Monday, May 18, 2009

Race and Ethnicity

Across from our house in this historically black neighborhood is an old-fashioned black church. Twice on Sundays the congregants appear, dressed to the nines, men and women in fancy hats and flashy suits -- often white for men, purple or yellow or bright red for women -- that we would call out of style. Over the summer there are occasional tent revivals, with a week of preaching and, um, spirited singing out on the lawn, and even more often there are long evening prayer services, with lots and lots of music: drums, hollering, clapping.

But what we love best is the barbecue. All through the summer, they drag out a big smoker on a trailer every Saturday and cook ribs all day long. I don't know if it's a fundraiser or a membership drive or community service or what, but the ribs are sure good.

Last Saturday we had the good fortune to be walking home from a yard sale in mid-morning, and my gregarious, wheelchair-bound four-year-old struck up a conversation, across the four-lane street, with the barbecuer-in-chief. "Is that a real fire?" "What are you cooking?" He invited us back at lunch time for free ribs. (There are perks to being a kid in a wheelchair: people are always doing nice stuff for us!)

When we showed up to claim our prize, I was struck by how black the guy was. His skin was black, of course, but far more, his person. A middle-aged guy, he had a thick deep-south black accent (this is Minnesota), lots of big gold jewelry, a Randy Moss jersey, and an easy, laid-back charm.

And how black is barbecue. We all do it, of course, but I was struck by the primitiveness of this set-up: the big fire, with meat left all day in the smoke (apple wood and cherry wood, he told me). My four-year-old pointed out how "simple" the rib bones are: it's just meat. Barbecue is an African tradition -- and even more, a Black American tradition. It's not hard to imagine the plantations and share farms this barbecue comes from.

"Race" didn't use to mean skin color. I have here The New Century Dictionary. (There's a lot to be learned from raiding your grandparents' library.) "The New Century" in question, of course, began in 1900, not 2000. I don't know the full publishing history; the last copyright on this one is 1940, though the first one is 1927. So perhaps these definitions were written as early as the '20s, but they were still considered current at the start of World War II.

For "race" we have: "a group of persons connected by common descent or origin; a family; a tribe or people; a group of tribes or peoples forming an ethnic stock." Yes, there's also reference, further down, to the "great divisions of mankind": Caucasian, Mongolian, and presumably Negro, "having certain physical peculiarities in common." But the examples are far more limited: even the sentence quoted that does include a "negro race" compares it to the "Jewish race" and the "English race."

This understanding of race was current in 1940 -- which is to say, up to when the Civil Rights Movement got going. Certainly in that eugenic period when Margaret Sanger was founding Planned Parenthood, the "inferior races" she was setting out to eliminate were not just blacks, but also the Irish, Italians, and Polish. The notion that "white" is a race is a product, not a cause, of the Civil Rights movement.

Here's a conspiracy theory -- it sounds crazy, but it does fit the facts, and the rhetoric of the first half of the 20th century. Certainly there were many people sincerely committed to the Civil Rights Movement -- the movement to give the black "race" full rights in the South, and full political rights in the whole American nation. But in the Northern cities, there were also people manipulating it for other purposes.

In early-20th-century America, the WASP establishment was pretty scared about the rise of what we'd call the urban ethnics -- what they called inferior races. Especially Irish, Italian, and Polish, but also some Bavarian, Russian, and Jewish communities were rising, with very different loyalties from the WASPs': different ideas of political power, different ideas of political argument. One part of this was religious: the Catholics in particular were terribly threatening, because they answered to a higher religious authority, undermining the right of the WASPs to determine right and wrong. Another part was merely cultural: WASPs didn't want these dirty ethnics, Catholic or otherwise, imposing their festivals and mores on "their" cities.

The Civil Rights Movement was a useful, and successful, weapon in the WASP arsenal. On the one hand, it was a way to discredit the urban ethnics -- the inferior races. WASP authorities set the ethnics against the blacks, mostly through forced integration, moving black families into Irish, or Italian (or whatever) neighborhoods. The ethnics responded with racial animosity -- but again, note the ambiguity of "race." In the context of the Civil Rights Movement, the Irish seemed to be "racists," anti-black, and thus presumably pro-white. But in the context of the ethnic cities, the Irish were no more opposed to the black "race" than to the Italians, Jews, Russians, Germans, or WASPs. It had nothing to do with skin color, everything to do with ethnicity. They just didn't want to lose control of their neighborhood.

