Of all the false, misleading and philosophically invalid identity categories that are seemingly inherent to modernity, concepts of “race” are probably the most persistent and damaging, particularly in the United States. Virtually everyone now knows enough to understand, if they stop and think about it, that “race” is an arbitrary and almost meaningless social construct. Yet it continues to dominate notions of identity, self and the other. As with any insidious neurotic symptom, understanding how racialised thinking functions does nothing to reduce its power.
An additional irony is that, uncritically accepting for a moment the received racial and ethnic categories, the relative percentages of both black and white Americans are in mutual decline. For most of the past few centuries, “white” and “black” people made up the two main “racial” categories of the American population, and hovered at about 80 and 20 per cent, respectively.
Depending on how one does the maths, it is either a short or moderate period of time before “white” Americans become a minority for the first time, with the aggregate of all “non-white” categories collectively making the majority. And it’s already possible to calculate, again depending on all kinds of variables, that African-Americans have already been superseded by Latinos as the largest minority in the country.
Nonetheless, much if not most of American culture continues to view issues of “race” as centred on a black-white binary. And all too often the beliefs at play are negative, hostile or angry.
The brutal murder of nine churchgoers at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina last week is only the most dramatic and tragic in a recent string of reminders about the enduring power of racism and racial violence against African-Americans.
When Barack Obama was elected president many rushed to the conclusion that racism had been dealt a fatal blow. Others, including several outspoken Arab-American academics, went to the opposite extreme by preposterously declaring that Mr Obama himself, by serving as the chief executive officer of an “inherently racist system”, became himself a de facto anti-black racist.
Neither of these positions is remotely sustainable. Mr Obama’s election certainly marks a turning point for African-Americans, but hardly the elimination of both structural, built-in patterns of racism that continue to pervade American society.
Over the past year or so, American society has been exposed to so many examples of the extent to which black people in the United States, especially young black men, are especially vulnerable to violence, both at the hands of the authorities, especially police officers (themselves often black), and marauding violent racists. The most notorious incidents were in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland. But everyone who pays attention understands that those causes célèbres are merely the tip of a very ugly and huge iceberg.
And there is a particularly disturbing and persistent tendency for the media to try to blame the victims in these cases, often for the most mundane of reasons.
These incidents have become so disturbing that a major trope in American discourse now is the new slogan “black lives matter”.
It’s exceptionally disturbing that such a phrase would have so much resonance in 2015, but it does because the evidence that this value needs to be affirmed and respected, because it is so often violated, is simply overwhelming.
Last week’s church massacre is particularly evocative because of the history of violence against Southern black churches, both the infamous, such as the 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing of a church in Birmingham that killed four little girls, and the long-forgotten. In the 1990s there was a rash of still controversial church fires throughout the South that, in many cases at least, were almost certainly the result of racist arson. This particular church was the first African Methodist Episcopal church in the American South, cofounded in 1818 by the leader of a failed slave revolt. It was burnt to the ground in 1822.
Needless to say, sadly, the culprit in this case (there is really no need to use the term suspect, because there is no doubt of his responsibility) is not being described as a “terrorist,” or the crime as an act of “terrorism”, by either the state and local police or federal government officials.
The reticence to use this term, when the available evidence strongly suggests that the motivation was to try to provoke a generalised “race war”, would be mystifying if it were not consistent with a broad pattern.
Both the identities of the killer (an angry young white man) and the victims (random, innocent African-Americans) make such a designation unfortunately unlikely.
American culture has entered a phase in which the designation of crimes as “terrorism” and culprits as “terrorists” depends, more than anything else, on the question of identity with white American culprits least likely to be so designated, particularly when their victims are not white.
It’s a cliché to note that, from even long before its founding, “race” has been the savage underbelly of American culture.
For all the undoubted progress that has been made in the half-century since the civil rights movement, and even with an African-American president in the White House, the ugliest side of American culture is still defined by delusional racial thinking and, indeed, hysteria.