Black White Man

My mother is black, and my father is white. I walk among you.

Archive for February, 2008

“The Race Card” vs. “Real Racism,” part five: drawing parallels between the “race card” and “crying rape”

As a multi-racial, cross-socio-economic, internationalist — put quite simply, I’m a huge mutt — I spend a lot of time thinking about the similarities and differences among people’s conditions, and specifically how oppression affects people of different backgrounds in similar or different ways.    Yesterday’s post about building straw man arguments out of people’s real complaints about racism got me thinking about how a correlation could be drawn between racism and sexism in this regard.    It’s often said that the laws surrounding sexual harassment and rape allegations are unique in our legal system in that they don’t require traditional objective proof — leaving the room open for a woman to falsely accuse a man and get away with it scott free on “just her word.”    While on the face of it this argument makes sense, taken in the background of our current society (where statistics say that somewhere between 1/5th and 1/3rd of all women get sexually assaulted in some way over the course of their lifetime) it’s a ludicrous assertion.   If some very small minority of women are able to abuse the formal structure of the present law, it pales in comparison to the very large population of women who are being ignored by it on a daily basis.

“The Race Card” vs. “Real Racism,” part four: fighting straw men

I think my deepest problem with the “race card” argument is that most of the time it’s use depends heavily on hypothetical straw men.  First of all, it posits a world where the allegations of racism hold more weight than they actually do in the world we all live in.   Ironically, the very concept of a “race card” makes allegations of racism much more difficult to bring up.  Most organizations are particularly hostile to the very idea of bringing up racism as an accusation, and so very rarely does it ever help.   And we know this.   I think that most minorities (myself included) would be hesitant to bring up legitimate concerns, not to mention schemes to further some agenda we might have.   Simply put, crying “racism” rarely helps — so the “race card” doesn’t help… and therefore doesn’t exist.   People who argue along the lines of the “race card” bring up hypothetical situations of people getting reprimanded at work, or sued, or what-have-you.    But, very rarely do they bring up actual cases.   I’ve never heard a real case in an argument.   It’s simply too hard to effectively argue racism.   It’s far more likely that a real issue will be ignored than a fabricated issue be taken up as a real cause.

Now, my argument here is tricky, because people who believe in the “race card” and “real racism” are basically accusing naysayers like myself of constructing straw men.   In other words, it may boil down to whether you and believe that specific incidents amount to real problems or someone crying wolf.    First of all, I’m mostly talking about people who are arguing from a point of using no real evidence whatsoever.   Lots of arguments on this topic that I’ve been in involve only hypothetical situations: and to people who want to argue a hypothetical, I challenge you to bring up real cases.    I’m also not close-minded to the idea that some few people do take advantage (just because I’ve never known it to happen doesn’t mean it never does…) — but I would maintain that the weight of statistics that most people would agree on is in my favor.   Looking at it objectively, if the “race card” was on average a successful card to play in court or in the workplace, wouldn’t there be fewer minorities in our penal system and more in the middle and upper echelons of our workforce?

“The Race Card” vs. “Real Racism,” part three: self-knowledge

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post about “The Race Card” by Richard Thompson Ford, I wanted to say that I get that part of his accusation is leveled at people like me: affluent liberals who spend a lot of time thinking about and complaining about racism.  I will be the first to admit that I haven’t been victimized by racism in the the way that others have.  And I’m the first to admit that I’ve enjoyed enormous priviledge in my life because I have white skin.   In many ways, Mr. Ford (as a Black man with a more average complexion) probably has encountered more racism in his life than I have.  But I don’t think that I need to discount myself from the conversation for that reason.   On the contrary, I think I can offer myself up as having the insider perspective of a white man, but without the blinders that most white people have to the experiences of minorities.   I find that a lot of my white friends can’t easily or adequately imagine the daily struggle that being a minority creates.   It’s not the struggle that minorities had in previous eras (under apartheid of slavery), but it’s a kind of a constant wear regardless.   On the other hand, I also find that a lot of my Black friends have false sense of racism in white America: either they imagine that it’s gone based on all the white people who have been nice to them, or they imagine that it’s some kind of organized and clandestine conspiracy.   Since I’ve been the proverbial fly on the wall when white people thought that they were in all-white groups, I can talk from personal experience how racism is alive and well in America.   And it’s not self-conscious, and it’s not rabid, and it’s not organized.   It’s a series of petty rationalized assumptions that lead up to one big uphill bias.

