Saturday, April 10, 2010

Racism = Prejudice + Power, Part 2

Earlier this week, I had an appointment in a doctor's office and while there, I inadvertantly let it be known to a young White woman receptionist that I teach courses on race. I should know better. In fact, I do know better. Every time it happens, I swear to myself it will never happen again. But it does. And it's amazing how fast the "conversation" goes sideways.

In a matter of only a couple of sentences, she had already managed to drop the bomb I so often hear from folks like her: "Well, in my opinion..." (as if I would ever in a million years ask for it) "the problem these days is with Black people. They're WAY more racist than Whites and all they want to do is just sit up on their porches and live off the government..." I forget exactly what came after that. Thank goodness. But I remember gritting my teeth all the way home.

I tried to help her get a broader view (ha!), but was so unsuccessful (needless to say) that her final volley (as she flounced away flipping her long blonde hair over her shoulder) was, "I guess you'll have to ask your Black President about that!" Oof.

"It's okay," I said to myself. "I've been meaning to write about Black "racism" ever since several Anonymous comments appeared in January on a blog post I wrote back in 2006. The commentator(s) argued that African-Americans are seen as "real" Americans (as opposed to other minorities who are, it was posited, not seen that way). They also have powerful representative organizations and greater media representation than other minorities, Anonymous went on. So what did I think of what this Asian person had to say on the topic?

As the night wore on, Anonymous' comments became more and more irritable and esoteric. If the powerless can't be racist because they don't control the social institutions that prescribe our lives, then would that mean White women couldn't be racist...or how about somebody with only one great-great-grandmother who was White? Could they be racist? Does racism only exist where White people are? And do African-Americans benefit from U.S. world economic and political power just like all other Americans when that power is so disproportionately used against people of color around the globe?

I was caused to think of the types of questions I sometimes field in Introductory Sociology classrooms. They can't help it. They really don't (want to) know. The problem is that they ask the questions anyway, as if they did. Sigh. I don't mind answering. It's my job. But it would help if I didn't so often feel I was talking to the walls.

In any case, I'm going to have another go at it, using the questions above and the article referenced by the commentator(s), which is "Black Racism: the Hate That Dare Not Speak Its Name". The piece appeared in 1998 in Front Page Magazine (an online manifestation of The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, a conservative think tank). The author, Ying Ma, is, among other things, a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City, which was featured in the films "America: Freedom to Fascism" and "Zeitgeist, the Movie". The CFR has been the subject of some controversy fueled by the suggestion that it's implicated in planning toward a one-world government. Ma was also instrumental in working to see the infamous Proposition 209 passed in California, gutting affirmative action in that state.

So here's Part 2 of "Racism = Prejudice + Power."

The bottom line (assuming that's the place to begin) is that Ma missed the point. Entirely. I've never said African-Americans aren't prejudiced toward Whites or members of other groups. Why in the world wouldn't they be under the circumstances? Things that happened to me as a child have affected my attitude toward authority figures, for example (just as things that happened to Ying Ma during her childhood have affected how she sees Black folks). But since so many of us have such factors in our lives, why is it so difficult for others to understand why African-Americans carry so much rage -- especially with the on-going nature of their continued violation as individuals and as a people?

African-Americans are pissed. And rightly so. This blog is a veritable compendium of statistics and anecdotes and analysis and explanation concerning why it is utterly rational for them to be pissed all day long. Some of them are prejudiced against Whites (meaning they don't like them in advance on general principle). Some are just disgusted by White privilege (and the many Whites who wield it while swearing that they don't see color). Some are distrustful of Whites (particularly those Whites who say at every opportunity, especially around Black people, "Some of my best friends are Black..."). Some are hostile toward Whites since many Whites (and even many other minority individuals such as Ma) are so unendingly hostile toward them. And frankly, some are downright dangerous toward themselves and others. (Though it should be noted here that one White serial killer never seems to make the rest of us say, "Oh, those White people -- they will go off half-cocked...")

But using the definition of racism that it is prejudice PLUS power, African-Americans simply can't be racist. They can't be White either. And I can't be a Republican. So what? These are words. So, in the extreme, a Black person who murdered a Chinese person while screaming the word "Chink" would be guilty of a hate crime, but would not be (using my definition) a racist. That's all.

Not that all Blacks are warm and fuzzy, I hasten to add for the umpteenth time. Ma is a veritable prickly pear after just eight years of meanness at the hands of other children and she's ready to call all Blacks profligate. She uses the term "horrific" to describe such nightmares as being called "Ching Chong" or "Chinagirl," and being laughed at or beaten up on the way home from school.

Now, I'm not heartless. I was abused as a kid and I know that's no picnic. It's hard to be a kid anyway -- with all the attendant fears and insecurities -- let alone he or she takes additional licks at anyone's hands. I've been told some gut-wrenching stories about growing up during the Cultural Revolution in China (with no Blacks involved).

