Tag Archives: race

Thoughts About Race and Racism

9809020_sRace issues surface in America periodically, and they are doing so once more at this time, as they did in the 1860s and again in the 1960s. It happens when something changes, so that a situation that could once be ignored no longer can be, and when something that could not be changed suddenly can. The industrial revolution reduced the economic value of slavery and allowed the moral arguments for its abolition — which had always been cogent — to prevail. The prosperity of the 1960s made the glaring fact that non-whites didn’t share in it impossible to gloss over.

Today, we are seeing a similar result from the widespread availability of cameras and instant communication through the Internet. Racially-based police violence, once something that could be ignored, is being caught on video and made evident to anyone not determined to shut his eyes to it. Awareness of racial discrepancies in law enforcement leads logically and naturally to awareness of similar discrepancy in the courts, and to the fact that it still occurs in employment.

But I’m not going to talk much about the Black Lives Matter [Too] movement (addition of the last word is for clarity as to what the slogan actually means), or about the problem of racial discrimination in our society that still exists more than 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. The correct position on these matters — “correct” here meaning “in accord with observable fact” — is quite obvious and does not need restating by me. Yes, racially-based police brutality is a problem, over and above the general problem of police misbehavior. Yes, deep-seated racial attitudes affect employment and economic success or failure in life, and the only thing that the Civil Rights Act effectively prevents is overt, blatant, and deliberate racial discrimination; a lot of the discrimination isn’t even conscious on the part of those committing it.

All of that’s a no-brainer except for those who have no brains, or whose brains are short-circuited by self-serving delusions. And others are saying it. No one needs me to parrot them.

What I’m going to do instead is to address another side of the matter: the roots of racism, what it actually is, and what can be done about it. In the process, I’m also going to address a couple of irrational and poorly-conceived ideas running about among progressives on the matter of race. To some, that will make me sound like a right-winger, which is too bad. But these things need to be said, and there’s no better time to say them than now.

The Roots of Racism

The roots of racism lie in the concept of race itself. This is the idea that people can be meaningfully categorized based on superficial physical characteristics. There is, of course, no scientific basis for the idea of race at all; that people of European ancestry have, for example, lighter skin or straighter hair than people of African ancestry is true only as an average. There are so-called “white” people whose skin is darker than some so-called “black” people at the margins of that characteristic for both population groups. There is no basis for defining such categories.

Where the idea of race becomes not just unscientific but actually pernicious is when it leads people to identify with a particular race, and feel a kinship with others similarly categorized, while seeing those outside that group as “others.” From this starting point, all the evils of racism, historical and current, flow. Why did cash-crop planters in America see Africans as a source of forced labor? Because they were “others,” and not “us.” Why do white employers still give preferential treatment to white job applicants? Because they identify themselves as white people, and so have an impulse to prefer other white people as employees.

Ultimately, the solution to racism is to eliminate race itself as a concept and an identifier. Until we manage that, all solutions will be no better than stopgaps.

Now to deal with a couple of poorly-thought-out concepts circulating on the left, before going into possible long-range solutions.

“White Privilege”

To begin the process of offending those who basically agree with me: there is no such thing as “white privilege.” That’s an unfortunate and misleading way to refer to the fact that white people have it easier in this culture than non-whites. That’s a fact, all right, but it doesn’t mean whites are privileged (barring a few of them, all rich ones), it means non-whites are denied their rights. Courteous and professional treatment by police, a fair trial and equal protection under the law, and a merit-based consideration for employment without racial discrimination, these are not privileges. They are rights. Calling this state of affairs “white privilege” logically implies that the problem is that white people are treated too well. No. The problem is that non-whites are treated too poorly. Everyone should be treated the way white people are treated. That’s not privileged. It’s normal, and it’s fair. And it’s perfectly feasible to treat everyone that way.

One could argue that “white privilege” and “non-white denial of rights” mean the same thing insofar as both imply that one artificial category of people is treated better than all other categories, but the connotations are different, and those of “white privilege” aren’t useful. It’s no better for white people to feel guilty about being white, than for them to feel self-satisfied about it. What they need to do is to stop seeing themselves as “white people” at all — and to stop seeing others as either white or not. And for others to stop seeing white people’s whiteness as well,  or their own non-whiteness.

