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Race and Redemption
Notes for a National Conversation
by Don Adams and Arlene Goldbard
© copyright Adams & Goldbard 1994
The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line -- the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.... Three centuries' thought has been the raising and unveiling of that bowed human heart, and now behold a century new for the duty and the deed.
-- W.E.B. DuBois in The Souls of Black Folk (1903)
W.E.B. DuBois was right when he looked forward at the beginning of this century and saw the problem of the color line occupying center stage, looming over everything for the next ten decades. But he would probably be disappointed to learn how we stand on the color line in 1994, at century's end. Judging by the progress made since DuBois recorded his famous prediction, it will require -- if we are diligent -- the best part of the 21st Century as well to take up the duty and the deed, to bring the problem to a humane and livable resolution.
Racism is not a force of nature, but an edifice we humans have built, a cultural institution like an opera house or a church. It enshrines certain cultural values, re-presenting and affirming them for the generations through morally charged dramas -- lynch mobs, Ku Klux Klan rallies, anti-immigration campaigns. Its acolytes encourage us to see and accept the institution as a permanent fixture of our cultural landscape, a rock-solid inheritance rather than a relatively recent and jury-rigged creation. But the truth is that racism, like all cultural institutions, was made by human beings and is subject to our power to act. We can tear down the walls to clear the way for something fresh.
Racism as we know it has developed through a lop-sided dialectic. In the foreground, we have the imperatives of expansion and the rhetoric of racism, each feeding off the other in a vampire duet. When the United States "needs" more territory, Native Americans are driven off their lands and slaughtered to make room for white settlers. When slaves are "needed" to support the economic expansion of the agrarian South beyond what would be possible with decent living conditions for farm laborers, slave-owners and their elected representatives and pet experts pump up their defense of slavery, drawing on theological, "scientific" and historical accounts. When we "need" freeways to channel the cities' energy into the safe, contained suburbs, diverse urban neighborhoods are condemned, leaving their inhabitants adrift in the decaying urban infrastructure that haunts us today.
In the background, we hear a countervailing melody: the drive for social and racial justice. Its effects have been life-saving, but fitful. The abolitionist movement eventually prevailed with the defeat of legally sanctioned slavery, but this victory by no means restored full human rights and social equality to African Americans. A hundred years later, the modern civil rights movement defeated legalized segregation, but the world did not wake up transformed. Ever since, the movement has remained insurgent, never achieving the critical mass necessary to make the shift from being the opposition -- trying to put a stop to racism's most egregious crimes -- to undertaking the creative job of building community across the traditional battle lines of racial and cultural conflict. In truth, the last quarter-century has seen enormous reversals that might have seemed impossible to DuBois and other hopeful activists of an earlier era: one step forward and two steps back. The road to justice remains as long and as difficult as ever.
As these social forces have enacted their centuries-long tug-of-war, a pattern has emerged: waves of racist extremism wash across nations, propelled by imperial designs and socioeconomic pressures, leaving a new social consensus in their wake, a new racial status quo. But no social stasis is permanent. Eventually, counter-waves of activism arise, pushing the consensus in the opposite direction. In just this way, the "lynching fever" of the 1890s and early 1900s led directly to a new status quo: legalized segregation. Though the force of violent, radical racism abated somewhat in the ensuing years, becoming a more localized phenomenon, it left society deeply scarred, with relations between dominant and oppressed groups much worse than when the fever began. This desperate situation gave rise to the civil rights movement of the 20th Century, which was born, with DuBois' help, soon after he published The Souls of Black Folk.
And so it goes. Today, every citizen has the vote and the right of access to public facilities (such as they are). But for many the quality of life is so diminished by social conditions that the wolf named Despair is always at the door. On the basis of almost every indicator -- health, life expectancy, income, education -- Native Americans and African-American males living in the United States, one of the richest countries on the planet, might as well be living in Haiti. Latino and African-American males are prosecuted and imprisoned at a rate many times their presence in the population; we have burst ahead of South Africa to lead the world in our incarceration rate. A huge proportion of women and children are living in abject poverty, with families of color making up a vastly disproportionate share of the total. Meanwhile, spokespeople for justice work in every community within this country, locked in struggle with the Rush Limbaughs and Robert Doles whose gloating rhetoric of "reverse discrimination" and "revolt of the middle class" inflates by the minute, as if the rightward shift of the Reagan-Bush years hadn't already done more than enough to put the underclass firmly in its place.