But I'd like to see what she'd do with a good old fashioned ass-whuppin' by a couple of stick-wielding cops in an alley or maybe being followed around every store she enters for her entire life no matter how she's dressed or being kept out of the fancy schools and neighborhoods she's had NO problem getting into because she wasn't Black. And for sure, I'd like to see what she'd do with 500 years of vicious institutionalized torture and terror that had not yet ended.

See, that's the part she misses. The institutionalized part. The part that's played by power. Not the power to have your own organization UNDER the social institutions and forces that "let" that organization operate. Not the power to force your way into the media to the extent and in the ways that suit the social institutions and forces that monitor and maintain the status quo of African-Americans' experience of life as less than full citizens. Remember Henry Louis Gates' arrest on his front porch last year? That's an indignity Ma is not likely ever to experience. Though she would be quick to suggest, I'm sure, that she'd never be arrested because she wouldn't do anything that would get her arrested (the implication being that the 80-year-old Dr. Gates is Black and -- famous or not -- probably couldn't help doing whatever got him handcuffed).

Because Ma and her family immigrated to the U.S. and moved into a poor Black neighborhood when she was ten years old, the typical American ethnocentrism ("America for Americans, goddam it! You furiners get out now!") wore a Black face. Ma's Ivy League education doesn't seem to have helped her to recognize that. Either that or she's decided (for whatever reason) to give White folks a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card.

White folks robbed the indigenous Americans of this continent, brutally used and abused Asian people in the U.S. (and in Asia, which they continue to do, as Ma points out), made themselves rich holding millions of Africans in bondage while being responsible for the deaths of millions more, are recognized world-wide for maintaining the most wide-ranging characteristically racist system in the history of the human race and still want to dare anyone with a darker skin tone to try to come here. Yet her article makes it sound as if the only Americans with which Ma has had any problems were Black. Gee. That's surprising, given what history and the statistics tell us.

The fact is that people of African descent (which includes, of course, everyone in the world, but that's a topic for another day) learned to be hateful from the White folks. This phenomenon is called "taking on the language of the oppressors" and oppressed peoples do it all the time. Even some Jews in World War II concentration camps put on cast-off Nazi uniform jackets and brutalized others, trying to identify themselves with the power. This doesn't excuse it; it's just an attempt to explain it.

It should also be noted that White people (good grief! I hate repeating myself over and over, but some things bear repeating) set up the social institutions in this country in the first place and have continued to run them ever since. So every single problem we have in this country is directly or indirectly attributable to that simple fact. Face it or not, folks. White-controlled social institutions -- including the family, education, religion, politics and the economy -- are the base foundation from which everything else (bad or good) emanates. Holding Black folks responsible for practices, attitudes, and systems they had NO part of setting up and have not ever even had the least part in running is (1) blaming the victim and (2) sweeping White power under the rug.

Interestingly enough, this is EXACTLY the world view the White Supremacist system (it's a system, folks, not a person or group of persons) wants folks like Ma (and everybody else) to espouse. It works to keep White Supremacy in place to convince as many as possible (including as many people of color as possible) that Black folks are the problem. That Black inferiority is endemic to their nature. That they can't help it. That White people and their institutions and their "values" (such as money being more important than life, for example, or the idea that torture is reasonable to accomplish one's agenda?) are just superior to all others -- especially any that might be conceived by anyone else.

Another explanation, which Ma refers to begrudgingly just before brushing it aside as irrelevant in the end, is Dollard's frustration-aggression theory. The Black kids that made Ma's life so difficult back in the ghetto knew even before she did that someday she would get to leave. She was eighteen. She writes that she "left this ugly world for a beautiful school far away" and never returned. The image of the bright young African-American children standing inside the walls of their institutionalized fortress of oppression watching her board the train for bliss makes my heart weep. But she doesn't get it.

Ma suggests that this cruelty to her people (apparently only at the hands of Blacks, though I remember that during the year I dated a Korean man, the only shout of "Chink" I ever heard came from a carload of White boys) is ignored even by Asian activist organizations because it's deemed not really that bad. She suggests that poor, innocent, elderly and very young Asians don't typically complain because they have language deficiencies, are smaller in size, and fear reprisal -- especially in the form of violence.

Further, Ma suggests that "Asians are unlike blacks who got to where they are in politics by being confrontational," completely ignoring two crucial points. First of all, African-Americans (not unlike the African National Congress in South Africa prior to Nelson Mandela's imprisonment) are almost always ignored unless they're violent (which allows White folks in power to "punish" them while further noting their "natural" violent tendencies). And second, there are many incidents of Asians being wildly violent including the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the Chinese occupation of Korea as only a couple of examples.

Actually, California law enforcement bodies report that more than 500 Asian gangs now exist in that state and the vast majority of the terrorizing they do is in the Asian community. Yet Ma doesn't once mention this or take anyone to task for it, though many of the gangs had already formed and were widely operant when she wrote the piece in question.

