Wednesday, December 17, 2008
A Racist Grim Reaper?
The election of Barack Obama is supposed to signal (according to some pundits) the beginning of the end for race talk (i.e., publicly expressed concerns about racial discrimination) in contemporary America. However, such predictions underestimate the continuing significance of “race” as a socially salient category that allows pseudo-science to bolster folk empiricism. They also misread the contemporary subtleties of racial discrimination by vulgarizing them. But one comedian's anthropomorphic rendering of Death as a racist reaper helps to showcase the ridiculous nature of such positions.
David Alan Grier’s most recent episode of the comedy show Chocolate News lampoons a certain overly simplistic characterization of racial disparities in health outcomes. Grier’s opening rant reduces those race-based differences to the racist biases of a single personified figure, Death himself.
In his best performative version of “angry black man” meets “Fox News commentator,” Grier asks why White celebrities such as Grammy-winner Amy Winehouse and comedian Artie Lange (both famous for chronic drug abuse) are still alive and successful (Lange’s memoir was actually No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list at the start of this very month) even as a too-young comedian like Bernie Mac was killed by a relatively obscure disease earlier in the year.
Of course, Bernie Mac and Artie Lange are poor stand-ins for the general and systematic inequities between blacks and whites vis-a-vis health-related concerns today. In many ways, however, Grier still successfully captures the unreasonable nature of certain dismissive responses to contemporary invocations of racism, invocations often rejected out of hand as simply playing The Race Card, especially if the accusing party cannot produce a black-hatted culprit as the hyper-intentional source of the problem.
If there is a difference in health outcomes, it must be because of a purposefully prejudiced (and decidedly sentient) being such as Death. Or at least a secret cabal of closeted KKK MD's -- maybe slipping toxins into black patients’ IV's.
Without such clichéd smoking guns conspicuously placed at the scene of supposed racial crimes (and in the absence of any recognizably racist “bad guys” to scapegoat), some people would demand that we all automatically assume racism has little part to play in markedly different health outcomes between racial groups. If anything, such racial differences must have to do with genetics (with evolutionarily dissimilar capacities for, say, salt retention).
In many ways, current debates about racism in American culture have backed us all into a Death-as-racist corner. Without a sinister, animus-filled, and self-proclaimed racist to publicly demonize, we are relegated to only a quietist acceptance of our country’s imagined racial transcendence.
Death isn’t some supernatural creature disproportionately targeting blacks. But that isn’t nearly the only way that race/racism might serve as a productive analytical scaffold for making sense of continued racial disparities in an ostensibly "post-racial" moment.