Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Neoliberal explanations of racism

Apparently Ta-Nehisi Coates is the latest target of a Cornel West beef.  I didn't know about this, and I'm frankly not too interested in learning the details beyond what's summarized in the article I'm about to cite.  What I really want to share though is this deft article's treatment of when economics are or are not useful in understanding white supremacy as it has been lived in the US during our history (hint--economics alone are usually not very useful in explaining racism).  Here the author summarizes a way of thinking that he characterizes as a neoliberal reading of white supremacy (and which he now views as a flawed line of thought, after having espoused it for a time):

In my idealism, I believed that white supremacy could be explained and solved by tying this nation’s actions to the Darwinian greed of capitalism and the apathy toward minorities who stood in the way of the supremacy of Western civilization’s need for domination. I believed that white people would never accept the inherent evil of white supremacy without its being tied to the macro-political reality of free-market economics.

Neoliberals are perfectly willing to discuss how the trans-Atlantic slave trade was a byproduct of capitalism and how the Industrial Revolution was the real death knell for slavery. They will talk about patriarchy as a part of cultural anxiety. But if anyone mentions the national complicity of white America in historical racism, they, like West, will accuse you of “fetishizing” white supremacy, with the clarion call that heralds the wincing of white people who refuse to realize the permanent strain of white supremacy that is still infecting America:
I agree with the author's current reading, namely that white supremacy is something that transcends a pure economic logic.  I don't know why this should be so hard to fathom--there are plenty of things in life that don't adhere strictly to economic incentives.  Love, childcare, eating habits.

I guess this assertion, that white supremacy is not purely an unintentional side effect of our market system, often draws resistance from people because it implies malice.  If white supremacy were simply an unpleasant collateral effect of an apathetic capitalist machine, then there are no guilty, conscious participants, and the ensuing oppression is a faceless thing.  If, on the other hand, you assert that white supremacy has always been a force unto itself (of course interacting with economic conditions, but not limited to them), then you are implying that there were and are moral, social, cultural aspects to the maintenance of white supremacy that have little to do with faceless market forces.  No, these aspects were and are enacted by human beings making their own choices every day to perpetuate the system.  Oppression is no longer an impersonal, accidental thing that just happens.  No, in this understanding of white supremacy, oppression is the very point, which implies that many people are capable of being nasty and hateful in a way that defies economic or any other good-faith analysis.

Here's the author's closing:
Ask the mothers and fathers of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown Jr. about the “socioeconomic injustice” that pumped bullets into their bodies. Ask the children who attend inferior inner-city schools because white people don’t want to live next to them about the complexities of Wall Street. Macroeconomics, patriarchy and “pre-Du Bois thinking” never tossed a résumé in the trash because a black-sounding name was at the top.

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