Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Racism, White Supremacism & the Tragedy at Charleston, South Carolina: President Barack Obama Hit the Nail in the Head

In the wake of the June 17, 2015 massacre of nine African American worshippers in Charleston, South Carolina by a 21-year white supremacist Dylann Roof, the news and social media are awash with rueful comments and lamentations that President Barack Obama “used the N-word” in one of his recent comments on the state of race and racism in contemporary America.

I am of the opinion that such lamentations missed the point the president was trying to convey. I am disappointed that critics of the president’s alleged use of the N-word apparently chose to take his choice of diction out of context. Based on what I have read of the actual words of the president, all that he was doing was to make a point that society should not be fixated (as it tends to be from time to time) on whether a person has called another person the N-word as a key or essential indicator of whether that person believes in and practices racism.

Contrary to what looks like an attempt in certain segments of the media to reduce and trivialize the president’s exposition on race and racism in America, he, in fact, did offer a nuanced and balanced historical and contemporary perspective. As he put it,

Do not say that nothing's changed when it comes to race in America — unless you've lived through being a black man in the 1950s, or '60s, or '70s. It is incontrovertible that race relations have improved significantly during my lifetime and yours, and that opportunities have opened up, and that attitudes have changed. That is a fact (http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/06/22/416476377/we-are-not-cured-obama-discusses-racism-in-america-with-marc-maron).

Continuing, however, President Obama then went on to assert:

Racism, we are not cured of … and it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say [the N-word] in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior. What is also true is that the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives — you know, that casts a long shadow. And that's still part of our DNA that's passed on. We're not cured of it (http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/06/22/416476377/we-are-not-cured-obama-discusses-racism-in-america-with-marc-maron).

President Obama could not be more correct about his assessment of the state of racial animus in this United States, while pointing out, correctly of course, that `it is incontrovertible that race relations have improved significantly during my lifetime and yours, and that opportunities have opened up, and that attitudes have changed. That is a fact.’ 

Contrary to Dylann Roof’s reported goal of triggering a racial war in America by cold-bloodedly murdering nine church worshippers inside a historic black church (http://myfox8.com/2015/06/19/charleston-shooting-suspect-dylan-roof-confesses-to-killing-9-people/), the multi-racial closing-of-ranks against his blatant racial terrorism and hate that we witnessed in South Carolina in the aftermath of that massacre, attests to President Obama’s assessment that `race relations have improved significantly during my lifetime and yours.’ At the same time, however, the President was correct in describing racism as a social DNA deriving from the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow that has not been erased. And, he could not be more factual in pointing out that racism is `not just a matter of overt discrimination.’

The Eyes of the Storm
From the standpoint of a person who has been through the eyes of this insidious monstrosity otherwise popularly referred to as racism, racism does not have to be overt. In fact, as one of my brilliant students aptly put it, “Racism Is Not Dead, [it is] Just Redesigned.” Yes, covert racism is difficult to track and harder to prove though the victim is well aware of his/her predicament!

Scholarly Perspectives
At this juncture, let’s continue this discussion by recapturing a set of scholarly perspectives on racism, and, as you read them, do take note that they are articulations of racism that are largely shaped by the US social experience. I provide this caveat because, as we shall see in subsequent sections of this essay, racism and other forms of hate, are not peculiar to the United States or any one human society. To say the rather obvious, hate is a global human phenomenon that exploits a variety of social group constructs to transport itself, often depending upon the tilt of the local balance of political power.

In his Introduction to Black Studies (2010), Professor Maulana Karenga offers as follows:

Racism is essentially a system of denial and deformation of a people’s history, humanity and right to freedom based exclusively or primarily on the specious concept of race. Stripped of all its cultural and pseudo-scientific mystification, race is a socio-biological category designed to assign human worth and social status, using Whites as the paradigm. Racism, then, which begins with the creation and mystification of race, is social thought and practice which expresses itself in three basic ways, i.e., as 1) imposition, i.e., conquest and oppression of a people, and interruption, destruction and appropriation of a people’s history and productive capacity in racial terms; 2) ideology, i.e., an elaborate system of pseudo-intellectual categories, assumptions and contentions negative to people of color and serving as justification of the imposition and reinforcement of the institutional arrangement; and 3) institutional arrangement, i.e., a system of political, economic and social structures which insure White power and privilege over people of color. Racism, thus, becomes a continuing problem, nor only for social inquiry, but also for the quality of social life and the ongoing quest for human freedom and human flourishing. And it is a problem that tends to appear at every level and every area of social life (pp. 255-256).

