I just got back from walking around the National Mall after visiting the new MLK National Memorial and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. It was a nice, crisp day in DC, and I began to think about the legacy of Dr. King and the current state of race relations in America. As a graduate student in clinical psychology, I read many papers on diversity, race, and cultural issues. Although psychologists do not pretend that they have the key to ending racism today, I’m amazed at the simplicity of their analyses. They argue that what we need is for people to begin to accept the parts of themselves that they resent. This will bring an end to the projection of self-hatred onto other racial groups that ‘contain’ these unacceptable feelings. According to these psychologists, racism is grounded in psychological insecurity, and the cure is to simply to learn to accept ourselves. However, does this not forecast a rather dismal future for race relations, considering that self-hatred and insecurity are an unavoidable aspect of being human? Our current political discourse concerning race relations also seems prone to making the same mistake – namely – the relegation of racism to the psychological realm. This is why we are constantly bombarded with the propaganda that racism arises from psychological issues such as an intolerance and prejudice. Ultimately, the individual is commanded to learn to love herself and become educated because – and this is exquisitely American – it is up to the individual to accept herself and to change her individual racist attitudes. This is probably why the majority of school children are taught that Dr. King’s major contribution was his belief in colorblindness and his hope that people “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” What is most pathetic is that reactionary forces have used this idea to lobby against affirmative action. This is in obvious contradiction to Dr. King’s statement in his great speech “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution”:
“And these are so often the very people who tell Negroes that they must lift themselves by their own bootstraps. It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”
I think the psychologization of racism is wrong on two accounts. First, it does not inspire people to struggle for racial justice and liberation. Let us take for example President Bush’s revelation that the worst moment of his presidency was when Kanye West called him a racist for his handling of Katrina. This is instructive on multiple levels. Bush assumes that racism is somehow synonymous with his private feelings about black folks. Again, the assumption being made is that personal feelings and attitudes constitute racism. Forget the needless suffering that occurred during that tragedy. Furthermore, this emphasis on Bush’s private feelings is simply a distraction from the real problem of suffering. Whenever racism is relegated to the realm of private feelings, people only respond with defensiveness or guilt when they’re accused of being racist. They overlook the actual material effects of racism. The person accused of being a racist is then rendered politically immobile as he neurotically self-reflects and feels hurt. He might even be motivated to do something temporarily, at least long enough to assuage his guilty conscience.
Second, I believe the more problematical result of the psychologization of racism is that it fails to recognize that racism is a systemic issue. This is what is so humorous and tragic about the entire scandal surrounding Ron Paul’s racist newsletters. Regardless of whether or not Paul knew about the content of these letters, what shocked me was Paul’s response: “Libertarians are incapable of being racist because racism is a collectivist idea, you see people in groups.” The exclusive focus of the individual in libertarian philosophy simply cannot account for the racial systems in place that actually leads to political and economic oppression. Instead, the libertarian paranoia about government infringement is ultimately a mask for the hatred of the poor and minorities and invariably results in the blaming of disadvantaged folks for their lot in life. This is why Paul rejects the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because, for him, the real danger is that the government will interfere in the affairs of private citizens not the existence of segregation. Racial discrimination in education, employment, drug laws, and the prison system are all blatant examples of continued racism in modern America. Dr. King certainly agreed that we need a systemic analysis when he gave his speech on his opposition to the Vietnam War: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” I believe that racist attitudes are simply an outgrowth of psychological reflection on societal injustices. It would be logical to hold racist attitudes if one assume that the institutions in this country were just. But of course, they are not. Moreover, the only way to end racism is not to police personal prejudices which leaves unjust systems untouched, but rather, we must destroy the very systems of injustice that disproportionately bring down hell on minorities. Indeed, the entire Civil Rights Movement was always about economic and political empowerment. The March on Washington was for freedom and jobs. Racism is not merely about conscious prejudice, but rather it is grounded in the racist social unconscious that enacts discriminatory policies. Of course, through this social unconscious we are able to disavow our own racism because our institutions express them for us, albeit in a displaced manner. Ultimately, Dr. King was right to point out that capitalism (economic exploitation) is the real source of the problem. I also couldn’t agree more with Fred Hampton who said, “Racism is an excuse used for capitalism”. In America, class exploitation is color-coded. The legacy of Dr. King must be his emphasis on social and economic structures that oppress the poor and racial minorities in society. Until we rearrange these racist systems we have no hope of eliminating racist attitudes or personal prejudice.
I want to make one final comment about color-blindness. I work a part-time job entering survey data. All of our surveys ask questions about race/ethnicity, which is an inevitably touchy subject for some people. It never ceases to amaze me how often white folks refuse to acknowledge their race and write-in “human being” or “shouldn’t matter” or some other cute bullshit. On one level, we all know that race is an artificial construct. On another level, race clearly matters. After all, the very societal structures that allow certain citizens to deny the importance of race is itself a symptom of white privilege. Of course, race does not matter to white folks because privilege is the opportunity to be unaware of how your race benefits you socially, politically, and economically.