12 July 2015

The sad explanation

It’s a strange sight to see, but a certain number of my Facebook contacts seem adamant both that a.) systemic racism is somehow not real, and b.) Northern white liberals have been historically, and still are, somehow more racist than Southern white conservatives. It’s an odd, defensive, wagon-circling set of views that has been cropping up with increasing prominence, I think largely deriving its power from a reaction to Charleston and to the Confederate flag controversy of late.

I can understand to a certain extent the temptations of each view, because each of them runs counter in some way to the received attitudes of political correctness. But, put bluntly, both cannot be true. In fact, I’ll go further. The former view fundamentally undercuts the latter view and renders it completely nonsensical. I think those who express both views are engaging in a particularly insidious form of self-deception. Now, I personally happen to be of the opinion that Northern white liberals will and do get ‘passes’ on racist behaviour that Southern white conservatives frankly often do not. But these ‘passes’ can be explained only within a framework that treats racism not as the product of individual intellectual or emotional proclivities but as the product of a systemic bias that allows ‘white’ individuals to approach the secular authorities on their own terms, whilst denying that approach especially to blacks.

This thought came to mind whilst reading this article by John Metta on Medium. I could pick at some of the minor details, but the main thrust of his argument is dead-on accurate. He says it best when he opines that ‘racism is so deeply embedded in this country not because of the racist right-wing radicals who practice it openly, it exists because of the silence and hurt feelings of liberal America’. But what does he mean when he says racism is ‘deeply embedded’?

Metta means that well-meaning, well-spoken Northern white liberals will still move out to ‘better neighbourhoods’ and send their kids to ‘better [public] schools’, which are of course funded by property taxes on ‘better real estate’: where ‘better’ is code for ‘whiter’. He means that Northern white liberals will still opt to live in communities segregated by design. He means that well-meaning, well-spoken Northern white liberals will still make excuses when white youths screw up – excuses that they would not make for black youths. Northern whites will not undergo as easily as Southern whites the sometimes psychologically-messy realities of propinquity with their black neighbours.

But none of this matters if you aren’t willing to see racism as something other than a matter of individual moral hygiene. As Metta says, he does not think of his upwardly-mobile, Northern white liberal aunt as a racist, and he goes further, setting straight-out that putting the conversation in those terms goes nowhere. It goes nowhere because white people have gotten accustomed to thinking in baldly-individualistic, atomistic terms (possibly because we whites of working-class immigrant backgrounds have traded our own deep-rooted birthrights for a mess, not of pottage, but of vague legal privileges, but that’s an issue I’ve written about elsewhere). But any critique of an ontology in which we have been made complicit is construed instead as an existential attack on me, the individual, as an indictment of my own moral standing; and the argument is relegated to the internalised contest between memory and pride. Small wonder such arguments go nowhere – Nietzsche tells us how all such contests end up.

I’m somewhat tempted, in fact, to give this a theological gloss. The cultural Puritanism of New England which gave way to its liberalism, for example, rests on a cosmology wherein the vast mass are predestined to perdition and only a few individuals are elect and worthy of being saved. Because the Puritan runs straight for the assurances that he, personally, is one of the ‘good guys’, one of the elect, it becomes offensive to a Puritan mindset to consider that we all might be partaking in an ontology of death.

And so it becomes the easier to dismiss the racism of the North when white Southern conservatives are busy both decrying Northern racism and undercutting any method of examining it, and thinking wrongly that they’re shielding themselves from criticism in the process. But the sad reality is that we’re still living in the ontology of death. American racism is systemic, and our Northern liberal ease has been borrowed on the cost of police bullets in young black male bodies, of missing young black female bodies, of unborn black bodies destroyed in utero, of black credit denied, of black schools underfunded, of black churches attacked and torched.

Lord, have mercy.

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