Racism in American culture: Some observations

It seems to me that since the late 1990s and early 2000s, structural and personal racism in American culture have gotten significantly worse, undoing much of the progress that was achieved from the 60s through the 90s. Representation of people of color in popular culture has declined, and the criminalization of blacks through the War on Drugs was accelerated by the advent of “broken windows” policing. The War on Terror exacerbated the problem, leading to racial profiling and a situation where the majority of people of color portrayed in the media were either domestic criminals or foreign terrorists. Meanwhile, Islam was racialized in a much more intensive way. The same administration that demonized Muslim countries could display criminal neglect of the black victims of Hurricane Katrina, whom the mainstream media shamed as looters and savages.

Paranoia surrounding Barack Obama, a black man with Muslim heritage, brought together both of these racist threads. His presidency was widely viewed as showing that we lived in a “post-racial” society, but the practical effect was to intensify the racist paranoia of a non-trivial portion of the population — it was as though their worst fears had come true. Obama himself is studiously centrist in all of his policy proposals and has consistently been eager to make a deal with Republicans at almost any price, but racially-driven hatred of Obama and a desire to deprive him of any achievements or legitimacy have led them to refuse to take yes for an answer almost constantly.

On the grassroots level, a growing movement of people who are literally protesting against state-sponsored random murder of blacks has faced an uphill battle for recognition and legitimacy in the public sphere, as the criminalization and demonization of black men leaves the majority of whites still giving the police the benefit of the doubt.

Thoughts? Am I being naive about previous eras? Are there some signs of progress that I’m missing?

The particularity of white supremacy

A common defensive move against critiques of the white power structure is to retreat into abstraction. Yes, it’s a shame that blacks are at such a disadvantage in white societies, but in every society, the majority places the minority at a disadvantage. If tables were turned, we’re assured, blacks would treat whites exactly the same way. The abstraction seamlessly gives way to naturalization: the way whites are behaving is a natural constant based on the very nature of human power relationships. We can all think of related examples: for instance, “many societies have had slavery,” a claim that attempts to defuse any argument that white enslavement of blacks was especially morally opprobrious — I mean, the ancient Greeks did it too!

In reality, though, white supremacy is a historically specific reality. It arose at a particular moment in history, growing out of a particular constellation of political and religious institutions, technological and economic developments, and time- and culture-bound ideologies. The very basis of white self-identification — the concept of race — was historically unique, as was the racial hierarchy by which whites legitimized the subordination of all other groups. Domination had been practiced before, but never in this precise form.

Similarly, it is true that various societies in the past have had slavery, but there were many factors in the white enslavement of blacks that were unique — and uniquely destructive. Race-based chattel slavery for life had never before been seen. The capture of slaves had never before been so systematic and regularized, much less carried out on such a large scale for such a long time. The absolute lack of any enforceable rights, particularly galling in the context of a society supposedly founded on principles of liberty and equality, was also a historical novelty compared to many familiar forms of slavery. One could even make the argument that to use the same word for the mainstream practice of Israelite, Greek, and Roman slavery and for modern slavery is misleading.

Why is this relevant? Because it renders the claim that the new boss will be just like the old boss almost completely indefensible. If another group or coalition of groups establishes dominance over whites, it will have arisen in conditions very different from those under which white supremacy originated. One of those new conditions will be the experience of having been a subaltern group (or groups) in the white racial hierarchy — a condition which their social position will give them a much more realistic view of than is typically accessible for those who have undergone mainstream white socialization processes. Given that these new rulers will be human beings, one can reasonably hope that they will not, at least as a rule, want to simply “turn the tables” and impose a condition they know to be dehumanizing and destructive on others. (Personal vengeance is a human impulse, too, but the entire basis for civil society is to restrain its pursuit.) Examples from individual countries, such as South Africa, tend to support this conclusion.

Indeed, the white supremacist order is so uniquely bad from a broad historical perspective that it seems reasonable to hope that its successor regime — should such a thing arise before our rulers completely destroy the material conditions of human life, which I am not entirely hopeful of — would be less bad, simply on the basis of statistical probability.

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Could capitalism exist without racism?

I’ve recently been working my way through the final volume of Hodgson’s Venture of Islam, the second half of which focuses on the original “disruptive innovation” — modern technological society. Hodgson is at pains to emphasize that the Old World at least had already been a world market, largely under Muslim auspices, for centuries at that point and that once any particular group hit upon modern technological methods, it was bound to spread throughout the rest of the world, giving that group a decisive advantage. He also does everything possible to head off Western self-congratulation, concluding that as far as we can tell, the fact that the West was where industrialism took root in a self-perpetuating way is essentially a matter of chance. Anyone could have stumbled upon the method, and in fact the Chinese almost did centuries previous. Finally, he also notes that Islamic societies emphasized commerce and social mobility and in that sense anticipated bourgeois values much more clearly than anything in the West (a label that he takes to be meaningful only if it’s a synonym for “the developed world”).

