Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!: Exposing Racism in the 21st Century

Frederick Douglass once wrote: “Slavery cannot stand. Its character is like that of Lord Granby: ‘it can only pass without censure as it passes without observation.'” The same can be said about racism itself, especially today—We can’t talk about the racism that still exists if we refuse to recognize it. And if we refuse to recognize it, if we can’t even talk about it, then we’re far from blotting it out altogether from our daily lives.

Which reminds me of a recent experience my partner had. A little while back, she attended a workshop on gender and race relations. That night she arrived home, eager to share with me what had occurred at the workshop, specifically, a story the facilitator shared with the class. The story is as follows. One evening, while at the grocery store, a child referred to him as a “chocolate man.” The mother, embarrassed (of course), immediately tried to correct her daughter, explaining to her—reprimanding her, even—that that wasn’t right, that she shouldn’t say such things. Calmly, with a smile, this man replied to both the mother and daughter: “Hey, it’s ok, let’s talk about this.” For the next five minutes he explained to the child the entire spectrum of chocolate—that there’s white chocolate, milk chocolate, dark chocolate…and so on and so forth.

The point to this, of course, is that racism today often appears in such covert ways. And, no less important, when it does appear, no matter how covert it is, it’s imperative to talk about it, to open up the conversation, primarily to foreclose racism from becoming a deep-rooted, unconscious inclination.

The more radical point to be made here is that, political correctness—in this instance, the mother quickly censuring her child—can sometimes circumvent the much-needed discourse surrounding race relations. It can act as a resignation to the reality of racism, rather than directly engaging with its errors for the sake of abolishing it.

That said, fifty years after the celebrated March on Washington—at which Martin Luther King Jr. called for an end to racism—racism still persists, despite what we’re told, that we live in a “color blind” society. To wit, mass incarceration in the US, writes Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow, has “emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow.” People of color who are released from prison are often stripped of their voting rights, excluded from juries, segregated, forced to live a life along the margins of this so-called “color blind” society.

Nearly one-third of all African American males are under criminal justice supervision; and despite being somewhere between six- and ten-percent of the US population, nearly 50-percent of the US prison population is comprised of people of color. That’s a staggering statistic, especially considering that the US imprisons more people than any other country around the globe. Most inmates are there for drug offenses; infractions that drug using whites seldom see sentences for. This is merely a fact, one that reflects an indisputable racial bias.

Author and professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas, Robert Jensen, avers that there’s even a problem with the term “people of color”: “the problem with [this term],” he writes, “is that it takes the focus off white people.” If we were to invert the focus, it’s likely we’d soon come to realize that the US is still segregated, primarily in terms of housing. According to the 2012 Fair Housing Trends Report, put out by the National Fair Housing Alliance, a conservative estimate of housing discrimination in the US puts the number at four million every year.

Here, one should consider that the way in which many white Americans perceive communities of people of color can often be referred to as what Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, calls an “imaginary cartography,” which “projects onto the real landscape its own shadowy ideological antagonisms.” In his book The Fragile Absolute, Žižek describes the “imaginary cartography” in terms of how Western Europe perceives the Balkans; he writes:

Then there is “reflexive” Politically Correct racism: the multiculturalist perception of the Balkans as the terrain of ethnic horrors and intolerance, of primitive irrational warring passions, to be opposed to the post-nation-state-liberal-democratic process of solving conflicts through rational negotiation, compromise and mutual respect. Here racism is, as it were, elevated to the second power: it is attributed to the Other, while we occupy the convenient position of a neutral benevolent observer, righteously dismayed at the horrors going on “down there.”

Do we not find a striking similarity between Žižek’s description of the way in which the Balkans are perceived by the rest of Europe, and the way in which much of black America is perceived by the rest of white America? It appears that America, too, has its own “imaginary cartography,” one which attributes to those living in ghettos across the country a “terrain of ethnic [hostility] and intolerance, of primitive irrational [violent] passions, to be opposed to the […] process of solving conflicts through rational negotiation, compromise and mutual respect.”

Regardless of its contours and features, racialization and racism is part and parcel of a larger ideology, one that posits the egregious claim that there exists in the world certain people who, by virtue of their race, by virtue of their skin color, or by virtue of their income, or whatever else it may be, are either inferior or superior to others. And insofar as it’s an ideology, it also exists in the capacity of a system: it’s a way of organizing a society; it instructs people how to view, in a very specific, erroneous way, the world and those who inhabit it. And albeit many of us claim to not consciously believe in racial superiority or inferiority, many seldom, if ever, question the social policies, or the existence of social arrangements managed by said policies, which ultimately serve to maintain an imbalanced dichotomy between those who are deemed superior and those who are deemed inferior. Between those born into privilege, and those born into poverty.

Such an ideology inevitably leads to cruel and unjust discrimination, to hatred even, which, in effect, creates a wretched place for those who are discriminated against. We’re often told that in today’s “post-ideological” world, we are beyond racism. After all, we’ve elected a black president. But the way in which racism exists today is more complex than just the standard historical accounts of brutal bigotry (though sometimes it’s still expressed in the same old disgusting ways). Today racism is more covert, often obfuscated by economic and class relations, obscured by the language of political correctness, and so on.

What must be addressed is this: There are those who see the exclusive focus of new racisms and intolerances in the First World as being cynical in the face of real Third World problems; poverty, violence, hunger, and so on. But yet, this dismissal of the First World problems of racism is itself a form of “racist escapism.” That is to say, by focusing only on the abject conditions of the Third World, one avoids engaging in the social plights of the First World. Here one is merely elevating their First World status to the level of what Teju Cole, writing for The Atlantic, coined the “white savior complex”, which is not that dissimilar from the concept of the “imaginary cartography” emphasized earlier: the egregious idea that the racial Other cannot govern itself, and thus requires a Western, liberal intervention.

The job of today’s true liberal, then, is to recognize the racism, the antagonisms, that still persist in a so-called “color blind” society, and to recognize that this belongs to a larger constellation of oppressive power structures, which affects the world at large. To dismantle this repulsive system of racist oppression, one should heed the advice of Frederick Douglass—one should “Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!”

by Frank Smecker