Wednesday, April 04, 2012

More Thoughts on Racism in America

The Trayvon Martin case has touched a very raw nerve in American culture. After years of being hidden away in the closet of the American mind, the spectre of racism once again haunts us. Ever since the 1960s – the “Freedom Riders,” the civil rights movement, the march on Washington and Dr. King’s stirring speech at the Lincoln Memorial, the march from Selma to Montgomery, the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act – Americans have been convinced that racism is a thing of the past in the United States of America.

There’s no question that the attitudes of average Americans changed during this time. Where white Americans once either ignored the group of people we once called “negroes” or thought about them as somehow less than human, the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was very likely helped by the emergence of television. Images of men, women, and children in peaceful protest being beaten with truncheons, attacked with dogs, and swept off their feet and blasted with fire hoses, brought home to America the injustices of inequality. The powerful, emotional images entering our homes night after night sparked our sympathy for Americans of African descent and changed our minds about accepting the status quo of Jim Crow segregation.

I’m pretty certain that anyone reading this post who happens to be white will vehemently – angrily! – disagree with me, but we’re fooling ourselves. Ask a white American what he or she thinks of racism, and they will tell you just how awful and inhuman it is. Ask a white American if he is racist and he will be shocked – shocked! – at the suggestion. “I am not a racist,” he
will tell you. “I have black friends.” But, I repeat, we are fooling ourselves.

No one wants to think of himself as racist any more than he would think of himself as stupid or ignorant or hateful. But stupidity, ignorance, and hatred are in no short supply in the United States in the second decade of this new millennium. So you must be talking about someone else. It’s not me.

Racism did not disappear from our nation in the 1960s. It merely disappeared from our words and actions. It lives on, alive and well in our hearts. Certain words have disappeared (we all know the words I’m referring to). Certain behaviors have disappeared. We now consider the words vile and disgusting and the behaviors boorish and uncivilized.

But have we changed? Have our hearts changed?

A lot of the problem stems from our understanding of the words “racism” and “hatred.” It’s very easy to have a friend, black or white. Friends are people we like. We like them because we believe they’re good, and we believe they’re good because we’ve bothered to get to know them, to know
their hearts. I have black friends and white friends and Asian friends and Latino friends. I have Christian, Jewish, and Muslim friends. My students are black, white, Latino, Asian, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and atheist. I can honestly say I love my friends. And I can honestly say that I love the vast majority of my students (if I have a problem with a student, it would be more
connected with their seriousness and work ethic than their ethnicity). They are, like me, American. Does that mean I am not a racist? It’s a bit more complicated than that.

If I am walking down a Chicago street late at night and a young black man wearing a “hoodie” is walking toward me, am I uncomfortable? Why? I do not know the young man, not anything about him. I have no reason to believe that he has any intention, good or ill, other than to walk down the same street I am walking. What could possibly be the reason for this discomfort?

Human beings tend to fear two things: 1] that which they don’t understand, and 2] that which they do understand, if they understand it incorrectly. And here’s where racism comes in. Very few (if any) Americans will admit this, but we all have preconceived notions of others based on social categories. We react to people that we don’t yet know not as individuals, but as members of one of these categories. And we make decisions about what category people belong to based on their appearance. We all do this. All of us.

In an earlier post, I talked about both white racism and black racism (what some white people refer to as “reverse racism”). And I said I understood black racism far more than I understand white racism. I said that white racism is based on deeply-seated feelings of privilege and cultural superiority, and "reverse racism" (black racism) is based mostly on resentment of white privilege and on fear – fear of someday being a victim of white racism.

Like Trayvon.

And here’s where hatred comes in. In order to hate, it is not necessary to actually take a gun and shoot someone. It is not necessary to beat someone with a club until unconscious, chain him to a pickup truck, and drag him around town until his lifeless body literally falls into pieces. In
order to hate, it is not necessary to make someone sit in the back of a bus, give him a separate bathroom, or make him step off the sidewalk as you walk by. In order to hate someone, it is not necessary to call him a vile and disgusting name.

All that is really necessary to hate someone is not to give a shit about what happens to him. And when we don’t give a shit about what happens to a whole group of Americans because of the color of their skin, that is racism.

