Sunday, July 25, 2010

Is the White Man Superior to Jesus Christ?

As an old guard journalist who used to compose headlines while pasting up underground newspapers in the middle of the night back in the day, I'm a headline junkie. Sometimes, the headlines are all I read for a day or two. The headline's really gotta grab me fast or I move on.

So imagine the bells and whistles that exploded into third gear immediately when I read this one: "Americans still linking Blacks to apes".


I mean, I didn't know whether to read the article and risk being horrified and depressed -- not to mention feeling that I would then have to pass the link on to my Faithful Readers for them to be horrified and depressed -- or just hit the delete button and move on (only to return later in a rabid attempt to relocate the piece and then post the link). So I chose the former.


The Science Blog post tagged with the headline in question briefly outlines a multi-part study conducted over a six-year period by Stanford, Pennsylvania State, and University of California at Berkeley graduate students. Its findings are just as disappointing as I expected them to be. And why am I not surprised?

Apparently, many White Americans subconsciously associate Blacks with apes and are, therefore, more likely to condone violence against Black criminal suspects who are not seen as fully human. That certainly explains a lot of stuff, huh?

No wonder African-Americans often report feeling depressed and shame-ridden, no matter how successful they have become in U.S. society. As I explained a couple of weeks ago, the system of White Supremacy that benefits all White people all the time in one way or the other whether they notice or ask for it or not, means for Black people to feel that way. And one of the ways ordinary White folks participate in this madness is to not question their vague uneasiness with all things (and people) "Black."

White people -- or at least the vast majority of them -- swear there are "good reasons" for feeling some generalized negativity toward African-Americans. Then, when asked to elucidate, they pass the feelings off as connected to what "everybody knows" or some specific experience they had with one or two individuals or their family's attitudes when they were growing up or what they see all over the media on a daily basis. But when presented with research demonstrating how far wrong they are or how differently people of color are treated in the criminal just-us system, they brush off the facts in favor of what they want to cling to in any case. In fact, it's interesting to note just how often the Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card is handed to White Supremacy at exactly the same moment some nameless Black guy gets handed a Go-Straight-to-Jail-Do-Not-Pass-Go-Do-Not-Collect-$200 card. And White folks want to complain about how tired they are of seeing the "race card" played...!

Keep in mind that the folks surveyed by these studies were White male undergraduate students born after the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's so we're not talking about a throwback from some Neanderthal era when Brett and Scarlet tipped the light bombastic. We're talking about White folks who were raised, by and large, in schools that were supposed to be integrated (though not in my parish); White folks who grew up with the option to watch The Cosby Show (and what could be less stereotypical than a doctor and a lawyer living in a two million dollar brownstone in Manhattan?); White folks who were raised hearing Eminem get his "Black" on. So, whassssup? (Right?)

Nothing we didn't already know.

All this started back when Europeans were looking to bankroll the Industrial Revolution and establish themselves as God's chosen so they could convince themselves they were intended to dominate the world. The shortest distance between being a Wanna-be Rich White Person (or nation) and an Obscenely Rich White Person (or nation) conveniently presented itself in the form of the Middle Passage with millions of Africans crossing the Atlantic Ocean against their will and millions of dollars going back across in the opposite direction, winding up not surprisingly in the coffers of the ones who thought up White Supremacy in the first place.

European "religion," "law" and "culture" all played their roles tidily to justify and rationalize these practices. But "science" (the newest monster at the vampire buffet glorifying White skin) was, perhaps, the most lethal. The race-based theories of such "scientists" as Samuel George Morton, Josiah C. Nott, George Robins Gliddon, and Cesare Lombroso have now been resoundingly debunked. Still, they not only ruled the ideological roost in the field of "criminal justice" for nearly 150 years, but their ideas were key to deeply embedding two crucial concepts into our social institutions in general: that Whites are the highest embodiment of human evolution and that Blacks are not only inferior, but even bestial. Even as recently as 1970, for example, Time-Life released a volume on Early Man that carried within it the now famous illlustration at the top of this post, clearly portraying visually what Morton et al at least purported to believe to be true.

