Monday, September 7, 2009

Race and Justice

“Yet we continue to use the term ‘race,’ even though many of us are very careful to set it off in quotation marks to indicate that while we do not take seriously the notion of ‘race’ as biologically grounded, neither are we able to think about racist power structures and marginalization processes without invoking the socially constructed concept of 'race.' (Janis 4)

In this excerpt, Michael Janis is quoting Angela Davis in his article “Obama, Africa, and the Post-Racial.” Although I don’t have an answer to the dilemma set up in this passage, I think it digs to the heart of the problem with talking about race. Once we’ve realized that race is socially constructed, we don’t have another way to talk about it. So long as race remains a social construction of our culture, it is real. We need to talk about this problem in order to dissolve it, but how can we talk about it while insisting that it doesn’t exist? Using the term in quotation marks is perhaps a temporary solution, but we’ll have to come up with something better if we’re ever going to really enter a … er, well … a post-“racial” world.

I enjoyed the variety of readings this week, from the Janis article to the “Introduction” to Racial Classification and History (edited by E. Nathaniel Gates) to the popular media articles on Sonia Sotomayor’s appointment to the Supreme Court. This variety was instructive on the issues surrounding race and our president, especially in terms of how people perceive his politics differently. For example, Janis hailed President Obama as reaching new heights in understanding the legacy of slavery and claims that he supported affirmative action in his first book. I can’t offer an opinion on the veracity of this statement, but Gates quotes Obama as opposing traditional affirmative action/reparations. I find it interesting that something seemingly so rooted in fact is truly a matter of opinion.

Several of these articles address affirmative action, so I feel that I should address it even though I’m not terribly comfortable taking a stand. I’ll work through my thoughts here. The truth is that, although this is likely an unpopular opinion in the university, I think affirmative action is institutionalized prejudice. It’s inherently unfair.

However, I also think it’s a tool that was—maybe is—necessary. It’s a tool intended to do the greater good, even if I’m idealistically opposed to the basic concept. Therefore, my struggle is to figure out when we’ve reached the point at which affirmative action is not necessary. Clarke, in her opinion piece, says “the evidence shows that discrimination persists and that our nation still requires strong medicine to scourge that poison from its system.” I do worry, though, that the backlash against affirmative action (and not just by white America) may mean that the policy causes greater evil than it rights.

I have grown up hearing two narratives relating to affirmative action. One is what I think of as the traditional narrative. I have seen friends of color denied the rights and privileges that I am granted. I have been a victim of sex discrimination. I’ve known people with disabilities to suffer silently. I often think affirmative action is vital and that we have a very long way to go.

But I’ve also grown up with what I think of as the backlash narrative. My father, when hiring construction laborers, will be forced to hire a black woman over a white man, despite the fact that the white man has a set of skills needed on that particular job that the black woman lacks. An African-American friend had his scholarship rescinded when it was realized that he had white skin. And at the insurance company where I once worked, our morbidly obese customers were allowed to park in handicapped spots while single working mothers going to night school had to lug their backpacks and children the length of the parking lot. If this is the face of affirmative action, I want no part of it.

There is no doubt in my mind that affirmative action does harm. The articles we read on Sotomayor’s appointment demonstrate public distrust when people suspect a person is being elevated because of race. Obama seems to believe such appointments can be a form of reparation, a subject I am also unqualified to pass judgment upon. But, thinking through the concept in this format may be instructive.

Based on the information I currently have, I would oppose reparations in the U.S. Not on the basis of idealism, as with affirmative action, but in the sense of practicality given the position we occupy in history. How are we now to put a value on the freedom of long-dead ancestors? How do we prove the genealogy of each person who either pays taxes to fund reparations or receives reparations? Will I, as a fifth-generation Irish-American whose great-great-grandfather was certainly victimized, be eligible? I certainly hope not. My family’s survival against the odds is part of my heritage, and if someone paid me for it I think I would feel less ownership of myself.

My point is not that reparations are a bad idea. Rather, I think they are an enormously good idea. For example, if the institution of slavery resulted in the color-coded economic divide now in evidence, reparations might have altered that course. But at this point, I don’t think reparations will do anything but create animosity.

But the spirit of reparations is a viable idea. It’s undeniably sad that “Western governments have had only sparse diplomatic relations with African nations in recent years; in fact, the West continues to demonstrate that reparations, for the most part, are not on the minds of those in power” (Janis 8). I agree with Obama’s statement that “the best reparations we can provide are good schools in the inner city and jobs for people who are unemployed” (“Obama Returns”) at least as far as thinking reparations should be ways to improve lives, not to reward or punish.

I think, though, that I am purposely misreading Janis’ interpretation of Obama’s statement. This is one of the points on which Obama’s critics say he is “not black enough.” And although Janis discredits such regressively positioned racial language, he also implies and quotes Obama as saying that these critics have a valid point. (Janis 4-5)

Finally, quickly, I’d like to mention the interesting points that Gates makes in telling us that Ghanaians described Malcom X as white and in demonstrating that whiteness is not considered a race (12). Gates also suggests that white youth like Sister Souljah because she helps them “find a way out of whiteness” (15-16). These points have interesting implications for the concept of race. I’m out of room to discuss them here, but maybe they can be a point of future debate here or in the classroom.


Here are links to some of the articles referred to in this post:

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