So I feel it necessary to point out the following inconvenient truths:
On average, African-Americans have a lower life expectancy than white Americans, with higher infant mortality, greater risk of coronary artery disease, diabetes, stroke and HIV/AIDS. (source)
African-American unemployment is on average twice the white unemployment rate, at all times, not just during the current economic crisis. (source)
At some point in their lives, 42% of African-Americans will experience poverty as opposed to 10% of whites. (source)
One third of black children live in poverty today compared with 15% of white children. (source)
  • Black Americans experience homelessness at a rate seven times that of white Americans. (source and source)
  • 70% of white high school students go on to college as opposed to 55% of black students. (source)
  • A black man is three times more likely than a white man to be stopped and searched by police (racial profiling), and once stopped is four times more likely to encounter physical force by police. (source)
  • A black man is nearly 12 times more likely than a white man to be sent to prison on drug charges, even though the greatest number of drug users is white. (source)
  • Young black students are three times more likely to be arrested than white students. (source)
  • If and when arrested and convicted, black prisoners spend about 10% more time in prison than white prisoners. (source)
  • A white man who kills a black man is far less likely to face the death penalty than a black man who kills a white man. (source)
  • Someone of any race who kills a white man is four times more likely to face the death penalty than someone who kills a black man. (source)
And most of America doesn’t give a shit. Not about any of this. On the contrary – if we’re going to be honest with ourselves – we rather expect that this is pretty much “just the way things are.” We like to tell ourselves that in America “anyone can make it if they try,” that all you have to do is “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and “work hard to get ahead.” In other words, if you are one of the 45 million Americans living in poverty, you’re just not trying hard enough. And if the majority of that 45 million is black – well, the numbers speak for themselves, don’t they? As Herman Cain said, “If you’re poor and unemployed in America, blame yourself!”

White Americans will never admit it, but deep in their hearts they still believe that black people are inferior. And any attempt to point out the disparities and injustices in our social and economic structures, any attempt to suggest that there are structural inequalities built into the
system that we have never addressed, any attempt to argue that racism survives in America – these are all met with the charge of “race baiting!”

None of this is ever going to change until each of us changes. The change has to come from us, and the object of that change is us. We have to change our hearts. And we have to change our
minds. We have to stop thinking in terms of stereotypes and deal with people as people. We have to stop thinking in terms of narrow self-interest and begin to reclaim the idea of the common good.

A week before he died (forty-four years ago last week, to be exact), The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached at the National Cathedral in Washington DC. He called his sermon “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” In it he said the following:

We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.

John Donne caught it years ago and placed it in graphic terms: "No man is an island entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main." And he goes on toward the end to say, "Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind; therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." We must see this, believe this, and live by it if we are to remain awake through a great revolution.

Trayvon Martin’s tragic death is bigger, I think, than a debate over a really bad self-defense law (“stand your ground”). It is bigger than our own narrow political agendas. It is bigger than our bruised egos when someone accuses us of racism. It is bigger than the terrible, incompetent
justice system in a small Florida town. It is about something bigger than all of these, I believe; something universal. It is about looking at ourselves and being honest, it is about realizing that no one in America is safe until everyone is safe, that no one in America is a success until everyone is a success, that there is no more central a self-interest than the interests of all. We are all Trayvon Martin.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

We're ALL Trayvon Martin...

There's a lot of bullshit being spouted about the cold-blooded murder of Trayvon Martin; specifically, that it was not racially motivated. Americans are too busy either patting themselves on the back for electing an African-American President, or hating that President for being a Muslim, Socialist, Kenyan who planned a coup de etat in utero and unconstitutionally stole the presidency, to admit to themselves that we live in a society where racism not only survives, but thrives. And white progressives can't see their own racism; and white conservatives think that the only racists left in America are black.
Geraldo Rivera, in a classic example of "blame the victim," reduced the crime to a morality play about fashion:

You have to recognize that this whole stylizing yourself as a 'gangsta' … You're gonna be a gangsta wannabe? Well, people are going to perceive you as a menace. That's what happens. It is an instant reflexive action...