I use the word "purported" because, as a social scientist myself, I have never been able to get my brain around how somebody could muster the audacity to suggest that a specific group (of which they are a member, of course) is superior to all other groups and that this superiority is indicated by a characteristic such as skin tone -- when history so glaringly demonstrates otherwise. Further, I reject out of hand the rationality of anyone who would accept as objective knowledge the work of a "scientist" who has "proven" that his particular skin tone indicates superiority. I don't know who disgusts me more: Dr. Superior or his band of merry yes-people .

In any case, it seems to me that Morton, his followers, and those White male undergraduates surveyed for the studies now being discussed ignored an example that begs to differ with their grasp of human reality. You see, it's a matter of historical record that the man so many commonly refer to as Jesus the Christ was a man of color. In fact, the best computer drawing we have based on written accounts, Biblical and otherwise, portrays him this way:

Now, this isn't terribly problematic for people who believe that the story of Jesus parallels that of Horus, the Egyptian god, to a striking degree. And it doesn't matter, I'm sure, to anybody who isn't themselves a "Christian." But for those folks who simultaneously support the ideas of White Supremacy and Christianity (such as those hawking "Yup, I'm a racist" t-shirts at a recent Tea Party event), this could really present a dilemma. I'd sure like to hear how they explain that one.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

How White Supremacy Works

Ever since I was interviewed on the C.O.W.S. radio show, I have been going deeper in my exploration of the socially-constructed, political notion of "race." I have been going deeper and learning more and examining more fearlessly and forgiving less of the damage that continues to be inflicted on people of color by the ideology of White Supremacy that operates like a rabid, raging bull in a shop full to bursting with the finest china. And I'm getting help in the way of opportunities to face more and deal with more, though definitely no freebies. I used to think I knew a thing or two, but these days, I feel increasingly like a wobbling toddler of an intellect (or whatever it is I see myself as being).

So it is with some considerable trepidation that I approach this particular post.

Last week, I got an email that read:

"I always condemn the media in my writing, but there are times where I'm so overwhelmed with the news when it concerns crime committed by blacks. Today is one of those times. I read about how a group of black men were beating up someone while being taped. I read how almost 20 gang members were netted, all of them black men.

A town near where I live has seen an increase in shootings, violence and other crimes over the past 3 years. Most of them involved young black males. I look at news like this, and despite my disdain for the news and how they project blacks, especially black men, I still feel intense shame, and it gets worse whenever more news about crimes committed by blacks surfaces. Then I start struggling with the issues. Sometimes I think that maybe there is something wrong with us. I struggle not to think like there is something wrong with blacks. I try to think about how the news tries to make one-dimensional stories of everything. I try to think that there must be some explanation behind all of this, but the shame seems so strong within me. I ask myself why; why us, and what is done or can be done to stop it other than the default response of putting more cops on the streets?

I know that those people must be held accountable, but what happened? What made it come to this? I hate to admit this, but there are times where I wish I was gone. I get so ashamed that I feel like just giving up, and that it will always be this way. I know it's silly to think this way, but when you're bombarded with news like the ones mentioned plus more, you wonder what's going on.

So, right now, I'm extraordinarily depressed, not to mention helpless as I don't know how to even approach this problem.

I try to avoid local news even though my family watches it. I avoid them whenever they watch the news because I expect the first 5-10 minutes to be about crime, and that they will either have mug shots of blacks or provide descriptions which will likely be described as young, black and male.

Despite knowing the economic, social, educational, and even historical factors that come into play, the shame is still prevalent even when I look for crimes committed by whites as a way of reassuring myself that it's not just blacks. I told my family about this once and they confessed they feel the same way. It's as if the media is purposely trying to make blacks look less-than-human with no remorse. It's like they want to show society how bad black people are regardless of how it makes blacks feel. The media will make excuses and shift the blame back onto us which helps it seem like there is something wrong with blacks.

