Sunday, June 28, 2015

A Grazing Mace

I am going to talk about race and racism now,-- for two reasons: firstly I think it finally may be possible to have an honest and serious discussion about race in America, and secondly it is raining, and I, a 'for all intents and purposes' white person in a 'for all intents and purposes' predominantly white society, (and not to diminish the importance and horror of recent events), find, that having nothing else to do, this is the only time I voluntarily give serious consideration to the subject of race (which is why I also think black people should give us back that is the month it is least likely to rain.).

Joking aside,--why has it been so extraordinarily difficult til now to have a serious and rational conversation on the topic of race. Words can be a bludgeon or they can be a scalpel. I would think therefore it has a lot to do with the fact that in this context, they have long been used mostly as bludgeons,-- all or most the words conscripted became immediately intensely and highly charged, and what is more, facilely capable of conveying different meanings to different people even in the same context in a way that is more conducive to conveying emotion than meaning. Take the word 'racist' most 'normal' people, on the surface it is unambiguously bad and to some extent has become a synonym for 'bad character', at least until they find by some definitions they themselves may be included under it. Stephen Colbert's dealt with this possible 'double edgedness' of the word by declaring. 'I do not see race!'  This is the big lie method of dealing with the problem,-- of course we all see (and hear) race, but as in all effective 'big lies' there is a convoluted kernel of truth. The big lie is a method of dealing with the convolutedness of real explanation by distraction. To look at that inconvenient kernel,-- what defines, (for me at least) someone as a racist, is someone who sees race first.  It is for them the only defining and therefore, least subject to revision assumption they can make about a person. All other assumptions become either subordinate or non-existent to it. We hate the idea first and the person second. This is of course the most pernicious form of racism leading to stereotyping all all the other 'de-individualizing' and 'brutalizing' mindsets that characterized for example, Nazi Germany.  One group or set of people arrogates to themselves totally the idea of the 'individual'.

I say this is the definition of 'racism' because if we strip this idea of 'primacy of perception' from the meaning of the word then we strip the word of meaning and it is therefore 'by definition', its definition. However, we have a niggling feeling that this does not do full and ample justice to the 'double edged' nature of the term. For example,--employing this definition, one would have to admit, (since we are being honest here) that Affirmative Action was a racist policy,--Why? Simply because it was a social policy that considered race first and foremost. Well, that may be true and we may have to admit that Affirmative Action is racist, and this is a rather uncomfortable and inconvenient fact for those of us who promoted it or support it,-- but it also is a case of using fire to fight fire! It was a policy that was instituted and adopted to correct a grave and longstanding historical injustice and therefore, while it may be 'racist' in the definitional sense,--it was also just and beneficial. So, in this case, the complex and inconvenient truth is that 'racism' per-sae was used for a good end. That still does not make racism itself good--not by a long shot. (No wonder this subject has been so difficult to discuss!) but while racism itself may be evil, not all racist policies may necessarily be bad.  That is just the riddle we need to live with. All of which brings us to an even more uncomfortably complex idea,--that of 'institutional racism'.

While it is clear that peoples attitudes (for the most part--except for a hopefully diminishing number of crazies) have changed their mindsets in their daily interactions (no more Jim Crow), it is equally true that the racism that was embedded in our political, economic and legal institutions both in the South and the North is alive and well.  While this fact rolls off the tongue facilely and easily, what does this really mean and is something increasingly heard on talk shows in post-Obama America?  In practice it means that institutions used and still do provide justification and context and give encouragement and play to the dregs of racism that, while no longer approved by society in general, still lurk in the depths of our psyches.  In closed 'sub-societies', like law enforcement,--a different standard may de-facto prevail than in society at large and this double standard is then, more often than not for convenience sake overlooked. Unshakeable bonds of mutual benefit secure its continuance within the context of the legal system. It is self-perpetuating... Prosecutors depend on police, courts depend on prosecutors prisons depend on courts etc. a hand in glove relationship that facilitates swift justice but also (in the case of black individuals) often facilitates swift injustice--what is important is that there is nothing in it which requires a fundamental change of attitude from the other--it is a web of marriages of necessity,-- a complex web of inter-dependencies that no party is willing to tip in part, for fear of tipping the whole--in short, American justice functions on a sort of American version of the old European Aristocratic ideal of expediency in personal relations.

So, however, in the context of this discussion, even faced with the reality, we must consider this idea: is institutional racism a real thing?  Certainly its effects and outcomes are real and evident to anyone who care to look. (Most of us do not until something like Ferguson shows up,--or it starts raining). However if we can ascribe racism to an institution than why cannot we ascribe thought and opinion, and if institutions have thoughts and opinions than rationally speaking perhaps private institutions like corporations cannot be granted a lesser status and so we have been led down the slippery slope that led to the absurdity of a Citizens United.

So, to deny that institutional racism exists is an absurdity that flies in face of evident facts and to admit it exists within a legal context (which it itself defines) leads to yet another absurdity which is that of institutions having values and opinions that themselves need to be protected under the law. By admitting to the existence of institutional racism somehow this is a means for institutions to themselves achieve 'personhood so,--by definition,--their very existence depends upon its continued existence. This is not mere sophistry rather it is a false equality of the kind that any society generally uses to convince the most useful of citizens that they are valued when in fact though their contributions are valued, they themselves are not--in other words--in its most 'honest' form,--slavery. (And not to get all weepy about the founders'--something which they, in their wisdom foresaw as the most pernicious form of governmental arrogance)  So,--I am already mentally exhausted,--and we have not even scratched the surface or attempted to address the use of the 'n' word,-- or examined the fact that we finally have a commander-in-chief (again not to make light of recent events) who can almost carry a tune. But having pointed out the fact that words must first be 'unhijacked' if they are to serve any useful function in future conversations, I consider at least part of my part of the task done for now and so will leave it at that.