Here’s the thing about racism in America: it’s both ubiquitous and non-existent. Race plays a role in every major cultural issue that seems to tarnish our otherwise more perfect union — except when it has nothing to do with any given problem and we should stop talking about race because only racists talk about race. The latter is the preferred talking-point of the right-wing, whose collective fetish for American exceptionalism utterly inhibits their ability to interpret U.S. history as anything more than the triumphant march of alabaster altruists spreading benevolent, capitalistic, freedom-stuffed fruit baskets to all manner of benighted minorities who should be eternally grateful for this ivory-colored benevolence. Obviously, the history of race relations is more complicated than that, and leave it to a famous, gravel-voiced comedian to shed some light on how race really works in America.
In a recent Q & A with Frank Rich for New York Magazine, stand-up legend Chris Rock made some rather insightful comments about American race relations following the verdict in Ferguson, Missouri that let white police officer Darren Wilson off the hook for gunning down black civilian Michael Brown. When discussing the idea of racial progress, Rock was straightforward in his response: “When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before,” he stated.
What Rock is talking about is power, and the relationships that form around it. The period when white people were “crazy” constituted most of U.S. history, when they had the power to foist slavery, Jim Crow, and all manner of discrimination on blacks. That whites are “not as crazy” today is a sign of white enlightenment, not black “progress,” and it’s also a sign that whiteblack power relations are in an ongoing process of equalization that hasn’t yet been completed. Need proof? See Ferguson, Missouri.
As Rock notes, to talk about race in America is also to talk about power relations: the two are inextricably woven together. And power relations need not be limited to the highest echelons of society. They exist everywhere — within households; in schools; in offices; between employers and employees; between men and women; between blacks and whites — and they constitute the multiple realms within daily life in which people in different positions of dominance and subservience seek to readjust or reverse their respective roles.
In her book A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama’s America, historian Jacqueline Jones reminds us that race has never really existed in America; it’s a social construct, a myth that’s served “as a tool that one group can use to ratchet itself into a position of greater advantage in society, and a justification for the economic inequality and the imbalance in rights and privileges that results.”* In U.S. history, the myth of race has consistently been used to justify and perpetuate power relations that have always given whites dominance over blacks. As Chris Rock notes, these power relations have been slowly shifting, but the process is replete with setbacks.
Recent American elections offer some clues that this readjustment in race-based power relations still has plenty of rocky roads ahead of it. Consider President Barack Obama’s white voter problem. Writing for the ever-reactionary Washington Examiner, Byron York contends that Obama has left a “dangerous legacy” for Democrats, particularly via his hemorrhaging of support from America’s super-duper-important caucasian caucus. Citing Obama’s overall basement-level 32 percent approval rating among whites and his even lower 27 percent rating among working-class whites, York warns that, “if Democrats don’t find a way to connect with those ‘attitudes and life positions’ of working-class whites in coming years, they’ll have a big problem.” Fair enough, but what does York mean by white peoples’ ‘attitudes and positions?’ Well, they partly include long-held stereotypes that working-class whites use to define blacks as lazy, perpetually on welfare, prone to violence and crime, you get the point.
But these stereotypes are rooted in a very real sense of victimization among whites — the sense that their heretofore powerful position in American race relations is slowly, but noticeably eroding. Consider the issue of welfare: it’s a standard assumption that most blacks are on welfare and are therefore living the high-life off of hard-working white folks’ tax money. No wonder why the white-working class doesn’t like Obama, right? Well, not so fast. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in 2012, the number of families benefiting from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program (TANF) — what Americans broadly refer to as “welfare” — was divided fairly equally along racial and ethnic lines. 34 percent of whites were on welfare in 2012, while 33.5 percent of blacks benefitted from the program. Welfare isn’t primarily a “black” thing, even though many working-class whites continue to view it as such.
Now why is that? After all, most white people aren’t hood-donning Klansmen. Rather, the tortured legacy of U.S. race relations manifests in a whole series of negative assumptions and “facts” about blacks (they’re lazy; they’re all on welfare; they’re all criminals; they’re all on drugs; they have no respect for family, etc.) that are tacitly accepted by whites, who still maintain the upper-hand in American race relations. In a previous post, I referred to this cultural legacy of negative white beliefs about blacks as “racialism:” “the belief that racial differences exist and that these difference continue to influence Americans’ cultural views.
Racialism, therefore, isn’t the same as racism; it’s less potent; less outwardly declarative when it comes to the notion that blacks are inferior to whites, but it nonetheless promotes the idea of black inferiority in the form of subtle, persistent cultural assumptions that ignore centuries of institutional racism in favor of unexamined “facts” about blackness that have taken on the Colbert-esque veneer of “truthiness:” that “not always rational feeling we get that something is just right.” Via their infectious viral spread throughout U.S. society, racialist assumptions about alleged black pathologies continue to shape the contours of American race relations in which, as Chris Rock observed, blacks must constantly prove themselves worthy of white approval even as whites have historically defined blacks in a negative light.
When we talk about “racial progress,” what we’re really talking about is whites’ continued ability (or inability) to examine their privileged role within the dynamic of American race-based power relations. Until this process is complete — until we can understand why a guy like Darren Wilson always had the cultural benefit of the doubt with regard to the shooting of Michael Brown — we can’t really appreciate all of the excess historical baggage that’s stuffed into the bulging suitcase of American race-relations. It’s time to unpack, people, so let’s get to it.
* See Jacqueline Jones, A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama’s America (New York: Basic, 2013), x.