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.