The President has become a contortionist trying to avoid saying...well...anything that someone on the right might construe to be "playing the race card." He made s imple statement of sympathy for Trayvon Martin's parents, noting that if he had a son, he'd look like their son. The right-wing extremists who call themselves "conservatives" responded as expected. They called the President a "race baiter."
Newt Gingrich insisted beyond the boundaries of reality that race did not and should not play an issue in this case, and took a slap at President Obama:
Any young American of any ethnic background should be safe period. We should all be horrified no matter what the ethnic background. Is the president suggesting that if it had been a white who had been shot that would be ok because it didn’t look like him?
Meanwhile, at a pistol range in Louisiana where Rick Santorum was burnishing his right-wing bona fides by firing off a couple of dozen rounds, a woman in the crowd watching the candidate to him to "pretend it's Obama." And I suppose that's not racist, either.
While I appreciate the sentiment that envisions a "post-racial society" and says "this is not a black/white issue," I also think that there's a self-consciousness about racism that too many people are vulnerable to. We are, of course, the worst judges of our own faults. Most Americans refuse to believe that their purchasing decisions are influenced by advertisements. Yet advertising is a $400 billion industry in the US alone. Like my right-wing friend in New York, constantly reminding the world that "I am not a racist," Americans -- particularly white Americans -- simply don't want to admit that racism is alive and well and living right smack dab in the center of their hearts. I happen to agree with Howie (no, really) that there's such a thing as "reverse racism." What he (and most of America) refuses to admit is that the dominant racism (white racism) is based on deeply-seated feelings of privilege and cultural superiority, and "reverse racism" (black racism) is based mostly on resentment and fear -- fear of someday, for no reason, becoming a target -- or worse: having one of your children become a target, of some hate-filled asshole like George Zimmerman. And then having the authority of the state essentially endorse that hatred by failing (or refusing) to bring that person to justice.
I happen to understand black racism a lot more than white racism.
The point is that we have to stop all of it. George Zimmerman didn't hate Travon Martin. He didn't even know him. He hated some *image* that Travon looked like in Zimmerman's ignorant, hate-addled brain. He didn't kill an innocent kid; he killed a stereotype. And that stereotyped thinking has to stop. The responsibility is white America's. When white people FINALLY see people who don't look like them as equal, when they stop looking at the Trayvon Martins of the world as "thugs" and "gangstas" and treat each individual human being as a person (as, by the way, Christ taught us to do), then people of color, immigrants, Muslims, and other groups suffering discrimination will be able to see white people as people too, and not as dangers to their safety.
Gandhi once said, "I like your Christ. I don't like your Christians." Well, I love America. But there are too many hateful Americans.
The way I see it, we're all either Trayvon Martin or we're George Zimmerman. The choice is ours. There's no in-between.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Metaphysics of Media (Continued...)

Long-time readers of IN THE DARK (there are some, yeah) might remember that four years ago this week I posted something about Kansas State University's Mike Wesch (Associate Professor of Anthropology) and his video, A Vision of Students Today. I said that in the process of researching and writing my book The Metaphysics of Media, I came across a lot of information that called into question the unspoken assumptions of A Vision of Students and others of Mike Wesch's videos. Wesch is -- or has certainly appeared to be -- one of the "true believers" in technology in the classroom, even though there is as much (or more) evidence to support the contention that the digital classroom is a harmful learning environment as there is to think it is a helpful one. I advised readers to watch some of Wesch's videos and consider his ideas, because they are -- or are becoming -- the mainstream view about the new technologies we call "Web 2.0" and I mentioned -- as subtly as possible -- that I couldn't seem to find the same level of enthusiasm and support for that view as the rest of our culture has.
The Chronicle of Higher Education reports this week (A Tech-Happy Professor Reboots After Hearing His Teaching Advice Isn't Working) that Prof. Wesch may be re-thinking his pedagogy.

Michael Wesch has been on the lecture circuit for years touting new models of active teaching with technology. The associate professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University has given TED talks. Wired magazine gave him a Rave Award. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching once named him a national professor of the year. But now Mr. Wesch finds himself rethinking the fundamentals of teaching—and questioning his own advice...
...To be fair, Mr. Wesch always pointed to the downsides of technology (it can be a classroom distraction, for instance). But he saw tech-infused methods as a way to upgrade teaching.Then a frustrated colleague approached him after one of his talks: "I implemented your idea, and it just didn't work," Mr. Wesch was told. "The students thought it was chaos."
It was not an isolated incident. As other professors he met described their plans to follow his example, he suspected their classes would also flop. "They would just be inspired to use blogs and Twitter and technology, but the No. 1 thing that was missing from it was a sense of purpose."
Mr. Wesch is not swearing off technology—he still believes you can teach well with YouTube and Twitter. But at a time when using more interactive tools to replace the lecture appears to be gaining widespread acceptance, he has a new message. It doesn't matter what method you use if you do not first focus on one intangible factor: the bond between professor and student.

Prof. Wesch has perhaps had something of an epiphany, although to what extent I am not yet sure. On his website he mentions that his new approach is "not so much a reboot of my thinking, or even my message, it is simply a reboot in how I deliver my message."
At any rate, four years ago I produced a response to Wesch's "Vision" based (loosely and very generally) on a couple of themes in The Metaphysics of Media (University of Scranton Press, 2010). I offer them both once again in the hopes of keeping this conversation alive.