A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Friday, July 19, 2013

Post-racial Racism: Barack and Trayvon

There is a mystery as to why a distressing number of white Americans are defending George Zimmerman. This is written in the voice of a not completely reconstructed educated southerner in an attempt to bring some understanding to this question.  To a large extent it is my voice: it is honest and it is sometimes objectionable.  But it is the voice that needs to be heard, as much by the speaker as by the listener.  Anger, fear, racist bias all need a language that can clearly and successfully display the confusion that informs, unawares, so much of our behavior.

While nothing is ever as simple as it might appear to be within the confines of a single mind, several of the confusions of the people living in the geographical space called The United States of America seem to be based on a common cause: a person identified with the historical underclass has seriously stepped out of his place. 

It is easy to be magnanimous to one’s inferiors so long as they remain in an inferior position – even as that position might be defined away in fact.  The successes of the subservient races in the US have not contributed to too terribly much cognitive dissonance so long as the successes can be seen to be in the activities of service.

The Danny Glovers, Arthur Ashes, Bubba Smiths and Will Smiths are still the descendents of Stepin Fetchit (Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry); still the descendents of the house nigger.  The Angela Davises, Bobby Seales, Malcolm Xs and Martin Luther King Jr.s are out-lying criminals, nothing but run-aways mollycoddled by softheaded abolitionists and liberals.  The existence of Frederick Douglass, George Washington Carver, Paul Robeson and Alice Walker is either ignored or written off as sort of “monkey see monkey do” accidents – like “behind every successful man there is a good woman,” white superiority must be the nest within which the inferior races copy the skills of flight.

But Barack Obama cannot be ignored, cannot successfully be seen as Stepin Fetchit accidentally, or solely through criminal intrigue, tossed into the presidency – THE PRESIDENCY: the actual and undeniable ruling center of power.  The dissonance is overwhelming and, worse, the reverberations from that primary disturbance challenge how all of the underclass is seen: in the manner of dissonance, they are “elevated” as more inferior, more dangerous, more covetous, more immoral, more evil than they were when reliably, and entertainingly, subservient (Obama’s blackness comes directly from unrepentant Kenyan political and intellectual sources, for God’s sake – just how are we to make sense of that!).

The very most salient proof of “post-racism” in the US becomes the source of a new virulence of racism.  Clarence Thomas is OK as long as he can be seen as Scalia’s boy – no challenge there – but the hackles go up when a black man walks in and puts on the crown, not as the court jester, but as the King .  More than half of the white people in the US are not quite ready to marry off their daughter or their son to a black person even though ‘they are no longer racist;’ not being a racist in the south means that you don’t agree with lynching, that little black babies are cute and that just as long as the blacks remain subservient to white privilege they should have their own areas of town to do in as they wish – subject, of course, to the wishes of the white community.  Blacks are absolutely equal just so long as they know their place.

That there is a pathological character like George Zimmerman who would create a situation in which he could kill a young black man, evil as it is, is not the most disheartening part of this story.  From a sociological point of view a national pathology was re-exposed by this murder (exposed to the white world – the black world confronts the pathology everyday): millions of people have taken Zimmerman’s side; hundreds have sent him money for his legal defense. 

And yet there really isn’t any question about what happened: Zimmerman stalked the Martin boy, put himself in direct confrontation with Trayvon and shot him in the middle of the chest.  Only a twisted mind can make Zimmerman other than a, at least, tepid-blooded murderer; and it takes a yoga master twist of mind to make Trayvon Martin the criminal.  Still, a significant number of people in the white population have greedily taken on the fantasies spun by the likes of Hannity, Limbaugh, Zimmerman’s family and defense team and Fox News (sic).

Of course, this is not a post-racial society.  Racism had just been finding its level, was smoothing out the more obvious edges.  And racism was also slowly going away with all that that means to those who need it, not nearly so fast or so completely as has become the common political (self-serving) wisdom – voting rights still need protecting, affirmative action is still needed, inequity and failures of social justice are still rotting the core of the nation – but young people today show less prejudice on average; there is an increasing recognition that people of all races are worthy of full human standing.

What the election of Obama and the murder of Trayvon Martin point out, and are even related by, is that there is still the expectation that blacks will keep to their place – that they should know their place and when that expectation is violated, their rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness are all forfeit. 

When these issues are presented in the abstract, and in a social climate of decreasing overt racism, it is easy to present – and believe – a non-racist view. However, when presented with concrete reality: a daughter comes home with her black boyfriend, a black woman applies for a job in the front office, Obama is elected president, a white man kills a black young man in a high profile case that begs an opinion, the abstraction quickly melts away and the racism deep in the American experience is stirred and released in remarkably unattractive ways. 

I am suggesting here that the reaction to the murder of Trayvon Martin has been potentiated by the cognitive dissonance created in a large part of the society by the Obama presidency.  It is not the motivation of George Zimmerman that I am speaking of, but the disturbance of “good order” created in so many “good citizens.” The north may have won the military side of the war between the states, but the south seems to be winning The (un)Civil War – a war still being fought out on battlefields of human need and emotion that are largely unrealized or denied.

That a black man could be in a position of real and true power, that this black man is as intelligent, as capable and as worthwhile as any white man or woman – and that he should take on this superior position unapologetically – has just been too much for a large segment of the white population.  But there is nothing to be done but to endure the dissonance; to answer its distress with all the craziness we have seen from the tea party to congress.  And now comes the pathetic George Zimmerman, his clear and flagrant murder of a young black man who, in Obama’s own words, by appearance, would look like the president’s son if he had one.

So in this one event the pathology of a nation is crystallized.  The momentary relief of the dissonance comes in seeing Trayvon as a dangerous aggressor and Zimmerman as the victim just as many see themselves victimized by another black man who doesn’t know his place.


Kirby Obsidian said...

Bravo! Well stated, well reasoned, and right on target.
It is so exhausting, trying to get the liberal and well-meaning to recognize that these pathologies run deep and are not to be undone by a single generation of tokenism, nor by the successes of the exceptional.
Thanks for writing this!
Kirby Obsidian

James Keye said...


Thank you. Your comment is heartening to me. People with different life experiences need to speak them directly and clearly, in a language they understand so that they can be understood. Respect is shown to one’s own experience and respect is shown to others that they are competent and mature.

This piece was rejected everywhere I sent it with concerns that I was being sarcastic or that my language was too insensitive or that it failed to properly respect the feelings of others. Yes, exhausting is the right description.