Sunday, 23 November 2014

Are we heading toward a new era of open racial conflict?

Life in New York is a good metaphor for American society despite our city’s anomalous characteristics. We take for granted that the world is comprised of a variety of diverse peoples who look different from each other, wear particular if not peculiar clothes, speak a variety of languages (160-some at last count within the five boroughs) and generally carry with them a couple of extra identities on top of officer worker, husband, mom, or whatever. We think we get along pretty well and start from a default position of broad tolerance for the annoyances that spring from all these multitudinous approaches to existence. We know that not everyone agrees on how things should be done and for the most part just get on with it, with or without complaint.

But underneath that superficial togetherness is a profound gap in real empathy, a deceptive and self-deceptive liberalism that masks some pretty strong intolerance. This state or affairs may sound unfavorable, but it is probably the best we can hope for—mutual respect whatever one’s personal feelings about chadors, loud subway voices, gentrifiers, sagging trousers, or smug white people. If we conform to minimum standards governing our social behavior, no one is asking us to like everybody else or think they’re swell. It’s the subtle but essential difference between acceptance and respect—I insist on the latter even if my sex life, child-rearing practices, ideas, or personal habits are repugnant to you. And vice versa.

If all social groups and ethnicities shared more or less equally in the bounties of our economic and political system, these rough edges might theoretically fall away over time such that ensuing generations would be more similar than unique and habits of life and mind would became less conflictive, even potentially. But since that is far from the current case, any sudden strains are likely to exacerbate these latent tensions. That’s what I see bubbling to the surface on all sides.

The most glaring example is the relentless litany of race-tinged police abuses that keeps dominating our news cycles. The latest is the completely astounding cop killing of an unarmed guy who committed the suspicious act of walking down the stairway in his apartment building with his girlfriend. How even a rookie cop with an itchy trigger finger could have thought it appropriate to fire into a dark stairwell without the slightest provocation is a mystery even Bill O’Reilly would be hard pressed to justify.

Meanwhile, the Ferguson grand jury is about to emit its decision on the Michael Brown killing, and in advance all the usual pious voices are heard insisting that violent reactions are a big no-no. Never mind where the violence has come from to date and double-never mind that without sustained outrage from local residents, nobody would be paying the slightest attention to one more black kid dead on the sidewalk. Without outrage and threats, the white media wouldn’t give two shits about Ferguson. Now that we have outrage and threats, the outrage and threats—not Darrin Wilson’s acts—are the big CNN story. Shame.

You see the same phenomenon on message threads following any of the black-kid-dies, like the North Carolina teen found hanging in a playground under suspicious circumstances. Instead of accepting that there is a long history of lynching and excessive police force against young black males, indignant commentators insist that anyone highlighting the story is ‘race-baiting’. Close on their heels come the neo-klansmen insisting that the real victims are police officers and/or beseiged white people.

Beneath this steady rewrite lies the unconscious guilt complex of middle America that is convinced the distressing history of slavery ended in 1863 by magnanimous Abe Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation. Lynch mobs, the KKK, Jim Crow are all in the past, and African Americans should stop complaining and ‘take responsibility’ for their situations, just like everyone’s favorite granddad, Bill Cosby, always said (in between wine parties with young starlets). Never mind that incarceration rates are the highest in history (thanks, Bill Clinton, the ‘first black president’!), voting equality is being reversed all over the Confederacy, and six cops can choke Eric Garner to death in broad daylight.

As we build up evidence that late capitalism is incapable of providing the majority a decent living, distractions like race and ethnicity will be more and more important to the cozy and powerful who must deflect the attention away from their own privileges. Count on the captured corporate media to pump up white fears and rescript the ongoing assault on the powerless as something, anything else.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent piece!