Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Casual Racism v. Institutionalized Racism

From AlterNet:

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ seminal piece in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations” (one of the few magazine articles you’ll ever read with chapters) paints a vivid picture of institutionalized racism: Race-based government policies conspiring with private interests, what Coates describes as pirates with their plunder.

“Having been enslaved for 250 years, black people were not left to their own devices. They were terrorized. In the Deep South, a second slavery ruled. In the North, legislatures, mayors, civic associations, banks, and citizens all colluded to pin black people into ghettos, where they were overcrowded, overcharged, and undereducated.” He writes, “Businesses discriminated against them, awarding them the worst jobs and the worst wages. Police brutalized them in the streets. And the notion that black lives, black bodies, and black wealth were rightful targets remained deeply rooted in the broader society.”

More here.

I would personally throw in one more extraordinarily important kind of racism.  I'm not really sure what the best name for it is, but it's the kind of thing that both results in and supports institutional racism.  That is, when we talk about "welfare queens" we invariably mean black people.  Or when we talk about terrorism, we mean Arabs.  Or when we talk about illegal immigrants, we mean Hispanics.  Often whites are called out when they're too up front about this, but crossing the line is relatively rare when compared to how often totally racist ideas act as subtext to the overall discussions about welfare, terrorism, immigration, and countless other topics.

Back when the Paula Deen thing was happening I had a conversation with somebody, a Deen supporter, who strongly asserted that it wasn't fair to judge someone so harshly for using the n-word thirty years ago.  Actually, I agreed with him about that.  But I then told him that what really disturbed me about the whole thing was her utterly shameless celebration and glorification of the old South, something happening right now, not decades ago, manifest as her desire to put together a massive plantation-themed wedding for her son, complete with an all black waitstaff dressed in white.  That's an attitude far more dangerous, I think, than anything she might have said thirty years ago.  He didn't seem to get it at all, and I dropped the subject.

But that's what I'm talking about.  There is nothing good about the old South, at least, nothing good about the plantation system, or the subservience of all black people.  To celebrate it, in this day and age, is the kind of racism I'm trying to describe, a sort of conceptual racism, one that allows a white person to be friendly with black people, but which at the same times totally downplays and undercuts any and all real, historical understandings of how African Americans are socially situated in America today.  That is, to glorify the old South is also to say that blacks should stop bitching about racism because slavery really wasn't so bad.  I mean, just look at Scarlett and Rhett.  They weren't racist.  And isn't it just so romantic?

Maybe the best name for this is "cultural subtext racism."  The point is that there are many, many ideas floating around out there that don't, at face value, appear to be racist, but which, in fact, ARE racist, and these ideas influence people.  And they vote.  Indeed, this is the entire basis for the left-wing critique of the inherent racism in conservatism: perhaps as much as half of the typical Republican Party platform is absolutely riddled cultural subtext racism.  But it totally INFURIATES Republicans when you point that out to them.

Conservatives absolutely refuse, you see, to acknowledge any kind of racism but the interpersonal variety.  As long as you're cool with sitting down for a beer with a black guy, from the white conservative's perspective, anything goes.  Personally, I think that, deep down, the right wing knows what's going on.  They know a lot of their ideas have racist components.  I mean, it's a sort of smoke and mirrors head game they play with themselves, in their own heads, as well as with others.   But at the same time, deep down, they also know racism is evil, and don't want to think of themselves as racists.  So they lie to themselves, and when people say "bullshit" about it all, over-the-top outrage ensues.  Really, it happens all the time.

Anyway, this is essentially the main reason that discussion about race and racism in this country is totally fucked up.  The only kind of racism acknowledged by everybody is of the interpersonal variety, what the linked essay calls "casual racism."  But that's only one manifestation of racism, and as good of a job of eradicating it as we've done, institutional and cultural subtext racism continue unchecked.  The conservatives, as they do with global warming and evolution, insist there's no such thing, and totally freak out on anybody who suggests otherwise.  So nothing is ever done.

Yet another way we're hopelessly screwed.