Two Literary Perspectives on US Racism: Citizen by Claudia Rankine and Americanah by Chimamanda Ngoza Adichie

I vividly recall the autumn of 2008. I had just moved from the US to Canada to start my Master’s degree in Toronto. Eager to vote in my second US presidential election, I ordered my absentee ballot well in advance and set to work informing myself about the candidates and their stances on issues that mattered.

It was not an easy decision. Nevertheless, I remember the thrill that pulsed through me on that chilly November evening as the election results came in and state after state turned up blue. This was no ordinary election. This was history in the making. Forty-three years after the end of Jim Crow, we were electing our first black president. For the first time in a long time, I was filled with pride for my country. We were finally fulfilling Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream. We had overcome.

Today, I look back on that initial euphoria with a sigh. How naive could a young, white American graduate student be?

The deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Akai Gurley, Walter Scott, and Freddie Gray have all forced me to renounce my premature optimism. Meanwhile, last week’s murder of nine innocent people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC has made me ask myself what century I am living in. Have I inadvertently stepped into a time machine? Are we back in 1963, when the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL was bombed by KKK members?

It would be easy to dismiss this killing as an aberration. As Steven W. Thrasher has written in The Guardian, “The collective denial of ongoing racism allows us to ignore differentials in infant mortality and overall life expectancy, and to classify the deaths of nine people killed in church as the alleged victims of a mentally ill individual rather than a racist terrorist.” As Thrasher is eager to point out, this heinous act is not an isolated incident. Rather, it is a logical consequence of the society we live in.

Faced with this harsh reality, I cannot simply shake my head in self-righteous indignation or naively ask myself how on earth Dylan Roof could have committed this horrible crime. When I read the statistics about poverty and incarceration in the US; when I see the white faces that dominate business, media, academia and government; when I drive through the impoverished predominantly black neighbourhoods of Buffalo, NY – my hometown and one of the most segregated cities in the US – I am reminded again and again that we Americans have a serious problem. And while you or I as individuals may not consider ourselves racist (though we probably are), we live in a society whose very structure is marked by racial inequality. As active participants in this society, we must each take our share of the responsibility for its flaws.

The question that follows, then, is what are we to do about this? Wallowing in guilt will not ameliorate the situation. Neither will dismissing the issues as too complex for any one person to make a difference. The first step is to take a deep breath, acknowledge the reality of present-day racism in the US, and then to listen to some of the people who have been affected by this problem.

I immediately find myself turning to literature for guidance. It hardly seems coincidental that during the past two years, two great literary texts dealing with the theme of US racism have received much critical acclaim in the US. Published in 2013, Chimamanda Ngoza Adichie’s Americanah tells the story of a young Nigerian woman who migrates to the US and struggles to come to terms with what it means to be black in America. Published at the end of 2014, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric is an unusual hybrid text combining poetry, essays, images, and links to Internet videos. Interestingly, both Rankine and Adichie were born outside the US – Adichie is Nigerian (but, like her protagonist, she has spent many years living in the US) and Rankine, though having lived most of her life in the US, is originally from Jamaica. This gives both authors the opportunity to look at the US from a dual perspective as insiders and outsiders, participants and observers.

Assuming a documentary style, a large portion of Rankine’s book features brief, second-person essays narrating incidents of everyday racism experienced by Rankine herself along with a group of people whom she interviewed. The use of “you” draws the reader into the situation and forces us to taste the pain, anger and downright confusion that racism causes. Delivered in succession and without commentary, these texts make a powerful statement about racism’s power to simultaneously render people invisible while also exposing them to complete humiliation. Consider these three fragments from the text:

The new therapist specializes in trauma counseling. You have only ever spoken on the phone. Her house has a side gate that leads to a back entrance she uses for patients. You walk down a path bordered on both sides with deer grass and rosemary to the gate, which turns out to be locked. At the front door the bell is a small round disc that you press firmly. When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard? It’s as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or a German shepherd has gained the power of speech. And though you back up a few steps, you manage to tell her you have an appointment. You have an appointment? She spits back. Then she pauses. Everything pauses. Oh, she says, followed by, oh, yes, that’s right. I am sorry. I am so sorry, so, so sorry (14)

The man at the cash register wants to know if you think your card will work. If this is his routine, he didn’t use it on the friend who went before you. As she picks up her bag, she looks to see what you will say. She says nothing. You want her to say something—both as witness and as a friend. She is not you; her silence says so. Because you are watching all this take place even as you participate in it, you say nothing as well. Come over here with me, your eyes say. Why on earth would she? The man behind the register returns your card and places the sandwich and Pellegrino in a bag, which you take from the counter. What is wrong with you? The question gets stuck in your dreams (46).

