The Weaponization of Anti-Racism

I Know Your Are But What Am I

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. ⌾

The President is Not a Duck

Some people are never going to use the R-word to describe Donald Trump. No matter what.

✎  Wayne K. Spear | January 16, 2018 • Politics

Martin-Luther-King

Were he alive, Martin Luther King Jr. would have turned eighty-nine on Monday. It seems a mercy that he isn’t, and didn’t, because nearly a nonagenarian, he’d be captive with the rest of us in a world where no one need ask, “How are things going on the race relations front?” It’s a question that answers itself. Race relations are in the shithole, as the president might say.

After dropping the s-word, the President was praised by David Duke and the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer, and by some other “very fine people,” and not for the first time. Peter Barker, in a New York Times article, “A President Who Fans, Rather Than Douses, the Nation’s Racial Fires,” catalogues a number of occasions on which Mr. Trump and his staff have been asked whether the president is racist. Well, I mean, if saying he’s not a racist is in your speaking notes… Anyways, Barker asks Jesse Jackson if the president is a duck and Mr. Jackson notes that the president indeed quacks, “but to categorize him by a name [duck] does not quite address the issue [that the president is using his webbed feet to bottom feed].” Got it.

https://twitter.com/DrDavidDuke/status/951881688015167489

Next, from Barker’s column, Dr. King’s nephew, Isaac Newton Farris Jr., thinks that “President Trump is racially ignorant and racially uninformed. But I don’t think he is a racist in the traditional sense.” Now try and imagine Martin Luther King speaking this way. “Hate cannot drive out hate, and by hate I mean not hate in the traditional sense but rather a condition marked by a state of insufficient emotional information.” Eight years ago a chunk of America thought they’d entered the Age of Post-Racialism, and now we live in an age that is almost exclusively characterized by tribal identitarianism. Yet notice how many people today cannot bring themselves to use the R-word, resorting instead to equivocation and whataboutism. King no doubt would have regarded “not racist but racially ignorant” as a distinction without a difference, if not a tautology. And he would have had something more interesting, and less ridiculous, to say.

But Trump! You have to give him credit for generating memorable quotes. Mexicans? Those people are rapists. Nigerians? Those people live in huts. Haitians? Those people have AIDS. Norwegians? Those people should come to America. Donald Trump is a Thoser who sees human beings in categorical terms. Every black neighborhood is a war zone, sustained by welfare cheques—”TRUMP THINKS ONLY BLACK PEOPLE ARE ON WELFARE,” says a Newsweek headline from last week—and every Iranian is an ayatollah, a foreigner with a nuclear bomb in their turban. Why else prevent Iranians, en masse, from coming to America? This broadbrush way of thinking discloses ignorance and racism, racism by definition being the habit of viewing people in categorical terms. (Note to the President: there are Norwegian rapists.)

It’s remarkable in retrospect how few infamous King quotes have to do explicitly with race. Even as he developed a radical critique of capitalism, his themes were freedom, hope, struggle, faith, solidarity, love, justice, brotherhood, dignity—in short, universal themes of our shared humanity. On the occasions in which he uses racial terms (“I want to be the white man’s brother, not his brother-in-law.”) it’s to push the notion of unity. But of course he knew the face and mind and methods of racism intimately, and targeted its foundation. His most famous quotation, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” could be a @realDonaldTrump subtweet. And it’s depressingly easy to imagine President Trump angrily quacking back a Twitter insult, in all-caps, while the usual suspects find a way to tell us he’s not a duck.

The Klan Comes to Campbellford

Often I find that an aid to arriving at my own understanding, as well as to the task of explaining something to others, is the drawing of an analogy. Find something familiar and which one already understands from the inside, and to that compare the unfamiliar, the novel, the exotic. It works quite well, with one noteworthy exception being racism.

Give it a try. You’ll discover there is no at-hand analogy in the Euro-Canadian cupboard for the systematic oppression and mob lynching of dark-skinned persons — nothing of which may be said, “It was like that for us, too.” For this reason, white people will never really understand the trauma of racism from the inside. Now that I have established that, let us consider what transpired this past Hallowe’en at the Campbellford Royal Canadian Legion, so that we may better separate the wheat of anti-racism from the chaff of rube blundering. Continue reading “The Klan Comes to Campbellford”

The Tea Party Rot

Today in Tupelo, a news agency reported the following words of Elizabeth Smith.

I’m so hurt about what’s going on in our country. It’s hurt my heart. I was so patriotic as a child. It makes me cry cause I have grandchildren coming up they’re not going to have what I had.

What Ms Smith has, and what she presumes her grandchildren will have not, is uniquely American: the world’s most expensive and most technologically advanced health care system — a system which bids millions of uninsured citizens Best of Luck (while still outspending all other countries per capita to get inferior outcomes) and which manages furthermore to bring into co-habitation the inefficiencies both of the public and private spheres, with few of either’s advantages.

