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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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Comments

  1. says

    I’m looking forward to the series by Crom (pounds sideboard)

    There’s a line from the end of Charlie Pierce’s afterword to Idiot America. Do you know it?

    So I was surprised when the musty fusty old paranoias bloomed once again around me and, because we have so thoroughly embraced the Three Great Premises of Idiot America, I fear we’ve lost some of our immunities to the ancient poisons.

  2. scorinth says

    Maybe it’s just pessimism talking, but I doubt we will ever be really free of racism. Racists, unlike herpes viruses, can arise spontaneously.

  3. says

    I disagree that it’s spontaneous. Racism is informed by our history and culture. It’s not just a random personal flaw. Understanding that is key to understanding how to combat racism, even if we can’t eradicate it completely.

  4. jamessweet says

    I have more hope for the eradication of racism than I do for the eradication of misogyny. I agree partially with scorinth, not that racism per se is spontaneous, but rather that out-group prejudice is spontaneous, and only waiting in the wings for a convenient means of labeling the out-group. Race is particularly convenient label, first because it is such an obvious phenotypic marker; and second because until very recently in human history, there was a strong correlation between those phenotypic markers and geographical origin/tribal affiliation.

    That second point is being rapidly eliminated. As racial integration becomes more and more pervasive, it becomes a poorer marker for determining in-group/out-group status. The increasing number of interracial couples should accelerate this trend, as it will become even more difficult to pretend that we can artificially assign skin color phenotypes into a small number of neat little buckets in any meaningful way (i.e. the social construct aspect of race will be increasingly difficult to maintain).

    Whether we ever get to the end of that road, I agree with Ian: It’s hard to say. But there is a path to the sea, nevertheless. If there comes a day when there is no correlation whatsoever between your skin color and the neighborhood you grew up in, and where the statistical distribution of race-related phenotypes becomes so smooth as to make a farce out of the idea of “bucketing” those phenotypes into clearly-delineated races, then there is a definite shot at eliminating racism altogether.

    I am less hopeful about misogyny. Even if we assume that there are no innate behavioral differences between the genders (and I would quibble with whether that is really the null hypothesis, given that we are clearly a moderately sexually dimorphic species), the best current research into sexual behavior seems to indicate that the vast majority of us will remain distinctly interested in the expressed gender of certain people in our lives. No amount of enlightenment will remove my “prejudice” against penises being attached to potential sexual partners, for example.

    Which is not to say that because most of us prefer having sex with one gender over the other that this means we have to judge people on the basis of gender in other contexts. But here’s where I agree with scorinth: As long as the strong potential for an in-group/out-group division exists, it will tend to arise spontaneously. It is difficult-to-impossible to envision a truly post-gender society, where nobody has ever had any reason to give more than a passing thought to the gender of their counterparts. And as long as there’s that nugget of division, I suspect that there will be those who turn it into a mountain of scorn and stereotype and prejudice.

    Perhaps I am wrong, though.

  5. baal says

    As an biologist (at least once some time ago in grad school), I came to the conclusion that folks overlook the importance of structure to function in all complex systems. I think it’s pretty easy to tap into human us vs them tribalism tendencies for various purposes but that absent societal reinforcement they can be successfully counter argued. Absent structural reform (hello, drug war & mass incarceration of POC (but esp. black males)), I don’t see much hope for sustained change.*

    I look forward to the pieces (mostly, I tend to mentally cringe at willful ignorance).

    *I could be too pessimistic, the general acceptance of GLBT is way ahead of what I though possible 20 years ago.

  6. scorinth says

    I’ll grant that the racism in most people is fostered by the culture around them, but I swear I know a guy who intensely dislikes Asian people, and when I pressed him on it, he told stories about particularly abrasive peers in college who all happened to be Asian. (The conversation that started it was actually about whether Grant Imahara or Tori Belleci was cuter. I feel dirty admitting that.)

