Thursday, September 24, 2009

Racism & Prejudice: Two sides of the same coin

I appreciate every comment that I receive and every now and then, one of your comments gives me new fodder for a blog entry. A long time friend (we were teachers together and left the high school where we taught in the same year) left a comment that reflects how well he knows me.

He blogs under the pen name jack-of-all-thumbs (Jack). I began responding to his comment via email but then I got carried away and my email became longer and longer, and I thought, why waste my wisdom on an email when I have the makings of a blog entry!

I think that there are inherent limitations in communicating without the benefit of vocal expression, body language, and tone of voice. I am not engulfed in anger, I still love a good laugh. I haven't buried my off kilter sense of humor but I am grateful for the concern that some of you have expressed for my emotional well being.

I simply wanted to express that I have accepted that anger is a normal response to racism and that I don't apologize for being pissed off royally at times. I actually think that this is much healthier than feeling guilty after the fact because I may have offended someone who expressed some variation of bigotry and I chastised them for it.

Jack and I have had some pretty deep conversations over the years, so I always take his observations seriously. In a discussion that we had about racism many years ago, I do recall stating that I didn't believe that black people could be labeled as racists. However, I don't think that I clearly explained that it isn't because I think that we are genetically incapable of racism. I really was speaking specifically in terms of black and white interactions in the United States, and my comments never reflected any belief in the moral superiority of black people.

During the civil rights movement, leaders of the movement worked to define the issues. I don't recall who proposed it first, but racism became defined as being not only about prejudice or bigotry, but about power. I still believe that racism has a power element that's missing from bigotry or prejudice.

Definitions of racism vary somewhat, but when I checked online, all the definitions had as a common element that racism involves classifying people based on physical characteristics such as skin color and believing in the superiority of one's own racial group over other groups.

They rarely mention power, but I would argue that in this country, black people responded to racism with anger and sometimes prejudice, but that it has never been a common thread of thought among black people to think that white people were inferior. Indeed, the focus of civil rights has been about attaining equality. There is no logic in demanding equality from a group that you believe to be inferior to yourself.

I also think that the subtext to a demand for equality is that the group with whom you desire equality holds the power to block you from achieving that equality. To me this is more than semantics, but I do take full responsibility for never fully explaining why I made the distinction in the first place. I still think that racism is about power and goes beyond prejudice in its ability to impact the lives of victims of racism.

No matter how prejudiced or bigoted an ethnic or racial minority group in this country may be, their ability to impact the majority group is negligible. We cannot block their access to jobs, to economic security or anything of significance. Traditionally, black Americans have been without power to affect the political, social, or economic structure of the US. That's why I make a distinction between racism and prejudice. I know that all people are capable of prejudice, it is certainly not limited to any one group. I also accept as valid that racism is not a uniquely American practice. I think that some of the power struggles in Africa can be ascribed to racism. Racism was a powerful force in the civil war in Bosnia.

I dislike prejudice but I don't waste my time addressing prejudice. I have no desire to interact with people who don't want to interact with me. I address racism because of the power element. If I move into your neighborhood, you don't have to like it. You can complain about it to your neighbors and refuse to speak to me; I'll survive. But when you have the ability to implement and maintain laws and/or policies that prevent me from moving into that neighborhood or the power to drive me out after I move in, then it becomes my concern. The first behavior is prejudice; the second is racism.

I've never intended to suggest that only white people are prejudiced or bigots. When I say that black people have played the cards that we were dealt I mean quite simply that we have reacted to the post-Reconstruction Jim Crow laws that ushered in racism as an acceptable part of the laws of this country.

My analysis is that the birth of modern racism happened after the civil war. I think that before the war, during slavery, the focus was on maintaining an economical work force. I think that records support that while slaves were regarded as lesser persons than whites, that just as a sensible farmer wouldn't abuse his livestock, that for the most part, the focus wasn't on abuse of black people, but on maintaining control of the large population of slaves in the South. Punishment was used as a method of maintaining control.

