Race as a Cultural-Ideological Construct, Part II
In the U.S., or in any part of the Western world for that matter, conversations about race elicit a number of responses. These responses can range from a confident assuredness of its origins in the natural world to a downright dismissal of its existence. The latter view guides much of the dominant discourses on and about race. I have explored this in Part I, to refresh your memory or to view it for the first time click here. Nevertheless, I argue that up to this point, conversations about race are and have been painfully stagnant and purposefully misleading. Whenever I assert such a position, I am immediately met with different versions of the same rationale:
We have made much progress on the question of race…was slavery not abolished?…Jim Crow defeated?…Civil Rights legislation passed?…internationally, Apartheid in South Africa was deconstructed…while other nations of color, particularly in other parts of Africa fought for and won their independence!…and most importantly, Black people can vote for god’s sake!
In fact, if we were to use W.E.B. Du Bois’ Talented Tenth (an argument he later revisited and amended) as a measure of progress beyond the inflated attention given to entertainers and athletes as exemplars, in this present epoch we have more than surpassed his postulation. Data shows that if we combined the percentage of graduate (master’s and doctoral) degrees conferred to Blacks from 2009-10 alone, it totals 20 percent. Indeed, this data surely shows that we have come a long way…Maybe?! This idea of advancement only becomes true if we uncritically accept the dominant discourse on African and Diasporic experiences. Succinctly, it distorts current sociopolitical and economic realities, which are historically rooted in the political economy of race. Juxtapose this alleged “forward” progress to the many reports that consistently argue that gaps in various quality of life indicators, such as poverty/wealth, housing, or health to name a few, are widening. Currently, U.S. Census data suggests that 13.2 percent of the United States population is Black. Looking further, Black youth account for 16 percent of all children in the U.S. yet make up 28 percent of juvenile arrests. As of Dec. 31, 2013, about 38 percent of imprisoned males were Black. Even more disturbing, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in three Black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime.
So what!?! Many of those who are reading this article know this data. In fact, some readers, despite being a part of the 20 percent who have advanced degrees mentioned above, know this data very intimately. Who among us does not have a cousin, brother, aunt, uncle or someone very close who is or has not been one of the statistics we digest consciously and subconsciously every day through mass media. Moreover, we have a number of public intellectuals (including many public intellectuals of color) who are very adept at speaking around the issue. In many cases, the sure point of analysis falls on the victims themselves. In their most authoritative voice backed by their many academic accolades, they proclaim:
It’s “their” own fault that “they” have not taken advantage of the multiple opportunities available via the U.S. educational, employment or enterprising landscape. We live in the land of opportunity, where you can do anything you want. Come on, do we not have a Black president!
Many of the expressed liberal experts use a more covert discourse that starts off suggesting there is something wrong, but still come to the conclusion that it’s their fault. However, what we must recognize is that the tools of analysis with which they are dissecting the conditions where millions of people of color and other poor people live are from the very frameworks that encourage us to miss the point. Bear with me, as I attempt to offer the following perspective for you to consider.
Today, the biological idea of race as a useful tool of categorization is more often than not rejected. The liberal or so-called post-race proponents argue that it is a myth or an abstraction that does not correspond with reality or the complexities in humanity. Nevertheless, all of this has been quite confusing to those who grapple with the political, cultural, social and economic realities of race and its structuring processes. The major reason for this confusion is that the cultural-ideological character of race prohibits many from being able to make the necessary distinction between natural biological variations and the social meanings that were constructed and imposed on those varying features. This dialectic creates an environment, which suggests that race is not real, yet deadly relevant. Race exists as an ideological and cultural tool that perpetually serves the interests of the perceived dominant group. I purposefully use perceived here to suggest that their dominance is coercively extracted from those whom this group seeks to dominate through a series of structures that reinforce notions of superiority and inferiority, such as, but not limited to, religion, education, policing, or employment. Nevertheless, race should not be viewed as something that is biologically tangible and existing in the outside world that has to be discovered, described, and defined but as a creation with direct and concerted consequences. It is a product of the human mind, a human invention that serves explicit purposes.
From the beginning, it reflected a particular way of looking at and interpreting human differences — physical, mental, and spiritual. It is inextricably linked with certain presumptions and beliefs developed by European thinkers and English colonists from the 16th to 18th centuries. As the concept developed throughout this period, it was transformed from a mere tool of classification to a sort of practice. It must not be overlooked that its development was forged within the cultural world view of a particular European elite that expressed certain attitudes and informed prejudgments toward non-European people that fit ideological purposes. Nowhere is this more evident that when we explore the history of the West and the Africa world (not to mention other nations of color). Captured in these attitudes and prejudgments was the drive to exert power. As a way of imposing order and understanding on the complex realities where one group asserts dominance over others, an equally complex conceptualization of race was developed to rationalize their processes of exploitation. Accordingly, the Europeans who came to dominate during the 17th and 18th century laid the framework for a world where whiteness achieved a level of supremacy, while non-European people could not escape their inferiority or lower-status people.
