Wednesday, January 07, 2015

On Privilege, Racism, and Fear

On Jan. 4th, Fox News co-hosts Peter Johnson Jr. and Tucker Carlson bashed Missouri state senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal for daring to mention white privilege in a Twitter post, claiming she is “perpetuating the race war that she announced in November” (Johnson) and that “she’s a race hater. She attacks people based on the color of their skin” (Carlson).

Carlson is displaying a text-book example of the big lie propaganda technique. This technique works so well for him, that he uses it twice. The first, obvious lie is Carlson’s claim that Chappelle-Nadal is attacking anyone. This lie is here only to distract. The second, more subtle lie is in Carlson’s phrase “based on the color of their skin.” If Chappelle-Nadal were literally "attacking people based on the color of their skin", yes that would be hateful. But that is not the case here. Our minds make race-based judgements about a person all the time, whether we intend to or not, simply because race is one of the first things we notice about a person. In George Orwell’s novel 1984, a big lie is encoded in the doublespeak word “blackwhite.” In today’s neoconservative America, the words are “post-racial” and “colorblind.” “Racism” is then defined as any challenge to the idea we live in such a society. (By this definition, every sociology department in America is racist.) The lie here is that assertions that whites enjoy socially-constructed privileges in today’s America are analogous to assertions that blacks are biologically inferiority (and therefore must be kept separate from the rest of society) in pre-Civil Rights Era America. Just think about that for a minute.

White privilege and racism are both very real. Our society conditions us to feel comfortable around white, male decision-makers, and threatened by the image of black men (and to ignore everyone else completely). This is the implicit message of our government, our media, our movies, and especially our economic institutions, where as of August 2013, corporate boards are still 87.7% white and 84.5% male.

We should be aware that the race-based issues in today’s media are about more than the surface issues--effective policing, the science behind humanity’s genetic differences, or the sociological history of racism. Tucker’s comments are part of a fear-based ideology of control.

We are living out an ideological struggle between love and fear. Television, unquestionably the most powerful technology of social control in human history, beams these fear-based images and soundbytes into tens of millions of homes each and every day. This is what scares me the most today--not the black guy walking down the sidewalk--the threat of living in a society where perfectly decent people never learn to trust each other because they are indoctrinated with fear-based ideologies.

Fear is not always bad. Our survival instincts depend on it to assure us of safety. But our media is constantly playing up our fears of each other in order to get higher ratings and manipulate voters’ choices. To fear ghosts--to fear when there is really no threat--is a sad way to live.
Are we to live in an economy of fear, in which we distrust our neighbor and maintain a safe psychological detachment from the outside world?

Racism today operates precisely in how we respond to questions like this. In contrast to the explicitly racist policies of our country’s past, today’s racism is in the margins of our decision-making within socially-complex contexts. Author Eduardo Bonilla-Silva explains how what he calls “racism without racists” functions: "Instead of saying that they do not want [minorities] as neighbors, they say things nowadays such as 'I am concerned about crime, property values and schools.’” Racism is not directly explicitly verbalized, but the end result is still the same: our neighborhoods become largely segregated, and stereotypical, race-based associations are reinforced. All other considerations being equal, whites are more likely than blacks to be called back for job interviews, approved for a bank loan, and put on probation instead of being incarcerated for a crime.

“But look at who’s President! Doesn’t the progress we have made deserve recognition, too?” (I can hear the corporate news anchor now.) Perhaps so, but before we give ourselves that collective pat on the back, we should be aware that racism has taken different forms throughout human history.

The idea that worth as a human being is specifically tied to skin color, rather than upbringing, was intentionally developed and perpetuated in order to justify the routine cruelty within the Atlantic slave trade. Pre-slave-trade racism consists of a more generalized fear of the unknown. Racism in this era was not defined in a specific way.  Foreigners, or those who are different, were simply distrusted at face-value. But as civilizations evolved, people began to find this simplistic fear of cultural difference unsatisfactory.

In medieval Europe, the idea of human slavery began to seem at odds with Christian values. Also, during the 17th century, it became common knowledge that other cultures have made beautiful art, scientific advances, advanced architectural procedures, etc. Other cultures became seen as interesting and worthy of respect after all.
At this same time, however, the conquest of extremely-fertile land in the Americas had created an overwhelming demand for slaves to work on the fields. Racism based strictly on skin color solved this ethical dilemma quite nicely for the white power-structure of the time. “Black people are born inferior. Slavery allows their life to contribute to a higher purpose. The enslavement of blacks is the natural order of things.” As a white person, I cannot imagine being subjected to such barbarity, the reminders of which are still all around us to this day.

The exact history and definition of racism is not as important as the fact that racism always plays off of our natural fear of uncertainty and the unknown.

Humans are the most visually-dependent mammal. We take in more visual data than our intentional, decision-making process has time to sift through. Numerous psychological studies have shown again and again that most contemporary Americans make many racial judgments every day without even realizing they are doing so. One famous study showed that Americans, black as well as white, associate the image of a black male with the threat of violence. Another study demonstrated that in the NBA, white referees call more fouls on black players, and black referees call more fouls on white players. Most participants in these
studies are not racist on a personal, individual level. Racism today is broader than that. It is a structural, institutional problem as well.

White privilege and racism against blacks are both quite real in America today. They are not so much about our individual intentional value systems as about the cumulative effect of our fear-based, everyday biases, which are constantly being reinforced by the structural racism all around us. The effects of racism are just as real as ever, and clearly signifies that we as a society need to wake up and stand up against the fear-based biases that the current system conditions into us.

At various times in human history, someone has proposed that an ideology of love can overcome our fear of the other. In Christianity, this is called Agape. For Islam, in the Hadith, the Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said: “You will not enter paradise until you believe, and you will not believe until you love one another.” In Judaism, this concept is called Ahava; in Buddhism, metta; and in Hinduism, prema. Authentic love is not just a mental state. It is the daring risk of self to engage the other. British literary theorist Terry Eagleton wonderfully translates the concept of Agape love as "political love.” Politicizing our love is the only way I see to overcome the fear-based ideologies that currently inundate our culture.

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