In line at the drugstore it’s finally your turn, and then it’s not as he walks in front of you and puts his things on the counter. The cashier says, Sir, she was next. When he turns to you he is truly surprised.

Oh my god, I didn’t see you.

You must be in a hurry, you offer.

No, no, no, I really didn’t see you. (66)

In the last of these examples, we see that racism has the power to render someone absolutely invisible – the main in the drugstore does not even notice the speaker. In the first one, racism renders the speaker all-too visible. It is shocking that a mental health professional – a trauma counselor, nonetheless – would react in anger and fear to unexpectedly receiving a black patient. But, this is a true story. The example in the middle is, for me, the most interesting. The speaker experiences a moment of shame and humiliation when the cashier expresses the assumption that the debit card will not work. Turning to a friend for support – some kind of intervention, some comment, some expression of solidarity – the speaker is left alone.

Reading this text, I can’t help but cast myself in the role of that white bystander, that supposed friend who passively stands aside as these events take place. While Rankine never explicitly speaks to white people and tells us what we should do, this passage offers a clue. White people cannot dismiss racism as someone else’s problem. Acknowledging that we are bound up with it is one of the first step toward overcoming it.

The other important first step is listening. Ifemelu, the protagonist of Adichie’s novel, is a young Nigerian woman who, shocked by the treatment she gets as a black woman in the US, starts an anonymous blog about it. In a post entitled “Friendly Tips for the American Non-Black: How to React to an American Black Talking About Blackness,” she states,

Dear American Non-Black, if an American Black person is telling you about an experience about being black, please do not eagerly bring up examples from your own life. Don’t say “It’s just like when I…” You have suffered. Everyone in the world has suffered. But you have not suffered precisely because you are an American Black […] Don’t bring up your Irish great-grandparents’ suffering. Of course they got a lot of shit from established America. So did the Italians. So did the Eastern Europeans. But there was a hierarchy. A hundred years ago, the white ethnics hated being hated, but it was sort of tolerable because at least black people were below them on the ladder. Don’t say your grandfather was a serf in Russia when slavery happened because hat matters is you are American now and being American means taking on the whole shebang, America’s assets and America’s debts, and Jim Crow is a big-ass debt […] Don’t put on a Let’s Be Fair tone and say “But black people are racist too.” Because of course we’re all prejudiced (I can’t even stand some of my blood relatives, grasping, selfish folks), but racism is about the power of a group and in America it’s white folks who have that power. How? Well, white folks don’t get treated like shit in upper-class African-American communities and white folks don’t get denied bank loans or mortgages precisely because they are white and black juries don’t give white criminals worse sentences than black criminals for the same crime and black police officers don’t stop white folk for driving while white and black companies don’t choose not to hire somebody because their name sounds white and black teachers don’t tell white kids that they’re not smart enough to be doctors and black politicians don’t try some tricks to reduce the voting power of white folks through gerrymandering and advertising agencies don’t say they can’t use white models to advertise glamorous products because they are not considered “aspirational” by the “mainstream” (404-407).

After going through this list of “don’ts,” Ifemelu offers one “do”:

Hear what is being said. And remember that it’s not about you. American Blacks are not telling you that you are to blame. They are just telling you what is. If you don’t understand, ask questions. If you’re uncomfortable about asking questions, say you are uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway. It’s easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place. Then listen some more. Sometimes people just want to feel heard. Here’s to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding (406).

Another theme that appears in both texts is the phenomenon of black anger over racism – and white fear or dismissal of that anger. In Citizen, Rankine includes a fairly long essay on tennis virtuoso Serena Williams, who at an earlier stage in her career was known for getting angry over the injustices she faced in a white-dominated sport. Adichie’s heroine, meanwhile, has a blog post directed toward her fellow black non-Americans instructing them that they must never show anger to non-black Americans:

If you’re telling a non-black person about something racist that happened to you, make sure you are not bitter. Don’t complain. Be forgiving. If possible, make it funny. Most of all, do not be angry. Black people are not supposed to be angry about racism. Otherwise you get no sympathy. This applies only for white liberals, by the way. Don’t even bother telling a white conservative about anything racist that happened to you. Because the conservatives will tell you that YOU are the real racist and your mouth will hang open in confusion (275).

This taboo on black anger in a white-dominated society might offer another inroad when thinking about what it is that we have to do. In Citizen, Rankine suggests that the ability to curb one’s emotions is generally a requisite for membership in any society – a requisite for citizenship, if you will. Perhaps this attitude toward emotion is something all of us, regardless of our race, should bear in mind when thinking about how to go about building a non-racist society. What is the most productive way of dealing with the anger, fear, shame, guilt, that racism causes? Looking at the contemporary US with these literary texts in mind, I will argue that the bloody overt violence that took place in Charleston last week is a reflection of countless smaller acts of aggression that white people commit against black people every day – usually without realizing it, often with the best of intentions. In the wake of this attack, I believe we need to change our society from the inside out. We must seriously examine our own implicit prejudices and open ourselves to the possibility of new ways of seeing our country and all people who call it home.