What haunts me is the question of whether the luck of the draw could have been better. We know that in practice, once the West did develop technological superiority, that created a durable and self-reinforcing power differential between the European nations and the rest of the world. Fully actualizing the powers implicit in modern technology in fact required European economic activity to reshape the rest of the world, disrupting settled arrangements and exploiting essentially all other nations to varying degrees.

And we know that the ideology that legitimated that power differential, in the last analysis, was racism. Europeans, it seemed, were made of better stuff — and from there an all-too-familiar hierarchy, terminating at Africans, unfolded, a hierarchy that continues to deeply shape the modern world and especially the United States.

In the case of racism, I believe there is a much clearer case to be made that the conceptual and cultural presuppositions were distinctively Western. Read the rest of this entry »

The Ineradicable Supersessionism of the Christian Imagination

As Willie James Jennings’ title would suggest, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race is a book situated at the interface between theology and history. My work hovers around the same intersection, so I came to Jennings’ book with strong interests both in the content of the argument and the method of its movements. Jennings has given us a very rich book, one that uncovers the historical and theological reasons that the stratified logics of race and colonialism have overrun—one should almost say without exception— the purported unity of Christian communion. Jennings’ text works to uncover the theological operations that underwrite the history of the last half-millennium—in which racial difference has functioned as justification for conversion by violent coercion and enslavement, and in which white Christians have regarded social, economic, and political parity for Christians of color as unthinkable, unnatural, and unnecessary. The logic of race is so deeply enmeshed in Western subject-formation that it has overpowered the political implications of theological and sacramental affirmations—e.g. that Christians share the same baptism and eat at the same table. In other words, Jennings asks: Why does whiteness trump Jesus’ body?

Jennings’ book works out a complex and multifaceted historical answer to this question—a question that white theology has repressed with hasty acknowledgments of the generalized horrors of the past.  Jennings’ book has been rightly recognized as a significant contribution to academic theology (the book won the 2015 Louisville Grawemeyer award in Religion) and has been discussed widely. Jennings’ readings of the theological formation of racial discourse in early modern and colonial authors are nuanced, careful, and illuminating. Alongside my deep appreciation for Jennings’ critical work on early modern texts and figures, however, I find myself stuck on a few questions regarding his main theological argument. In particular, I wonder if Jennings’ theological utilization of the concept of supersessionism has obscured the specifics of its history, such that Jennings inadvertently fails to escape the trajectory of Christian supersessionism even as he correctly diagnoses it as a lynchpin of Western racialized anthropology. Read the rest of this entry »

On the old saw, “Islam isn’t a race.”

It’s the ultimate get out of jail free card: when a critic of Islam is accused of racism, they point out that “Islam is not a race.” I agree on a certain level. Islam is a faith that embraces believers on every continent, in hundreds of ethnic groups. While Arabic has a special privilege as a language, there is explicitly no racial requirement for accepting and practicing Islam.

That’s why it’s so strange that critics of Islam constantly treat Islam as though it’s a race. They claim to be nervous about the religion, but then it turns out that the largely secularized and only episodically observant “Muslim” population in France is a big problem for cultural homogeneity, for instance. And even when an intellectual from a Muslim background renounces Islam, they become famous precisely as an ex-Muslim. Within this rhetorical framework, Islam looks suspiciously like a race in the sense that it is a social grouping one is regarded as belonging to from birth and from which one can never “opt out,” at least not fully.

What’s worth remembering here is that even the traditional racial categories “aren’t a race” in the sense of corresponding to an identifiable biological reality. Every race is a social construct. Even black Africans (the quintessential “race” of Western racism) were not “a race” before Westerners incorporated them into a racial hierarchy and began oppressing them on that basis. We usually think of racism as prejudice against a race that somehow preexists the prejudice, but the historical reality is the reverse. Racism creates the racial group as a race in order to legitimate differential treatment.

Hence I propose that we are today witnessing the construction of Islam precisely as a race in Western discourse. Obviously the racialization of the Islamic Other has always been a part of the Western arsenal — though it’s interesting to note that the regions where Islam has been traditionally dominant (North Africa, Middle East, Indian subcontinent) have always fit awkwardly into the traditional scheme of races — but today it is proceeding with a thoroughness and level of explicitness that is largely unprecedented.

Hence the only response to the “Islam isn’t a race” dodge is, “Perhaps it wasn’t before, but you are making it into a race.”