To be clear, race must be approached from a perspective that exposes its cultural-ideological character. This becomes even more important if we truly want to address its deadly implications. Accordingly, race must be understood as a “cosmological ordering system structured out of the political, economic, and social experiences of peoples who emerged as expansionist, conquering, and dominating nations on a worldwide quest for wealth and power.”
I know, you are reading this and saying…Wow! That is a mouthful! But let’s go further. With this redefinition, race can now be understood fundamentally as a world view inclusive of ideological components. These components consist of:
- A universal classification of groups as being in exclusive and discrete biological groups;
- The imposition of an inegalitarian ethos (fundamental values) that required the ranking of these groups vis-à-vis one another;
- The belief that the outer physical characteristics of different human populations were but surface manifestations of inner realities;
- The notion that all of these qualities were inheritable – this means the biophysical characteristics, the cultural or behavioral features and capabilities, and the social rank is allocated to each group by the belief system itself; and
- The belief that each exclusive group was created unique and distinct by nature or by God. This was so that the imputed differences, believed fixed and unalterable, could never be bridged or transcended.
Once understood from this perspective, the cultural component of race then becomes visible. Culture is usually defined as being a people’s way of life. I argue that this all encompassing definition should be refined for specificity. Accordingly, culture can be understood as
the evolutionary accumulation of knowledge, standards, mores, or values that guide, structure, and/or determine behaviors and thoughts within a group of people and toward other groups of people.
Culture can now be examined at various levels.
In one way, culture can be examined at the level of sensory observation or surface structures, which may be subject to relatively rapid change, constrained by time and space, and non-generative in nature. These include artifacts of culture such as foods and/or language, to name a few. Another level of analysis may be its deep structure—archetypical—not bound to the specific group and is generative in nature. At this deep level of structural analysis evidence of a certain set of rules or systems are sought for diagnosis. Wade Nobles (1980) identifies this deep structure of culture as the philosophical assumptions illicit and reflective in the culture’s world view, ethos, and/or ideology. While the outward manifestation of culture, its artifacts, are subject to being destroyed or changed, the world view that is yielded by a particular set of philosophical assumptions can be preserved in the conceptual system those assumptions structure. Taken further, culture, as outlined by Marimba Ani can be understood to have the following components:
- It acts to unify and to order experience, so that its members perceive organization and consistency. In this respect it provides a world view that offers up orienting conceptions of reality;
- It gives people group identification, as it builds on shared history, creating a sense of collective cultural identity;
- It “tells” its members “what to do”, thereby creating a “voice” of prescriptive authority. To its members, culture re-presents values (which they themselves have created together out of shared experiences) as a systematic set of ideas and a single coherent statement;
- It provides the basis for commitment, priority, and choice, thereby imparting direction to group development and behavior; indeed, it acts to limit the parameters of change and to pattern the behavior of its members. In this way culture helps to initiate and authorize its own creation;
- It provides for the creation of shared symbols and meanings. It is, therefore, the primary creative force of collective consciousness, and it is that which makes it possible to construct a national consciousness; and
- For all the above reasons, culture greatly impacts the definition(s) of group interest and therefore becomes political.
Ok!!!! So what is all this saying!?? Why such a long discourse about race? Understanding how these components come together into a concept with no real meaning, but deadly implications is vital to addressing the current conditions that causes intra- and inter-group conflict. Until we peel away the layers to expose the true character of race, then we will continually miss the point. There is something purposeful about race; it has permeated every aspect of human interaction with deadly generational consequences. In order to realize the world in which “we can truly all get along”, we must be honest and direct about race:
it is a culturally ingrained, ideologically-driven mechanism that has permeated sociopolitical structures which guide institutional practices for the expressed purpose to serve the deeply rooted insecurities wrapped in the myths of superiority of a perceived dominant white class/group.
To deal with race, we must deal with its cultural- ideological character. I end with Amiri Baraka’s still relevant perspective…
If you ever find
yourself, some where
lost and surrounded
who won’t let you
speak in your own language
who destroy your statues
& instruments, who ban
your oom boom ba boom
then you are in trouble
they ban your
oom boom ba boom
you in deep deep trouble …
probably take you several hundred years
out! (Why’s/Wise, Wise 1: 7)
James Pope, Ph.D., research maps the traditions and continuities of Africana thought and behavior as it relates to human rights, social movements, resistance to race as a cultural-ideological construct, and critical consciousness/discourse formation. Currently, he is completing a book manuscript that explores the impact of race on the critical human rights consciousness/discourse of African-Americans.
He is also executive producer and co-creator of AfricaNow!, heard on Pacifica Radio, WPFW, Washington, D.C., streaming live on www.wpfwfm.org, every Wednesday, 1-2 pm EST. And heard here: http://transafrica.org/africa-now/