Citations

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngoza. Americanah. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.

Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014.

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  • Mark VA

    Thank you, Jeannine, for writing this post.

    I see two strands of thought in the citations you have provided: one points to white racism, and the other to lack of empathy in some white people with the experiences of black people in our country. Your general question is: “…what are we to do about this?” – here are some of my thoughts:

    If we aspire to be American patriots, who care about the Unum as well as the Pluribus, I believe we should educate our young (and ourselves, if need be), about these experiences. We should promote reflections and discussions about this living history, and encourage organic friendships among people of good will;

    I would propose this education should be systematic but not necessarily formal, and could take place, for example, at home or during a walk. Above all, it must have heart, and be factual. To be factual, it must avoid the four propaganda pitfalls the historian Norman Davies identifies in the “Introduction” to his book “Europe”:

    – It must not Eliminate (“elimination”) material that is contradictory to the currently
    established narrative;
    – It must not Reduce (“reduction”, “compress”) material to serve “present
    concerns”;
    – It must not be Anachronistic (“anachronism”), that is, present transient phenomena as
    “permanent fixtures”;
    – It must avoid “Enthusiasms of Language” – that is, misuse language to indicate what is to
    be “praised” and what “deplored”;

    To begin this much needed discussion, a good place to start may be here:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yRfByLRO5xs&list=PL24F7549F2D39E590&index=3

    P.S. The classic 1975 movie “Cooley High” brings heart, and a wonderful plot, poetry, music, and cinematography to this subject.

    • http://anotherliberalcatholic.wordpress.com jeanninemariedymphna

      Thank you, Mark.

  • Magdalena

    It’s funny, because I’ve had the identical experience in #3 and a very similar experience to #1. Except I came to the house for a job interview. And I’m a 5’4″ white girl. I realize that I’m violating the rule about bringing up examples from my own life but these specific anecdotes are just too coincidental for me not to mention it.

    • http://anotherliberalcatholic.wordpress.com jeanninemariedymphna

      Magdalena, I have had the experience in #3 as well. I do not think that Claudia Rankine is trying to say that these experiences of marginalization are unique to one group of people only. I also believe that it is acceptable and important to draw on our own experiences to relate to the suffering of others – this is a big part of what empathy is – as long as we validate the uniqueness of each person’s experience.

  • Melody

    Just a few words about “Friendly Tips for the American Non-Black: How to React to an American Black Talking About Blackness:” Basically what I am reading here is to be quiet and listen, which seems like good advice. However, a dialogue means give-and-take, and telling people that they have nothing to contribute to the conversation makes it not much of a conversation. It is true that most whites in the US have not experienced actual racism. And that whatever prejudices their ancestors experienced as newly arrived members of an ethnic group is not the same, or anywhere close to it, as the fact that your ancestors were treated as chattel property, and that their descendants are still feeling the effects of that. However, the fact that whites have no parallel experience to the racism experienced by blacks doesn’t mean that they can’t use their own experiences as stair-steps to empathy and understanding. For example: all of us have experienced, at one time or another, being excluded or judged, being dismissed as unimportant, having others inexplicably given preference over us for jobs or promotions. We can step into the shoes of blacks and try to imagine what it would be like to experience such things, not occasionally, but on a regular basis, to the extent that it is the “normal” way of things; and hold that thought.

    • http://anotherliberalcatholic.wordpress.com jeanninemariedymphna

      Melody, I agree that drawing on our own experiences to empathize with others is important. I should also mention that I believe the character blogging in Americanah – who is NOT a simple mouthpiece for the author of the novel – is being deliberately bombastic in the way she writes. If you read the novel, you will see that she is equally bombastic when addressing members of her own group (non-American blacks) and black Americans. This is something I did not make clear in the post – you need to read the book to get it. If you read the book, you will see that the character (and the author) want a genuine dialogue. But listening is definitely where it starts.

  • trellis smith

    Rarely have I read a greater conflation of ideological blindness than that of this post, which has captured so little of the reality of race relations in this country let alone the South, that informs itself with false narrative, meaningless guilt, race baiting, and misplaced blame.
    The leftist agenda, (and quoting the Guardian is leftist to the extreme) is a model of failure and over reach. If progressives want to help, then out of the way.
    Mark has been more measured and indeed more accurate in his response but someone has to give you a good shake to open your eyes to the damage your own political philosophy has done.

    • Mark VA

      Trellis:

      I would say that both the Left and the Right routinely indulge in the four cardinal “history skewing” practices identified by Norman Davies – whether to the same degree, is open to debate.