I know there are people and programs doing what they can to save young blacks at risk, but even so, the shame caused by those who've lost their way continues. So, I ask why, why us, and why me alone in my room trying to make sense out of this nonsense?"

I was brought to a halt by this email. And despite pondering and asking for input and reading and poring over files and pondering some more, I still feel (appropriately, I think) overwhelmed by this man's question.

I have, of course, posted a number of times on some of these issues, even recently. But who am I, I ask myself, to even participate in any discussion of such gripping difficulty? I feel inadequate and insecure. And, I suspect, finally, appropriately, so. That is to say, perhaps it is about damn time.

In any case, I have been asked and I will offer what I can (so far). Hopefully, over time, I will either have more to offer or learn how to butt out, one or the other.

Let me begin by writing that I believe the Email Writer's response is EXACTLY the response the White Supremacist system is shooting for from African-Americans: self-doubt, desperation, helplessness, hopelessness, resignation, depression, shame and more shame. It isn't "silly" to feel those feelings. And it's not "LIKE they want to show society how 'bad' black people are regardless of how it makes blacks feel." It's they WANT African-Americans to feel crappy about being Black. It's a two-fer. White people get to see Black people as inferior, anti-social, dangerous, and 'bad' while seeing themselves as the opposite. And Black people register and virtually drown in feelings that these descriptors MUST be about them because, as the Email Writer suggests, the images actually "bombard" them from all sides continuously. The desired effect is for African-Americans to become convinced on a deep level, not that a system calculated to destroy them psychologically, emotionally and physically is "wrong," but that there MUST be something "wrong" with them.

Consequently, it's not that some poor African-American man (or boy or woman or girl or group) "lost their way." It's that they were herded off a cliff, a cliff reserved expressly for Black people, where the screams of the falling horrify and terrorize other Black people and the resultant carnage occurs at such a rate, it becomes virtually impossible to clean up the broken and bleeding psyches filling the Black community's waking dreams.

I use a concept in the classroom I call the "functional result." If one or more people knows perfectly well what the outcome of a situation is going to be and he, she or they do nothing to stop the process or change the outcome, then they might just as well have intended for the outcome to occur because the "functional result" is the same as if they had. If I know, for example, that the ceiling is dripping and I do nothing to trace the drip to its point of origin or stop it, then, when the ceiling falls in, I'm responsible. The result would have been the same if I had meant for the ceiling to cave in. It's that simple. And I no longer accept that White people in general mean well. It doesn't take a Ph.D. or a psychiatrist to know that what's being done to Black people is not only wrong, it's effective. James Baldwin said, "You can learn everything you need to know about race in America by asking a White man would he want to be Black."

So I'm laying your pain, Email Writer, at the door of White America, myself included. You have done nothing wrong. And even those who have, as you put it, "lost their way" have rather developed, I think, a condition sociologist Calvin Hernton discussed in his essay, "Dynamite Growing Out of Their Skulls" in the late 1960's. Hernton wrote in his unapologetic warning that if the population of the U.S. didn't stop tormenting African-Americans, it would be responsible for unleashing generations of young Blacks with "the psychology of the damned," the sense that there was nothing to discuss or negotiate because they would no longer feel they had anything left to lose.

And that, I would argue, is EXACTLY what we see reflected in the media. I come back to this theme over and over again. And have been thinking about it all anew this week while following the case of Dontae Rashawn Morris, who's been arrested for the murder of two police officers in Tampa, Florida, where I used to live before coming to Louisiana. Even if Morris committed the murders (and murder is ALWAYS a tragic event, not just when police officers are the victims), I am absolutely positive that his life has unfolded in ways that made the outcome inevitable in one way or another. It doesn't take Morris off the hook. But it does add us on there with him.

