In 2019 everyone is a racist and no one is
✎ WAYNE K. SPEAR | JULY 16, 2019 • Politics
THE BELIEF THAT human characteristics, abilities, and worth are determined by the colour of skin is useful wherever societies are organized along tribal lines. A nation founded upon genocide and slavery will be a nation with a very bad conscience—unless a justification for these can be invented. If one category of human being can be said to be beneath another, whether as a matter of natural law or of divine will, then the myriad inequities established by organized human effort can be treated as a mere expression of nature.
In other words racial classification systems are the product of human barbarities and not the source of them. A man will sleep better at night if he is able to convince himself that the people he enslaves and murders are not as fully human as he is, incapable as they are of thinking and feeling as he himself does. The English for example already ruled over a great many foreign peoples when the faux science of human racial differences developed. Social Darwinism came to America in the late 1800s, after the institution of slavery and the mass murder of Indigenous peoples. The utility of racial conceptions is reflexive, for these conceptions affirm that whatever the supposed injustices or inequalities, some categories of people are by their nature lords and masters of others.
Because this way of thinking about the world regards human beings in the broadest of terms, as groups, it tends toward systemic outcomes. A mass of unique persons must be treated as individuals, especially where character is concerned, but a group whose human characteristics are thought to be shared by virtue of the colour of their skin may be safely organized and managed en masse. This is done most efficiently by means of a systemic approach, which is to say through law and custom and the general dissemination of ideas and beliefs and habits required to maintain the dominance of one group over another. Once a group of persons has been reduced to a common denominator, it is no matter to erect and maintain a system that manages their supposed characteristics, and indeed such a thing will be deemed fitting and even necessary.
The term for apprehending the human world by way of skin colour and other physical characteristics is racism. Once a society has been thoroughly organized according to the logic of racial conceptions, the machinery runs itself almost beyond the notice of its beneficiaries. In a thousand small and subliminal ways these beneficiaries will absorb the habits and outlook of their ancestors and compatriots. Having read only the books written by their forebears, they will know as a matter of course that their ancestors were noble and benevolent. The material and ideological derivation of their outlook will be hidden from view, like the making of sausage, and for similar reasons. For the doctrines of racial human characteristics and racial supremacy to survive, the illusion must be maintained that no such doctrines exist, or exist only as matter of nature and not of human exploitation.
A generation ago it was understood by scholars and activists that racism is systemic in nature. To grow up in a society organized around racist conceptions of human nature and human society is to have planted within one’s mind racist ideas and habits of thought. The work of anti-racism in a society understood to be systemically racist is the work of exposing and critiquing systems—laws, customs, ideology, workplaces, institutions, and so forth. So long as ideas circulate freely and widely in a society, without being challenged, the tendency will be for individual members of that society to adopt them uncritically and in many cases unconsciously. Racism was considered a social and cultural artefact and not the product of an individual and degenerate mind.
Somewhere along the way the work of confronting the rot of racism took a turn. The understanding that racism is a universal toxin, mediated through social systems, gave way to a vigilance for the individual offender. In all likelihood this turn occurred at a time when the perception of political progress made it possible to imagine oneself, and indeed to present oneself to others, as above and beyond the mental disease of racism. In any case the critique of systemic racism has yielded largely to a conception of racism as the provenance of bad people, that is to say as originating in the diseased minds of offenders. If only one can shame enough of these offenders, and drive them out the public sphere, then perhaps racism can be defeated.
Combatting racism from a systemic point of view is one thing, and combatting it from an individual and moral point of view is another. Under the social conception of racism it is a matter of no controversy that we have all inherited a toxic legacy of racist ideas, actions, and arrangements. Understood as an individual and moral failure, however, the charge of racism will in every case be denied and repudiated in the service of career and reputational survival. Over time the characteristics and criteria of generally-agreed-upon racism narrow. The President is unlikely to be considered a racist by his supporters for anything short of shouting the N-word at passersby (if even that) and doubtless there are few if any Trump voters who would say that they are racist. The term is today a grenade lobbied at one’s enemies, not to inflict injury but to hearten the troops, so Trump and his people retaliate in kind. He says that he hasn’t a racist bone in his body—the racists are the Congresswomen who criticize him.
None of this is to deny or downplay the existence of actual, existing bigots or the responsibility that they bear for the contents of their minds. As the politics of America descends into identitarian, tribal warfare it is easy to imagine anti-racism itself becoming simply another weaponized posture with no force or purpose or value beyond immediate political expedience. Perhaps a decade ago leaders might have brokered a deep and nuanced national conversation about race in America, but the time for this appears to have passed. The President does all within his powers to ensure a divisive tribal fight between his inflamed base and an outgroup of migrants, refugees, liberals, and media. The opposition obliges him. Nothing is gained, no one wins, and nobody is better off. ⌾