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Where Does One Begin?

Where does one begin an honest conversation about race these days? How does one begin a critical conversation about race and racism in a United States society that seemingly refuses to acknowledge that racism is still a widespread problem?

Robert Soza

Where does one begin? How does one begin a critical conversation about race and racism in the United States today?

I live in a society that seemingly refuses to acknowledge that racism is still a widespread problem in both public policy and civil society in the United States. Regardless of this culture of denial, racism is generally omnipresent. “White” denial across the political spectrum vitiates consequential engagement with both the structural legacies of past racism and contemporary racisms. The United States, both collectively and as a community of individuals, must begin to understand the historical primacy of “white America” as a threshold to grappling racism today. Otherwise, the quixotic journey to a “race blind society” will continue its feeble pace to equality.

A measure of contemporary “race blindness” is the current debate about immigration. A significant number of “Mericans” talk about building a wall across “our” Southern border, but it’s not an issue of race. And I ask, “Where’s the wall across our Northern border? Canadians represent the second largest population of ‘illegal aliens’ in the U.S. today.” Not that I have a problem with Canadians coming to the U.S.; keep coming, in fact. But, this discussion gets more complex when I note that Canadian nationals generally DO take higher wage jobs relative to Spanish-speaking aliens. Things get even more squirrelly when the obvious racial differences of the nations of origin enters the conversation, the very different histories of interventionist foreign policies, and the dissimilar racial constructs of Canada and. Latin America are centered as pretext for the current tenor of debate. Once race and racism enter the debate, the response is generally a non-response or the one-dimensional nationalism of Toby Keith’s “brought to you courtesy of the red, white, blue.”

There is also the “color blind” debate about the end of “preferences” in higher education because Affirmative Action hurts “qualified” “whites” in favor of “under-performing” students of color. And I ask, “What about the history of ‘white’ supremacy in this country that is interwoven so deeply in the culture that Affirmative Action itself is a stop-gap measure, barely uplifting historically disenfranchised communities?” This generally elicits blank stares as I realize too many people in the United States barely know their nation’s histories as made manifest in my favorite response: “I never owned slaves, so why should I have to pay for something that happened years ago? I work hard so my kids can go to good schools; those parents just need to step up, too.” There’s nothing better than placing the burden of history on those communities who have been willfully underdeveloped by national choice for centuries. There is an instinctive ignorance of structural racism—the tendency is too often to quickly personalize any criticism based in race. This pulls the debate out of the historical, sociological, and cultural into the interpersonal. The personal wound delivered to the good-hearted “American” stymies conversation and quickly places the critic in a position of having to prove that racism really does exist, but, of course, you’re not one, or even a benefactor…….

There is a tremendous amount of fear, suspicion of, and a willingness to wage war against “radical” Islam. The so-called wayward nations and its peoples stand as targets of intense Western pressure. Iraq and Afghanistan are already occupied and being “democratized and this list is potentially growing. These rouge nations magically woke up and started hating the U.S. The contemporary rhetoric of war erases the histories, in the case of Afghanistan a history that stretches back over a century, of paternalistic and condescending Western intervention, economic domination, and often out right military attack. These actions cost countless lives, disrupted the organic development of the cultures, and resulted in colonial relations that starved the region’s peoples of wealth while fattening Euro-American societies. But the hate the radical Islamists feel for us according the neo-con ideology currently setting the pace in the U.S. is really just a hatred of “American” freedom.

Thank the powers that be for Joy James and her book “Resisting State Violence: Radicalism, Gender, & Race in U.S. Culture.” I recently picked this book up again. It brought back into clarity a vocabulary to talk about race, a way to talk about living in a society dominated by “whiteness.” James states plainly that living in the United States means living in a country where “white” supremacy is the racial lingua franca—“white” is the super-normative; so normal, it’s invisible. U.S. society is tailored by a “white” racial logic that creates a standard that is actually a norm in-so-far as it represents the logics of “white,” land-owning men. Women and men of color, “white” women, homosexuals, and the poor all exists in opposition to this “universal” norm, and pay qualified costs measured in relative subjections to various violences of control. Please pardon the academic abstraction, but the tools of violence are so broad and multifaceted that an abstract terminology is almost the only effective way to encapsulate a systemic violence that manifests in death penalty policies, college admissions, immigration policy, access to prenatal care, and quality housing (to name only a few examples). “White” supremacy and racist violence, either psychic or corporeal, mark essentially everything in U.S. society.

However, the mark is generally no longer a burning cross or a governor in school house doors. It is now manifest in the “white rights” movement (to name one expression); though it is never termed as much—it is just a world without racism, because, thankfully, we are beyond that now; “we” are color-blind. It is now manifest in the cultural and legalistic movement that asserts that “preference” and “quota” programs for people of color (people who have historically been defined by law as less than “white” nationals and were/are generally beyond the inroads of assimilation open to most “white” ethnics) are no longer necessary. Civil Rights discourse has been stolen and rearticulated into a discourse that continues the disenfranchisement of people of color. After a more-or-less thirty year Civil Rights experiment, Ronald Regan came along abreast “white” anxiety and asserted that “white” men were victims, too. The 1980s signaled then end of a politics of reform and inclusion in the United States. People of color were granted a three decade window to undo centuries of wrongs, and of course, the three decades of change were hotly contested and overseen by a “white” body politic that would only bend so much in the name of inclusion. In spite of arguable progress thrown into question by demographic study after demographic study, people of color were given the good news that we all now live in a color blind society, and the “preference” programs that opened the doors that had long been closed now hurt “white” people.

