Race, Ideology, and Understanding (Slight Return)

8 Mar

This blog is an exercise in thought, and in writing as a form of thinking. Sometimes I don’t quite get things right, but usually I let them go. In particular, I wanted to unpack a sentence from last night’s post:

When people protest that they want their country back, is that not evidence that they recognize all too well, articulately or not, the ways wealth has been created and maintained not just in this country, but the world over, through transactions between whites over the bodies of blacks?

(Forgive my obnoxious self-citation.)

Recognition is too strong a word. Rather, the idea of “wanting one’s country back,” which many liberals, leftists and people on the right immediately understand to have a racial charge, is a misrecognition of the actual history and social relations that have shaped their lives, but that misrecognition takes the form of an active revision of the past that authorizes a particular version of the relevant political problems of the present. The official doctrine of “color-blindness” in Federal policies, for example, willfully (that is, deliberately) allows for the unacknowledged continuation of discriminatory practices, trusting that discrimination will run its course.

Such a formulation lends itself to the presumption of intention and conspiracy, which I think misses the point. To refer to structural or institutional racism is to refer to the operation of a set of institutions, legal norms, practices of interpretation and habits of mind so deeply entrenched into the fabric of our social life that, unchecked, they will operate to (re-)produce the desired hierarchies. In a different vocabulary, structural racism simply identifies that race is an articulating principle of the social, political, and ideological structures of a society. Saying so does not mean that everything is really “about” race, but that the key social, political and ideological arguments necessarily touch on and are affected by race. Intrinsic to the constitution of the laboring classes at economic, political, and ideological levels of social formation, Stuart Hall argues that “Race is thus, also, the modality in which class is ‘lived,’ the medium through which class relations are experienced, the form in which it is appropriated and ‘fought through.'”

Hall’s deployment of Althusser to discuss semi-autonomous “levels” of social formation helps forestall simplistic understandings of ideology as “false consciousness,” and does away with the need to discuss racial strategies as the activities of bad actors. Racial exclusion or authorized exposure of populations to premature death need not derive from some conscious genocidal desire. On the contrary, no one thinks it important to consider those exposed to such death, and their deaths will register as the result of some poor choices or “tangle of pathologies” that left them exposed. Promoting understanding can raise structural issues to the level of conscious thought where people can rationally “fight through” these issues, but the whole point is that no one has to consciously believe in the superiority of the white land-owning class fraction. Racism at that level is a dominant means of ideological representation that helps define the good, the worthy, the valuable, in a phrase, the common sense and the common itself.

“Race, Articulation, and Societies Structured in Dominance” is justly esteemed, and it’s well worth working through. One of its advantages is that it gives race both practical and theoretical heft in understanding more complex forms of alignment, including the alignment of the dominated with the dominant factions and apparently “against their interests.” But I wanted to work out in a preliminary way the limitations of understanding. I keep returning to Justice Taney’s Dred Scott decision, which it’s worth reading at some length (my emphases):

They [people of African descent] had for more than a century before [the framing and ratification of the Constitution] been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect, and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic whenever a profit could be made by it. This opinion was at that time fixed and universal in the civilized portion of the white race. It was regarded as an axiom in morals as well as in politics which no one thought of disputing or supposed to be open to dispute, and men in every grade and position in society daily and habitually acted upon it in their private pursuits, as well as in matters of public concern, without doubting for a moment the correctness of this opinion.

Taney throughout seems outraged that the question of black citizenship had even been brought before the court. By underscoring the “civilized portion of the white race,” he distinguishes “civilized” from “uncivilized” whites, and defining civilization through the exclusion and subjection of people of African descent. It is not a simplistic vision of race that extends benefits to all whites, but only to certain whites: the land-owning whites whose legal, social, economic and ideological arrangements structurally uphold the superiority of whites, and the inferiority of blacks. In this specific sense, “we want our country back” echoes, even unconsciously, a world in which wealth is created among whites and those amenable to this version of white supremacy over the black bodies and the bodies of those not recognized within the economic, ideological, and political arrangements necessary for the reproduction of this system–both the mode and relations of production implied.

I try to keep these posts short – sketches and rough drafts of thought, so I’ll leave it here for now.

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