A Point of Racism

Slavery is its own thing, but, in order to really get your head around it, you have to, I think, compare it to other things. Slavery isn’t rape, though a lot of slaves were raped. But definitely watching how America deals with rape now can give you some clues as to what was going on with slavery. And watching how racism plays out now… well, same thing.

This morning, as I was thinking about it, I realized that racism plays a very important part in slavery beyond the justification for why slavery is “okay.” Racism is very important because it lets bystanders off the hook.

We’ve talked about this with rape–how there are relatively few rapists but they find cover in a society that seems geared to believe that any man, at any second, might be accused of being a rapist or, worse, might, through no fault of his own except having misunderstood his victim’s intentions, accidentally be a rapist.

So, back to slavery. We’ve talked, too, extensively about how it was impossible to really be a good slave owner. You could be good or you could be a slave owner, but you couldn’t be both, because, at some point, if you are a slave owner, you’re going to be buying rape victims from their rapists, torture victims from their torturers or selling people to people you have to know are going to rape and torture them. You are a part of the system that makes that rape and torture possible.

But it’s so important, if slavery is going to work, for the slave owners who don’t rape and torture (I’m drawing an uncomfortable distinction here between people who “just” physically coerced their captives and people who tortured them, but people, in general, were just more physically violent back then. People beat their kids and their spouses. They beat each other up for fun. They beat their slaves. And it’s not like we no longer do those things, but the scale and scope is just different now. So, I’m trying to draw a distinction, just for the sake of this point, between extraordinary violence–torture–and ordinary violence–everyone is getting knocked upside the head at some point–and not to excuse or downplay the latter.) to have a way to not see the rape and torture. And not just that, but to believe that the rapists and torturers aren’t getting a fair shake. That they need defending, because, at any moment, any slave owner might unfairly be accused of rape and torture.

This is where racism comes in. Black people are liars. Black people don’t feel pain the way white people do. Black people are lusty, practically animals in their “mating.” Black people are… oh and we hear the echoes of this right now in that case in L.A. where the school district is trying to argue that a girl with mental disabilities can’t really suffer from sexual abuse the same way a smart kid could… too stupid to really understand what’s happening to them. Black people are just looking for reasons to be upset, when really, they’re exaggerating the problem. Black leaders are just stirring them up. Etc. etc. etc.

America, by now, we all know this song well enough to sing along.

It just helps put up this screen. White people who are racist don’t have to feel the great discomfort that might spur them into bucking or dismantling the system. Racism is the mechanism by which white people learn to be just fine with horrendous evil. Not just racial inequality, should we ever get to the point when that’s the mountain we have to deal with. But the utter… I want to say “disregard” for black lives, but I feel, too, like that’s refusing to look our history and our society now straight in the face. Our society runs on the destruction of non-white bodies. Even our classism, and we’re a deeply classist society, too, is, like our homophobia is built on men being afraid of being treated by other men how they treat women, our classim has an element of treating poor white bodies like the trash (poor white trash) we treat non-white bodies like.

Racism isn’t the cause of slavery. As people will point out, there have been slaves throughout history. But racism, in our society, gathers like a thick fog to both justify slavery and to obscure from view everything that would make it seem unjustified. Racism is the mechanism by which white evildoers are shielded from justice.

9 thoughts on “A Point of Racism

  1. “We’ve talked, too, extensively about how it was impossible to really be a good slave owner”

    Curious: do you believe that slavery still exists? If so, in what form, and who is the “owner” in this current system? i.e. if there is still coerced labor via the threat of violence held as a monopoly, who is culpable? Or is it sufficient to say that slavery as it existed (coerced labor via literal ownership of people) is not the same as other forms of coerced labor existing in our current state/economy?

  2. Is there slavery like we used to have here in the United States? No. The fact that you have to put “owner” in quotation marks already shows that we’d be talking in some kind of analogy, trying to map a past atrocity onto a current one in order to call it the same thing.

    We definitely have other forms of coerced labor and we definitely have instances of people being held prisoner (like when people in the agricultural industry confiscate laborers’ papers in order to keep them from leaving or being able to prove that they’re here legally). And it is certainly nearly impossible for people in those conditions to report their sexual abuse, let alone see it punished.

    So, I mean, obviously, it’s really, really bad.

    But slavery… I mean, in some dictionary definition sense of the word, you could call it slavery.

    But I really feel like that makes antebellum slavery seem less bad than it was. Fruit pickers who are being exploited can be returned to their families. Women who are being trafficked now are being trafficked illegally. Our laws aren’t doing a great job of preventing this shit from happening, but in 1860, there were no laws to that effect at all; the laws usually went the other way. Of course you could rape your slave. You could sell the resulting children off, pocket the money, and those people would be no more to each other. If your slave ran off, the authorities and utter strangers would help you track them down.