Sure, we’ve come a long way.   Sure, a Black person in this society can make it if he works hard and keeps his nose clean.   Sure, Black people need to take responsibility for their own efforts.   But, when a Black intellectual like Mr. Ford (or Cosby or Elder) says that Black people have to take responsibility for their own education and make it in this world despite racism, what a lot of white people hear is that racism is no longer a problem.   There’s a big difference between saying that racism is more surmountable than it was in the 50s and 60s, and saying that it’s no longer a problem.   And I think that when Black intellectuals want to make the point that Black people need to take more responsibility for how the deal with their lives, they have to be very careful about how that message will be taken by the mainstream white media.

Anyway, my point is that I understand the criticism that many Black leaders have leveled against commentators like myself who concentrate on the problems we still have.  I don’t think that I’m offering minorities a crutch, encouraging a culture of victimization, or detracting attention from the “real issues”.   But I do take the argument seriously, and I’ll try to keep it in mind.   You’ve at least given me food for though, Mr. Ford.

“The Race Card” vs. “Real Racism,” part two: starting at the beginning, a book called “The Race Card”

A couple of days ago, I was watching the Colbert Report and saw an interview with the author of a book called The Race Card, about how ‘race scandals’ are actually hurting civil rights in this country.  Something sat poorly with me about that argument, and I wasn’t really able to distinguish it until a couple of days ago.  Now, let me clear at the beginning before I really get into it, that I haven’t yet read Mr. Ford’s book.    I am basing most of my argument on the interview I saw with him, a couple of reviews I’ve read since then (mostly from lawyers), and the title + blurb.    I do think that a discussion about the marketing of the idea is useful however, and to that extent I think it’s fair for me to blog a bit about my impression of the book.    It may be that my impression is far off base, but I would then say that the marketing collateral around the book was off base.   I value the concept of the pre-review, but I want to be as fair as possible to Mr. Ford in being clear that that’s what this is.

Toward that end, I think that the book has an unfortunate title.   I think I’ve blogged about this previously, but I believe that the race card is a myth.    The title of the book seems to indicate that minorities ‘playing the race card’ hurt the struggle for equality by obscuring the real issues.   I would agree if Mr. Ford said that “sometimes race scandals only create straw men which can later be used against us”; but invoking the concept of a “race card,” to me, insinuates blaming the victim.    I don’t think that there’s an enormous problem with minorities getting advantage by decrying racism.   In my life I’ve never known it to happen, and if it does happen to some small extent, it must be overwhelmed by complaints against real racism being largely ignored, which myself have seen over and over again.

Yesterday I spoke briefly about how the concept of “real racism” diminishes certain crimes, and the concept of the “race card” minimizes the victims of those crimes.   Well, I think that the real problem with this book (or at least, the thesis as I understand it), is that by positing that people who “play the race” are in fact creating harmful background noise which minimizes efforts to combat “real racism,” what the author ends up doing is conflating both concepts into one and blaming the victim not only for the crime that victimized them… but for other crimes as well.

Needless to say that I’m going to have to read this book.   And I will, once I get a little more money.   I tried to resist commenting on the fact that Mr. Ford is a Black man, but I do have to point out the irony that Amazon is offering a discount if you order both his book and a book entitled “Sell Out”.

“The Race Card” vs. “Real Racism,” part one

I’ve been increasingly reading two themes into the public discourse on race, and realizing that they are intimately related.    On the one hand, I’ve been hearing about “the race card” more and more recently (and not just because I watch waaaay too much Law & Order!); and on the other hand, I’ve been hearing a lot of conversation about what constitutes “real racism”.    Although these two come at the the idea from different angles, they really concern themselves with the same topic — that violent (e.g. lynching) or systematic (e.g. slavery, apartheid) racism are the only _real_ sorts of racism, and that therefore the people who complain of racism in our modern, enlightened age, are seeking or gaining some sort of unfair advantage via “the race card”.    In other words, the argument about “real racism” is used to diminish acts of discrimination or threats of racism (like graffito swastikas and nooses), and the argument about “the race card” is used to diminish the victims of those acts when they fight back.

Now that I’ve gotten to thinking about it, I have a lot of ideas on this subject.    I started a post on this today and it came out garbled and confusing; so I’m going to pace myself and take this one topic at a time.

