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On Racism

One of the things I’m going to remember about 2008 in America is that it will have been the year in which we brought racism out of the closet, thought, “Oh, I remember when I got that thing!”, then went back to figuring out which pair of shoes we were going to wear that day.

Of course, this has all come about because we are possibly, probably, hopefully, about to elect a President who is of half East African and half Caucasian descent.  Noteworthy is the fact that in America, when said candidate was born, different laws governed his mother and his father.  Furthermore, until 1967, his mother and father’s marriage, as would have been mine, was illegal in several U.S. states and would have been unrecognized in them. (Loving v. Virginia)

But, examining racism in America in 2008 − in society, in culture, in politics, in the election − is a lot like playing Whack-a-Mole.  It just keeps popping up everywhere.  Faster than you can muster up a good swing, it slips under the surface.

Because, everyone “is not a racist”.

Perhaps the only recognize Jim Crow, de jure or de facto.

But, I haven’t lived in a The Great Debaters time.  I’ve lived in more of an Everything that Rises Must Converge time.  Although, even that story is older than I am.  Now is a era during which self-denial is much easier.

And there’s an issue.

Try this: Project Implicit − A Harvard-supported interactive survey/test that “presents a method that demonstrates the conscious-unconscious divergences [on a range of subjects including racism] much more convincingly than has been possible with previous methods.”

It hurts to look in the mirror and see something you disagree with lurking inside of yourself.  Doesn’t it? And, that’s another issue.  It’s an issue that threads each of my posts on American social issues: a pervasive unwillingness toward self-analysis and toward working to transcend our shortcomings.

On a partial aside, that’s why I think saying “America is the best nation on earth” is the most dangerous platitude in America.

According to the test I have a “slight automatic preference for European American compared to African American”

I does hurt a little.  I’m embarrassed to write it.

Above all things, when it comes to race, I want to be neutral.

But, there it is.

It’s an observation from which to begin making myself more like my ideals.

The thing is, even though I have a demonstrable and considerable experience that would argue against the results, and that if anything my “automatic preferences” tended toward the opposite during those times, I already knew the test results were true.

I knew it because, one day while I was walking through the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, I stumbled into Adrian Piper’s Cornered:

It’s tough.

Adrian Piper is tough.

Her video is tough, that is, for white people.

In fact, when I’ve included some of her other art works in my lectures, with few exceptions the black students get them right away and the white students just aren’t sure how to react, so they try not to.

So, I stumbled into the MCA one day and walked up to a TV positioned behind an overturned table…

And a woman of indeterminate ethnicity explained to me that she was “black”.  She explained that many have suggested that she could pass as “white” to avoid discrimination.  She went on to tell me that quite a lot of Americans have both European and African ancestry.  Indeed, I know that I do.

So, a video of Adrian Piper asked me, “why don’t you try to pass as black?”


Uh.  I didn’t want to.



…that would mean getting the short end of the stick, on all kinds of stuff, for the rest of my life.

I mean, if you know me and you know how I was raised, you’d think I’d be used to getting shafted. I wasn’t going to sign up for it though.  And there I was:  caught off guard before I could analyze or compare or historicize, standing alone with a gut reaction that I knew was wrong in every way.

What do I say?  I grew up in the Cincinnati area.  I could blame it on that.

Still today, Cincinnati has some very serious race problems.  Nearly each time I visit, I’m shocked anew by how backwards much of the culture there remains, by the degree to which black and white people there are segregated and unwilling to communicate.  Time away must temper my memory of it.  Chalk it up on a long list of reasons why I moved away from there the moment I could.  I went to Chicago and elsewhere and now live, as I’ve mentioned in other posts, “inside The Beltway”.  And it certainly is different than Cincinnati here, living in a building represented by more ethnicities than apartment units.  There’s something about where you’re from though.  And, while both of my parents taught me to see all people equally, I’ve witnessed that despite their best efforts they’re both incapable of doing so.

Now let me reveal that I voted for the aforementioned presidential candidate when he was seeking his Senate office.  (Notably, the Republican ticket had a scandal, the party in Illinois hit some pretty hard times, and they flew in an African American candidate from Maryland who managed to alienate every voter in the state before losing to Mr. Obama in a landslide.)  I also voted for Mr. Obama in the primary.  So, I think I can say that my “slight automatic preferences” did not override my intellect in influencing my vote.

But I’ve examined my automatic preferences.  I’ve owned up to them.

How many of you have not?

Why is it that the most laid-bare news media examination of racism in America’s 2008 election that I’ve seen was on Al Jazeera English online?

You could dismiss the Kentucky yokels in that video as if they were of a category mutually exclusive from the more “polished” among us.  You’d be wrong though.  Have you seen my post On Elitism?  (Did I say that I grew up across the river from Kentucky?)  There is a complex yet unbroken gradation of racial attitudes among people that continues with incredible subtlety from one end of the tolerance spectrum to the other.  That admitted, I think it’s time to start asking how many people in the middle have yet to examine their own flaws and prejudices.  I think it’s time to ask why those people may be unwilling to do so.  How many people will be intellectually willing to vote for a black man, but will nonetheless continue to generate their own uncertainty about him not based on his policies or character, but rather from their own unexamined emotions?  When will unexamined “conscious-unconscious divergences” cease to influence our collective decision making?  Let me predict it will happen at the exact moment at which they cease to be unexamined.

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