Saturday, July 25, 2009


Commentary by Philip Cunningham

Looking at the world through the prism of race is something of an American obsession, one that other countries would be wise not to emulate.

The brouhaha over the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates by Cambridge police sergeant James Crowley has been marketed from the start as a story about race, which says much about how the American media works and how it feeds off predictable fault-lines in America’s racially fractured society.

But the instant freeze-framing of an ambiguous incident in racial terms, be it a trivial scuffle on a tree-lined street abutting an Ivy League campus or the more serious "racial" tensions that wrack the world, --the most recent manifestation being the deadly rioting in Xinjiang-- serves to obscure rather than elucidate and can end up shedding more heat than light.

Taking sides in a race conflict is a patterned reflex, stoked by the media inculcation. The public takes cues from way the media frames a case to posit good and bad, or in the case of more incendiary dust-ups, to feed the flames of identity politics.

That’s not to say there aren’t cases in which the examination of racial antagonisms, real and perceived, is ultimately necessary to get at the root of a problem, but race, scientifically baseless concept that it is, makes for a very bad starting point of inquiry.

This reflects the irrational and intentionally cruel US racial paradigm that posits that "whites" be "pure" and "blacks," less exclusively, be the class of people who have one or more drops of non-white blood, whatever that means.

Any rational and humane person would dismiss such contorted conceptions if it were not for the real-world social prejudices created by such ridiculous notions. Yet, oddly, the media pundits who seek to overturn racial prejudices enshrine the thinking of those they hate the most. The non-existent social class that bigots refer to as “colored people” has transmogrified into "people of color" as lipped by so-called progressives. What nonsense!

Race is a social construct that can be de-constructed, and while it may prove impossible to consign it to the dustbin of history, where it belongs, it should at least be demoted to a lower place in the pantheon of media frames and social organizing principles.

Casting conflict in terms of race is, to borrow a word from an uncharacteristically intemperate President Obama, just plain “stupid.”

Then again, there’s no shortage of stupidity in the world. One need only mention the elaborate, and deeply divisive constructs of social caste, cults, hereditary nobility, gender, wandering tribes, sons of the soil, and a pervasive members-only mentality to grasp that humans are prone to castigate and categorize others in order to better define themselves.

Splitting a complex world in “we” and “them” terms is so persistent as to be perhaps impossible to avoid. But race is just one of many artificial constructs and it need not be the prevailing one.

Like Jonathan Swift wryly suggested long ago, war can break out over something as silly as the proper way to break an egg. Or as songwriter Randy Newman more recently jibed, the real prejudice is about tall people and short people.

The visionary new world social engineering initiated by the likes of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams and other founding fathers was left unfinished and foundering, in part because slavery institutionalized inequality and scarred America with racialist thinking that persists to this day.

Despite such sordid chapters of its history, and perhaps in reaction to them, America was, is and will probably long remain a stronghold of race-tinged thinking.

So what can be done about the continued obsession with skin pigmentation as a social marker and its dominance as an explanatory principle of American society today?

If racial profiling is to be discarded, so too must affirmative action, the other side of the same racialist coin. For alternatives and inspiration, America would do well to look at other societies where skin color is not much of an issue and integration is the norm.

Generally speaking, countries in the Global South that matter-of-factly embrace racial integration in a way that is still uncommon in the Global North, where race-based identity remains pointed and persistent. One can find societies that fuss far less about race and offer more relaxed racial mixing in South America than North America, take cosmopolitan Brazil for example, but also in countries the US loves to hate, such as Cuba and Venezuela.

Every society has its prejudices, but race need not be the most prominent one.

One of the few advantages to the nerve-wracking Cold War was that it created such a convincing East-West divide that places like Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union could maintain, at some cost, a high degree of racial harmony within their borders.

There is a related dynamic that, for example, makes it possible for white Americans, who might in other contexts be described as racist, to fully identify with an all-black basketball team playing an all-white team if larger identity issues are at stake, such as Cold War politics or nationalist pride in the Olympics.

If one must look at the world through tinted lenses of one kind or another, perhaps switching the prism through which problems are viewed would help America curb its intoxication with race.

Class, to offer an obvious example, is a powerful explanatory tool for a panoply of social problems, despite American reluctance to recognize the validity of anything reeking of Marxism.

But was there not a hint of class antagonism at play in the recent standoff between a wealthy Harvard professor and a local Cambridge cop? What about mutual grievances of poor Han and poor Uighurs in Xinjiang?

The way the media frames problems bears considerable influence, not only in shaping the public view but also in delimiting policy remedies. If race is seen as a root cause, then sensitivity training or affirmative action might be prescribed. But what if what one is dealing with is fundamentally a class conflict --in which the race card has been played to divide and distract? If the problem is not properly understood at its core, then no amount of race-based rage and finger-pointing platitudes are going to solve it.

Given the deplorable media trend to reduce complex stories to sensational, easy-to-grasp entertainment, one can say the media is part of the problem. The New York Times, CNN and other American news outlets were quick to cast recent troubles in Xinjiang in racial terms, with an implicit good-versus-bad narrative based on a David and Goliath style conflict that put the lion’s share of blame on the communist state, and then on the ethnic Han, echoing similarly inaccurate reports about Tibet a year before.

Though the extremely violent conflict in the south of Thailand gets considerably less media attention, the trickle-down coverage also tends to fit standard US narratives of racial strife or religious strife.

Is race really the best way to understand such intractable conflict? Might there not be other ways to look at areas such as Xinjiang and South Thailand, ways of looking that frames the issue not in terms of religious minority versus the state or in terms of Han versus Uighur or Thai versus Malay? How about keeping the focus on individual criminality, not attributes of groups? Many problems that threaten to divide the world today are overheated because they get cast as the behavior of groups rather than discrete individuals.

That is not to suggest a crime-based paradigm should posit that the cops are always good and the bandits always bad --a more nuanced assessment might take into account bad policing and justified grievances on the part of the law-breakers—but keeping the focus on the crime and not on secondary matters like race and religion helps prevent a bad situation from getting worse. Crime matters.

The US media establishment, led by the New York Times, has made an honorable practice of not mentioning the race of assailants or victims in most criminal cases, aware that incessant reports of black on white crime and vice versa might inflame social tensions. Yet the same newspaper is quick to describe conflict taking place away from its own doorstep in charged racial terms, chiding Chinese authorities for their handling of ethnic divisions and their reluctance to release casualty figures according to race.

In this instance, China’s communist authorities, themselves long-standing victims of sustained prejudiced attacks by the New York Times and other smug capitalistic newspapers, might have properly erred on the side of caution, more concerned with bringing peace to the streets of Urumqi than satisfying NYT editorial whining about disrupted Twitter service and lack of clarity about who was and wasn’t Han Chinese.

One can detect a subtle wisdom in China’s not adopting the New York Times party line on racial matters, even while criticizing China’s handling of the riots in other respects. Ditto for the Thai government's handling of insurgent violence in South Thailand for which racial terminology and clash-of-civilization style paradigms have failed to shed significant light or offer a way out.

The point is the US media obsession with race, often implicit, sometimes in-your-face explicit, is not the most judicious or most efficacious way of looking at complex social problems at home or abroad. It’s an American aberration, born of a thorny past.

Philip J Cunningham