Saturday, July 14, 2007

Is the Problem That White People Don't Know or Don't Care?

AlterNet, my favorite radical journalism professor, UT's Robert Jensen, responds to a study on how badly whites understand the black experience:

White Americans are mean and uncaring, morally bankrupt and ethically flawed, because white supremacy has taken a huge toll on white people's capacity to be fully human.

My reasoning is simple: Given all the data and stories available to us about the reality of racism in the United States, if at this point white people (myself included) underestimate the costs of being black it's either because (1) we have made a choice not to know, or (2) we know but can't face the consequences of that knowledge.

On #1: To choose not to know about the reality of a situation in which one is privileged in an unjust system is itself a moral failure. When a system is structured to benefit people who look like me, and I choose not to listen to the evidence of how others suffer in that system, I have effectively decided not to act by deciding not to know.

On #2: If I do know these things but am not willing to take meaningful action to undermine that unjust system, then my knowledge doesn't much matter. Again, I have failed in moral terms.


This is a really sticky one. Jensen runs a major risk of alienating the very people he would persuade by throwing around phrases like "morally bankrupt and ethically flawed." I mean, he's absolutely right, of course, with the caveat that there are always exceptions--some enlightened white folk don't go that way. But
we really do live in a racist country, and things may very well have regressed in some ways since the end of Jim Crow back in the mid 1960s. That is, things aren't getting any better. So Jensen's assertion is undeniable: most white Americans seemingly either don't know how bad things are or they just don't care, and if they don't know it's because they keep their eyes and ears shut--either way, white America, as a community, is indeed "morally bankrupt and ethically flawed."

On the other hand, Jensen spends little space in his essay writing about the various indoctrinational systems that make willful ignorance the path of least resistance. The public schools barely even mention race relations, and when they do it's usually of the "things were bad in the past, but the great American spirit of self-improvement fixed all that and things are much better now" variety, which strongly encourages the typical "I wish blacks would just shut the hell up" response among many whites. The entertainment media rarely tackles the question of contemporary race relations, and when they do, it's something like American History X, where the villains are so awful, it's pretty easy for white audiences to walk away feeling smug about how good they are. The news media is little better, usually forgoing opportunities to elucidate the situation, as they did when the abject black poverty in New Orleans was exposed to all by Katrina's ravages--it was more like "oh, those poor black people" instead of "the white power structure tolerates this situation in every city in the country."

Even though I feel like I've figured it out, it has more to do with my left-leanings, which brings with it a willingness to believe that power structures fuck people over, instead some sort of innate enlightenment. That is, I got lucky from where my interests have taken me over the course of my life.

So yeah, white Americans bear the ultimate responsibility for allowing the white power structure to continue with racism-as-American-institution, but it's really difficult to get people to accept that. Even more difficult is figuring out what to do about it, especially given the realities of work, responsibility to family, and other issues. I mean, you can't just run out in the street and start a revolution.

My take: always be the first in your group to talk about race; force the difficult conversations; don't be afraid to offend both black and white acquaintances. You've got to start somewhere.