Still, to the WASP majority, it looked bad, because the WASP authorities framed the debate as black vs. white, instead of ethnicities defending their communities. The Catholic (and other) ethnics looked like "racists" -- and this accusation legitimated forcible destruction of ethnic neighborhoods. Legitimate concerns for the Civil Rights of blacks were used as a cover for attacks on undesirable ethnics -- inferior races. The real "racists" were the white WASPs baiting the white Catholics, not the Irish fighting the blacks.

The second prong of this attack was to push the Catholics themselves to re-identify. Through the excessive use of race -- that is, black vs. white -- rhetoric, the powers that be pushed the Irish, Italians, and Poles to re-identify themselves, not as Catholics or ethnics, but as whites, fleeing the blacks. "White flight" -- one of the most profound tools in building suburuban America -- was not just whites fleeing blacks, but ethnics leaving their ethnic neighborhoods for neighborhoods defined instead by generic whiteness and socio-economic status.

Again, whether you buy into the power narrative or not, the effects are clear. People used to define themselves by the thick bonds of ethnicity -- what The New Century Dictionary called "common descent or origin; a family; a tribe or people; a group of tribes or peoples forming an ethnic stock." Now, it's just the effort to move up the socio-economic ladder. Whether or not this suburbia has to be this way, it is certainly a dominant feature of it today.

To a large extent, Martin Luther King has triumphed in America. It's no longer acceptable to judge a man by his race -- or rather, "by the color of his skin." All we're allowed to care about is "the content of his character."

Of course, there is still discussion of race, but it's mostly in terms of what is (abusively) called "affirmative action." (The word is abused, because affirmative action ought to mean much more than quotas.) Liberals think it's right to advance someone based on the color of his skin -- but only because they think it helps undermine the importance of skin color. More black lawyers means we recognize that what really matters is "what's inside," not race. More radical liberals think that only a black man can empathize with the plight of another black man -- but the concern is still to find ways to use race to overcome race: only a black man can see that the blackness of the other man doesn't matter.

Most conservatives respond that instead of working for color blindness, through affirmative action, we should just apply it, now. Thus the black conservative Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas says affirmative action made people assume that he was dumb, advancing because of the color of his skin instead of the content of his character. On the death of William F. Buckley, Jr., founder of National Review, and thus one of the most important voices in American conservatism, many of his closest associates said his best book was The Unmaking of a Mayor, about his unsuccessful attempt to spoil the New York mayoral election of 1965. The real theme of the book is Buckley's incomprehension that urban voters take ethnicity seriously, instead of just thinking of themselves as individuals.

Note the similarity of liberal and conservative: in the modern conversation (as early as 1965) race is irrelevant to a person. And, of course, there's something to that -- skin color is a pretty shallow criterion for judging a person.

But to see the problem, consider the newspeak term "African American." It's an odd way to describe a community who has been here since the very beginning -- indeed, a community whose immigration ended in 1808, long before the wave of other non-WASP ethnicities even began.

And it's an odd conflation, since there are real African Americans, people who have recently come to these shores from, you know, Africa, and who have very little in common, culturally, with Americans descended from the slaves. Indeed, we can well imagine the frustration of parents whose children grew up as French Catholics and are now lumped together with a totally different, and grossly abused, culture. Whom do we serve by using language that denies the difference?

Certainly not American blacks themselves. (I wish there were a term to distinguish them from African blacks, but I am not the one to coin it.) What is gained by denying the very existence of the culture that produced the church, and the barbecue, across the street? What is gained by denying the struggles unique to this community, the challenges of a heritage that includes a share-cropper grandfather who couldn't vote; a flight to Northern climes and the attendant effort to preserve a unique culture, with its ways of relating, its foods, its religion; the frustrations of the 1968 riots and the effort to perdure as a community when the majority treats "integration" as the highest goal?

Ethnicities -- races -- need to interact. They need to get along, without violence. They need to be accorded basic civil rights. But I do not see what is gained by throwing the baby out with the bath water, by making culture an irrelevant part of an "individual's" make-up. "Integration" is a genocidal word, an effort to erase ethnicity and culture, leaving us with nothing but naked individuals. It has not served us well. We worry about the loss of community, the loss of values, the loss of identity, the loss of quality. Then we proclaim race the enemy.

A good society would accord everyone civil rights -- would be color blind when it comes to who can vote. But it would not try to enforce color blindness to the detriment of culture. There's a lot to be said for those old ethnic enclaves, so long as we are bound to them by culture, not law.

"A group of persons connected by common descent or origin; a family; a tribe or people; a group of tribes or peoples forming an ethnic stock." Doesn't sound so bad to me.