The Continued Significance of Race

Here is a particularly revealing article on the recent racially fueled rioting in Australia. In light of this and the Fall rioting that occurred in France (although for VERY different reasons), what is the current status of race relations internationally? Are they improving or deteriorating? This is a question rarely debated by intellectuals on an international scale and I don’t propose that I am the most capable person in answering it. Being born and predominantly raised in the U.S., I can say very little about race relations outside of these borders. I can, however, say that I feel there are certain powerful forces that continue to make race a salient factor in people’s daily and long-term interactions. Additionally, far too often people neglect to bring up these issues in public setting to avoid voilent results of racially motivated social unrest. Even the most vehement Black Panther or Weather Underground Organization members and supporters surely wished they could achieve their goals and still avoid violent clashes with the most powerful, wealthy, and deadly government in the history of mankind. Race is far too complicated, deep-rooted, and personal, however. (more in expanded post)
I, for one, truly wish race did not exist. As a Black man in the 20th and 21st Centuries, it has rarely worked to my benefit. Race as a recent social construct in the Western World was created out of a need to justify the discrimination between Blacks from Africa and Whites from Europe on a basis beyond simple nationality or ethnic grouping. Blacks were identified as being from a different, lesser race and therefore it was OK for White Europeans (with all of their modern civility, religious piety, and intellectual maturity) to enslave, beat, kill, and rape them for financial gain. The effects of this supremacy of one group of people over another group of people based on physical traits such as skin tone, eye color, and hair texture in addition to cultural traits such as religion, style of dress, and marital customs has not been erased despite the external slave trade being officially ended in the U.S. nearly 200 years ago. An excellent book on this subject has been written by Na’im Akbar and I suggest it for all who are interested in such a topic. Sadly, far too many Whites in the U.S. and abroad still see themselves as the master and far too many Blacks and other people of color still see themselves as the slaves.

Racism is still alive and well, despite what many U.S. residents think and especially at places like Harvard. Most students who identify as racial minorities can most likely state a number of incidents during their time here where they were treated a particularly unfair and hurtful way on the basis of preconceived race-based notions. These situations occur in the streets, in the yard, in the classrooms, in dining halls, and anywhere else stereotypes are not confronted and prejudices not debunked. A campus-wide debate on race is something that is far from most people’s minds. This might sound strange to individuals on campus who are in groups like the BSA, AAA, or Fuerza where these topics are frequently discussed in some respect, but for the majority of students on our campus who are White (non-Hispanic, of course) and choose not to become members of these groups (since membership in all of them is completely open) four years can pass and they may never confront racial ideas that they held as 17 and 18 year-old first-years. For all the lauding of campus diversity here, simply attending class with someone of a different background or living down the hall from them does not suffice. In order to get the most out of the relative diversity that Harvard does offer, one must emerge out of their secluded and comfortable bubble. Remarkably, Harvard IS the most diverse school I’ve ever attended since my previous schools were even more racially, socioeconomically, and religously homogenous.

In his seminal book The Declining Significance of Race, Lewis F. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor William Julius Wilson posits that class disparities are becoming more salient than racial disparities and now form the chief rift in U.S. society. Whether or not you agree with Professor Wilson, one cannot neglect the fact that race still plays a huge role in domestic and global society today. The two riots at the beginning of this post that garnered international media attention attest to this. Hurricane Katrina attests to this. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s comment on the recent public transportation strike attests to this. The recent murder of Stanley Williams by the State of California attests to this. The end-result bad guy in all of these scenarios is White (Bush, Bloomberg, and Schwarzenegger) and the victims are overwhelmingly or solely Black (Katrina victims, Union members, and Stanley Williams). This is exactly what racism is: power utilized by a member of one racial group to the detriment of another. Two of these situations brought about death (Katrina and Stanley Williams) and the other brought about fines and may bring jail time. The power that Whites have over Blacks worldwide is still widespread. Until government bodies are representative of the populations they serve and understanding and fruitful collaboration is fostered between individuals of different backgrounds, positive race relations will continue to be hampered on campus and in the far corners of the globe.

