“The truth, forever, for everybody, is that one is a stranger to oneself, and that one must deal with this stranger day in and day out–that one, in fact, is forced to create, as distinct from invent, oneself…And you will learn a certain humility, because the terms that you have invented, which you think describe and define you, inevitably collide with the facts of life. When this collision occurs–and, make no mistake, this is an absolutely inevitable collision–when this collision occurs, like two trains meeting head-on in a tunnel, life offers you the choice, and it’s a very narrow choice, of holding on to your definition of yourself or saying, as the old folks used to say, and as everybody who wants to live has to say: Yes, Lord…Which is to say yes to life.” – James Baldwin, The White Problem (1964)
“Few ideologies have won enough prominence to survive the hard competitive struggle of persuasion, and only two have come out on top and essentially defeated all others: the ideology which interprets history as an economic struggle of classes, and the other that interprets history as a natural fight of races. The appeal of both to large masses was so strong that they were able to enlist state support and establish themselves as official national doctrines. But far beyond the boundaries within which race-thinking and class-thinking have developed into obligatory patterns of thought, free public opinion has adopted them to such an extent that not only intellectuals but great masses of people will no longer accept a presentation of past or present facts that is not in agreement with either of these views.” – Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951)
During the past several years, we in the United States, to say nothing of other nations, have witnessed a remarkable, yet precedented, rise in public engagement in political affairs. The inevitably unfinished social contract of U.S. society, which defines the obligations we typically accept implicitly between ourselves for social benefit, is being renegotiated in what seems to be every corner of the country. Attitudes and behaviors quietly challenged in the recesses of one’s own mind or among trusted confidants are now being publicly tried. The U.S. is experiencing a moment of public self-reflection and reformation.
The process is necessarily chaotic to an extent because our population is vast and our differences numerous. Fortunately, our society contains sensitive individuals who listen carefully and bring a level of order to our conversations by drawing portraits in their chosen medium. These portraits are mere representations and are necessarily incomplete because no individual can hold the entire truth of society or nature in their mind, and if they could, it is unlikely that they could convey it to us. We learned from Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own (1929) that the best anyone can do is “give one’s audience the chance of drawing their own conclusions as they observe the limitations, the prejudices, the idiosyncrasies of the speaker.”
With this document, I aim to appeal to the reader to carefully and patiently consider the following portrait of a proposition to a controversial subject along with its limitations, prejudices, and idiosyncrasies. Many subjects discussed have incited me to reflection and action, but the matter of whether or not African Americans can be racist has succeeded in drawing me out as a writer. Despite the unabashed chorus to the contrary, I believe African Americans can, in fact, be racist, and I believe part of the racist damage suffered by African Americans is caused by our inadvertent adherence to the ideology.
To begin, let us consider a definition of racism for I believe the fate of our investigation hinges on this definition. Racism is a kind of ideology. An ideology is essentially a collection of related beliefs about reality. The ideology, racism, consists of at least two beliefs. The first is race, which is the notion that the human population consists of distinct species. The second is a race hierarchy, which is the notion that some races are inherently superior based on intellectual and moral potential and capacity. Racism is a mature and established ideology. Established ideologies, according to Hannah Arendt in her landmark book,The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), claim “to possess either the key to history, or the solution for all the ‘riddles of the universe,’ or the intimate knowledge of the hidden universal laws which are supposed to rule nature and man.”
The belief at the bottom of racism is race, which, in its origins, is the explanation Europeans used for people they did not understand or whose humanity might shame them. It did not “signify any genuine curiosity about the human races as a field for scientific exploration,” rather it was fixed and used to explain how people behave or how history unfolds. It was more convenient for them to think of these strangers as members of a distinct and inferior species as opposed to equal members of the human race worth of respect and consideration. Consider this passage from James Baldwin’s essay The White Problem (1964) for further illustration:
“The people who settled the country [America] had a fatal flaw. They could recognize a man when they saw one. They knew he wasn’t—I mean you can tell, they knew he wasn’t—anything else but a man; but since they were Christian, and since they had already decided that they came here to establish a free country, the only way to justify the role this chattel was playing in one’s life was to say that he was not a man. For if he wasn’t a man, then no crime had been committed. That lie is the basis of our present trouble.”
The lie continues to persist decades later. We, human beings, as a function of our biology use belief to interface with reality and to make crucial decisions in life. The value of reflection and learning arises from the fact that we are neither omniscient or flawless in the establishment of our beliefs about nature, society, and, most importantly, ourselves. Experience forces us to question our beliefs and discard the ones we find to be untrue, if that’s what we choose to do. The “scientific spirit”, as Whitman called it, is “the holding off, the being sure but not too sure, the willingness to surrender ideas when the evidence is against them…it always keeps the way beyond open—always gives life, thought, affection, the whole man, a chance to try over again after a mistake—after a wrong guess.” Racism is made of wrong guesses. If we need more specificity than “human” in understanding ourselves, then “ethnicity”, a cultural rather than biological system of classification, is far more appropriate. It is more open to human possibility and development than the restrictive, anti-human illusion of race.
At this point, if we accept racism as a system of belief about reality and we accept African Americans as human beings who use belief to interface with reality and to make crucial life decisions, then we must conclude that African Americans can be racist. The damage caused by believing in racism is that it clouds authentic self-awareness and self-exploration which are indispensable to dignity and self-command. It is impossible for us to live our best lives as adherents to race thinking. Let’s let it go even if others find it too difficult to do the same.
James, Michael, “Race”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/race/>.