Describing racism as “societal waste,” Professors Joe Feagin and Hernan Vera articulate it as follows in their 1995 book, White Racism:

White racism can be viewed as the socially organized set of attitudes, ideas, and practices that deny African Americans and other people of color the dignity, opportunities, freedoms, and rewards that this nation offers white Americans. The concept of white racism encompasses the attitudes and ideologies that motivate negative actions against blacks and other minorities. Racist acts have ranged from overt extermination and murder, to subtle gestures of social exclusion, to passive acquiescence in the racist acts of others. Typically, racist acts and practices are institutionalized; they are embedded in and shaped by social contexts. These practices have sometimes been defined as illegal under U.S. law. This is the case for certain types of blatant employment, educational, and housing discrimination that fall under the 1964 and 1968 civil rights acts (p. 7).

Racism can be broken down into various types, including personal or individual racism, collective or group racism, institutional racism, environmental racism and even intellectual racism. In their American Politics and the African American Quest for Universal Freedom (2006), Hanes Walton, Jr. & Robert C. Smith assert that individual racism “occurs when one person takes into consideration the race of another to subordinate, control, or otherwise discriminate against an individual” (p. 7). In contrast, institutional racism “exists when the normal and accepted patterns and practices of a society’s institutions have the effect or consequence of subordinating or discriminating against an individual or group on the basis of race” (p. 7).

Ingredients of Racism

What are ingredients of racism? From my own investigation,

·         Absurdity constitutes a central marker of racism;

·         Racism derives partly from cultural ethnocentrism;

·         Racism could exist in the form of an attitude, action, institutional policy or pattern of actions;

·         In general, racism denies biological racial equality and assumes that some “races” are biologically inferior;

·         Racists view the physical, mental and cultural attributes of the “inferior” race or person as naturally defective;

·         Racists tend to fixate on their victims;

·         Racism may lower the self-worth of persons who internalize negative stereotypes about them; and

·         Racial prejudice may constitute an insidious force working from within the oppressed to nurture the message of the oppressor. (For more on this, check out James Jones' 1997 book on Prejudice and Racism through McGraw-Hills).

The last two bulleted points can be a key for unlocking such socio-psychological phenomena as self-hate and loathing of one’s own kind and one’s own cultural identity.

White Supremacism
White Supremacism, as a form of racism, is defined by a belief that “Caucasian/Aryan people are from a superior gene pool, and that all other minorities are inferior. There is a particularly embittered hatred towards black people linking back to slavery, but also an increasing hatred towards Hispanics as that group has grown due to migration” ((http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-33198061).

A report says that white supremacists are not homogenous, “but what defines them is hatred - usually directed at race and the government. Weapons are a key part of their ideology: far-right websites dedicate entire sections to recommending what guns and other weapons to buy. Nazi ideology is one symbol seen in nearly all far-right groups, with tattoos of swastikas common” (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-33198061). Notice how, on the one hand, white supremacist Dylann Roof was pictured burning the United States flag (a blatant display of contempt for a symbol of US sovereignty) and, on the other hand, valorizing the Confederate flag, a symbol of rebellion against the Union (http://beta.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-33211192).

Be that as it may, fundamentally, a white supremacist, simply put, is a person who subscribes to a belief that `Caucasian/Aryan people are from a superior gene pool, and that all other minorities are inferior.' Thus, to qualify as a white supremacist, a person does not have to act violently or burn the US national flag like Dylann Roof. Since consciousness precedes action, a person who harbors consciousness that `Caucasian/Aryan people are from a superior gene pool, and that all other minorities are inferior,' is most likely to judge human affairs and to relate to the Cultural Other from that standpoint.

In his 1990 work, Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous?, Haki R. Madhubuti describes white supremacism as a system and one which exerts a debilitating influence on black families and black manhood. Among other goals, he states, the white supremacist system rewards black men and women who assist in the oppression of the black community. The system targets, labels, and harasses black men and women who dare to speak out on behalf of black humanity (p. 73).

Hate as a universal phenomenon
It must be understood that hate, as a human emotion, just like love, is not peculiar to any human group. Hate, like love, exists in all human societies. It must also be clear that hate uses a variety of social anchors for its fermentation and growth. So, apart from the social category of race, hate also exploits ethnicity and religion.