Is the pattern permanent? Are we doomed to repeat the past, cycling through the centuries, locked in struggle with our opponents? Will the cause of justice, dragging the full weight of reaction, continue to limp forward, taking only tiny steps toward progress?
Not if we can learn from our history and break the cycle.
The Construction of "Race"
I am beginning to think that race is an increasingly obsolete way to construct community, because it is based on very immutable, unchangeable biological facts in a very pseudo-scientific way. Racism is an entirely different matter. Racism actually, I think, is at the origins of this concept of race....
As a matter of fact, in order for European colonialists to attempt to conquer the world, to colonize the world, they had to construct this notion of populations being very firmly divided into certain biological communities. And so, when I use the word "race" now, I put it in quotations because I am interested in community that is not static in that way. This is what I'm working on in my political practice right now, trying to find ways of coming together in a different way.
-- Angela Davis
in Anna Deavere Smith's Fires in The Mirror
One of the chief and most successful strategies used by those representing dominant institutions to protect their power is to claim timeless permanence, to imply that they embody principles which have endured through the ages, have stood the test of time. "Race" is a good example.
We are trained to see "race" as something deeply and irrevocably encoded in the person, setting us off from one another, the way a fox's encoded essence is to chase and be chased, and a chameleon's to blend in and bide its time. But there is no intrinsic, irreducible quality of "race": some members of the various "races" more closely resemble individuals of another "race" than members of their own. So we can't always tell by looking. Since children do not emerge from their mother's wombs conveniently labeled by race, we've had to draw all our color lines for ourselves. In our industrial societies, every person is said to belong in one of four or five broad categories labeled "race," and unless a person explicitly tells us otherwise (e.g., "I may look white but I am African American"), that judgment is made on the basis of certain physical characteristics -- skin color, hair color and texture, shape of facial features, and so on. For the purposes of the U.S. Census, these categories are considered to be "White," "Black," "American Indian, Eskimo and Aleut," and "Asian and Pacific Islander." A fifth category is listed -- "Spanish origin" -- but it is noted that "persons of Spanish origin may be of any race."
It is interesting to see how little this system of classification differs from the original one proposed by the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus in the 1730s as part of his grand scheme for the classification of plants and animals. Linnaeus created a four-part system for human beings: "Albus" (white, i.e., European); "Rubescus" (red, i.e., Native American); "Fuscus" (brownish gray, i.e., Asian); and "Niger" (black, i.e., African). Linnaeus was the chief exemplar -- in fact, the avatar -- of the 18th Century European passion for scientific observation, which had as its goal understanding the world through examination and comparison of physical matter, rather than, say, through divine revelation or mystical allegories.
About 40 years after Linnaeus, the German Johann Friedrich Blumenbach proposed a five-part racial typology: "Caucasian," "American," "Mongolian," "Malay" and "Ethiopian." In Blumenbach's system, the "Caucasian" type (so-called because he theorized that it had originated on Mount Caucasus in Russia) was the most beautiful and the primary of these races, and all of the others were degenerations from it. (Virtually all racial theories follow this model: Elijah Muhammad's theory, for instance, simply turns this idea on its head, with the black race as primary and purest, and all the others its corrupted and degenerated descendants.)
Trailing behind Linnaeus and Blumenbach was a long and dishonorable lineage of scholars who may have differed on the particulars but almost always agreed on one thing: that the division of humankind into races reflected differences in value, with whites at the pinnacle of human evolution. For example, here's Jean-Joseph Virey quoted in Reginald Horsman's excellent book, Race and Manifest Destiny (Harvard University Press, 1981),
The European, called by his high destiny to rule the world, which he knows how to illumine with his intelligence and subdue with his courage, is the highest expression of man and at the head of the human race. The others, a wretched horde of barbarians, are, so to say, no more than its embryo.
"Race" is a historically constructed idea, invented to lend a patina of moral authority to the assertion of European superiority. No matter how different from its origins the contemporary uses to which the concept of "race" is put, its origins are part of its essence. "Race" is a blunt instrument, entirely unsuitable for the exacting and arduous task of bringing about social justice.
