Monday, October 27, 2014

Thoughts For Monday

(Because sometimes you need it more on Monday than on Sunday.)

I imagine these questions are part of an old tradition, but I'm not sure where they come from. They're in our church bulletin every week:
Where am I with the Lord Jesus Christ who died on the cross for my sins?
     1. Am I more aware of others faults than I am of my own?
     2. How do I speak of others, with contempt or with mercy?
     3. When I am in conflict with someone, do I quickly separate myself from them, or do I stick with them through difficult times?
     4. Am I overconfident about my being "right" and do I hate to be contradicted or am I flexible and easy to be around?
     5. Do I confront all the time or not at all?
     6. Do I complain a lot, and am unhappy and filed with self-pity? Do I make myself the center of attention?
1 John 1.9 -- "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness."
Makes you think.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Colorblindness in the Classroom

I don't know how to deal with race and the ideology of colorblindness in the classroom. My sense is that it would be easier in a sociology class. Sociology is naturally present-minded and inevitably political. I could assign Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and no one would think twice about it. But as a historian, I have a responsibility to the past that constrains me in important ways and shapes my behavior in the classroom. How can I historicize race and colorblindness? How can I compel them to think in a way they haven't before (this is the whole point of college, right?) without telling them what to think?

It is a strange feeling to stand before a room of students and "teach" them when the only certainty I have is that in five years or ten--or one---I will look back on it and feel sorry for having done it so ineptly.

The class I'm talking about is called American Revolutions, and it has three sections: Puritanism; Indian Removal, and slavery and emancipation. Puritanism is hard because students, even religious ones, have trouble understanding the intense religiosity of the Puritans. Indian Removal is difficult because some students bring deeply engrained stereotypes to the classroom and seem impervious to new information. These days, though, their papers are more likely to portray the Indians before European contact as peaceful and at one with nature than as violent savages. The point is that the benign myth is equally dehumanizing.

Now we're moving into slavery and emancipation, and it is going to be the most difficult and enjoyable part of the course for me. Judging from the conversation in class yesterday, most of my students reflexively hold to some form of colorblind ideology. As a historian, it's not my job to convince them that they are wrong. Yet their ideology is in fact an impediment to historical thinking. So it is my job, I think, to show them that their unexamined "truth" about the world, its givenness and obviousness, is in fact a historically constructed discourse about the world. They inherited it. It is not obvious or inevitable or natural. That doesn't make it wrong. But it does make it historical, and that alone is often earth-shattering for us.

It is ironic that the dominant racial ideology of our time is named after a condition that makes it hard to see certain realities about the world. After all, the main feature of actual colorblindness is that its owner is unable to see clearly. Colorblindness changes the perception of its owner, not the reality of what is being perceived. People who proudly claim to be racially colorblind are admitting more than they realize.

The popular conceit seems to be that the next generation will rescue us from any racial problems we may have. I admit up front that I am deeply pessimistic about this. Anecdotally, I see abject confusion about race among people of my generation and the next one coming up. Moreover, the data indicates that around half to an outright majority of White millennials believe discrimination against Whites is as big a problem as discrimination against Blacks.

Consider the bundle of beliefs that often coexist in the minds of students.

Race is a real physical thing.
Race is unimportant.
Everyone should be treated equally.
Whites are as likely to be discriminated against as others.
We should all just see each other as Americans.

This constellation of beliefs is  unequipped to answer basic questions.

Why have racial definitions and classifications changed over time?
When did race become unimportant?
What does it mean to be White?
Does the past influence the present?
Why is there racial inequality?

The answer to that last question often invokes culture. But that raises more troubling questions. How can advocates of colorblindness speak of racially distinct cultures without attacking their own suppositions? What does culture mean? From where did it come? This, too, must be historicized. Those who claim that culture is at the root of racial inequality must explain why they have taken up a historically created discourse that was used by segregationists decades before we were even born. At what point did this discourse change from a defense of White supremacy to a correct description of American society?

My sense is that many students believe that race is a fixed category rooted in biological realities. And it's no wonder. We routinely hear, even from the census bureau itself, that we're on our way to being a minority-majority nation by mid-century, as if anyone really knows how racial identity will develop in the next forty years. This week USA Today did a giant project on America's changing demographics, and the entire story implicitly treated race as a biological reality rather than a social construct. If the United States does become majority-minority, it will probably indicate a more level playing field. The more likely outcome, I think, is that Whiteness will continue its three century-long expansion by growing to encompass most Asians and many Hispanics. By 2050, the White majority might be just as large as it is now. We just don't know. It is ironic that the very people insisting race should not matter are often the ones treating it as a fixed, real, physical identity.