    Anyway, if you believe his story – I’m not sure I do – then at least some racists are created not by immersion in a racist culture or exposure to racist thoughts, but by their own reactions. Then again, it’s not like he’s *not* surrounded by a racist culture anyway, so the variables are muddled. Or he might have been lying about the whole thing.

    The point, I suppose, is that if you accept a certain kind of “background radiation” of racism in a society, then the goal is still the prevention of these ideas taking hold and spreading to others, so the strategy for combating it today isn’t really changed one way or the other. On the other hand, if we effectively eliminate racism at some point in the future, then in one case we can stop fighting it and expend our energy elsewhere, and in the other case we have to maintain some level of vigilance against it’s resurgence.

  7. smrnda says

    “No amount of enlightenment will remove my “prejudice” against penises being attached to potential sexual partners, for example.”

    I’m not sure if I would take sexual preference for women to be an indicator of misogyny. To me, saying that it is is like saying that ‘color-blidness’ would be the absence of racism. I guess I’m also skeptical of the existence of post-racial or post-gender societies. Race and gender are likely always going to exist (outside of a transhumanist sci – fi type future) , and the key is to both have them exist and to remove prejudices against out-group members, at least to me.

  8. says

    Maybe it’s just pessimism talking, but I doubt we will ever be really free of racism. Racists, unlike herpes viruses, can arise spontaneously.

    What magical land formerly free of racism and contact with the west did you go to, that this was possible to observe?

  9. says

    Perhaps I am wrong, though.

    ‘Perhaps’, with multiple unevidenced assertions, and the claim that it is prejudice not to be sexually attracted to dudes as a straight man.

  10. jamessweet says

    You know, fuck you Rutee. Ian, most of your commenters are not assholes like this Rutee person, and that’s why I feel like your blog is a safe place to talk through these issues even though I might not always “get it” in exactly the way that smug shithead likes Rutee think I should “get it” on the very first go. Can you please do something about this? This Rutee person has already been very rude to two people in this thread.

    Fucking asshole.

  11. says

    I’m not sure what I’m being asked to do – ban her?

    Rutee, it’s not necessary to abuse people as a matter of course. People are not perfect, but most of them are here trying to get better, myself included.

  12. says

    Yeah, I’m sure banning me is right at the top of his priority list, after letting a bunch of hetero honkey dudes run roughshod over his friend, and generally letting bigots keep posting.

    You have absolutely no sense of perspective, do you? Go fuck myself, for pointing out that you’re outright wrong? Meh.

  13. says

    Yeah, I’m sure banning me is right at the top of his priority list, after letting a bunch of hetero honkey dudes run roughshod over his friend, and generally letting bigots keep posting.

    More or less my exact thoughts on the matter (except for the word “honkey”, which is probably the dumbest word ever). If I was going to start banning people, it wouldn’t be for being smug or abrasive. My threshold is much MUCH higher than that. I’m sorry if she makes you uncomfortable, but that’s something people are going to have to address with her directly or learn to ignore.

  14. says

    You’re right. Allow me to rephrase: in my experience, most people commenting here (especially the regulars) are willing/happy to engage honestly when they’re wrong, and the level of snark may be offputting to those who would otherwise agree if they were given a chance to address their errors. That of course assumes you’re commenting to change their minds, which you may not be.

    I am not, however, interested in policing anyone’s language. It would make me a) a giant hypocrite about ‘tone’, and b) often involve me begging people to be nicer to members of privileged groups, which lies in direct opposition to where I tend to side in these kinds of discussions.

  15. jamessweet says

    Ian, I was just asking you to say something, which you did. And I appreciate it. Most especially:

    People are not perfect, but most of them are here trying to get better, myself included.

    There are blogs on FtB that I avoid, because the commentariat there have lost all perspective to differentiate between e.g. outright MRAs vs. people who are trying to do the best they can but maybe aren’t perfect. I understand that a lot of that is a reaction to the tremendous vitriol that has been hurled towards FtBloggers for, you know, wanting to be decent to >50% of the human race. I get that, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem.

