Tag Archives: racism

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.

 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Politics & Economics

The American South (Part II)

22927636_sThe 1860 election was an oddity, similar in key aspects to the 1912 election, but with far grimmer consequences. That year, the Republican Party ran its second presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was, for a Republican, moderate on the issue of slavery. He opposed it, but proposed no actions against it except a pledge that all new states created under his watch would be free states.

Despite this, his candidacy provoked fury in the South. He would probably have lost the election with a respectable showing, as John C. Frémont had in 1856, except that the Democratic Party split in two that year, with two nominating conventions presenting two candidates for the White House. This happened when Southern delegates walked out of the Democratic National Convention — twice — over a refusal to adopt a plank that would have forcibly extended slavery into territories where the inhabitants voted against it. Eventually, the pro-slavery Democrats held their own convention and nominated their own candidate.

It’s been suggested that the fissure in the party was deliberately intended to throw the election to Lincoln, in the hope of provoking secession. Certainly the demand that slavery be extended where it wasn’t wanted was a radical proposal and violated the concept of popular sovereignty, of democracy itself, and the ideals on which the United States was ostensibly founded, but then, so did slavery and so does the entire authoritarian culture of the South. Whether this conspiracy theory is correct or not, the outcome is clear enough. Lincoln won a majority of the Electoral College with a plurality but not a majority of the popular vote.

While the 1860 election resembled the 1912 election in this respect, it more closely resembles the 2008 election in its aftermath, but again, the consequences were far more dire. Between Lincoln’s election and his inauguration, seven Southern states seceded from the United States. These states came together and formed the Confederate States of America, adopting a constitution almost identical to that of the United States, but with three significant changes, two of which showed the nature of Southern society. One of these changes was to protect slavery from interference by either the Confederate government or any state government. A second was a change to  Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution which enumerates the powers of Congress. In the U.S. Constitution, that clause reads in pertinent part:

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States . . . To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;

The Confederate Constitution altered this to read:

The Congress shall have power To lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises for revenue, necessary to pay the debts, provide for the common defense, and carry on the Government of the Confederate States; but no bounties shall be granted from the Treasury; nor shall any duties or taxes on importations from foreign nations be laid to promote or foster any branch of industry . . . To regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes; but neither this, nor any other clause contained in the Constitution, shall ever be construed to delegate the power to Congress to appropriate money for any internal improvement intended to facilitate commerce; except for the purpose of furnishing lights, beacons, and buoys, and other aids to navigation upon the coasts, and the improvement of harbors and the removing of obstructions in river navigation;

In this change we see reflected the fact that the South held to the paradigm of agrarian civilization (minus monarchy and hereditary nobility, but I would say only because the United States forbade both and the South had become used to that situation). All government efforts to spur industrialization were forbidden, except those that facilitated the moving of cash crops to market.

(The third significant difference between the two was that the Confederate Constitution limited the president to a single six-year term.)

The Civil War

While the secession of the South is understandable given the economic and political realities, a much greater mystery is presented by the attack on Fort Sumter. Lincoln would have faced popular opposition to using force to restore the Union otherwise. Why provoke a war that, given the realities of manpower and industrial capacity, the Confederacy was almost sure to lose? Again one is tempted to conspiracy hypotheses, but in fact the action may be adequately explained by hot-headed stupidity and that’s more likely what happened. Foreign countries have sometimes made this mistake about American character, misunderstanding the swiftness with which opposition to war can turn to fervent support after the nation is attacked. The South had no excuse, but made the same error — which once again points up how foreign that region of the country is to the rest of the United States.

After the attack on Fort Sumter, Lincoln summoned and federalized the militias of the loyal states and planned an invasion of the South to restore the Union. This action provoked the secession of four more states and began the most gruesome war in U.S. history. The final death toll from the war was more than 600,000 on both sides, meaning that America lost at least twice as many people in the Civil War as in World War II, from a much smaller population base. The Confederacy did surprisingly well, likely because the military tradition of the Southern quasi-aristocrats meant that the best military leadership of the United States was Southern and joined the rebellion, but in the end, inevitably, the Union won.

During the war, with the Southern Senators and Representatives absent, Congress passed measures promoting industrialization that had been blocked by the South up to then. The building of the trans-continental railroad, the creation of a new national banking system, the Morrill Tariff, and the Homestead Act all emerged during this time. Again we see that the conflict between the South and the rest of the nation was one between an agrarian economy and an industrial capitalist economy, with slavery the fulcrum of the conflict and the moral flash point.

Reconstruction

After the war, the United States added three hugely important amendments to the Constitution. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery. The 14th Amendment guaranteed equal protection under the law regardless of race, defined all persons born or naturalized here as U.S. citizens, and extended the protections of the Bill of Rights to cover actions by state governments. The 15th Amendment guaranteed the right to vote regardless of race or “previous condition of servitude.” These amendments together with the government’s reconstruction policies sought nothing less than the eradication of the South as a separate culture and its assimilation to the rest of the United States.

It was an ambitious goal that could not succeed, or not within a reasonable time frame. In the end, the Southern elite adjusted to their loss of the war and implemented laws and economic structures that preserved the authoritarian, racially stratified culture of the South despite the end of slavery. The former slaves were kept bound to forced labor by economic arrangements amounting to a kind of serfdom. Their right to vote was curtailed by a mix of Byzantine restrictive laws and clandestine terror.

One thing needs to be clearly understood. The Civil War was fought over slavery, but if the North-South conflict had only been about slavery, it would have ended with the passage of the 13th Amendment outlawing the practice. Having lost the war and lost the slaves, the planter interests would have faded away and the South would have become just like the rest of America. That didn’t happen. Slavery was a large part of what created the authoritarian culture of the Confederacy, but it exists independently of that institution and encompasses much more.

