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The Roots of Ferguson: The 'Academic Definition' of Racism

Thursday, August 21, 2014

My wife and younger son have taken a liking to NBC's talent competition The Voice.  One evening I joined them in watching and one of the show's judges, the musical R&B artist Usher, had with him fellow musician Aloe Blacc to coach two contestants who would be required to sing Aloe Blacc's hit single "The Man."

It was an interesting choice because one contestant was black and the other white.  The song is clearly born out of the African American experience and as the music video linked here to YouTube shows, evokes the protests of the 60's at the beginning.  As someone who has taken voice lessons (albeit quite a while ago) I imagined myself in the position of the white contestant.  It would be a challenge for me because in order to sing a song like that, I would need to find a way to get to a certain emotional place necessary to invest something of myself as a vocalist in the art of the songwriter.  But if I were the vocalist... well, I am white...  And the songwriter/original performer is black and is singing from the black experience in America.

So how to do this?

I would have wanted to ask both Usher and Blacc to tell me of things which happened in their own lives which they would have reached back to for the emotions the song calls for from a vocalist.  The problem is I have no idea how to go about asking questions like that without risking the questions being perceived as racist.  There are many reasons for this.  Some are uncomfortable for us to admit.  Others are imposed on us by what I'll call the "faculty lounge" and its "academic definition" of racism.

(The music video linked here is marked 'Explicit', but I did not find anything vulgar about it.)

The Soft Racism of Invisible Barriers

Before I challenge this "academic definition" I believe we have to have something more than mere disagreement with the ideas of others.  What I'll articulate here in place of the "academic definition" of racism is what I call the "soft racism of invisible barriers."  We can also note the "hard racism of ill intentions," but that is pretty easy to recognize.  My perception is that we have rightly pushed that mostly into the shadows of American life.

But this "soft racism of invisible barriers" is harder to see - especially for those who belong to the majority.  These invisible barriers begin with questions like "What do black people think of..."  If I were to ask that of a musician like Aloe Blacc I would basically make him invisible to me.  All I have to do is step back and ask myself when I was last asked what "white people" think about something.  It is likely I would respond with something like "I have no idea; no one appointed me to be a spokesman for white people."  But I have never been asked that - noticing that is the whole point.  And once we realize the foolishness of that kind of question if posed to us, the foolishness of us posing such a question to our African American friends or neighbors should be obvious.

It is for this reason that if I were asked to sing "I'm the man" I would need to ask Blacc about his own experience.  And that would then require something important of me.  I would have to allow Blacc to help me understand the significance of the American experience from his perspective, which cannot help but include a lot of difficult history.  We conservatives like to insist that the American experience means something common to all of us.  And I believe we are correct - the meaning of the American experience is fixed in our history and in our founding documents.  But the significance of this meaning simply cannot be the same for white and black America.  Pointing to slavery is the just the easiest way to illustrate this.  But there is something else much more current.

The American Ideal: "Anyone Can Become President of the United States"

This is something I remember from my childhood.  It is an idea we teach to our children.  So consider: A white child and a black child sit next to each other in class.  The same lesson is being taught by the same teacher using the same textbook.  The kids have it open to pages showing pictures of past Presidents (let's imagine this is before the Obama presidency).  What does the white child see?  Pictures of men who look roughly like he does - or will when he is older.  What does the black child see?  Pictures of men whom he can never grow up to look like.  The meaning of this ideal is fixed in our history and in our national identity of ideas (rather than an identity of religion and ethnicity).  The significance of that meaning simply cannot be the same, however, for both children.  Until now, of course.

This is not to minimize the challenges we face, as Furgeson shows us clearly, nor to suggest that somehow racism is no longer a problem.  The problem, however, is not as we have been taught: It is not a problem of "white privilege"; it is a problem of human nature.  If the faculty lounge insists on the "academic definition" of racism because American society was originally formed by and for a Caucasian Northern European people, this arises from the fundamental flaws of our common human nature.

