Changing the question on race

I’ve had a few “race discussions” this week, both online and in person. The continuing saga of the HINI flu, as well as the tragic jury decision in the murder of Luis Ramirez, have been the stage of these discussions. The dance is an old one.

This week has reminded me of how far we as a society have yet to go with respect to race. Let me try to distill this down as cogently as possible and say that much of the difficulties I witnessed this week have to do with the way we ask questions about race in our daily lives as a precursor to establishing analytical conclusions.

As I tried to say in an earlier post, I don’t think the useful question in the trial of Luis Ramirez’ murderers is whether or not the decision was “racist.”  That’s a loaded question, culturally, but it is also a simplistic and very problematic one.  The answer tells us less of what we really want to know (how race works in our daily lives and institutions) than it creates a platform for indignation or anger.  Additionally, it assumes the foundational stance of white privilege, which is a negation of race and its consequences in our lives.  In asking “if” we are inherently positioning the answer to be as likely to be true as false.  Historical knowledge makes this the equivalent of asking “Is the world flat?”

The more useful question is, as I suggest above, how is race involved in our daily lives.  This leaves open a small space for those who fear confronting the situation by allowing them to try to establish a credible explanation for how it does not, but, more importantly, it focuses our gaze toward understanding the problem and finding ways to fix it.

Few of us who work on race issues were surprised when professional fear-mongers began spewing their misinformation campaign linking the spread of the H1N1 virus (“swine” flu) to “illegal” immigration from Mexico.  It is important to note that no rational person should think this.  There is not only not evidence to prove it, the evidence we have of cross-border migrations, as I said elsewhere, actually makes it unlikely.

Spain Swine Flu

The way this movement manipulates information to play to people’s worst tendencies, nurturing their fears and pushing them toward hate, is all-too familiar.  It is, sadly, an “American tradition” stretching back for almost two centuries.  That isn’t to say there aren’t other traditions, nobler ones contesting the less savory.  But it remains so.

If we stop to have to re-prove this well-established understanding to serve the lowest common denominator with respect to racial understanding, we do nothing than stunt our more general understanding.  Many people of color who possess this understanding live with repeated interjections of frustration because those who don’t know are always in the habit of making us explain it all.

But “it” is out there already.  That you do not know is not an accident or a natural exhibition of the condition of learning (“we don’t know until we learn”).  It is by design.  You don’t know these things because of a host of forces, many of which you contribute to nurturing on a daily basis.

My point is, race is a factor.  As a teacher, I can explain it to you, and I will do so with joy:

Part of the U.S. imperial project of the 19th and 20th centuries has been related the Spanish-speaking South.  From the habitual desire to take Cuba (beginning before Jefferson); to the U.S. war with Mexico (1846-48); to the work of the State Department on the behalf of U.S. transportation, agricultural, and manufacturing interests, the U.S. and its economic tentacles have had a firm grip over the social, political, and economic histories of parts of Latin America.

Those forms of imperialism–where a foreign power (like the U.S.) can exercise an inordinate amount of power over another sovereign nation (like Mexico)–have everything to do with the way the U.S. thinks about Mexico and Mexicans.  As David Weber argued in his 30 year-old essay “Scarce More than Apes’: Historical Roots of Anglo-American Stereotypes of Mexicans,” the historically constructed ideas of Mexican “otherness”–the inferiority, the filth, the genetic and cultural backwardness–sets the stage for how we receive and make sense of everything related to them.  This includes things like the “swine flu.”

But, as a person of color living in this place at this time, recognize, I am not always happy that you don’t know already.

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