As Frantz Fanon wrote, "Torture rearranges the mind of the tortured." Which means that we are, just as Hernton warned, increasingly likely to see manifested in our society nightmares first visited on children of color and now, ultimately, returned to us, writhing like snakes hatched in ignorance and back to exact an unexpected karmic justice. "[T]he unpreparedness of the educated classes, the lack of practical links between them and the mass of the people, their laziness, and, let it be said, their cowardice at the decisive moment of the struggle will give rise to tragic mishaps," wrote Fanon further. And I would add to this the clarification that if we see the lazy, cowardly, "educated" class as White America disconnected from the mass of people of color in the U.S., then we might finally begin to recognize where the tragic "mishaps" (on both sides) are really coming from.

Add to all this a system guaranteeing that African-American men in particular will experience their access to jobs as greatly reduced and their likelihood of arrest as greatly enhanced and you have a self-fulfilling prophecy and social script engineered to produce a deepening morass of social issues mascarading as personal problems. Frost this ugly poisonous cake with a frothy mound of what has been called "historical unresolved grief syndrome" or "Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome" (watch a YouTube video on the latter here) and you have the piece de resistance at the White Supremacist banquet.

"We are compelled to resolve," writes Toi Derricotte near the beginning of The Black Notebooks: An Interior Journey, "not only our personal wounds, but the wounds of our ancestors...Now I realize that the depression and fear of suicide that made me begin the work of this book was really a first re-memory of 'killing' voices from my childhood. It was like feeling returning in a limb that has been asleep...I often feel sad, guilty, frightened, and confused. Perhaps my anger isn't just about race. Perhaps it's..a way of dulling the edge of feelings that lie even deeper...What if that feeling of separation and distance from the 'other' is fear of being one with the self, a fear to take in emotionally the meaning of a part of the self that one is not yet ready to handle?"

"I am sure," continues Derricotte later in the book, "that years of conditioning in a society that blamed us for our own destruction -- they're animals, they don't deserve any better -- being aware of what power white people's thought has over our lives, made us feel especially vulnerable. If we controlled our anger, were kind, responsible, dressed in good clothes, drove expensive cars, racism would not affect us. But then there is always the story of the black middle-class doctor stopped in an all-white suburb because the police thought his car was stolen. It seems that many of the shames and desires of the black middle class had at their base a desire to change the perception of whites. This is not just a hangover from slavery, it is an accurate assessment of the danger in the world we live in today. Just about every black person I ever met has some tale of arbitrary cruelty."

Calvin Hernton outlined his agreement with this in The Sexual Mountain and Black Women Writers when he wrote: "In all oppressive situations, it is deemed a virtue for the oppressed to identify with the world-view of the oppressors. The oppressed are 'praised' and 'rewarded' for loathing themselves and for admiring their oppressors; they are derided, made to feel ashamed, and are punished for embracing any ways they themselves might develop, and are instructed and forced to manifest allegiance to the ways of those who oppress them."

But Derricotte has something for this: "Whiteness has to be examined, addressed, not taken as 'normal.' White people have to develop a double consciousness, too, a part in which they see themselves as 'other.' We are all wounded by racism, but for some of us those wounds are anesthetized. When we begin to feel it, we're awake...If we don't recognize anger, if we don't allow for it, if we're not ready, if we don't, in fact, welcome it as a creative force, then I think we're going to end up blaming and dividing people even more...A black person and a white person are not just two individuals who have to decide whether they like each other; but representatives carrying huge expectations, beliefs that they must scale like dangerous mountains, trying to reach each other...Can whites begin to understand and take in the pain of this racist society? So often white people, when a deep pain with regard to racism is uncovered, want it to be immediately addressed, healed, released. Black people have had to live with the wounds of racism for generations. Even goodwill and hard work won't make the personal hurts cease. If this book has any purpose, it's to show the persistence of internal conflicts, of longing, shame, and terror. It represents a twenty-year obsession to observe myself when these feelings arise, rather than to deny or repress them. I have found that there is no cure. Perhaps awareness can give us a second to contain, so that we do not pass these damages on to others."

