Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Me, Myself, and I: Thoughts About Socially Constructed Identities

Me: (object) The canvas where society projects it's understanding of language and culture. 

Myself: (subject) The reflexive battleground where preconceived notions will be accepted as truths or faced and defeated.  

I: (agency) A higher or lower synthesis that determines if society was right in the original classification process. 

All of us are born into cultures that have their own system for placing people in categories that govern social interactions. Any and every discernible difference can be used as the basis for these classifications. At an elementary level, we're all aware of these distinctions; however, too few of us are willing to admit that these categories- no matter how good or bad- are a constitutive part of language. Dialogue would be impossible without enough mutually shared concepts, symbols, and gestures. When someone says she's attractive, I have know what that means based on my conception and understanding of beauty. Likewise, the first judgments we receive are a reflection of the category the person doing the interpreting places us in. We're powerless to affect the initial judgments cast upon us: what the culture says about us may be in conflict with who we are, but this antinomy is part of the "me" problem.  

The curse of self-fulfilling prophecy is an invisible struggle for those on the bottom of the socioeconomic and racial ladder. Too many kids are living a life based on the lowered expectations of others. When society says you're (x), but your true identity is closer to (y) self-doubt can make bad decisions look reasonable. (Myself) is the interpersonal battleground where the fight against negative imagery takes place. Without positive reinforcement during the developmental years this task can be virtually impossible for kids dealing with negative self imagery. As adults we have to be cognizant of the role we play in helping a child cultivate a self. Every ounce of self-esteem we have has roots in love that we weren't responsible for receiving. As a nation we've bought into the lie that we, as individuals, are solely responsible for our successes and failures. When there's a breakdown in the positive feedback loop it can amplify self-doubt in the mind of highly impressionable kids: Am I a good person, or is grandma just being nice? If my community sees me as a decent person, why can't greater society see me the same way? These types of questions are important. 

In a perfect world we would be judged by our consistent efforts and actions. (I am) is a powerful declaration. If (I am) isn't reflected in (I do) then a closer look at the process is necessary. We can have a number of identities projected onto us, but it's our responsibility to make sure the negative ones aren't true. We can't force people to respect us. The initial judgments we face are part of life: they will always be there, but we don't have to be a prisoner to them. If we allow perceptions to define us they can stifle our growth and limit our agency. Don't try to restructure the history of social interactions: you'll fail. We need to learn as much about the past as possible in order to get a better understanding of how to shape the future. Ultimately, the most important judgement we face will be reflected back at us in a mirror. (I) is where the good stuff happens. (I) allows us to determine our outcomes. (I) doesn't have to worry about the way society views us because (I) knows they are wrong. Bondage doesn't need physical shackles to be effective, but once you overcome the power of society's judgement: you will never be the victim of anyone's opinion.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Do We Really Have That Many Choices?

Coke or Pepsi, Sprite or 7up on the surface they seem like real choices. Too often we're sold the same commodities in different packaging. These false choices extend to our politics. The costs associated with running a national or statewide election filters out a lot of independently minded folks. The choices we have may look vastly different, but what's beneath the surface? Yes, Dasani and Aquafina are owned by different companies, but they're both water. Tropicana and Ocean Spray both sell orange juice, but don't confuse Sprite for water. Don't let the illusion of a lot of choices trick you. Dig deeper and see if there's qualitative differences in front of you.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Questions About Torture

I'm against all forms of state sanctioned torture. If, however, you support torture, is there a line that shouldn't be crossed? If so, who decides?

Friday, September 11, 2015

Race Issues Part 2 Black on Black Crime: The bourgeois Edition

If you Google black on black crime you'll be bombarded by statistics detailing inner city violence, pictures of chalk outlines and countless stories about the lives that have been destroyed. What you won't find are many stories chronicling the way some inside the black bourgeois are attacking poorer and less educated blacks. This form of black on black crime is often overlooked by many, but exploited by those who seek to validate the criminalization of  blacks. The most tasteless form of these attacks are levelled by "elites" who seek to distance themselves from the negative imagery associated with black life. In Lacanian terms this is symbolic castration. They (the black bourgeois) seek to separate themselves from stereotypes associated with their black skin.   

