Making (and Dismantling) Racism

Over at The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates has been exploring the intersection of race and public policy, with a focus on white supremacy as a driving force in political decisions at all levels of government. This has led him to two conclusions: First, that anti-black racism as we understand it is a creation of explicit policy choices—the decision to exclude, marginalize, and stigmatize Africans and their descendants has as much to do with racial prejudice as does any intrinsic tribalism. And second, that it's possible to dismantle this prejudice using public policy. Here is Coates in his own words:

Last night I had the luxury of sitting and talking with the brilliant historian Barbara Fields. One point she makes that very few Americans understand is that racism is a creation. You read Edmund Morgan’s work and actually see racism being inscribed in the law and the country changing as a result.

If we accept that racism is a creation, then we must then accept that it can be destroyed. And if we accept that it can be destroyed, we must then accept that it can be destroyed by us and that it likely must be destroyed by methods kin to creation. Racism was created by policy. It will likely only be ultimately destroyed by policy.

Over at his blog, Andrew Sullivan offers a reply:

I don’t believe the law created racism any more than it can create lust or greed or envy or hatred. It can encourage or mitigate these profound aspects of human psychology – it can create racist structures as in the Jim Crow South or Greater Israel. But it can no more end these things that it can create them. A complementary strategy is finding ways for the targets of such hatred to become inured to them, to let the slurs sting less until they sting not at all. Not easy. But a more manageable goal than TNC’s utopianism.

I can appreciate the point Sullivan is making, but I'm not sure it's relevant to Coates' argument. It is absolutely true that "Group loyalty is deep in our DNA," as Sullivan writes. And if you define racism as an overly aggressive form of group loyalty—basically just prejudice—then Sullivan is right to throw water on the idea that the law can "create racism any more than it can create lust or greed or envy or hatred."

But Coates is making a more precise claim: That there's nothing natural about the black/white divide that has defined American history. White Europeans had contact with black Africans well before the trans-Atlantic slave trade without the emergence of an anti-black racism. It took particular choices made by particular people—in this case, plantation owners in colonial Virginia—to make black skin a stigma, to make the "one drop rule" a defining feature of American life for more than a hundred years. By enslaving African indentured servants and allowing their white counterparts a chance for upward mobility, colonial landowners began the process that would make white supremacy the ideology of America. The position of slavery generated a stigma that then justified continued enslavement—blacks are lowly, therefore we must keep them as slaves.

Slavery (and later, Jim Crow) wasn't built to reflect racism as much as it was built in tandem with it. And later policy, in the late 19th and 20th centuries, further entrenched white supremacist attitudes. Block black people from owning homes, and they're forced to reside in crowded slums. Onlookers then use the reality of slums to deny homeownership to blacks, under the view that they're unfit for suburbs.

In other words, create a prohibition preventing a marginalized group from engaging in socially sanctioned behavior—owning a home, getting married—and then blame them for the adverse consequences. Indeed, in arguing for gay marriage and responding to conservative critics, Sullivan has taken note of this exact dynamic. Here he is twelve years ago, in a column for The New Republic that builds on earlier ideas:

Gay men--not because they're gay but because they are men in an all-male subculture--are almost certainly more sexually active with more partners than most straight men. (Straight men would be far more promiscuous, I think, if they could get away with it the way gay guys can.) Many gay men value this sexual freedom more than the stresses and strains of monogamous marriage (and I don't blame them). But this is not true of all gay men. Many actually yearn for social stability, for anchors for their relationships, for the family support and financial security that come with marriage. To deny this is surely to engage in the "soft bigotry of low expectations." They may be a minority at the moment. But with legal marriage, their numbers would surely grow. And they would function as emblems in gay culture of a sexual life linked to stability and love. [Emphasis added]

What else is this but a variation on Coates' core argument, that society can create stigmas by using law to force particular kinds of behavior? Insofar as gay men were viewed as unusually promiscuous, it almost certainly had something to do with the fact that society refused to recognize their humanity and sanction their relationships. The absence of any institution to mediate love and desire encouraged behavior that led this same culture to say "these people are too degenerate to participate in this institution."

If the prohibition against gay marriage helped create an anti-gay stigma, then lifting it—as we've seen over the last decade—has helped destroy it. There's no reason racism can't work the same way.

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