And finally, Derricotte writes about the terrible price of silence: "Our truths divide us. We fear speaking to each other, black and white, men and women, rich and poor. Yet it is possible to see the context, how we have all been the victims, how it has damaged us. We are afraid of saying the wrong thing. Of making things worse. Of proving that we really are as bad, stupid, or wrong as we suspect the other one thinks. Yet our silence makes us not trust our perceptions, not trust ourselves, and in the long run, it keeps us 'safe,' unthreatened, but stops the really important movement of change through us. The inner structures with all their defenses must tumble...What a terrible knowledge for our children. We close our mouths...We wait until they can take it. Or we say nothing and let them find out for themselves, slowly, as we found out, walking through the world, often alone...We say, 'I don't want to make them paranoid, to make them go around with a chip on their shoulders'...It is the silence that I fear more than anything, the pretense, the way it seems that, in the silence, suddenly some violence springs out that [appears to be] unconnected."

In his poem, Dark Heritage, Louisiana-native Marcus Christian reminds the reader:

“In times of stresses, wars and blasting storms
This one thing I shall evermore remember:
That all of the strength and the blood and the sweat of me --
That all of my longings, my sorrows, my hopes and my joys
Went into making this great land of ours;
That this is my land by the right of both God and of man --
That this is my land, wet with my own life's blood --
That it is enriched with the flesh and the bones of my fathers --
That this land is mine, grown big through my pain and sufferings;
That all I am today and ever shall be
Lies deeply buried in her plains and valleys,
Swamps, hills and mountains,
Meadows, lakes and streams.
I shall forever be a part of her
And she will always be a part of me.”

Theologian James Cone seemed to underscore Christian's sentiments decades later speaking with Bill Moyers on the relationship of the Christian cross to the lynching tree: "[W]hen you can express and articulate what's happening to you, you have a measure of transcendence over it. It gives you speech. It gives you self-definition. And when you have self-definition, and are not defined by the world, then you transcend what is happening to you. Anytime you can see and articulate your reality -- including your loss, tragedy, that's the terrible beauty. See, the beauty is you not being defined by it. The tragedy is looking at that reality, looking at it sharply, plainly, not avoiding it. It's kind of, as James Baldwin said, an ironic tenacity. It is claiming a sense of yourself, even in the midst of misery. So, you can look anywhere. There's always a little bit of good and bad mixed up. The question is, does the bad have the last word? There is always hope."

I'll close this compendium of sources and thoughts from so many different directions with one last quote, this one from James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time: "If we -- and now I mean the relatively conscious Whites and the relatively conscious Blacks who must, like lovers, insist on or create the consciousness of others -- do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world."


Sunday, July 04, 2010

The Police Hall of Shame

I've decided that it would be appropriate to add yet another list on this blog. So, from now on, if you scroll down just a bit and look on the right, you'll find a permanent link to this post containing The Police Hall of Shame. Then I will update this post with links to stories, videos, and websites outlining cases anywhere in the United States at any point in history when one or more police officers killed a person. The person may or may not have been a suspect. The person may or may not have been guilty of anything. The person may or may not have been wielding a weapon at the time. The one thing all of the victims will have in common is that they're dead now and that their death is known to have been at the hands of the police.

I considered including all manner of violence, especially permanent maiming, but that would quickly become completely unmanageable. So I'm going to put the stipulation on those included that the event must have been fatal.

I've started by listing the first few that came to my mind. Please help me with this, okay? And when you send me names with the date of death, don't forget to include a link of some kind giving the details. The link can be to a post on your blog.

Also, while I'm interested in posting cases from the past, what I really want to start doing is listing cases as they occur. In other words, if someone in your community is killed by the police tomorrow, please send me the name of the victim and a link to the story. And if you think it reasonable, publicize a link to this post so the word will get out about it. That way, we will soon see demonstrated the full impact of the carte blanche freedom the police in this country have to "enforce" the "law" with latitude that would put others in prison.