      I think we could advance this discussion if we take it out of the politics, and focus on culture and scholarship. Perhaps this is not very “sexy”, but I believe that the deepest changes of the heart most often happen quietly.

      • trellis smith

        I agree Mark and have implied as such in deferring to your approach, which is a conservative position by definition. But when a so blatantly political attack is advanced a political defense should be expected.
        Political solutions to race relations in this country have been the solution of choice for those who hold to the centrality of government, especially a centralized one. The solutions have only confirmed biases, entrenched positions and advanced acrimony and segregation at a cost of freedom. Race relations in the South at the present time as well as historically have been varied and complicated but always more honest than in the progressive North. In a more honest discussion it would be admitted that should we want to somehow symbolically abolish racism as in removing the stars and bars, we should do likewise to the stars and stripes And while we are at it get rid of the racialist tag line “la Raza” or maybe the congressional black caucus.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      “this post, which has captured so little of the reality of race relations in this country let alone the South”

      What has it missed? From where I am sitting, and from where my minority students are sitting, she has done a pretty good job of capturing race relations in America. Of course, I am biased, having gotten jacked up by the police on the sole grounds that I was a Mexican-American waiting for a bus who happened to fit the absurdly vague description that had gone out “a big Mexican.” (I was held until another cop showed up, who looked at me, shook his head and said, “no, I meant a big Mexican” while making vague gestures at his shoulders.)

      • trellis smith

        In regards to you and your students, that’s called a feedback loop.
        In regards to your encounter with the police who let you go, it looks like they went and got the wrong guy. (TIC)

  • Agellius

    Part of the problem, I think, is that when hearing stories like this, white people are sometimes skeptical that the incident was due to racism, and would prefer to assume the best rather than the worst. Further, they feel that they deserve to have the best assumed rather than the worst, because they themselves are not conscious of racist feelings and don’t believe themselves guilty of racist behavior. No one likes to be accused of wrongdoing, and it’s especially irksome to have the worst assumed, when a less negative interpretation of the facts is possible.

    Must we assume that reports of racist incidents by blacks are always 100% accurate? If not 100%, then what percentage would it be reasonable to assume? How accurate do you consider your own judgments of other people’s behavior and motives? How often have you judged someone to be acting from bad motives towards you, and turned out to be wrong?

    “Don’t even bother telling a white conservative about anything racist that happened to you. Because the conservatives will tell you that YOU are the real racist and your mouth will hang open in confusion.”

    I find this offensive and an overgeneralization. Statements like this make the author less persuasive rather than more.

    • Melody

      I agree with Agellius that the bit he quoted is offensive and an overgeneralization. And I say that as someone who doesn’t self-identify as conservative. Would be hard to dialogue with someone with that big of a chip on their shoulder.

    • http://anotherliberalcatholic.wordpress.com jeanninemariedymphna

      “Part of the problem, I think, is that when hearing stories like this, white people are sometimes skeptical that the incident was due to racism, and would prefer to assume the best rather than the worst. Further, they feel that they deserve to have the best assumed rather than the worst, because they themselves are not conscious of racist feelings and don’t believe themselves guilty of racist behavior. No one likes to be accused of wrongdoing, and it’s especially irksome to have the worst assumed, when a less negative interpretation of the facts is possible.” This is a really good point, Agellius, and I think it gets to the root of why so many white people – myself included – become defensive when racism is brought up. It is hard for us to understand that racism is structural, not personal – we may personally try to be our very best, but we live within a social system filled with injustice. Different people have different ideas on how to deal with this reality; I believe that we are all responsible for trying to change this system and rectify these injustices in whatever ways we can.

      As far as the bit I quoted (the character Ifemelu’s comments about trying to share her her experiences with “white liberal” and a “white conservative,” I agree that she is being offensive – deliberately so. She’s a rabble rouser, trying to stir people up. But, I think I read this part differently than you did. To me, she seems to be saying that there is no real difference between white liberals and conservatives on this issue; they all lack empathy for the experience of black Americans, and in her experience, they do not seem to be interested in going out of their way to cultivate this empathy. Unfortunately, this perspective seems pretty accurate a lot of the time – I meet it in my own circle of family, friends and acquaintances (liberal and conservative), and now, I am meeting it in some of the comments on this post (not yours)!

  • Mark VA

    As someone who has lived in the South for over 30 years, I see a lot of good, along with the remnants of the past, all around me. I firmly believe that to build on the good, we need to be willing to educate ourselves, perhaps even against ourselves, and strive to be less “culturally encapsulated”.

    In this vein, let me propose the book “The Souls Of Black Folk”, by W.E.B. Du Bois:

    http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/408

  • George

    Pluralism will always be a problem. Minorities will always be victims.

    Black is bad. I don’t mean that in the racist sense. What I mean is that the very construct of Race is dependent on an assumption of a hierarchy in which the White/unmarked people are on top and Blackness is subjugated.