Colorblindness, the refusal to "see" race, often coexists awkwardly with a view that makes race real in a way that harkens back to heyday of scientific racism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. People who don't want to see race in the present tend to be reluctant to look at its construction in history. But when we take race out of history we're left with contemporary phenomena we cannot explain. Most White young people are growing up in households that do not discuss race beyond a few brittle admonitions: it should not matter; treat everyone equally. How are these young people to make sense of the world, then, when they come to Temple University? They see the poor, Black neighborhoods all around the campus. They sit in predominantly White classrooms. They read the Temple safety alerts that almost invariably describe Black male suspects. They hear the pervasive discourse about which neighborhoods to enjoy and which to avoid. The nearly exact overlap between avoidance and racial minorities is there to be seen, but it must not be stated. The ideology they've been given does not match their experience of the world, but admitting as much is extremely troubling.

I've come to believe that modern forms of prejudice grow up and our reproduced in this space between the brittle tenets of colorblind ideology and the reality of young peoples' lived experiences. In these spaces lurk the silences and inconsistencies and unconscious beliefs that are creating the next iteration of racial inequality and White supremacy. It will not be the "New Jim Crow" or neo-segregation. It will be its own phenomenon, historically conditioned but formed in its own time. Colorblindness cannot see this. In an ironic way, colorblindness depends on essentializing race, turning it into more than it is. If race is real, then we can ignore history. But if race is constructed, it immediately raises at least the possibility that our ignorance is very destructive indeed.

I'm still thinking through this. There's something about the way I led the class yesterday that made me feel that I was reproducing White supremacy rather than challenging it. When students don't yet understand historical thinking, can't the simple act of discussing White supremacy in history reinscribe it in the present? We never need to have discussions about whether White people are inferior. I'm just scratching the surface. At least I'll never run out of questions.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Move Along, Nothing To See Here...

UPDATE: It turns out that this chart is very misleading. Though it doesn't say so, the incarceration rate for "Black America" is actually for Black American men, while those of other countries are for total population. Once women are added in, the black bar on the far right would be much shorter. Yet it would still be dramatically higher than any other country. One way of looking at it is that even if the incarceration rate of Black women was zero, the total rate would still average out to above 2,000, which is 4x that of the nearest country (Cuba). So the chart is factually wrong, but the point it's making stands.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Goodbye to Partisanship

I really think I'm done blogging politics. Am I naive for thinking so? Perhaps. But this conviction has been building on me for a long time and I find myself increasingly detached from things I thought I cared about. I recently removed all posts with a politics tag from public view. Besides making a severe dent in my publishing volume, this decision is problematic because of its face-saving implications. Am I just conveniently hiding six years of poorly reasoned, embarrassing, and at times offensive posts? The lack of transparency is obvious. Yet, if this were just about face-saving, I would have many more posts to delete. I've been writing about race, too, for six years. Ouch. Tomorrow, hopefully we'll realize how ignorant we were today. In the meantime we press on as best we can.

The reason I removed the politics posts is because I'm closer to understanding what's important to me. I don't want politics to compromise my message. People might look at my recent Ferguson commentary here and in other venues and say, "What do you mean you're done with politics?" But that gets close to my point. Ferguson is only superficially political, but many of us have lost the ability to see other classes of people in non-political terms. There are millions of culturally isolated White Americans, for example, for whom Black Americans appear as political opponents before they are human beings. Their primary engagement with them is political. We can write about politics in a way that encourages this dehumanization. In the past I have been guilty of reducing human and Christian concerns to political issues. I have taken things that are incidentally political and made them fundamentally so. I acted as though politics was basic; now I find that it is built on the foundation of other things. Politics is not where the action is at. Let's work on the foundations.

What I dislike--what I've come to fear--is unrooted politics. I am still political. But my politics come from the archive.* My politics come from the block. I'm not talking about the arrogance of the historian who think his very particular expertise is transferable. I'm not talking about the arrogance of an epistemology that unduly values personal experience. Expertise is counter-productive without humility, and my block isn't inherently more knowledge-giving than your block. But these two very different worlds do provide grounds for useful political engagement.