    Ian, I have mentioned many times in the past that I really appreciate your tremendous ability to tell the difference between someone who is really trying vs. someone who is trolling, and to respond in kind. This blog has, in the past, been a safe space for me to explore different ideas and figure out where my thinking may be wrong. I really appreciate that.

    That’s all I really have to say. I guess what Rutee said wasn’t soooo bad, but ze responded glibly without bothering to even comprehend what I was saying (my use of scare quotes around “prejudice” should have made it clear that I meant the word in a different sense than it is typically meant). It very much rubbed me the wrong way.

  16. jamessweet says

    You also pretty much hit it right on the head when you said:

    in my experience, most people commenting here (especially the regulars) are willing/happy to engage honestly when they’re wrong, and the level of snark may be offputting to those who would otherwise agree if they were given a chance to address their errors.

    I’m very willing to engage when I might be wrong, but “You’re just wrong, that’s why” is not very engaging.

    In any case: I should have been more clear that I was not asking for a ban (yes, I agree that would be disproportionate and ridiculous). You’ve already done pretty much exactly what I was asking for. Thank you.

  17. says

    For the record, my commitment to the “101-level” stuff generally governs my own behaviour, and not a standard that I have ever had any intention on enforcing on anyone else. I am loath to be pulled into conversations in which I admonish people for not being nice enough, especially when the subject of the complaint is “punching up” rather than punching down.

  18. jamessweet says

    As to the original comment, Ian, if I *am* saying something that is waving my privilege flag, and you feel up for explaining why, you know I am all ears. My intention was merely to speculate that misogyny may be harder to eradicate than racism, because it is easy to imagine a society where nobody cares what color skin people have, whereas it is much harder to imagine a society where nobody cares for any reason what type of genitals people have — and once people care for one reason, it becomes all that much easier to start caring for other reasons. Is there some concealed misogyny in that line of speculation (and as I thought I made clear in the original comment, it is indeed just speculation) that I am missing?

  19. says

    It really depends on how you formulate “nobody cares” when it comes to race vs. gender. I don’t think the perfect world is one in which nobody’s race is apparent at all, it’s one where it’s not relevant to political, economic, or other levels of sociological participation, at least in terms of discrimination. In terms of personal interaction, my race is something that informs who I am and how I see the world and how I’d like to be treated. I’d expect that gender is at least similar – it’s not something that is better ignored, but something that is better accepted.

    Gender also is relevant to a great number of things other than sexual selection, so saying “well people will still want to boink a certain way” is fairly orthogonal to the operative part of the conversation. Whatever role sexual selection plays in gender discrimination, it’s a tiny one compared to the socially-constructed bits which are the focus of most discussions about reducing gender inequalities. If your vision of a “post-gender” society is full of unisex jumpsuits and androgynous haircuts, then yeah I don’t know if that would fly. But that’s not the kind of “post-gender” world anyone is really pushing for in a meaningful way (unless I am missing something huge).

  20. says

    but “You’re just wrong, that’s why” is not very engaging.

    You clearly read the other comment. I pointed out the central flaw with this claim that you just know these things spontaneously arise. You only know cultures marinating in bigotry. Why would you label any of this ‘spontaneous’?

    And being categorically uninterested in sex isn’t, by necessity, a judgement. It can be used as one, but it isn’t by default.

    There are blogs on FtB that I avoid, because the commentariat there have lost all perspective to differentiate between e.g. outright MRAs vs. people who are trying to do the best they can but maybe aren’t perfect.

    That’s a red flag like whoa, frankly. Especially in context of this thread.

  21. jamessweet says

    You clearly read the other comment. I pointed out the central flaw with this claim that you just know these things spontaneously arise. You only know cultures marinating in bigotry. Why would you label any of this ‘spontaneous’?

