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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.

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