Sunday, October 01, 2006

Is Sociology Part Of The Problem?

As my faithful readers know so well by now, I am slow, slow, slow to post these days and only flit in and out occasionally to comment on this or another blog. I graded papers week-end before last and fully intended last week-end to pick up where Ms White left off with A European-American Sets Me Straight (3), which I will surely get to shortly, I hope. But in the meantime, coming on-line with the best of intentions, I dropped by Clampett's blog and found first, a very funny, if typically outrageous, Chris Rock film clip on how African-Americans can avoid getting beaten by the police, and then, second, a link to an article by one Patrick L. Cooney, Ph.D., on racism.

The back story, of course--and there often is one, I guess--is that my Ph.D. dissertation which I worked on in 1993 and 1994 and which has gone the way of all uncompleted treatises, was entitled "On Rationalizing Racism: Institutionalized Oppression in Sociological Writings on African-American/European-American Relations." So, I was an instant sucker for Dr. Cooney's piece, subtitled "What if Black Muslim Kahlid Mohammed earned a PhD in sociology?". He almost instantly threw a couple of lobs at sociology as a perpetuater of racist thought processes and generalized practices, so even though it was long and sometimes arduous, especially at first, I couldn't help myself. I had to read it. And then I started making notes and now here I am--four days later--and Ms White is back on the back, back burner, as it were, once more.

Now, I'm fully aware that many of you will not read the article, especially when you wade through its opening paragraphs, but for those of you who can, I recommend slogging through it till you get to the good parts, which get better and better as he goes along, I thought. And in any case, he raises some issues I think are important, though I will also criticize the piece, as well (surprise!). But before I begin, please remember that I am not, repeat not, repeat (for goodness' sake) not! a scholar. You can talk bad about me behind my back or disregard what I have to say or put rabbit ears behind my head just before my picture gets taken. I don't care. I'm not trying to convince anybody of anything (hel-lo!). I'm just saying my piece. Those who sputter about my lack of credentials or scholarly publications can, well, suck an egg, for all I care. Including Cooney, who apparently feels that we should all talk nice to each other. I tried that. Nobody listened. Nothing changed. And I got a rash. Now I'm a fatmouth. Several people listen. And, at least, while I'm still waiting for change, my rash has disappeared, so as far as I'm concerned, I'm ahead of the game.

I agree with a number of Cooney's points, as I already said, but right at the outset, I wasn't sure I would. For example, he began by calling old guard racists racist. Then, he called "neo-racists" (those who come at it more "subtly") racist. Then, he called "racial separatists" (those who think the only way for ethnic groups to be okay is for all groups to be separate) racist. And finally, he called even "multicultural separatists" (those who think all ethnic groups are okay, but need to be free to establish themselves on their own terms) racist. In other words, pretty much everybody's racist, in his opinion. Except him? It's a little hard to tell. But regardless, this has everything to do with what one means by racism. It's like bandying about any other label. It all depends on what you mean by the term.

If I hand you a can of something and the label on the outside says that it's "sliced peaches," how do you know it's peaches? You assume the label is correct. But when you open the can, you're gonna know, right? Because you know what sliced peaches look like and you know what they taste like. It's a no-brainer. Unless, of course, you open it and it's beans or applesauce and the label wasn't correct.

And what if the outside of the can has no label? Then what? It could be anything. And I could put any label I want on it and, if I'm adept enough, I can convince you that it is what I say it is. Unless you open it and identify it as something other than what I labeled it.

What makes a "peach" a "peach" anyway? Social consensus. We all agree that a juicy fruit with sweet, yellowish flesh, a fuzzy skin, and a big hard crinkly pit in the middle is a peach. Or a melocoton. Or a peche. Or a pfirsich. Depending on what language we're using. Get my point? It all depends on where you're coming from. I, for example, posit that your own personal prejudices are not particularly relevant unless you have the power to do something with them--from a position of dominance. Using that definition, an African-American--who can certainly be prejudiced against or even hateful toward "Whites"--cannot be "racist." They don't have the power.

Toward the end of his article, however, Cooney discusses how some African-Americans internalize the values of the racist paradigm in the United States and then develop a racist orientation, even participating in the racist agenda (a la Condi Rice, for example?). He calls this being racist, and on this, we agree, though I had never considered it in this light before. I refer to internalized oppression often, but I had not called it "racist" because of the confusion this would undoubtedly create for people who would not choose to understand the nuances involved. Still, to put the racism of "White" people who appear to benefit from racist attitudes and practices in the same pot with the internalized racism of "Black" people who appear to benefit from them because they are rewarded for doing so by the "Whites" would seem to ignore the complexities and the dangers in how this discussion might be used. Also, the "racism" absorbed and manifested by African-Americans requires them to see themselves as inferior and I would argue that a great number of those who have found it necessary to "work within the system" (as Cooney calls it) may have absorbed some very self-destructive perceptions and perspectives, but nonetheless, at the base, know Whitey's not superior and White supremacy is a lie.

