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Racism, elections, and national herpes

I don’t have herpes. This may come as a shock to those of you who think, for some reason, that I had herpes. But I don’t. I had chicken pox when I was a kid, though. I don’t remember it, but my dad says I didn’t particularly enjoy it at the time. I was rashy and irritable and generally miserable. But, like you do, I got better and didn’t have chicken pox anymore. A buddy of mine had chicken pox when he was a kid too. A few weeks ago he bailed on some plans we had. Annoyed, I asked why. He said he could barely move, he was in such pain. A trip to the doctor would reveal that my buddy had an outbreak of Shingles, which is caused by previous exposure to the chicken pox virus, a virus that never completely leaves the system.

There are a lot of theories about what causes Shingles – whether it’s just random inflammation, whether it’s the result of someone being immunocompromised due to competing surgery, or the result of the system becoming otherwise compromised by factors such as stress. What is clear though is that being infected with chicken pox means that there’s a chance that, years later, you will see a painful flareup. Other forms of herpes are like that too – all it takes is to get infected once and you’re at risk of outbreak for the rest of your life. At times of immunocompromise or great stress, you’re likely to see flareups.

The United States just had a federal election – an election that was perhaps the most vindictive and ugly one in recent memory, although I am always wary of descriptions like that, simply due to recall/confirmation bias. Whatever the objective magnitude of ugliness, the fact remains that at a time of great political polarization and an increasingly-present sense that the election of either candidate was simultaneously the greatest thing that America had ever done and the complete and irrevocable dissolution of the republic, America was under a great deal of stress. The nation, it seemed, was gripped with a frenetic hysteria about its political process that I cannot recall seeing paralleled, even in the 2008 election.

There is a colloquial descriptive phrase wherein the public (at least during election season) is known as ‘the body politic’. For my purposes in this post, it is somewhat instructive to look at a country as an analogue of a human body, because what we saw repeatedly in the lead-up to but also immediately following the climax of the election was something very similar to what we see from someone with herpes: widespread outbreaks caused seemingly by stress.

I’ve long held that racism is not a personal failing by bad people, but rather the result of various quirks of human psychology that are inextricably tied up in a racialized history, where great import was placed (seemingly arbitrarily) on certain groups of phenotypic traits. What we are left with is a contemporary society that is built on a framework of white supremacist understandings of group identity and the enmities and animosities that accompany that. We try, to our own peril, to pretend as though we can move on from that history through sheer strength of will and scrupulous and intentional ignorance of the shocking realities of our past, and in those occasions where we can muster the collective energy and concentration, the illusion of “post-racial” can be maintained (at least in the face of casual scrutiny).

But then we have these intermittent periods where our concentration is broken, our energy sapped, and we begin to see outbreaks of racism. Often these periods correspond to economic crises, where the “they took our jobs” refrain manages to find endless voices to join its chorus, with equally endless variations on that theme. We saw it in the rampant anti-Arab sentiment that gripped America following the September 2001 attacks, when a nation under a perceived threat turned inward to destroy and cast out the ‘others’ in their midst. We saw it during the second World War both in the US and in Canada, where Japanese (and a fair number of Chinese, Taiwanese, and Vietnamese) were consigned to internment camps and demonized in the popular press. We see communities splintered along racial lines in times of scarcity, and we learn how it is that people define their ‘in group’.

This month’s federal election played up racial disharmony to garner votes – to push the already-existing buttons of out group enmity in order to sway people into heeding some arguments while ignoring others. While in the cold and cynical calculus of campaign strategy this appeal to systemic racism may seem like just another tactic for winning, in the world outside the polling numbers the effect of stoking racial hatred is profound.

I keep a file of stories that I run across in my own browsing of the internet. When I run across a news item or a blog post or an infographic that I think will be helpful to me in terms of telling the stories I want to get across on this blog, I clip them and save them. In a given week I might come across one or two stories of overt racism. Perhaps three. In the week following the election, my file has exploded with content. And so, I plan to devote this week to demonstrating this single thesis: that at times of great crisis (like the election), racist sentiment bubbles to the surface (like herpes) as our collective energies become sapped.

If you haven’t done so already, there are a couple of previous blog posts you may want to check out as a sort of theoretical/evidentiary prelude to this thesis, which will perhaps help put some of it in context:

To jump to the end of the week, and to highlight the single biggest flaw in the racism/herpes analogy that I can see, I honestly don’t know if racism is as incurable as herpes. I don’t know if there’s ever going to be a day when we truly become ‘post-racial’. I do know that the racial identifiers that we have today are different from the ones that we had 50 or 60 years ago. I know that today, different ethnicities and cultures are interacting in unprecedented ways, and that inter-racial couples are at (apparently) an all-time high. Perhaps we will simply grow beyond race, perhaps more direct intervention is needed. But this is a discussion for another time. For now, buckle in, because this is going to be a rough week.

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