Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Racial Paranoia vs. Race Cardology...

C-Span just sent me a DVD copy of my segment from BookTV last month on C-Span 2. (The link is on the upper right hand corner of this page.) I’m speaking way too quickly (and don’t even get to a few major themes from the book), but it does lay out the beginnings of my point about “de cardio racism” and its difference from earlier modes of racial reasoning in American history.

Speaking of racism’s newfangled permutations, I finally read through the second Village Voice piece on the Madonna Constantine case. Clearly, if she did hang a noose on her own office door as a tactic to preempt the public exposure of her plagiarism case, she would represent one of the most dramatic and disingenuous versions of playing the race card in academic history. It would be the epitome of “Bluffing About Race,” as the subtitle to Richard Thompson Ford’s new book phrases the issue. (Of course, some people would argue that any invocation of race/racism at all is the verbal equivalent of putting a noose on your own little door.)

In many ways, Ford and I start off with the same premise about how differently race and racism function today, but we use that idea to talk about two very different (though not mutually exclusive) things.

I argue that our politically corrected environment forces public expressions of racism to go underground. They get euphemized, which is a relatively new phenomenon in an American republic where as late as the 1960s politicians could run on explicitly racist/segregationist platforms with impunity. I use this point to say that we shouldn’t imagine sanitizing public discussions about racial differences as the endgame of our racial politics today. We actually need spaces where people can be honest about their investments in racial difference, not to the point where others are endangered or offended, but enough so that we can have “conversation on race” that are useful and productive — not public-relations stunts.

The flipside of this euphemization of racial animus is that people don’t think egalitarian racial language necessarily reflects a speaker’s hidden beliefs about race. In a context where getting labeled a racist is “bad for business,” most people avoid the theme entirely — at least in mixed company. This dynamic breeds a scenario where, for example, African Americans are skeptical about public expressions of racial inclusion and look for hidden signs of racist hearts (“de cardio racism”) beneath race-neutral (even progressive) exteriors.

Richard Thompson Ford’s The Race Card uses a similar starting point to argue that the legal justice system can’t treat these less explicit forms of racism the way it powerfully addressed earlier (more straightforward and self-evident) kinds. He’s right. But that doesn’t mean that the rest of us have the same luxury in our everyday lives. We’re not off the hook. Either we find a way to deal with these serious race-based skepticisms (the idea that Madonna Constantine put a noose on her own door to quiet critics represents an example of the same skepticism in reverse), or we create some strange Never Never Land of post-racial living by collective repression.

(First posted on the Chronicle's Brainstorm Blog)


Winslow said...

I prefer to post here rather than the Chronicle blog because some of discussions get derailed a little too quickly for my tastes. Anyways, I think that both your book and Ford's are actually two sides of the same coin on the current racial discourse, which I arrogantly think I have figured out already. Allow me to explain by analogy:
We have been trained by society to look at instances of racism as a sort of zero-sum instance of hatred based on race, such as lynchings, firings, Jim Crow, internment camps etc. Racism is only racism if it is the sole reason for why people take action. Yet life is never that simple, and current expressions of racism can be plausibly, though perhaps not convincingly, denied, based on whether racism was the sole cause of any action, making it infuriating to tackle for those people that experience it (Racial Paranoia, as it were). Now, this idea of pure racism, which, for reasons of convenience I will pretend to measure as "100% racism", is the benchmark for how many people choose to identify racial bigotry. On the flip side, any instance of racism, from 1% to 100% is the benchmark for how many other people choose to identify racial bigotry. Now for the weird equation: thus, for some, anything below 100% is not real racism, while for others, anything over 0% is just as bad as 100% racism. The latter can best be explained by analogy: when Steve Nash won his first MVP against Shaq, there were cries of Racism because mostly white sportswriters voted in a white basketball player over a black one. To paraphrase another sportswriter who covered the issue, out of the ten reasons why a sportswriter would give Nash the MVP, race was the tenth and most insignificant reason. It was there but not nearly as important as the other 90% of why Nash should have won. Is that Racism, with a capital "R", or something different? To bring it back to the original point, in other words, some people think that if a person is not lynched or the n-bomb is not used, it does not count as Racism, versus others considering Steve Nash's first MVP as an extension of Jim Crow and the equivalent of a lynching. Both sides have merit to their arguments and should not be thrown out altogether, but they are ultimately diametrically opposed to each other. Of course this definition of racism is not concerned with questions of power, making it useless for some people, but I find that inserting power into the equation tends to confuse the issue rather than illuminate it. In any case, we need a social system that addresses Racial Paranoia AND Racial Bluffing. A system that tackles a racist action within its own context, that changes institutions for the better , manages to generate attention, and does not get people's eyes to roll, that gives everyone ownership in improving the country. That is difficult, because it may mean placing a hierarchy on racist actions, such as a 100% racist action being more despicable than a 10% racist action (this is, of course, ignoring issues of how racism can be, or should be, measured), but the status quo is clearly not working. By status-quo I mean: faux-colorblindness (as a colorblind advocate myself I hate to hear what a "post-racial" society we are, because it completely weakens my position); ethnic-cheerleading/open appeals to racial solidarity (which may be the topic of another debate, but I tend to support programs that highlight similarities over differences); groups ducking ownership of racism (and I mean all groups, not just whites); and the ability to bluff about race (and I mean all groups, not just blacks).

Ok, I am off my soapbox. I was quite pleased that you saw the similarities between your work and Ford's. One more point; how should an "outsider" talk about racism? Ford decries the use of an "us" versus "them" dynamic, that basically says that a white person can NEVER talk about race, or an "x" person should never talk about a "y" group? While these beliefs are understandable, I feel that this part of both Racial Paranoia and Racial Bluffing, because racial language MUST be euphemized for fear of being called a racist or insensitive.

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