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Segregation in America [ MONOGRAPH ]

de Jennifer Taylor

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Tempting perhaps to "forget" history or replace facts with new, better (-sounding) beliefs or half-truths, to look away from uncomfortable realities. When enough of us do this, culture effectively sanctions false histories and harmful narratives. Hence the disappointment and frustration of History is written by the victors. Presumably --at a minimum in the long run-- such distortion is harmful to many, including the perpetrators, and an injustice to all. Avoid that temptation, avoid that trap. Instead, look for ways to counter that cultural trend. Remember: I have been complicit. And: Better to be mindful than keep score.

Witness uncomfortable truths. We white people were and are consistently and overwhelmingly willing to use all manner of power to preserve our domination and abuse of anyone not white. Democratic Party or GOP; Supreme Court or Science; legislation and all levels of representative bodies; military might and police forces; churches and schools; mothers and children. Using force and violence, intimidation and threat, rewriting the rules, all of it. Looked at squarely: white supremacy never diminished. It merely shifted into different arenas. As a white person, it's uncomfortable to acknowledge this unflinchingly, without qualifiers. Not to acknowledge this, however, is complicity. Not to accept this fact, contributes to the distortion.

And of course, I have contributed. I am complicit when I do not question the conventional narrative, and benefit from it (even when unbidden or unwittingly). Conventional wisdom looks on the Civil Rights Movement as a triumph: there emerged an organized resistance to racism, and this lead to a cultural transformation. The 1960s was an inflection point, the arc of US history (so goes the narrative) bent toward a more just future and continued on that righteous path. I was taught this narrative, if racism was discussed at all, and I accepted it. To be sure, I held empathy for the struggle, but fundamentally I didn't question this account. A perspective, notably, from white people for white people, seldom selecting from first-hand accounts and only when useful.

Segregation in America doesn't deny the importance of the Civil Rights Movement so much as observe: this narrative is incomplete, and the lie of omission helps preserve the status quo. What is left out: there was and is an equally strong and organized effort against inclusion, a cultural effort to maintain and strengthen white supremacy. The conventional view sees any resistance as vestigial and weakening, but there is little evidence for that. Segregation in America argues once we've accounted for distortion, it's more accurate to state US culture remains substantially unchanged. Over time white supremacy builds different cultural institutions, wears different faces, uses different words, but domination perseveres.

It perseveres because the underlying motivation remains. For fundamental change to occur, we whites must shed our motivation to preserve things as they are. (In principle, another route would involve whites losing the power needed to preserve domination, such as could happen alongside demographic shifts, but that way would be slow and violent, and arguably we're some way down that road already.) Assuming the inner convictions of every individual are personal business, I see two things I can do: Conduct myself better, and influence others to conduct themselves better.

So scrutinise my behaviour, make the tough adjustments where needed. This includes targeting passive complicity such as accepting narratives which distort reality or otherwise contribute to persistent racism. Also, check my assumptions and behavior: do I feel fear when I see two black people together on the el? -- Do I presume young black males I encounter will behave differently than their white peers? -- Do I use different vocabulary when interacting with some people than with others? Sometimes, those differences are based on individual context, but sometimes it's unwarranted prejudice. Get out beyond my segregated neighbourhood more. Empathise.

I also can influence others and how they behave. Naturally how I raise my kids, the roles I model to them as I interact with others. The conversations we have, about what we see around us, in media, in places we visit. Speak explicitly to racism and white supremacy, segregation and isolation from people unlike ourselves. And then, how I influence others in my community, not just my kids. Do I speak up when witnessing racist behaviour?

//

An appendix "Confederate Iconography in the 20th Century" surveys public monuments in honour of the CSA; like prior project tracking lynchings and lynching sites, provides an inventory by geography though focused on Southern States. I do wonder how many are in Illinois, and Chicago specifically.

Like Power and Powerlessness, EJI illustrates power used on behalf of some against others. Gaventa's three-dimensional model of power is especially useful for understanding racial dynamics, including the insistence that "racism is over" or the inability of many to understand systemic or structural inequalities. ( )
  elenchus | Feb 10, 2020 |
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