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June 20, 2016

Filed under: culture»america»race_and_class

Under our skin

This week, we've launched a major project at the Times on the words people use when talking about race in America. Under our skin was spearheaded by a small group of journalists after the paper came under fire for some bungled coverage. I think they did a great job — the subjects are well-chosen, the editing is top-notch, and we're trying to supplement it with guest essays and carefully-curated comments (as opposed to our usual all-or-nothing approach to moderation). I mostly watched from the sidelines on this one, as our resident expert on forcing Brightcove video to behave in a somewhat-acceptable manner, and it was really fascinating watching it take shape.

March 21, 2012

Filed under: culture»america»race_and_class

A Life of Reinvention

When I speak, I don’t speak as a Democrat, or a Republican... I speak as a victim of America’s so-called democracy. You and I have never seen democracy; all we’ve seen is hypocrisy. When we open our eyes today and look around America, we see America not through the eyes of someone who have — who has enjoyed the fruits of Americanism, we see America through the eyes of someone who has been the victim of Americanism. We don’t see any American dream; we’ve experienced only the American nightmare. We haven’t benefited from America’s democracy; we’ve only suffered from America’s hypocrisy. And the generation that’s coming up now can see it and are not afraid to say it.

--Malcolm X
I have always found Malcolm X fascinating, even before I had any idea of who he was beyond that of a Black Power boogieman. The Autobiography of Malcolm X sits on my shelf of favorite books--ironically, right next to Gene Sharp's Politics of Nonviolent Action trilogy. Obviously, though, I never lived during Malcolm's actual lifespan. I never experienced the political environment and struggle of his times. So it's easy to be more taken with the legend than with the actual person. It was with that in mind that I devoured Manning Marable's Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention these last few weeks.

Reinvention opens with a description of Malcolm's assassination, then jumps back to tell his story from the beginning, from his family's Garveyite black nationalism through his criminal youth, joining the Nation of Islam, and then his protracted shift into independence and orthodox Islam before his death. Marable draws extensively on historical documents and interviews, which sometimes reveals interesting new angles on his subject: although the evidence that the young Malcolm may have had sex with an older man for money has gotten a lot of attention, the most fascinating tidbits may be those that explore his relationship with his wife and children, which was often contentious and distant (or contentious because of his distance). Marable is also able to produce a detailed portrait of Malcolm's complicated dynamic within the Nation of Islam, which bloomed under his attentions but also continually worked to rein in his political ambition.

Marable describes his book as a "deconstruction" of the Autobiography, and I think that's a fair description. Haley and Malcolm's narrative is that of an acutely intelligent man struggling from low beginnings to enlightenment. Marable's digging does not contradict this, but it exposes a more complicated story: as he points out, Malcolm and Haley both had their reasons to exaggerate the arc of redemption, Malcolm for the purposes of legend-making and Haley (as a liberal Republican) to drive it towards an sensational, integrationist conclusion. The Autobiography thus tends to play up Malcolm's criminal youth (which was never really that criminal), and it short-changes his organizational struggles with the civil rights movement and with his own independent groups, the MMI and OAAU (not to mention his Nation of Islam connections with white-supremacist groups like the KKK). That filling in these details does not diminish the man is a tribute to both Marable's skill and the force of Malcolm's character.

In his epilogue, Marable looks for the core of Malcolm's impact on America--as he puts it, "the social architecture" of his subject's life:

There is now a tendency of historical revisionism, to interpret Malcolm X through the powerful lens of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: that Malcolm was ultimately evolving into an integrationist, liberal reformer. This view is not only wrong, but unfair to both Malcolm and Martin. King saw himself, like Frederick Douglass, first and foremost as an American, who pursued the civil rights and civic privileges enjoyed by other Americans. King struggled to erase the color bar of stigmatization and exclusion that had relegated racial minorities to second-class citizenship. As in the successful 2008 presidential campaign of Barack Obama, King wanted to convince white Americans that "race doesn’t matter"—in other words, the physical and color differences that appear to distinguish blacks from whites should be meaningless in the application of justice and equal rights.

In striking contrast, Malcolm perceived himself first and foremost as a black man, a person of African descent who happened to be a United States citizen. This was a crucial difference from King and other civil rights leaders. ... Malcolm perceived black Americans as an oppressed nation-within-a-nation, with its own culture, social institutions, and group psychology. Its memories of struggles for freedom were starkly different from those of white Americans. At the end of his life he realized that blacks indeed could achieve representation and even power under America’s constitutional system. But he always thought first and foremost about blacks’ interests. Many blacks instinctively sensed this, and loved him for it.

