Thursday, October 13, 2005

Desperately Seeking Racism

Thanks to everyone who linked to this blog in regards to the previous post, New Orleans' No Man's Land. Among them were MarkDilley, Dangereuse Trilingue, Sour Duck's Link Blog, enscriptCHUN, and the ever-insightful Pandagon, where discussion really took off regarding the New Orlean's beating. Among the commentors on this issue were a couple of people who doubted the authenticity of my labelling the beating as race-related. One commentor asked "Are we sure this is about race and not just about police brutality?", to which another commentor, librulqueer, responded, "Of course, not. However, it make (sic) for much more "good biching"(sic) from blogs like this. Who needs empirical evidence when we can ratchet up on the emotional side of this issue?" Following some more discussion, the second commentor once more challenges the crowd, saying "And *STILL* no one has empirically made the case for race with this beating... Don't let lack of evidence get in your way!" and later, "Bottom line is you are pulling out the race card and nothing more." While I didn't have time to weigh in on Pandagon (if you caught me on IM last night, you'll know I've spent the last two days working on a problem set due this morning and my exam next week), my brain was set in motion by librulqueer's words. It's hard to imagine that librulqueer's opinions could be anything more than the naive ramblings of one desperately in denial, but the truth is that more people think like librulqueer than don't. I find the words "race card" itself both laughable and derogatory because it can only be used under the assumption that minorities are hysterical, that they only invoke their race when it is convenient to them, and that, fundamentally, we do not face any form of discrimination. Why is it, I wonder, that some people (oppressed and oppressor, alike) prefer to imagine our society to be one empty of oppression? What happened between the Civil Rights Movement and the modern day that convinced the vast majority of Americans that racism could only exist in the form of lynchings, Jim Crowe, and slavery? I think it must be an issue of comfort -- there must be something soothing to people like librulqueer to imagine that America is fundamentally not racist, and that racism only occurs when select "bad people" (easily recognizable by their shaven heads and penchant for dressing in bed sheets) wear big black boots and camo, draw swastikas on their biceps, pull the "hangin' folks rope" from their attic and scream epithets at the tops of their lungs. It seems to me that for frightened folks like librulqueer and other race-denialists, America, itself is threatened by the existence of race as anything more subtle than an ethnic slur; after all, how can the American Dream exist when people truly are denied equal opportunity? How can we be patriots of a flawed country? And, most importantly, how can the frightened folks feel good about themselves when believing in a flawed country believes that we are all guilty of perpetuating a society of racism. The truth is hard to swallow, but that doesn't mean that it is false. Institutional racism is the day-to-day experience of people of colour, the patriarchy is everpresent for women, and try telling a member of the LGBTQ community that society isn't heteronormative. In a society in which the race-invention has taken a tangible hold, we all see race, subscribe to race a degree of importance, and live our lives based upon our racial predispositions. So many conservatives that I've come across (not to say that librulqueer is one of them) like to imagine that they are the merit-based party, that they are the colour-blind ones, the ones for whom race does not matter. Even those who are apolitical, apathetic to the plight of the racial minorities, or genuine bleeding-heart, trying oh-so-hard liberals, believe themselves to be of the enlightened few that truly "do not see race". Bullshit. When I walk into a room, it is immediately obvious to everyone who sees me that I am an Asian woman. My features, my skin-tone and my long black hair label me an Other, and, to paraphrase electroman, "this doesn't wash off". To imagine that someone doesn't see these racial-indicators is ludicrous, they see it and I don't blame them for it; only the blind would be truly able to not see my race. And yet, these same so-called colour-blind individuals are the same people who ask me about my culture, expect that I am bilingual, and make jokes that hinge upon my ethnicity (e.g. well, gee, Jenn, you'll have no problem with the teachers thinking you're stupid). These same bleeding-heart liberals have no qualms laughing about the scene in Seinfeld when the "Oriental" gentlemen are boarded in Kramer's apartment, and he has them all sleep in the drawers of his dresser. These same enlightened folk demand proof of racism in a situation like the beating in New Orleans, because, after all, people are racist, not society. For many of the privileged and unprivileged, it is easier to believe that we really do have equal access to the American Dream and are not judged based on the colour of our skin everytime we walk out the door. It's harder to remember that discrimination, bigotry and intolerance in today's society is more than Matthew Sheppherd, Rodney King, Vincent Chin and James Byrd, Jr. While the threat of a lynching is still credible, we now must also face the difficulties of unequal economic opportunities, race-based inequalities in the education system, and even dehumanizations and derogatory treatment by the media. Those desperately seeking racism need only spend a day in the shoes of the marginalized to realize oppression has evolved and gone underground, but still infects us all. In a culture so dependent and so forgiving of racial categorizations, the idea that the New Orleans cops were not acting on racial predispositions in their beating of Robert Davis is hard to imagine. Just because they didn't call Davis the n-word doesn't mean that race was not a factor. The cops saw Davis, and something inside their heads told them to hate this man, to fear this man, to dehumanize him and to do violence upon him. Part of that may have been Davis' actions leading up to the incident (though he swears he didn't drink that night), part of it may have had to do with Hurricane Katrina (although, post-traumatic stress disorder is not an excuse for this level of aggression, in my opinion), but we have to face the facts that part of it also had to do with Davis' race. Consciously or unconsciously, these white (and one light-skinned) officers saw Davis' race, integrated that information into their assessment of the situation, and acted accordingly. Just as my Asian race encourages others to imagine me first and foremost as foreign, intelligent and unassuming, Davis' melanin content encouraged the officers to believe him scary, violent, and a criminal. It encouraged media outlets like FOX news (as I mention in my post) to side against him rather than with him. As an aside, I wonder if the race-denialists might then explain a sentiment like Bill Bennett's. Black men are arrested more frequently then whites, charged with more crimes, and imprisoned at higher rates than their Caucasoid counterparts. To believe librulqueer and to argue that racism of society or the police officers has nothing to do with this statistic would then force you to argue that something about African Americans encourages them to commit more crimes. White officers rarely beat the crap out of white detainees -- are the officers working off of some racial prejudice or are black men more likely to resist arrest? Pick your poison, librulqueer. The bottom line, is that America is racist. We were built upon a foundation of racism, and a century of race activism and community building has only begun to scratch the surface of race's hold on our society. We cannot hide from seeing race. We cannot hide from using that information to judge others. If you can see, you can see race, and it's something that intelligent race activists have to take into account when acting towards a better society. We understand that we will never eradicate race. Instead, we work towards a better understanding of our own racism in order to counter it. For folks desperately seeking racism, it's best to start at home.