“Only Whites Can Be Racist”

There’s a pernicious idea floating around among progressive circles that racism is a synonym for systematic racially-based oppression, which it’s not; the latter is a result of the former, not a synonym for it. One consequence of tying racism to race-based oppression is a tendency to give a free pass to racist attitudes on the part of non-whites, who are not in a position to impose systematic racial oppression on others (at least not culture-wide).

That such attitudes exist is painfully obvious. (If you need hard polling evidence, try this article from the Pew Research Institute.) Racism among non-whites isn’t just directed against whites, either — one could perhaps dismiss or excuse that on the basis of reaction to white racism (not that that has any more than a superficial validity) — but also against other groups of non-whites. It shares space in the mental pathology sphere with antisemitism and other types of religious bigotry, and with the gender bias that is ubiquitous in all societies, and with homophobia.

Again: the root of racism lies in the categorizing of people into racial groups at all, and in the identification of oneself as a member of one such group and of others as belonging to another. Racism is an us versus them attitude based on race. It is by no means unique to people who see themselves as white, and it is an evil to be fought wherever it appears, and whomever it is directed against.

Racism that feeds into the power structure and results in systematic discrimination obviously does more harm than similar attitudes that do not, but they are the same attitudes nonetheless. Moreover, racial balances are in transition. White people have been a majority in the United States since before the country’s founding, but the size of that majority is declining, and whites will no longer be a majority in a few more decades. A history of being the victims of oppression does not prevent a group from becoming oppressors if the power balance should shift — a glance at the way Israel treats the Palestinians should suffice to dispel that illusion.

Racism In Decline

Racism is actually in decline in this country, despite the headlines and the new attention being given to racial problems. It’s in decline over generations as well as over time. Pew has a good study on Millennial attitudes on race, showing that members of this generation are dramatically more likely to have friends of a different race and to approve of interracial dating and marriage than older people.

Why this should be is an open question, but my theory is that it stems from the cultural and political changes of the 1960s, the last time that racial issues received concentrated focus, as they are again today. This period of turmoil resulted in legal changes and in a steep drop in the cultural acceptance of overt racism. While the difference this made in the attitudes of people alive at the time may have been limited, the impact on generations that grew up after the transition and had no memory of the way things were before has been profound.

Supporting this idea is the fact that Millennial attitudes on race do not represent a sharp shift from those of Generation X. Millennials are marginally less racist than Xers, but the difference between Xers and Boomers is dramatic, while that between Boomers and the Silent generation is, like that between Millennials and Xers, more marginal. Among non-Hispanic whites, the percentage surveyed who supported interracial marriage was 88% for those 18-29 years of age, 75% (13 points of difference) for those 30-49, and 52% (23 points of difference) for those 50-64.

Generation X is the first generation to grow up mostly after 1964, although older Xers do have memories from the time of turmoil itself, which was far from completed in that year.

What this should tell us is that legal and cultural changes, by altering the way we do business and the way we talk about race issues, produce dramatic changes in the mindset of generations that grow up under the new paradigm compared to those who grew up under the old. (We can expect a similar decline in homophobia in new generations that will grow up around married gay couples and see homosexuality as no big deal.)

Racism, in short, is declining. It’s by no means gone, but it’s going, and will continue to decline as older people are replaced by younger generations. The current focus on racial issues is likely to accelerate that process.

Long-Term Solution

There’s no way to get rid of racism instantly. Over the long term, the only way to do that is to get rid of race. While this is not going to happen quickly in society as a whole, each of us can make it happen for ourselves as individuals.

We need to recognize the lack of any scientific basis for the idea of race. We need, based on that awareness, to stop thinking of ourselves in racial terms. That is the first step towards not thinking of others in racial terms. If you think you’re a white person, or a black person, or an Asian, or a Hispanic — you’re mistaken (insofar as those are racial and not cultural identifiers).

You are not a white person. You are not a black person. You are not a racial Asian. There is no such thing as any of these. There is such a thing as a Hispanic culture, but no such thing as a Hispanic race, and the same applies to Asia — culture is real, race is not. (As for so-called white and black people, how many of either category in the United States identify with any of the cultures of Europe or Africa, aside from actual immigrants? I was even recently told by an African-American that a mutual acquaintance from Nigeria was “not black” — a recognition that the man’s culture was foreign, and he was not part of the African-American subculture with its roots in slavery, and so a tacit recognition that race is not real, while culture is.)