It has, on the other hand, been employed to justify virtually every repugnant political movement since its invention: the "manifest destiny" of the white man to subjugate the darker peoples of the world; legalized slavery; the "final solution" of the Nazis. It has also proven quite useful in upholding the dominant authorities in our own society. Social scientists have helped police agencies construct criminal profiles, based on the idea that the results of our skewed and corrupt criminal justice system can be used to predict who will commit future crimes: a typical profile describes young African-American males, well-dressed and driving late-model cars. These profiles are featured in every officer's training and taken as gospel by every police agency in the country. In our community, for instance, an isolated rural town with few African-American inhabitants, the local police reliably stop every car driven by a black person, as this summer they stopped and harassed three artists who were visiting us. So the same pseudo-scientific clothing that covered Linnaeus' shame dresses up the worst of institutionalized racism, singling out people of color for extra scrutiny by law enforcement officers and viewers of cop shows, even those who may never meet flesh-and-blood people of color, only their images in the virtual world of commercial TV.
It's easy to reel off a dozen examples of how the concept of "race" has been use to feed racism. What's hard is coming up with ways it has served the cause of justice. Speaking for ourselves, we two have a very specific vision in mind when we consider the type of social transformation we hope our own efforts will help to bring about. What we dream of is a society -- a world -- in which diversity, particularity and specificity are cherished but where no social, cultural, economic, or political impediment attaches to them; where we can be different, and value our differences, without paying a price for them in human dignity or quality of life. It is a world in which gross categories, indeed all forms of simplistic thinking about human cultures, are useless. It is a world in which there is no necessity to lump all of humankind into four racial categories and make sweeping pronouncements about those categories as if they reflected reality.
Building the Redemptive Community
Through nonviolence, courage displaces fear; love transforms hate.
Acceptance dissipates prejudice; hope ends despair.
Peace dominates war; faith reconciles doubt.
Mutual regard cancels enmity. Justice for all overthrows injustice.
The redemptive community supersedes systems of gross social immorality.
-- Reverend James Lawson
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
(SNCC) Statement of Purpose (1960)
One obvious prerequisite to attaining the world we envision is to believe that it is possible. That is hard to do at our particular turning in the cycles of history. It is hard even to read James Lawson's overwhelmingly hopeful statement of purpose; the contrast between its shining faith and the realities of our divided communities seems to hurt the eyes, causes us to look away from the paper and sigh. But the plain fact is that, as his statement expresses, the redemptive community is within our grasp. All of the conditions that oppress, at this moment in history as at any other, are made by human beings and can be unmade by us. This is the knowledge we must somehow spread.
The lessons of history are powerful assets in this effort. We have to dig deep to find them, though. We need to acknowledge the damage done in the name of "race," to say and feel what we and our forebears have done -- what we have done directly, what has been done by others in our names, and what has been done to us. In aid of this task, the remainder of this essay is written in a practical (and we hope, helpful) frame, to suggest some of the ways that the people we know best -- individuals working in cultural and other community organizations across the country -- can place their knowledge of history at the service of justice.
First, we can recognize the limitations of the concept of "race," both to describe communities and to say anything much at all about who people are. We can understand that by saying "I am Latina," or "He is white," or "They are Native American," we are passing on very little useful information, saying next to nothing about ourselves or others. We need to know much more about each other to achieve understanding, and much more than that to achieve trust. If we want to say something about our backgrounds and identities, we can do more by being specific:
I was born in Mexico, the daughter of agricultural laborers who emigrated to this country to work in the fields when I was a little girl.
I was born in New York, the second-generation of my family to be born in this country. My grandparents came in steerage to New York to escape the Czar's persecution of Jews. My father was a paperhanger.
My family is part of the Round Valley Indian community. We were moved here when our original home was wanted for a lumber mill. Before that, we lived on the coast for generations, too many to count. My grandmother was a master basket-weaver.
To a Korean whose forebears were oppressed by Japanese, "Asian" doesn't offer much help in telling the true story. To an African American whose ancestors were sold into slavery by other Africans, "African" needs some modifiers before it can serve a true historical purpose. To a European Jew whose antecedents were exterminated by Germans, "white" says next-to-nothing about historical truth. And to gay men or lesbians who have been ostracized from their heritage communities, none of these categories adequately names either their suffering or their dreams. Our societies have found ways to discriminate that practically outnumber our differences. Some are inescapably obvious, others subtle and hidden, but all are part of the true story that needs to be told.
Second, we can stop simplifying history in the service of argument. We recently heard an African-American poet recite a beautiful poem about the buried history of Africans, as reflected in the glorious achievements of Egypt, obscured by the racialist claim that the ancient Egyptians were white. Cutting stone to build the pyramids was offered as one of those achievements and a source of pride. To Jews in the audience, each of those stones marked the oppression of an ancestor held by the Egyptians in slavery. Both stories are true, coexisting in history just as they did in the time of the Pharaohs. Both need to be acknowledged -- not necessarily in every utterance, but as part of every extended conversation about who we are and where we are going.
