February 14, 2009

Reverend Wright and American racism

Like any self-respecting white middle class American liberal, I enjoy my bouts of self-flagellation over the xenophobia and religiosity of my fellow Americans. So when Reverend Wright talked in Rockefeller Chapel 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 don't believe that there is racism here, and I certainly don't think that the election of Obama expiated our sins. But let me now turn to a story about a black American's experience in Belgium. This guy, 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."

Again, this is merely anecdotal and could be entirely unique. Perhaps I haven't gotten all the relevant context; it could have been an extremely off-color joke, implying only a desire to push the envelope of good taste. Perhaps this student was like Linus 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 being threatened by mass immigration; the fact that culture is promoted by the state there certainly plays a role in the emphasis on the idea that that there is a paradigmatic Italian, Frenchman, German, 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 a testimony to the ways in which economics and race- and culture-prejudice intertwine in Europe. All of this has been said before, in much more sophisticated ways, by scholars in America and Europe.

I don't want to suggest that Americans aren't worried about mass immigration or some ideal vision of American culture. What I'm trying to get at is the fact that in America we've done horrible things, but over the years these things have been brought into the light of day and discussed extensively. The issue of race and culture has been in the center of national debate 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. 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 there is very little mention there of the 10 to 15 million Congolese killed for rubber. Our National Slavery Museum is located in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Let's be clear: I'm not saying because we've built a museum, the job is done. The point is we're talking about it, and the Europeans are just beginning to open that dialogue. Maybe the reasons for this are historical: Keeping their racial problems in the colonies, at arm's length, meant the Europeans didn't have to confront alien cultures and races on their home turf, but could sneer at Americans for their prejudices. But the world has ignorance and bigotry to spare, and America, at least in this respect, doesn't claim a disproportionate share.