    That was somebody else. Speaking of not reading.

  22. says

    I agree partially with scorinth, not that racism per se is spontaneous, but rather that out-group prejudice is spontaneous, and only waiting in the wings for a convenient means of labeling the out-group.

    No. It wasn’t. Unless you actually do know a place wherein there was neither contact with the west, nor misogyny, where it spontaneously arose.

  23. jamessweet says

    “Experiments using minimal group paradigm have found that even arbitrary and virtually meaningless distinctions between groups (e.g. the colour of their shirts) can trigger a tendency to favour one’s own group at the expense of others.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In-group_favoritism

    So yeah, I haven’t directly observed a society that is untouched by the West, but let’s not play the epistemic nihilism card too quickly here. There’s lots of good reasons to suspect that in-group favoritism is a fundamental part of human nature. We don’t have to observe a pristine independent culture to build confidence in that idea.

    Perhaps you only think I am wrong because of Western prejudices. After all, you have never observed a society untouched by the West! Therefore, it’s entirely possible that everything you think about me is an effect of Western prejudices. Refute that! (Epistemic nihilism FTW!)

  24. says

    There’s lots of good reasons to suspect that in-group favoritism is a fundamental part of human nature

    So were sleeping in caves and eating uncooked food.

    Perhaps you only think I am wrong because of Western prejudices. After all, you have never observed a society untouched by the West! Therefore, it’s entirely possible that everything you think about me is an effect of Western prejudices. Refute that

    Oh poor little 101-level privileged person. For fuck’s sake, by all fucking means ignore the reality of colonialism and write it off as “epistemic nihilism”. Fucking white people.

  25. says

    I dunno, we have plenty of historical, pre-colonial examples of civilizations that went to war against each other. I’m not an anthropologist, but I’d be willing to bet that you could find plenty of examples in pre-colonial histories in places like China and North/South America. Indeed, if we look to the Torah as the oral history of the Caananites, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that out-group hostility and demonization lie outside the purview of European colonialism (as well as a metric assload of misogyny).

    It’s not a stretch at all to conclude that drawing of in- and out-groups, a process that we also see in non-human primates and even some non-primate species, has some kind of evolutionary root. The role that colonialism plays in how we respond to in- and out-group members is worthy of discussion, but I don’t share your assessment that it cannot be known outside a post-colonial narrative.

    Misogyny exists in non-colonial histories as well, although from my cursory understanding it was not universally practiced among pre-colonial civilizations, and tended to vary highly depending on time and location. I was in a Chinese Ming recreated garden the other day and they specifically noted in an exhibit that there was a rise in the societal value that educated daughters had, as depicted by frescoes depicting wealth from different eras.

  26. says

    I dunno, we have plenty of historical, pre-colonial examples of civilizations that went to war against each other.

    Well, that’d be a lot more important if I were saying war arose from colonial structures, but I wasn’t.

    there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that out-group hostility and demonization lie outside the purview of European colonialism (as well as a metric assload of misogyny).

    ‘spontaneous’. As in, from nothing, or so I would think. We also have plenty of evidence of conflicts over resources that would give some valid pretext by which culture could propagate the dislike into a more lasting form.

    It’s not a stretch at all to conclude that drawing of in- and out-groups, a process that we also see in non-human primates and even some non-primate species, has some kind of evolutionary root.

    Insofar as justifying our blatantly selfish actions may have an evolutionary root, I’m inclined to agree, but that still doesn’t mean that it just arose spontaneously.

    Misogyny exists in non-colonial histories as well, although from my cursory understanding it was not universally practiced among pre-colonial civilizations, and tended to vary highly depending on time and location.

    It’s becoming increasingly apparent that ‘spontaneous’ is the root of this. And I’m not really convinced that, for instance, the subjugation of women was begun spontaneously and for giggles; where I’m familiar with its rise, it’s because of cultural transmission, but I doubt it was just done randomly and without cause. There’s concrete benefits to having a sex class, for the dudes.