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14 responses to “The Continued Significance of Race

  1. Stanley Williams as a “victim” and the governor who didn’t grant the murderer clemency as “the end-result bad guy”…

    Thanks for your honesty, if nothing else; so many ‘Tookie’ supporters try to beat around the bush on that one.

  2. The state has a monopoly on legitimate violence under “self-defense”. Williams was supposed to be a threat to the public if he were released. As the “protector” of the people, the state therefore felt that it was best to kill Williams. Is it OK for the government to kill its citizens under ANY circumstances? What are these circumstances? What do people think?

  3. Jersey, the only way in which your argument makes sense is if you believe that “the state” has absolutely nothing to do with “the people.” Obviously, the democratic process is far from perfect and must continually struggle to rid itself from the influence of power, corruption, money, etc., but it still has something to do with the will of the people. The death penalty is supported by the majority of this country and of California so, as vile as I personally think it is, it is the people of California that are killing Tookie Williams as much as “the state.” That’s the whole point of democracy, the people have to take responsibility for the decisions that they make (or don’t make) and make their government answer to them accordingly. If Tookie William’s execution is an unpopular thing, than Schwarzenneger will have to pay a political price and such things won’t happen in the future. If it is a politically popular (or nuetral thing), than he won’t have to pay a political price and, along with the fact that he was elected as pro-death penalty in the first place, the people’s will will have been felt.

    You can hate the will of the people all you want, but acting as if state-sanctioned murder is not also people-sanctioned murder is to completely discount the concept of democracy. The state was not protecting itself from Tookie Williams, the people believed themselves to be protecting themselves (as misguided as that impression surely is).

    You either need to explain to me why American/Californian democracy is such a farse that the state truly acts as a murderous overlay of our society against our will or you need to learn to have some nuance.

  4. Giving “the people” the right to vote without open access to informational resources is like giving a baby a high-end laptop. It’s a great device–in theory–but what can the user do with it except mess it up? Without the proper background in how to use said device and a grasp of the implications of using it in one way versus another, the device is used recklessly. The people who voted for the Governator: reckless. Admittedly, this is a slippery slope and voters cannot be required to know EVERYTHING about the candidates in an election before voting or EVERY way in which a candidate’s platform might impact policy and, subsequently, the people’s lives. Nevertheless, there are strong media forces that work in collusion with the government at numerous levels blocking the public’s access to particualr information (http://www.tvnewslies.org/html/bush_lies.html). There is a huge discrepancy between the information that the state has versus the information that the people have. Bush’s ongoing wiretaps, the revelations in his ranks of undercover CIA agents, and the Patriot Act attest to this (and don’t give me that it’s in the “national interest” stuff–yeah…so is a ban on assault rifles). When information is tailored in this way a better word for it is propoganda. An informed population is a population ready to elect leaders.

    Also, you can’t focus solely on the death penalty being supported by Schwarzenegger and people then voting for Schwarzenegger as meaning the Californian public supports the death penalty. There are myriad parts of his platform that could have been the decisive point for voters. Of course this is apart from the fact that he’s Arnold Schwarzenegger: a face more recognizable to the Californian public than most U.S. Presidents, ecnomic leaders, or anyone else outside of entertainment. Sadly, many people still vote on the simple basis of his star power and thinking that he’s just a good guy (personal/leadership qualities?!?) over his position on the death penalty or some other ACTUAL ISSUES (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/recallexitpoll.html). Thankfully, through gains in information spreading through new and dynamic technological means (such as this blog) as well as legislative reform fueled by popular opinion and protest, the public is becoming more privy to previously confidential or just flat out withheld information.

    I would encourage you to use “U.S.” in place of “American” if you’re talking about the nation in which California is located. America stretches from the world’s largest island of Greenland in the north (nope…it’s not a part of Europe) to the super tiny islands of Chile in the south. The average American, in general, is very different from the average citizen of the U.S., in particular. Just some literal stuff (not just PC) if you’re sensitive to it.