It's not that I think all police officers are irresponsible, racist, wanta-be murderers. It's just that when one of them does go ballistic (literally), nothing typically happens to increase the likelihood that it won't happen again. So -- with your help -- I want to start keeping track.

Most folks hope the police will protect them when needed. But for people of color and most particularly Black people, we have to wonder who's going to protect them from the police? And the answer has to be: us. The population of this country. And it begins by keeping a log.


"My Name Is Ed. I'm a Racist."

I've been thinking, talking and writing of late on the virus of White Supremacy that's embedded in every fair-skinned person raised in the good ole U.S. of A. Actually, I've been thinking, talking and writing on the virus of White Supremacy since at least 1963, so on some levels it just fascinates the hell out of me that I can't even imagine reaching the end of the process of its examination. Social change is constant and inevitable, so how, I ask, does this one area in American culture just seem to get worse and worse. It's not like we don't know about it (whatever White folks like to claim).


Anyway, I came across this a two part essay a few minutes ago and I'm going to post both parts together right here immediately. I'm not suggesting that this guy's got the topic sewed up or anything. But it's a good addition to the dialogue.

"My Name Is Ed. I'm a Racist."
by Ed Kinane/Truthout op-ed

Alcoholics Anonymous knows that recovery requires acknowledging one's illness; denial cripples recovery. What follows isn't about drinking, but about a more cunning disease. Before I say more, I want to introduce myself: "My name is Ed. I'm a racist."

No, I'm not flaunting my bigotry, nor succumbing to guilt. I'm acknowledging that I've been deeply conditioned by a society permeated with racism. For a white person raised in the US, racism recovery demands persistent mindfulness. It's the task of a lifetime.

Admitting you're an alcoholic is hard; likewise admitting to racism. Conveniently, our standard notion of racism features behavior we avoid. We "know" we're not racist because we shun ethnic slurs; we wince at the N-word.

The flipside of this (necessary but insufficient) standard is our widely held, but rarely examined, notion of anti-racism. Again, we "know" we're anti-racist because, in my case for example, back in the eighties we organized against South African apartheid. Or because recently we contributed to Haitian earthquake relief.

But such notions of racism/anti-racism don't go deep enough. It takes work to fathom racism's breadth and subtlety and to perceive the social and economic forces fostering the de facto segregation that warps our social fabric.

Equally essential, we must recognize and resist the racism pervading US foreign policy. The Pentagon's current military adventures - whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia - were foreshadowed, in the 19th century, by relentless Indian wars and by US invasions of Mexico and the Philippines.

This generations-old war machine has never had much use for the lives of peoples of color. It's no accident that its numerous invasions and interventions invariably target nonwhite people.

In my first 14 years of school, I had only two black classmates; despite over 18 years of schooling I never had a black teacher. I was 19 before I had a personal conversation with a black person. My early college days were spent in a lovely ivy enclave set off by walls and rent-a-cops from the black and brown ghetto at its gate.

Demoralized by the irrelevance of my courses, I dropped out. Thanks not only to family connections, but also to the sixties building boom in my hometown, I could work construction. In Syracuse's 15th Ward, "urban renewal" drove thousands of blacks out of what was becoming prime real estate. The forced relocation demolished a vibrant black ghetto.

Despite that boom, few blacks could break into the construction trades; there wasn't a single black in our union local. None of us challenged the arrangement. Forty-five years later, not much has changed here: few black contractors can bid on even modest building jobs.

It's no wonder that in the early eighties, when I hitchhiked through South Africa, it seemed like home. And last spring when I spent a month in Israel and the Occupied Territories, that European colony also felt like home.

Basic to these segregated societies and to our militarism is what poet Adrienne Rich calls solipsism. In philosophy, solipsism is the theory that the self is the only reality: you exist only as a figment of my imagination.

