Thursday, August 26, 2010

racism and me

The feministsf wiki says my work "features strong women characters and people of color". I never did that deliberately; I just write the kind of people I know. The strong women were inspired by my mother and sister. The strong people of color come from the civil rights struggle, which my family joined when I was a kid. Here's a picture of me and my brother at a protest:

We got death threats from anonymous callers in the middle of the night. When word was out that the Ku Klux Klan would burn us down, we couldn't get fire insurance. Compared to many other people, white and black, our part in the civil rights struggle was nothing. But I marched and I was beaten by racists who called me a niggerlover. (For more about that, see my semi-autobiographical novel, Dogland which Ellen Kushner called "A masterwork. A particularly American magic realism that touches the heart of race and childhood in our country.")

My concern with racism shaped my writing career. The main characters in my first two novels were dark-skinned. (Sadly, writers don't have any say in choosing cover art, so the dark-skinned woman didn't appear on the first book, and the second featured a European-looking man instead of one who looked Asian or African.)

Emma and I set the Liavek shared-world anthologies in an Arabian-inspired fantasy setting that was a deliberate reaction to the European-based fantasies of the time.


For the first four decades of my life, I was a liberal who believed racism was the US's greatest problem, but I came to agree with people like the Rev. Thandeka, who wrote in The Whiting of Euro-Americans: A Divide and Conquer Strategy:
...we must not forget that white racism was from the start a vehicle for classism; its primary goal was not to elevate a race but to denigrate a class.
and in Why Anti-Racism Will Fail that antiracists
...make an erroneous assumption about the nature and structure of power in America. 
...80 percent of the wealth in this country is owned by 20 percent of the population. The top 1 percent owns 47% of this wealth. These facts describe an American oligarchy that rules not as a right of race but as a right of class. One historical counterpart to this contemporary story of extreme economic imbalance is found in the fact that at the beginning of the Civil War, seven per cent of the total white population in the South owned almost three quarters (three million) of all the slaves in this country. In other words, in 1860, an oligarchy of 8,000 persons actually ruled the South. This small planter class ruled over the slaves and controlled the five million whites too poor to own slaves. To make sense of this class fact, we must remember that the core motivation for slavery was not race but economics, which is why at its inception, both blacks and whites were enslaved.
I saw how Malcolm X's focus shifted in the last year of his life from racism to socialism:
It’s impossible for a white person to believe in capitalism and not believe in racism. You can’t have capitalism without racism. And if you find one and you happen to get that person into conversation and they have a philosophy that makes you sure they don’t have this racism in their outlook, usually they’re socialists or their political philosophy is socialism.
I had believed that everyone was a little racist, but when I studied tests for racism, I found that none suggest all whites are racist. I took the race test at Project Implicit; to my disappointment, I'm not among the people who have no implicit preferences. Like a large minority of white folks, I have an implicit preference for black folks.

The more I heard about neoliberal anti-racism theory, the more I came to doubt it. Adolph Reed Jr. summed up the theory's problems in his short essay, The limits of anti-racism:
I remain curious why the “debate” over antiracism as a politics takes such indirect and evasive forms—like the analogizing and guilt by association, moralistic bombast in lieu of concrete argument—and why it persists in establishing, even often while denying the move, the terms of debate as race vs. class. I’m increasingly convinced that a likely reason is that the race line is itself a class line, one that is entirely consistent with the neoliberal redefinition of equality and democracy. It reflects the social position of those positioned to benefit from the view that the market is a just, effective, or even acceptable system for rewarding talent and virtue and punishing their opposites and that, therefore, removal of “artificial” impediments to its functioning like race and gender will make it even more efficient and just.
Seeing class as the root problem of racism is not denying racism. It's simply seeing the truth clearly: you cannot end racial injustice unless you're willing to end economic injustice.

For more about what shaped my work, see my curious life in the American class system.