The Black Frankenstein

Ignorance is usually thought of as the passive obverse of knowledge, the darkness retreating before the spread of Enlightenment. But… Imagine an ignorance that resists. Imagine an ignorance that fights back. Imagine an ignorance militant, aggressive, not to be intimidated, an ignorance that is active, dynamic, that refuses to go quietly — not at all confined to the illiterate and uneducated but propagated at the highest levels of the land, indeed presenting itself unblushingly as knowledge…
— Charles W. Mills

By: Edward-Yemil Rosario

I have a confession to make: I’m not circumcised…

Yes, I have an aardvark. My Willie has a ‘hood. I mention this particular tidbit of (admittedly TMI) information not because I’m trying to be vulgar, or indulging myself, but because I’ve just realized that if I were to run for president, the state of Arizona would most likely not deem my run legitimate.

Really. I. Kid. You. Not.

Arizona, that great American experiment in political consanguinity, had deliberated and passed a “birther bill” which listed several documents necessary for proof of citizenship. One of these was, yes, you guessed it, Virginia: a certificate of circumcision.

Really.

In what can only be characterized as an isolated moment of lucidity floundering in an otherwise roiling sea of stupidity, Arizona governor, Jan Brewer, vetoed the bill. Some say her epiphany was a direct result of having a cattle prod shoved up her wrinkled ass, but I don’t know…

Seriously, I am loathe to wade into something as idiotic as the birther issue, but it can’t be helped. Just the other day, Obama, who had already given more than enough proof of his legitimacy, released the “long form” version of his birth certificate despite the fact that the birth certificate he had released years ago is considered prima facie evidence of his birth.

But my interest isn’t debating about President Obama’s “legitimacy.” Rather, my interest lies in using the birther issue as a jumping off point to explore the undercurrent racism that drives US conservatism .I’m sure there are more theories about the “usurpation” that will replace the birth certificate issue. This is racism, pure and simple — it’s classic racism. The cognitive motivation behind their defense of a primitive belief that this man is not a legally elected president is based on a core fundamental conservative belief that a “real” American is by definition a white, Christian conservative. There’s no way they will ever be able to square the idea that a black center/ right Democrat could legitimately represent a majority the American people. And, by Jeebus (!!), they will rewrite history and the constitution if they have to in order to make that case.

President While Black

The reality is that there are many who will never accept a black in a position of authority and countless others, who though find birther “reasoning” laughable will resist admitting that the right is a manifestation of racism. This is the form of “ignorance” alluded to by Mills. It’s an active racism, a “racial contract” wherein those who benefit most agree to remain ignorant of its effects. I find it utterly idiotic to suggest that the only president to ever have his legitimacy questioned has nothing to do with his skin color. Obama releasing his long form birth certificate (which will do nothing to quell the racism) is commensurate to driving while black. We’ve all heard of the practice of African Americans being stopped on our nation’s highways for no other reason than because they are black. I have an African American friend, a lawyer, who drives a beautiful sports car, who is stopped at least once a week.

There’s a corollary with Obama. It’s as if he’s earned his ride (the presidency) fair and square, but huge swaths of whites don’t like the spectacle of him driving that gorgeous car. If this were the Jim Crow era, it would be expressed: The nigger doesn’t know his place, so there is a demand for “papers.” This happens with regularity in black and brown neighborhoods across the nation. It’s been happening for centuries: “What are you doing here, boy?!!”

This virulent form of ignorance is found even in people who claim to be liberal or progressive. In addition to the many birthers (a plurality of registered republicans and right leaning independents subscribe to the conspiracy theory), there are those with a less extreme bent who belittle them, but deny racism is the mitigating factor. I heard one such person claim that the “right hates everyone equally. It has little to do with racism.”

Yet when looked at from an empirical standpoint, it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. For example, one recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, found that “Whites who were prejudiced against Blacks were more likely to see Obama as un-American, and in turn, evaluated Obama as performing more poorly as president. Whites who were not prejudiced, and Blacks in general, did not do so. Additionally and importantly, this relationship was only found with Obama, as prejudiced Whites did not see Vice-President Joe Biden as un-American, despite the fact that Obama and Biden share political party affiliation and agenda.” [emphasis added] So the white guy gets a pass though he’s perceived as a liberal? US conservatism historically has been hostile to civil rights struggles. Today, racial prejudice is often manifested in subtle, indirect forms of bias. Due to prevailing norms of equality, most Whites attempt to avoid appearing biased in their evaluations of Blacks because of concern regarding social censure. Consequently, Whites’ prejudice is more likely to be expressed in discriminatory responses when these actions can be justified by other factors.” You can see this at play in conservative talking points. In fact, modern US conservatism is a predicated on a series of white backlashes to gains made by marginalized people, reaching full development by the time Reagan was elected into office and is more racially virulent today.