    The only solutions, then, are either the Blacks form their own self-sufficient country somewhere, or they “become White.”

    Earning White status is not impossible. The Irish and Italians did it. The Hispanics are doing it currently; you will note how the latest Census made Hispanic an ethnicity that could be combined with any Race rather than a Race in itself (and most Latinos picked White for Race even though in reality most of their ancestors were likely Native American).

    Blacks, however, cling to Black identity, a Victimary identity and Victimary thinking (see Eric Gans on this) and as such I have to think are at the very least in a twisted Codependency with their white abusers and oppressors.

    Liberals who imagine a World in which blackness is maintained as a “separate cultural identity and heritage” while somehow being equal betray their own principle: separate but equal is, truly, never equal.

    The only way out is the final deconstruction of Race entirely and the shedding of Black identity. The black community must shun the race-baiters and work hard (like the Irish, like the Hispanics) in a sort of quiet patience, but with the goal of attaining White status or getting rid of race as socially meaningful period.

    At the end of the day, it’s a class thing. Race was a deviously brilliant construction inasmuch as it linked labor class (I’m talking all the way back in slave days) to something immediately visually evident, heritable, and largely unchangable and unhideable. If you’re looking to create a fixed class system, you can’t do much better for stability than that.

    Nevertheless, even as someone who opposes class oppression, I get awfully sick after a while of hearing the black communities ride with criminality and poverty crying “Save us from ourselves!!” Would they rather go back to their fleshpots in Egypt?

    I leave them well enough alone. When I do encounter them I’m courteous. What more do they NEED from me? Why not be self-sufficient? How much money or training do we need to throw at them before they’re self-sufficient? At what point can a broken community be reasonable expected to say “Yes, we were hurt, but we’re adults now and responsible for ourselves from this point forward?”

    We can’t save them from themselves.

    • Mark VA

      George:

      Who, in your opinion, has the power to confer “White Status”? What is it, anyway?

      Why don’t White people disestablish their “whiteness”, and assume a different identity? Why do White people cling to White identity, anyway?

      • George

        White just means “unmarked.” That’s just the default. Why should anyone be expected to super-add a positive “marking” to their identity?

        • Mark VA

          George:

          In the background of the discredited 19th and 20th century notions
          (I would call them “wishful hallucinations”) about the so called “White status”, one often finds equally discredited nostrums of “Social Darwinisms”:

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_Darwinism

          Now, rather than dabble in this old muck, let’s lift our minds and spirits and reflect on the life of Marva Collins:

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marva_Collins

          http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB11301772451238044816904581083922337944158

        • Mark VA
        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          Ah yes: the belief that white is not a race, but an absence of race. Sorry no: “whiteness” is just as much a social construct as blackness and it is not the default. Rather, whiteness is a position of privilege in American society. So of course whites do not want to give up their whiteness because it confers all sorts of useful things. If you think it does not, then look at (to take just one example) the recent studies about responses to job applicants who are only distinguished by having white names (“Bob”, “Heather”) or black names (“Tyrone”, “Keisha”).

        • George

          Privilege and benefit are good things? Why would anyone want to give them up? Fight to extend its them to everyone, yes.

          But you’re basically saying something analogous to: health is more than the absence of sickness. Therefore healthy people should cut off a limb to join the disabled.

          No, medical science should work to cure the disabled.

        • Mark VA

          David:

          Well put! Similar dynamic operated in the bias regarding the hiring of female musicians for symphony orchestras:

          http://gap.hks.harvard.edu/orchestrating-impartiality-impact-%E2%80%9Cblind%E2%80%9D-auditions-female-musicians

          I also read somewhere (I can’t remember where) that the aspirants, in addition to playing behind the screen, also remove their shoes. Apparently, the sound of walking gives clues as to the gender. I think an analogous process should be instituted in the wider world, to eliminate any lingering hiring bias.

          Happy 4th of July, everyone!

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Wow, I do not know where to begin in responding to this.

      “and most Latinos picked White for Race even though in reality most of their ancestors were likely Native American)”

      Umm, not even close. A Costa Rican is likely to be all Spanish in desecent. An Argentinian is likely to be a melange of Spanish, German and Italian, with little if any Indian. Dominicans are primarily black, though with other things thrown in. (Despite the claims of some Carib nationalists, most of the Indian population of the Islands was wiped out early on by disease, slavery and outright genocide.) Mexicans are a wonderful mix, with Spanish and Indian ancestry the most common but lots of other things mixed in. And then there are the large populations in Peru and Brazil descended from the Japanese.