Black Cartoons: Funny Business on the Funny Pages

As I’ve mentioned many times on this blog, I’m a huge fan of the Boondocks, both the original strip and the new animated cartoon.    The thing that struck me about this article is that is reiterates something I’ve been saying for years, which is that a lot of racism in this country is based around the idea that white Americans don’t have a particular culture…  This result in all sorts of feelings of unfairness on the part of white Americans.    In this article for example, “Why do we need Black cartoons, instead of just having normal cartoons that appeal to everyone?”   It seems like a reasonable argument, until you realize that “normal” and “appeals to everyone” means white.    It’s exactly the same argument against any type of program for minorities, including affirmative action.   Consider the following mad lib sentence: “Why do we need __thing__ for __minority__ when they can just use the normal __same thing__ which is for everybody?”

I think that this line of thinking hurts white Americans as much as it hurts anyone.    White Americans do have a culture which is unique and specific — and believing that “I don’t have a culture” is, I think, very problematic.    It’s a problem that Black Americans suffered from quite a bit (if I’m to believe the literature, I wasn’t there) before the Pro-Black and Afrocentric movements of the 50s and the 60s.    I don’t think it’s good for the self-esteem, besides which, it’s not the truth… and false models of reality never work out for the best, for anyone.

Is a program for graduates students “of color” discriminatory against Whites?

This post from the Daily Lobo, the campus paper of the University of New Mexico, echoes a sentiment that I hear a lot. Namely that services and communities which cater to minorities are in themselves racist for excluding white people. I think that there are two things going on here.

Firstly, as long as there is racism, minorities will need programs that attempt to compensate for it. The heart of the issue here is that a lot of people, usually white people, want to believe that since the civil rights movement, we’ve effectively had a level playing field in this country. And we don’t. All you need to do is take a cursory glance at any statistic on race in this country to see that we still have a long way to go. The idea that services intended to address discrimination are themselves discriminatory is like saying that sighted people should get equal access to seeing eye dogs.

Secondly, even if there isn’t discrimination, sometimes people just like to spend time in their own subculture. And that’s fair. Sometimes it’s nice to have a “guys night out” and I don’t see a night out with my Black friends as any different. Now, some people take it too far (just like some guys take it too far and never really hang out in mixed-gender groups), but I think that never being alone with your people from your culture is just as harmful as never spending time in groups with people from different cultures.

Mixed Race America: The White Spokesperson

Jennifer over at Mixed Race America has a very good post about The White Spokesperson.

It may be my mixed-race, hodge-podge, moving-all-over-the-country-and-the-world lifestyle… but I really see race and ethnicity are more of a spectrum than a finite number of “groups”. As a white-skinned black guy, I have a lot in common with dark skinned black folk… but some things I don’t experience directly. Cops don’t pull me over and harass me. Women don’t pull their purses tight when I pass. My white in-laws don’t really have any issue with me marrying their daughter.

But sometimes this causes people (both Black and white people) to think that I don’t feel racism at all — which just isn’t true. I’ve been threatened by the Klan and by neo-nazis. I’ve been called out and ostrasized. I’ve felt like an outsider in the largely white communities that I’ve grown up in.

Jennifer brings up a lot of good points in her post. One of the minor things that she brings is up is the idea that Asians are somehow not “really” minorities (probably because they are, on average, no less affluent then whites), which is an opinion which I’ve encountered quite a bit as well. She’s Asian American and I’m Black, but we both have this experience of being perceived as “the minority that’s not _really_ a minority.” BS. Definitely persecution against some minorities is worse than others … but that’s not to minimize the alienation that any minority can feel. And I can attest to one of the main points of her post, which is that moving through a white community day in and day out can be tiresome. Any minority feels it — I’ve lived in (white) communities of American expats living abroad, and the fatigue is the same. Integration is, on the whole, a wonderful thing. But, damn if it’s not tiring, and sometimes it’s nice to retreat into a comfortable zone of your own culture.

Is Liberia the Israel of Africa?

Of all the things that amaze me about education in America, one thing that stands out for me is that most Americans, and particularly most Black Americans, don’t know very much about Liberia.     During the anti-slavery movement in the middle of the 19th century, the US Government established a colony in Western Africa, the idea being that it would be a place for freed slaves to repatriate themselves back to Africa.   After just a few years as a colony, it was established as an independent country — the US really had no interest in serious colonization in Africa.    But freed slaves, particularly from the South, continued to move back to the Motherland, through Liberia, and in particular, it’s capitol city Monrovia.

