Race and Culture
First off, a statement: We can’t fix many of our societal problems so long as we allow race to trump culture. To expand on this I would point to an insightful comment from BlaiseP on Vikram Bath’s post :
The old disparities between black and white are being replaced by class distinctions. Soon enough, nobody will much care. It’s our nation, black, white, everyone. Plenty of poor-ass white people, too. The USA is not a uniformly purple nation. Some parts of it are, well, less-fortunate than others and poverty is terribly democratic.
While I agree 100% with Blaise’s statement, I think there is a fair amount of resistance to this process coming mostly from within minority communities that benefit less if race takes a back seat to culture. More on that later.
We all know what racism looks like in its most raw form. Racism is the idea that all members of a race possess certain universal characteristics and these characteristics can be classified as either inferior or superior to those of other races. The most obvious forms of racism are name-calling and negative generalizations. Then there are the less obvious forms of racism. Under-estimation of a people or what Michael Gerson called, “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” There is the unwillingness to make social connections between races and the reality that inter-racial dating is still a novelty in America.
It’s hard to think of racism as ever being the basis for good intentions but in the past that was very much the case. In what could be called the original version of ‘concern trolling’ it was quite popular among white academics in the 19th and 20th centuries to prescribe solutions meant to help races they believed to be inferior. There were a host of social experiments devoted to civilizing American Indians. Likewise African Americans have been the subject of many projects. We think of the people pursuing these programs as destructive forces by today’s standards but the truth is that they often meant well even if they were grossly incorrect in their assumptions. Well-intentioned people still want to help fix things that they see broken within society. The question is, how do we make the jump from the most ugly assumptions of racism to a positive dialogue about culture?
The fact is, race and culture are moving apart organically. With the explosion of the Information Age there is faster and greater exposure to culture than ever before. Growing up in Louisville we joked that fashion trends took a couple of years to move from NYC to Kentucky. Now the timeline has shrunk to months. With other cultural trends this can happen in days. Just think of what YouTube does for the American lexicon and you will have a pretty good idea of what I am talking about.
The Supreme Court has already begun to recognize this distinction as evidenced by decisions that have begun to chip away at the notion of race as a primary classification for individuals. This is where resistance comes in. It’s easier to dismiss racism as intellectually flawed. Making generalizations about an entire race is not credible given what we know today about biology, so then when people cry racism, it is an easy way to end a conversation. Whether or not the statements made were actually racist is often irrelevant when this tactic is applied. When we talk culture though, it gets harder to dismiss broad statements.
With regards to statements about culture, facts are more subjective and thus more immune to counter-arguments. An example: One might say that gang shootings are a problem among African Americans. This is a negative generalization, but also one that has some basis in fact. In this case careful wording separates a cultural reality from something that sounds more like racism. In this case I daresay it becomes more permissable.
The truth is that in 2013 it is reasonable to believe that most Americans understand that behavioral traits are not linked to the same DNA that contributes to race. Circling back to my example, we know that there is nothing in African American genetics which causes gang violence to occur at a higher rate, but many people believe that something rooted in black culture may be responsible.
Whereas racial generalizations can easily be dismissed for their lack of intellectual nuance, cultural generalizations are usually defended against by pointing the blame elsewhere. Gang violence can be blamed on any number of outside forces, from higher unemployment for certain minorities to higher incarceration rates to a broken educational system. While there is also truth to those claims, nothing is accomplished when both sides point the finger at one another.
Culture is definable and indeed the source of most societal problems today. My opinion is that America has much less of a race problem and much more of a cultural problem. To overcome this we need to decide if it is okay for members of other cultures to become involved in finding solutions. And when I say ‘other cultures’ this usually means white culture. Is it okay for white folks to take an active interest in ending alcoholism on American Indian reservations? Is it okay for white people to craft policies aimed at reducing teen pregnancy rates among African Americans which are twice that of white populations? Do those efforts also imply concern trolling and if so, whose responsibility is it to tackle these issues?
To summarize, it’s pretty easy to discredit racism and for good reasons. Some would suggest though that this has been replaced by a kind of culturism which is harder to define but considered equally problematic by the people whom it touches. I’m a white guy so I’m probably not the best person to describe where that line is, but unless we figure out a way to discuss it, not much much progress is going to be made.