The study cited previously only reinforces a large body of previously conducted studies on conservatism. As I have reported before, at the core of political conservatism is resistance to change and a tolerance for inequality, with some of the common psychological factors linked to political conservatism including:

  • Fear and aggression
  • Dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity Uncertainty avoidance
  • Need for cognitive closure
  • Terror management

Birth

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?

This ignorance is so pervasive, working-class white Americans often vote against their own economic interests because of it. We all have theories about why right-wing whites are so easily duped by their corporate manipulators, most ranging from noting their stupidity to — well, noting their stupidity. That observation is facile and overly simplistic. There are a significant number of whites (and a lesser number of dark-skinned conservatives) who aren’t stupid who vote against their self-interests. In order to adequately understand this phenomenon, one has to return to Mills’ construct of an “epistemology of ignorance.” It’s not a passive ignorance, or a simple gap in knowledge, it is a silent agreement to ignore aspects of reality. The fact is that the reason why white Americans don’t care about income and wealth inequality is because they have been convinced to believe that Blacks and other people of color resent their whiteness. Tune in to Limbaugh (or any conservative talk show host) on any given day, and you’ll hear him consistently pounding away at that. This is how something like health-care reform is easily adapted to wage the culture war: It’s “big government” and that can only mean taking money from hardworking white people (“real” Americans) and giving it to undeserving, shiftless black people (the Other). That’s why Limbaugh and his kind so often refer to health-care reform as “reparations.” Obama is an angry black man who ants to stick it to white people in vengeance for slavery and discrimination. This is why you see all those angry teabaggers with signs saying, “I want my country back.”

One study reports that “opinions and beliefs about the poor differ sharply between the United States and Europe. In Europe the poor are generally thought to be unfortunate, but not personally responsible for their own condition. For example, according to the World Values Survey, whereas 70% of Germans express the belief that people are poor because of imperfections in society, not their own laziness, 70% of Americans hold the opposite view. In addition, 71% of Americans but only 40% of Europeans believe poor people could work their way out of poverty.”

The researchers conclude, “… Americans redistribute less than Europeans for three reasons: because the majority of Americans believe that redistribution favors racial minorities, because Americans believe that they live in an open and fair society, and that if someone is poor it is his or her own fault, and because the political system is geared toward preventing redistribution.”

Afterbirth


It’s important to recognize the different standard applied to President Obama because he’s the first black president. Obama has a political complication that no other president has faced. I personally do not agree with many of Obama’s policy decisions. His positions are so far to the right, the right has to act the crazy just to differentiate themselves. It’s beyond ironic that he’s perceived as a liberal to those too blind to see. Birthers and those on the right serve as a distraction to the really important tissue here: It’s important to recognize that progressivism itself is opposed for many of the same fundamental reasons. Historical opposition to the welfare state was always largely been motivated by racism and so progressive ideals, which promote the welfare state and equal rights is suspect as well. There’s much more at stake here.

 

And that’s it in a nutshell. Therein lies the cognitive motivation for birthers superficially and conservatives in general. Race is America’s deepest psychic lesion. It is the festering, running wound of Langston Hughes’ iconic poem: and it festers again… and again. And while racism has lost much of its original blistering heat, it is still there, buried and waiting to explode.

 

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…

19 Comments on “The Black Frankenstein”

  1. I am really not sure what to say because I could not agree with you more. Are the white working poor racially harnessed? Yes. Is the white middle class racist? yes. Is the white wealthy elite racist? Yes. Are white PROGRESSIVES in this country racially biased and do they say things behind closed doors about blacks that they would never say in public?? YES. Ok, maybe not all. But enough.

  2. Wow, Benni: you’re getting worse than me! LOL What you say is true in the sense that Americans are clueless about the extent of the racism (and classism) in this country.

  3. I believe that American racism is so engrained, even those who believe themselves to be quite liberal contribute to this racism. They capitalize off their apparent understanding by highlighting the so-called research of comfortably financed white experts observing the plights of the minorities, the homeless, the victimized, without the slightest idea as to what it’s like to be a minority, a homeless person or a victim. They like to place the blame on conditions; dysfunctional upbringing, childhood abuse, lack of education; when these conditions exist among the white population as much as any minority. While their sob stories sell and they rake in the money, not one cent of their earnings go to help the plight of the people they’ve researched so diligently. The idea is to make people aware, not helpful.

