Wednesday, September 10, 2008

What We Talk About When We Talk About Racism: A Follow Up

Hold on—wait a minute.

When I wrote my last piece for AHH I really had no idea it would set off as much debate as it did. Personally, I figured I’d get a couple of comments along the lines of, “Yawn,” and “Check out my Myspace page!” But I had no idea that so many people would get so heated about a concept that I thought was remarkably redundant. But as I read through some of the comments I realized that much of the anger came about because we really don’t have a definition for institutionalized racism in this day and age. Either we’re using our parents and grandparents definition, or we’re using the signifiers pushed on conservative television. (Did someone say that article was a ‘lame attempt to get African Americans riled up so they can keep passing along racial hatred.”? The last time I heard the term ‘African-Americans’ and ‘riled up’ I think Morton Downey Jr. was on the air.) Both definitions are outdated and polarizing. In fact it’s those very same definitions that keep our discussion on race from evolving. So let’s try to clear it up.

When we talk about racism and in particular, as is the case in my last write up, institutionalized racism, we are talking about two things. The first is the general pattern of the socio-political and cultural foundation of America, which I will refer to as the status quo and the second is the many tools used to maintain that status quo. I don’t need a link to make the point that when this country was founded there was already a built in power hierarchy with English-Protestant whites at the top and African slaves at the bottom (excluding Native-Americans because they were completely outside of that hierarchy, which is why they were nearly exterminated) with non-English whites and people of color in-between. And I shouldn’t need a link to tell you that today, when you look at economic variances between the races; they still echo that same wealth distribution. Why is that the case? Well various segments on the right would like us to think that it’s biological; that, for some reason, people of color lack the motivation, the gumption to pull themselves out of socio-economic positions. But the truth, or at least the truth as I see it, is the primary reason many people haven’t broken out of their pattern yet (and I stress yet, because we are) is because of the historical institutionalized racism that has inhibited growth. It is that tool that maintains the idea that what people of color do is inherently incorrect, sloppy, untrustworthy, and probably, most likely, criminal.

Listen, like millions of Americans I went to see Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, and without giving away any spoilers I’d like to quote something the Joker said that is right on the money to this conversation:

“You know what I noticed? Nobody panics when things go according to plan, even if the plan is horrifying. If tomorrow I tell the press that like a gangbanger will get shot, or if a truckload of soldiers will be blown up—nobody panics, because it’s all part of the plan. But if I say that one little old mayor will die…well then everyone loses their minds! Introduce a little anarchy, upset the established order and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos. And you know the thing about chaos? It’s fear.”

Love that Joker.

Racism is part of this plan. It is part of the pattern that helps keep the social order and maintain the power structure in the United States. It is one of the many ideas that keep things in its place and it’s based on the fact that, as people, we’d rather stick to the plan even if the plan works against us. Our minds tell us that it’s better to hold on to our cold comfort rather than seek out the warm unknown.

I say this not to be polarizing. I’m not even saying it as a reason not to vote for McCain. Personally, while I happen to be an Obama supporter, I don’t think a person should vote for Obama just because he’s black or just because they want to strike a blow against racism. I personally think that Obama is just the better man for the job and I happen to agree with his relatively moderate liberal views that I believe will negate the negative neo-conservative policies of the Bush admistration. I bring this up only to explore and look at what part racism plays in Republican campaign techniques and why it works or doesn’t work.

Many people were upset with me because they think that the political attacks on Obama are status quo political attacks. Well of course they are! The question isn’t, are they unique, but rather what tool did they pull from their tool box to make these attacks? With Gore they attacked his personality—that’s Xenophobia, he’s not like us. With Kerry they attacked his patriotism—that’s Nationalism, he hates our country. But with Obama they use all of the above plus tons of disrespect and an almost delusional and willing ignorance of his accomplishments, and when you bang that down to the nitty-gritty the fuel that helps them make that argument is racism. You see, it’s easy to believe that what Obama did doesn’t matter, or doesn’t exist because it doesn’t fit in with those racist stereotypes we know about blacks today. It doesn’t fit into the pattern. It’s not part of the plan. OJ is part of the plan. Pac-Man Jones is part of the plan. Flava Flav is part of the plan. But Obama, his biography and his current stature isn’t. Why do you think that the memes of ‘Muslim’ and ‘Terrorist’ and ‘Unpatriotic’ stick so well that they can write whole books that go best seller even though a few minutes on the Internet can expose the lies those books are based on? Because it’s better to just stick to the plan, and, to me, this plan is called racism.

Finally, I just want to make one more point: Racism is stupid, and people who are racists are stupid. Chris Rock once made the point that people who adhere to an ideology without looking at the reality of a situation are idiots, and racism is one of those ideologies. When someone sees a white guy in a suit and automatically thinks they’re a racist Republican—you’re being dumb. And when someone sees a black guy in an SUV and automatically thinks they’re selling drugs—you’re being dumb. But that’s easy and that’s why we do it, both black and white, against ourselves and others. It keeps us safe and insulated against harsh reality that everyone not only has the right to be judged as individuals, but that they should be judged as individuals because it’s the most intelligent and productive decision to make. But in our quest to be color-blind let us not forget that there are people and institutions who use racism to achieve their own ends, and let us not confront them with anger but rather let us look at them eye-to-eye boldly, confidently, and rationally. My post was not meant as an excuse to call people ‘Cracker’ or ‘Nigga’ or to rail off on ‘white supremacy’ and it wasn’t so people can say that people use race as a ‘crutch’ to excuse their own weaknesses. Maybe I did come off a bit heated at some of the blatant hypocrisy of the GOP and McCain, but all in all I intended only to study how racism was being tossed around at the RNC. This election is too important to get bogged down in the tools used by the few rather than to observe the big picture.

The only way to evolve is to first recognize the pattern and then step beyond it never to look back.

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