Every ethnic group has distinctions that can be used to create artificial hierarchies. Historically, the black community has used skin pigmentation, hair texture, and even eye color as in-group out-group signifiers. In sociological terms this is called colorism. Many of these distinctions have roots in slavery where light skin and straight hair were favored. The wealth and status gains made by blacks in the last half of the 20th century have provided another layer of distinction for those looking to embrace a false sense of superiority. 

As a teenager Spike Lee's movie School Daze opened my eyes to the various rifts that exist in the black community. There were two dominant forms of black on black crime  in School Daze. The first type was class based between the locals (who were often depicted as envious and jealous) and the students (who were mostly depicted as entitled and pretentious). The second type was race based between the dark skinned Pan-African students (depicted as militant and angry) and the light skinned fraternity brothers (depicted as fake and sellouts). 

In the 25 plus years since School Daze was released the psychological warfare between segmented groups inside the black community has grown more vicious. Social media has given a larger platform to blacks willing to spread the seeds of fear, distrust and hatred. As evidence for this claim I offer the likes of Reverend Jesse Lee Peterson, Tommy Sotomayor and Pastor James David Manning. These men are my trinity of black hatred. You can find clips of each of them making the most derogatory statements about black people. Their critiques (mostly inarticulate and overly simplistic) are disguised as tough love, yet they rarely offer any serious solutions to the systemic or cultural problems facing the black America. They share a common ideology that blames black victims of racial injustice as the culprits of their predicament. These men have in their own way justified slavery, Jim Crow, inadequate schools, stop-and-frisk, mass incarceration and police brutality.

The ironic and fatal flaw in their worldview is that no level of self aggrandizement can separate them from their black skin. These self righteous blacks are susceptible to the same racial profiling and discrimination they dismiss or outright deny. From a phenomenological standpoint all of us are powerless in mitigating the way others tattoo us with their perceptions of the world. There isn't enough black on black crime to insulate the black bourgeois from non blacks who hold similar views about black men and women. My goal isn't to deflect or silence their criticism, but to call into question those voices who have nothing but contempt for black people. 


Race Issues Part 1: The Whitewashing of American History

A friend sent me a link to an article written by Dennis Prager titled "From The Great-Man Theory to Dead White-Male-Criticism Theory".  As I was reading this article I was convinced that most people fall into one of four categories when it comes to race and racism in America. While this isn't a rigid theory, I think it will start a conversation.
As I was reading this article it convinced me that most people fall into one of four schools of thought when it comes to race and racism in America. While this isn't a rigid theory, I think it will start a conversation.
The first group of people belong to the school of "racial-realist": they acknowledge the progress made in areas concerning racial equality, but realize discrimination is still a part of life for some. They tend to support solutions to racial issues through the use of political and social power. Often they have a sensitivity to victims of discrimination and are more likely to be activists. 
The second school is inhabited by those I call "hyper-racialist". Members of this group have the ability to find racism in every aspect of life: any situation can be viewed through a hyper-racial lens. Tragically, the underlying causes of many problems are overlooked in lieu of the easier knee jerk charge of racism. Hyper-racialist are the hypochondriacs weakening the claims of discrimination by those with legitimate grievances.
The third school is comprised of people who are "racially-indifferent". They work and live in enclaves where the majority of their interactions are with people of similar racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. Their indifference isn't built on apathy, but comes from being disconnected from the realities of minority groups. Quiet forms of racism go unnoticed by many in this group because they don't hear the whispers. 
The last group are "race-negators". They are invested in the wholesale idea that we live in a post-racial America. They acknowledge the racism in our country's past, but completely negate racism as a serious issues in our lifetime. 21st century suffering in minority communities is often blamed on a lack of Protestant morality and work ethic. This ideology is necessary to maintain the illusion of an egalitarian society in which merit outranks privilege. Mr. Prager's analysis leads me to believe he falls into this category. 
His article starts out contrasting the nostalgic way older Americans look at paintings of the founding fathers versus the way (he feels) academia and younger Americans look at them. This is Dennis Prager in his own words:

