Thursday, May 24, 2007

Race According to Generation "Why?" & Other "New" Structures of Feeling

Everyday brings with it renewed evidence of the truthfulness of the sentiment now in various quarters gaining the confidence and sympathy of our oppressed people that our elevation as a race is almost wholly dependent upon our own exertions.
-- Frederick Douglass (circa 1850s)

As time marches on, I am convinced that the long sentence and other rhetorical tools once used to appeal to the sentiments and sympathies of thinking people among us are woefully inadequate in our fight to expose the hoary apparatus of racism in its contemporary forms. I will concede that these forms are not as ethically cut and dried as slavery might have rendered them back in 1847 when Frederick Douglass began writing at the helm of the North Star, the first black-run newspaper, but is our contemporary context so much more complex, nuanced and challenging?

Why is racism America's little darling?

Seems everything I 'blog' about race these days tries to get at the unconscious reproduction of social inequality, and how race, especially in the absence of historical consciousness, operates just below the level of discourse and apparently just beyond our collective control. So as I waded through my race update emails of the last week, I attempted to pose a transcultural (transracial, if you like) query that came from the gut. Rather than simply linking the recent race stories analytically, I tried to feel my way through, checking my reactions alongside those of the people described and represented. Perhaps the following juxtaposition of a host of harrowing race-stories in the news will allow you to consider, as I have attempted to do, how 'racism' as such reflects the feelings and thoughts of people struggling with complex issues related to race, who in every case below are described as our 'youth.' Are there 'new' structures of feeling that validate racism today?

(I warn you, I draw few conclusions.)

Hutchison asks, "Is it ignorance, confusion, racial denial, or closet bigotry?"

First, I read "Many Whites Still Smugly Tie Their Racial Blinders Tight" (Hutchison on Alternet), which begins with an attempt to understand readers' responses to a recent critique of the re-release of "Song of the South " on DVD (i.e., 1946 Disney film replete with all the major food groups of racial stereotype). While the writer provided some statistics and polling data to the effect that white people, especially youth, reject claims suggesting that stereotypes are negative or damaging or wrong and that Black people often disagree, which explains in part why so many white readers were quick to denounce his film critique as advocating censorship, most unsettling to him was the fact that the white people most impervious to stereotypes that Black people find offensive were neither conservatives nor old nor apolitical.

They seem to be thinking, feeling young people.

If it weren't for so many recent incidents of the "new stealth racism" -- coined not by me, but by the writer of "Racism goes on trial again in the deep South" -- occurring today, perhaps we might look at these polls and facts and deduce that young people are phasing out race. It is, after all, irrelevant to the everyday lives of so many cosmopolitan, mixed-race young folks among "Generation Y," which should render it obsolete any day now!

(Maybe if we ignore it, it will just go away.)

The story about what's going on in Jena, Lousiana, however, counters any such naive hope (see Afro-Spear) It reads like an old race classic with no happy ending, seeming to borrow from a pre-Civil Rights era film or novel. High-schoolers in Louisiana are fighting to desegregate the shade trees and the opposition is hanging nooses and hiding out in Baptist churches, which leads judges to pursue putting the black kids who (might have) assaulted the 'noosers' in jail for the rest of their lives.

Just read it. The publication date is Sunday, May 20, 2007, but you won't believe these are our young people.

Now, check out the piece in the Chicago Tribune, entitled "Whites are not immune to black hostility." (See excerpt below or note 1.) I saw the title and thought, "thank goodness, at least someone is feeling something!" Then I read it and felt terrifically bad for the woman and for public school teachers in general who are forced to deal with these kids and their anger. But then I cringed a bit when I reached the author's conclusion, which seemed to wax smug and sanctimonious. As I'm trying to mind the copyright rules, I will focus on the part I excerpted below, especially the writer's complete confidence that the teacher would have seen justice (i.e., a response to her EOP complaint and subsequent lawsuit) and moral outrage more quickly, had the students been white and had she been black.