Another early point Cooney makes is that "liberals" (whoever they are, because he doesn't define the term) are racist without meaning to be because they're busy trying to be "politically correct" and miss what racism really is. Actually, I don't disagree with this except that Cooney sometimes seems to be calling all sociologists "liberals" or all those who push "political correctness" "liberals". And that leaves out more than a few folks. That is to say, I'm a sociologist, but I'm far left of anything he could rightly label "liberal" (and possibly far left of him, though he likes to refer to his politics). And I'm unconcerned with being "politically correct." Particularly when you consider what the politics in this country are these days.

I believe in respect. I don't just believe in "talking nice." Those two things are not mutually exclusive, but they are not necessarily interchangable either. The term "politically correct," in fact, has been used (as is typical) to create a buzz-word backlash, as if calling someone a pejorative term as a means of robbing their personhood is the same as ridiculing somebody's ideas when they have had plenty of opportunities to change them and rather choose to still see others as beneath them--whether they admit it, understand it, consciously compute it or not.

So I see Cooney as making a mistake when he appears to lump "sociologists," "liberals," and "multiculturalists" into one big amorphous ball of contradictions and then proceeds to talk bad about them, saying they try to censor those they oppose. He writes that "...they believe in enforcing what has become known as politically correct multicultural ideas and speech. They are so biased that they do not realize they are often engaging in emotionally abusive language and behavior..."

But who is he talking about here? Sociologists? Liberals? Multiculturalists? All of them? Just the ones who say or write things that make someone uncomfortable? Dr. Cooney says much by the end of his article that would make some folks apoplectic. Does that make him emotionally abusive? You can't have it both ways. One has to assume that he has no bone to pick with sociologists who agree with him. And nobody on the left has wanted to be called a liberal since 1968. And what, precisely is the problem with letting folks decide for themselves where they want to sit? Is that racist because it hurts White folks' feelings? Later, he emphatically holds that it's appropriate for White folks to be afraid of African-Americans because of what continues to be perpetrated against people of color in the best interests of the White power structure, even if poor European-Americans get short shrift, too. But, at least in his opening, he seems to suggest that none of that matters. What matters is that everybody ought to be forced to hang together right this minute whether they feel ready to do that or not. Excuse me?

Sometimes Cooney makes statements I find problematic. For example, he refers at one point to Nathan Glazer's idea that "we have moved to the situation where the government ha[s] taken on a commitment to facilitate the maintenance of the ethnic heritage and a commitment that requires that school authorities take into account ethnic and linguistic differences in education..." and he attributes this to the influence of the multiculturalists. But the government is nothing more than a tool for those who have the power to define, in the strictest structural sense (and Cooney is into structure), so how does that become something we should fault multiculturalists for? I hope he's not calling the White power structure and its governmental appendages multiculturalist. It does its damnedest to prove otherwise.

Almost immediately after this, he mentions in passing that " terms of culture, [B]lacks were pretty assimilated...", and while you do see African-Americans everywhere in the U.S., I wonder what most African-Americans would say about how "assimilated" they feel on most days.

Then, when he flatly states that "Afrocentrist writings are just the silliest of the poor quality of the new research parading as scholarship," I am left wondering yet again: would this be all Afrocentrist writings all over the world for all time--even the Afrocentrist writings that are hailed as brilliant or win awards or whatever? There must surely be some Afrocentrist writings he doesn't find "silly." And if that's not true, if all Afrocentrist writings are, in fact, "silly" to him, I would suggest that he's missing an ability to get outside his Eurocentric paradigm far enough to know the difference.

And speaking of paradigms, what passes for "scholarship" is typically determined by the social scientific era in which it appears--and who's in the catbird seat in that field and in that era. The work of the "criminologist" Caesare Lombroso (who believed he could predict criminality based on body characteristics) was touted as "scholarly" for one hundred years until it was de-bunked as unscientific mumbo jumbo. And Galileo spent his whole life in house arrest for holding the "unscholarly" view that the world was not flat...?

I would hasten to add, here, that I am not trying to censor Dr. Cooney, a concern he has when strong statements about paradigm get made and appear to shut down what he apparently sees as the process of dialogue. (He particularly criticizes, for example, academics ridiculing in front of other academics statements of some of their respondents that demonstrated the racist warp and woof of our society.) But I would argue that what we are seeing is not censorship, but a collapse of one set of paradigms and the introduction of another.

