19 April 2007

Race and Racism - by Dr. Faye Harrison

February 26, 2007 - “A Series of Unfortunate Events? A Look at Race”

Faye V. HarrisonProfessor of African American Studies & Anthropology
University of Floridafayeharr@ufl.edu
Questions posed by organizers:
What is the state of our national conversation on race? Are we moving forward or moving backward in race relations? Do we need to correct our current course? How?

In my view, there is a great deal of denial about race and racism in this country. The denial is not just occurring at the level of ignorant individuals who lack knowledge, sensitivity, and live lives sustained by class and/or racial privilege. The denial is also evident in the language, practices, and policies—both domestic and foreign—of our democratically-elected government. That government and the increasingly neoconservative interests that drive its current administration, promotes colorblindness and a post-Civil Rights notion of diversity management that in many respects denies the severity of present-day racial inequalities and the extent to which they are still being perpetuated by institutional and structural means. Both the legacy and cumulative burdens of past discrimination and the insidious, often subtle, forms of racism that are being reconfigured, restructured and deeply implanted in today’s late modern world operate to the patterned and systemic disadvantage of people of color, from those experiencing racial scapegoating since 9/11 to those who have long been relegated to the bottom of the nation’s social and economic hierarchy. The language of our public conversation on race and our political discourse in general has taken a rightward shift away from many issues that truly need to be engaged from angles that consider explanatory frames and justice-seeking possibilities that go well beyond the established boundaries of Republican Party politics and even beyond those of the Democratic Party’s Liberalism as it’s come to be constituted today. We must remember that Liberals have been among those who’ve advocated the dismantling of welfare as we once knew it and affirmative action, ideologically reduced to quotas, playing the race card, and “reverse racism.” Both of these domains of ideological, legal, and legislative struggle have been racialized in ways detrimental to the interests and well-being of their overlapping and, unfortunately, disunited constituencies—poor folks, the racially subordinated, and women and those who depend upon their contracting resources and hard work, both waged or unwaged.
Black people have long represented the most radical form of difference here in the U.S. Although we know that race relations is more complicated than the bipolarities of black and white, we also know, or should, that the inequalities and racial assaults, both symbolic and physical, that black people experience are often severe. Some of the indicators of the “savage inequalities” and injustices that adversely affect black communities include: the drastically lower net worth (or wealth) of black families compared to white families, the labor force experience of black workers who are among the last hired and first fired in recessions and who suffer the highest rates of unemployment, the inequalities in health and life expectancy, and in the arena of criminal justice the mass incarceration of black males and the soaring rates among black women, whose convictions have dire consequences for families and communities “on the outside” and deprive the convicted of the rights of citizenship for which the black freedom movement has long fought. These regressive changes are occurring right under our noses, yet they remain largely unspoken and silenced as salient matters for serious political debate.
The U.S. has also played a role in attempting to discredit and inhibit the conversations about race and racism that have been gaining momentum in international and transnational arenas, such as those facilitated the pre- and post-conference activities associated with the UN’s World Conference against Racism (2001) as well as other world conferences on related issues. In the language and legalities of international human rights—a regime that is not without its contradictions and flaws—structural racism in its various faces and modalities is a violation of human rights, a violation warranting redress, compensation, and reconciliation. While the U.S. is signatory to the anti-racist treaty, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), which took effect way back in 1969, it has presented a major obstacle to the work of monitoring and promoting compliance to this treaty.
Despite the many obstacles, including national and transnational or imperial political agendas, international conversations have led more activists to understand that racism is more than a problem in the U.S. and South Africa. It is a problem of increasingly global scope that is being heightened in contexts reshaped by the contemporary mobilities of both immigrants and capital along with the often problematic impacts of (U.S.) foreign policy. Contrary to the “norm against noticing race” that prevails in international relations, foreign policy is no more color blind than domestic policy is. We need to face the power racism exerts at home and abroad before we can figure out how to dismantle it.

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