The Malcolm that Marable reveals was a charismatic leader and an intriguing thinker, but a mediocre organizer and an absent family man. He spent his entire life struggling his way free of one toxic system, often only to fall headlong into another--too big to fit within the apolitical confines of the Nation of Islam, while unable to completely grow beyond its restrictions. His story is in many ways a tragedy, and like the best tragedies it was partly due to forces beyond his control, and partly built on the strength of his own principles. Marable explores how time and time again, Malcolm reinvented himself, but couldn't completely shed the legacy of prior reinventions.

Historical revisionism has served to sanitize both X and King--the latter's history as a strong anti-war speaker and a controversial advocate for social justice has been nearly erased in favor of a bland, easily-appropriated anti-racism. Malcolm, meanwhile, is often reduced to a double-sided parody: either the straight-laced, separationist Muslim in a suit and bow-tie, or the militant Black Power revolutionary held aloft by a new generation. The truth as Marable shows it is more shaded, more imperfect, and more difficult to reduce to a single ideological point of view. It's always better to see our heroes as people, not as cartoons, but for Malcolm X it's in line with the sum of his life: a constant demand for complexity and engagement. In this, Marable's book is sometimes unflattering, but it also represents a deep respect for its subject, one that leaves readers more admiring of the man than the myth.

February 22, 2010

Filed under: culture»america»race_and_class


I don't remember where I was, the first time I heard the name Malcolm X. I remember that I was maybe 8 years old, growing up in Lexington, Kentucky. It was a mostly African-American neighborhood, so it could have been anywhere, really. I think I remember being confused by the 'X'--how could that be a last name? How did he sign forms or documents? And as someone who fumed at the end of every class roll call and official ceremony, I wondered: why didn't he pick a letter closer to the start of the alphabet?

At that age, of course, history is a pretty boring topic, but I don't remember learning about Malcolm X in class. I don't think I ever really discussed him with my parents, either. He was a cipher, a vaguely sinister one for some reason (maybe the name, maybe not). It wasn't until college, when I took a class on social movements and persuasion, that I learned more about the man: his militance within the Nation of Islam, his pilgrimage to Mecca, and the change in his thinking as a result. It was a revelation, a whole part of the civil rights story that I'd never learned about--and I was simultaneously shamed that I'd never bothered to find out about it on my own.

A couple of years ago, I finally got around to reading his autobiography, and was struck all over again. It's a fascinating story: told to Alex Haley during a time when Malcolm X was himself undergoing a serious self-examination, it's a chronicle of transformation on both explicit and implicit levels. He was an extraordinarily complicated person, undoubtably flawed but capable of tremendous insight and intelligence. It makes clear that his assassination was truly one of the great tragedies of the civil rights movement.

Yesterday was the anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X, and of course February is Black History Month, so I've found myself thinking about this a lot lately. The thing about Black History Month is that it's a misnomer: as US citizens, Black history is our history. The fallout from slavery, segregation, and the struggle for civil rights still echo through our society in ways that we still stumble to articulate. Nobody, to my mind, represents that complex truth more than Malcolm X.

September 27, 2007

Filed under: culture»america»race_and_class

Adventures with Extremists

These Louis Theroux documentaries from the BBC are fascinating.

The Most Hated Family in America

Louis and the Nazis

It's like a video version of Jon Ronson's Them. Theroux visits fringe groups in the US (in these cases, the Phelps family and a community of skinheads) and lives with them for a short time. The contrast between the domesticity of these families and the extremism of their beliefs is something he highlights, and it is a little bit unnerving--obviously, nazis have to make sandwiches for their kids too, but it's not usually what comes to mind.

September 5, 2005

Filed under: culture»america»race_and_class

The New Racism

I guess it was a couple of weeks ago that so-called researchers scratched themselves and announced that genetically speaking, women just ain't too good with the thinkin's. As that link to Alternet notes, this study is partly the work of Richard Lynn, a white supremacist and scholar of dubious virtue, if any. I love the fact that two of his other works include "The Intelligence of the Mongoloids" and "Positive Correlations Between Head Size and IQ." My girlfriend will be proud to know that the latter, if true, makes her smarter than just about anyone else I know.

My progressive female counterparts appear to be able to handle themselves just fine, which is no surprise to anyone. But isn't it interesting that just after Lynn clawed his way back out from under his rock, his protege Charles Murray also decided to expose his pasty skin to the light (or, considering that the link leads to Commentary Magazine, the dim flourescence of cave fungi)? Wherever Murray goes, he drags The Bell Curve along with him, allowing the Right to insist that it's not racism, it's genetics! And then Katrina has hit, and all of a sudden there are an awful lot of commenters along the same lines--those people wouldn't be poor and flooded and dying and looting if they weren't so intrinsically and genetically inferior.