I want to make a difference on my block, and I want to make a difference in the intellectual circles I occupy. The social filters up and the intellectual trickles down. I can't be an activist without first being a neighbor. And those books I will write will change the thinking of people who never read them, because that's how ideas work. Intense engagement in these very different social and intellectual worlds makes it difficult to approach politics with the same old partisan points to score and trivial allegiances to uphold. The Christian vision of shalom is so category-busting, so utterly weird to the modern American, that our politics cannot serve as a container for it. We shouldn't want it to.

*I realize I'm indulging in historian-speak here. By "archive" I mean the primary sources that are the foundation of the historian's work.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Land of the Free, Home of the Slave

Alan Taylor's The Internal Enemy continues to occupy my mind. His treatment of slave owners' psychology is excellent. He writes, "When confronted with suffering slaves, some masters showed a deft ability to evade blame by, instead, congratulating themselves for a superior ability to feel the pain of inferiors." When Henry Tucker acquired a ten-year-old slave boy named Bob in 1804, the boy "felt devastated by the forced separation from his mother." His new owner wrote,
Poor little fellow! I was much affected at an incident last night. I was waked from a very sound sleep by a most piteous lamentation. I found it was Bob. I called several times before he waked. "What is the matter, Bob?" "I was dreaming about my mammy Sir"!!! cried he in a melancholy & still distressed tone: "Gracious God!" thought I, "how ought not I to feel, who regarded this child as insensible when compared to those of our complexion"...How finely woven, how delicately sensible must be those bonds of natural affection which equally adorn the civilized and the savage -- the American and African -- nay the man and the brute.
Taylor writes, "Despite discovering a shared humanity with the boy, Henry reiterated a stark polarity in which he stood as the superior: the civilized American man in contrast to the savage, African brute. In that view, slave labor supported, rather than contradicted, the freedom of those who most deserved it." Most White Virginians assumed that Black slaves had a fundamentally different inner life that allowed them to bear up under hardship in a way that Whites could not. "'Their griefs are transient,' and their afflictions 'are less felt, and sooner forgotten,' insisted [Thomas] Jefferson" (58-59).

Lest you think these attitudes are distant irrelevancies, consider two recent studies of modern Americans:

Researchers at the University of Virginia found that young children "report that black children feel less pain than white children."
Frontiers in Psychology published a study finding that "Caucasian observers reacted to pain suffered by African people significantly less than to pain of Caucasian people."

It is no great stretch to infer a line of connection between the Henry Tuckers of antebellum Virginia and psychological studies of implicit bias two hundred years later. This raises big problems for most Americans, for whom history is either an abstraction or a tool to be picked up and used at their leisure. It is rather more galvanizing--and terrifying--to face up to history as an independent weight pressing in on us and shaping us well before we're ever able to shape it. What happened exerts an influence that is, despite the distortions of memory and vulgarization of historical thinking, independent of what is said to have happened.

Americans understand this even if we are loath to admit it. Jefferson's language of liberty is assumed to matter. The importance of the Constitution is obvious and inarguable. We take it for granted that these documents, and the intellectual currents that produced them, matter to us in 2014. But the popular discourse surrounding the much more recent institution of human bondage takes place on an entirely different ground. History suddenly disappears; all is the present; all is political. Racial prejudice is so entrenched in our discourse that the influence that is assumed for other centuries-old American institutions is denied to slavery. And not just denied. To explain any contemporary phenomena in light of slavery is now a tired cliche that earns ridicule.

The idea that the enslavement of four million human beings a century and a half ago still tangibly matters is vehemently denied by most White Americans. Take the pervasive White-immigrant narrative: "My ancestors weren't even here. I had nothing to do with slavery." This a la carte Americanism is something to behold. Somehow, we are to believe, the late arrival of these White immigrants on the American scene was comprehensively fortuitous and ennobling. Theirs is the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and the Pursuit of Happiness. Other American birthrites of rather more recent vintage--racial slavery and White supremacy--left them unscathed.

Beneath the flag-waving and the invocations of history resides the psyche of a people that cannot abide what has happened. So we must tame history and make it manageable, however incoherent the results. There is no question that Americans' fear of history is often expressed in ways that are downright funny. But then, those who can see it for what it is laugh only so we won't cry. For the past bears down on us whether we recognize it or not. And it does its most brutal work among the ignorant.