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“This book will prove and promote the idea that the concept of ‘blackness,’ as it has come to be understood, is rapidly losing its ability to describe, let alone predict or manipulate, the political and social behavior of African Americans.” Such is the explosive enterprise of what is sure to be one of the most
controversial books of recent times.
How has the notion of “blackness” bamboozled African Americans into an unhealthy obsession with white America? What are the deleterious consequences of this? How has “blackness” diminished the sovereignty of African Americans as rational and moral beings? How has white America exploited the concept to sublimate its rage toward and contempt for black America? Is American racism an intractable malaise, and who gets to decide when the past is over?
In this unstinting, keen, and brutally funny manifesto, Debra Dickerson critiques “race” as a bankrupt scientific and social construct, exposing the insidious, manipulative racial myths and prejudices still held by American blacks and whites. She examines much statistical rubbish that passes for sociological fact, the purposeful corruption of American history, and the resulting social ills and pathologies bedeviling both the black and white communities.
She bravely argues that, whether or not African Americans still have a moral claim against this country, they must now be fiercely self-reliant, ignoring the hackneyed presuppositions and expectations of whites and other blacks still stuck in tired and fruitless ways of thinking.
As the New York Times remarked about her highly acclaimed memoir, An American Story, “it is a startling thing to hear an American speak as frankly and un-self-servingly about race as Dickerson does.”
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Debra J. Dickerson was educated at the University of Maryland, St. Mary’s University, and Harvard Law School. She has been both a senior editor and a contributing editor at U.S. News & World Report, and her work has also appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post, The New Republic, Slate, The Village Voice, and Essence. She lives in Albany, New York.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
TAKING THE WORDS OUT OF BLACK MOUTHS:
Narcissism, Know-Nothingness, and White Intransigence
"Priscilla and I, and nine others, had been charged with
'disturbing the peace,' among other charges, because we tried
to order food at Woolworth. If not for segregation, and the
fact that we were all Negroes, we would have been served
without incident. At our trial on March 17, 1960,
Judge John Rudd ruled that our lawyers should
'get off that race question.' "
--PATRICIA STEPHENS DUE
"[I]n 1955, that's when the gruesome murder of
Emmett Till came up in Mississippi. I remember how
the Charlotte Observer, which was supposed to be a liberal
or moderate newspaper, condemned the NAACP,
saying it was just as bad as the Ku Klux Klan
in raising 'racial' issues about this murder."
--JOHN DORSEY DUE JR.
"Among the topics that the southern white man did not
like to discuss with Negroes were the following: American
white women; the Ku Klux Klan; France, and how Negro
soldiers fared while there; French women; Jack Johnson;
the entire northern part of the United States; the civil war;
Abraham Lincoln; U.S. Grant; General Sherman; Catholics;
the Pope; Jews; the Republican Party; Slavery, Social
Equality, Communism; Socialism; the 13th, 14th,
and 15th Amendments to the Constitution; or any
topic calling for positive knowledge or manly
self-assertion on the part of the Negro."
"All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence;
then success is sure."
Black people are not crazy. They're not paranoid. They're punch-drunk, or as Carter G. Woodson put it, "the Negro's mind has been brought under the control of his oppressor. The problem of holding the Negro down, therefore, is easily solved. When you control a man's thinking you do not have to worry about his actions."
White racism and white supremacist ideology, however denied, however subconscious, continue to exist. To believe otherwise, one would truly have to believe that blacks are genetically and morally deficient. Of course some believe exactly that, but the rest of America understands that the disproportionately lower status of blacks is at least in some measure a result of group interactions. Blacks are neither blameless nor helpless, but they are certainly not operating in a societal vacuum. Still, blacks can be complicit in maintaining white supremacy by playing the game on the master's terms--that is, by vying for white approval or a white apology rather than for their own autonomy, by giving in to nihilism and immorality in the face of the endless struggle to surmount inequality. "Careless ignorance and laziness here, fierce hate and vindictiveness there; these are the extremes of the Negro problem which we met [while doing sociological research] that day," said W.E.B. DuBois, "and we scarce knew which we preferred." Surely blacks reject both propositions, even knowing that white racism still exists and that, like all self-serving rationalizations, it has adapted to fit the times.
Having collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions, an articulated white supremacy--whites-only signs, restrictive covenants, overt police brutality--is no more. But structuralized greed, entrenched privilege, and xenophobia, on the other hand, are alive, well, and mutating athletically to retard each new inroad that blacks make into skin or class privilege. If you can't keep something but you can't give it up, you have to render it unrecognizable; racism has been defined out of existence and repackaged so that whites could retain its perks, especially the psychological ones. It has undergone existential plastic surgery. To keep it buried alive in its unholy grave, a host of Strangelovean anti-intellectualisms have been developed and honed.