Well, never mind that. Let’s cry with Ms Smith and her fellow Tea Party protesters over the forthcoming triumph of more efficient, universal, single-payer insurance. Let’s tear our garments and roll in the dust, our spirits broken by the diminished corpulence of the country’s 1,300 private insurers, whose profit hungry bureaucrats, CEOs, and investors devour thirty percent of every health care dollar.

I am able to respect a difference of opinion when it is informed by intelligence and principle. But concerning the health care debate, isn’t it rather time for the J’accuse which will dissect these Tea Party Neanderthals? No: worse even than that, for their tropes are not simply unintelligent or under-developed. They are plump with the malevolent blue veins of racist innuendo and other bigotry.

It takes a certain vileness of character, for example, to introduce into a health care debate the immoral cuteism “Obama-Bin-Lyin” or the birther charge that the President is a Kenyan Stalinist. Or to de-historicize the proper noun Nazi, as if it could ever be a respectable synonym for over-reaching government. The Tea Party protestors are not morally serious, but their fear and loathing of all that is foreign or in any way different are genuine. They appear to know nothing of the cultures, histories, or health care systems of the world beyond, nor to care to. Enough for them are ahistorical and closed-minded prejudices — that the Founding Fathers were a uniform cast of pious Christian evangelicals, that America has nothing to learn from the rest of the world, and that a wink toward the foreign pedigree of anything is sufficient to render it contemptible. This is the deeper rot beneath this xenophobic movement’s willful abuses of language, and those of us familiar with the Germany of the 20s and 30s know rot when we see it. For these are not the unfortunate mischaracterizations of ill-informed bumpkins. The people who level these charges know precisely what they mean to say, and their filth ought therefore to be given none of the benefits of doubt.

They are hateful people, and civilized folks everywhere ought to be saying so.

The Africville Apology

Very near the moment Halifax Mayor Peter Kelly began reading an apology to former Africville residents, Kentville brothers Justin and Nathan Rehberg, aged nineteen and twenty, were in provincial court for a bail hearing in relation to charges of mischief, uttering threats, and public incitement of hatred. I doubt anyone needs to be told these charges concern a February 21, 2010 cross-burning in Newport, Nova Scotia, at the house of Shayne Howe and Michelle Lyon. And I further doubt we need be reminded that the coincidence of these events is discouraging — but reminded we shall be, for the reason that some things apparently need to be underscored, over and again.

I find it hard to rehearse the history of Africville — which may be summed up as a racism-driven story of human degredation and of promises broken, up to and beyond the initial days in 1964 when land-hungry Halifax, under the 1962 Rose Report’s pretense of urban renewal, forcibly removed community members in city dump trucks — and not feel in my bones that both the apology and its proposed reparations are rather lacking in sinew. There is quite a lot for which to apologize, and as the Mayor knows, “words cannot undo what has been done.” Then there is the charge that the modest reparation package (a hectare of land, $3 million toward a replica of the Seaview African United Baptist Church, and an “interpretive centre”) was arrived at without the participation of the former residents. Considered together, these engender a measure of skepticism in relation to the hopeful idea that a new era of Respect and Reconciliation is on its way. Already, one can discern the cracks in that notional pot.

This is bad enough, but now we have the matter of the Rehbergs to poison further the well. Their lawyer, Brian Vardigans, argued that the burning of a cross on a lawn is not a hate act. He noted that it has “some of the hallmarks of being hateful” and has “certainly got a racist overtone,” as if somewhere in the undertones and tannins one may find something a little less distasteful. (A hallmark, by the way, is individual and not a matter of degree or splitting of a difference. The sole purpose of a hallmark is to make plain the character of something, for instance precious metals.) As a lawyer, he may be expected to equivocate in this manner. Nonetheless he is wrong both in substance and in principle, having attempted to make a transparent act into one that’s as maybe, sort of like, but only kinda in a way. If the Africville apology is to have meaning and force, all must hear Shayne Howe on this point: “I shouldn’t have to dwell on what it means or what it is. It speaks for itself.” Or to put it another way, there must be a generalized ownership of responsibility for the racism in the ranks.

Putting aside the lawyer talk, I’ll offer a prospect in plain English. Most people in Kentville, and indeed most Canadians, are kind and generous. They do not approve of cross burnings. Indeed, in a passive sense they disapprove of racism. Unfortunately, this may not be enough — not in a world where the wounds of the past are wet, where children born in the 1990s have absorbed race hatred, and where white supremicists in darkened crevices pick at scabs and speculate upon the name Rehberg and the coming Jewish retribution for “burning some fricking wood.” It is true that words cannot undo what has been done, but what provision has been made for the present and future? Words, a building, and a couple acres of land. Given the depth of the wounds and the distance yet to traverse, I find it hard to believe that these will do.