When we talk about Africans who were brought here as slaves, then forced into sharecropping for subsistence and deprived of land ownership on which to build a lasting community, we also need to talk about the Seminole and Cherokee people and others who were first driven off that same land down a trail of tears. When we talk about the rise of the great railroads, we also need to talk about the Chinese workers who were brought to this country to sacrifice their lives in the building of those railroads and how Jewish, Irish and Italian children were forced into monstrous sweatshops to supply goods for the new markets created by the railroads.
We need to memorialize the great crimes that have been committed in the name of "race." There can be no "healing" of cultural wounds that have not been acknowledged and examined. As some of the native people in our area put it around the time of the Columbian Quincentenary: "It's been 500 years, and we haven't even gotten an apology." We need to recognize and commemorate all of it -- all the stories, all the sins, all the insurgent efforts to rise up and carry on. The future we envision will never be brought about through a contest of oppressions. No matter who wins, everyone loses.
Third, we can stop treating "race" and racism as things for people of color to talk about. At the end of his life, the great scholar and thinker W.E.B. DuBois said that his lasting regret was that he had so much to contribute to the society, yet was only asked to comment when the topic was "the Negro question." On the other side of the same coin, well-intentioned white people often hang back from speaking out for justice because they fear that they will be seen as overstepping their bounds. We once delivered a talk about the culture of racism at a conference. After the session, a young African-American man approached us.
"That's a great gimmick you guys have there," he said.
"Gimmick?" we asked.
"You know," he explained, "being white and talking about racism."
A sad funny story. Racial justice is neither a white person's problem nor a person of color's problem: in our societies, it is a universal problem that demands and deserves a full airing, a deep examination, a vigorous effort from every citizen.
Fourth, we can stop asking people to "represent" vast categories of identity or experience. There is no such thing as the Asian-American viewpoint, the women's view, or the gay view. In the usual way of organizing panels and conferences, white people are allowed the freedom of their own observations, and people of color are asked to speak not only for themselves, but for huge groups of others. This contributes to a massified view of the world, where humankind is divided into great lumps of people who are assumed to think and act alike. In our debates and discourses, people, regardless of "race," should be encouraged to speak their own words as their own hearts and minds dictate. Similarly, when organizational leaders begin to recognize their responsibility to serve a broader and more diverse constituency, they need to act by involving members of surrounding communities in their organizations in new and substantive ways, not by appointing a single Board member as the anointed representative of his or her "race," and charging that person with solving the problem.
Fifth, we can give credit for honest effort, even when it is clumsy or misdirected. Too many of us pick up our toys and go home when someone says or does the "wrong" thing: white people clam up and pull out of the discussion, meeting, or organization when heartfelt criticism of racial attitudes feels unjust or hurtful; people of color walk away in disgust when ignorant white people stumble over unfamiliar language or history. Not everyone deserves a hearing; some people are enemies, plain and simple. But for those of us who are trying, however difficult it may be, to work together, to achieve some common purpose, the way we can honor the future we envision and advance toward it is to stay in the game despite discouragement. We can risk honesty with each other. We can speak not to wound, but to illuminate, not to exact retribution or deny guilt, but to create opportunities for redemption. We can agree to remain in dialog for long enough for the whole complicated story to come out, so that we really know something about each other beyond the ungainly labels of "race." If we don't know what to say, if we don't know how to proceed, let's honor each other by admitting that, and searching together for a next step.
Sixth, we can stop testing each other by hidden standards. We can say what we want and need, up front. When we have the chance to help organize an event, that's the time to talk about what needs doing to make sure that everyone who should be part of it will in fact be encouraged and enabled to attend. If we fail to use that chance, what constructive purpose is served by standing up at the event and excoriating people because those who should be there are not? Criticism must be made, especially when there's no evidence that a just intention has held sway. But often the intention is present, in a weakened state, inadequately translated into action. Too many of us sit silent in such situations, watching the inevitable bad outcome develop like a time-lapse photograph of a sprouting seed, waiting to be confirmed in our disappointment. Yes, it's exhausting to always have to stand up and say the hard thing when others may not want to hear it; but it's necessary. If it's important that we come together in diverse groups to talk about the common questions that concern us -- and, from our perspective, it is more important now than ever before -- let's make it a primary purpose, state it out front in no uncertain terms, and put the same time, effort and investment into bringing people to the table as equals as we do into making other aspects of our programs work.