Blogger phillyjay said...

It will be interesting to see how this case turns out.I hope it doesn't just fade away.

10/14/2005 04:29:00 AM  
Anonymous Kaede said...

Just to be difficult....see this: (sorry I don't know how to make links...)

It's not just people of 'colour' who are discriminated against by the colour of their skin. And yes, many people do believe that the 'race card' is something pulled out by non-whites at convenience. I reserve the right to not give my opinion either way.

That being said, I still believe this was firmly a race case AND a case of police brutality, mainly because you can't tell me that this would have happened to a retired white guy who just asked for the time....

I mean, come on here....there's such thing as being so open-minded your brains fall out...

10/14/2005 02:30:00 PM  
Blogger jose said...

"Race card" and "PC" are the two labels used to dismiss without consideration, and should be both relegated to the denialist bin. I'm also glad you brought up the fallacy of color-blindness, especially the fact that even liberals embrace it. To these people, it is a black and white world, where you are either entirely racist or not, with no concept of the grey areas in which non-members of a class have advantages that are not easily quantified or perceived unless experienced directly. The legacy of slavery and Jim Crow give any accusation of racism so much weight by association, and movies like Crash, while making a noble effort to show the contemporary version of things, is still extreme in its obviousness. The fact that we do not even cry racism but say that something is race-related to some degree, and the denialists automatically assume we're levying a charge of 100% racism, shows the inability for them to acknowledge the grey areas of racialism.

As an addendum to the Bennett situation, it's a real sore point for me since it's rooted in science, and Bennett wouldn't know the scientific method if it smacked him in the face. He cited Freakonomics to push his agenda, but misinterpreted it, and the author, Steve Levitt, issued a statement to correct him: if other factors are controlled for, there is no correlation between race and crime. If anything, Levitt's data proves that a system of racialism contributes to the superficial empirical data so oft-cited.

We have to fight the policy of color-blindness. Color-blindness is something we will have when race is no longer a factor, but it is not a policy that will make race irrelevant. Race being a non-factor is dependant on society acknowledging it and fixing the imbalances it comes with, not just making your own personal sphere color-blind. Color-blindness is a simple solution that won't work for such a complex problem. By denying race, one contributes to racialism by not fighting it, because they take advantage of it, whether or not they want to.

10/14/2005 03:28:00 PM  

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