About the Name of this blog

This blog's title refers to a Dani fable recounted by Robert Gardner. The Dani live in the highlands of New Guinea, and at the the time he studied them, they lived in one of the only remaining areas in the world un-colonized by Europeans.

The Dani, who Gardner identifies only as a "Mountain People," in the film "The Dead Birds," have a myth that states there was once a great race between a bird and a snake to determine the lives of human beings. The question that would be decided in this race was, "Should men shed their skins and live forever like snakes, or die like birds?" According to the mythology, the bird won the race, and therefore man must die.

In the spirit of ethnographic analysis, this blog will examine myth, society, culture and architecture, and hopefully examine issues that make us human. As with any ethnography, some of the analysis may be uncomfortable to read, some of it may challenge your preconceptions about the world, but hopefully, all of it will enlighten and inform.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Structure of Racism


Yesterday, my friend Marc posted a fascinating article about how Reverse Racism literally cannot exist because of the actual meaning of Racism.  (You can view the original article here.)  It unleashed a firestorm of vitriolic commentary on Marc's news feed that included a mind-blowing comment that I will reprint in full, because it floored me so much.

            "See I'm being discriminated racially right now.  Proof that blacks have too much power:              we haven't rolled into the ghettos in force to make them stop their genocidal war against              whites."

Seriously?  The Blacks in America are conducting genocide against white people?  The 1950's called and they want their racists back.   

But this horrific outpouring of venom displayed by some of the people in Marc's feed got me to thinking about things that I haven't discussed in a blog post in a while.  Being the quasi-social scientist that I am, I felt the need to write about this because people today conflate two different terms. This conflation further inhibits any valid  discussion about race or privilege. 

To begin, I would like to summarize some of the points of the original article and expand on them.  The author makes the very correct point that there is actually no way that "reverse racism" can even exist; the term shows complete ignorance of what racism is, which is a system, as opposed to prejudice which is a personal trait.  Further a person who is a racist is both (highly likely) prejudiced and a subscriber of the system of racism, much like a communist believes in communism.  And to further hammer home the point, "ism" is a suffix that denotes a ideological system, therefore, racism is a system of racist beliefs.

On the other hand, prejudice (derived from the Latin prae-judicium or literally "judgment before the facts") occurs when one individual or group pre-judges another, typically a minority or otherwise un-empowered group. It can be used to create a prejudicial stereotype, as we have seen in abundance in all groups. 

Prejudice can exist in anyone, and in fact most people have some sort of prejudice in their personal make-up.  Whether they fight this impulse or act on it is up to them, but the core of prejudice is there in a wide range of the population.  Further, prejudice can lead to discrimination on an individual basis or in a systematic manner.  Regardless of this, prejudice can be seen at it's base level as a personal failing, and one that can be held by anyone regardless of their status as majority or minority.

The article, however, did not address prejudice, it discussed racism.

Racism is the systematic discrimination of a group of people based on an actual (as in skin color) or perceived trait. (as in religious orientation.)  Racism holds that one group is naturally superior to another, by right of something inherent in their genetic makeup.  Although this concept predated the understanding of genetics, it came into full bloom at the end of the 1800's, when science discovered genes.  Taken further, racism, at it's most extreme leads to Eugenics, which is the attempt to excise the inferior "genetic material" from the gene pool.

Further, although this is not addressed in the article, Racism can hold two flavors, although they are often intertwined.  The first type of Racism is Systematic, where one group is specifically targeted for differential treatment.  Police racism, as seen in the "Stop and Frisk" policy that is so controversial, falls into this typology. 

"Stop and Frisk" is a perfect example of Systematic Racism.  Certain people, namely young black males, are determined to be a group that is more likely to commit a crime, and therefore should be stopped and searched any time they are doing "something suspicious," like buying an expensive belt at Barney's in New York City.  Muslims are also the victims of systematic racism when they are profiled as terrorists.  On the other hand, white people, even when actually doing something suspicious, are rarely stopped by cops.  Further, they are even less likely to be taken in for questioning, charged or convicted.  Because of this, a disproportionate number of people in prisons are African-American.

I would also like to note that Systematic Racism is more closely rooted in prejudice and stereotype than the other type of racism.  It often derives from sweeping generalizations such as, "young black males are far more likely to commit crimes" or "Muslims are more likely to be terrorists."  Sometimes there is a small shred of truth at the core to justify the beliefs, which is then thrown out as a justification of Systematic Racism.  But it should be noted, even when there is some truth present, it usually is distorted and taken out of context. 

For example, while white boys commit as many crimes on average as black youth, they are far more likely to get probation or juvenile hall where their black counterparts are often sent to adult prison.  Similarly, while there are quite a few Muslim terrorists today, in the 80's the world's largest and most powerful terrorist organization was actually the I.R.A., so by the reasoning of a certain group tends to terrorism, people with red hair should be subjected to much more intensive searches than any other group, including Muslims.  Further, since so many people in this country helped the I.R.A., Americans should be suspect whenever they travel abroad. 

The second sort of Racism can be termed either Institutional or Structural.  This occurs when the entire system is structurally set up so that a minority group is denied the opportunities afforded to the majority.  Although prejudice can inform this type of racism, it is generally rooted in a sense of entitlement; "I am better than you, so therefore it is natural and appropriate that I have more opportunities than you do."  Most of the Deep South is founded on a Structural Racism core.

What is interesting about this fact is that there may not always be direct prejudice in this system.  When I lived in the South, there were many people I met that did not claim any sort of prejudice to African-Americans, and yet vehemently defended the system that kept minorities politically un-empowered.  The typical answer when confronted with the atrocities of the system was, "You have to understand, that's just how things are done here."  Another statement that I heard a lot was, "I'm not racist, some of my best friends are black." while they voted for politicians who kept the discriminatory apparatus locked in place. 