Prior to the civil war, the southern states had various laws referred to as Black Codes that were designed to maintain control over the slave population through fear and intimidation. I'm not suggesting that they were benign or not that bad, but their primary purpose was not about denying rights to black people; it was about controlling the slaves to maintain a free labor force. The structure of the society was based on the notion that slaves had no rights; there was no need to deny them what they did not have. (Note that when the civil war ended, the defeated southern states passed a new crop of Black Codes designed to deny rights of citizenship to the freed slave population. )

Reconstruction spurred a growing concern among whites that the newly freed slaves might prove a threat to the social order. Blacks were seeking to become landowners, vote and run for political office, and demanding full citizenship rights. Towards the end of the 19th century, the response was the start of the passage of Jim Crow laws designed to specifically corral us into lives of second class citizenship. The racial prejudice that was the foundation of slavery, that made bondage of other human beings acceptable to the majority, morphed into racism--the systematic, legalized oppression of a people based on skin color. The case of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 marked recognition by the highest court of the land of the ultimate in Jim Crow law, that segregation was legal and acceptable; separate but equal remained the cornerstone of legalized discrimination until Brown v. the Topeka Board of Education overturned Plessy in 1954. Jim Crow laws were the original race card, and we've been playing with that deck ever since.

I thank my old friend for his thoughtful comment and for making me take the time to think about the basis for my beliefs. I think that I'm done with writing about race for a bit. I take to heart Jack's advice that I shouldn't loose touch with my fun side. I think that I shall indulge in a bit of frivolity in my next post and write about my love life.


Gerry said...

I was reading a book not too long ago that I literally could not finish it was so grim about how convict labor was used in the south with blacks being arrested for any reason and held for years so their cheap labor could be sold by agencies and how this resulted in many deaths through starvation, worse stuff than existed under slavery because this was a way to continue to provide society with cheap 'slave' labor without anybody even caring if the black man got worked to death as had been the case when they owned the slave like a good horse, so many people had to be willing to perpetuate an even worse bunch of crimes on the descendents of the freed slaves. I realized it took years to address even the issue of convict slave labor and a lot of terrible struggle on the part of freed blacks and those who cared about such injustice to make things better for the black person. It is small wonder that a lot of attitudes still exist among the white 'owner' class who continue to feel superior. That takes years of struggle to eradicate. I find myself drawn to the writing of anyone who is willing to struggle mightily with these realities. Gerry

warrior scout said...

very nice post... and i shall look forward to the next one with my fingers crossed:-

jack-of-all-thumbs said...

A sincere thank you for your heartfelt explanation. Despite the brevity of my comments (I was actually in class when I was writing.....), my understanding of your position wasn't as far off the mark as I may have sounded. I knew that you never expressed a belief that any group was genetically incapable of racism. And I did remember that you directly related it to the historical position of blacks in our country and their exclusion from positions of power. Your more developed explanation in this post is a welcome addition to the dialogue. Also, if I was unclear on this earlier, I agree that anger is a perfectly appropriate response to racism and more of us are coming to this conclusion every day.

Finally, Billie's version of "Strange Fruit" is one of my favorites.

Take good care, friend.

Alan said...

Thanks for the clarification. Words carry a vast amount of information that is different for each person. Explaining what you mean helps with understanding (I said that better here I hope you don't give up writing about race. It makes me think and that is good.

