After days of watching the airwaves being flooded with various discussions surrounding this topic, I do feel like I should write about something that has been bugging me, namely the dangerously outdated approach to defining and debating contemporary racism that does not only fail to address the actual issue, but which is in fact partly to blame for perpetuating the forms of racism we are facing today. Let me illustrate this visually:
these are NOT the faces of contemporary racism:
Now, don’t get me wrong. These pictures do obviously show racists. But they do not synecdochically stand in for contemporary racism. There is a severe disjoint here we must address.
If we are looking for pictures the illustrate the problems of contemporary racism, we need to look at these:
Why would I put up a picture of cute children and associate them with racism? Why would I put up a picture of a major film label (one belonging to Disney!–where Disney was just nice enough to finally make an animated film starring a black female main protagonist) and suggest that it may be racist? Exactly! Why would anyone today be racist?! Early on we are trained to value multiculturalism and diversity, every major corporation has diversity training officers, laws and regulations, as well as hiring policies. We celebrate diversity (mainly, however, via other cultures’ food and clothing, and, if our name is Tarantino, via their cinema–but that is a different problem, one mainly regarding the function of multiculturalism within the contemporary socioeconomic structure). There is no room for racism in our society these days any more. We are all anti-racists (that is, all of us who are intelligent–actually, let me take that back: even the our government’s right-wing folks are decidedly anti-racist). As soon as something like the Don Imus scandal breaks loose (or the Mel Gibson one, or the one “Kramer” one, or the Rev. Sharpton one (yep–even he “misstepped” once) we are all outraged. And rightly so. Racism is bad and we all know it. This, however, leads to a problematic logical situation: we have effectively revived a binary distinction regarding race/racism: we are anti-racists (inside) and racists/racism are/is out there (outside). We need to protect the inside from that dangerous outside, making sure these rightly marginalized opinions do not again find their way into mainstream discourse and politics. Hence we tend to logically assume that the inside is a clean-space regarding race and that racism is to be sought on the outside–hence our outrage directed at Don Imus. We need stereotypical redneck, cowboy-hat wearing people like him (or the structurally outdated image of hooded KKK people, etc.) in order to find a way to articulate our anti-racism in opposition to what we define as racist (Imus, KKK, rednecks beating up black people, etc.). Sadly, however, and this is the problem I am alluding to here, that is NOT the kind of racism that is crippling our society these days. Or do we really think that Don Imus is the face of the kinds of adversity racial minorities are facing these days? The Rutgers coach, while addressing the press and nation yesterday, continuously used phrases such as “what you do not seem to understand…” Who was she talking to? Apart from these stereotypical hooded, freaks, some rednecks and whomever else we associate with our own pop-cultural definition of racism, who really listened to Imus and said “wow, he’s right!” We were all outraged. And even the freaks who did not immediately disagree with him were probably far from making this into a public debate: you CANNOT be a racist these days without facing severe consequences. At least, that is, not a racist such as Don Imus, who states it openly. We know that racism is bad and we know that we must combat it. So why do I have a problem with what is happening?
To reiterate this: in order to define racism in a social situation in which we all believe that we are anti-racist (“hey, I have a black friend…!”) we require freaks such as Imus, “Kramer,” and Gibson to form the opposite to our liberal conception of race/racism (and I am using “liberal” as a negative word here, criticizing it from a Marxist/Critical Race Theory persepective, which sees precisely within this form of liberalism the structural dangers of contemporary racism). But if we need those freaks we agree that racism is located on the outskirts of society, that it is an exception to the anti-racist rule, an exception we all clearly recognize as bad. Hence, all the talk of “we finally get the chance to speak up against racism” that has been disseminated in the last few days appears rather ridiculous, ignoring “small things” such as the CRM, or recent events such as Katrina. The media cannot seem to decide what it wants to claim: pride in being part of the effort to “finally speak out against racism,” or doing so because it is a social norm (hence far from an exceptional event we finally have come to). Are we supposed to be anti-racist because racism is a big social problem and we have not solved it yet, or are we supposed to be anti-racist because it is the norm and Imus has departed from it, requiring all of us to be outraged and signal the fact that anti-racism is a dominant discourse in our society which will not tolerate people like Imus? In an age of diversity and multiculturalism we all must agree that it is the latter, right? We are anti-racist and we recognize that we MUST be so in order to be good human beings. No question. Then why, if the majority of us is anti-racist and we mark Imus as a transgression that is greeted with national outrage, do we simultaneously act as though racism is also socially dominant? Isn’t that a non-sequitur? Yes. It is. And it is precisely this fact, this logical problem, that marks the function of anti-racism in our society as mainly an identity category, a functional part of our contemporary society and production apparatus, rather than as a means of actually addressing contemporary forms of capitalism. It reveals that the structure of contemporary racism is not addressed by these discussions. The discussions we are listening to at the moment do little else than mark us individually and collectively as good people. Consequently, it is possible that we can forget this discussion quickly and a few weeks later go to the movies and see the new flic directed by Mel Gibson. We have done our civic duty (at least one that is reduced to the spectacular, entirely dissociated form actual political and social action) and can ignore things such as the legal mess surrounding the dismissal of all charges against the white students in the Duke Rape Scandal (which, compared to Imus, has been getting hardly any airtime today).