Rich speaks, in particular, of white solipsism: a cultural egoism, which assumes - quite unconsciously - that only white history or discovery or suffering or interests have merit and standing. Most white folks - whether in South Africa or Israel or here - grow up in white neighborhoods going to white schools and consuming white-controlled media. This is how we internalize white "reality."

For many of us, the solipsism that denies or demeans or destroys did not originate with racism. It began, historically and personally, before we were exposed to ethnic diversity. While being molded for roles defined by gender, boys acquire the parallel male solipsism of a patriarchal culture. Sexism precedes racism, grinding the lens that makes our racist outlook second nature. Sexist behavior provides an ongoing rehearsal for our racist performance.

When we were young, we had little control over our enculturation and so weren't to blame for such tunnel vision. But now that we're grown, we are responsible for the kinds of callousness and exclusivity we choose to honor. Many of us eagerly - or obliviously - float along the mainstream that invalidates the lives of people of color. Their labor and their living conditions, their needs and their pain, their gifts and their rights, are systematically negated, rendered invisible, rendered mute.

White solipsism helps explain the foreign policy double standard which regards only political violence aimed at whites as "terrorism." Since World War II, few whites have been victims of aerial warfare: no wonder few here see such warfare as the cowardly terrorism it is.

Although the pundits glibly link "terrorism" to Islam, they never call Congress or Bush/Clinton/Bush/Obama terrorists when they squander billions invading Islamic oil lands or when (say) US drone aircraft assassinate those resisting the invasion and occupation. Or when those unmanned drones kill civilians willy-nilly.

In the moral calculus of white America, the tens - maybe hundreds - of thousands of slain Iraqis or Afghans barely exist. Even we who actively oppose US militarism in West Asia and the Mid East often ignore the racism at its heart.

To overcome our "isms," we could curb our overconsumption and our overeager embrace of privilege. We could shed our patterns of exclusivity, bursting the bubble of self-reinforced segregation.

Through cross-cultural study and solidarity work, we could better understand the human condition - especially that of the huge majority of our species who aren't white, who aren't affluent, who don't blackmail the globe with aerial warfare and nuclear terror.

Years ago, I hitchhiked through Africa. I spent several weeks each in Sudan, Uganda, Nigeria, Namibia, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and apartheid South Africa. For a year - between treks - I taught peasant kids in a remote one-room school in Kenya.

My experiences with people all over Africa were diverse, but generally positive. They were different from those I had had with black people back in the United States.

At the time, struck by the contrast, I drew up a list of all the encounters I could recall having had with U.S. blacks. A manageable task - as for most middle-class white North Americans (and even an itinerant like me), such encounters had been sparse. That list included separate incidents in which I was punched in the face; beaten to the ground; confronted by a burly knife-wielding drunk determined (he said) to "get whitey"; called a "racist pig" by a middle-aged student for questioning her impeccable term paper (it was most unlikely she had written it herself).

A black person scanning this list might wonder how many of those incidents would have been avoided or defused if race conditions in the U.S. weren't so flammable. Or if I hadn't seemed so entitled. On the other hand, a white person might wonder why those incidents didn't make me an out-and-out racist.

One reason I have escaped the racist trap - not that any of us escape entirely - is that I do a lot of reading. I've read many books on black Americans and black Africans, and on capitalism and colonialism. Those books expose a scarring history; they expose the impact of organized power (white) over the lives of the less centralized and less weaponized (people of color). Those books expose the historical impact of men with guns on those without.

Another reason I haven't succumbed as much to racism, I think, is all the low-budget travel I've done. I've gotten out of what I call "the bubble" - those self-imposed limitations, geographical and otherwise, typical of so many Americans. The bubble, partly constructed by our mainstream media, leads many into jingoism and into U.S. exceptionalism: the illusion that U.S. people are somehow different from - somehow more decent and precious than - others.

Travel provided me the opportunity to observe the human condition. I've seen how people can live in penury - due to social, economic and historical factors - through no fault of their own. And do so with dignity and neighborliness. In part because I was often on the receiving end of hospitality, I could better see people as human beings and not as "other."