For some whites, racism means nothing less than police attack dogs, George Wallace standing in the school-house door, and gentle seamstresses being carted off to jail for sitting in the front of the bus. Racism, thus, is now history. All that is left are isolated acts of individual bigotry, which probably, albeit regrettably, can be explained by some past run-in with black pathology.
For some blacks, racism means a societal infrastructure organized and operated so as to distribute benefits, burdens, and resources according to a racial hierarchy, however unspoken. The education and criminal justice systems are the most obvious examples.
Modern white racism insists that the races remain separate, even if only psychologically, so that whites get to think of themselves as "America," as better, as the judge of every other race, and that whites get to remain on top. As Albert Murray noted, whites do not take their privilege for granted--they work at it. "They leave little to nature and what they inherit is the full-time obligation to keep up social appearances without ever seeming to do so." Being the master race is a full-time job.
Regardless of the civic havoc that white racism wreaks, it is important for blacks to remind themselves that whites are no more innately evil than others. History has simply situated them to dominate in this era. Greed and power imbalances are at the root of the problem; racism is merely a by-product, but such a virulent one as to eclipse its progenitors. Given the success of the civil rights movement, however, these sociopathologies need be dispositive of nothing. Still, it is important for blacks to monitor the forms that white supremacy takes, even though it no longer dare speak its name. On a practical note, this is also a useful way for cowed blacks to demystify the all-mighty Caucasian, because there is nothing to be proud of in the current form to which white racism and denial, crazily clutching their pile of perks with ever more wizened fingers, has been reduced to sustain itself.
Second, it must be said that black racism, while largely masturbatory because largely powerless, is equally ignoble, sinful, and simian. There is little doubt that blacks would behave as badly as whites if they were the ones on top. We know this because of how badly blacks have treated one another. Rapidly falling under whites' racist sway, from nearly the beginning of their time in America, they practiced the same racism among themselves that they decried in whites. American-born slaves derided the Africa-born, while light-skinned and house slaves despised the dark field hands. Some free mulattoes distanced themselves politically as far as possible from slaves and even opposed their enfranchisement. Immediately after Emancipation, Brahmin blacks apishly erected a social structure patterned on that of whites, especially their disgust for low-class blacks. When southern blacks arrived up north during the Great Migration, their contemptuous brothers called them "Cornbread," wouldn't let them join their churches, and thought the problem of racism was whites' refusal to differentiate them from "the niggers." Now it is the ghetto blacks who are despised.
Franz Fanon aptly defined the "native" as "an oppressed person whose permanent dream is to become the persecutor." We may say the same about "the African American." Even more relevantly, Fanon defined a "settler," in his 1950s colonial context, as "an exhibitionist" who "pits brute force against the weight of numbers." We may say the same about "the unreconstructed white." Far too little thought has been given to an examination of the exhibitionism attendant upon white predation. It is best described as narcissistic know-nothingness.
What is racism but a fascination with oneself?
Why, a seventeenth-century European newly arrived in Africa must have mused, are these odd creatures not pale, not straight-haired, not freckled, not wearing filthy pantaloons, and not praying to two pieces of wood nailed at a right angle? Why are they so unlike me? What's the matter with them? Whites couldn't have been white until they saw someone who wasn't.
Fundamentally, racism and xenophobia are more about self-exaltation than about exploiting others, more about filling the human need to feel special, set apart, and touched by grace, than about hatred. A sixteenth-century European genius perfectly illustrates this need and the ripple effects that ethnocentrism can set in motion across the centuries. Gerardus Mercator solved an age-old navigational problem by devising the map that every schoolchild has grown up with for nearly five centuries. The trouble is, partly for practical reasons but mostly for reasons of cultural narcissism, he built huge distortions into "the world." To better showcase his native Flanders and Europe generally, Mercator inflated and situated the northern hemisphere so as to dominate the map. Africa is dwarfed by Greenland, though it is twelve times larger. South America was pygmyized. Those smart enough to figure out the world were arrogant enough to try to make it over in their own image.
