Saturday, November 20, 2010

A Couple of Thoughts Re: Charles Blow's Op/Ed

Read Blow's piece, titled "Let's Rescue the Race Debate" here. In general, the piece makes quite a few important points that are often obscured in the racist echo chamber that is the mainstream media.

Although Blow doesn't explicitly mention the phenomenon of "color blind" racism, he offers a number of persuasive arguments that expose it for the sophistry that it is.

Nonetheless, I am bothered by a couple of things that are going on in the article. First off, although Blow can hardly be blamed for this, the cautious "bad people exist on all sides of the debate", we need to seek "common ground" language employed toward the end of the piece evinces an important way that racial domination functions in the contemporary U.S. What I have in mind here concerns the fact that the white establishment is still uncomfortable and resentful when confronted with politically organized, confident, and critical black voices. That's precisely what all the blathering about "reverse racism", "culture of victimization", etc. is about. It is a pre-emptive strike against confident black social critique. By creating the stereotype of the "angry black voice", those concerned to defend white supremacy have a convenient way of dismissing any and all criticism of existing society authored by black people. It is, in effect, a way of saying to the oppressed: shut up and stop complaining, your grievances are illegitimate... your voice simply doesn't, indeed couldn't, matter. Note, also that history is inadmissible because it upsets the a priori assumptions built into this ideology (e.g. that the US is the "greatest" country on earth with a divine mandate, etc.).

The upshot of this preemptive strike is that anyone who wishes to criticize white supremacy is meant to always feel like they're on the defensive. The norm created by the preemptive strike is this: so as not to ruffle the feathers of whites, black social critics must tread lightly in public. The same problem faces feminist critics, as well as socialists who wish to make the argument that we should redistribute wealth by taxing the rich. In the case of the feminist critic, even soft-core feminists who merely aim to make extremely modest critiques of things like the wage gap, there is a pressure from above to avoid sounding like a "bitch" (this is, incidentally, one reason why I love the title of the feminist magazine Bitch, which basically redeploys this sexist epithet by throwing it back in the face of sexists as if to say, "yeah, I'm not fucking around about women's liberation, what's it to you?").

I digress. Back to the Blow piece.

I groaned when I first read the Booker T. Washington bit at the beginning of the piece, but was relieved when Blow noted how laden with irony it is that conservatives are so fond of using the quote. To be sure, there are ironies here worth commenting on. But I think Blow radically misses the mark when says that "W.E.B. Du Bois [was] an Obama-like figure who advocated a more broad-based, activist movement for racial equality to be led by an erudite black intelligentsia." Ummmm... what??

This is a disturbing and politically conservative comparison. To be sure, we know that Obama wants politically active black people to buy into the myth that he "advocates a more broad-based, activist movement for racial equality." We know that this is the self-image that he cultivates when he needs support from ordinary black people. But the trouble here is that creating a broad-based activist movement of any kind, and one for racial justice in particular, is simply not what he's about.

Recall his statements to $1,500 a plate dinners during the Midterm campaigns. Recall his public statements in interviews about "folks that weren't serious in the first place". Recall Axlerod's patronizing, vitriolic attacks on progressives for not being "enthusiastic" enough. Recall, in effect, his entire first two years in office: the priorities are clear.

Building a broad-based activist movement means convincing ordinary people to organize themselves independently of the "proper channels" in order to make their demands heard by those in power, whether or not those in power care to listen. It doesn't mean brow-beating ordinary people from above after you've promised them modest reforms and given them nothing.

Nothing can come of the comparison between Obama and DuBois except political confusion. In reality, Obama is far more like Booker T. Washington than he is like any serious activist against racial oppression. Obama has found many occasions to make Cosby-style complaints about "personal responsibility" that jibe with the conservative intuitions of white conservatives for whom Booker T. Washington is a "breath of fresh air". What you won't hear is a word reflecting the tradition of oppositional voices of folks like MLK, Malcolm X, Huey P. Newton, Angela Davis, or Cornel West.

One more thought here. Although Blow makes some reasonable points regarding the differential experiences of whites and black people, one gets the sense from the article that racism is, at the end of the day, simply a matter of intentional attitudes that an individual has.

This, as I've pointed out elsewhere, is a narrow and ultimately unhelpful rubric for understanding racism.

Racism is not "in the heart". It's not in the first instance about the intentions or attitudes of individuals. Racism has both a material and ideological existence, both of which can come apart from the intentions of individual actors. For this reason, we should entirely abjure discussions about whether so-and-so intends to be racist or not. As I wrote in a previous post:
On the question of concerted intent and racism, I think its ridiculous to assume that because someone intends not to be racist, that they are therefore not implicated perpetuating racism. Racism, if we agree that it is a social phenomenon, is not an aberration or a sin committed by an individual who simply makes bad choices. Someone is not 'rotten to the core' simply because they are complicit or directly involved in sustaining racism in any way. When someone says "hey, what you just said strikes me as rather racist", it should not be tantamount to "you are a bad, bad person and you intentionally mean to harm others!". This is not the way to talk about racism, and doing so in this way only makes the "but I didn't mean it" or "but he's actually a good guy, I swear" character defenses seem plausible (when, in fact, they are totally irrelevant).
This is a needed antidote to Blow's view that "prejudices can be found among all races". Racism isn't in the first instance about individual-level attitudes or prejudices. And it isn't just a matter of some individual not liking another individual who has different phenotypic characteristics. We can't make sense of what the idea of race is, let alone racial hierarchies, without understanding history and macro-level social dynamics. To pretend that racism is an individual-to-individual problem, measurable by asking respondents questions in polls, is misguided.

So what we need to really destroy both contemporary racism and the historical legacies of past racism is serious structural change to the economic structure of society. That isn't going to be accomplished by playing nice with the ruling class. Nor will it come from pandering to the racist ideologies in circulation in American political culture. It will come only from struggle from below. The serious blows to racism in history have all been won when the oppressed organized themselves, often in solidarity with white allies, to strike a blow against status quo relations of power.

Playing nice with power doesn't win anything for the oppressed, as Fredrick Douglass made clear. When Kanye said "George Bush doesn't care about black people" he was absolutely right. But he could have generalized. Those in power at present are indifferent to the historic and contemporary oppression of black people. They are indifferent to black suffering. They are defensive and indignant when anyone suggests that some institutions are systematically implicated in brutalizing and terrorizing people of color.

1 comment:

Richard said...

you'd have to be on some serious mind altering drugs to analogize Barack Obama to W. E. B. DuBois

although, some Tea Party types might go for it, if someone like Glenn Beck told them to