Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A conversation about race



This movie is causing all sorts of problems. How interesting:


In the interviews, with people who responded to a CraigsList ad, Bodeker makes a compelling case that much of what he calls the "conventional wisdom" about race consists of prejudice--not racial prejudice per se (although Bodeker attempts to frame it that way), but unthinking assumptions about the nature of American society and the racial attitudes of others.

Bodeker probes the interview subjects for contradictions, and finding them isn't hard. They agree that racism is pervasive, but are unable to give a clear definition of the term. He asks them to describe examples of racism in their own lives. They oblige--but their stories are ambiguous or innocuous. The most convincing anecdote turns out to be a case in which a white man describes overcoming his own prejudice. Lane, who looks to be around 40 and is originally from the South, describes a childhood episode in which a teacher warned him not to put his mouth on a water fountain because "black people do that." Years later he was a lieutenant in the Army, and a black fellow officer had run out of water. Lane remembered his teacher's admonition and hesitated to share his canteen. The black officer, noticing Lane's discomfort, offered to drink from a cup. "I said, 'No. You're my comrade in arms.' "

Later, the subjects readily answer in the affirmative when Bodeker asks them if blacks are better at basketball than whites. But when he asks why whites score better than blacks on standardized tests, they insist the tests are biased because they are written by whites. Then he asks why Asians do better than whites. This prompts the following exchange with an older unnamed man of indeterminate ethnicity:


Man: Well, first of all, Asians have 6,000 years of written, literate history behind them.

Bodeker: But you said the tests were made for whites.

Man: Well, they're made for people who think a certain way.

Bodeker: So Asians and whites think a different way than African-Americans do, and Latinos?

Man: (stammers) There are different ways of thinking. Different populations represent those ways of thought and cultural congruences different ways.


The man seems dangerously close to espousing a theory of racial essentialism.

Bodeker presents his interview subjects more sympathetically than he presents himself. Whereas they come across largely as good-natured but confused, he seems bitter and sarcastic. He makes clear that he nurses racial grievances--not necessarily against minorities but against social conventions that he sees as oppressive to whites.

He is angry about the imputation of historical guilt: "I can trace my earliest ancestors here in America to the 1870s, after our Civil War. No forefather of mine ever killed an Indian or owned another human being--ever."

But he also asserts that "America was founded as a white nation," and that "her founding principles, which separate America from all other nations, were also developed by white men, not by a multicultural rainbow." Actually, the founders were almost all British, and their principles drew heavily on British intellectual and legal traditions. But their claim was a universalist one: All men are created equal, not all Englishmen or colonists.

WSJ


There's a bit of sleight-of-hand at the end: the founders of America were white, and unless we can find some evidence otherwise, designed America for other people like them, as people in every culture do. I'm embarrassed for this author to have included the deceptive text in the last paragraph. But the rest of this is excellent.

I haven't watched the movie. I'm not a video person. But this much controversy is bound to help loosen tongues on this issue.

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Subvert the dominant paradigm, don't be a solipsist.

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