Watching Millennials trying to ‘own’ the debate about racism today is commendable and tragic at the same time. Of course they own the problem now, but the futility of re-inventing positions that ignore all historical antecedents is saddening, particularly when some vociferous voices are so plainly ignorant of history, philosophy, and political thought. They bypass ‘knowledge’ to reach directly for a stalemate of completely unrealisable demands. Moreover, they are demands they seem unaware of standing against in all they do as civic troglodytes who have abandoned the idea of activism, political process, and effective citizenship.
Anger I can understand. If I were black and living below the poverty line in some American ghetto contemplating being murdered by state employees, or spending 30 to life in a private gaol, I would be pretty pissed off too. But would I be so pissed off that I’d stop at merely blaming all white people as the cause of my immiseration and alienation? That’s just impotent rage leading nowhere, and possibly worsening the situation by alienating potential political and social allies.
Decades ago when I dealt with a different kind of discrimination as a clueless teenager, I set about working out why people were saying the things they did. What I wanted to find out was ‘why’. I doubt there’s anything useful in a pragmatic sense to delving into anthropological and sociological reasons for racism, but there may be answer in how it has been addressed in the past. Not solved or abolished, which I think is impossible, even under a dictatorship of politically correct thought police. But addressed rather than just fetishised, which appears the default Millennial position.
My first stop for a magical mystery tour to recall the past for Millennials is Religious Central Station. There has never been anything in any religious doctrine that hasn’t either demanded subservient surrender to aggressive racism, or actively doctrinaire racism in the first place. Seeking solace in religion may be fine, but looking to it for change is just futile.
Next stop: Philosophy Plaza. The justifications for a pragmatic restraint from racism are the same as those that led to the European religious settlement of the 16th and 17th centuries that gave rise to the Enlightenment and the concept of the secular state. It was highly pragmatic to end blooshed and internecine feuding, accepting a reality that no one could abolish diverse consciences, but they could be kept separate from matters of state. Philosophically more important was probably Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative, sometimes known as the golden rule: don’t do to others what you would not wish done to yourself. However, while we all accept the principle, our societies aren’t established as ethical collectives, and our Western canon of law is hardly related to morality. Not much help in in philosophy except as the foundation for ethical, egalitarian rhetorics, or counter-rhetorics.
Magical mystery tour now approaching Politics Square. There is in Western political history one stream of thought that has consistently argued class and income inequality as a foundation for race and gender prejudice. It is now probably just known as socialism or Marxism, though neither term really has any universal meaning anymore, and not even a central one in any specific polity. The opposition to racism to be found in neo-Marxist ideas is all about addressing a proposed root cause found in immiseration, which is economic marginalisation. The tools necessary to address this root cause are about changing wealth distribution to remove plutocratic controls on the ‘means of production’ (meaning mainly where and how we work) and the distribution of ‘surplus value’ (meaning the split in the share of profits). There is no existing example of a state where this has demonstrably reduced or removed an embedded racism working against a large, racially homogenised minority. By homogenised I mean the real or imagined unity by racial identity among the population in question. But, by the same token, a mixed form of capitalist socialism, often called social democracy, has created in some states a much less class-conscious society with fewer barriers for people who come from poverty. Scandinavian countries are often cited as examples. The downside is that over the longer term such economic arrangements fare badly against global financial arrangements that favour the plutocratic Berlin-Washington consensus, which demands a distribution of taxpayer wealth only in favour of corporations. Significantly, though, a swing in the USA towards social democracy could change this status quo unilaterally.
Next stop, Malcolm X Junction. Without diminishing any cherished memory or shibboleth, I always perceived Martin Luther King as a hypocritical opportunist using a religious cover for a worthy cause, but principally to feed his own appetites. The message about peaceful protests and restraint from revolutionary activity may have cost the civil rights movement a historic opportunity to force changes on a susceptible polity. Malcolm X, however, was in class of his own. His early Muslim messages strike me as already dismissed above as religious dystopianism/utopianism, but his own realisations, about any means necessary, and about racism being a black problem to be addressed by black people for black people had some promise. If American black people actually identified as a socially and politically united demographic. That unity is something for which I see no evidence. It is a problem I see closely allied with the politics stop above. I sometimes wonder where Malcolm X’s intellectual development would have taken him had he not been assassinated.
Next station Obama Street. This is the place where the need for change is acknowledged, but the Burkean conservative edict of deliberately slowing down the rate of change to make it appear organic rather than revolutionary is really just the religious message of quietism and render unto Casesar again. I don’t see the virtue in demanding patience and forbearance while state employees in uniforms murder people for their skin colour, and with astonishing impunity. The list of iniquities is too long to enumerate here. The only note in that song which rings true is the recognition that even a black leader is unable to push for an end to endemic racism. The implication is he didn’t care, or recognised he couldn’t muster the necessary political support.
Anger terminus. All outrgaed Millennials get off here. The simple-minded idiocy in lashing out blindly like an angry kid strikes me as the least workable of all solutions that have, so far, failed to achieve common decency in extending basic human rights to non-Caucasians, and many women, in the USA. Unless the anger translates into a militant political movement impressive enough to lead to open dialogue on legislated measures, it means nothing.
In online forums the anger agenda is driven mainly by armchair ideologues pushing various forms of neo-Stalinism (political correctness). Dumping on the Sanders campaign for including white people recounting their support for the King movement in the 1960s strikes me as downright stupid, the way it is stupid to saw off the branch you are sitting on, high up in the tree, by cutting between the trunk and your own body. Dissing white baby boomers may be fun for shits and giggles, but what does it achieve? Alternatively, asking white people to list all the ways they contribute to endemic racism is just facile. When the list of mea culpas is complete, what next? Or is this sado-masochist spectacle of Christian self-flagellation/Maoist self-critique supposed to usher in some glorious cultural revolution in itself? More likely it will contribute to climate change with all the flatulent release of sanctimonious hot air.
It seems obvious to me, and many others, that the only way to address such basic issues is to vote for and act on a commitment to changing Western political economy. That strikes me as much more feasible in the USA, than say, in Iceland, because the US dollar is the world’s reserve currency. Changes in the USA inevitably affect the entire world. But the commitment to change things for the better has to be a commitment to do it for everyone, not just one segment of the population. Otherwise it is just a demand for special status competing with all the other segregated demands for special status. And that, right there, strikes me as the root cause of America’s political crisis: everyone thinks they are not Americans so much as Californians, Texans, Hoosiers, New Englanders, etc. No one wants anyone else to have more than they do, and sometimes not even as much. What kind of country can hold together under such segregationist selfishness and ignorance about social contract, the much quoted and misunderstood Constitution, or the equally misunderstood Bill of Rights?
That may be the final option for black America: apartheid. A separate nation of African America. But I’m not hopeful about that. It requires, again, the unity among black Americans that doesn’t seem to exist, and the realities about such experiments elsewhere are not encouraging.
I really don’t see an option here. It has to be implacable opposition to ALL Republicans everywhere, and daily pressure on the Democrats to move to the left. It is not a pink-pony-unicorn-at-the-bottom-of-the-garden-with-the-fairies solution, but it still strikes me as more attainable and realistic than just demanding acts of contrition and the right to be impotently angry.
I could be wrong. There might actually be a contemporary Malcolm X out there who has not yet been heard among the gibberish tweets and semi-literate blogs. I live in hope. What happens in the USA affects us all, and the better the outcomes there, the fewer really bad ideas will be emulated here.