Isn't that a funny little coincidence, how those two popped up together?

Well, maybe not. At least, it's no great shock to me. It's been pretty clear for some time that racism in America is alive and well. Like all creatures engaged in a Darwinian battle for survival, it has altered itself significantly in response to competitive pressures (I highly recommend Jon Ronson's Them! on the topic), but it's still here. The Bell Curve, like Intelligent Design is another attempt to shoehorn 18th century thought into 20th century science. And as much as I like to pretend that it's just the mouthbreathers with the sheets and the crosses and the GOP membership cards, there are an awful lot of people on both sides of the political spectrum (albeit increasingly common to the rightwards) who are uncomfortably thrilled at the idea.

If you're interested in the original debunking of The Bell Curve you might do well to see Eric Alterman's three-part miniseries (here, here, and here), which covers the basics. Steve Gilliard also covers Curve-apologist and idiot-compulsive Andrew Sullivan, who originally pitched the book while editing The New Republic. Steve mentions an angle that has always seemed a little suspicious to me as well--the fact that these studies always manage to confirm social prejudices, down to the slightest detail.

After all, wouldn't it be amusing if it worked the other way? If the implicit Eurocentrism of these "studies" was turned on its head? Say that (instead of results denouncing Black deviation) scholars released papers talking about how White people have a lower-than-normal level of sexual attractiveness, and tend to be weaker or clumsier than other people. When you stop using "White" as a synonym for "normal," you start to realize just how far out these claims really must be. Because the average cracker, myself included, has a subconscious adverse reaction to that kind of challenge to our hegemony, don't we?

The New Racism doesn't want to say that Blacks and other minorities should be shipped back to their home countries or treated as second-class citizens. No, heaven forbid! The end goal is perhaps more insidious. It says that the stereotypes about minorities are correct, and fit the current status quo--and because those stereotypes are genetically-determined and immutable, we should make no effort to fix the resulting injustices. In fact, the New Racism argues that it's not injustice when minorities end up trapped in the superstructure. Black people are poor and stupid (but athletic!), Asians are smart and submissive (but tiny!), etcetera, etcetera. Nothing we can do about it. That's just the way things are.

In all of this, the goal is to promote not action, but apathy. Whereas previous generations of racists (including now-beatified Chief Justice Rehnquist) explicitly set out to deny Blacks and other minorities the right to vote or to act freely, the New Racism prevents its adherents from seeing the racism there in the first place. Common to their attitude is the assertion that discrimination is no more, and racism is dead. They don't necessarily mean to do harm--but they won't do anyone any good, either. And so whatever progress we've made will simply halt here, if they have their way, while it should be clear to anyone who simply takes the time to ask that there is still much work to be done.

Indeed, as I've said, some of the worst offenders I've met really should have known better. They're the people who insist that Black people are just naturally more athletic. They're the people who extrapolate deep lessons about Asian culture from anime and kung fu movies. They're the people who laugh at Black comics because a taboo has been crossed, not because the humor is an intersection between fantasy and the uncomfortable truth, as if it were the equivalent of a fart joke. Even having friends who are minorities can't stop these people from finding well-meaning, utterly poisonous generalizations in the world around them--those are exceptions or illustrations of the rules, to the New Racists. It's easy to fall into the trap of these arguments. I worry about it myself.

The Bell Curve is like the canary in the mine shaft, but inverted. Whenever it pops up again into the fresh air, you can be sure that we'll also see a revival in a particularly grotesque Social Darwinism. Unfortunately, I think these attitudes may simply be a part of our particular nation's capitalism. They are part of the dark side of the American Dream: Horatio Alger only makes sense if everyone really is equal, and to admit to inequality is to start down a long road questioning the basic values of American life. Where is that large automobile? This is not my beautiful house! This is not my beautiful wife!

This weekend, I helped Belle sign up students for the ESL program she coordinates. I sat across the table from people who didn't speak much English, if they spoke any at all, and tried to work through the forms with them. My Spanish is clumsy, so communication was rocky at times, and it would have been easy to see the other as the root--ignorant immigrants versus the benevolent and educated American. It would have been easy, and it would have been lazy, and it would have been wrong. Because when you stop thinking of people as just deviations from a racial profile (genetic or otherwise) you can see them as a distinct and interesting person worthy of your help. Likewise, the victims of Katrina (and of our society's racism/classism) aren't looters, or refugees, or thugs. They're people just like us with problems we need to solve, and we can't do that until we clear the Bell Curve smoke from our eyes and see them clearly.

Future - Present - Past