As I already mentioned, Ma does admit that Asian activist organizational leaders acknowledge other factors. They suggest, for example, that competition over limited resources, lack of jobs, and institutionalized economic disparities between African-Americans -- still relegated to the back of the economic bus in this country -- and Asians, treated inappropriately as "outsiders" under and by a White-controlled system, but much more mobile in terms of access to opportunities in general as individuals and as a group.

Ma even quotes Joe Hicks, executive director of the Los Angeles City Human Relations Commission, as saying that "much of the hostilities are due to blacks' jealousy of Asian economic success, a sense of alienation, and the self-perpetuating belief that blacks will always lose out in the racial equation in America." Nevertheless, this is not enough to resolve Ma's angst or lessen her bitterness.

Her suggestion that Black hostility toward Asians is reminiscent of Nazi attacks on the Jews, African attacks on immigrants from India, and Indonesian more recent attacks on Chinese immigrants to Indonesia completely disregards the fact that in all of these cases, the tormentors were or are in power over their society at the time -- which African-Americans are not and never have been. Does she really think this is not relevant?

Ultimately, Ma tidies up her vitriolic diatribe with a hat tip to the idea that minorities should not fight among themselves, but should rather fight against racial discrimination. This goes without saying, I guess. But if her misunderstanding and misrepresentation of what happened in her own life and how it has affected her on-going perception of racial reality in this country is any indication, then we're unlikely to see that idea develop much any time soon.

We might have imagined that her education and what I must suppose to be her current level of social mobility and economic well-being as compared to the children who made her childhood so difficult would have softened the edges somewhat somewhere along the line. But they haven't. We might have imagined that she would come to see more clearly over time the actuality of African-American day-to-day existence as less than full citizens in the land of their birth. But she hasn't. And this is pretty typical. Because it suits the White Supremacist system (and those who support it) to have Asians and African-Americans at juggernauts. It works to maintain the status quo for various minority groups to see each other as enemies. It's called "divide and conquer" and it's the oldest okey-doke in the book. Funny so few of us get it.

5 comments:

Moi said...

See, that's the part she misses. The institutionalized part. The part that's played by power. Not the power to have your own organization UNDER the social institutions and forces that "let" that organization operate. Not the power to force your way into the media to the extent and in the ways that suit the social institutions and forces that monitor and maintain the status quo of African-Americans' experience of life as less than full citizens.

Check and checkmate!!! Excellently stated.

*cue the denial of systemic racism and white privilege in America*

Will Capers said...

"But I'd like to see what she'd do with a good old fashioned ass-whuppin' by a couple of stick-wielding cops in an alley or maybe being followed around every store she enters for her entire life no matter how she's dressed or being kept out of the fancy schools and neighborhoods she had NO problem getting into because she wasn't Black. And for sure, I'd like to see what she'd do with 500 years of vicious institutionalized torture and terror that had not yet ended.

See, that's the part she misses. The institutionalized part. The part that's played by power. Not the power to have your own organization UNDER the social institutions and forces that "let" that organization operate. Not the power to force your way into the media to the extent and in the ways that suit the social institutions and forces that monitor and maintain the status quo of African-Americans' experience of life as less than full citizens. Remember Henry Louis Gates' arrest on his front porch last year? That's an indignity Ma is not likely ever to experience. Though she would be quick to suggest, I'm sure, that she'd never be arrested because she wouldn't do anything that would get her arrested (the implication being that the 80-year-old Dr. Gates is Black and -- famous or not -- probably couldn't help doing whatever got him handcuffed)."

Not to sidetrack, but the woman also doesn't have to deal with the effects of internalized oppression and self-hate caused by hundreds of years of vicious white supremacy.

*sigh*

Changeseeker said...

I was worried this post might be so long, nobody would want to wade their way entirely through it. Thanks, Moi and Will, for weighing in early.

Moi, I love *cue the denial of systemic racism and white privilege in America*. No shit.

Will, raising the issue of internalized oppression is not a sidetrack. It's so imperative to the maintenance of the White Supremacy system that my first ever YouTube videos (posted here deal with exactly that.

Anonymous said...

I just recently read Beverly Tatum's "Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria," and was initially quite taken aback by her assertion that racism was a white trait. As a white woman who had, at one time, been on the receiving end of what I perceived to be racism, I disagreed with her definition. However--as a part of a final class project, I decided to investigate what a white identity meant to different people; interviewing men and women of varied races. The results showed, overwhelmingly, that a white identity and the huge privileges and "leg-ups" that come with it are seen very clearly by minorities and not seen, or ignored, by those wielding the power. Nearly all of the white people I interviewed could not define a white identity, instead telling me that they defined themselves through some other characteristic. Listening back over these interviews made this prejudice+power definition of racism make complete sense. Minorities cannot gain anything from racism, while white racism benefits whites in innumerable ways. Thank you for this articulate and well stated post.

Changeseeker said...

Thank YOU, Anonymous, for your most interesting and helpful comment. I'm delighted you chose to share it with us. Come back anytime.