Monday, November 8, 2010

The Associated Press, W.E.B. DuBois, and Racial Micro-Aggressions

They say you shouldn't sweat the small stuff. But what if the small stuff is actually killing you?

In the post-Civil Rights era, racism exists without racists. The bigots have been exiled from the public square and exist only as phantom menaces or rude outliers--the Mel Gibsons and Laura Schlessingers of the world--to be periodically and ritually expunged from the body politic. Ironically, racism is so out of fashion that even when white identity politics are front and center (as with the New Right tea bagger movement with its anti-Obama derangement syndrome and complementary addictions to "birtherism" and nativism) many Americans lack even the most basic language to describe what should be painfully obvious. Doubly so then, that most do not possess a lens sensitive enough to detect the covert bigotry that is day-to-day white supremacy and the white racial frame.

Colorblind racism is often most painful when it is wrapped in the soft, velvety glove of praise and good intentions. This was the case with Russell Contreras' recent Associated Press syndicated article on legendary scholar and activist W.E.B. DuBois.

Brother DuBois needs no introduction. While we may praise Brother Malcolm and Brother Martin as visionaries, DuBois was in many ways The Black Freedom Struggle's master philosopher and scribe (how many respectable negroes--and others--can tell you exactly when they first read The Souls of Black Folk? Most, all? And for travelers on this journey, how many times do we still return to that seminal text? Was he anything if not our Merlin?)

While there is always the temptation to write a hagiography of W.E.B. DuBois, the AP's story on his relationship with Great Barrington, Massachusetts (DuBois' place of birth) was well-considered--at least until this passage:

Many of Du Bois' writings and ideas continue to influence contemporary policy and thinkers. In the early 1900s, he posited that crime by blacks declined as they gained equality. And he described a "Talented Tenth" of the African-American population that would rescue the race from its problems.

Why select that example from a body of scholarship that straddled two centuries?

W.E.B. DuBois was one of America's greatest political thinkers. He was a historian and philosopher. He wrote speculative pieces such as Dark Princess and Dark Water. DuBois also authored such foundational books as The Suppression of The African Slave Trade to America; The Philadelphia Negro; and Black Reconstruction in America. W.E.B. DuBois was also an engaged scholar who struggled for the liberation of black and brown people around the world. While his fleeting allusion to the idea of "double consciousness" is ironically what he is best known for, there are few thinkers who wrote about such a range of topics with DuBois' depth and genius. From an overflowing bounty and cornucopia of grand ideas, any one would have been a far more suitable signal to DuBois' prescient wisdom.

I ascribe no overt ill-intent to Russell Contreras. Rather, what I can most politely describe as a "racial hiccup," speaks to a powerful framing where in the American popular imagination black folk are forever linked to crime and criminality. Even when our best and brightest are praised, this is the reference point for an entire people's trajectory.

In post-Civil Rights America, white supremacy is enacted covertly. It steps silently, even while it remains omnipresent, inseparably built into the nation's collective imagination and political unconscious. Ultimately, if the white racism which colors the majority of America's history has been overt and macro-level, the racism of the Age of Obama is one of micro-aggressions.

They are pin pricks, a psychic assault and death of a thousand cuts. Micro-aggressions are also a salve and boost for the psychic wages of whiteness, for even as the Other is praised, the in-group is reminded of their own superiority and normality. Thus, the more things change, the more they almost always remain the same.


Bass said...

There are many reasons why I regularly read and enjoy this excellent blog; this observation about the DuBois article (and DuBois himself) is one of most important ones. Thank you for saying what must be said.

Paul Sunstone said...

I agree with Bass here.

I'd like to add that it seems to me that, in our post-Civil Rights era, racism is still structural. The structures, though, have been rationalized away. They have been made invisible by the propaganda that passes for insight and wisdom these days.

chaunceydevega said...

@Bass--Thanks for the kind words. I wrote this for myself not thinking anymore than 2 or 3 people would get the problem. I am glad some did.

@Paul--Colorblind propaganda. Spot on.

Paul Sunstone said...

Thanks, Chauncey!

But I was up all night without sleep when I wrote what you see there, and I fear I failed to express myself.

I'm embarrassed to say it was supposed to be a little bit more of a question than a statement, because I don't understand racism nearly as well as I should.

At any rate, your notion of colorblind racism (and colorblind propaganda) is genuinely fascinating. Just so you know.

But I do appear to have my work cut out for me in coming to an understanding of racism. And I'm by no means the most amazing brain in the bin.