Friday, December 16, 2005

In the Street: Why Mulatta Ain’t Got No Class?

The mainstream media crescendo of direct references to a notion of race appears to be mounting. Recent events demonstrate how the “R” word (and any common understanding of what race means today) operates like a discursive iceberg, where race seems to allude to or insinuate something below the surface, but never quite reveals what or how vast that thing is until it is too late.

We know that references to race raise emotions and that many people in our society continue to characterize social tensions that cannot be otherwise explained as race-related. Unfortunately, however, the ubiquitousness of race in public discourse does little to determine its usefulness as a modern American English vocabulary word or to pin down its precise meaning for the majority of people who have need to use it.

If I were less historically inclined, I might suspect that the alliterative appeal of “race riots,” rather than a precise application of sociological terminology, best explains their recent popularity in media reportage. The manner in which we have discussed recent events such as those in New Orleans, Paris, as well as Australia, however, just might reinstate 'race' as an operable concept in our political lexicon.

To what exactly does our contemporary application of ‘race’ refer, and why does it continue to be more linguistically evocative than other terms we use to characterize extreme social discord or injustice?

Race or Class?
After the Katrina FEMA-sco, everyone saw and heard the words ‘Black,’ ‘poor,’ ‘race’ and to a lesser degree ‘class' arranged for maximum emotional impact.

The media, meanwhile, stoked the public opinion machine:

“A nationwide NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed 7 in 10 African American respondents -- compared with 3 in 10 white respondents -- said the Bush administration would have responded with more urgency in New Orleans if the victims had been in white suburbs, rather than a predominately black inner city. "

Gallup . . . found only 21 percent of blacks surveyed believe Bush cares about black people.”

“About 1 in 4 African Americans lives in poverty, and the poverty rate for Black families headed by a single mother is almost 40 percent.”

Despite the stark difference of perception between two distinct constituencies, President Bush offered an explanation that invoked race. "This poverty has roots in generations of segregation and discrimination that closed many doors of opportunity.''

While the President was careful to avoid the slippery slope of defining race, he saw the critical need to discursively connect the suffering of poor Louisianans to the persistence of racism in our society in terms that ‘insiders’ would understand.

Why? Here, the critical thinker must ignore the distractions of cynicism. Clearly, it was both politically expedient as well as humane for the President to communicate “compassion”—that is, to use polling and other data to accurately “feel with” the afflicted. The afflicted were (most visibly) Black.

Let’s revisit the poll results. Most significantly, these data reveal that most Black people and most white people FEEL differently where race is mentioned or involved.

Additionally, we might extrapolate that most Black people polled felt that race, racism and/or racial inequality were strongly inter-causal with the extensive poverty, suffering and death among Black hurricane victims. Conversely, White people in this poll mostly understood all of the above to be an extreme effect of class in/difference.

So who’s right?

Does Race Matter?
During the last ten years or so, the US government and public institutions, such as those related to education, social services, or healthcare, have done their best to eradicate the use of race terminology in public policy. As such, the proactive or “affirmative” strategies designed to systematically remedy socioeconomic inequality across racial/ethnic boundaries were deemed antiquated, ineffective and unnecessary.

The left blames the right for this.

Among progressives, however, many old-timers have tired of rehearsing arguments about the primacy of ethnicity, race, class, gender/sex or sexuality in successful social change work. Thus, many younger folks eschew old-school Civil Rights based activism to pursue more pragmatic organizing, which addresses social concerns, such as poverty, illness, illiteracy and violence.

Taking It to the Streets: Deducing Race from Forms of Protest
As suggested earlier, I suspect that we may deduce something about the importance of consciously--i.e., being aware/awake & preferably not drunk when--applying terms related to race by examining how as a concept it works “below the level of discourse.”

Let’s look at the ease with which we couple the word race with the word riot when describing a particular form of social unrest involving tension between two or more communities. (I will only mention that boycotts, strikes and demonstrations are not automatically perceived as racial.)

Take these examples of Post-Civil Rights era social unrest characterized as race riots: the debatably “multicultural” (neither unified nor idyllic) unrest in the streets of Los Angeles that included looting and burning stores after the police beatings of Rodney King; the disorganized roving of, as well as looting and burning of cars by suburban North African youth in Paris and France after the accidental electrocution of two boys involving the police; and finally in Sydney Australia, the organized mob reaction of 5000 mostly drunk white men who terrorized Lebanese or Arab-looking people at Cronulla beach based on rumors about attacks on two lifeguards, as well as a host of events escalating the involvement of all the implicated communities.

If it were not for the most recent application, we might define a “race riot” as a street demonstration by a racialized minority group that most likely includes looting and violence but absolutely forms a collective response to an understood (or perceived) social injustice. Applying “race riot” to the Australian situation, however, reveals that in this case the form of protest, the riot, is less important than the source of tension, race.

Quite simply, rather than withering because of its limited descriptive value, race is a lively, if unwieldy, social concept where we continue to dump the inexplicable, the emotional or the unmentionable social tensions that continue to plague an unegalitarian society.

Race doesn’t need a definition. In my opinion, it needs more careful pronunciation.

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