      “Blacks, however, cling to Black identity, a Victimary identity and Victimary thinking”

      African Americans live in a society that will not let them forget they are black, but it is their fault for clinging to a “black identity”? And what is a “victimary identity”? Their crime, apparently, is for daring to call attention to the fact that they are the victims of racism, be it either direct, personal bigotry (“NIgger, get off campus!” as was shouted at one of my students by a fellow student) or for being on the short end of a system which privileges whiteness?

      “The black community must shun the race-baiters and work hard (like the Irish, like the Hispanics) in a sort of quiet patience, but with the goal of attaining White status or getting rid of race as socially meaningful period.”

      The Irish became white over a long, multi-generational period, and were able to do so in part by leveraging off of the existence of black and latinos who were “not white like us”. It seems perverse to expect Blacks to do the same thing: who are they supposed to beat up on in their path to whiteness?

      “I get awfully sick after a while of hearing the black communities ride with criminality and poverty crying “Save us from ourselves!!” Would they rather go back to their fleshpots in Egypt?”

      I am not sure which black communities you are listening to, but I certainly do not hear this. Here in Hartford (and before that in Oakland), they wanted what the middle class white folks in the suburbs take for granted: good policing that does not act like an invading army; decent schools; some meaningful return on the taxes they pay like everyone else. Since the Civil War the black community has worked hard on uplift and self-improvement, often in the face of considerable resistance from the white community. (One need only look at the prosperous, middle class black communities burned down in the race riots at the beginning of the 20th century.) This continues to this day. So to claim that blacks are mired in victimhood and only want to guilt white people into doing things for them is both a prejudiced and incorrect reading of the reality of race in America today.

      “At what point can a broken community be reasonable expected to say “Yes, we were hurt, but we’re adults now and responsible for ourselves from this point forward?””

      Shortly after the point in which black men and women are no longer shot or brutalized by the police solely because they are black.

      • George

        Good schools?? They can’t teach their own children so they want us to send in more white people to discipline the kids they should be disciplining. Where is the black homeschool movement?

        I will not be guilted into saving them from themselves.

        The shootings have by and large been criminals. What the hell is the point of making a fuss about the fact that similar white criminals aren’t shot (as often)?? You forfeit your life by being in such situations. And you’re crying like some bizarre reverse “workers in the vineyard” complaint.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          Never allow facts to stand in the way of a good prejudice. According to a recent article in the Atlantic, blacks make up 10% of the homeschool movement. Note, however, that large numbers of parents homeschool because of racism in the public schools:

          http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/02/the-rise-of-homeschooling-among-black-families/385543/

          Moreover, there are plenty of black teachers and black professionals in schools, so it is complete crap to say they want “more white people to discipline the kids they should be disciplining.” They are raising their kids as best they can under adverse circumstances (poverty and racism).

          “You forfeit your life by being in such situations.”

          So “criminals” (which include a guy selling illegal cigarettes, and a 12 year old boy) have no rights and the police should be allowed to shoot them with impunity.

        • George

          You can focus on a few individual cases, David. But we can find *a few* innocent whites shot by police too. And then there are things like Waco. But when it happens to a black it has to be “about” race??

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          George, see response below. I moved to a larger box.

      • Brian Martin

        Wonderfully put, David.

        • Brian Martin

          one wonders what commenters like George are doing on a web site talking about things from a Catholic perspective. I am wondering if he can cite any theological teaching of the church that backs his opinions.

  • Thales

    Racism is evil. Racism is gravely unjust. Seeking to heal racism is of utmost importance. Listening to and seeking to understand other people, including people of different races or people who have suffered the grave evil of racism, is of utmost importance.

    It’s because racism is so evil that I take racism seriously, making me cautious to label something as racism if it is not actually racism. So it pains me to see the passage “Don’t even bother telling a white conservative about anything racist that happened to you….” It’s not only an inaccurate overgeneralization that undermines the main point, but it’s an implicit accusation that “a white conservative” is racist—or at least an accusation that such people are insensitive to racial issues. Racism is gravely evil, so it’s important not to accuse people of racism or even suggest people are racist when that’s not the case.

    My other caution is with the listing of racial incidents earlier in the post. Some of the incidents weren’t actual white-against-black-racial incidents. Consider that some of the incidents involved non-white shooters with no evidence of racial motivation (Trayvon Martin and Akai Gurley) or cases where people who examined the evidence closely (including black people who made the examination) concluded that there was insufficient evidence to support a finding of racism (the grand jury and the Department of Justice in the Michael Brown case). The church shooting was an example of evil, evil racism. Grouping non-racial incidents with the racist church shooting undermines the very important message of the main post.

