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.


Luis Ramirez and American Racism

On Friday, May 1, while thousands of people in the U.S. were marching for immigrants’ rights, an “all-white” jury in Pennsylvania acquitted two “white” teens of killing a Mexican immigrant.

Derrick Donchak, 19, and Brandon Piekarsky, 17—along with Colin Walsh, 18, who did not stand trial but pleaded guilty to federal charges—beat up Luis Ramirez on July 12, 2008 in Shenandoah, PA.  They left him with his head so severely beaten that his brains were slowly leaking from his skull.  On July 14, Ramirez, who was an undocumented immigrant, died from his injuries.


There were accusations of racial epithets being used and of the crime being motivated by Ramirez’ ethnicity and race. One witness testified another youth who accompanied the accused teens shouted “This is Shenandoah. This is America. Go back to Mexico.”  Others accused Ramirez of being violent and of instigating the conflict himself.

Now a jury found Piekarsky not guilty of third-degree murder; not guilty of voluntary manslaughter; and not guilty of involuntary manslaughter. They found Donchak not guilty of aggravated assault and not guilty of assault with a deadly weapon. They found both guilty of assault. Without criminal records both are not likely to serve any time in prison.

For some coverage of the verdict, see the local Morning Call and CNN.

Some people are asking if the verdict is racist.  They want to know if these two boys were acquitted because of their race, or because of the race of the man they killed.  They wonder if immigration figures into it.

They are asking the wrong questions.

Shenandoah, the accused, the jury, the judge, the prosecutor, the witnesses, the police, the reporters, the people who sat and heard testimony, me, and you, we all have somethings in common.  We live in a society with a long tradition of nurturing a belief in the superiority of one “race” (the so-called “white”) over all others.  We live in a society with a long tradition of elaborating on the particular inferiority of each “other race.”  We live in a society with a long tradition of thinking of the nonwhite and the nonwhite immigrant and threats, as not human, and as inherently criminal.

These are not the only traditions in our society.  They are not equally encountered and inherited by each of us.  They do not absolve us of independent thought, or of the ability to interrogate and dismantle them.

But they are there.  Much more than  ideas, prejudices, and thoughts, they are the rationales our daily interactions with each other, and for our own interactions with systems of power.  They have been a shorthand for ordering our lives, for defining “we” and “they.”  They have played a role in helping you define yourself, who you are and who you are not.

In her book “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”: A Psychologist Explains the Development of Racial Identity, Beverly Daniel Tatum equates this to smog. We may not have created it, but we are born into a world polluted by it. Whether or not we like it, all of us—both people of color and “whites”—breathe it in.

Likewise, it is each of our responsibilities to do something about it.

LatinoLikeMe featured a few posts on the murder and subsequent flurry of national media attention. Even without doing much more than re-posting a story from another news source, they became heavily trafficked posts for this blog. They also inspired a host of comments. Read the ones below this post, for an example of the way certain people were moved.

You see, here’s the thing: none of the so-called “facts” here matter. No matter what “side” you are on, there should be no legal protection for beating a man until his brains seep out of his head. Irregardless of whose testimony you believe, we are all products of a reality which sympathizes “whites,” criminalizes Latinos, and dehumanizes immigrants.

I didn’t know Luis Ramirez. He might have been an asshole, he might have been a saint. In a few years, maybe more, most people not directly affected by this case will have forgotten about him, if they ever knew who he was to begin with. But that’s not really the point.

None of us should ever forget what these events tell us about ourselves, as individuals and as a society. As I wrote last summer:

“In the end, stories like this tell us far more about ourselves than about the victims or perpetrators–whether in how we make sense of it, identify with it, or seek to incorporate its balance into our lives.”


That Mexican Smell

I’m doing some archival work right now (that’s fancy historian talk for sitting in a quite room and reading dusty things people haven’t read in a long time), and I came across the following. It comes from a research report on Mexican and Anglo relations in the small, agricultural town of Castroville, California. The research was done in the 1960s.

Several Anglos said that the Mexicans have a peculiar odor which is just “part of being Mexican.” One old man went so far as to say that he could “always tell a Mexican by the way they smell.” The odor was variously described as being “sticky sweet” to “sour” but those who claimed its existence were quite positive that it was peculiarly Mexican. Two school teachers agreed that their Mexican pupils smelled differently than their “white” pupils. One of the teachers, however, thought it was only the boys who smelled.