May 31st, 2011

Racism without Racists

Does "society" have a life of its own, independent of the wishes and perceptions of the individuals who compose its population?
Even entertaining such an idea seems somehow unAmerican, but i am learning more and more that America can't be trusted though i have met very few Americans that i can't or won't trust.   How can a faithless society be made up of trusting people?  Or to use Richard Neibuhr's terms, how can an immoral society be made up of moral individuals?

I taught sociology for 37 years, and though i have ignored the discipline for a decade, i suspect that most of what i say could still be said by a sociologist who was not about to loose his or her credentials.  Durkheim, one of the gods of the cult, insisted that society was sui generis., a thing in and of itself,  a self replicating system, the cause rather than the effect of the thoughts and behavior of its members.  The other big names, Marx, Weber, Mead had different and less deterministic theories, but none of them, not even G.H. Mead, the American pragmatist, could ever have argued that the reason we have racism in America is that there are so many racists here.

To the extent that problems are actually structural, they will not be effectively dealt with by changes in individual thought and behavior,  There may be fewer racists now than there were in 1941 (to pick an arbitrary date out of the past)  Those who exist may be quieter, more marginalized, more mocked,  I have not heard a deliberately prejudiced remark about race from someone not wearing a uniform designating him or her as someone from which such a comment could be expected in many years.  There have, of course, been many thoughtless, morally incorrect statements which caused the speaker embarrassment or worse; but don't we all put our careless mouths around a shitty shoe every so often?

Our Constitution acknowledges the slave trade and the lesser being of enslaved persons.  Though the constitution has been "amended"
the original words are still there, in the document "as amended."   It is part of our history; and it is hard to cure history,  The institution of slavery remained in existence four score and nine years, and it had been prevalent for well over one hundred years before that   America's most persistent effort in the first 100 years after 1865 was how to maintain the pretense of a free society while altering race relations as little as possible.  Does anyone imagine that in the past 46 years, the institutions of the previous 300 years would just fade away because polite people don't say "nigger' anymore?

Even if structural racism could be shown to somehow require racists, we still have the means to produce and reproduce them.  It turns out that African Americans were not, after all, the bottom of the human heap.  We still have those with different genders and different sexual orientations, we still have the poor, we have atheists. and, above all, we have "illegal" immigrants.  We don't have to forget how to treat whole classes of people badly, as lesser beings, as those we can physically or mentally rope off in a separate part of our moral universe.

(Edit, June 1, 2011  The continuation of structural racism into the future will, in fact, guarantee a certain amount of individual prejudice.  If non-white Americans continue to fail to meet American standards "despite having been given every opportunity" in a covertly racist America, prejudice will continue, and in fact, it will become increasingly difficult to explain to people why they should not be prejudiced.  The long of arm of history will continue to write vicious spirals in the soon to harden concrete of the present.)
The road to hell is paved with good intentions" was not written by a sociologist.  It could have been.