According to Kuhn's theory of scientific revolution (which, as far as I know, has not been thrown out with either the baby or the bathwater, as yet) no one inside the proverbial box is ever comfortable with the noises made by those who, through whatever accident of thought or history, wind up placed outside it and still conversant. Did Galileo have a responsibility to "rationally" argue with his "colleagues" when they had him locked away? Would they have listened? Their action in sequestering him suggests even at this late date that they didn't choose to know what he was saying. Do you suppose that he might have cracked jokes about them to the few who would drop by to talk? According to both Lyford Edwards (in The Natural History of Revolution) and Alberto Melucci (in Nomads of the Present), ridicule of those in power and of those who support that power is not only typical in a pre-revolutionary society (or social science?), but is actually one of the techniques of "making the power visible" so that, as Foucault would say, a strategy of struggle can be developed and espoused among those who are listening.

I found particularly well presented the section entitled "White Racism Ignores Sociological Racism." It discusses how the mainstream U.S. "White" population came to see the socially-constructed, political notion of "race" and African-Americans as a people the way they do today, outlining quite nicely the effects of Moynihan et al in this process. Nevertheless, he himself in one sentence refers to "political scientist Edward Banfield and black sociologist Thomas Sowell" as if mentioning Sowell's skin tone was germane to Cooney's point. And therein lies the rub. Cooney and I and everybody else in the social science universe function within the context of our training, our mindset, and our paradigm. Much as we fight to see ourselves as outside it or able to observe it from a vantage point of some kind, our inability to stand apart, to avoid the very personal effects of our evolution during a particular period of history and in a particular culture will out. There is no moral high ground. We are all brothers (and sisters) under the skin.

But after this point, Cooney begins pulling out the stops, if you will. "Racism in America," he writes, "is more important than capitalist inequality in damaging the American system, although both factors work hand-in-hand and reinforce each other to cause the damage." "...[I]nstitutional racism is a way of avoiding putting the blame where it belongs: on the real, deliberate and active racism of white middle class people," he continues. "It would be a great redistribution of income from whites to blacks in order to equalize the races. And there would be very little willlingness on the part of whites to sacrifice economically to make these changes." Well, no shit.

"...[R]acism affects every part of American society and politics. The disciplines of all social sciences are involved, and these cannot possibly be found in a survey of a group of American citizens," Cooney suggests flatly. And he holds that the idea to which Moynihan gave birth that African-Americans have the same opportunities (today) as any other U.S. citizens, but are just broken people and cannot rise to the occasion is used to "absolve whites of any guilt over possible white immorality."

But then he'll add something like "the perspective of white racism creates unnecessary paranoia among minorities." I must be misunderstanding the man, since I don't see any level of paranoia among people of color as "unnecessary" the way things are. Unfortunate, maybe; crippling, certainly; but unnecessary? Talk to the surgeon from Florida who went to L.A. to present at a medical conference, but who was arrested for some specious reason and placed in hand-cuffs so tight, he'll never do surgery again. Paranoia is reasonable among African-Americans. Statements by social scientists are not irresponsibly whipping up an inappropriate response in people who would otherwise feel safe.

But when he calls racism a "social destroyer," he's right up my alley again. "Whites," Cooney claims, "are...actively engaged in pretense, lying, dissembling, hiding their real racist feelings, etc." And I would add: ashamed of this, as well, because they know it. They just don't want to say so.

"Racism," he continues, "is not just a part of U.S. culture. It is the main cause and primary ingredient of America's puritanical and moralistic culture. Racism is not as American as apple pie and motherhood. Rather America is racism. The American stress on puritanism is the result of racism, not vice-versa...Whites want to be racists. It is in their interests in the short run (which is the only time frame they are concerned about) to be racists." Here, I was with him hook, line and sinker until he reached the last sentence, which I disagree with because I think racism only appears to be in the best interests of "White" people. How can doing damage to other humans with which one has to live one's entire life possibly be in one's best interests--even in the short term? Making enemies among one's housemates is patently stupid. Which is one reason I'm so aggressive with those European-Americans who whine about how harsh I am. They're agitating people I live with and I, for one, don't like the fall-out.

Which brings me to yet another bone of contention. As he winds down his treatis, Cooney uses Huey P. Newton (one of the founders of the Black Panther Party who ultimately marked himself as an abuser of women and drugs) as an example of the "type of people" that "liberals" of yesteryear (who are the multiculturalists of today, he says) supported. And he suggests that this is what is wrong with sociology. My response to that would be, yes, and who would you have supported, Dr. Cooney, since you don't sound old enough to have been there?

Huey P. Newton was the product of everything Cooney outlines in his article. The expectation that African-Americans could and should live under the kind of nightmare Cooney describes so well, but not respond to it accordingly, was--and is, I might add--exactly why some European-Americans who were there in the sixties supported the Panthers, and even Newton. Not because he was a "homocidal psychopath," as Cooney puts it, but because of why he was one.

