Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Ethics: Racism & Multiculturalism

As we discussed last time, after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 there was a shift in American culture powered by movements against sexism and racism. Today there remains much prejudice but it is covert, not overt. This means that the majority of prejudice is invisible to the privileged while a constant uphill battle to the marginalized. If you are marginalized and you point out covert racism, you are often accused of overt racism by privileged people. If you are privileged, you are accused

The best evidence against both sexism and racism is the French psychologist Piaget’s studies of Child developmental stages. Children of both genders and all ethnicities go through the same four stages of development at the same ages (1, 3, 7 and 11). Another great piece of evidence against racism in particular is an experiment where they gave urban American and rural African kids laptops and found that there was no difference in the learning times for basic games.

One of my favorite subjects is teaching against eurocentrism in academics. While the laptop experiment suggests that we all learn and think similarly regardless of culture, one of the central messages in education in America and Europe is that we belong to a special culture called “the West” which is superior to other civilizations, particularly in regards to reason and freedom. Often examples from ancient Greece are used to illustrate this superiority, and then the focus becomes modern Europe (ignoring all other cultures and the thousands of years in between the cultures of ancient Greece and modern Europe). This situation, which many like myself call eurocentric (and thus ignorant), is very recent. It came about in the last three hundred years in the wake of European success and dominance of the world. Before that time, Greeks, Romans and Europeans did not describe themselves as “the West”, nor did they claim to be superior in terms of reason or freedom relative to all other civilizations.

Greek civilization is indebted to Egyptian, Persian, Mesopotamian and Indian thought. Rome has been the ‘father’ of Christian Europe since the Roman Empire conquered much of Western Europe and converted them to Roman Catholic Christianity. How did the Greeks come to be the Grandfathers of civilization? How did the myth of “the West” happen?

The Italians, though lighter than the Romans from constant invasions from the north (the Fall of Rome and afterward), were convinced in each city state that they were the Romans, and so they depicted the Romans like themselves. They also read Greek to read the Christian bible (written in Latin and Greek) and so they depicted the Greeks as looking like the Romans. However, it was not until the late 1700s early 1800s that the Greeks were conceived as the origin of European civilization and the birthplace of rationality and modern politics. This coincides with what Hannaford tells us about the formation of racism.

This is the theory that we can disprove but we still believe, and enshrine in museums, textbooks and most importantly, fictional and nonfictional TV and movies. The last has the greatest effect. What you see your culture present is much more important than an academic argument. The eyes are much harder to doubt than the ears or the structure of an argument. (Consider: Mel Gibson having an all white cast speak Aramaic for “historical accuracy” in The Passion).

It surprises many to learn that the term “the West” came largely into use in the years following WWII, after the Holocaust showed terrible anti-Semitism. Before WWII, academics freely used the term ‘European Race’ to describe the ancient Greeks, ancient Romans, and modern Europeans equally. After the Holocaust and the Civil Rights Movement, the term became an eyesore. Academics began increasingly referring to this “race” as “The West.

All sorts of ridiculous statements in the first paragraphs of philosophy and history books show us this, where the Greeks are ‘the birthplace of reason’ without context. One of my favorite examples is the British historian who stated in the 50s that the most important event in British history was the battle at Marathon (holding out the Persian ‘Orientals’, who as Wolf points out were paying Greeks to fight the Athenians and Spartans, as they had done with the Athenians and Spartans in the past). Marathon is often cast as the birth of “the West”, even though no one, including the ancient Greeks, used the term until after WWII.

Hannaford’s Race: The History of an Idea in the West

Race seems obvious today, a fact of biology. There seem to be distinct ethnic groups that are easily divisible into recognizable races. Hannaford argues that in fact racism rose with science and modernity in the rise of Europe since the 1600s. There was, of course, always ethnocentrism (my tribe is familiar, your tribe over the hill is scary) that correspond to self-centered thinking on an individual level, but ‘black’ and ‘white’ people did not always exist. In English, ‘ras’ meant a course or current (show branching tree form, trace one branching as a ‘race’). The word did not mean a fully separate category of people until after 1700, as Europeans got wealthy beyond everyone and very successful with sciences. Today research on genetics shows that there is no definable or divisible races that can be fully separated. Rather, there is a tangle of genetic material that is mostly common to a people.

The Greeks hated Barbarians (like the Slavs, Germans and even the Romans at first) but considered the Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Persians to be civilized and were trying to imitate them and consider themselves thus civilized. Plato and Herodotus loved Egypt and considered it the root of all civilization (Timaeus) and Aristotle thought Mesopotamia was the first civilization and the birthplace of science and philosophy. Greece, like ancient Israel, was caught between these two great empires. Plato argued against ethnocentrism to give the Greeks credit as a civilized people. Aristotle argued that the Germans could never be civilized because they were an inferior race.

There is evidence that the Chinese may have been the first to consider certain women ‘white people’ (think Geishas of Japan). Soon after this the Persians were the first to consider themselves ‘white people’ in these words (‘Whites vs. the Blacks’ play by Persian playwright). Just as European civilization got most everything from Islamic civilization, including most of the texts of Plato and Aristotle, Europe could have easily gotten it’s ‘white race’ from Islam (many of whom, like top-caste Indians, still call themselves ‘white’).