When Americans over the age of, let us say, 45 look at any of the iconic paintings of America’s Founders — the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the signing of the Constitution, George Washington crossing the Delaware, any of the individual portraits of the Founders — what do they see?
They see great men founding a great country.
If you ask many recent college graduates what they see when they look at these paintings, the chances are that it is something entirely different.
They are apt to see rich, white males who are not great and who did not found a great country. And for many, it is worse than that. These men are not only not great; they are morally quite flawed in that they were slaveholders, or at least founded a country based on slavery. Moreover, they were not only all racists — they were all sexists, who restricted the vote to males. And they were rich men who were primarily concerned with protecting their wealth, which is why they restricted the vote to landowners.
Mr. Prager is trapped inside an ideological black hole that doesn't allow him to question or dismiss the rigidity of his own beliefs, nor does it allow any information contrary to his beliefs filter in and challenge him. He isn't alone. many "race-negators" have an overly simplistic worldview. The fact that the very claims he's ridiculing academia for discussing are true (for many of the founding fathers) is of no consequence to him. Instead of working through the duality in life to find a synthesis, he pretends it doesn't exist.
Sadly, this is what passes for cultural analysis. He (and many like him) offers some of the least sophisticated and intellectually dishonest arguments about culture and race. It's possible to look at the founding fathers and appreciate their courage and brilliance, while simultaneously acknowledging the cowardly and immoral way they subjugated women and blacks. Both things are true and worthy of discussion.  
I liken this whitewashing of history to a husband who has been a good father and provider, but abusive to his wife. His friends are constantly reminding the wife how much the kids love him while trying to convince her she's overreacting. The idea that historical figures should be remembered solely for the good they've accomplished is symptomatic of an ideology built on a fairy tale. The founding fathers get a pass that others don't. How many people remember O.J. Simpson as simply being hall of fame football player and pitchman? 
Mr. Prager finishes his piece with a diatribe centered on values. He makes the claim that the left and academia never extol the values that made the founding fathers great. This is an example of the whitewashing of history. Any mention of our brutal past and the role that past continues to play in the present is seen as an attack on greatness. There are political groups and think tanks that exist for the sole purpose of distorting history. Some very smart and educated people have allowed money and political ideology to delegitimize the universities that opened doors for them. 

Why America Needs Strong Black Conservatives

I've argued many times that the two party system, as it currently exists, lacks the ability and will to structurally change the lives of everyday people. Much of my critique revolves around the grotesque amount of money in politics, and the corporate media's failure to accurately report on economic, political, and social events. The democratic component of our republic has been circumvented, and we (as a nation) need an intellectual awakening (or reawakening) to recover it.

Since it would be virtually impossible to remove money from politics or make the corporate media do it's job; I'm led to believe a few moderate changes could lead us down the road to higher political discourse. One of these ideas is to promote "authentic" black conservatives. The "authentic" is an appropriation of a thesis offered by Chidike Okeem (a writer and conservative commentator). Chidike calls for authentic black conservatives to push back against the "artificial" black conservatives who parrot the talking points of the conservative media noise machine.

As simple as it may seem, promoting strong black conservatives could have the dual effect of breaking the 50 year monopoly the Democratic party has on the black vote, while somewhat negating the media's role in interpreting and disseminating political arguments to the black community. Although blacks only make up 13% of the country we vote 90% of the time with Democratic candidates. Here's a quote from Chidike:

  It is an analytical mistake to confuse blacks’ rejection of mainstream conservatism as a wholesale rejection of conservative thought. Rather, it is simply a rejection of artificial black conservatism. Manifestly, the most visible form of black conservatism in American society is the artificial strain. That is to say, many prominent black conservatives use their blackness as a convenient cosmetic feature, but blackness is truly foreign to their ideology. They use the problems in the black community as an opportunity to deride black people—as opposed to persuading blacks about the superiority of conservative solutions.

While I don't agree with his contention that conservative solutions are superior, I do think they are vital for pushing forth politically realistic solutions to our economic and societal woes. Having black conservatives, who aren't beholden to any political or economic power structure, in a more prominent role could cause African Americans to give the Republican party a second look.

The negativity many blacks feel towards the Republican party can be traced to the use of  "artificial" black conservatives to validate some of the worst stereotypes about black life in America. Whether it's O.J. Simpson, Trayvon Martin, or Ferguson, Missouri "artificial" black conservatives are trotted out in mass to diagnose the problem[s] with black people instead of the underlying failures of society that produce the problems of black people. 