  • Brian Martin

    “Don’t even bother telling a white conservative about anything racist that happened to you….” Painting with a broad brush is not ever helpful.
    Here is the thing. I have had training in working with people of different cultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds while in undergraduate and then again masters level Social Work programs. The trainings talked in generalities about these issues in attempt to lay the groundwork. We talked about Power/Privilege. The problem is, too many people take this, or their personal experience and make broad assumptions. The reality is that we need to be curious about personal experiences. We have to move beyond the broad brush strokes of stereotypes. When we talk, when we engage in getting to know people, that is when we truly find out about them and their experience.
    Here are some examples of what I am talking about. In grad school a classmate was giving a presentation. She used the term hispanic. Another classmate jumped in and said “please don’t use that term. The correct term is Latino/Latina.” The first said, excuse me, but my husband is from Mexico, and he considers himself “hispanic”.
    As people here know, I work as a therapist. I work with Muslims. But I have found that as with Catholics, or Lutherans, the degree of devoutness, or orthodoxy varies…so I have to get to know the individual.
    The experience of an African American growing up in rural Minnesota is likely different than one growing up in inner city Minneapolis.
    People don’t even experience the same events the same way. I have clients who say the community I live in is very racist and have family members who say how welcoming it is.

    So go ahead and talk about similarities of experience, but any time you lump people into bunches, based on skin, religion, sex, orientation etc. you minimize individuals for the sake of making a point about the group

    • http://anotherliberalcatholic.wordpress.com jeanninemariedymphna

      This is an important point, Brian. Sensitivity over terms like “Hispanic” and “Latino/a” is a good example. Ultimately, individuals determine how they see themselves and their identity. However, that is not how they are necessarily seen by others. Your work with Muslims sounds like a good example. Obviously, every person you work with is different, with their own way of experiencing and living within their religious framework. This should hardly be surprising – aren’t we Catholics the exact same way? Not according to some non-Catholics, who imagine that we are all exactly the same. It is so easy to see the self as an individual and the other as a member of a group. I believe this is what the two authors I’ve cited are trying to get us to do — and it accounts for some of the interesting (and I would argue, deliberate) contradictions that exist in these two books. I’d urge you to go and read them!

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      The problem with the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” is that they are not an ethnic identity but an attempt to construct a pan-ethnic one. Hispanic was created by the government more or less out of whole cloth and this sparked resistance among some (but not all) people who fell under the designation. Latino was used to described Spanish speaker who did not come from Mexico, partly to avoid the anglo tendency of labeling all of them “Mexicans”. This is satirized wonderfully in the film “A Day Without A Mexican” where the governor is seen referring to “Honduran Mexicans.” The problem is that some Mexican-Americans, did not want to be called Latinos, so when I was in grad school there were folks who talked about “Latinos and Chicanos”. (The latter term being problematic since to older Mexican-Americans this was a nasty slur—my father would grow apoplectic if you used that word in his presence.)

      But, questions of terminology aside, there is a fairly high degree of pan-ethnic solidarity in the Hispanic/Latino community. There is rivalry and clashes, but also a growing sense of common identity. Part of this comes from the fact that Mexican television is universal throughout South America: my Argentinian friends mourned the passing of “El Chavo del Ocho”. And so they are willing to talk about themselves as a group: not to suppress their individual identities, but to stress their common experiences. i have had my own issues with attempts by “the group” to determine my identity—but in the end I am still loyal to it precisely because, despite the differences in my experience, there are still a lot of common bonds, particularly in my interaction with the larger, anglo community.

      And, in the context of this discussion, the same point can be made about blacks. There are many individual variations (north vs. south, rising middle class vs urban poor, African Americans vs. Caribbean and African immigrants) but they all share a common experience of being black in America.

      • Brian Martin

        David,
        I think I understand what you are saying. My point was not about people identifying with a group or a particular “label” for lack of better term, but about people of other groups assigning identity and making the assumptions about that identity. One can safely assume that the experience of the other is different from your own, but assuming that the group experience, the generalizations made are indeed the same as the individual experience would be disrespectful. I will grant that it may depend on individual reactions to group experiences…one person might be filled with rage at injustice and turn to crime, another might become a priest, or a lawyer, or a teacher. It is not that some understanding of group experience is not helpful, it is. It is just that too many people stop there, and don’t move to the personal.
        It is one thing to serve people lunch in a homeless shelter, it is another to talk to them while you serve them lunch.

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  • Ronald King

    Adding to Brian’s comment, I have had the blessing of my prejudices being challenged with 3 decades of experience in the mental health field. Three extremely important points have been revealed to me in my encounters with those who differ from me. The first point is that each person who entered a relationship with me did not trust me and it was up to me to establish that trust by listening to the person’s story of her/his life. Secondly, I had to learn empathy in order to understand the pain of that history and how that pain had impacted the direction of life. Third, I had to exhibit enough strength so as to be able to love the other’s hatred associated with the history of pain in her/his life.
    The question which seemed to be at the core of their suffering and desire for healing was unable to be verbalized until time passed and we built a certain level of trust. The question was or is, “Will you love me if you know how much I hate you?”

