The Problem of Dealing With Race By Invoking Historical Ancestors

Race seems to be a big issue these days. I guess that’s a good thing. It means people are thinking about the concept and discussing it with others. At least that’s my hope. In some cases this is massively necessary because it helps deal with oversights that have been going on way too long. In other cases, not so much. What I see is that in those types of cases racism as a concept is used as a process to silence others or to beat people over the head in an attempt to collapse all disagreements under the blanket of racism, even if the individual artifacts we’re discussing may have had little to do with racism (which is why blanket criticism is used).

But this post isn’t really about that. Like I said, I’m glad people are addressing racism. There’s just way too much of it present in this day and age, even though a lot of closeted racists would really like to put forth the idea that racism is gone (so they can stop being rightly accused of being racists, or at least apologists for the same). What this post is really about is one of those commentaries that shows up in these discussions, and quite often this commentary comes in groups of people who don’t actually deal with racism in any way.

I know that sounds confusing, but let me explain. People who address and call out racism are quite often those who are directly affected by it. Racism directed toward race is more often addressed by African-Americans in U.S. society because let’s be honest: African-Americans are far more the targets of racism here than most other demographics. Sure, any minority race and/or ethnicity is a potential target for racists, so I don’t want to make an argument that assumes otherwise. But overall, African-Americans are going to have a better chance of perceiving racism more than a Caucasian because racists are pretty one-sided when it comes to this dichotomy. Sure, an African-American can be a racist, but part of what makes racism as powerful a weapon as it is is because it also has a mechanism of power to be used against the victim. A group of African-American racists standing around the streets of Wall Street aren’t going to chase a non-African-American away from Wall Street because the background of Wall Street doesn’t support such an attempt to alienate the victim, but a group of Caucasians targeting a non-Caucasian on a street of Wall Street might cause someone from that targeted demographic to think that Wall Street isn’t a safe place to hang around. The point is: Racism involves power, but it also requires power in order to be effective.

As an academic, I find myself around a lot of people who quite often invoke specific arguments whenever it comes to the idea of racism. I’m also a moderator on a very active current events message board, so I see all sorts of commentary that comes from that origin as well. And what I’ve come to observe is something I don’t believe a lot of people realize seems to be happening around them. And specifically, this sort of racism that is happening today is also very localized in its temporal vicinity (the time it inhabits right now). As a result, people today who are frightened of being perceived as race-challenged (or “racists” for lack of a better term) will do everything possible to avoid being cast as villains in this dynamic. As such, it’s not surprising to hear someone say something along the lines of “I’m not a racist because I have a friend who is black.” Okay, that one is kind of obvious because we’ve all heard that one and know how it’s almost become a punchline to a joke no one wants to admit making.

No, part of the problem stems from an argument that orchestrates how a lot of people who are a part of the problem that they don’t even acknowledge exists. We all know the argument, even though we don’t think much about it because we discard it because of its simplistic nature when we should have thought about and realized why it makes things worse rather than explain things away. You know you’ve heard this argument whenever you hear someone say “Well, my ancestors are from Europe, so I wasn’t responsible.” It’s one of those arguments made in hopes of closing off conversation (and hoping the topic changes as well). But think about it. If someone’s ancestors were from South Carolina, does that make that particular individual responsible for racism that happened 150 years ago and several generations ago as well? Probably not. But that’s only if you feel that responsibility ends with theoretical people who may or may not have been personally involved. Are people complaining about stuff that happened in the 1860s? I don’t think they are. We all know that horrible things happened back then, and we all pretty much agree today that if we could change things, we would make sure they didn’t happen again. Or would we?

And that’s where that argument that gets made loses its traction. There are problems happening today, and rather than deal with them today, we have people saying they shouldn’t have to be responsible because they weren’t around 150 years ago. But again, the problems exist today. What are any of us doing to change things here and now? I would argue “not a lot” because if we were all doing something to make things better, my belief is that things would be better.