Is it easy to do this? I suspect it’s a lot easier for younger people, who may tend to forget about race most of the time anyway. It’s harder, but by no means impossible, for those of us more advanced in years. It’s a mental discipline and the development of mental habits, like any other habit of thought. It takes practice and it takes time and effort, but it can be done, and to suggest that it can’t is to give up on solving the problem of race. Because that change in mind-set, that elimination of race altogether from the way we think, is the only thing that will work in the long run.

In the really long run, what is most likely to happen as a result of global mixing is that future generations will all be a blend of so-called “racial” characteristics. Our descendants will visibly reflect the biological reality that we are all one species, and race is a fiction.

In the meantime, we can and should learn to recognize this reality in our minds, and see past the superficial differences of race that are in fact no more meaningful than the difference between blond and brunette.


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The American South (Part I)

22927636_sThe United States has a reputation abroad for being a nation of ignorant, backwards loonies who advocate policies the rest of the advanced nations abandoned decades ago. We are, say foreigners, Christian fundamentalists who trust corporations much more than we should, are quick to resort to military force in answer to international conflicts where diplomacy, persuasion, and economic force would be more appropriate, and crass commercial absolutists who kow-tow at the altar of rich people.

There’s some truth to all of this, I must confess. But that truth is localized. It isn’t really true of Americans in general, but it is true — all of it — about one region of the country, roughly contiguous with the eleven states that seceded from the United States in 1861 and were forcibly reincorporated in it in 1865.

Few Americans understand just how different the South is culturally and politically from the rest of America. (Or used to be, and still is to some degree. There are signs that this is changing as the South becomes more urban and more racially diverse.) It doesn’t come down to any one simple characteristic, positive or negative. It’s not that the South is racist (although in large measure it is). It’s not that the South is religious (although it is). It’s not that the South is Republican (in fact, for most of its history, it wasn’t). It does go back to the institution of slavery as the cause of much of this, but it precedes that, and the lasting effects of slavery cover a lot more ground than race relations.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Those words were written by a Virginian and a slave-owning planter, but he was a very complicated man with a compartmentalized and conflicted mind. Jefferson believed many things intellectually that he did not live. In that passage, he captured the central ideology that defines most of America. But it does not define the American South. In the South (although again, this is changing), all men are not created equal. Rich men are better than poor men, white men are better than non-white men, and all men are better than women. Also, Christians are better than non-Christians and Protestants are better than Catholics. Since all are not created equal, certainly government doesn’t exist to protect their equal rights.

The next passage in the Declaration, however, meets full agreement in the South:

“That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

Oh, yes. Certainly the South agrees that when a government fails to deliver the goods, it’s the right of the people — or anyway, of the better people — to alter or abolish it, and that’s what they’ve been trying to do ever since they lost control over it in the mid 19th century. The aim of the neo-Confederate subculture, which exercises increasing control over the Republican Party today, is to destroy the United States.

A look at the history of the American South reveals how this peculiar culture-within-a-culture developed and evolved over the several centuries of its existence.

Colonial Founding

The United States, or what would become that, was founded as a group of English colonies on the Atlantic coast of North America, but that didn’t happen as a result of any coherent and consistent British policy and as a consequence the colonies were not all of a piece. Roughly speaking, the English colonies inside what is now the United States may be divided into three groups.

New England was settled mainly by Puritans in the early to middle 17th century. These people, in American historical mythos, left England in search of “religious freedom.” Actually, they left because England had too much religious freedom for their taste and they wanted to establish a theocracy, which proved impossible in the mother country. While their co-believers back home were chopping off a king’s head and briefly overthrowing the monarchy, the Puritans in America established colonies as religious experiments. Over time and generations, New England lost this Puritan character but retained a distrust of monarchical authority that would prove significant in the late 18th century.

The Mid-Atlantic region was originally settled not by the English but by the Dutch. It was a lucrative commercial settlement that was absorbed by the British in the mid-17th century and retained that commercial character into modern times. It’s no accident that Wall Street is in New York City.

The Southern colonies (Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia) were, unlike the other two sections, founded by the British crown as royal colonies. Four of them (all except Virginia) were founded under the name “province” rather than “colony.” Royal charters gave privileged status to particular English nobles, so that this region of the country felt more impact from the British ruling class than the other two.