I like your definition of racisim. I think you are on to something with the power thing. I've an idea about that that came to me while I was doing chores this morning (Milking is kind of like driving, it keeps a part of the brain engaged, leaving the rest to wander.) I wondered about all the racial garbage that is being slung about and why we didn't see as much of it when other people of color have been in high positions in the government. I think it was because they were appointed rather than elected. They were granted a position of power by the POWERS THAT BE rather than securing the position on their own. That is one reason Obama is so threatening to some people and Colin Powell wasn't. The other thing that is causing this outpouring of vitriol is Mr. Obama's actons. If he had, as many feared or hoped used his position to ram home an ultra libral pro black agenda the Powers could have sat back, said "see I told you this is what would happen!" and easily won back power. They could also use it as an example of why we should never elect a minority to a position of power. What Mr. Obama is doing is rather like Gandhi's practice of noncooperation. He is choosing to act as if race is not an issue. If the oppisition were not constantly bombarding us with disinformation that plays on our racial fears we would forget that he was a black man and just think of him as a man, the president, and someone trying to deal with the problems of the day. Gandhi's way is harder. It is slower. But it works. The way to change the balance of power is to stop believing in it, stop acting as if it were true, and become the change you want. That's what our President has done. That's the example he has set and the thing that most threatens the current power structure. If they can't make him afraid, or angry, if they can't make him react, they have very little power.

Beth said...

Interesting that you wrote about this, because Ken and I were recently talking about investigating the differences between bigotry, prejudice, and racism, with one of us doing an entry on it. Thanks for saving us some work. :)

Seriously, your thoughts make perfect sense to me. If I were to write it as an equation, I suppose it would be prejudice < bigotry < racism. Not to say that any of these should be acceptable, but racism definitely brings a little extra to the table of intolerance. Great entry.

I didn't realize that's how you know Jack! I always enjoy his writing, both on his blog and in comments. Besides, us microbiologists "get" each other. :)

Love, Beth

Dannelle said...

I like your take on the difference between racism and prejudice. It has been about power. Historically your outline is correct and on the spot! Thanks you for the entry- Now, about your love life...

Mark said...

My friend Molly says racism is "prejudice plus power," ergo, until and unless black people have a monopoly on power in this country, they will not qualify as racist.
What sometimes many black people qualify as is pissed off. Blacks are disproportionately poor, and poor people are disproportionately pissed off. Poverty will do that. White people call this "racism" because they don't want to look at the degree that the anger might be a perfectly sane reaction to circumstances like bad housing, poor education, indifferent landlords and a police force and cour system that still persecutes more than it protects.
White people, if you feel guiltless, than you needn't be so defensive about black anger. You certainly don't need to minimize the anger by making a false equivalency to white racism.

Bucko (a.k.a., Ken) said...

A powerful entry, and like Beth said, I appreciate the information about the difference between prejudice and racism. Be well and smile often :o)

Nina said...

That was a really intersting read, and I think it highlights important points, and has made me think a lot about the differences between power and race between the US and the UK. (In my perception a Black British person has more power than a recent immigrant - regardless of whether that person is white or black. I don't think it's a question though of Black british people blocking access to things, so much as the other people having barriers to access on account of language and culture issues and prejudice).

It's made me also think about the issue of instituional and systemic racism, but those thoughts will take a bit longer to become coherent.

My only qualm with your post is that the war in Bosnia had nothing to do with racism. All of us from the ex-Yugoslavia are of the same race. Sure, there are ethnic, religious and cultural differences but that war was about nationalism and revenge, not race.

Sheria said...

I apologize for tossing off my comment about Bosnia without clarification. Race is a social construct and has not been show to have a solid basis in biology. The phrase "same race" has no real meaning as there is only one race, the human race. Differing groups of humans have shared characteristics but the studies by the human genome project indicated that these shared traits are not confined to groups that externally appear to be what we traditionally identify as a race.

My interpretation of the war in Bosnia is based on the perceived differences thar the opposing factions focused on and that feed the conflict. I take your point that nationalism is a better term than racism, but the groups in opposition to each othe acted on perceptions that they were not the same despite a shared ethnicity and heritage.

Rebecca Anne said...

I'm not sure these is much I could add to this after such a powerful entry and very smart comments. Actually, I know what I could write....I am wiser for having read it~

Deb said...

Sheria...I just stumbled upon your blog and this post and just wanted to say that it's great to read that there are others "of the same mind" on this topic. I shall return! :-)