This shift in Civil Rights discourse away from reform, reform not even approaching reparations measured in real structural change, to maintaining “white” supremacy is a move that reinvigorates long-standing genocidal logics that are an inherent part of the “American way.” It is vital to recall that genocide is not solely mountains of corpses, death camps, and single-minded projects of extermination. As found in Samantha Power’s “A Problem from Hell,” Raphael Lemkin, the originator of the term and much of the legal theory of genocide, urged the world to “believe the unbelievable” and to not only focus on fantastic degrees of violence, but to account for “other means of destruction: mass deportation, the lowering of birth rates by separating men from women, economic exploitation, progressive starvation, and the suppression of the intelligentsia who served as national leaders.” Lemkin continues: The perpetrators of genocide would attempt to destroy the political and social institutions, the culture, language, national feelings, religion, and economic existence of national groups. They would hope to eradicate the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, lives of individual members of the targeted group….A group did not have to be physically exterminated to suffer genocide. They could be stripped of all cultural traces of their identity.

Thus, Lemkin, urges humanity to look beyond what has become the generally held understanding of genocide (mass exterminations) to see systems of violence that set out to destroy and cripple entire communities in spirit, not just in body. Civil Rights, and the subsequent Power Movements, sought to restore spirit, security, dignity, and opportunity to communities that had long been defined as subhuman and forced to live outside of a civil society codified by “white” supremacy. This is not to denigrate the vibrant internal cultures and rhythms of these ostracized communities; however, these communities were always already in states of non-stop resistance to genocidal policies. The liberation movements of these radicalized communities of color sought to end U.S. genocidal policies manifest in forced sterilization programs (lowering birth rates), de facto slavery across the third world (economic exploitation), under education (suppression of the intelligentsia), over policing and asymmetrical applications of judicial punishment (eradicating personal security, liberty, and dignity), English-only laws (destroying culture and national feelings), education based enforced assimilation (destroying political and social institutions, culture, language, and national feelings), and systemic economic disenfranchisement resulting in long-standing and deeply embedded effects of poverty, not to mention its affect (lowering birth rates, progressive starvation, suppression of intelligentsia, eradication of personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and so on). And as noted, these liberation movements were granted a begrudging fifteen minutes of fame until the “white” rights movement organized both institutions and rhetoric to protect “white” privilege, a privilege dating to the nation’s colonial founders. In essence, the “white” rights movement organized a return to a racist order that always has been.

Returning to “Resisting State Violence,” James states, “White rights and reverse discrimination provide ideological ground for neoconservatives to advocate and neoliberals to ignore genocidal policies. The ascent from rightist racism to leftist racism is not as steep as we might like to imagine.” She continues by quoting current left-wing hipster Slavoj Žižek’s assertion that the only way to really help communities of color is for “whites” to stop naming “whites” and their histories as originators and care-takers of current racial inequalities. James concludes: With no one (that is, no one white) held accountable for truly horrific conditions, the overthrow of white supremacy is now a black thing, a struggle for which African Americans become solely responsible. Žižek’s argument would move African Americans from a position of structural inferiority to one of equality or superiority, investing them with a special ability—the power to engender social change unilaterally. The consequences of such a Horatio Alger mandate for racial harmony and equality is that genocide becomes reduced to autogenocide. . . . [Consequently,] The fundamental right of states and whites is to not be held responsible for racial oppression. Very simply, as people on both sides of the political divide argue for a race neutral society, this argument ignores the long-standing and deeply ingrained structural inequities of U.S. culture, inequalities that kill. Foregrounding race is not divisive or a paean to a “culture of victimhood,” at least not to those individuals who must endure the results of “white” supremacist legal, cultural, and social practice. It may very well be divisive to those “whites” who’d prefer to not have to grapple with the privilege of “whiteness.” Individual “white” guilt and discomfort is relatively inconsequential to radical social transformation, and can easily meander into “white” self-indulgence. It is only useful insofar as it is a first micro-step toward greater social awareness as a means to mobilize “white America” to surrender its privilege—idyllic, yes, but the issue of race will not go away until there is an accounting, a structural accounting.

The near extermination and internment of Native America, the enslavement of African-Americans, the suspicion and violence directed toward Asian Americans, and the systemic dispossession of Chican@s in the Southwest are not simply bad policies of by-gone eras. These cataclysmic events are all symptoms of past and on-going genocide in the Americas. And this genocide will not simply end because no one speaks of it in polite company or tears are shed for past victims; it continues and has for over five-hundred years.

When life expectancies, imprisonment rates, drop-out rates, infant mortality rates, illiteracy rates, and so on are all more dire in communities of color than in “white America” it is clear that whatever goals were forwarded during the Civil Rights era are still waiting to be achieved. According to the logic of the neoconservatives and some neoliberals, such demographic shifts must be remedied from within—the degeneration and deaths are the fault of the communities in question, not long-standing, external systemic pressures. The state has done all it can, and in fact, can do no more—it has taken the aims of Civil Rights as far as it can, and now you, little black, brown, red, and yellow sisters and brothers must unilaterally change the world created and maintained by “white” supremacy. Rather, the state has failed, as have the Jeffersonian “we the people.” And yet, the march of “white” rights goes forward; I can only wonder as both Jamaica Kincaid and Joy James do: “How do you get to be the sort of victor who claims to be the vanquished also?”

Robert Soza works and lives in the Phoenix, Arizona metro area. When not teaching high school, community college, or ignoring his unfinished dissertation, he likes to find himself 60 feet below the surface of the ocean or on a mountain bike somewhere.

Copyright © 2006 by Robert Soza. Graphic by Thomas Nast (1870s). All rights reserved.