Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Racist or Racialist or Does It Even Matter?

Years ago, I read an academic article that posited the notion that American society and culture could no longer be considered a racist society or culture, but must be thought of as a racialist society and culture.

In other words, the virulent racism of the past is now defunct. The angry racial hatred and animosity of the past that undergirded racial violence and widespread discrimination is no more. In its place, we find a certain racialism. That is, American society and culture has turned away from racism, but the race-based myths and stereotypes remain intact and must be overcome through evincing the ability to participate and function within mainstream society and culture.

As long as one can prove his or her worth to the mainstream society and culture, as long as one can provide evidence that he or she is able to participate in the mainstream society and culture, that person’s race is ignored and they are allowed full entrance and participation in mainstream society and culture.

To make this illustration complete, allow me please to give the following examples. As long as I speak well, I am in. As long as I dress the part, I am in. As long as I keep my voice down in public, as long as I do not laugh too loudly, as long as I am non- threatening, I am in.

And as a young graduate student, I bought into that argument. It sounded so much like the black progress arguments my father always made when I was a young man. But after I revisited the article years later and viewed it with a more critical eye, I could plainly see its implications. And after the arrest of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates in his own home, I could see how false and dangerously misleading that theory really is.

Basically the theory provides a very narrow prescription for complete personhood. It informs me how I should speak, how I should dress, how I should conduct myself, both in public and in private. And if, after following that prescription to the tee, I am approved by a panel of those who would be my peers, I can join mainstream society and culture with all the rights and privileges thereof. I have earned a place at the table. In other words, check your right of self-definition at the door.

With the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, we can go ahead and tear that chapter from the book and move on. Certainly, Dr. Gates has met the prescription for inclusion and participation and then some. But in all that he has achieved, on last evening, in his own home, race became the sole determining factor in who he was or who he was perceived to be.

As long as the mainstream society and culture can look upon my hue and from that brief glimpse apply a narrative of deviance and depravity, there remains a despicable contradiction to all American society and culture claims to be.

Perhaps if he had presented police with his curriculum vita and several letters of recommendations from acceptable white faculty members and other members of mainstream society and culture, they would have just apologized and left him alone. Perhaps Michael Steele could have vouched for him.

Whatever we want to call it or however we want to describe it, racism is alive and well. Post racial my black assumptions. So, let us not be deterred from our goal by semantics or false arguments; the struggle continues.

What are your views on this matter? Was the arrest of Henry Louis Gates an honest mistake, or a glaring example of the persistence of racism? Is there any difference between the concepts of racism and racialism?


cinque said...

I am in my early 40's and I can remember singing, in grade school, We Shall Overcome at the begining of everyday. My Mother would take us to watch outside the court house where Angela Davis was on trial and tell use how carefull we must always be not to end up on trial for our lives. This was less than 40 years ago!! How long must we live with the indignities of society?? How many times is this done to lesser individuals everyday??

Mason Jamal said...

Great food for thought.

msladydeborah said...

I have been personally questioning if I need to re-examine and revise my attitudes on the subject of race.

From my point of view, raicsm has always existed in America. We all have some form of built in prejudice. Whether that sense of racism causes us to respond is an issue on a different level.

This theory that if we assimliate into the mainstream culture in their prescribed manner is not new.
It is the doctorine that I grew up listening to. If you think abou it, the expectation is not unreasonable. But the reality is where the truth unfolds.

I can think of different times when I still was able to pinpoint what I deemed to be a racist attitude. Even if it was not overtly displayed.

As far as the arrest of Henry Gates is concerned, I think that the officer got angry beause Gates called his actions out like he perceived them to be. I can see no reason why he should of been arrested if he produced the proper identification. It seems like a move that was made to put Gates in his place. Even if the arresting officer would define his actions in that manner.

blackwomenblowthetrumpet.blogspot.com said...

Hey Max,

I read about this arrest and I hope that Dr. Gates has a great big settlement coming his way!

