One look at the US media, including the comments sections, will show you that something disturbing is happening.
Something which has also been happening in many other countries for a long, long time.
I speak of an abstract “humanity-centred” moralism that only half-condemns racially-motivated crimes.
This form of moralism, while half-heartedly critical of such vicious crimes as the Charleston massacre, never fully acknowledges the specifically racist character of these atrocities.
Yes: some people are derailing the discussions of the racist murders at Charleston. Politicians, the media, and people posting web comments on articles.
And it is painful to read.
I can’t help but ask myself how many of the people saying “please don’t make this a black and white issue,” are motivated partly out of selfishness. There is a proportion of white people who are deeply averse to acknowledging that every one of us lives in a racist society.
But the fact remains: the USA is a racially unequal society. As is the UK, where I live. And, no doubt, the same can be said of many other places.
And racism is not purely a question of attitude or “hatred.” It is not purely a question of explicit individual sentiments, or of the erroneous assumption on the part of racists that there is an objective racial hierarchy.
On the contrary, it is also a matter of institutional racism. Racism can indeed express itself as the words and actions of individuals motivated by a very crude and direct hatred. But racism is also associable with “impersonal,” or at least partly impersonal, institutional biases.
For example, it is unclear to what extent the racial prejudice expressed by some police officers in the USA or UK is a matter of hatred, and to what extent such prejudice is a matter of heedlessness or neglect.
Of course, heedlessness and neglect is not itself an excuse for injustice. But I am merely emphasizing a point that is often denied:
Racism is not just something that “all those evil-wicked-hateful-bad-folks” do.
So if you are not David Duke or Nick Griffin, you might not be called a racist.
Or to put it another way, it is tempting to say that anything short of physically attacking people, endorsing antisemitic conspiracy theories, or speaking favourably about colonialists like Cecil Rhodes or Stamford Raffles will be considered acceptable.
Well, it may be that this is a slight exaggeration.
Or it may be that it is perfectly accurate.
But at the very least, it is not half so far from the truth as some might hope.
The fact is, pretty much everybody in this world is complicit with some kind of prejudice of one kind or another. And that implies a responsibility for self-reflection.
If the idea of the ubiquity of prejudice is hard to understand, an illustration in terms of another kind of prejudice may make this clearer.
Admittedly, of course, all prejudices and inequalities are distinct from each other in various ways; and these prejudices and inequalities also interact in a variety of complex manners for each individual.
But bearing these caveats in mind, here is my illustration of the ubiquity of prejudices.
And I hope it is a fairly pertinent one, when we consider Dylan Roof’s violent hatred towards black women and his condescension towards white women:
All men are complicit with sexism, but it doesn’t mean we are all “bad,” that we are all horrible to women.
No. At its most effective, saying that all men are complicit with sexism reads not so much as an accusation, but as a kind of realism, and as a very constructive and positive call to reflection.
And this idea should summon all men, including myself, to the kind of self-cultivation which is painful and at times even anxiety-stricken, but which is imperative for anyone who has any sense of self-respect and of respect for other individuals.
Indeed, very few people, if any at all, have ever said that all men are wicked towards women. It is not a question of being “evil,” or even of being of “bad character” in a somewhat weaker sense.
And setting up such a low bar of behaviour (“at least I’m not a misogynistic swine like them!”) risks discounting the possibility that all crude or vicious prejudice may be merely the bottom end of a very vast decline (if there even is a bottom, which is questionable).
Similar things can be said of any prejudice.
And of course, racism is no exception.
“All white people in the USA or UK are complicit with racism, but it doesn’t mean we are all “bad,” that we are all horrible to people who are not white.”
Indeed. But if this is true, then we must all be individually responsible for our complicity, and not hide behind excuses, pointing out what “all the other bad guys” do.
See the next instalment tomorrow.