Seventh, we can recognize that remedial steps are needed to move toward justice from a situation that has been shaped in large part by injustice. "Open mike" won't work when the history is that some people have had loudspeakers for generations and some no mike at all. We have to use what we have learned from history. If the historical framework is that more people of European descent are likely to stand up and talk into the "open mike" than people of other ethnicities, then maybe "open mike" is a bad idea. Maybe it's better to reconfigure the session and individually invite people to speak, easing the way for those who have something important to say but have trouble volunteering to speak their minds in the face of a long history of indifference or outright rejection.
To advance toward the future we desire, we must find ways to level the playing field, for instance, in making funds available to organizations. There are two ways to do this, and neither will be at all easy to bring about. One is to enlarge the pot so that everyone can have the same access to resources as those who've been securely underwritten for generations, so that everyone is brought up to the same level. In this scenario, more money would be made available for cultural development, with the increments of new money going to groups that have been systematically under-funded in the past. Since the current reality is that funding for cultural development is minuscule and advocacy efforts -- in the name of pragmatism, the acceptance of limits and related realpolitik -- have focused more on holding back cuts than enlarging the pot, this scenario would demand a full-bore paradigm shift.
The alternative is to slice the pie differently. The problem this presents is avoiding a situation in which one category of marginal group is defunded to provide support for another, as when a foundation shifts its giving from, say, community legal services to community-based healthcare. The kind of pie-slicing we are talking about happens when people who are used to getting the largest helpings at the table -- to stand a Reaganism on its head, the truly privileged--are made to get in line with everyone else, bowls extended. (To be absolutely clear, we mean, for example, the Defense Department.) Then they would share the same chance as everyone else to be fed and know what it's like to be passed over for funding because supporting other organizations, based in less privileged communities, is a greater priority. It might be nice to dream a world in which the beneficiaries of the status quo willingly make this sacrifice of privilege in the interests of justice. But in the actual existing world, entrenched privilege is seldom surrendered voluntarily. Regardless of how the privileged regard the question, fair is fair. In the arts, the arena we're most familiar with, the idea of taking money from the fat cats to fund communities has been so marginalized that it's essentially taboo. The taboo needs to be broken.
Eighth, we need to recognize that as time goes by, larger and larger segments of our societies can't be wedged into the four old-fashioned categories of "race." The cultural reality for more and more of us is multiple belonging, multiple participation. Why must the child of a Chinese-American mother and an African-American father shoehorn herself into one of the boxes marked "race"? What damage does she do herself in performing this enforced social exercise of formalizing one aspect of her identity at the expense of another? If in her spiritual life she chooses the path of a Zen Buddhist, she may feel as much a participant in the culture of Zen as in her mother's or father's heritage communities. If she works as a community artist, her primary source of fellowship may be the community of artists and organizers with whom she works side-by-side. If in her off hours she learns to play bass and spends hours each week backing up a jazz singer, she is a participant in the culture of jazz, with its own well-developed language, customs and world view. Each of these multiple affiliations speaks a truth about her identity, a truth that the blunt instrument of "race" does little to reveal.
Finally, we need to work hard on moral leadership. None of these ideas will matter much unless many of us are seen putting them into practice through speech and action. What's needed now is for people all across the country to help start what Lani Guinier has called "a national conversation about civil rights in which we would openly debate the direction the country was taking."
It's the national that needs to be emphasized here. This conversation has been going on for quite a while at the fringes of our national culture. It needs to get into the mainstream. It also needs to be relentless. Looking back on the 20th Century from near its end, the duty and deed that DuBois wrote about has been taken up in fits and starts. We'll see a period of ten or 15 years in which racial justice is a focus: people talk about it, and then they act to help bring it about. Then the backlash kicks in, and another 20 years are devoted to denying that the problem even exists. But if enough people at the core and the periphery of society keep the conversation and action going, the backlash of denial can't ring true.
Some people argue that racism is hard-wired into our programming as human animals. Maybe it is part of our reptile brain; we can't say for sure. To do that, we'd have to demonstrate that every possible way to fight racism had been tried and failed. There's a long way to go before anyone can make authoritative pronouncements about racism and human nature. Until then, there's a project that needs our attention: building the redemptive community, one brick at a time.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Don Adams and Arlene Goldbard are cultural and organizational consultants and authors of Crossroads: Reflections on the Politics of Culture.
This essay was first published in HIGH PERFORMANCE magazine, Issue 66, Summer 1994. Be sure to visit the Web site of HP's publisher, Art in the Public Interest. Back issues of this and other editions of HP can be ordered there; selected articles are also available online.
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