The problem being, of course, that there were Africans who lived in the area and claimed it as home.    Despite what Black nationalists in the US have always maintained, we as African Americans are no more (and no less) African than white Americans are European.    Which is to say, we do inherit a lot of the culture, but we’ve also diverged quite a bit — enough so that we don’t fit in seemlessly when we go “home.”    In Liberia, the “Americans” quickly formed a distinct tribe and began conflicting with the other tribes in the area.    By all accounts, the Americo-Liberians felt that they were more educated than the indigenous Africans, and took an overly paternalistic attitude similar to the attitude of other (white) Western colonial powers.    What followed was a lot of strife which broke out into civil war in the 1990s and continued on until very recently.

Bearing this in mind, it surprises me that Americans weren’t more careful when we supported the creation of an Israeli state.   Just like in Liberia, the Jewish people have every right to go to back to their ancestral homeland, and attempt to redress the wrongs that pushed them out in the first place.    But just like Liberia, it was foolish for all of us think that the people who had continued to live in those places during the intervening years wouldn’t also feel some rightful ownership.

There are, of course, crucial differences between the two.    The main Jewish expulsion from Israel occurred almost 1200 years before the foundation of modern Israel, where the first slaves were taken from Africa about 400 years before Liberia gained independence.    Jews represent an 80% majority of the population in Israel, where the Americo-Liberians are a 15% minority in Liberia.   And of course, the Middle East and Africa have vastly different cultures in general.

But I maintain that there are crucial similarities between the two countries, as both being modern attempts to repatriate diaspora peoples.     They also have in common a history of support from the United States.

A Multiracial Manifesto for Internationalism

In the last few weeks, I’ve been focusing mainly on national issues, and mainly on issues that drive close to home for me: namely issues in Black and White America.    But, as I stroll through my backlog of links today and see so many posts about Malaysia and France and England, I’m forced to remember my feelings about how being an American — any American — and particularly being a multiracial American should leave us with a broader international perspective than we have.

This past year, there were riots in both France and Malaysia that were racially motivated.    There was ethnic violence against ethnic Koreans in Japan, and continued problems in South Africa and Zimbabwe.     Every country is unique, and we have to be careful not to generalize too much without trying to understand — but as citizens in not only the most diverse country in the world, but also the country with probably the worst record of race relations in the world, I think that we have useful insight and understanding into the amazing interconnected, multiracial communities that every country is slowly becoming.    If only we would start to take notice.   To care.

Now, I’m also biased because I’ve lived overseas a lot.    I understand that America is a big country, and that most Americans don’t feel a daily impact from overseas.    And that’s fair.   Hell, for most Americans the closest foreign country is hundreds if not thousands of miles away!    But the world where geographical factors like that are relevant is quickly receding.    Whether it’s understanding the various denominations of Islam, or being able to intelligently buy and sell stocks on the Hong Kong market, other countries (and therefore other kinds of racial and ethnic tensions) are becoming increasingly relevant for people.

So, what can Americans in general contribute?    Well, two things.   Firstly, as ‘experts’ from the school of hard knocks in race relationships, we can provide useful dialogue about race with other countries that are having trouble on that front — which is almost every country).    It does need to be a dialogue, though.   Because, every country’s ethnic problems are unique.   Secondly, and maybe more importantly, as the world’s only super power, we end up mirroring the problems that we have with race internally onto the rest of the world.   Whereas the problems between Europeans and Maori have very little impact on us, the problems we have with race in this country impacts New Zealand deeply.   Maori youth, like almost every oppressed urban culture in the world, looks to our Black and Hispanic culture for inspiration.    Maori intellectuals, like almost every intellectual from an oppressed minority in the world, looks to our intellectual thought-leaders on race (MLK, Malcolm X, etc.).   So, as Americans, we have a tremendous responsibility *to* the world.

Finally, as a multiracial person, I feel like I have a specific responsibility.    As I’ve moved around all over the world, I’ve found that my “race” changes from place to place.    In Bulgaria I’m a white American, in Ivory Coast I was “matisse” (“mixed”), in Japan I was simply a “foreigner” first and foremost.    Suprisingly to me, I felt most comfortable in South Africa, where the category “colored” exists to describe exactly what I am… no further discussion necessary.    So, I’ve experienced firsthand the way that few people get to that race itself if a culturally-specific construction.     As something of an outsider to the definition of my own culture, I have a useful flexibility that, I think, lends itself to an understanding of racial conflict elsewhere.

So, I hope to post a little more about the world than I have been in the past few weeks.