Welcome to the thirty-first edition of The Bloom Briefing: Notes from the Resistance. In the wake of a Nazi rally and terrorist attack in Charlottesville, I have opted to simply write about racism and its effects on society. What follows below is not comprehensive. There are many more points one might make on this subject. Nor is it anything that hasn’t been said before. But with so much attention on the subject of racism, I felt it might be valuable to write down some thoughts about why I feel the fight against racism is essential.
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Racism as Death
Racism is death. This is literally true for some of racism’s victims and figuratively true for everyone who lives in a racist society. For this latter group, racism is not the sudden death of a cardiac arrest, but the slow spiritual death of thousands of cuts that slowly degrade one’s soul.
Nor is it individual death, but rather a collective one. Society is a manifestation of our collective will. To the extent that society is racist, it is a reflection of the collective racism of the individual members of society. Because racist attitudes pervade society, every time a stereotypically black named person’s resume is discarded, every time a random Hispanic person is asked for her papers, and every time the Washington Redskins are allowed to play football, we are all degraded slightly, for we have allowed these conditions to persevere.
If we take as a condition of human flourishing not living in a society which does not degrade us, which does not undermine our humanity, then life in a racist society is human life which cannot flourish. No individual can be fully human while his society treats others as less than human. A fundamental condition for the flourishing of humanity has not been met.
Racism - A (Very) Brief History
Racism is not an accident. Do not let people tell you that distinctions based on race are natural. This is a lie designed to obfuscate the truth of racism as a social construct. The idea that people with darker skin are inferior to people with lighter skin is a falsehood propagated first by Europeans to justify slavery and second by colonial Americans to prevent an uprising of a unified laborer class. In both instances economic gain, i.e., wealth, was the primary motivating factor. (For more on this, I recommend David Brion Davis’s Inhuman Bondage.)
Racism’s very function, then, is to eviscerate society with the precision of a surgeon and the speed of a sloth, gradually turning one class of people against another based on the most superficial of distinguishing factors until not one person has retained her humanity. People are not born racist; they are turned racist by the promulgation of insidious falsehoods and misleading half-truths designed to perpetuate the notion of the inherent superiority of whiteness.
Racism as Expression of Society's Collective Will
The kind of racism I am talking about is not precisely the common understanding of individual antagonism towards, hatred of, or discrimination against individuals of certain races. Though this is a real and pernicious form of evil, and one which we must remedy with haste, it is not the paramount of evil of racism. In contrast, that absolute evil transpires when individuals’ beliefs about racial characteristics are expressed by the collective will of society.
History is replete with examples of this kind of thing, starting, in this country at least, from slavery itself. For approximately 200 years, most black folks in the United States could not earn income or accumulate wealth. This racism continued on in the form of lynchings and Jim Crow, to housing policies and various violations of voting rights (literacy tests, poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and the like), as well as myriad forms of employment discrimination. The effects of these expressions of society’s collective will do not recede into ether the moment the policy is removed; they linger with lasting consequences for access to opportunities today.
Nor are these collective expressions of society’s racism merely a vestige of history. They continue on in our criminal justice system (mandatory minimums, discriminatory traffic stops, incarceration rates, frequency of execution, etc.), in unequal access to healthcare and education, in a dearth of people of color in leadership positions, and in caricatured portrayals in popular culture.
The totality of all those individual moments of discrimination also merits discussion in this context of collective expressions of social will. While to most white people, it appears that only some particular other white people discriminate against people of color, a person of color is left never knowing when she may encounter such discrimination, thus transforming the particular individual instances of racism into a chronic experience of marginalization.
One never knows when a white person one encounters will begin to espouse racist principles or act in racist ways. These are both the flagrant acts of racial antagonism (like flying a confederate flag and shouting the N-word out of one’s pickup truck) as well as the kind of thing that has come to be known as a microaggression (acts that treat people of color as interchangeable and ignore their individual humanity or compel them to correct a misperception about the group into which the microagressor has placed them).
These encounters, of course, are not infrequent, and the frequency of these encounters means that to people of color, individual acts of racism, however benign, coalesce into a solid wave of dehumanization. On most days of life, a person of color is liable to treated differently simply for the pigmentation of his skin. This is why the notion that it is just a minority of white people who are racist matters not. To those who are marginalized by the racism of white people, it is as systemic as if it were everyone.
This troika of collective expressions of racial antipathy – historical discrimination, systemic contemporary discrimination, and contemporary individual aggressions (micro or otherwise) – synthesize into a formidable force of discrimination and racial antagonism. If it feels racist, enacts racist policies, and acts out at random in racist ways, the only logical conclusion is that society is racist.
The Significance of Charlottesville
If the Neo-Nazi/White Supremacist/White-Nationalist/Neo-Confederate rally in Charlottesville revealed anything, it was to add the Q.E.D. to the end of an argument for the fact that these radical right-wing, white-supremacist groups are gaining momentum. There are more of them, and they feel empowered to act out because Trump will not condemn them. He has not acknowledged the bombing of a mosque in Minnesota and he has not condemned the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville and committed a grave act of terrorism that injured many and took a life.
The importance of this fact (the renaissance of white supremacism) is that it should disprove the notion that racism will simply fade away into the annals of history. White people do not get off the hook for racism simply for being recent immigrants, for living among a diverse community, for having friends from different backgrounds, for not discriminating themselves, or for not holding racist attitudes. Non-interference is insufficient in the face of racism. Without active confrontation by those who recognize the toxic evil of racism in society, racism is poised to gain strength.
What's At Stake
Every day we abide the moral pestilence of racism, our souls degrade that little bit more. The day-to-day degradation is unnoticeable, but over the long run, no individual’s humanity is sustainable in racist conditions. No humanity can survive while others’ humanity is denied. Racism gnaws away at the very fiber of our being until all that is left is a human façade on an inhuman being. If man is a social animal, then man in racist society is simply animal.
The measure of a society’s virtue is not the success of its most accomplished citizens, but the compassion it shows for its most maligned. If we are to make our society more virtuous, we must root out the myriad ways it evinces racism.