    Most movies about Alaska nauseate me. The good guy, the smart guy, the hero is always white, with a couple of Tonto friends at his side. They can’t even bear the thought of filming the show from the perspective of a half-white native Alaskan with an Inuit husband. Sarah Palin’s Alaska was the Barbie show of all these feel-good-feel-superior-because-you-are-white documentaries. If you believe her, we don’t even have any poor people in Alaska, and especially not a population that is over fifty percent brown. We don’t have villages with marginal living standards. We don’t have subsistence fishermen being squeezed out by commercial fisheries, and we are stupid enough to let our children stand up to fish from a small boat.

  4. “….the majority of Americans believe that redistribution favors racial minorities….”

    Everything you said, everything from the studies, all of it–I was just reading and nodding along. And then I got to that.

    It’s not that it’s news, per se. It’s just that, when it’s phrased that way, it kind of jumps off the page at you: We don’t help much because “the majority of Americans” believe that the people who would be helped most are the ones who need the most help. Because what could possible be worse than that? (I’m going to out on a limb and guess that, while the majority of Americans may think that would be one result of redistribution, it’s the majority of white Americans who think that is a bad idea.)

    That piece of information seems directly connected, at least in my mind, to this one: “….the reason why white Americans don’t care about income and wealth inequality is because they have been convinced to believe that Blacks and other people of color resent their whiteness.”

    Bwahahaha!

    Ahem. Sorry.

    As a theory held by the privileged, that is right up there with penis envy.

    Penis envy. Yeah, right. ::snicker::

    Privilege envy, maybe–aka a desire for equality.

    Which brings us back to race: Is it me, or do these two white Americans sentiment amount, basically, to “we can’t possibly do anything to give people of color a shot ay equality, both because they want to be equal and because then we wouldn’t be special any more”?

    There is a lot of talk about how white people benefit from benefit from racism and privilege–and it’s true, every word. (At least all the talk I hear is; I’m sure someone, somewhere has made an incorrect statement about it.) And, as Mills says (btw, I’m loving the book), that does provide a motive for an active, militant, resistant ignorance.

    What I think is missing from the conversation is much talk about how racism and privilege harm white people. I don’t mean that in an “I’m-privileged-so-I-get-to-co-opt-racism” way; I mean it is time to talk about how self-destructive white racism really is. Not instead of talking about generally destructive it is, in addition to that.

    You mentioned that white conservatives often vote against their own self-interest, even the ones who aren’t idiots. (I’m working on gut-level acceptance of the idea of a non-idiot white conservative who votes against his or her own self-interest.) I’m going to argue that that is because they think they’re voting for a greater self-interest. Some of that can conveniently be cloaked under “values voter” issues, only *some* of which are racist. But beyond the rationalizations and excuses, they obviously think that keeping people of color down is in their best interests. And it’s not.

    Yes, in the “you voted for that asshole, and he’s going to bust the union that keeps your wages high” way that we all know about and talk about, but in ways that aren’t discussed much. I suppose that refocusing all that fear toward things they should really be afraid of is asking too much, but that white racism is bad for white people, too.

    I’m busily thinking of what to say and how to say it–and I think I should just stop, because you are going to come up with 18 books and articles that have already said it in fewer than five minutes, aren’t you?

  5. I’m a senior staff retreat today, so forgive my “drive-by” type response to what I see as some really great comments/ feedback.

    Karlsie: You and I have often commented on how our own lives -0- though separated by thousands of miles, culture, and other demographics — share some of the most profound similarities. WE get it, but those who desire the status quo (whether motivated by greed of power lust, or ignorance), don’t want us to make those connections. The whole “class” nut will be extraordinarily difficult to break, but as a society we haven’t even began to address race. And we can’;t get to class, until we work through race. I hate the depictions of Indians scouts in popular culture. When I was a research assistant, BTW, I often felt like one because I was something of a “cultural translator.” But that’s another story altogether. LOL

  6. Karen: you make some really important observations and allude to branches I hope to explore. I have found myself becoming less willing to discuss race because it is so incredibly challenging. There’s a lot of social pressure NOT to discuss it, and sanctions for those who do.