What am I trying to suggest? I am suggesting that racism does not function any more in the ways it used to function, i.e. in ways that today makes it easy for us to identify ourselves as anti-racists (i.e. as a structure that openly marginalizes and disenfranchises a group of people based on their race). Obviously, there are incidents that display this kind of racism today. But they are not what we should mainly be worried about. They are what we need to them to be: aberrations. There is racism in our society, but it is not the racism we are so happy to fight (stereotyping, hate-speech, racial violence, etc.). There is the racial segregation capitalism still profits from (see property values, as e.g. argued by George Lipsitz)–to make this short: there is still a lot of institutional racism, howver, not as outlined by Carmichael, but insitutional racism operating in more subtle forms. It the disjoint between being anti-racist (as defined based upon outdated categories of racism) and actual racism today that makes us able to not have any long-term memory regarding racism–we go back to the movies, we leave the structures that allowed Imus to make racist remarks several time before unchanged and we are anti-racist to the degree that we feel like it is fine again to make racist jokes (we know they are funny, since we do not take them seriously because we are all so anti-racist–look at the programming of comedy central–would barely work without comedy based upon racial stereotypes). What this social climate ignores are the power structures that are still in place that operate upon a changed form of assigning racial division a function, i.e. a productive role in our socioeconomic situation. As Baldwin famously asserted, racism needs a system of power in order to assert itself. I.e. if there is one black person in an entirely white city and that person says that he hates whites we cannot compare this to the history of white racism. It is not purely a function of ideology–this one person simply does not possess the means of institutionalizing racism as a system of power to the degree that white people were able to. However, there are two assertions we tend to agree with today: racism is bad and being anti-racist is good, hence should be the norm. What this means is that we agree that racism is not a huge structural problem any more. We have rules and regulations in place, we have ideological safe-guards and the only time we are willing to actually talk about racism is not when it comes to, say, economic exploitation still deeply rooted in racial discrimination, but only when we can attack clearly marked racists such as Imus, making us all feel good about the fact that we apparently have great social structures in place that recognize and eradicate the little bit of racism that still exists (outside of the mainstream). What we leave untouched are the power structures that assign contemporary racism a radically different function than during the 50s and 60s (yet, we remain attached to the pop-cultural images of Civil Rights discourses, aking us unable to abalyze the ways in which race functions today). Our diverse society is anti-racist. However, as Yamashita writes, usually multiculturalism is just “a white guy in a flannel shirt wearing dreadlocks.”
In short, I am quite weary of he shoulder-patting that is going on in the context of discussions such as the one regarding Imus’s comments, nostalgically acting as though MLK and Malcolm are our best friends today, while afterwards returning to our condo in a white gated community whose value would drop if a black family moved into the neighborhood, watching Apocalypto while eating boneless, white chicken breast for dinner that has been cleaned by immigrant workers we tend to demonize as a security problem, while refusing to speak about the fact that their presence allows us to pit them against US workers who compete for the lowest jobs in an effort to lower wage levels, low-level US workers who are usually still as a norm anything but white.
***EDIT: consider this: a leading board member of CBS news and former president of the NAACP just stated the following on CNN (paraphrased, thus not directly quoted–comments made: April 11, 12:45): as an African-American and as an American I believe that Imus should be fired for his actions. As a member on the CBS management that story is more complicated and I cannot speak to this at this point (they are weighing money issues, such as the recent $10 million contract extension and the reaction of corporations investing sdvertising money in the program). What does this indicate? The existence of two subjectivities: one, a human being and responsible citizen who can recognize and speak out against racism clearly and easily (i.e. anti-racism as an identity category). And two, a capitalist subject that has to defer judgment to economic interest. Is this the anti-racism we are celebrating? Anti-racism only in the private sphere, or in the public sphere only in so far as it does not conflict with economic interests (or, at least not negatively–we know how well anti-racism can be used to contribute to economic interests)–i.e. conditional anti-racism. Doesn’t the very absence of unconditional anti-racism itself suffice as an argument about the practical absence of political anti-racism itself? Is it truly just an identity category and must take a step back when it truly comes to systemic considerations (the second form of subjectivity)? Can there be a true argument (i.e. separated from economic interest) for NOT firing Imus? I am pretty sure firing a teacher for spreading such racist hate-speech would not only happen a lot faster, but no one woud seriously object to it (our universities have laws for this kind of stuff–doesn’t CBS radio and MSNBC have them? Pretty sure they do. So what’s keeping them from following their own rules and is to legal to subordinate such judgment based upon these rules to capitalist interest? If so, then what is the function of these rules in a corporation? Should we then not be honest, abolish diversity policies in these corporations and leave only one true rule: the need to accumulate capital? What then, besides profit, makes Imus exempt from that treatment that would follow the convictions we all agree we should live by?
BTW: all three Duke lacrosse players were just acquitted of all charges–press conference to follow–let’s see how race is discussed in this press conference and in the following media debates***
***EDIT II: ok, as of ca. 5 p.m. today he’s fired. Let’s have a vote, shall we? Who thinks he has been fired because our society is so anti-racist? Now, who thinks he has been fired because overt racism is counterproductive to capitalist accumulation (remember: we are merely talking about the dumbass, stereotyping, filled with hatred racism–not the structural racism that made CBS radio and MSNBC ignore previous incidents and upon which capitalist accumulation is still based–btw: this is one example of how capitalism today operates in much more compley ways than before: it can have a commitement to both racism and anti-racism at the same time)? And finally: who thinks that an important step in the fight against racism has been made and that this has made our society less racist? (not to imply that we should not have done it, but that we shoud have done and publicly discussed it differently)***