Wrestling with race

21 02 2012

Update: Wow, uh, so, a lot of people are coming here from Jim Goad’s article, “We’re White, We’re Male, and We Suck!” Always glad to have the traffic, but I’m sorry to say he missed the point – I agree with him, not the apologists. In fact, the quote he pulled – “I am a privileged white male; it is easy for me to rationalize my views on races simply because I have it so good” was taken completely out of context. It’s pretty obvious if you bother to spend three minutes to read the whole thing.

From the latest edition of the Michigan Review:

I came to campus five years ago confident that I had single-handedly solved the issue of race. A staunch individualist, I was content to form relationships with others on the basis of their own merits, not their skin color. I only needed to convince everyone else to think the same way, and we’d be living in a nation, nay, world that cast aside such barbarisms as racial discrimination and embraced true diversity. Easy enough, I thought.

On account of February being Black History Month, I decided to spend some time examining how my views on race held up after a few years in Ann Arbor. That’s when things started to get a bit confusing. Sure, I thought my views made sense. But perhaps that is because I am a privileged white male; it is easy for me to rationalize my views on races simply because I have it so good.

In my time here, activists had presented me with perspectives that I couldn’t ignore; some advanced arguments that made Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech seem simplistic, idealistic, even hokey. It was not enough to judge other simply “by the content of their character.” In fact, I was informed, such “colorblindness” enforced, rather than diminished, our society’s deeply ingrained racism.

Worth considering, at least?

If this is where you were expecting me to renounce my previous, individual-centric views on race, you’re going to be disappointed. But while I’m not Cornel West’s newest disciple, I’ve gained a great deal by trying to understand his perspective. I’ve had to carefully examine my long held beliefs and test them against the compelling arguments of students with radically different outlooks. I’ve found that, in my mind at least, my views have withstood the fire admirably.

Ultimately, observing the way in which individuals interact with each other in society proved to be more convincing than any lecture or book. Race may influence the way one views and interacts with others–to some, it might be the defining characteristic. We tend to call those individuals “racists.” For the rest of us, racial and ethnic groups are useful when categorizing people, but they are next to useless when socializing with individuals on a day-to-day basis.

No one buys a car from the “black race;” they purchase one from the individual at the dealership who is black. I don’t go to the bar with “the Jews;” I go to the bar with my friend who is Jewish. A politician pandering to the Latino community is still counting on its individual members to cast their ballots favorably; it would, after all, be hard to fit the entire Latino community into a single voting booth.

Likewise, when programs like affirmative action seek to rectify past injustices by intervening in present-day affairs, it is not the “white race” or the “Asian race” that cede opportunities to members of disadvantaged groups; instead, it is specific individuals who miss out on an opportunity to attend a top college not because of their qualifications, but because of their skin color.

One can argue that it is reasonable to for some members of “privileged” races to sacrifice educational opportunities for the sake of those who are historically less fortunate. It is easy enough to view these programs as necessary or just when one deals with racial abstractions, but would they be so easy to rationalize if we were unable to write off the actual “privileged” students on the margin, those who did not make the cut?

Affirmative action is but one example. Racial privilege presumably extends to every aspect our lives–school, work, bank loans, private club membership. Government programs and institutions can attempt to level the playing field. Yet like affirmative action in the world of higher education, the cost of any state-led attempt to ameliorate past wrongs must necessarily be borne not by abstract groups–but rather by discrete individuals who may be completely innocent of any racial animosity.

Any argument I make is liable to be dismissed as a rationalization advanced by a member of a privileged segment of the population. I accept that inevitability, even as I reject the fundamental assumptions it makes about my character and reasoning. I will not pretend that past and present injustices have no effect on the lives of disadvantaged individuals today, but I cannot support programs that seek to meet these challenges through collective action.

While remedial laws and initiatives are politically expedient and perhaps even gratifying, they lead to the same problems–like the subjugation of individual identity to a that of a group–that led to the mess we are in today.

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2 responses

21 05 2012
“We’re White, We’re Male, and We Suck!” «

[…] ”…I am a privileged white male; it is easy for me to rationalize my views on races simply becaus… […]

21 05 2012
Graham Kozak

To repeat what I posted at your site – thanks for linking to my post, I’m surprised you found it. But if you thought it was self-flagellation, I think you missed my point – which was that whether or not you believe in a history of privilege or whatever, collective action that sacrifices the individual to remedy past “wrongs” is completely unjustifiable.

For example, I said:

“Affirmative action is but one example. Racial privilege presumably extends to every aspect our lives–school, work, bank loans, private club membership. Government programs and institutions can attempt to level the playing field. Yet like affirmative action in the world of higher education, the cost of any state-led attempt to ameliorate past wrongs must necessarily be borne not by abstract groups–but rather by discrete individuals who may be completely innocent of any racial animosity.

Any argument I make is liable to be dismissed as a rationalization advanced by a member of a privileged segment of the population. I accept that inevitability, even as I reject the fundamental assumptions it makes about my character and reasoning. I will not pretend that past and present injustices have no effect on the lives of disadvantaged individuals today, but I cannot support programs that seek to meet these challenges through collective action.”

I don’t support the victim mentality and I certainly don’t enable it through my own (nonexistent) guilt. There are enough other people on campus taking care of that one, they don’t need my help. Good piece btw.

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