This has been a horrible, no-good, very bad week for race relations in the US. Actually, no. If you’re White and you prefer to be privileged and on top while your neighbor of a different race suffers, then it’s not a bad week for race relations. The wall between Black and Brown people and White people in the US is just getting bigger and stronger — and is being militarized. You know, like the militarized wall border between the US and Mexico if xeno-antagonistic lawmakers and constituents get their way in an already unjust immigration reform bill, and Democrats and pro-immigrant Republicans (what???) concede (which it looks like they are doing). This has been an awful week for racial justice, and consequently for our country as a whole.
Of course, there’s the wall-to-wall confusion about Paula Deen. Most has focused on what she’s said and why it is or isn’t bad (it’s 2013! Haven’t we had enough of this discussion already? No, White people, it doesn’t matter what Li’l Wayne says. You can’t use the “N” word. We’ve already used it). Sadly, little has focused on the overt and covert racist practices of her restaurant and – worse – how it mirrors how much of the racist and sexist restaurant industry works. If Deen is a victim, she’s a victim of the very sensationalized media celebrity machine that catapulted her success in the first place. But more so, whatever abuse she’s faced does not compare to those who have faced that term from an aggressive white person, let alone compared to the racism that her and her brother’s restaurant employed.
Let’s make a distinction. Because, again, words matter and affect how we view reality and direct efforts for or against justice and oppression, so we need to be clear on what racism is. Racism isn’t just bad feelings about a person or a group of feelings of another race. No, that’s racially-motivated bigotry. That’s important to note. Because racism is often seen as an individualized matter of opinions. Paula Deen, White Student Unions, the Supreme Court, Mayor Bloomberg can all claim to be not racist, to not harbor bad feelings towards people of color. But here intention doesn’t really matter. Because racism is an institutional reality that oppresses real people. It’s not really about feelings. As I’ve argued previously:
Racism is an institutional reality that benefits many while denying justice to billions of others. It is based on a social construct that exists in reality, whether or not we are willing to acknowledge the reality of it. And whether or not white people are ready to acknowledge that we benefit from it, let alone how we benefit from it.
First, let’s acknowledge that race is a social construct based on the need to dehumanize entire people groups in order to fuel the fire of colonialism and empire. Wherever you see empires is where you see its most notorious elements. And chief among those is racism. Racism is, quite simply, a social construct – and so is the concept of race as commonly used. As Ta-Nehisi Coates notes, it used to be in the US that Southerners considered Northerners an inferior race. Not, of course, as a means of enslaving them as done for those from Africa, but as a means of dismissing critique against racism as an institution itself. The creating of this othering was a way to enshrine the colonial evil of slavery. More often in a post-colonial world, racism is used as a way of preserving a certain mode of capitalism and continuing the status quo.
My working definition is:
Racism is all that which oppresses, dehumanizes, and otherwise dismisses the underclass “race.”
So although Deen can love black people her whole life, use of disparaging terms by the “upperclass race” (mostly, white people) that have historically and presently been used to keep the “underclass race” (in this case, black people) in its place, is racist. Having said that, it’s merely a drop in the racist bucket. It’s a side-show for the most part. Because, while the media has been covering the usage of this term by a celebrity chef, it has largely ignored much larger systemic and hurtful examples of racism in American society and politics. Such as recent rulings by the Supreme Court.
I know that, again, people will say, “No, not Clarence Thomas, he CAN’T be racist! He’s black!” But that underlines a key component of racism. It is systemic. If Supreme Court Justice Thomas is involved in oppressing, dehumanizing, and otherwise dismissing black people, it doesn’t matter that he himself is also black – he’s intricately involved in perpetuating and justifying racism. What he did in joining with the other conservative members of the Supreme Court is racist.
And doing so, he struck a blow to racial integration in college campuses and in careers. Doing so, he helped to take down racial representation in the very basic, fundamental form of democratic involvement. In taking down key portions of the Voting Rights Act and in his opinion on Affirmative Action, Justice Thomas is acting to disempower minorities that are already targeted and disenfranchised. The Supreme Court, in its rulings, argued that the VRA was so effective that it killed itself. Which is like saying that a pacemaker is so effective that the patient doesn’t need it anymore. Because the US voting system, like the US, is still fundamentally racist – it is still predisposed to disenfranchise and disempower people of color in order to secure its own power systems. So, yes, the VRA is still needed. And without its protections, entire regions of the country are finding and implementing ways of taking away fundamental rights of black voters. Expecting a resurrection of the (impossible and illiterate) literacy test in this atmosphere isn’t far fetched at all.
Especially since Chief Justice John Roberts himself was one of those who worked hard to strip back Civil Rights victories when he worked in the Reagan administration — including voting rights for Black Americans.
We haven’t even counted the Court’s ruling on the Fourth Amendment earlier this month, which will unduly and disproportionately affect people of color, as they tend to be most singled out as criminals. And that brings us to Mayor Bloomberg and his incredible remarks on the Stop-and-Frisk program (once again proving that racism isn’t confined to the Deep South)
One newspaper and one news service, they just keep saying ‘oh it’s a disproportionate percentage of a particular ethnic group.’ That may be, but it’s not a disproportionate percentage of those who witnesses and victims describe as committing the [crime]. In that case, incidentally, I think we disproportionately stop whites too much and minorities too little. It’s exactly the reverse of what they’re saying. I don’t know where they went to school, but they certainly didn’t take a math course. Or a logic course.
The mayor should probably take a law course. Or a PR course. Or an ethics course. I’m supposing he plans that his racially-motivated pre-crime process keeps his citizens safe. I’m assuming he thinks that because young black males perform the types of crimes most seen, what they need is a good scaring. All of them. Regardless of what actions they are involved in. Simply breathing the same air Bloomberg breathes is apparently a threat too heavy. The man-in-charge of the nation’s largest city could have quoted the Ku Klux Klan verbatim on crime prevention.
Oh, and it’s probably the most racist thing I’ve heard in a very, very racist week. According to ThinkProgress:
An independent study of the city’s stop-and-frisk program found that 87 percent of the 685,724 stops in 2011 — a record high — were of blacks and latinos. Young black men between the ages of 14 and 24 were stopped 106% of the time — as in, there were more stops of young black men than the entire population of young black men.
So, maybe Mayor Bloomberg could use a math or logic course himself. Or some humanities or justice. Or history. I don’t know… All of the above sounds good to me.
Oh, and we haven’t even covered the Martin v Zimmerman case. Several witnesses have verified that Zimmerman unilaterally decided to follow, track down, threaten, attack and finally shoot a young unarmed black man simply for being black, male and young and – ergo – in the wrong spot (you know, Earth). Yet we focus energy on disparaging a courageous young black woman for not living up to our expectations of what a star witness should be.
We see the effects of racism in how Trayvon Martin’s witness and friend, Rachel Jeantel, was treated on the stand and in social media this last week. Despite speaking three languages, being a friend of and the last person Martin talked to, and being grilled on the stand by a badgering, intolerant (and incompetent) defense lawyer, Ms. Jeantel is accused by White (and Black) observers of having killed the case, of having let George Zimmerman go, of being stupid, of being a stereotypical White-hating Black woman. So it’s her fault that America is racist? She has to bear that burden?
Once again: racism is all that which oppresses, dehumanizes, and otherwise dismisses the underclass “race.”
And in the United States, this has been a terrible, horrible, no good, bad week for racial justice. Except for pro-racists. For them, it’s been great.
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