What makes America exceptional is how we struggle and grapple with this.  We are heirs to a national identity forged around the idea of essential equality among human beings.  These ideas were quite radical in their day.  We knew no aristocracy idled to their own self-indulgence; everyone worked to build a new nation.  But as Frederick Douglass noted on July 5, 1892 in a speech delivered at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York, George Washington - who was compelled by his conscience to free his slaves upon his death - is memorialized by a monument built with slave labor.  The contradictions of our creed and our history are right in front of us.

But these are not contradictions of meaning.  Douglass understood this and strongly affirmed the meaning of our national creed.  They are contradictions of significance.  The question for us - not as Conservatives or Liberals, Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans, all heirs to a common national identity of ideas - is how well we understand the different significance of this meaning among ourselves and our neighbors of other races.

The "soft racism of invisible barriers" can be seen in things like the color of most Band-Aids matching lighter Caucasian skin, or in labeling the beige Crayon as 'Flesh'.  I can only think about a couple things like this at the moment.  I am quite sure my black neighbor could list a dozen without any effort at all.  By virtue of being in the majority it is probably impossible for me to "see" all of these "invisible barriers."  But if I am looking for them nonetheless, I might be able to learn how to ask the right questions.

The "Academic Definition" of Racism

When this subject is discussed in our universities the topic is dominated by the idea that racism is "prejudice plus power." Under this definition, we are naturally inclined to generalize about our experiences with those different than us.  When we generalize like this - again something that is a function of human nature - we develop prejudices.  Since we who are white have historically been the majority with the power to order society around these prejudices, we are therefore racist.

The problems with this are many.  The easiest among them to see is how this pushes us away from each other and from the conversations about how the significance of our common identity of ideas differs among us.  While a university might rightly expect its students to push past any offense taken in the classroom, in ordinary communities we are left ever more isolated to nurture our suspicions toward the other group.  The tragic death of Trayvon Martin was the direct result of this.  Both he and George Zimmerman kept each other at arms length, nurturing suspicions born of past experiences, instead of approaching each other to clarify their different perceptions.

The second and more subtle problem is how when we unpack this definition we discover that it rests on identity politics - the exact same problem with me asking my African-American neighbor "what do black people think about...?"  And when identity politics is challenged, the faculty lounge inevitably falls back on the history of racism - defined as it is as "prejudice plus power."  The reasoning proves to be circular.  When this definition and identity politics are pulled apart and each is demanded to stand on its own merits in our communities, its failures are both evident and tragic.

Our national conversation on race has been hijacked by the faculty lounge, where their academic definition of racism is the ideological price of admission to the conversation.  We deserve better - much better.

An Exercise We Can Do Together

Each year, on July 5 we should come together for a reading of Douglass' speech.  The reading should be done by multiple people of all races.  In the reading of the speech - in the choices we make with our voice to emphasize one part over another - we will reveal what we find to be significant.  And I suspect my black neighbor will likely find different parts more or less significant than I - his or her white neighbor - would find significant.  This would be an opportunity for us to listen to each other and discover how the significance of our national identity is different among us.  The meaning is the same - but we come to that meaning from different pasts and experiences, and thus the significance of that meaning will differ.

Aloe Blacc's music video for "The Man" is extraordinarily timely in light of the strife in Furgeson.  The video shows scenes from the 60's anti war and civil rights protests, eventually moving forward to a scene where Blacc walks among military personnel standing at attention - a clear reference to a sense of progress in the election of Barack Obama.  The scene then returns to what looks like an inner city with Blacc arm in arm with community leaders and an interracial group of protesters.  It almost seems like a question - why is it that the progress which has reached the White House has yet to reach places like Furgeson?

I still don't know how I'd do it if I was asked to sing his song.  But I hope there might be a brighter future if I wonder out loud about it with my African-American neighbors.

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