    The whole system was set up to enforce and perpetuate slavery in a way our system now is not.

    Like I said, the way we do things is bad enough. But we have such trouble being honest about what we’ve done. A guy in Tennessee now who is kept in a building with twelve other men and who is forced to work in the fields and who can’t leave is in a similar situation to the guy 200 years ago. But they’re not in the same situation.

  3. Yeah, I’m not arguing for equivalency, just wondering if/where you could identify culpability now in similar fashion. I didn’t put owner in quotes to indicate metaphor, but rather just distribution/dispersal of ownership..(You can probably see where I’m going with this)

    If the issue is so black/white that there were no good slave owners (something I agree with, incidentally), then why can we not extrapolate that same moral rigidity to modern times? We vote for representatives who entrench institutions which commit/reinforce gross atrocities worldwide using their monopoly on violence. Given that, can you be a good voter? Are we just outsourcing/diffusing accountability?

  4. Probably. But they’ve worked so hard to keep people from voting that I still believe there’s value in it. That it literally is the only good way (even if it’s not a very good way) we have of staying on their radar as someones they have to worry about.

  5. I mean, slavery was wrong. But were the free people of color who purchased their spouses and children doing wrong? I say no. Sometimes you do what you can inside the system.

  6. I love watching discussions involving thoughtful and compassionate persons.

    If I can risk generalize Chris’s question a bit, per B.’s final statement, is it possible to behave justly within a patently unjust system?

    For example, I’ve been thinking lately about the young civil rights activists attempting to integrate lunch counters in the Jim Crow South. It’s an emblematic image of the eloquently articulated demands and dignified courage of the movement. For my curmudgeonly self, of course, it illustrates something else, as well. There were certainly many different schools of thought and individual perspectives within the Civil Rights Movement, and there were certainly many activists who were no less important and courageous for perhaps not having seen themselves as part of that movement. For the purposes of what I’m getting at here, I’ll focus on two generalized approaches: striving for reform (i.e. equal access to civic life in the U.S.) and revolution (i.e. the overthrow of the whole shebang and the construction of something new). I count among the revolutionaries MLK (toward the end of his life), Assata Shakur, and Fred Hampton. It’s my estimation that the campaigns to discredit the reformists were far less damaging than the official violence and subterfuge that effectively eliminated and neutralized the revolutionaries.

    The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, along with the wan remains of LBJ’s Great Society plans, proved to be tremendous and unprecedented regimes of reform. Unfortunately, their greatest successes provided women and non-whites with greater access to civic life in the U.S. It’s my contention that this was, all things considered, a bright, shining failure. Offering greater access to something inherently unjust and morally bankrupt is not a recipe for justice or societal health. Giving non-white folks greater mobility within a social, economic, and political system which was designed to thrive upon the exploitation and immiseration– especially of non-white folks– well, you can see where I’m going with that, I think.

    I could follow this line of reasoning at length, but I think Chris speaks ably to how this has played out. So do the headlines. Public discourse is now flooded with the ‘controversy’ of our ongoing national torture industry. We’re also seeing highly publicized cases of white cops slaughtering unarmed black folks with impunity. The list goes on.

  7. I think the philosophical problem I have, even though I’m incredibly sympathetic to the trains of thought of both you and Chris, is that I’m genuinely not sure what the alternative is. I mean, I try to live in the world as I’d like it to be. And I try not to be a huge racist or sexist or classist jackass. But I try always to keep in mind that everything about our society is set up to train me and reinforce in me jackassery of all sorts.

    But what else is there to do? Voting may be practically futile, and, indeed, it does, as you say, give us greater access to something inherently unjust and morally bankrupt. But not having that access was literally killing us. Having that access has not, as is obvious by the protests going on, solved the problem, but it has given us something to do that might make a difference.

    Hope is a terrible thing in some ways.

    But what else is there? I mean, you’re here until you die. There’s no place on the planet you can live uncorrupted. There’s no real way to refuse to participate. I don’t see a moral way to act.

    It’s one thing I’m sympathetic to the Confederates about–I don’t think most of them had a moral choice they could have made. But I remain unsympathetic to the fact that most of them weren’t honest about how profoundly immoral their society was, and, instead, insisted on it being seen as moral.

    That, to me, is our present situation. Our way of being in the world is profoundly and deeply immoral and yet, for most of us, there is no other way to be. So, within that immoral framework, what can we do? If we can’t NOT participate, can we participate in ways that mitigate some of the suffering caused by our culture’s immorality?

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