The South was established deliberately to compete with other European powers for land and wealth. Its climate and soil proved suitable for growing cash crops (tobacco, sugar, and, later on, cotton) and the entire rationale for establishing the colonies was to grow valuable commodities and enrich the English nobility and the British government. In short, it was an exploitative enterprise from the beginning, unlike New England or the Mid-Atlantic.

Growing cash crops requires a lot of labor, which in the old agrarian paradigm meant forced labor. The growers tried enslaving Native Americans for the purpose, but that proved difficult as escape was too easy. White indentured servants (temporary slaves) proved a workable approach for a while, but eventually the expedient of enslaving Africans was adopted. This was ideal from the planters’ perspective, if less so for the unfortunate Africans. These were proto-civilized people who knew how to grow crops, and they were far from their homelands or any sympathetic society, and visibly different from the local population, which made escape difficult.

Even before African slavery began, the South acquired one of its distinctive characteristics as a result of its founding enterprise. It was authoritarian, as a culture founded on forced labor must be. The idea of freedom as most Americans think of it, and indeed as the plain meaning of the word suggests, is foreign to the original culture of the South, for which freedom meant failure of the entire reason the colonies existed.

Religion was one method used to enforce order. Of course, the South was not (and is not) uniquely religious or especially more so than the rest of America. But the type of religious belief prevailing in the South was different from what was found elsewhere, and still is. As a tool for the enforcement of order and social stratification, Southern Christianity was and is more authoritarian and less inclined to challenge the wealthy elite than forms of the religion found in other parts of the country. One finds in some cases, such as the Baptists, distinctive denominations, one for the South and the other for outside it. The Evangelical denominations are almost all Southern in origin.

The culture of the South, then, was from the beginning authoritarian, and as African slavery became entrenched, that authoritarianism took racial form. It was never entirely racial, however. Class and gender distinctions have also been and remain very important in Southern culture. Reform that addresses racism itself, while important, does not go to the heart of the matter, which is the authoritarian character of the culture.

The South in the Early United States

During the War of Independence, British strategy recognized the distinctive (and more loyal) character of the South and employed it in an attempt to retain power in the colonies. The strategy ultimately failed, but in fact the South was more fiercely divided between loyalists and rebels than other parts of the country.

After the war, the failure of the original U.S. government led to the drafting of the Constitution. We can see the economic and political disputes between the South and the rest of the country in passages of that document, from the infamous “three-fifths of a person” clause to the prohibition on ending the slave trade before 1808 to the structure of Congress itself, for which the conflict between the relatively populous Southern states and relatively underpopulated New England led to the two-chamber compromise that exists today.

Because of that population difference, the South dominated the United States government during the period after the Constitution’s founding. The political conflict ran along classic Marxist lines between the feudal/agrarian South and the industrial capitalist North, as it increasingly became. A capitalist economy produces more wealth than an agrarian one, and supports a larger population despite the superiority of Southern climate and soil (particularly when the Northern capitalist culture absorbed the splendid wheat lands of the Midwest as the nation expanded westward). The political balance in Congress began to tip against the South as the first half of the 19th century ran its course. Moral opposition to slavery as an institution arose. The South attempted to expand slavery, and authoritarian Southern culture with it, westward, and succeeded to a degree, but on balance the mainstream American culture was winning that race. The Mexican-American War, which incorporated California as a free state and opened the way to a continental empire, accelerated that process.

The development of most of the Western territories as non-Southern states would eventually mean that Southern dominance of Congress would break. While Congress lacked the authority to outlaw slavery as such, it could have used its power to tax and to regulate commerce to make the institution unprofitable. Eventually, the magic proportion of three-quarters of the states might come to oppose slavery as new free states were added, and that would allow a Constitutional amendment outlawing slavery.

The dominant political party in these years was the Democratic Party, which primarily served the slave-owning Southern constituency. The capitalist interests were represented by first the Federalist Party and then the Whig Party. In the 1850s, former Whigs came together joining their commercial and industrial interests with an opposition to slavery and founded the new Republican Party. For the first time, a major party in American politics made the abolition of slavery a central plank of its platform. (Given the current neo-Confederate dominance of the party, that history is ironic to say the least. But it’s true.)

The writing was on the wall. The planter interests in the South, facing eventual loss of the political game, decided to upend the board. That was the first time that, faced with loss of control over the federal government, the South decided to destroy it. It would not be the last time.

Next week: The American South (Part II) dealing with the Civil War and its aftermath.


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