Some of those who were active in one way or another in the 1960's and 1970's became so precisely because they felt that it was time to face the true repercussions of oppression against people of color (and others) even though many had no idea how to "be for real" about it all. We were scared, but we were not ready to try to tell somebody how we thought they had a right to defend their lives. It was not our pain. It was his (and theirs). And if he was crazy (and he was), we had made him so. Not just the system, as Cooney says, but us. "White" people. Some of whom still wanted to tell Newton, in particular, and African-Americans in general, how to present their case. By now, racism may be relatively easy to analyze for someone who has a clue, but the remedies will be complicated indeed, and will not, I suspect, be drafted by people that look like me, however intellectual, well-meaning or not.

When he castigates those who try to find their identity and personhood through loving their ethnicity, Cooney misses the point entirely. And calling this effort, which is never entered lightly because it is a often a painful process in many ways, "ethnocentric" suggests he doesn't even understand the term. Ethnocentrism doesn't mean I have pride in my heritage or that I love myself as a product of my history. Ethnocentrism means that I think my ethnic group is superior to others. People of African (and Latino and Asian and Native American) descent aren't claiming superiority or supremacy. Just White folks do that. And I would have to say, that even if a Native American (for example) did claim superiority, at least over the "White" race, I would understand where they were coming from. Nobody has tried to do (and done) what Europeans and their descendents have done around the world in terms of pure unmitigated self-serving brutality under the guise of racial supremacy. The damage that has been done to the earth and all the life thereon, including human, by people that looked or look like me is such that we could, in fact, be seen as inferior to any group that has not so behaved.

Nevertheless, that is not what the other groups suggest. They are simply trying to regain the joy in being that has been so viciously robbed from them for so long in the name of White power. And they will not stop just because their oppressors feel put upon or misunderstood. It's time for White people to stop expecting people of color to make them feel better about themselves. It's time for White people to start looking inside and behaving in ways they can feel good about without pretense.

As Cooney finishes up, he calls Martin Luther King, Jr., a "person of the left" which is arguable. He sought inclusion was all, not a highly radical concept actually. He spoke out against war and against White supremacy, but he didn't seek to change the system of capitalist exploitation per se. Still, I think it's much more telling that Cooney makes it a point that he considers himself a leftist in the King tradition, and one who opposes multicultural separatism. Why this really concerns him so might make a interesting night's conversation one on one. Because nobody thinks we can actually live separately in this world any more. Hell, I can be read in Africa as soon as I push "enter." But as long as White people make everyone else's life a hell on earth, why would they want to live with us? That's the question. And Cooney knows it.

"The discrimination against blacks reinforced by stereotypes and prejudice," he writes in one of his last paragraphs, "actually creates a reality for blacks so ugly the whites are scared of their own creation. This then reinforces stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination. But that is the way racist whites designed and want the system to work. (Except that it is working too damn well and creating too much crime even for them.)"

And with that, he closes, referring finally to Andrew Hacker's "elevator test" for racism. Hacker asks his audiences sometimes which elevator they would get in if they were presented with two cars arriving at the same time, one filled with young White males and the other with young Black males. Apparently, Hacker suggests that, if you choose the one with the White males, you are racist. Cooney claims, instead, that "we" would choose the car with the White males "every time not because we are racists, but because we, unlike Hacker, understand fully the cruel and devastating nature of America's racist system."

But Cooney is not right about all of us. I, for example, would get on the elevator with the young African-American males because, despite all the craziness of our shared history, I know they're still Africans in their hearts. And Africans have a deep sense of community.

When I was doing my research for my Master's thesis on social distance between Africans and African-Americans and the attitudes of White Americans toward both groups, I asked individuals from each of the three groups to choose adjectives to describe their own and the other groups. The Africans most commonly chose adjectives to describe themselves as community-oriented or good members of a community (such as "family-oriented," "tribal," "very religious," "friendly," "industrious," etc.). The European-Americans chose adjectives that marked them as "rugged individualists" ("career-oriented," "materialistic," "goal-oriented," "self-centered," "power-hungry" and so forth). But though the African-Americans chose some of the same adjectives as their fellow country men with lighter skin, they also chose adjectives such as "hard working," "family-oriented," and "very religious." So its still in there. Which is probably why they haven't burned this country down long ago.

So, precisely because I know "White" boys aren't always "nice" either, and because I know that African-American youth frequently are made to feel the burden of White racist fear--most of the time unfairly, I would march onto the elevator with the young Black men, looking them in the eye, speaking my greeting as I entered, and they would make space and speak to me back. The problem, Dr. Cooney, is a social constuction and will be resolved when White people change.