But has there ever been a society that didn't think itself naturally superior to every other? Anthropologist Earl Shorris explains:
"Ethnocentrism was not . . . a European invention. Most of the cultures native to the Americas named themselves "the People," as if no others could even be described as human beings. The practice was not limited to any language group. . . . We know [Native American tribes] . . . by the names given them by their adversaries. The Lakotas, Dakotas, and Nakotas are known to us as "Sioux," . . . it means "snake" or "enemy." Similarly, the word "Apache" . . . meant "enemy," while the word the Apaches . . . used for themselves, "Diné," means "the People." [Just as whites had no respect for the native American cultures they encountered, the natives had no regard for whites' culture.] . . . [They] thought of the invaders as avaricious individualists who smelled bad; the word for a white in the Lakota language, for example, means greedy (literally, he-who-eats-the-fat)."
Early blacks also thought whites suffered from delusions of grandeur and a preening self-importance. The cakewalk, a dance performed while goose-stepping with arms stiffly outstretched and parading as if observed by adoring millions, was created by Reconstruction-era blacks to send up white ostentation and pretension. Olaudah Equiano, in recounting his capture in Africa and arrival in Barbados, wrote, "We thought . . . we should be eaten by these ugly men." Every group thinks itself exalted and all others debased. China considered itself the "Middle Kingdom" between heaven and earth. An American journalist visiting Japan noted,
"Whenever there are warning signs or warning ads in Japan, they always show white people doing whatever stupid activity is being warned about. At the Ueno Zoo, the pictures showing a child crawling into the lion's den shows a Caucasian. Dozens of Japanese kids have died because their moms left them in hot cars when they went to play pachinko. So the pachinko industry launched a huge ad campaign to remind parents not to leave their kids in the car. But all the ads show Caucasian kids! There probably are not 10 Caucasians who have ever played pachinko!"
Unfortunately, the mix of narcissism, technological superiority, and greed spelled doom for that race most unlike, "most inferior to," whites. Centuries later, having refined their narcissism into high art, whites have learned to place themselves, however irrelevantly and distractingly, at the center of any discussion. They anoint themselves not simple citizens but judge and jury.
When confronted with a demand for redress or for a justice-based redirection of societal resources, whites invoke the royal prerogative of their race and change the subject. Like the Old West stagecoach robbers who flipped the road signs to point their victims into the wilderness to be fleeced, whites divert black complaint to the question of whether white approval of the complaint itself will be bestowed. Needless to say, if the complaint doesn't involve German shepherds or fire hoses, if the complainant isn't a saint, racism is unlikely to be considered the culprit. Most maddeningly for blacks, whites refuse to consider complaints on their merits but instead issue their opinion of a complaint, so that it can be dismissed unexamined.
Thus, black complaint becomes a subject-changing round robin of white criticism of blacks. In the 1930s Woodson noted that "few whites of today will listen to the [Negro's] tale of woe." Imagine, then, how little patience whites in the twenty-first century have for black complaint. That impatience is frequently demonstrated. When blacks make demands after police kill unarmed civilians, whites respond by demanding to know what blacks have done to improve themselves.
Note the assumption that whites need no improvement and that they get to judge blacks' civic fitness to be allowed to complain. Second, arguendo, let us posit that blacks have done nothing toward self-improvement; is indolence then a police license to kill? This implies that while blacks are societally abused, until they surmount the Everest of white approval, their abuse will justifiably, if regrettably, continue. How else will blacks ever learn?
Blacks claim that their schools remain segregated and underfunded, leading to decreased educational opportunity, and they demand educational affirmative action. The white response: Why do all the black kids sit together in the cafeteria?
This question is really a denunciation of blacks as unworthy of societal effort, of blacks as the "real" racists. Access to the good things in life is wasted on them. Whites never notice the all-white tables that usually outnumber the all-black ones, because white behavior is beyond minority critique (and because, when it's them, the silliness of this "critique" is apparent). Black comment on white behavior is still uppity, but that these days uppityness will find blacks only dismissed rather than hanged is undeniable progress.
The velvet rope of white privilege dangling before their eyes fascinates too many post-movement bourgeois blacks; instead of finishing their rhetorical meal at the table of their choice, they make a mental shuffle off to the margin, where they dance for white approval and cringe whenever a black commits a crime or loses a job. No better are the bitter bullhorn blacks who fume and mutter from their assigned spot on the sidelines, the spot from which they can most closely monitor whites who preen in this way. Note that neither the bourgeois nor the bullhorn Negro is about his own business but is catering to any random white who cares to opine on that which doesn't concern him.
This is what Albert Murray would deem the white norm/black deviation dialectic, the main vehicle for white supremacy. Counterintuitively, white supremacists and black polemicists work together to implement this strategy, though we are most concerned with the black leaders who succumb to this gambit. The problem is both parties' adherence to the literalist, white supremacist notion that all that is necessary for the construction of social policy is a direct comparison of black social measures, like i...
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