    On a professional level, I’m being asked by my boss to “tone it down a little” and I’ve simply refused. How can I address the inequities of the criminal justice system without pointing out the institutional racism that creates it? So, there’s a professional price to pay, as well as a personal one. But — FUCK that shit.

    anyway…

    I think more people need to talk about racism from the perspective that you mention. Most people don’t or can’t see the insidiousness of racism and how it undermines everyone. As I have noted elsewhere: racism isn’t a “black problem” or a “Latin@ problem,” it’s a societal problem — a cancer that threatens all of us.

    I hope to further explore the idea of a “Frankenstein” and how it relates to the class/ race/ gender/ power issues of the day.

  7. Great post! Knowing that no matter what is said or proven it doesnt matter is so damn tiring. As long as the historical structure of American racism and exceptionalism exists, neither whites or blacks can ever get the conversation of racism beyond the existence of racism. As long as the majority of white America dismisses or denied its existence, the poison will continue.

  8. Sorry for the hiccups on my comments. No, I’m not finally losing what little sanity/ coherence I can claim, I was having problems with my computer yesterday. LOL

    Sayntj: You’re right, the first step toward a solution is admitting there’s a problem. We have so much to work toward, but we can’t, as my grandmother loved noting, cover the sky with our hands.

  9. I’m feeling the same kind of pressure not to talk about “difficult” subjects like race and gender. Frustratingly, it all too often seems like people who “get it” in regard to one don’t in regard to the other–and would prefer not to hear about it, thank you very much.

    I’m baffled as to how you can do your job and not talk about racism. Did your boss offer any suggestions?

  10. Eddie, my computer is very happy to allow your computer to take the blame for administrative oversights.

    From my perspective, i find it very difficult to separate race from class. While there are the openly racist in all social classes, in-class racism among the informed, educated manifestations of white liberality are far more subtle. You are accepted into their circles only if you behave as though you are culturally white, only if you have the right amount of education and say all the right things. This is white Colonial thinking, and as such, is both classist and racist.

    What it accomplishes is a social class of color; those who have abandoned their cultural heritage in pursuit of lucrative gain and those who struggle against the odds to keep their cultural identity alive. The cultural struggle crosses all races as the Colonialist message is to conform, and not to incorporate the cultural aspects of other races. It’s a win-win situation when you incorporate, as the field of vision and understanding grows. We currently see the evidence of when people close off to the aspects of cross-cultural absorption. While strong, community oriented cultures, such as the Asian and Hispanic surge forward, the Colonialist culture, with no new territories to conquer, stagnates. It can’t grow beyond its winner mentality, so it keeps building a higher and higher pedestal.

  11. I appreciate this conversation. It is leaving me feeling very introspective. I have been a tad resistant blaming the blatant hatred of Obama on racism. I still think there are a lot of other factors at play, but you make good arguements here. It is undeniable that race is a factor. I still believe it is not the only one.

    In addition to racism at play and alluded to is the classism and if the classes could start to get together and understand that no matter what color they are they are in the same leaky boat, maybe they could help one another. But again, we always want to be slightly better (even if it is our own delusion) than somebody else. It wouldn’t suprise me if before long we end up with our very own untouchable class.

    I do not understand how you can work in the Social Work field without addressing race. You must really have tapped into something uncomfortable there.

  12. I have never maintained that race is the ONLY factor, I am submitting it is THE mitigating factor. also, we can’t get to class without addressing race first, because it is RACE that is keeping us apart. Racism is the largest factor in creating the class system we have today. and some benefit, while others don’t. while we as a society suffer due to rac and racism, not all of us suffer equally.

    so again: class will be the hardest nut to crack, but we’ll never get there until we address the racism.

  13. If you heard me speak publicly, most of you would be surprised because I’m a lot more… ‘gentler? would be the word? LOL but I am unflinching when I talk about racism and and the core issues that create the imbalances of our society.

    but believe me, not even people who claim to be liberal or even progressive are all that comfortable talking about race in the way I do. What saves me, and this answers some questions, is that I’m a pretty good public speaker and it’s hard for my boss or colleagues to make me pay the consequences fully. However, there are funders and contracts to worry about. Which is really fucked up. I can’t be talking about burning up whitey and all that shit. LOL

    I do, however, get shunned for it, or get asked, in subtle ways, to not talk about it (racism) as much.

    Fuck. Them.

