February 17, 2009

Race across America

Jeremiah Wright’s speech shows America’s unique willingness to discuss race issues.

Like any self-respecting white American liberal, I enjoy bouts of self-flagellation over the xenophobia and religiosity of my fellow Americans. So when Reverend Wright spoke at Rockefeller Chapel last Tuesday about how America is singularly racist and uniquely ignorant of other cultures, I might have been expected to lap his words up with gusto. But I’m getting kind of tired of hearing about America’s racism and ignorance.This isn’t because I believe racism has been defeated here, that the election of Obama expiated our sins. But I do think that some who call America a bigot’s paradise, especially in Europe, are too eager to cast the first stone. Let me turn to a story about a black American’s experience in Belgium. Thisguy, a student at the University of Michigan, was hanging out at a public pool with a French friend. After they left, the friend told him that he had overheard a teenage Belgian girl say to her friend, “I don’t want to get in the pool with that black guy in there; he’ll dirty it up.”Granted, this is anecdotal, and the student’s experience could be entirely unique. Perhaps I didn’t get the entire relevant context; it could have been an extremely off-color joke, implying only a desire to push the envelope of good taste. Maybe this student was like Pigpen in Peanuts, surrounded by a cloud of dirt. But you could find few places in America where this sort of talk, even in jest, is acceptable in public or in private. Yet there’s more to this than just what we think is in good taste.Right now, people all over Europe feel that their cultural integrity is threatened by mass immigration; the fact that culture is promoted by the state certainly contributes to the idea that there is a paradigmatic Italian, Frenchman, German, Spaniard, or Belgian, and that this model is being subverted by peoples who have their own cultures. The rise of far-right parties in some European countries is atestimony to the ways in which economics and prejudice intertwine in Europe. All of this has been said before, in much more sophisticated ways, by scholars in both America and Europe.It’s not that Americans aren’t worried about mass immigration or some ideal vision of American culture. Although America continues to be a place where our ideals vie with our prejudices, over the years our bleak history has been brought to the light of day, and the fraught consequences of thathistory for the future have been discussed extensively. The issue of race and culture has been at the center of national debates time and again, and though much of what is said about it is less than brilliant, the fact that we talk about it at all is remarkable. Europeans sometimes express astonishment that Americans are so hung up about race, as if this were a flaw. But it’s only the result of living in a society where cultures and races have mixed for hundreds of years. Not only are we now incredibly sensitive to anything having to do with race in this country, but we’ve officially recognized America’s shortcomings many times over.Perhaps these weren’t shortcomings at all, in the sense of deviations from our “chosen path” of free, equal democracy, but logically followed from the way our country is constituted. That’s the image of a radically flawed America that Wright sometimes espouses and which I’m willing to take seriously. But our acute awareness of race and our racial past is in stark contrast to official European attitudes. To use another (unfortunately also Belgian) example, the Royal Museum for Central Africa, outside Brussels, is supposed to document the Belgian colonial experience in the Congo. Yet up until recently there was no mention there of the 10 to 15 million Congolese killed for rubber. On the other hand, our National Slavery Museum’s sole objective is to document the horror America’s economic system abetted.Let’s be clear: Just because we’ve built a museum doesn’t mean the job is done. The point is that years ago we started a conversation about the bleak history of our past and the complexities of living in a racially and culturally diverse country. The Europeans are just beginning to discuss what it means to live in a polyglot society. There are historical reasons for the relative newness of deep racial disputes in Europe: Because the Europeans kept their racial problems in the colonies, at arm’s length, they didn’t have to confront alien cultures and races on their home turfs until relatively recently. The world has ignorance and bigotry to spare, and America, at least in this respect, doesn’t claim a disproportionate share.

Ben Rossi is a third-year in the College majoring in philosophy. He is a Maroon Voices Editor.