MyAmericanFuture

MyAmericanFuture
MyAmericanFuture

Thursday, May 26, 2011

May 26, 2011: The Two-Way Street

A recent study by researchers at Tufts and Harvard confirms, if through a relatively small sample, something that I’ve felt to be the case for at least the couple years of Obama’s presidency, and really for some time before that—that many white Americans believe that anti-white racism has become a significant national problem, and in fact that it often outstrips (and at least in many ways equals) the more typically defined racisms and discriminations against minority groups. More exactly, as the study puts it, many whites seem to see race and opportunity as a zero-sum game, meaning that the more progress is made by various minority groups (perhaps especially African Americans), the more it happens at the expense of the opportunities for others (and especially “average” white Americans, in this formulation). It seems clear to me that a great many of the last few years’ prominent controversies—from arguments that Sonia Sotomayor was an “affirmative action pick” for the Supreme Court to Glenn Beck’s vision of Obama as a “racist” who just “doesn’t like white people,” from all of the critiques of Eric Holder’s Justice department as favoring African Americans to the oft-repeated cries of “I want my country back!” at Tea Party gatherings and Town Hall protests—can be linked to such beliefs about anti-white discrimination.
I have to admit that I’ve mostly dismissed such beliefs as fundamentally silly, nonsensical even, given the ongoing and (to my mind) still inarguable distributions of power and wealth and opportunity across racial and ethnic lines in our culture. I would still argue vehemently against this position in the case of each of those aforementioned controversies, all of which have been based on a combination of blatant falsehoods and, frankly, actual and ugly bigotry. And, more significantly and more in keeping with this blog’s focal points, I would also argue that the deepest problem with this perspective is that it tends to reinforce national narratives in which racism against minorities is a shameful but distant part of our national past, something that happened in a bygone era and thus has no particular relevance, and certainly no continuing purchase, in our contemporary moment. Such narratives are not only historically inaccurate but also extremely disingenuous, as they almost always serve as a cover for arguments about the need to dismantle social and educational programs that seek to aid disadvantaged populations—many if not most of whom, just to be very clear, are in actuality themselves “white.” (That’s true not only of social programs like welfare and Medicaid or educational ones like Head Start and federal financial aid but also, it’s important to note given the complete absence of this fact from our national conversations, affirmative action programs, many of which have long aided lower-income white Americans, especially but not exclusively women, alongside other minority groups.)
And yet I’ve long argued, here and elsewhere, that one of the main goals of my recent book is to develop a definition of American identity that can include all Americans, that can feel as relevant to those who might identify themselves as part of the Puritan tradition as it would to those who might identify more with the multicultural tradition or any culture/community therein. And so I do find myself agreeing with some of what’s being argued in that Tufts/Harvard study, at least as it’s framed in the Salon.com piece linked below—in particular, I think it is fair to say that multicultural historical and national narratives, as they have often been deployed, have had relatively little to say to white Americans, or have even represented them as a new version of the “Other.” For example, one of the sections in the collection Multiculturalism in the United States (2000) is entitled “European American Decline,” in direct contrast to the others that have titles such as “Asian Americans” and “African Americans.” Whether we would call such attitudes discriminatory, much less racist, is an open question to be sure; but whatever we would call them, it certainly seems neither practical nor ideal for defining national narratives to have little to do with large percentages of our national community and population. A defining national narrative that can include (for example) a tenth-generation German American family in Kansas alongside first-generation arrivals to New York City from Cameroon is to my mind a much more communally productive and meaningful narrative than either one in which the Kansans are the “real Americans” or one in which the two cultures are equally significant but entirely separate.
To link this to yesterday’s ideas, acceptance is a two-way street—it does none of us any good if accepting certain individuals and communities as full and equal parts of our national identity requires us to minimize the presences or roles of others in the process. If some white Americans are feeling that they have less of a place in 21st century America—even if they’re often expressing that feeling through narratives about race and racism that feel, to me, pretty flawed and problematic—then it’s that much more important to work toward national narratives that accept, and interweave, all of our American identities. More tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Three links to start with:
2)      A thorough and strong take on our limited narratives about affirmative action policies: http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=1442
3)      OPEN: What do you think?

4 comments:

  1. Hey Ben, It's funny because I've been thinking about this topic as well. It seems to me this whole "let's dress up in colonial clothes and act like it's the Boston Tea Party" thing is actually a severely empty attempt to claim some sort of rich White cultural identity. It's sad in a way, and shows just how insecure (primarily male) Whites are in their identities these days. I think this identity crisis is occurring in a couple of contexts:
    1) increased exposure to the rich and deep cultures of many minorities and immigrants.
    2) a loss of an old identity - the man (most likely a war veteran) at the head of the table, just below God.

    In my own blog, I actually plan to write about this a little bit in the future. Specifically, I want to talk about how developing a genuine and rich identity as a White male HAS to include some level of acceptance of racial privilege. If that is not in there somewhere, we're going to be see an increase in this looking-backwards for identity, and a lot more of those ridiculous colonial hats.

    ReplyDelete
  2. One of the best things I've ever seen on the topic of affirmative action...

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6uH0vpGZJCo

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi Mike,

    Thanks! I look forward to your blog thoughts!

    I do think it would be important to note that white privilege is at least partly a class issue too--I would say that a significant percentage of my FSU students come from families and backgrounds that could well be described as disadvantaged (many are the first person in their family to go to college, for example), and don't know that too many could be accurately called privileged. Doesn't change your underlying point necessarily, but would be worth keeping in mind I think.

    Thanks,
    Ben

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hey Ben, thanks for the response. I think we agree. I guess form a social work perspective, I find it a bit easier to analyze the topic of privilege by breaking down the individual identity into discrete categories of race, gender, class, religion, citizenship, disability, etc. Using this model, an area of privilege or oppression in one area doesn't necessarily affect one's standing in another category. So a poor White male can identify his socioeconomic oppression, but must still accept that, in the area of Race, they carry a privileged position in our society. This is, of course, a one size fits all method, and I'm sure a lot of White males would claim that they are unaware of, or don't have access, to any sort of racial privilege, I might have to disagree. I think that every White male experiences the privilege of knowing that the founding fathers (the people who made the rules) looked just like them. And I think that every White male is free from the societal scrutiny that, for example, many Black males have to endure. Does that clarify my point? Feel free to enlighten me to different ways of thinking about this. My thinking above is largely based on my studies in social work.

    ReplyDelete