Friday, December 16, 2005

Three Forms of Racism?

I have been thinking about racism and anti-fascist activism recently. I have about five Word documents going with various thoughts about this, so i hope to be able to make them semi-coherent and post them over the next little while. At the moment, they’re pretty incoherent, but i’m hoping that by posting this first one, and hopefully getting some feedback, the ideas will come together…

“Normal” racisms, in our day and age, have various dimensions. According to most observers they can be separated into two species: personal prejudice and structural oppression.

Personal prejudice is easy enough for everyone to pick up on, as it’s the most open and explicit form the cancer takes. From jokes and stereotypes which degrade, pigeonhole or simply make ludicrous this ethnic group or the other, to angry klansmen vowing to “kill the mud people,” you figure you’ll know it when you see it.

Structural oppression is a more sophisticated thing, and in the age of Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice it’s granted a degree of camouflage. Not enough to make it invisible, but enough so that if you really don’t want to see it you can pretend you don’t. Plausible deniability. But you really have to have some gall to pretend – i mean, just look at Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans: that was not (for the most part) “personal prejudice,” that was structural racism. That is why lobotomized commentators on CNN had so much trouble with the deal about “Is it because they’re Black or is it because they’re poor?”

Even without Katrina, the economic symptoms of structural racism in the USA are obvious – a Black unemployment rate twice that of whites, a Black poverty rate three times as high, and a median Black family income $17,000 less per year than for the vaunted whites – never mind the fact that this 12% of the U.S. population accounts for 48% of the prison population and 42% of those living on death row.

The mechanisms of structural oppression can exist in the complete absence of personal prejudice, that’s what it means to say that this setup is structural. It is a system of social stratification which reproduces itself from one day to the next, and will continue to do so as long as nobody figures out how to short-circuit it. In fact, for many middle and upper class people, the absence of personal prejudice merely serves of obfuscate structural oppression, to confuse the issue and allow con-artists to look you in the eye and swear they’re not racist, so you have nothing to complain about.

Structural racism and personal prejudice are both serious problems. While the former may have a higher body count, and may in some ways be responsible for the latter, they are both worth struggling against. I say this in disagreement with those of my comrades who feel all energies must be used against structural racism, and in equal disagreement with those right-wing anti-racists who feel the problem begins and ends with personal attitudes.

Finally, I would like to suggest that there is also a third, often-overlooked, strain of racism. Potentially separate from personal feelings, and independent from actual social structure, i refer to this third strain as “ideological racism.”

Unlike structural racism and personal prejudice, ideological racism is not very visible today, though it has deep roots within mainstream science and history, and is often fueled by personal animus.

Ideological racism is most significant in terms of the revolutionary right, for it is their banner. Clearly, the role of racism in groups like the Ku Klux Klan, the Church of the Creator and their ilk, goes far beyond personal prejudice, regardless of what may motivate their freshest recruits. A look at their literature shows that racism serves a similar purpose for these groups as patriarchy does for the women’s movement and class does for classical Marxism. It may, amongst other things, motivate personal prejudice and (to the degree that their political activities bear fruit) it may lead to heightened structural oppression, but its true value for these movements is that it serves as a guide to all of human history, a philosophical blueprint for how people should treat each other, for sexual relations and musical tastes and religious beliefs. It is their principle contradiction, the mental glue that holds their movement together, the theoretical underpinning of their worldview. Thus, debates within these circles as to whether to worship Jesus Christ the Christian or Odin and Thor of Norse mythology, whether to tolerate or eradicate homosexuals, to support global U.S. hegemony or oppose it, and so on ad nauseum, refer to the mythologies of race as the basis for each position.

This is not to say that racial “facts” determine the course of the radical right; the advantage to letting a pseudoscience guide one’s movement is that even more so that the Bible, Talmud or Koran, everything can be interpreted any way you want. I would argue that class interests, a patriarchal agenda and personal prejudice determine the political trajectory of the revolutionary right, but to try and understand this without appreciating the role of racist ideology is to willfully ignore the matrix within which these factors are played out; it would be much like trying to explain the Iraqi Resistance or the Vatican without any reference to Islam or Roman Catholicism.

Ideological racism is almost a litmus test to see who would surpass the limits of what Canadian sociologist Stanley Barrett termed the fringe right, passing into what he called the “radical right.” (i prefer the term “revolutionary right”: these people definitely want a revolution, but i don’t feel they are very radical at all.) Even when it is not essential to a group, it often serves as a reliable marker of how “radical” a revolutionary right-wing organization is.

I point this out because a few years back i was involved in a very acrimonious dispute with some folks, a dispute that led me (slowly) to think this out. At the time, i was told that if a form of racism did not exist as structural racism, then it did not really exist. Structural racism – i.e. the embedding of racist dynamics within the economy or State – was to be the defining characteristic of all racism, and (logically) the limit to our anti-racism.

I would argue that ideological racism carries the seeds of structural racism and personal prejudice. To the degree that the revolutionary right fails, then these seeds won’t grow, and as unrealized potential will amount to nothing. But to the degree that the revolutionary right succeeds, these seeds will grow into new mechanisms of racist oppression. So ideological racism is a threat. Not simply because some fuck-up who has just finished reading propaganda from the National Socialist Movement may be dangerous if you bump into them in a dark alley, but more importantly because it has the potential to create new mechanisms of racist oppression.

To sum up, i would argue that ideological racism also constitutes an aspect of contemporary racism, and as such it underlines the need for an anti-racism without limits.

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  1. Interesting post. I would add that oppression of any sort also exists at the cultural level in which dominant values are maintained and undermine the actions of minority groups. To give an instance, women, while having legal (structural) recourse in the case of sexual assault, may not pursue such action because of cultural constraints (e.g. blame the victim myths). I am sure you can think of similar scenarios that apply to racism.

  2. COOL!
    Good aspect on racism!
    I guess that this will help me in school...