Slavery as such was gone. The hold of the South on the federal government was also gone. The industrialization of the country outside the South proceeded at a rapid pace. By the end of the 19th century, the United States had become a first-tier economic power. The South, however, languished behind, as the entrenched planter interests maintained their grip on power and preserved, as best they could, the agrarian character of the South. While in the 20th century the United States for the most part entered the classic dispute between capitalist and socialist ideas and between owners and the working class, the South stayed stuck in a pre-capitalist condition and acted as a drag weight on the nation’s evolution.

The South and 20th Century Politics

The Democratic Party remained the party of the South after the Civil War, which cost it dearly in power over the national government. Between the presidential election of 1868, won by Republican Ulysses S. Grant, and that of 1928, won by Republican Herbert Hoover, Democrats won the White House exactly four times. Grover Cleveland, a Northern Democrat (from New York) who was indistinguishable from conservative Republicans apart from the party label, won a razor-thin victory in 1884 against a weak GOP candidate, lost his reelection bid in 1888, and barely won a second term in 1892. Woodrow Wilson was the beneficiary of the 1912 election anomaly mentioned above; that year, it was the Republicans who split, with former president Theodore Roosevelt running on a third-party ticket against both Wilson and the GOP nominee, President W.H. Taft. With Roosevelt and Taft splitting the Republican vote, Wilson was able to win an Electoral College majority on a popular vote plurality. He won reelection in 1916 on an implied promise to keep America out of World War I, a promise he did not keep.

Through all this time, the South used its limited influence over Congress to protect its culture and institutions from federal encroachment and prevent effective enforcement of the 14th and 15th Amendments in the South.

The Great Depression began a process that would change all of that. The Depression was capitalism’s great failure and fostered a move towards socialism. Because the Republicans at that time were committed to capitalism and unable to make the necessary changes, it fell to the Democrats to seize the political opportunity, which happened of course under the leadership of Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt put together a new political coalition capable of winning national elections, something Democrats had been denied for decades. That coalition included labor, women, and minorities — as well as the white South. As with many political alliances, this one featured strange bedfellows.

The alliance held together through the Depression and World War II, but began to come apart after the war. President Truman’s executive order desegregating the armed services in 1948 started the ungluing. The passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 in a Democratic Congress and its signature by a Democratic president (from the South, no less) finalized it. The South was up for grabs after that. But in order to grab it, the Republican Party had to adopt positions that violated its founding principles and the stance for racial equality that had defined the party from inception.

It did. And that brings us to the position we are in today, with the neo-Confederates having swallowed the Party of Lincoln in one of the most ironic hostile takeovers in history. The Confederacy is using that power in an attempt to demolish the United States government from within.

Next week: The American South (Part III), about the approaching demographic demise of the Confederacy as a separate subculture, and its desperate attempt to take the United States with it to oblivion.

1 Comment

Filed under Politics & Economics

Book Review: Beastheads by Mike Reeves-McMillan

mrm-beastheads-eBookCoverGenre: Fantasy/Steampunk

Blurb: When the old shaman took Berry away from her home and family, she expected to become a shaman in turn. But after her oath shatters, she finds a new place as a Gryphon Clerk, helping negotiate a treaty with the beasthead people.
A beasthead shaman stands against her, fearing the loss of his people’s way of life and the corruption of their youth. As the Human Purity movement gains power in a nearby realm, though, the beasthead and the clerk must find a way through their differences before war destroys everything they value.

The author calls Beastheads Volume 0 in his Gryphon Clerks series. Other books in the series include Realmgolds, Hope and the Clever Man, and Hope and the Patient Man. All these stories are set in a fantasy world where human slaves rebelled against a tyrannical elvish empire in the past, and today the human nations live with the cultural and magical residue left behind by the elves. As with other stories in the series, Beastheads addresses a theme of racial bias and intolerance, as well as the tension between progress and conservatism.

A disclaimer before proceeding: I was a beta reader for Beastheads and know Mike Reeves-McMillan via social media. He also beta reads for me.

As with all of Mike’s work, Beastheads is strongly character driven. The plot grows organically from the interaction of the characters like vines twisting about one another as they emerge from the soil. In Beastheads, the twisting vines include Berry’s shamanic destiny, interrupted and sidelined into the Gryphon Clerks; Breeze and Wave, each with an animal soul merged into a human body, but different animals (wolf and seal, respectively), their love seen as odd from the outside for this reason; Rain, orphaned and struggling to survive her childhood on the gang-dominated streets; Stone, gay in a sharply homophobic world; Grass Badger, irritated and irritating cattlehead shaman who fears any and all change; in each case a note struck of difference, alienation, difficulty fitting in. The beastheads themselves, who are the result of a weird elven experiment (humans with cattle, dog, or cat heads and some characteristics from the animals) sound the same note on a larger scale.

The team of misfit Gryphon Clerks is sent to negotiate a treaty with the beastheads, and must deal with their suspicions of outsiders and, eventually, the outside world’s suspicions of them, as well as its exploitation of their weaknesses. So many harmonic notes are sounded regarding the interaction of the alien that the end result is almost symphonic, and it is this rather than any conventional plotting lines that make Beastheads the story that it is. The conflict between Berry and Grass Badger, which encompasses her failed apprenticeship as well as his resistance to anything threatening to change the beasthead way of life, is particularly poignant.

For above-average writing and superb character development, along with detailed exploration of the theme of racism and intolerance in a fantasy setting, I’ll give this book four stars. The plotting and story line could have been tighter and more gripping, hence the lack of the fifth star. Beastheads is still well worth taking a look in my opinion.

Beastheads is available from Amazon Kindle Store for $2.99.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Review