Homelessness Marathon blog

... ending homelessness isn't a matter of charity, but a matter of changing the way our society is structured. -- Homelessness Marathon founder, Jeremy Weir Alderson, aka Nobody.

Monday, February 22, 2010

More On Race

It is a bit peculiar to me to find myself writing about race less than 48 hours before the broadcast.  I think this is an occupational hazard of doing a blog and being a white guy in Detroit.  Detroit is certainly known for more than its economic decline and one of the other things it is known for is its vibrant black culture.  So the idea that I would have an encounter with race doing this work in Detroit is hardly a startling one.  What's more startling -- to me, anyway -- is that this possibility never occurred to me.  Be that as it may, I do actually have a few things to say about race, so I think I may as well say them.
          When I wrote that last post about how the thought that I might have any appeal to a black audience just about made me giggle, I felt like I might be misunderstood.  If anybody is going to not like what I say, I would hope it would at least be the thing I actually said, so I will try to offer here some explanation, whether or not it is actually necessary.  I have had black people in my life, and the way I would summarize those relationships is that, for the most part, they had nothing whatsoever to do with stereotypes.  So when I say I wouldn't think of myself as the kind to be popular with black people, I mean I wouldn't expect myself to be the type to interact with black people in the stereotypical ways white people might be portrayed as interacting with black people or the ways in which white people, themselves, might think they ought to interact.  I would hardly be the first to be involved with black people without trying to act like a black person.  There's lots of people, for instance, who have fallen in love across racial lines when they weren't expecting to, so involvement with another race isn't something you have to be looking for in order to find it.
          Before I go any further down that road, I must mention that this series of happy experiences with black people hasn't let up.  We were on the ropes as far as having any kind of a video webcast was concerned, and all of a sudden, we have a crew of four or five black people working on this.  It is just extraordinarily fortunate that we have them at all, and it is even more extraordinary that everybody seems to like each other.  I will happily throw in a plug for them.  They go by the name of Pulsebeat TV and I just genuinely like them all.  I might add that I haven't actually met anybody I don't like in Detroit, and I've never been accused of being just like Will Rogers.  That's just the way it has worked out here, which is a big reason why this has been a very happy experience.  It's been so happy, that I cant let my fear of a crash landing keep me from enjoying it.    
          Anyway, to get back where I was, I don't know any rap songs and I don't know any black slang, but then, of course, the question arises as to why would anyone think those things should be the hallmarks of a white person being involved with black people?   It is a well-known phenomenon that scads of white youth affect black mannerisms; listen to hip-hop and rap and what not; dress in the latest African-American styles, which the last I knew involved baggy pants, though it has probably moved on long ago; and even walk down the street, whether that street be in Peoria or Pocatello, like they are strolling down 125th.  What are they doing?
          Surely a part of what they're doing, or at least, what some of them are doing, is a genuine tribute to black culture.  It seems like African-Americans have given America half of everything it holds sacred, though that is surely an exaggeration.  So why shouldn't white people focus on this perennial wellspring?
          Just the same, my own theory is that the largest part of it has to do with white guilt.  At a certain age, I think everybody realizes that there are oppressed and oppressors here in the Land of the Free.  America's white children, just like Anne Frank said of everyone, are genuinely good at heart, so they want to identify with the oppressed instead of the oppressor.  The trouble with that, though, is that it's just a phase.  For the most part, after a few years of pretending to be gangstas, they go on to take their places in the existing order without challenging it.  There's nothing new in this.  I personally lived through the shocking revelation that not everyone who ever said "Groovy" in the 60's stayed a hippie.
          Otis Maclay., an engineer and computer person (among other things) who is helping us and is associated with the Pacifica radio network, was sitting in my room last night talking about the importance of the 73rd psalm, so with Michael also listening, I read it from the Gideon Bible in my room.  I recommend it.  Otis is right to focus on that one.  Others psalms and other parts of the Bible have other messages, but this one speaks powerfully about how nothing has changed in the worldly world.  The ways by which people abuse each other certainly haven't.
           I don't think anybody will contradict me when I say that in this society we are all screwed up about race, though I do give America a lot of credit for getting farther in dealing with it than a lot of other countries.  It is actually, I think, one of the few ways in which we still lead the world.  Many people would rightly argue that we have yet many steps to go, and from my own, non-philosophical perspective, I will vouch for the truth of that.  I may be a white guy, but I'm a white guy who regularly visits the poorest parts of town, the soup kitchens, and the shelters, and who once a year, sees before him a line of desperately poor and homeless people.  I can state, as a simple matter of fact, that what I have seen is disproportionately made up of people of color.  So if anybody says we have further to go delving into issues of race in this country, I for one agree,  but even so, I think the focus on race no longer serves us well.
          There have certainly been times when the focus on race was absolutely necessary, none greater than the period leading up the Civil War, when it was impossible to discuss slavery without noting, one way or the other, that the slaves were of African descent.  But that is not where we are now.
          Those for whom the need to resolve the issues posed by race is synonymous with the quest for social justice have found themselves outplayed and trumped by people who would manipulate racial issues to perpetrate injustice.  To my mind, this was never clearer than during the confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas.  You had Strom Thurmond, a longtime segregationist, standing staunchly behind a black man married to a white woman, something which, in Thurmond's youth, had been a de facto capital offense in his native South Carolina.  Had Thurmond changed his stripes?  No, if he had, he might have given some credence to Anita Hill.
          My own conclusion was that during the Thomas-Hill hearings, you could see the economic skeleton under the flesh of race hatred.  As I see it, the powers that be wanted Thomas because he would do their bidding, and they hid their wolf beneath his black sheep's clothing.  Nonetheless, there were black people who believed and even testified, in so many words, that, ultimately, Clarence Thomas would do the right thing because he was black.  They were wrong.          
          Without Clarence Thomas's vote halting the Florida recount, George W. Bush would not have made it to the presidency, where he launched a war on Iraq under false pretenses with the help of a black National Security Advisor, Condoleeza Rice, and a black Secretary of State, Colin Powel.  If you approve of the war and are a supporter of the Bush Administration, that's your right, but it would be hard to argue that the actions of Thomas, Rice and Powell had anything to do with righting the wrongs of the Middle Passage, no matter that   Thomas invoked the specter of a "high-tech lynching for uppity blacks" in accusing anyone who opposed him of racism.
          Today, you cannot discuss racial issues on their own, without explaining why what you are talking about is different from what Thomas, Powel, Rice, and now Michael Steele represent.  And you can't explain that without invoking the issue of class, so as far as I can see, you may as well just invoke the issue of class right from the start.  It is more inclusive -- people are suffering so broadly now that we should be focusing on everyone -- and it is also more precisely targeted on the challenge before us.

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