Unreliable abstractions, continued. Racism & white supremacy

Armed with the canon of specificity, let’s look at “white supremacy”. This was certainly an explicit ideology (with an associated praxis, of course) at various times and places, including the American South during slavery and the Jim Crow era.

In recent years, however, the term has come to be used in a more broad-brush way, and the canon of specificity ought to make our Spidey sense tingle. For example, one sometimes now hears people say, or imply, that “white supremacy” is somehow foundational to our existing political and social order – as if the FBI and the cops were gunning people down, and the US war machine running around the world blowing people up, to maintain “white supremacy”.

This is, as they say, wrong in so many ways. First of course there is the posited existence, as a thing, of “white people”, and further, a posited collective agency attributed to this chimaera. But even worse, this formulation ushers our old arch-villain Capital out of the spotlight and into the wings: as if all this lead were flying because “white people” believe they’re better than non-white people, rather than because Capital is worried that the billions of people he exploits might come after him with torches and pitchforks, or because Capital wants to extend the sphere of his control, or because various factions within Capital’s managerial cadre are fighting among themselves.

Then let’s consider “racism”. Here again, the term has a perfectly clear, concrete, and useful core meaning, which might be summarized as the theory that there are such things as human “races”, and that some are better than others.

This theory has a history and, of course, a praxis. It constituted respectable science – the latest thing, in fact – in the latter part of the 19th century and well into the 20th, and there’s no question that though it’s been thoroughly debunked intellectually, it continues to haunt Western and particularly American culture and thought, not so much in the form of explicit ideological commitments, for most people, as in the form of unarticulated assumptions and unexamined conceptual categories. (In fact the only form of explicit, unapologetic, ideological and practical racism that’s still marginally respectable, in good society in Western Europe and North America, is Zionism; but that’s another essay.)

In its subliminal form, racism certainly continues to exist. It may be an unconscious theory for many people; but it still has a praxis, which operates in the material world. Among its more notable practitioners, of course, are cops – many of whom, it seems, also embrace it consciously as theory, though being un-respectable as such, this theoretical commitment mostly remains unexpressed, except perhaps en famille.

As with the other concepts we’ve discussed above, “racism” has been broad-brushed. It’s applied to everything from ethnic stereotyping (an absolutely universal human activity, and not entirely irrational) to ethnic jokes (which are often very funny, because as good jokes always do, they contain a kernel of scandalous unmentionable truth). Indeed, in some circles it’s simply become a signifier of disapproval, attached to anything execrable: one hears phrases like “America’s racist wars”.

Let’s be clear: The US doesn’t start wars for the sake of the “white race”, or because it dislikes other “races”, or even because it is institutionally racist (though there’s a good case that it is). It starts wars for the usual old geopolitical reasons, the kind of reasons which long antedate the invention of race theory. (Of course racism, conscious or unconscious, often does play a role in justifying wars, even when it has nothing to do with the real reasons why they are embarked upon.)

Any term too broadly applied loses all useful meaning and simply becomes a noise that people make when they’re angry, and most unfortunately, the terms “racist” and “racism” seem well on their way to this kenosis of significance. I say “unfortunately”, because, as noted, the thing itself, properly so called, survives, and continues to do harm, and needs a name.

Racism is also frequently deployed as an explanation for phenomena which can actually be accounted for by more general principles. In these cases Occam’s Razor might usefully be exhibited. Consider, for instance, the notorious income and wealth gaps between black and white households. Unquestionably, the creation of these gaps in the first place was the result of slavery and Jim Crow. But is it necessary to postulate ongoing racism as the reason these gaps endure? Or even widen?

Let’s do an exercise in arithmetic. Let’s say the average white (or rather, “white”) household brings in $100,000 a year (I’m making these numbers up). And let’s say the average black household brings in $50,000. That’s a $50,000 per year income gap. Now let’s say the country is prosperous and a couple of years later every household’s income has increased by 5%. The white households are now averaging $105,000 and the black households are now averaging $52,500, and the income gap has grown from $50,000 to $52,500. Just because average income has grown, on top of existing inequality, not because racism has become worse.

This is not of course to deny that as a matter of fact racism still exists and still plays a role; it surely does. It is, rather, to point out that other and larger forces are also at work. The implication, of course, is that even without racism the back-white income gap would not only endure, but widen, simply due to the “normal” workings of the great American inequality machine, absent some levelling mechanism. Let me repeat that: absent some levelling mechanism. This motif will recur.

The American ideology is, of, course, that the levelling mechanism is meritocracy (and its sidekick, “diversity”). Without racism, the smart black people would be as likely to become CEOs as the smart white people, and the dumb black people would be as likely to end up sleeping on heating grates, or shot by cops, as the dumb white people. Meritocracy is the great winnowing fan, the Sorting Hat, that ought to distribute misery and opulence equally across racial (and gender) lines. After a few generations, of course. Or maybe more than a few. But certainly in the long run. The long run, perhaps, in which as Lord Keynes dryly observed, “We’re all dead.”

But of course we know, as a matter of empirical fact, that the heritability of wealth and earning power from one generation of a family to the next is extraordinarily high. Here again, there’s no need to postulate a racial dimension; it operates across the board. So even without racism, the gentle breath of meritocracy’s winnowing fan may be working against a downright gale of inherited inequality.

This is not to deny that racism still exists and is practiced and affects events. But if, even without racism, the black/white income gap would predictably persevere and even widen, then if we want to do something about that gap, is it sufficient to decry, or even to do away with racism? Consideration of the other factors at work might suggest otherwise.

I don’t personally think these gaps will ever go away, in the foreseeable future, absent a levelling mechanism that actually works, unlike meritocracy – that is, absent a commitment to equality, defined much more generally and much more radically and much more immediately (no more of the Long Run, please). Of course this implies an activist, interventionist, political mechanism; we can’t rely on the laws of nature here. And it implies a levelling which has nothing to do with merit – a levelling which falls, like rain, on the just and the unjust alike.

(To be continued)

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