Systemic Racism?

A few thoughts:

1. If I as an individual identify a person or set of persons as belonging to a certain race, AND, I take my having identified them as members of that race to tell me the primary things I need to know about them, I am acting as a racist. Now it might be that my racism, my thought that the race of the person tells me what I need to know about them, appears positive or benign. For example, I might think that since X, Y, and Z are members of race Q, and I have a prejudgment that members of race A are universally (or even predominantly) good cooks, then I would be inclined to think that X, Y, and Z are most likely good cooks. Usually our judgments that are termed “racist” are negative, however, assigning some sort of deficiency or evil to members of that group.

2. Thinking after Ferdinand de Saussure and structuralists who came after him, assigning people to a racial category requires the existence of a system of races. Races exist alongside each other and are at least partially defined in terms of their differences from each other. The fly in the ointment in the American racial system in the so-called “post racial age” is that it is easy for us white folks to imagine that race is something other people have. They have race (that’s why we call them “people of color”) and we don’t. If they have race and we don’t, AND, we take ourselves to be positively disposed toward the members of those races whom we know and encounter, then our being racist is not possible. But if Saussure is right – well, if we take race to be as much about talk (language) as it is about social (or biological) reality – then we cannot pretend that some humans have race and others don’t. Race is an “everyone has it” or “no one has it” kind of thing. Race talk happens in a social-linguistic system which we all inhabit. If we use the race talk, we’re in the system.

3. Continuing with Saussure a bit more, just as the linkage between signified and signifier (between word and thing in the world the word connects to) is arbitrary, likewise any particular racial system is also arbitrary. Because it is arbitrary, the system will also be more or less rational. In our current system we have various ways of analyzing the system, but in most surveys I see, I see categories like African American, Asian, Caucasian, Hispanic, Native American, Pacific Islander. If the system were really meant to be descriptively useful, we would make sure each of these categories was clearly and unambiguously delimited. But they’re not. In the first place, though these terms ostensibly refer to places of origin, as racial terms, they exist to point out other characteristics, most particular skin color (our national fetish). If our system were really “accurate,” then it would be clear how to place each person in the proper racial category. But it’s not easy. In previous generations  when the focus was on engineering proper discrimination (with all its negative connotations in play), we developed the “one drop rule.” A person might look entirely like a “white person,” but because she had a grandparent or great-grandparent who was of African descent, that person was judged to be non-white. The categories of our system are porous, so it can be hard to police the system. This will only get harder as racial intermarriage continues to rise.

4. But the system does require policing. If we’re going to have a system and intend to use that system as a tool for adjudicating spoils or punishments, we have to keep people in the right category so we know what to do with them. When systems require policing, their can be conflicts of both interest (what I want) and interpretation (what there is). These two kinds of conflict are often intertwined. Because social systems have power, and racial systems, insofar as they divide up people distribute that power across the system, the unequal distribution of power will create advantages and disadvantages.

5. Systems prefer order and continuity, even if various participants in the system may prefer different arrangements of order and continuity of one set of features over another. We have the social institution we call “police” to maintain the dominant order. Insofar as order maintains the rights and possessions and well-being of those who inhabit that order, people are happy. When destructive forces challenge the order from within, usually locally, we call on the police to bring repair. When destructive forces challenge the order from without, perhaps globally, stronger forces are needed (nowadays usually called “the military”).

6. Liking order has nothing to do with the divisions we call race. Whatever racial group a person is sorted into, that person prefers to have his rights, possessions, and well-being defended and continuous. If a person sees that order challenged, that person calls for adjustment and repair. Sometimes the challenge to order is acute: it comes on the spur of the moment. That’s the time we call the police. Sometimes, however, the challenge to the order is chronic. Or, we might say, the order desired by one group is different than the order desired by another group. Before the US Civil Rights movement, the order in the US had a certain stability. Many white folks were happy with it. It seemed just plain normal. But the order crunched on those who were considered non-white, especially those who were considered maximally non-white, i.e., African Americans. Since the police supported the order as it was, they could be of no use to repairing the chronic problems experienced from the nature of the order itself. The order had to be overthrown and reconstituted.

7. Calling attention to the order is painful. We like the order to remain in the background, unseen, unfelt, unacknowledged. As long as we pretend there is no order – other than “the way things are” – we just g on with our lives, mostly oblivious to those on whom the order impinges negatively, those who experience the order as death and destruction. When we ignore the existence of the order as (arbitrary) order, we also pretend that no force is required to maintain it. My body works well because I have bones. They give my body structures. In conjunction with my muscles, they enable me not only to stand, but also to move from place to place. Most of the time, however, we’re unaware of our bones. We only become aware of our bones when there’s something wrong. That’s out it is with our societal order. Usually we’re blind to it – unless there’s something wrong with it.

8. Borders in the order are places of power. On the one side are the police, those publicly tasked with maintaining order to the benefit of all. On the other side are those who challenge the order for their own benefit. We usually call these “criminals.” Unlike the rest of us who can live most of our lives away from the borders within the order, these two groups live by force. Since police work for the order, their force is deemed legitimate, i.e., in accordance with the laws (rules of the order). Criminals work against the grain of the order (usually not against the order, but to exploit weak and vulnerable points within the order). Since force often comes across as violence, the line between police and criminal can be very thin. At least some police are tasked with working so close to the line that they face the constant temptation to give in to the consequentialist reasoning of “Whatever it takes.” We who benefit from the order demand that they protect us and keep us and ours safe (at the risk of their own lives), so we push them up to the line so we don’t have to go there. Stanley Hauerwas has said that the greatest sacrifice we ask of our soldiers is not that they lay down their lives for us, but that we ask them to lay down their aversion to killing for us. I think we too often think of police the same way. Unlike the military, killing the enemy for us is not one of their primary duties, but in our ultimate commitment to our own safety and prosperity, it can come down to that too frequently.

9. Sometimes there is something wrong with the societal order and we’re unaware of it because we’re doing just fine in it. Our place in the system is such that we take it to be eminently fair and well-designed. But maybe there are other people who do not find it to be so. What are they to do? Chances are that if they are in a place where the order is not doing them well; they experience the order as adversarial toward them, as broken. The others like them who are near them, can sense the problem also.

10. If we would like to think that we care about those who are not doing well in the system, we would require ways to see beyond our own comfortable position in the system. The best way to do that is to have friends who are across boundary lines from us who will tell us the truth. If we never have friends who are across those lines from us, there are some things about our own world that we will never be able to see.

Well, that’s a start. I’m not entirely happy with all of this, and I recognize that I am ignoring much complexity. But it’s a start.

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