Wednesday, October 15, 2008

What, Me Racist? Playing the race card

As is not uncommon these days, Springfield, MA's MassLive forum is awash in posts about racism, a number of which are racist themselves. I have written about the manifestations of racism on this blog but haven't tried to "unpack" it too often, as so many other do it better-- but here goes.

Whatever else may come from Barak Obama's campaign for president, the extraordinary level of debate about race now taking place is bringing change in unanticipated ways. I have my fingers crossed that most of the change will be positive.

One trend that disturbs me is when discussions of race lead to accusations against blacks of reverse racism.

If a white person talks about a black person talking about race, the black person is accused of "playing the race card." Well, if that is the hand you are dealt, is that any surprise? The cards in the white person's hand are white, not black. Those cards may be more kings than queens or more low than high-- but they are not colored.

One huge part of the problem is that most people don't seem to understand the difference between prejudice and the isms-- racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, ageism and more. The isms are backed by more than prejudice, they are backed by institutional power.

Prejudice is painful. One poster on MassLive listed a group of insulting words about white people and called them racist. One of those words, redneck, is certainly classist. I remember a southern friend explaining the derivation of that word-- that it was about white workers in the field whose necks became sunburned while they were working. I can guarantee you, however, that the big bosses standing over them were also white, not black.

To see the effect of institutional power in play, one has only to look at the halls of Congress, the administrators of the government, the Wall St. brokers and the heads of financial institutions. Those members are overwhelmingly white, male, rich and declared heterosexuals.

A black person can call me a name and even get his friends to beat me up, but she or he has no control over where the majority of whites can live, what education we receive or where we am employed. That power rests elsewhere.

Photo from BrainEthics.

In practical terms, if we don't understand institutional power, we can't challenge it. We turn on each other as the cause of our miseries and never look up the food chain. Thus we remain struggling for power-- blacks, gays, working and middle class whites, women-- but we're struggling against the wrong people.

We have an opportunity to dig a little deeper in 2008, and I hope we take it.

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