Sadly, it's the black conservatives who show a proficiency in sociology, economic theory, and political know how who are relegated to the backbench, while the useful idiots are front and center. The Reverends Daniel Manning and Jesse Lee Peterson are much more useful to the conservative media complex because their brand of vitriol create ratings. The genius of the conservative media is that they aren't tasked with winning elections. They only have to win ratings. The failure is that this strategy isolates many blacks who may have conservative leanings .

I'm not a conservative or a liberal, but I recognize the need to dialectically work through 21st century problems. America needs strong political parties. For many libertarians and conservatives the idea of economic solutions coming from Washington or out of a state house is anathema. I warn the anti government crowd: living out an ideological fantasy based on what government "should" be doesn't deal with what government is. We're never going to shrink government down small enough to drown it in a bathtub, but we can make it work better. By focusing on subtle fixes we may surprise ourselves and solve the big issues. Black conservatives could provide the pendulum swing needed to break the partisan deadlock. 

Thursday, September 3, 2015

America's Longest Conversation

“To educate the masses politically does not mean, cannot mean, making a political speech. What it means is to try, relentlessly and passionately, to teach the masses that everything depends on them; that if we stagnate it is their responsibility, and that if we go forward it is due to them too, that there is no such thing as a demiurge, that there is no famous man who will take the responsibility for everything, but that the demiurge is the people themselves and the magic hands are finally only the hands of the people.” 
― Frantz Fanon

Anyone who has spent time on crutches knows how good it feels to walk unaided. If, however, you were bedridden or in a wheel chair those crutches would be a major achievement. That's how civil rights function in America. The life of racial and ethnic minorities is leaps and bounds better than their ancestor's, but that can't be the only metric we use to judge progress. It's easy for someone in 2015 to question the motives of those who highlight racial disparities in our economic, educational, and legal systems, but how many of those critical of the shared struggle for equality can honestly say race and ethnicity don't factor into the lives of minorities? 

I've written more about race in the last two years than I have at any point in my life. I've started a few dozen articles on religion, philosophy, politics, and economics only to have my writing taken hostage by the intractability of being a black man in the age of yellow journalism: conservative talk radio and Fox news. I'm tired of being a prisoner in this fight, yet if I don't attempt to refute the images of black life being sold to those who ingest the fear and hatred spread over our public airways I can't sleep. I spend hours writing blog posts and opinion pieces that hardly get read in order to keep myself from drowning a sea of anger and impotence. Fifty years ago Dick Gregory said the Negro has never been able to control his image; fifty years later his aphorism still rings true. I don't care what someone thinks of me, but I do care that there are people who actively project their worst fears onto my nieces and nephews. 

It's almost impossible to advocate for equality and not make enemies. Race is touchy: so touchy that some of my closest relationships have become strained. If, people who've known me for thirty years are uncomfortable hearing about racial inequalities, is it worth it to engage segments of our society who have become racially exhausted or downright jingoistic as a response to the resurrection of black activism? For too many of the best and brightest in the black community the answer to that question is no. Everyone is entitled to live their lives the best way they see fit, so I won't indict those who choose to stand on the sidelines, but I hope their silence eats at them a little each day. Denying racism allows racism to persist.

The inadequacies at the center of today's movements aren't a result of a collective delusion. Chronicling discrepancies has nothing to do with trying to make white people feel guilty. I don't know, specifically, what others want, but my motivation is to make it easier for someone to acknowledge racism, and ultimately find the courage to use their agency to help tear it down. Our focus should be on creating an atmosphere where even subtle racist, sexist, and homophobic attitudes and policies are so toxic and stigmatized that no one wants to be associated with them. We have the power to put pressure on the individuals who constitute the institutions that allow the inadequacies to continue. 

This is America's longest conversation, because it requires all of us to admit painful truths. We have three or four national conversations about race a year. The tragedy is that most of the rational voices are stifled or shut out of the conversation. Instead of productive dialogue we get cable television scream fests full of ad hominem attacks. We're stuck in a perpetual cycle in which racial incidents lead to racial outrage- which leads to public demonstration and condemnation- followed by further segmentation.