Ethnic conflict was originally between Religions, not races. Thus, Europeans were not white, but ‘Christians’, and they were prejudiced and afraid of Jews and Muslims (1492, the re-conquest of Spain, the Inquisition, and Columbus, and BLUE BLOOD). As Europe developed, race came to be a solidified concept, backed by Science & History (as Barthes calls them, the two great myths). This is when historians made the Greeks and Romans part of ‘the European Race’, as opposed to the Jewish race, the Mohamedian race, the African race, and others. Often, these were paired with colors in common speak but not always. Eventually, German historians and anthropologists centered their study on Nordic and Aryan race as origin of Greek civilization, ancient Israel, and thus the civilizing force of mankind. Kant’s On the Different Races of Men (1775, one year before the Declaration of Independence), says that there are fully separable races and mixing is bad as it degrades the quality of a race.

This thinking has dominated European thought until only recently, and it remains covert within academic understandings today. After the Holocaust, white Christians and Ashkenaz Jews could no longer speak of ‘European Race’ comfortably, so Europe became ‘The West’ over a period of time. We still speak this way today, thought we all know ‘West’ means ‘white’.

Famous joke about European nations’ strengths and faults:
In Heaven, the police are British, the chefs are Italian, the mechanics are German, the lovers are French and everything is organized by the Swiss.
In Hell, the police are German, the chefs are British, the mechanics are French, the lovers are Swiss, and everything is organized by the Italians.
This old joke shows us that Europeans did not consider themselves to be a single race with a single character until very recently. In America, where European peoples blended together to make “white” people, these differences disappeared while color based racism remains today.

Great Moments in American Racism:
The Jews and Muslims are best shown in the 1492 example (killing Jews upside-down, lending).
The Treatment of the Native Americans (reservations today).
The African Slave trade, jim crow and black marginalized communities today.
The taking of Latin America by America, Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, and domination today.
The Chinese exclusion act and post WWII ‘Asian Problem’ (dragon lady syndrome).

Bill O’Reilly went to a restraint with Al Sharpton, and said on the radio that black people have gotten very civilized in the last year or so. Roland Marin, correspondent for CNN says: obviously (bill O’Reilly) doesn’t hang out with many black people.

Racism in America Today:

Black and Latino people are 3 times likelier to be poor, on average earn 40% less that the average white person and have ONE TENTH the net worth.

Racial profiling by police criminalizes the marginalized, keeping them marginal (DWB).

Redlining is the practice of not lending to particular people or selling new homes to let people get out of certain areas based on the area from which they apply.

In the 1940s most white people supported segregation. In 1970, one fourth did. Now, it is estimated that 20-50% of white people agree with racist stereotypes openly, and often do not think of this as racist but rather simple observation of culture and reality (like O’Reilly).

Racism has real costs: study in the American Journal of Health estimated that “over 886,00 deaths could have been prevented from 1991 to 2000 if African Americans had the same health care as white Americans”, stemming from lack of sufficient insurance, poor services, and reluctance to seek care (that is almost a million man march in itself).

In the last article in your reader, called White Privilege, there is a great list that spells out what privileged vs. marginalized means in terms of racism in America today. White people can be in the company of other white people in most environments, can move and travel without fear, can shop without being harassed, can hear about their people’s achievements and how it makes the world a better place while being educated and entertained, can swear and dress in old clothes without people thinking white people are stupid or evil, do not have to speak for their race in particular (remember the Myth of the Model Minority article), can criticize the government and our way of life without fear of becoming an alien, can get pulled over or audited without fear of discrimination, and can get medical and legal help without fear of discrimination.

The media does not cover racism or talk about it as a problem at all, just like the Democratic party (including Obama if you listen to his campaign speeches). Just days ago, there was a study published by Brandeis University in Boston that got coverage by the British newspaper the Guardian and many left leaning websites (many who quoted the Guardian article) but got NO COVERAGE by CNN, the Chronicle, The LA Times, or the Chicago Tribune. The NY Times mentioned the study in the economics blog, which is in the opinion section and not considered an official article. The study shows that even as class differences have widened, white people have made five times the economic gains that black people have made across all economic groups. The study shows that not only have the economic policies of the last 25 years favored the rich and privileged, but that racism is a real economic barrier to black and latino people.

On a final note, we must consider the legislation in Arizona right now. Many are now aware of the “breathing while latino” law that would require police to question latino people they suspect of being illegal immigrants. There is another law, however, that was signed by the Arizona governor making it illegal for any course in a public school to “advocate ethnic solidarity”. The law is aimed at teachers who teach their students about latino cultural heritage and the brutality that latinos endure in America. The governor says that these teachers are racist and are telling their latino students, falsely, that latinos are an oppressed minority. The bill starts off saying it is illegal for teachers to “promote the overthrow of the United States government”, and then shifts to saying that it is equally illegal to teach classes that “promote resentment toward a race or class of people”.