Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Revisiting the Farley Flap

Pardon the rambling nature of this post. I don't really have a point here - I just wanted to throw out ideas.

49 comments in fifteen days... that's a hell of a rate for this backwater blog. Sadly, the commenting at the "Blast from the Past" post has ceased to yield new insights and has instead turned into an argument reminiscent of five-year-olds arguing at a swingset, except with naughtier language. I wanted to start an intelligent, reasonable conversation on the merits of advocating violent actions, on when and where it would be appropriate to do so, etc. Instead, it devolved into a discussion about race. Fine then, let's talk about race. It's a conversation we obviously need to have.

Accusations of racism flew at me from the second I picked up the phone on July 3rd. In fact, one of Dr. Farley's messages on my machine started off with "Hi, you're a racist." Commentors lobbed the charges as if they were lobbing hand grenades. This, despite the fact that no one commenting here could reasonably be called a racist. Indeed, no one said anything derogatory about white or black people, nor did anyone imply that racial equality was undesirable, nor did anyone speak about the inferiority of one group of people. So no one's a racist here.

Or are we? Does the very fact that we buy into a classification system that groups people into "white" and "black" make us racist? Is the idea of race itself a racist one?

Anthropologists and historians have long known that race was not an absolute concept. Franz Boas found that the concept of race varied between cultures around the turn of the century. And any scientific doubt that still lingered was destroyed in 1981 when Stephen Jay Gould published The Mismeasure of Man, refuting the idea that "black" people are significantly genetically different from "white" people or from any other people.

So if race isn't an absolute, what is it? Michael Omi and Howard Winant posited the idea that races are formed by underlying power structures - a society's hierarchical structure determines what people will be classified into a race. In America, "white" and "black" developed as a way of justifying the slave trade, and has stuck around despite the death of slavery. Indeed, as the power structure changed, so did the meanings of "white" and "black."

This is why we feel threatened by liminal characters like those in Philip Roth's The Human Stain or Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist. When someone challenges the assumptions that go into racial formation, they necessarily challenge our power structure. And that makes us nervous.

So it would seem that race is indeed a racist idea. But it cannot be denied that the idea of race has fostered a certain sense of pride in the "black" community that kept people going in the face of oppression. George Wallace and Orval Faubus were products of the ideology of race, but so were Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. It's more effective to fight oppression as a group rather than as a bunch of individuals, and race, however shameful its history, provided the framework for that. Racial formation taketh away, but it also giveth. (We can see something similar when we look at the Jews in Europe - the sense of otherness that caused the horrors of the Crusades and the Holocaust also kept Judaism alive throughout the Diaspora.)

Is there a way to look at race as a positive ingredient in our social construct? Or do the negatives of the idea of race outweigh the positives? Is it time to move beyond race to a more meaningful social construct? Can we? One thing is for certain - we must avoid lobbing charges of racism when we ourselves subscribe blindly to an arbitrary classification system. If we start seeing "black" and "white" as labels society gives us rather than absolute parts of our identity, then we can have a conversation on race that rises above the invective. But don't hold your breath.

Also, go here. It's hilarious, and has nothing to do with what I was just rambling about.


Pierce said...

As you may or may not know, I strongly oppose the death penalty. This obviously does not mean that I advocate rape, murder, torture, or any of the crimes in the histories of those on death row. The two issues are distinct in my mind.

Yes, perhaps I should spend my time addressing the crimes, rather than the punishment. After all, the rape victim more clearly deserves defense than the rapist.

However, the ethics of the crime have already been exhaustively explored. Rape is wrong. Murder is wrong. Pedophilia is wrong. End of discussion. I choose to discuss treatment of the criminal because that's where the discussion is. It's where I can add new opinions, rather than parroting that which has already been decided.

Eva criticized you, Jeff, for defending the slave owners instead of the slaves. This does not mean you're racist, it means you've already accepted the belief that slavery was wrong, and that you're not wasting your time on a topic to which you have nothing to add.

I hope I haven't put words in your mouth.

Leah said...

Wow, 49 comments! I stopped reading them after 5. Reading through the comments now, I wish I had kept up. As you know, Jeff, I normally don't make very many comments, but this is something that I have a lot to say about. In fact, apparently I have so much to say about it that I don't think you want it in your comment box, so I made a post (http://bouncyballsandmarbles.blogspot.com/2005/07/google-this.html).

I agree with you on seeing "black" and "white" as labeling, and not our identities. It's easy for me to see it as a label because every time I am asked what race I am (from people such as an employer or school), I have to ask what my choices are because the answer is different almost every time. Maybe if all Americans were required to go visit other countries with different ideas on race, they would understand how much it is just a label.

emily said...

I stopped reading at 42. I thought the discussion was over, or I would have said something there, but anyway, here's my two cents.

Anytime the subject of race comes up, I feel it is necessary to point out how, in this country, people of different races view the subject completely differently. Therefore, it is very difficult to have a productive conversation about race, because in general, the people who are conversing can't or at least don't, take into consideration how the other person views the topic. Differently from most white people, black people generally consider being black as part of their identity, and see that as a healthy response to their surroundings. That is a part of valid American black culture, which forms ideas and opinions on race differently from other cultures. I don't pretend to understand why, because I thought it was pretty obvious that you weren't, but I found it interesting that black people who read the comments thought that they must be coming from racists. Rather than react defensively to that accusation, we should be trying to bridge that gap of misunderstanding. Now how to do that, I have no idea. But it will probably take a lot of buzzwords, like synergy and paradigms.

I'll shut up now.