This might possibly be true in an oversimplified hypothetical case, but how many black teachers teach (and seem, from a young person's point of view, to exert unequal power over) classrooms full of angry white teenagers trapped in the ghettos of the inner city? Perhaps more relevant to my exploration of the structures of feeling that undergird our national emotional landscape, does it mean anything in particular that the offensive, violent persons wielding race as a weapon, in this case against a white woman teacher, are yet again young people?

As I read "War among blacks is too easy to ignore," which attributes the black murder rate to the postmodern conditions of the inner city that "also reinforce the deep feeling among many youth that life is cheap and easy to take, and there will be minimal consequences for their action as long as their victims are other young blacks." This description of these young people's disregard for the value of each other's lives reminded me of what is arguably, the quintessential definition of institutional racism: In 1857, the Dred Scott Decision, a Supreme Court ruling, pronounced that people of color "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect" (note 2).

How do we define or identify racism or bigotry or so-called racial denial, when young people of color have no rights, which anyone is bound to respect? And is it simply the Black kids in the ghetto who have ceased to value human lives? One thing is clear, these young people who are battling the discrimination, stereotypes and institutional policies that they didn't create, are the same kids who are killing each other with old-time "symbolic" nooses, shooting each other with sophisticated weapons mostly unavailable in this country after school, and being asked to die in violent foreign conflicts that they didn't initiate and mostly don't understand. And this violence which has banished feeling, especially human empathy, almost entirely from the USAmerican everyday emotional landscape impacts young and old alike.


(1) If you cannot sign into the Tribune to read the article mentioned above, here's an excerpt:

Whites are not immune to black hostility
--Insults from black students spur lawsuit
by Kathleen Parker
May 16, 2007

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- In a new twist in American race relations, a federal court has ruled that a white teacher in a predominantly African-American school was subjected to a racially hostile workplace.

The case concerned Elizabeth Kandrac, who was routinely verbally abused by black pupils at Brentwood Middle School in North Charleston.

Their slurs make shock jock Don Imus look like a church deacon.

. . .despite frequent complaints, school officials did nothing to intervene on Kandrac's behalf, arguing that the racially charged profanity was simply part of the pupils' culture. If Kandrac couldn't handle cursing, school officials told her, she was in the wrong school.

Kandrac finally filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and subsequently brought a lawsuit against the Charleston County School District, the school's principal and an associate superintendent. Last fall, jurors found that the school was a racially hostile environment to teach in and that the school district retaliated against Kandrac for complaining about it.
. . .

Let's be clear: What these children called this teacher is beyond reprehensible and could be only be construed as hostile and threatening.

Here's a sample: . . .white ho. . . .

Kandrac's attorney, Larry Kobrovsky, argued that the repeated use of "white" made these slurs racist in nature. But school officials insisted that because black pupils were equally abusive to other blacks, the language wasn't inherently racist.

Here's what we know without question: If white pupils had used similar language toward black pupils and teachers, the case would have been plastered on the front page of the New York Times until heads rolled.

A black Kandrac would have a million-dollar book deal, a movie contract and hundreds of interviews to juggle. Her oppressors and those who passively facilitated her abuse would have been pilloried by the media -- their faces all over the evening news -- while Revs. Al and Jesse organized protests.

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist. E-mail: kparker

(Read the rest on line!)

(2) pg. 7; Andrews, William L. 1990 "Introduction" in Three Classic African-American Novels. New York, NY: Mentor.


Daniel said...

I think your article is very nice and it is worth reading, my friend on and I share the view that If white pupils had used similar language toward black pupils and teachers, the case would have been plastered on the front page of the New York Times until heads rolled.
thank you for the posting.

Sombra Morena said...

Either that's some sophisticated advertising, or someone representing the black dating singles of the world appreciates my blogging. (Perhaps I can educate the automatic web-crawlers of the world and thusly transform race discourse!)