The police received a call from a white neighbor "claiming" that he was breaking into a house... that neighbor had never seen him before? I am sure he didn't JUST move in!

He has been working for Harvard a long time so I doubt that it was a brand new home and the neighors had never seen him.

Also, he is an elderly looking black man. Hmmmm.

Also, he had ID on him when the police arrived... the police arrest a man on suspicion of breaking in... when he has ID on him? Doesn't a driver's license have an address on it?

There are parts of this story that don't make any sense...

I read that he showed his Harvard ID to the police...well...that makes no sense because it doesn't prove that he lives at the address!

If he had his Harvard ID on him then why didn't he pull out his driver's license and if he DID... then why didn't his license have his address on it and IF it did ...then what grounds did the police have for arrest if the person can prove they live there?!

I am not veering away from your topic however...

I disagree that we have to change our self-definition in order to be deemed acceptable in non-black constructs ("mainstream society").

My self-definition doesn't change AT ALL even when my mannerisms and behaviors and vocabulary may change in order to adapt to the setting that I am in.

Peace, blessings and DUNAMIS!

Lyn Marie said...

First, the police had NO REASON to arrest Dr. Gates. He showed the proper ID, the officers should have apologized and moved on. I agree that it was done to put him in his place and of course that place was no matter how much you have achieved you are just a Black man. (That's the nice way of saying it)

The idea of race was recently addressed in Newsweek by Raina Kelley, "The Roots of Racism". In this article she discussed the Implicit Association Test. The test indicates your unconscious feelings about race. She took the test and it revealed that she, along with all of the those that took the test, showed a 70% preference toward White people. Now this surprised Mrs. Kelley after all she is an educated Black woman. I use this example because it goes to the idea being a racialist. There are stereotypes that bombard us daily about all kinds of racial and ethnic groups. The test shows that we are affected even if we do not acknowledge it. That is where I think the problem lies. Most White Americans truly don't see themselves as racists but they (along with all Americans) buy into racial stereotypes, often times not realizing it. Coming from a multiracial family I can tell you, this is where the confusion lies.

The comments left under the article on Dr. Gates really shows how far we have to go to gain racial understanding. We will never gain that understanding until we can get REAL about how we think and feel about each other and gain a little empathy.

Citizen Ojo said...

A black man (probably in an all white neighborhood) with a bright yellow house trying to get in with little success. A white neighbor (thinking that the black man is breaking in) calls the cops and the black man ends up going to jail....Just another day in America.

Max Reddick said...

@ Cinque

It is a little ridiculous that we should still have to deal with this foolishness in this day and age.

@ Mason Jamal

Thanks for stopping by!

@ msladydeborah

Of course, if we would like to participate in the mainstream, we are expected to assimilate somewhat. However, to keep making snap judgments based on race is inexcusable. And you are right. Gates' main crime was calling the officer on his foolishness.


Yes, the whole notion that his neighbor did not recognize him is kind of baffling. But that goes to show how isolated we are these days. This has happened to me as well. The police were called when my brother and I were standing in his front yard talking. He had lived in the neighborhood for two years. But when his neighbors saw two African Americans standing on the lawn talking close to dark, someone called the police to investigate. I felt insulted even after the neighbors decided to come out and apologize for the misunderstanding.

@ Lynn Marie

I have often said that one of the problems we are still having with race is that the races still have not taken the time to get to know one another, but operate on prevailing stereotypes. But it is always the minorities who are required to do the reaching out. It's about time the other side got to know us, really know us, and not the other way around.

@ Citizen Ojo

Yeah, its all too familiar and all too sad.

CurvyGurl ♥ said...

This right here sums it up for me...

"To make this illustration complete, allow me please to give the following examples. As long as I speak well, I am in. As long as I dress the part, I am in. As long as I keep my voice down in public, as long as I do not laugh too loudly, as long as I am non- threatening, I am in."