  5. You’re conflating race with class when indicting Bush for the Katrina response.

  6. As I said, “the victims are overwhelmingly or solely Black”. This is true of Katrina due to the fact that most of the victims who were forced to remain (I should specify this group so as to disregard those who had the means to escape the area) in the area were Black. Focusing on New Orleans, it is 67% Black (well more than “Black” cities like Atlanta, D.C., Memphis, etc.). The poverty rate is 28% for the population in total and 40% for people under 18 (this info comes from the U.S. Census Bureau). These statistics speak for themselves in showing that race is constantly at play far beyond that of class in New Orleans, though still you shouldn’t neglect the correlation (not conflation) between the two.

  7. “Giving “the people” the right to vote without open access to informational resources is like giving a baby a high-end laptop. It’s a great device–in theory–but what can the user do with it except mess it up?”

    This is quite galling– it sounds like you’re saying people are too dumb to vote. I’d wager that’s not what you mean. I’d wager what you actually mean is that people who don’t agree with you are too dumb to vote.

    Also on your Katrina point: your justification is a tautology. Saying that people who lived in New Orleans are disproportionately black doesn’t prove anything like what you argue. However, I’d wonder how you’d react to the fact that of the people who died in Hurricaine Katrina, they were disproportinately (for New Orleans) whtie.

  8. Jersey specified that he was talking about the people who remained and died but who had the means to escape, hypothesizing that this group was disproportionately Black. The Knight Ridder statistics don’t take this nuance into account.

    Plus, I think when people speak of racism in the Katrina tragedy they’re mostly referring to the slow government response, not which people actually died. Someone mentioned this in an earlier discussion on the same topic, but I can’t find the thread.

    Also, as Jersey points out, there are larger questions of links between race and class to consider, such as whether government leaders may be reluctant to allocate resources to fighting widespread poverty in communities of color because they view the people in these communities as lazy (Blacks) and/or likely to be illegal immigrants.

  9. So much dissent. So little time before my Junior Tutorial term paper’s due! OK…

    Paloma, you introduced the word “dumb” into this. I used “reckless”. These are very different things. In my argument I don’t blame the people but media “powers that be” that work in collusion with our government which is currently dominated by Republicans.

    On the race thing, my argument means that this “Black” city that has one of the highest poverty rates of any major city in the nation was largely neglected despite the government knowing of the risk involved (especially after numerous past floodings in New Orleans). Post-Katrina, help was slow and rebuilding may totally change the racial and socioeconomic character of the city. In every tragedy some people benefit. Most of the beneficiaries of Katrina won’t be Black or poor. Most won’t be residents of New Orleans. Most will be contractors that re-build places like Iraq and Afghanistan through lucrative no-bid contracts from their business partners and personal friends in the federal government. Black people lost in Katrina on numerous levels disproportionately from Whites whether you look at from the angle of who was hurt more or who will benefit more from the disaster.

    The victims aren’t just those who died. The victims are those displaced who’ve had their lives shattered by this. News of more Whites in New Orleans dying due to Katrina than Blacks would be surprising news to me simply due to the fact that most people in New Orleans are Black. Where’d you get that info? Share.

    Prokop, that data can be misleading in numerous ways. Examples of these include the fact that where someone was found does not necessarily mean that’s where they died. Bodies can float in water during floods, people can die en route to another location (as many did), etc. Also, I’m skeptical about the data presented from Knight Ridder due to some of the people they have on their Board of Directors, namely Kathleen Feldstein–wife of former Ec10 Professor Marty Feldstein (a.k.a. Montgomery Burns). Republicans lie. Just ask Al Franken.

    Additionally, median income is very iffy. There are places in Boston less than two minutes apart by walking where most people may make under $25,000 a year (w/ a family) in one place and then a single person may make $100,000 a year in the other (i.e. the Villa Victoria public housing development and then the large browstones around Mass.Ave. and Tremont St.). The zip code of this area (02118), according to the U.S. Census Bureau, has a median income of about $39K but the average home in this area costs $805K. What gives?!? The people in this neighborhood (known as the South End) that have more income are largely White, live in houses, and pull the median income up. Those in the neighborhood that are Black or Latino largely live in “apartments” (projects) and pull the median income down. They’re TWO MINUTES APART. Economic disparity by zip code or neighborhood can abound.