Letting Go: On Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Normally Adam posts something in recognition of MLK day. In the past he’s linked to his remarks from his radical work often covered over in today’s official celebrations or to the remarks in Letter from a Birmingham Jail concerning the threat of the white moderate. Remarks often repressed in white consciousness even as they celebrate the supposed victory that MLK lead the nation towards. On today’s MLK day I invite you to read Chris Lebron’s piece in the NYT: “What, to the Black American, Is Martin Luther King Jr. Day?“.

Many on my various social media timelines have shared this powerful line, “I want to say there is also some distance between black and white Americans today, between “you” and “I,” as it were, and that this day has increasingly become “yours,” not mine.” The sorrow at the ways in which white Americans have co-opted MLK, and this day in particular, as a symbol of a job already done is a sorrow brought on in part by the way it erases the responsibility of white Americans to either answer the call of MLK and other radical Black leaders or be honest about their apathy and hatred for their Black neighbors. As he goes on to write, “While he indeed fought for the security of a full schedule of rights for black Americans, he was in fact fighting for something greater and more difficult to articulate — the hope that white Americans could extend a hand of brotherly and sisterly love to blacks.” As whites tarnish MLK’s legacy through ad campaigns or as a figure of respectability politics, then they continue not in the tradition of MLK (as they may fantasize they are), but of Bull Connor and George Wallace. Only now they–a “we” for some of us–are laden with artifacts of Black culture they use as new modes of repression. Repression both of Black demands for justice (“MLK was peaceful, but you’re out here blocking shoppers!”) and their own repression of the shame of being white (“MLK’s dream is fulfilled today because I don’t see race!”).

Today is a day to celebrate one of many important Black leaders. But anytime the same state and culture invites you to worship a human being they tried to kill, we should be suspicious of the ways they want us to remember. Many Black americans already know this and it is something that white Americans, including myself, need to learn from them. Whites need to let go of the fantasy of Martin Luther King Jr. if they are going to be part of his being reclaimed.

On demonization

In his testimony before the grand jury, unrepentant cold-blooded murderer Darren Wilson claimed to have been afraid of Michael Brown — an unarmed man literally the same size as Wilson — and said that in his rage, “it [Brown] looked like a demon.” Perhaps Wilson can pursue a second career as an exorcist in the long life of freedom that he has been unjustly granted.

What strikes me about this remark is what an appalling reversal it is from the original purpose of the language of demonization. For the Jews of the Maccabean period who created the concept of the demonic as we recognize it, as for the early Christians who took it up and developed it, the demonic was a concept that was synonymous with unjust earthly rulers.

Previously, the Jews in exile had been able to view earthly rulers as more ambivalent figures, carrying out God’s punishment against Israel for its unfaithfulness to the law and then subsequently being punished by God for their own injustice and violence. In the Maccabean period, however, the mad king Antiochus Epiphanes rendered this intellectual compromise impossible by persecuting Jews precisely for being faithful to the law. No longer was he the unwitting servant of God, but his conscious enemy and rival, who must be defeated in order to usher in the messianic age. The apocalyptic sections of the Book of Daniel are centered around this cosmic battle between God and the demonic forces embodied in Antiochus (symbolically designated the “little horn”).

Multiple texts from this period (most notably 2 Maccabees, widely available in standard Bible translations) focus on his torture of a mother and her sons for refusing to defile themselves by eating pork, and the authors credit the bereaved mother with creating a key theological concept: the resurrection of the dead. The grief of a mother whose innocent sons had been slaughtered is thus a primary site of theological reflection, something we shouldn’t forget today.

As an interesting sidebar, the same text that documents the origins of the Jewish-Christian theory of martyrdom also recounts a successful armed rebellion on the part of Jewish religious leaders, which led to the establishment of an autonomous Jewish state that lasted for a century. We tend to view non-violent resistence as an alternative to violent revolution, but the two have never been far apart.

The question I’m trying to get at in my devil research is how we got from there — where Wilson himself would be viewed as a demonic functionary of the Satanic system of oppression — to here — where language of demonization has been co-opted by the oppressors themselves. From a liberal perspective, this question is purely academic in the negative sense of being irrelevant: demonization language always “others” and “dehumanizes,” and so it is rejected on formalistic grounds as simply “bad.” Yet I think this view falls prey to the same false symmetry that always infects liberal formalistic arguments. Demonization language in the mouth of Wilson does illegitimately dehumanize Brown, but demonization language applied to Wilson reflects the objective fact that Wilson has dehumanized himself, has allied himself with demonic forces actively opposed to divine justice.

So I maintain that demonization language is both powerful and necessary — though my study of its legacy in Christian history shows me that it is also dangerous. That is in the very nature of a weapon, however, and we should not be so quick to dismiss theological tools that emerged from communities of the oppressed in the moment of their direst need.


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