Ethnicity as an anchorage for hate
Ask the Tutsis of Rwanda, more than 200,000 of whom were massacred by their Hutu fellow nationals in 1994, about how ethnicity can become a deadly vehicle for hate (http://www.unitedhumanrights.org/Genocide/genocide_in_rwanda.htm). Ask the Igbos of Nigeria who lost up to 700,000 of their brethren in the pogrom that took place within Nigeria between 1966 and 1967 whether ethnicity can also serve as a ferocious vehicle for hate (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=woQ0KcAeVWE). The subsequent Civil War of 1967-1970 claimed about a million lives, including the lives of the secessionists and Nigerian troops, but predominantly the former.

Religion as a basis for hate
It must be recognized that hate exists in other forms as well. Hate can be religion-based. As a prominent contemporary example, consider northern Nigeria where a group that calls itself Boko Haram and mis-uses the name of Islam, has systematically targeted and killed thousands of fellow Nigerians, particularly Christians, including deadly attacks on Christian church sessions. When translated, Boko Haram means "Western education is forbidden” (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-13809501). Boko Haram's religion-based, hate-driven insurgency is said to have claimed about 13,000 lives (http://africacheck.org/reports/have-13000-people-been-killed-in-nigerias-insurgency-the-claim-is-broadly-correct/).

Hate also exists prominently in the form of xenophobia. For example, during the month of April 2015, South Africa experienced another bout of xenophobic attacks that targeted and killed some of the resident Africans from other African countries (http://www.ibtimes.com/south-africa-xenophobia-2015-victims-names-nationalities-released-1900755). Seven people were killed in this round of xenophobic violence, but three South Africans also lost their lives. Thousands of foreigners living in South Africa were driven from their homes in this wave of xenophobic violence that swept from Durban in KwaZulu-Natal province to Johannesburg and other cities in Gauteng province. It will be recalled that back in 2008, “a spate of anti-immigrant attacks swept South Africa, resulting in at least 67 deaths” (http://www.ibtimes.com/south-africa-xenophobia-2015-victims-names-nationalities-released-1900755).

Well, where do we go from here? As a cross-section of political and civic leaders in South Carolina have admirably done in the wake of the bloody tragedy of June 17, 2015, all persons of goodwill and all persons who believe in human brotherhood and human sisterhood that transcend the boundaries of race and ethnicity should strive to join hands together against hate—in all its identifiable manifestations. 

Speak up and bear witness to justice when you witness hate though I understand that there are risks (including social ostracism) that are associated with challenging hate, particularly where it’s backed by the levers of power. Secrecy allows hate to flourish because the perpetrators of hate are aware that they are on the wrong side of the law and morality. So, help by taking steps to unmask them. Expose them! Remember what the sun-shine glare does and can do to a Dracula, fictional as it may be. Endeavor not to play the role of an acquiescent by-stander!

Do not knowingly defend hate; and do not protect an acknowledged hater that masquerades within your zone of awareness or allow yourself to be hoodwinked into rationalizing hate.

Given that racism tends to be grounded in absurdity, critical thinking skills, when backed by a deep understanding of human diversity issues at stake, can serve as an effective anti-dote. Check-out Richard Paul & Linda Elder's Critical Thinking: Concepts & Tools (2009) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9l0SDLmeBf8). 

So, endeavor to apply the basic rules of critical thinking. For instance, if you are told about or you receive a "report," or a "sourceless rumor," demand for the full name of the reporter, and demand for the name of the employer of the reporter. Don't dignify or act on a "report" which has no named reporter or use such a "report" as a basis for decision-making aimed at exonerating a person who stands accused of or who is known to have engaged in an act of hate. If you are told that "it's our government," ask to find out which government--local, state or federal. Ask to find out the specific name of the agency that's claimed to be the source of the report. Then, contact the leadership of that agency and inquire about the authenticity of the alleged report, particularly if it does not square with the reality that you are familiar with.

If you occupy a position that empowers you to act against hate, do not hesitate to wield your power in a manner that can serve as a deterrent against hate. As the universal human experience has shown from time to time, when ignored, hate only tends to metamorphosize and wax stronger, not weaker. When ignored, hate feels emboldened, grows in complexity, mutates, manufactures “new evidence” through mischief and false transmittals to the authorities, markets itself to the na├»ve and the gullible through its simplistic appeals to base human instincts, and worse still, creates room for copycats.