  10. Well, honey, if everything I say is untrue due to the er, fact, that as you say “Republicans lie”… then what’s the point in us talking?

  11. I said Republicans lie. I didn’t say they do so all the time. Dems lie also. All true things but all said (or written) in jest. Continued discussion is very important for looking at where our commanilities lie for the betterment of this nation we dwell in. Somehow, some way. Progress will happen.

  12. I think that the critiques of this post have some merit. The New Orleans dynamic is more complicated than just race, especially if we take into account the relationship of the so-called Creole population of light-skinned people of mixed race descent and the darker skinned African-American population, as well as the aforementioned casualties of poorer whites from the Delta regions. As far as Tookie Williams goes, black columnist Stanley Crouch from the NY Daily News did quite a number on that whole story in an unfortunately unwidely circulated column– http://www.nydailynews.com/news/ideas_opinions/story/372746p-317021c.html. His loyalty to the Stop Snitchin ethos and contribution to the rampant slaughter of black males should certainly not be overlooked (I am not saying that he should be put to death or that anyone else’s contribution– US government, local police, drug lords, etc.– should be overlooked either, but one hundred wrongs don’t make fifty rights).

    But with all of this said, I think it is rather telling of the “criticism” of Mssr. Slugger’s piece (and the aversion to a true confrontation with race and power) that none of it engages with the race riots in Europe and Australia. While most people have much to say about how globalization has made it easier to get cheap t-shirts and talk to distant friends in India, there has been little discussion about the ways in which various constructions of race (especially anti-black racism) have been reconstructed and repackaged for global consumption. And while I am sure that Mssr. Slugger could go to town on this little softball I am tossing in his direction, I shall endeavour to make it difficult for everyone by asking, in what ways have black Americans in particular contributed to (or been complicit in) the violation and degredation of people of color worldwide? And here’s a hint, it’s not just Harvard black kids who do investment banking…

  13. Wow…that Crouch article is sad. Measuring one’s success as an author by the amount of copies he’s sold makes him sound like Harvard University Press–not an author himself who I would suspect writes books for more than just the sales (side note: generally, Stanley Williams’ books are FAR higher on Amazon.Com’s Top Seller lists than any of Stanley Crouch’s). Those children’s books may not be flying off the shelves but I doubt PowerKid Press (the publisher of the books) put a lot of money in promoting or distributing them. It wasn’t like Stanley Williams was able to go on a promotional tour for his books or anything. If Crouch had studied a bit more he’d know that Stanley had to almost beg his co-author (Barbara Cotman Becnel) to go forth with the children’s books project. She strongly opposed them as did most publishers, I’m sure. Anyway, despite how many people are hearing his words Officer Bob will never get across to a young, Black male in South Central the same message that Mr.Williams could. Myriad books haven’t taken off until well after they were published and hopefully these children’s books will do the same.

    A true confrontation with race and power can be had at any time, my dear Mr.Twain. There have been a number of Open Threads where you could have launched such a tirade (or are you waiting for me to do so?). Now, I’m no Master’s Degree candidate in political theory but I feel that my initial post got at it a little bit. Also, don’t forget my piercing and still unanswered question nor my disclaimer in the first paragraph of my post:

    what is the current status of race relations internationally? Are they improving
    or deteriorating? This is a question rarely debated by intellectuals on an international
    scale and I don’t propose that I am the most capable person in answering it. Being born
    and predominantly raised in the U.S., I can say very little about race relations outside
    of these borders.

    Feel free to beging that confrontation on race and power at will. Many people (utmost myself) would appreciate it.

    The softball you have thrown will have to be called a “Ball” cause I’m gonna let that one go by. Hopefully someone else with step up to bat for that one.

    On a whole different wavelength, I think people just don’t understand how simple it is for people in certain situations or from certain backgrounds to do criminal activities for a living. That may be a future post…

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