Instead, we have ghettos, slums, income disparities, fenced off housing, more cops than educators, hostility towards certain populations, massive corruption in places that should be making a difference, and finger-pointing rather than any desire for accountability. An example is the City of Detroit. It practically collapsed due to white flight and inner city corruption. Instead of solutions that work to fix these problems, we end up with right versus left rhetoric, race baiting and people who support corrupt leaders because to not do so means giving ground to racist rhetoric. In other words, NO ONE is seeking to fix the problems, and the few who are seem to basically be drowned out by the people who find more importance in criticism and looking for scapegoats.

So, what’s the solution? Well, let’s stop caring about what the color of someone’s skin is and start looking at how we can make the neighborhoods of people prosperous and worth living in. That means also changing our criminal codes so that “crimes” that don’t hurt people stop being crimes. If “drugs” are seen as a problem, convict people to treatment programs rather than criminal institutions. Some aren’t going to be fixed the first time, but a responsible civilization doesn’t give up after the first time. It keeps trying until it works.

We also need to change our financial circumstances to benefit all. Yeah, a lot of very rich people are going to hate that. But having a few pissed off people and a civilization filled with thriving individuals seems like a good trade off. This A. Rand society of doing well and screwing over everyone else needs to end.

We need to stop going to war because some group of people don’t think like we do. Different thinking people should be interesting, not enemies. The reaction is that we need to do this because there are people out there trying to kill us. They’re trying to kill us because we always go to war against people who don’t think like we do. That tends to lead to diminishing returns. Change the thinking; change the outcomes. It can be pretty simple. Of course, the naysayers will say no because they only know the institution that we are currently in and like the frog in a well who sees only the circle of light in the sky, we’re never going to see constellations in the paths of other wells if we never get out of the well we’re currently stuck in. Just saying.

Or we can keep doing the things we’re doing and hope that somehow things get better. But they won’t. So good luck with that. I’ve given up trying, so I’ll be playing video games while the world crumbles around me. At least I can accomplish something with a high score. They don’t give Nobel Peace prizes for that, but I guess that’s just cause I don’t own an army that kills a lot of people. Yet.

duaneThe Problem of Dealing With Race By Invoking Historical Ancestors

One Comment on ““The Problem of Dealing With Race By Invoking Historical Ancestors”

  1. John

    Well said. I would like to add a few points if I may. This societal ill that we call “Racism” has very deep roots indeed. I am sure most academics like yourself would find it useful to address important struggles from the past to help others better understand the deeply-rooted nature of racial bigotry and the seemingly acceptable practices of disenfranchisement of large groups of innocent human beings. Most Americans are indeed aware of one such struggle – namely the American Civil War. The problem is one of perception. There are those who would suppose that the primary dispute of that civil war was an issue of “states rights.” Of course, any thoughtful student of the American Civil War would state the issue in more human terms: Abolitionists such as Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and John Brown would argue that no human should be treated as property. And as such, the enslavement of Africans had to be ended. Although the Civil War did end the institution of African slavery, it did not end the disenfranchisement of those new citizens to these United States. New institutions were created in slavery’s stead. We begin to see the creation of Jim Crow laws as well the creation of a terrorist organization, solely dedicated to keeping free black citizens in a perpetual state of fear. That terrorist organization, of course, is the Ku Klux Klan. You are likely thinking, “Yes, John, we know all this- what is your point?” The point is there is serious academic research which clearly identifies the deep rootedness of the problem of racially based disenfranchisement and overall brutal treatment of African Americans – especially, African American males. The benefactors of “white privilege” are obviously Caucasians. What isn’t as obvious is the extent and breadth of “white privilege.” I am only beginning to understand it myself. There are two privileged groups in the United States – “whites,” as stated earlier, and the “gentrified” non-whites. Nativists are less concerned about undocumented immigrants from Asia or Europe than they are about poverty-stricken men , women and children from Mexico or other Latin American countries. WASPs tend to see themselves as superior to all others. We can thank “Mother England” for that. Poverty is often seen as a sign of “moral failure” and thus little is done to correct the social and personal degradation that results. Many blame the victims while preaching the Gospel of “American Exceptionalism.” But the reality is that there is no such thing.

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