It's easy for others to discount situations when they haven't experienced these often subtle biases. Without self-definition you're an empty shell, open to accept any notion thrown out there when it comes to determining your unique identity. I could go on about this...

Anonymous said...

I have to split this because of character limits, so it is in 2 parts

Part 1:

1) Readers should know a bit about whom they're reading, so I'm a middle aged, white Jewish male, eastern European ancestry.

2) To blackwomen..., the accounts I've read said that Gates showed both his university ID (the house is owned by Harvard) and his driver's license, which has his address. They also said that Gates went around back and entered the house through the back door. While there, the cabbie tried to force the door, and that this is what the neighbor saw. This is not to excuse what happened, just to show that the neighbor was not reporting Gates but someone else that she did not recognize.

Anonymous said...

Part 2 (Anonymous/10:07AM)

3) I think all groups other than the ones that came over from the UK have had to scrub their rough points off before being accepted fully into the middle or upper classes, starting with the Irish, and continuing through all the other European ethnics.

Tangent: Once upon a time, until some time after WW1, what we now describe as ethnic differences were once considered racial ones (with all the genetic implications of that word). Ever wonder about the apparent redundancy in the phrase 'race, creed or color'? Growing up, as I did, in the 60s and 70s, race and color were pretty much synonymous. Well, people (e.g., Th. Roosevelt) used to speak of the English race, the Irish race, the Swedish race, the German race, etc., etc. Nazi ideology had nothing on this perspective in terms of the basic analytic framework, just the bloody mindedness of the conclusions drawn from it. WW2, as well as the tensions during WW1 between those of English descent and those of German and Irish descent put an end to this line of thought, at least among respectable folk: there was a reason that (someone named) Eisenhower was head of army, Nimitz head of the Navy, to show that this war was against Germany, not Germans or the 'German race'.

Anyway, all those now considered white have given up cultural traits once considered distinctive, in return for being given a seat at the table, i.e., entry into the middle and upper classes. It's called the melting pot, or assimilation. At the same time, what is considered mainstream, or at least near mainstream has expanded to incorporate parts from these immigrant cultures. I can see it in the history of my own family; it's not just between my immigrant grandparents and myself, I can see the difference in each generation since them, becoming more at ease with, and more similar to, what is considered the mainstream. At the same time, I don't think anyone, certainly from the northeast or old industrial mid-west, who is famliar with different white ethnics, would have any difficulty pegging me or even my kids as Jews; even though no one in the family has been bar/bat mitzvahed (with all that entails and implies) in over a century.

It appears to me that this tradeoff is finally spreading beyond those of European ancestry, to those of East Asian ancestry, and perhaps beginning to extend to (some) whose ancestry is from sub-Saharan Africa, even those descended from American slaves.

I express no value judgement about this process/tradeoff. I am just observing that it is typical for all the previous immigrant groups that have managed to make their way out of the poor immigrant ghettoes to which they were initially consigned.

Anonymous said...

Part 3 (Anonymous/10:07AM)

4) I don't know if the distinction between racism and racialism is useful, but it certainly exists. So long as racism had the force of law, it was much more difficult to reduce its consequences. Despite the ravages of things like deindustrialization and crack on poor and working class communities, many of which are predominantly African American, the black middle class is larger and, I think, more secure, than it has ever been before. The last generation has seen progress on issues of race, painfully slow certainly, but it would likely not have been possible without the dismantling of the legal framework. Lacking legal supports, what was racism is softening into racialism. How's that saying go? "I'm not where I want to be, but thank God, I'm not where I used to be."

Again, a similar process occurred for Jews in Europe. Once Jews had legal rights in western Europe, following the Napoleonic Wars, they began to enter mainstream society often even without converting. With more, and more regular, experience of Jews, prejudices against them slowly declined. Of course, events intervened, but ...

I am not suggesting that the experience of African Americans has been similar to Jews. Rather I am looking to history to see if it contains any useful lessons, and to draw informative parallels, and it is Jewish history that I'm most familiar with.

