Sunday, October 16, 2005

Notes on racism

The words "racist" and "racism" get chucked around a lot, but they're not without meaning, despite the Herculean efforts of those on the Right to shrug off/dismiss/mock/render inoperable their use. More recently, as an instance of the latter, they have taken to accusing their opponents on the Left, not to mention racialized minorities, as "racist." But this is part of what can only be seen as a virtual program of obfuscation.

What follows are some notes that I hope will provoke some debate. They arise out of frustration, and have two proximate causes: a letter from my perennial sparring partner Mark Collins to the Globe & Mail, posted as a comment here, and a couple of quick-and-dirty email exchanges between Steve Sailer and myself.

Racism is not an abstract category. Racism arose as an ideological infliction (with dire practical consequences) upon subject populations during the colonial Age of Exploration. It was a means of defining those populations of Others as inferior, but not in a simple way: colonization generated conflicting discourses of exploitation and protection, the (childlike) Noble Savage versus bodies built for toil, Nature versus Culture. But all such discourses rationalized the colonial enterprise. One cannot colonize equals.

Indeed, unequal power relations are inscribed in the practice of racism. They fix social relations as timeless, in two ways. First, the subject populations are themselves "out of time": time begins only with European contact. Naïve discourses about "culture" reveal the flawed notion of an unchanged cultural essence, from which colonized peoples are separated. Hence they lack something fundamental that the European colonizers possess. Secondly, the on-going deprived condition of the subject population is rationalized ahistorically: they are condemned to their status by virtue of God’s will, or innate flaws of character, or, more recently in history, their genes.

In other words, racism is inextricably linked to the colonial enterprise and its aftermath. One might object that there are stunning exceptions: the attempted genocide of the Jews and the Roma by the Third Reich, for example. But even a superficial look at the Nazi project indicates that it was fundamentally an expansionist and radically colonialist enterprise (for example, the Nazi plans for Eastern Europe involved wholesale changes of flora and fauna, and extravagant plans for constructing German settler communities supported by slave labour). The frightening thing to many--the aspect of Nazism that transformed it in many minds into a metaphysical evil rather than a historical phenomenenon--was that it was being done to light-skinned folks right there in Europe. They were the new inferiors, the Untermenschen, a view allegedly validated by "racial science." That was downright--unnatural.

Since To Kill a Mockingbird is in the news these days, here is an illustrative excerpt:

An inquiring soul in the middle of the room said, "Why don't they like the Jews, you reckon, Miss Gates?"

"I don't know, Henry. They contribute to every society they live in, and most of all, they are a deeply religious people. Hitler's trying to do away with religion, so maybe he doesn't like them for that reason."

Cecil spoke up. "Well I don't know for certain," he said, "they're supposed to change money or somethin', but that ain't no cause to persecute 'em. They're white, ain’t they?"

Reaction to racism by racialized minorities is not racism. This is where things get tricky, especially for liberal universalizers who like to wrench their categories out of time and history, and redefine them as moral injunctions, and for conservatives who want to explode the categories by deliberately misusing them (e.g., "political correctness," one of their more astoundingly successful appropriations/re-definitions, and, of course, "anti-Semitism," redefined as "opposition to Israeli foreign policy.")

When a white person calls a Black person a "nigger," the term is used to mark the inferiority of the latter: its use has an obvious social meaning. When a Black person calls a white person a "honky," that does not bear the same meaning at all: it's not racism, it's a defiant expression of opposition to racializing oppression, mimicking and reversing a discursive practice that originated with the oppressor. Its use hardly threatens to reverse the status quo of unequal power relations, although it does (in a minor way) destabilize it by ironically drawing attention to it.

The calls for African-centred learning, parallel justice systems for Blacks and Aboriginals and so on, are pounced upon by conservatives who mimic liberal language to condemn these as racist. The latter's agenda is, in fact, to make minorities disappear: to make them "like us" in every respect--just listen to conservatives on the subject of multiculturalism and this becomes fairly obvious. Liberals don't much like this sort of thing either: to them, it's the flipside of a bad history, a new segregation. What both fail to do is to factor power into their analyses. What is being demanded, within the current system of unequal power relations and the racializing of groups of people, is a counter-current, the development of loci of power in the education and legal systems. In other words, these demands are motivated by a recognition of the question of power.

Race is a social construct. Reams of junk science purport to show that "race" is an empirically valid category, and that some "races" are more intelligent than others. This line of thought originated with Conte Arthur de Gobineau in the mid-nineteenth century, reached its dismal apotheosis in the "racial science" of the Third Reich, and has degenerated since into the clownishness of our own Phillippe Rushton, running around measuring students skulls with string and the like, not to mention the Bell Curve nonsense. In the background--but not very far--are organizations like the neo-Nazi Pioneer Fund. This sort of thing should make even conservatives blink, but, in line with their notion that the status quo is always optimized, that is, that people rightly belong wherever they are in a stratified society, there is an obvious seductiveness about it.

As I have noted in previous articles, the Hurricane Katrina disaster allowed many conservatives to invoke obvious racial stereotyping, encoded in conservative notions of "character" and the like. Having "science" as an alleged ally once again uproots racism from history and time and makes "racial differences" immutable. Yet there is an odd contradiction at the heart of this. Conservatives who invoke "character" (through denunciations of the "entitlement mentality" and so on) suggest at least the possibility that the moral deficiencies of, say, the residents of New Orleans, can be overcome. The scientific racialists, however, argue to the contrary that nothing much can be done. Steve Sailer manages to wed the two seemingly opposed notions by arguing that the innate deficiencies of Blacks can be at least partially remedied by "stricter moral guidance." (Sailer has his fans in more mainstream conservative circles--Michelle Malkin, for example, and, quelle surprise, Kathy Shaidle.).

Where does the new racism lead? Sailer tells me (personal communication) that he's not a racist because he doesn't wish other races ill, but it's important to ask what the social consequences of racializing minorities and attributing a genetic destiny to them must be. Can anyone seriously argue that the future is bright for those who are racialized and branded by pseudo-science? We've seen how public policy from the Right follows: Nixon cut back the Head Start program, for example, after Arthur Jensen’s spurious racial science reared its ugly head in the early seventies. Why have affirmative action programs, after all, why spend money on the disadvantaged, why try to lift people out of poverty with intelligent social programs, if genetics makes it all a waste of time and resources?

There is something disingenuous, in fact, in the conservative mantra about individual efforts and values. I, for one, read a double message in such pronouncements: first, that bad (liberal) values are responsible for poverty and other social ills, not racism, heavens no; and second, that if some do better than others in society, that's simply the way of the world. We can't enforce equality of outcomes, conservatives cry, and if there is inequality there, it doesn't prove discrimination. Perhaps it's conscious choice. Perhaps it's--ability.

How far beneath the surface does racism lurk in the alleged "colour-blindness" advocated by the "moderate" Right, which is really based upon the pretense that power and unequal social relations have nothing to do with social stratification? I would argue that not all adherents of right-wing politics are consciously racist, but that an inevitable consequence of their politics, in broad terms, is the retention of a racist status quo. And we have seen that racism can indeed erupt into the writings of even relatively humane conservatives. In one way or another, then, I believe the argument can be made that racism remains a potent, malign, energizing force at the heart of present-day conservatism.

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