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    George, race is an issue because blacks get killed by the police at a rate all out of proportion to whites or even Hispanics. I mention a few individual cases that are representative of a persistent and ongoing problem. For a thorough attempt to document the problem, see the ongoing report by the Guardian:

    http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2015/jun/01/the-counted-police-killings-us-database#

    • Thales

      David,
      Not trying to defend George at all here, because I find his views wacky, and I’m no expert on stats and have no knowledge of the subject, but the question that presents to my mind seeing your website is whether the black/white/Hispanic death-by-police ratio corresponds to the black/white/Hispanic arrest-by-police-ratio or violent crime-encounter-with-police ratio. In other words, more blacks being killed by police may correspond statistically with another fact that I’m unaware of and that I didn’t immediately see on your website.
      (Obviously, blacks being killed by police, rate of incarceration for blacks, arrests, etc. — it is all a great tragedy that we should regret and seek to change someone, and not give up on, like George seems to be doing.)

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        Thales,

        In and of itself, this statistic is a single fact that may be open to multiple interpretations. But, in light of the other social factors you mention: black arrest and incarceration rates, the prevalence of complaints (and documented incidents) of driving while black, and the persistence of racism in general in America, I would apply Occam’s razor and go for the obvious conclusion that there is a racial and racist component to any explanation for why more blacks are killed in the hands of police than whites.

    • George

      Blacks also *kill police* at a rate out of proportion, so of course cops are more afraid. I’m not saying it’s some innate biological thing; it’s a vicious cycle, poverty is tied to criminality which perpetuates poverty.

      But again, why this workers in the vineyard complaint? If you are in a compromising situation, what is the point of complaining that *something bad didn’t happen to someone else*?

      Are you saying it would be better somehow if the same absolute number of blacks were killed *just as long as a proportionate number of whites were killed too*?!

  • Thales

    David and Jeannine,

    While we’re on the topic on race and conservatives, hope you don’t mind this honest question about something in today’s news: What’s your thoughts on George Takei’s comments about Clarence Thomas?

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/07/03/george-takei-clarence-thomas-clown-in-blackface_n_7719110.html

    • http://anotherliberalcatholic.wordpress.com jeanninemariedymphna

      I believe that calling Thomas “a clown in blackface” is a very racist remark, even if Takei did not mean it to be. In any case, it is a scathing, incredibly rude ad hominem attack. Why is it so difficult for people to disagree and be critical of one another without resorting to these brash, aggressive insults?

      • Thales

        Jeannine,

        Thank you for your reply. I appreciate your comments and your post—some good thoughts.

        My question about Takei was prompted because of a sense I get at times from some progressives/liberals that racism is only found in “conservatives” and not in “progressives/liberals” (consider, as an example, the “white conservative” quote that Agellius and others discuss above). We had a discussion about this here on Vox-Nova a while back, where a poster thought that opposition to liberal policies or “conservatism” had an element of racism (if I can recall it correctly). I think that ignores the fact that sadly, very sadly, racism can be found across political lines. Exhibit A: the disgusting racism shown to Justice Thomas (consider the comments at Huffington Post at the link I gave about Takei). Racism is a grave evil, and we should all seek to this evil through prayer, through personal reflection, prayer, and love and openness to others, especially those different from us.

        • Thales

          Sorry: meant to say “…. we should all seek to *overcome* this evil….”

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      I agree completely with Jeannine: my pain on seeing this very racist comment was palpable. It is worth noting that George Takei has issued an extensive and seemingly heartfelt apology.

      • Thales

        Heh. I suppose that was an apology. One of the bizarre things about the whole episode was how completely ignorant Takei has been, how completely Takei has missed Thomas’s very sensible point: that the dignity of a human being is innate and not granted by government, that humans have unalienable rights. It’s bizarre. And I still wonder why Takei is so tremendously bothered by Thomas and not by the other 3 (white) dissenting justices.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          Thales, sorry for the long delay in posting your comment and my response. I agree it was not the best of apologies, but most public apologies suffer from this sort “I am sorry I made you angry” failings. Let me hasten to add I am not a particular fan of George Takei, however, lest anyone think I am standing up for him because of this.

          Your broader point about liberal racism is well taken and I have been on the short end of it in my time. It happens, just as anti-racist conservatives are a real thing as well. As my son Francisco acerbically put it once, making fun of a liberal fellow student, “I can’t be racist, I voted for a black president!”

          But, sadly, the fact remains that for a lot of contingent reasons (ie. reasons that have much less to do with conservative philosophy per se and much more to do with how things played out in history), there is currently a strong connection between racism in America and people broadly identified as conservative. David Lee Atwater made his political career by shrewdly manipulating racism in the south to the benefit of the Republican party.

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