  14. Eddie,

    To use an analogy: Sometime during the last 10 years, you put on 30 pounds [OK, it was really 40 lbs, but who’s counting.] Now you want to take it off to improve your health and wellness. The difference between success and failure is recognising, both consciously and sub-consciously, that WHAT YOU PUT ON IN 10 YEARS CAN’T REALISTICALLY BE TAKEN OFF IN 10 WEEKS. Yet many people who “diet” give up after 10 weeks if they haven’t reached their target weight. In previous years, people killed themselves using PhenFen [diet drugs] trying to make the impossible a reality.

    This is the problem with the racist legacy in the United States. Americans of all colours and persuasions genuinely believe that now that legalized discrimination is “over”, the country should immediately [read within 2 or 3 generations] become “one in the spirit” and cast aside racism. Meanwhile, racism is a caste-related system that has influenced American relations with all people of colour [read non-Europeans] since before Europeans arrived in this country. Don’t forget the Shakespearean examples of Othello and Shylock. Europeans felt they had genuine reasons to hate and despise their darker neighbours from the south, and they brought those attitudes here with them. [The fact that such reasons do not now – and in some instances never did – exist is irrelevant.]

    In our modern setting, rabid racists of the 1950s and 60s, such as the young white woman who attacked and viciously beat a black Freedom Rider near a bus station in Alabama [in either Mongomery or Birmingham, I forget which] are now only old enough to be someone’s grandmother or grandfather. That young woman was so consumed with hatred; what makes you think she has not taught her children and grandchildren that hatred? My point is that it is UNREALISTIC to expect attitudes to change on the turn of a dime.

    I’m hearing the voice of the “Native American” i.e. Indian peoples as well. I saw an interesting snippet on Fox this afternoon as I was flipping through the channels. An Indian woman, one of two “guests” on the “news show”, was castigating the second guest and the host, basically asking why either of them felt it was correct for someone who was NOT Indian to be placed in charge of the management of Indian affairs on a reservation. The two men seemed amazed that she had the temerity to challenge their authority. It seemed so obvious to them that some “white person” should be acting on behalf of the tribe, in the tribe’s “best interests”, that they were busy discussing why some other white man should be fired and replaced by the Indian woman’s fellow guest. There is IMO clearly still an attitude among many Americans, mostly white [i.e. minorities are a small minority among them], which places non-Europeans as second-class and therefore not worthy of the “finer” things in life – like health, wealth, and long life.

    But don’t feel too bad. The concept of “colonial deference” to the “motherland” is alive and well and being perpetrated by a variety of European-led groups like the IMF, and in CariCom countries like The Bahamas there is still a group of people who believe that “foreign [white] is better”. Witness the recent fire sale of the government-owned telecommunications company to English-based Cable and Wireless, an internationally disrespected company with a nasty reputation for poor service and poor returns throughout the Caribbean region. The reason given by the government was that the Bahamians who had been running the company to the tune of massive profits for the last 8 years were “too ineffecient and incapable” to keep the company going. These colonialist attitudes allow Europeans to continue to exploit people in other parts of the world, and I am convinced that racist whites in America are angry, under it all, because their political system no longer allows them to freely exploit minorities there.

    Unfortunately the pervasiveness of this kind of prejudice against the “Other” is more deeply ingrained than one would like to think. I believe it will take more than awareness, but rather an active commitment by those who oppose such “traditions” to “each one, reach one, teach one”.

  15. I also wanted to add a brief comment about the way racism has kept WHITE Americans down. After watching the impact of the tornados in Mississippi and Alabama last week, I was reminded of how challenged these states have been financially. If things haven’t changed in the last 3 years, MS is near or at the bottom of the totem pole of the states when it comes to finances. In my mind, I correlate that to a society that would rather kill an intelligent black man than let him be equal, one that would prefer a dumb person in charge, so long as he is white, male, and protestant. When you kill off, miseducate, and suppress 40+ percent of your population, what else can you expect but a lack of success at what you do? How many of the linched, murdered, incarcerated or emmigrated of Mississippi held the keys to financial success of their state? How many of their women have been “bred” to believe their only contribution to their society is to produce the next generation, who will then be forced to live in a mobile home right in the middle of a major tornado zone?

    I admit that Mississipi is perhaps a rather extreme example of what I mean. However, IMO part of the difficulties the US is experiencing financially is because too many “good ole boys” have been running the country and the economy for too long. There is no sense among them that what benefits the whole country benefits them; they need to keep people down because it’s the only way they will stay up. But it’s like the drowning man pushing his rescuer underwater while trying to climb on his back. In the end, both drown.

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