The Problem of a Problem

I can not off hand remember ever being directly taught at home that racism is wrong.  Certainly the lesson was not taught directly with the importance attached to other faults – lying, stealing, breaking things – or even the more positive lessons – share, help, do your work – I had to learn as a child.  This is not to say it was a neutral, “doesn’t matter” kind of thing.  I learned my Christian faith from my parents and churches who taught that Good News was “to the Jews first, and also to the Greeks”, and was to be brought “into all the world”.  I read To Kill a Mockingbird and Lewis’s Narnia books (The Horse and His Boy and The Last Battle touch on the subject) and,  in general far more fantasy than is probably good for me but the topic of interracial cooperation is a common theme, no doubt because the era of the birth of fantasy has coincided with a growing recognition of racism as an evil.  But if I took a wild guess why the subject was never made an explicit area of instruction, I would say it was because it was never needed – my family is not racist, and no societal pressure (at least in the United States) is urging racism as a good thing.  I never learned how to drive a wagon or plow a field, either.

I have since learned that the fault of racism does continue – whether in the relatively harmless form of unthinking tasteless jokes in private, or in more serious ways with actual discrimination in hiring, pay, and name-calling.  Given human nature, I have little hope of ever eradicating this completely, but reducing it to a “normal” fault like lying sometimes seems plausible.

On the other hand, I have also learned something else, something foreign to my well-educated mind: racial identification is a continuing trend.  There is not, as far as I can tell, any such thing as a self-conscious “white identity”, but among other groups it can seems – viewed from outside of the self-identified group – almost a monolithic thing.  You can only hear comments like, “I wouldn’t do that to a brother!” so many times before you start wondering whether the speaker would do “that” to someone who did not have the good fortune to be black.  It is true that this black identity is seen from the other “side” as well – it is not unusual, for instance, to find people assuming a black neighborhood is a bad one regardless of facts.

(I use the word “black” here after consideration: “Negro” is no longer the polite literary term.  “African-American” is laughably inaccurate at this point for the majority of the population it purportedly describes – before moving to the DC area, for example, the majority of the people I knew who were from Africa were in fact white.  Finally, if “white” is acceptable, “black” ought also in fairness to be accepted.)

The impetus for mentioning these things is of course the trial of George Zimmerman, acquitted of the charge of 2nd-degree murder of Trayvon Martin on the basis of self-defense.  The best comprehensive sourced account of the incident that I have found is here on Ricochet, a conservative forum.  That the author, Dr. Rahe, includes his own editorial commentary should not deter you from looking through the sources, but I do not want anyone able to complain about my sourcing being dishonest.  Alternatively you can look at this piece from Slate.

The best question I have come up with – or at least, it seems the most pertinent to me, in light of Zimmerman’s acquittal and the available evidence – is this: why was the (immediate and disturbingly lasting) media narrative, that Martin’s death was driven by Zimmerman’s racism, and that the fault was entirely Zimmerman’s, considered plausible?  Why is it that now after the acquittal, and absent any evidence of racism on Zimmerman’s part, many still assume the jury was wrong, and the initial narrative was correct?

There is an obvious, if uncomfortable, answer.  That answer is that we as a society are used to the fact that crime – by total incidents and by likelihood – is far more common in cities.  We are also used to having black populations far more concentrated in those cities.

We therefore are talking about a sort of societal racism here – we are conditioned (by reality, it must be pointed out) to expect a black criminal more often than a white one.  But we know that making these assumptions about a particular person is wrong; therefore, if Zimmerman was acting on these assumptions – which it must be repeated is not clear – even though many of us, probably most of us, share them, then, he must be racist.  Our own tendencies – let alone the facts – can go unexamined.

If we want these societal assumptions to go away, we need to do two things.  The first (and relatively minor) one is to stop confusing them with genuine malicious racism.  That kind of racism – the kind which genuinely sees a person of different skin color or hairstyle as a subhuman freak, or at least as inherently kind of dumb – is, I suspect, not as common as worries about racism, undistinguished, suggest.  Again, I am sure it still occurs; I am not completely naive.

But the second, and far more important, is to reduce urban corruption.  Almost any data I have looked at – here is world homicide data, for instance – seems to show general correlations between crime rate, poverty, and government corruption (which is really just a polite term for a different kind of crime).  Chicago politics are legendary; Detroit and LA are almost as bad by reputation; New York currently has a nice veneer, relatively speaking, but I wonder sometimes whether Tammany Hall and the protection racket have entirely passed away.  That the urban concentration of black populations common in the US are most subject to this corruption, while surely an interesting point historically, is (for my current argument, at least) an unfortunate coincidence helping along an unfortunate stereotype.

I specifically targeted corruption; reducing poverty is another goal.  Reducing corruption will almost certainly help immediately, were it to be done.  How to go further than that, I will leave to others, or at least to another post, except for one note: to “reduce poverty” it is not enough to give more benefits (welfare money, food stamps, government insurance, etc.) to those who are poor.  Those are not necessarily bad things (like I said, that is a different discussion), but they do not solve the basic problem – that the person is not in fact self-sufficient, that they are in fact poor.

This is so obvious it hardly seems worth the hundreds of words spent to get here, and – note! – there is not one thing racially determinative about the conclusion.  All I am asking is that we expect the same things of our cities – regardless of our population – that we would expect of the most posh WASP suburb of Boston: honesty, fairness, lawful behavior.  If we start expecting – consciously expecting – this in the cities, I am so bold as to suppose that the actual differences would start to fade, and the stereotypes with them.

But one further thing must be said.  It does not help these societal assumptions about [random black person] that the most offensive popular art form – rap glorifying criminal and violent acts – is a genre largely dominated by black artists.  It does not aid in the reduction of this sort of common-sense racism (if I may so abuse the term for the sake of my argument) that a large number of black citizens, especially younger ones, go about their business dressed – sometimes by elaborate preparation – as though they forgot to get up in the morning.  If black identity must persist – and I at least do not see why ethnic identity must continue to be a point of reckoning for all time – can it not find in itself at least a hint of respectability?  It is far too easy for people like me – white, privileged, outside the self-identifying and other-identified community – to see “black culture” as nothing much more than a banana republic mentality.  I do not think that this negative impression is entirely the fault of the beholder.

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