In the past few years, between the high of Obama’s election and the terrible tragedy of Ferguson, Martin Trayvon, and proliferating Jim Crow-esque voter ID laws, race is back as an urgent issue in American society.
The most common phrase I hear comes from people who seemed shocked that racism is still around: ‘How is this still a thing?’ they seem to say. It is hard for me to think that there is a reason why so many Americans think that “racism” is over. There has been a concerted effort since the ’70s to make us believe that this issue was “solved”.
It only takes a few seconds of open minded, clear thinking to come to the conclusion that since biologically (DNA) we are all equal (all human, with the same amount of potential), all differences are due to ‘race’ are historical, cultural and economically manufactured differences. Yes, black people are better at dancing then white people (no, they don’t have music in their bones or something like that), but this indicates not genetics, but culture.
So why is racism still around? How does it survive, indeed, how is it literally thriving? Part of it is that “racist” is too strong; people do not recognise themselves as “racist” even when they are blatantly racist. We all have race ‘bias’. And I think that this is a big part of it. Nobody can deny a bit of intuitive, race ‘bias’. This is a softer, less hard-and-fast racism, then a subtle sub-set of assumptions which may technically not qualify as classically racist (i.e., that black people are inferior to white people).
I think that there is more to racism than simply ‘bias’ instead of racism, especially since ‘bias’ has always been at the root of outright, classical racism, which has always had an air about it of frantic emotional justification for massive social crimes. The classical racist is obviously wrong that such ideas can only survive in very specific time-and-places, backed by certain economic and political forces. Think Hitler or the Klu Klux Klan. Bias, then is the real culprit because it forms the approving and authorising background to the very real and active crimes that constitute racism.
Bias/Racism survive because of three basic motors: the power of simple and clear ideas which seemed to be confirmed in concrete reality, the complex yet subtle web of emotional incentives for such thinking, and the economic/power incentives for racism. In other words, racism is surprisingly efficient for something that is so incorrect. We all receive little emotional bonuses, even those most oppressed by racism, by being racist. The idea of a race hierarchy, especially applies here.
Here is my direct experience of the ‘efficiency’ of racism. Teaching skiing out in Colorado, I wound up for a solid week with a group of teenagers. Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen years old, mostly from the East. New York City, etc. Typical places, Yankee places, not heavily associated with racism. We had a black kid in the group, of Jamaican-English background. And while he was not subjected to “racism”, I was fascinated by the role played by “bias” in many comments and jokes. His race was a constant subtext, and area of anxiety and resentment of that anxiety. His skin color was the subject of many jokes, not in a bad way, but obviously a subject of deep fascination for these kids.
Adolescent insecurity and weirdness aside, I saw the appeal of ‘bias’: it is simple. Complex things, savagely unjust things become somehow more palatable; less surreal. These adolescents, desperately trying to figure out the complex and paradoxical adult world, and find themselves and their place in it, grasp and cling to clear and easy rules. One loved speaking in stereotypical Mexican immigrant pidgin, an other played up a southern accent and southern racism, I felt, in order to make his other comments seem less outrageous. These adolescents also had a mania for ranking, for knowing where they stood, really. They where all band-wagoners: they liked, for example, only the most successful teams, regardless of sport.
I have never really identified with political correctness, seeing it as a weird form of thought police as well as a truly awful substitute for genuine compassion and understanding. But I found my self forced into the role of PC police: I had to either tacitly go along with the jokes which I felt were harmful, or play clunky PC/ naive liberal authority figure. I was baffled as to how to foil this mindset which I felt effectively authorised true racism.
Part of what offending me was the undeniable whiff of ignorance and insecurity in the face of the Other. An awful lack of compassion and empathy. I do not in the slightest bit identify with immigrants, or any of the other terms we might deploy to describe the untouchables in our society, but I can have compassion for them and understand their plight; understand that the true crime originates from a twisted and sociopathic economic system. Read American Psycho and you will see what I mean.
Racism slips past from generation to generation in the forms of these jokes, these terrible accents (harmless in and of themselves?). Even in movies where characters makes ridiculous jokes and comments, even these in some small way authorise and reaffirm racist attitudes.
Why is Jeremy Clarkson so popular, so funny? It is the appeal of false confidence. This is the realm of ignorance-is-bliss for sure.
So how do we change, how do we put racism or ‘bias’ to bed? It is part of a much bigger problem; it gathers its energy from forces beyond that of movies and jokes. I doubt that the tactical skirmishes of PC policing make the slightest difference in the long run; what we need instead is a way to subvert the economic, political and emotional basis for these ideas.