Saturday, September 21, 2013

Structural "racism": an analysis (in the American context)

Like any college student at a prestigious research or liberal arts institution, my Freshman year introduced me to new political and sociological vocabulary terms of a heated nature.
"Gender." "Construct." "Imperialism" all rang from the posters of left-wing campus groups and sounded from the lecture halls of the Freshman humanities' "cluster" course. But perhaps none struck me more than "structural racism."
The theory? That America remains (40 years after the Civil Rights movement), a society stratified between those who are "black" and those who are "white," with the former continuing to face de facto stigmatization as a crime-associated, dangerous or intellectually-lacking element (and lacking the opportunity outside the inner-city ghetto). "Brown-" or "yellow-" skinned immigrants face similar ostracism unless they conform to the white standards, behaviorally, culturally and socially.
Maybe it is the fact that having grown up in a multicultural city as the son of an Asian mother and Chinese father, I thought that the "r-word" belonged to a different time and place. Maybe it was my social scientist urge to reject (for meaningful politics) any conceptualization that could not be quantified or neutralized.
Generally, I shunned this usage "racism" as a hyperbolic foil for any slights or aggrevations experienced by minority groups.
Of course, having an Indian-American acting student as my roommate my junior year made me realize the prevailing standard of "whiteness" in the film industry. Moreover, my trip to France last summer exposed me to slurs not against "Americans" but "Chinamen."
Simultaneously, the trial of Trayvon Martin and instances such as the shooting of Jordan Davis (CNNarticle) have exposed me to the dominant society's unease with the black male as courses covering work such as John Hagedorn's A World of Gangs.
But as argued by critical race theorists, I find the theory of "structural racism" problematically not because it is not true or relevant per say but because it conflates (one might say confuses) racial prejudice towards non-white Americans with the unique socioeconomic disadvantages experienced by America's African-American community.
To specify the trend at which I'm gettingat, I instance RaceFiles' Scott Nakagawa, who describes "blackness" as a "fulcrum" around which white racism against all "people of color" (read Asians and Hispanics) evolves. (read Nakagawa racefiles
And yet there is a distinction.
On the one hand, prejudice against physically "yellow" or "dark-skinned" people can be seen as reflecting a majority self-distancing from those who appear phenotypically distinct. (e.g. a national news' Asian-American news anchor had to change her facial appearance to be more relatable to her audience) That "whiteness" should be regarded the phenotypical standard in America reflects that white-skinned individuals constitute not merely the most economically established but numerically-dominant group in American society.
However,  immigrants from Asia (and even some from Latin America) who climb the economic ladder and settle in the suburbs (with the car) manage to gain a certain "American" middle-class status deemed proper acceptability by white Americans perceiving of America as a "land" of immigrants.
In contrast, as many critical race theorists point out, certain racial groups (particularly African-Americans) face a clearly lower-status position compared to whites based on figures such as average income (lower for the minority group than for whites) and incarceration rates (higher for the minority group). Speaking African American Vernacular English or behaving in a stereotypically "African-American" fashion casts even the lightest-slommed individual in a negative light. (Carbado, Acting White 48)
 Critical Race adherents point to a history of institutionalized discrimination, with the white majority denying-if not depriving-these minority groups of basic civil and economic rights well into the twentieth century (e.g. through the slavery and sharecropping systems in the former case and the reservation system in the latter).
That over 300 years of marginalization by white society might be responsible for modern-day "racial" stratification should not be seen as surprising. The more reasonable question should be what should the majority-white society do to rectify such a racial divide.
Historical discrimination against African-Americans (and to a lesser extent native Americans in the West and hispanics in the Southwest) has consisted of political disenfranchisement, social exclusion (e.g. segregated schooling) and economic deprivation. (namely through systems of slavery or sharecopping that denied workers payment for their labor).
Political disenfranchisement effectively ended in the 1960s, when (first) the Voting Rights Act and then the 24th Amendment outlawed tactics (such as the poll tax) used to hinder minority voting.
Around the same time, the actvism of the Civil Rights movement brought attention to the social exclusion of non-white minorities, spurring legislation that outlawed segregation (e.g. Brown vs. Board and the Civil Rights Act) as well as cautious anti-discriminatory measures. (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the first affirmative action programs).
Much of the debate over Civil Rights in recent years has focused on the supposedly more-intrusive aspects of social legislation (most notably affirmative action), affirming a portrait of racism as a social ill (e.g. based on exclusion or prejudice) rather than a political or economic one.
And yet, the truly unresolved component of historical "racism" is the economic one.
Following the Civil War, radical abolitionists supported granting each freed (male) slave "forty acres and a mule" (See source) but such plans faded with the rollback of southern Reconstruction. Later, during the (Lyndon) Johnson administration, War on Poverty programs such as HeadStart and the Food Stamp program targeted minority income disparities under a more generalistic "color-blind" umbrella, but the effects were minimized in the wake of Reagan-era government cutbacks (see source) and the withering away of America's blue-collar sector.
Prior to the Civil Rights Era (and the northward Great Migration), the African-American community did not "lag" within a capitalistic economy but was bound by law (through slave "purchases" or sharecropping "contracts) within a feudalistic one. The lack of compensation for the (fair, market) wage or land ownership "lost" through slavery or even sharecropping puts the US in a backwards light compared to other industrialized nations (which mostly initiated measures of land reform upon the "end of serfdom").
The ultimate "fulcrum" of America's race hierarchy thus is the result of "racism" but rather essentially defined not by race but by a situation of serfdom.
Another name will have to apply.

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