  27. says

    Well, that’d be a lot more important if I were saying war arose from colonial structures, but I wasn’t.

    Yeah, I was worried I was missing your point. Looks like I did a bit.

    The meaning of the word “spontaneous” is definitely the crux issue here, because I don’t think anything as complex as human behaviour happens “spontaneously” in the sense that it just happens randomly from nothing. It’s built on other structures, and at least some of those seem to me to be intrinsic to the human species. It seems as though we are in agreement on that part.

    In context of scorinth’s original comment, it seems like hir point is that racism does, in some cases, seem to arise from personal aversion that is cast in a racial context. I would argue that the impulse to group people by race (as opposed to by some other characteristic like where they live in the city or what kind of car they drive) is informed by a history of racism which is, indeed, rooted in colonialism. However, the example scorith gave of hir friend who dislikes (East?-)Asians because of bad personal experiences, which sort of lies outside the explanation that racism comes from what we learn from society. I understand hir point, although I don’t necessarily agree that hir friend’s particular brand of racial aversion represents a reasonable cross-section or even a plurality of racial animus, and I don’t know that I would agree with even that characterization of it as “spontaneous”.

  28. Brownian says

    I’m on my phone, so searching is difficult, but I recall some research in the late nineties or so on warfare between groups in the southwest US in which raiding appeared to turn into slaughtering around the onset of the Little Ice Age, suggesting that climate instability and food scarcity led to an escalation of warfare.

    Nevermind, found the Discover article: http://m.discovermagazine.com/2003/may/featwar

  29. scorinth says

    The meaning of the word “spontaneous” is definitely the crux issue here. . . . In context of scorinth’s original comment, it seems like hir point is that racism does, in some cases, seem to arise from personal aversion that is cast in a racial context.

    This was almost exactly my point. I’m just not so eloquent as I usually am – midterm exams and pathological anxiety have tag-teamed my brain lately. I didn’t mean to say that a Tea Party member can suddenly appear in a locked closet apropos of nothing, merely that I suspect there will always be some number of people who seem to be racist regardless of the surrounding society, and that therefore we’ll never “eradicate” racism the same way we can hope to eradicate polio or smallpox. Racists pop into and out of existence in a society like virtual particles in the vacuum of space. Having been through a public high school in the US, it seems like the drive to create in-groups and out-groups is part of being human. For anybody who cares, it’s one reason there are canonically three Blue Men in the Blue Man Group, even though there are several actors who portray them – three is the smallest number of people where you can have an outsider.

    I would argue that the impulse to group people by race (as opposed to by some other characteristic like where they live in the city or what kind of car they drive) is informed by a history of racism which is, indeed, rooted in colonialism.

    I want to learn more about this. I had always assumed that race is as “good” a reason as any to form in-groups and out-groups. Why is colonialism necessary? Do you have any recommendations for where to get started? (Light reading is preferable for now, because of the aforementioned brain-fried-ness.)

    I don’t necessarily agree that hir friend’s particular brand of racial aversion represents a reasonable cross-section or even a plurality of racial animus

    I didn’t mean to imply that my friend represents what is typical or even common today. I was thinking ahead to some far future when we’ve managed to eliminate the transmission of racist memes from one person to another (“memetic bigotogenesis”?). If one can’t learn to be racist from the people around oneself, then the only source of racist beliefs must be the depths of one’s own mind. At that point, the question becomes whether it’s possible to eliminate that process, and I suspect that it’s not.

  30. Nepenthe says

    I didn’t mean to say that a Tea Party member can suddenly appear in a locked closet apropos of nothing…

    Whelp, I know what my nightmare is gonna be about tonight.

  31. Mal Adapted says

    FWIW, I wasn’t disappointed. It was much more thoughtful and detailed, and thus more useful, than your responses to scorinth and jamessweet. When you’re not being pugnacious, your comments are worth reading.

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