Lyn Marie said...

@ Anonymous
I'm not sure of the purpose of the comparison to Jewish history other than to be empathic or to say we share some common trends in our history.

While many ethnic groups share some form of discrimination, it is the Black American ethnic group that continues to face discrimination and racism despite assimilating into the "American Dream". Dr. Gates is a perfect example of this as well as the new "Birthist" movement to say our president isn't our president because he wasn't born in the U.S. The reason this movement is growing in the Republican party despite the documentation proving them wrong is simply because of racism. There is no getting around it. These two gentleman did everything right according to the rules, they educated themselves despite difficulties in their backgrounds, they became well spoken, well accepted figures in American society. Yet with all of these accomplishments they still aren't good enough.

That is the real issue. Now that's not to say that all White people think this way, that's ridiculous. But it is to say that we shouldn't fool ourselves into believing that race doesn't matter anymore. We can not say that when members of Congress are calling Michelle Obama an ape, sending pictures of our president that are blacked out showing only eyes and members of the press calling Mr. Obama a terrorists because of his name.

Yes we have made strides but let's not be satisfied with mediocre results, we can do and be better.

Anonymous said...


If it came across that I was trying in any way to 1-up African Americans, I apologize. I don't think the experience of suffering Jews and African Americans in the U.S. is or has ever been in any way comparable, and the only reason for comparing the European experience of Jews to the experience of African Americans is perhaps for some sick drinking game.

I was trying to address 2 issues raised in the original post, and doing it as well as I can, given the limitations of my experience. One is the racism/racialism distinction. The second was the one raised in this passage:

Basically the theory provides a very narrow prescription for complete personhood. It informs me how I should speak, how I should dress, how I should conduct myself, both in public and in private. And if, after following that prescription to the tee, I am approved by a panel of those who would be my peers, I can join mainstream society and culture with all the rights and privileges thereof. I have earned a place at the table. In other words, check your right of self-definition at the door.

The public side of this is something that all ethnic groups have had to come to terms with, wearing a mask in public to hide differences, or anything else distinctive. This has implications in the long run for the private side, which I hinted at in my comment, but I don't think it has much to do with self-definition in the short run. We may not like it, but many of us wear masks, and don't feel that they define us (perhaps confine us, when they are on, like tight shoes, but that's another issue).

Of course, police have always treated African Americans differently, entering houses without permission or warrants, beating, killing, etc., etc. Of course this is part of the racist structure of our society, and it weakens the public/private distinction made in the post. What this incident shows (as if we didn't know this already) is that our society does not yet accord African Americans the same respect and rights that it does to whites, even ones who behave according to all the rules one can imagine applying to whites, and more.

I don't have any clear thoughts about what to say next, so I'll end now.

Anonymous said...

Very good, thought provoking piece. I am of the school of thought that racism is alive and kicking, perhaps in the more lethal mode of covert operation. Personally, I prefer years ago when racism was blatant--at least we knew openly where we stood. Nowadays, we are lulled into a false sense of security. Separate & unequal then, zoning laws now. Tomato, tomato; it's all the same. And without the obivous examples, we are virtually powerless to fight racism without looking like conspiracy theorists playing the race card. Perhaps the problem is that those of us in a position to make a difference have bought into the idea that with enough credentials you become immune, until it happens to you personally. Everything is purposed. Maybe Mr. Gates will be inspired to re-ignite a much needed movement.

Anonymous said...

There most definately needs to be another black power movement. I think blacks have become relaxed because it seems as if we are now "equal". We get to drink from the same fountain, we get to use the same bathroom. So everything must be okay. Afterall, Negroes aren't hanging from trees like fruit anymore. I am not saying we should walk around on guard all the time looking for racism, but when it happens. We need to call people on it. Raise a little hell. Until white people have to deal with racism( and I don't mean any bullshit reverse racism) they just will not understand why we sometimes have kneejerk reactions to situations like the one that happened with Gates. EVER


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