However, if you support a system that is Structurally Racist, sorry, but by definition, you are a racist.  What you are not necessarily is prejudiced; you're just entitled and oblivious.  And yes, you can be racist without being prejudiced. 

To return to Structural Racism, it is very clear in the educational system in many places in the South.  The schools down there have re-segregated, and have done so in a way that cannot be easily undone.  There will not be an ability to forcibly desegregate them, and have the National Guard enforce it, as there was in the Civil Rights Era.  The reason is, most of the white people have pulled their children out of the public school system and placed them in private schools, either religious or secular.  The ones who can't afford this option are more and more resorting to home-schooling.  This leaves the public school system overwhelmingly populated by "minority" students.

This is even worse than the old "separate but equal," where a thin veneer of comity was attempted.  Now they just pull the kids out of the public system and defund it so that there is little actual education left in the schools.  The public schools have become poorly funded warehouses and day care centers where only the most basic skills are taught.  In no way does a public education in many places in the South prepare students for any sort of higher education.

And this is where the Institutionalization of Racism can be easily seen.  Without the ability to get a quality education, doors to greater potentials are closed.  Not completely of course, there are always ways for the occasional lucky or brilliant kid to escape the trap, but for the most part, most of the children who start and end in the public school system are locked out of many opportunities, thereby not competing with the more entitled white children.  Worse, in this system, help for "disadvantaged" children becomes a form of patronizing charity, further embedding the structural racism into the scheme.

Now on to the reason why "reverse racism" cannot be a thing, at least for the most part.   Given that the system is not set up in such a manner that minorities have the ability to engage in systematic discrimination, there is not the ability to for them to engage in actual racism.  In other words, because they do not control the levers of power, they cannot set up an opposite system to block white people from achieving in life.  They do not block whites from good jobs, nice housing in safe neighborhoods or any of the other trappings of life that the entitled white population expects.  

As a side note, I do want to point out, there has been one group that has been able to actually create a form of reverse racism on the structural level, and that was the Irish.  The Irish, having all normal pathways to assimilation closed to them took over the New York and Boston Police Departments, and in doing so, blocked many non-Irish from entering the force, hence the stereotype of the Irish Cop.  They also took over the Catholic Priesthood in America, but that was a much less powerful position.   Through their power on the police force, they then insinuated themselves into the political machines of several major metropolitan areas.  By doing that, they forced the doors open for their brethren.   However, as I noted earlier, the Irish have long ties to terrorism, so this power play shouldn't be surprising.

Other that that instance, and quite possibly because of it, "reverse racism' has never actually taken hold in this or any other country.  Even when "minorities" are actually the numeric majority, they have not been able to move the levers of power in their direction, even today. 

Systematic and Institutional Racism are on full display today in the frantic efforts of the Far Right in attempting to disenfranchise minority voters through a host of laws designed to suppress the vote.  Cloaked in the sophistry of "voter fraud" these laws are designed to make it harder and less likely for minorities to vote, thereby structurally maintaining a white majority in votes cast, even if the actual percentage of eligible voters skews the other direction. 

By weakening the number of votes of people of color, and concentrating those that remain into isolated districts, the white power system can continue to exert a chokehold on power.  And the worst part of it is, short of violence, it becomes almost impossible to weaken that grasp, as we saw in the 1960's.   Part of the reason that the Civil Rights movement turned so ugly at times stemmed from the need to shake the edifice of control down to its roots.  Even then, the institutional and systematic racism continued, albeit in a somewhat modified and cloaked form.

Therefore, by definition, "reverse racism" cannot exist, and even if the power structure flipped and African-Americans and Hispanics took control of the country, and further oppressed the white population the same way that we oppressed them, it would still be just plain racism, not reverse racism.  Racism can only really exist among the ruling class.

That said, what can, and does exist is prejudice, and it does exist on both sides;  I have met some minorities who were prejudiced against whites.  However, even though any form of prejudice is wrong, it is understandable that minorities might hold ill will against whites.  It is unfortunately a natural reaction to oppression that people come to hate their oppressors.  It is also natural to extend that hate via stereotyping and projection to everyone of that ethnic group.  When you are accustomed to being hated for what and who you are, you tend to hate everyone who is not like you.  However, this is not reverse racism or even reverse prejudice, it is simply standard issue prejudice.

To illustrate this, I would like to return to my experiences gained from living in Savannah.  While I was there, I witnessed the day-to-day, almost casual, racism that was on display there. I saw first hand the fact that blacks were shoved off into a school system that did not in the least prepare them for life, while white people sent their kids to private schools that did so. I saw cops stop and harass black people, who were doing nothing wrong, for the simple crime of being blatantly black in public. I witnessed people with advanced degrees working in menial jobs, simply because the color of their skin prevented them from attaining a better position.  I also saw people being told to "know their place and not try to rise above themselves."  Further, I saw people unable to leave this racist system because they had no economic ability to do so.

In addition, I saw people who were actually angry every time they saw a black person who did not wear shackles on there ankles.  I heard people say that they would like to see slavery put up for a vote among white people, because they would re-institute it in a heartbeat.  Worse, I found out that they still maintain lists in the South of who owns who, in the hopes that they can someday reclaim their property. THAT is racism.

As a natural response to this racist system, some people become very prejudiced against their oppressors.  I'm sorry if some of you get hurt feelings when a black person gives you a dirty look, or acts prejudiced towards you, but given what I witnessed with my own two eyes while living in Georgia, I can completely understand and support their position.

In my next post, I will examine how the discussion of "reverse racism" not only stops honest discussion of racism in America, but actually contributes to the problem.