CIA. In Afghanistan today, the U.S. military has its so-called Human Terrain social scientists deployed along with the invading troops.
Anthropology happens to be the field I’m most familiar with. It’s probably not much more guilty than some other fields. Academic learning, in general, especially that which pretends to be “objective” or “value free,” or which poses as “social science,” tends to serve the agendas of those who finance it. By the data it neglects or emphasizes, it can spawn myths and subtle slanders that justify or bolster white governance.
Ironically, academic learning helped provide me with liberal notions about race while at the same time credentialing me for a place in the very class system that perpetuates and profits from racial exploitation.
It’s the old story of the Haves and the Have Nots. While modern genetics knows there really isn’t any such thing as “race,” liberals in regard to race can be quite classist. I find it easy to look down on poor whites, especially those who don’t share my facility for appearing “politically correct.”
Not every white can afford a gated community or suburban insulation. Some have more reason to fear and resent blacks. Some may have had their bruising encounters with blacks on the street (see above). That blacks have had vastly more to fear from whites and from white law enforcement hardly matters if you are a white feeling threatened.
The fears and resentments of poor whites – which we reflexively label “racism” – may very well be based, in part, on concrete experience. Poor whites are on the downside of a class system that pits them against blacks – blacks who, despite their disadvantages, are often brimming with brio and capability.
In our effectively segregated society, poor whites – far more than prosperous whites – rub elbows with poor blacks. After all, they’re scavenging the same few crumbs and for the same scarce jobs. Sometimes they clash. Racial epithets abound. Such conflict, of course, is deplored by the genteel.
But these good people – I’m talking about you and me – gain from a divided working class. Racial strife makes it very hard for workers, tenants, and welfare clients to organize for decent wages, housing and social services. For the affluent, skimpy social services mean lower taxes; cheap labor means lower prices, and both mean higher dividends.
Like prosperity, our self-esteem is relative. In the early eighties in South Africa, I could see that black degradation fostered white self-esteem. I don’t think it’s so different here. Racism is hardly an exclusively lower-class franchise.
There’s a whole strata of genteel and structural racism that isn’t vulgar or verbal or directly violent. That strata’s violence is systemic (item: in my home town, far more black babies die from preventable illness in their first year than whites). Such systemic racism isn’t confrontational. On the contrary, it operates on aversion and invisibility, on obliviousness and avoidance – reflecting the opaque distance between suburb and slum. And it’s a function of the immense disparity of wealth – shaping life options – that marks the gulf between whites and people of color.
I’d like to close with an assertion: what we typically think of as racism (e.g. people under stress calling one another “nigger,” etc.) often isn’t real racism. It’s a product of racism – a product of those forces determining the unequal distribution of power and opportunity in our society.
To the extent that I profit from and help perpetuate such forces, consciously or unconsciously I foster racism.