I should point out here that, thanks to a privileged head start, I've been able to have some professional training. But such training can be a mixed bag. Take my (former) field - anthropology. The field basically originated in the 19th century in the context of the expansion of well-armed white people over much of the globe. Anthropology was an adjunct to colonialism.

Here in the U.S., there are two kinds of anthropology: physical and cultural. During its early decades, physical anthro fixated on racial traits and typologies. In effect, physical anthro was seeking out and quantifying anatomical differences between "us" and "them."

Cultural anthropology carried the white supremacist mission in still another direction. In origin, and by its choice of problems and selection of data, cultural anthro fostered the conceit that Anglo-America was the peak of cultural evolution. Further, it served colonial administration, intentionally or not, by inventorying the resources and manpower of conquered peoples and identifying indigenous pockets of compliance...or resistance.

At times, anthropology has facilitated physical and cultural genocide. To the detriment of the communities they studied, during the Vietnam War, anthro and other academic research in Southeast Asia was financed by a very goal-oriented CIA. In Afghanistan today, the U.S. military has its so-called Human Terrain social scientists deployed along with the invading troops.

Anthropology happens to be the field I'm most familiar with. It's probably not much more guilty than some other fields. Academic learning, in general, especially that which pretends to be "objective" or "value free," or which poses as "social science," tends to serve the agendas of those who finance it. By the data it neglects or emphasizes, it can spawn myths and subtle slanders that justify or bolster white governance.

Ironically, academic learning helped provide me with liberal notions about race while at the same time credentialing me for a place in the very class system that perpetuates and profits from racial exploitation.

It's the old story of the Haves and the Have Nots. While modern genetics knows there really isn't any such thing as "race," liberals in regard to race can be quite classist. I find it easy to look down on poor whites, especially those who don't share my facility for appearing "politically correct."

Not every white can afford a gated community or suburban insulation. Some have more reason to fear and resent blacks. Some may have had their bruising encounters with blacks on the street (see above). That blacks have had vastly more to fear from whites and from white law enforcement hardly matters if you are a white feeling threatened.

The fears and resentments of poor whites - which we reflexively label "racism" - may very well be based, in part, on concrete experience. Poor whites are on the downside of a class system that pits them against blacks - blacks who, despite their disadvantages, are often brimming with brio and capability.

In our effectively segregated society, poor whites - far more than prosperous whites - rub elbows with poor blacks. After all, they're scavenging the same few crumbs and for the same scarce jobs. Sometimes they clash. Racial epithets abound. Such conflict, of course, is deplored by the genteel.

But these good people - I'm talking about you and me - gain from a divided working class. Racial strife makes it very hard for workers, tenants, and welfare clients to organize for decent wages, housing and social services. For the affluent, skimpy social services mean lower taxes; cheap labor means lower prices, and both mean higher dividends.

Like prosperity, our self-esteem is relative. In the early eighties in South Africa, I could see that black degradation fostered white self-esteem. I don't think it's so different here. Racism is hardly an exclusively lower-class franchise.

There's a whole strata of genteel and structural racism that isn't vulgar or verbal or directly violent. That strata's violence is systemic (item: in my home town, far more black babies die from preventable illness in their first year than whites). Such systemic racism isn't confrontational. On the contrary, it operates on aversion and invisibility, on obliviousness and avoidance - reflecting the opaque distance between suburb and slum. And it's a function of the immense disparity of wealth - shaping life options - that marks the gulf between whites and people of color.

I'd like to close with an assertion: what we typically think of as racism (e.g. people under stress calling one another "nigger," etc.) often isn't real racism. It's a product of racism - a product of those forces determining the unequal distribution of power and opportunity in our society.

To the extent that I profit from and help perpetuate such forces, consciously or unconsciously, I foster racism.
NOTE: The cartoon featured above is by Barry Deutsch.