Who’s to blame?
There’s been an upswing in discourse about racial injustice and racial politics over the last five or so years. A lot of it can certainly be tracked to the democratic election of the first black president of the united states. It opened a can of worms that had been sealed away in the late 1960s amidst the struggle for civil rights.
Much of the discourse today seems to focus on responsibility. Namely: who is responsible for our largely unequal and highly racialized society?
This intense focus on responsibility, and by association blame, has served to colour the debate. I read an article today by Ta-Nehisi Coates about the systematic oppression of black bodies by white society. Responsibility and blame lying at the feet of white society. White society responds, urging blacks to look at black-on-black crime, or perhaps highlights unsavory statistics highlighting incarceration rates or dropout rates. Shifting the burden back to black society. It’s really just a sick tug of war, isn’t it? Neither side willing to accept responsibility. But then. Then there’s something really important to highlight.
White society has had structural, institutional and economic power over black society for almost 500 years in the American context. Didn’t Uncle Ben say, with great power comes great responsibility? Does that end the debate? Does this mean white society is entirely responsible and entirely to blame? That seems unfair, and plenty of white folk will happily point that out. Touting lines like it’s not my fault slavery happened. I wasn’t alive in the 19th century. Totally. That’s true. But isn’t it also true that if you’re a white person living in the 21st century, you owe your standard of living to 500 years of exploitation and dehumanisation? Okay, but then you’ll get the retort of what about poor white people. They’re being exploited by the capitalist machine just as badly. Perhaps true. But isn’t it also true that if you have white skin you’re much less likely to be harassed by our institutions? Isn’t it also true that if you have white skin you’ll see your image reflected by our cultural institutions? Isn’t it also true that you’ll see your image reflected by our political and economic institutions?
As you can see though, responsibility and blame are very difficult things to negotiate. There’s always a counterpoint. But the reality stays the same. White society subsumes and dehumanises black society. But then what of Asian society, or Latin society, or South Asian society, what of all the other “races” of non-white people. What of the status of women. What of the status of the LGBTQ community. What of all these groups in society that can rightly and fairly claim to being systematically oppressed and dehumanised?
When all these groups come together, there’s one common outlier: the white man. An easy symbol, and easy target. The white man symbolises the capitalist patriarchy. The white man symbolises oppression. But then what of the poor white man? Downtrodden by the capitalist machine, dehumanised by late-industrial society, and demonised by the 21st century intersectional alliance. It’s not my fault. I was just born here, with this skin tone. I didn’t choose this. I’m not racist, I’m not sexist, I’m not prejudiced. I’m poor too, I work at a shitty job just to make ends meat. Is every white man to blame? Of course not.
So where does this leave us? With more questions than answers again. Obviously. Justice is important. Equality is important. But can we achieve justice for the crimes of history while still striving for equality? Must we achieve justice for the crimes of history? Or perhaps should we be striving for justice for the crimes of today? Bankers stealing millions going unpunished, faceless corporations raping and pillaging the planet for profit.
People will rightly point out that there are plenty of non-white 1%ers pillaging the earth all the same. That’s true, there are. So are they to blame just as well?
History says probably not. History says that the industrial revolution and all the social, political and cultural shifts that followed was carried out by white society. History says white society, and the lords of white society co-opted a few non-whites with promises of riches. So then is capitalism to blame? Is it capitalism’s pernicious pursuit of profits? Is it capitalism’s faceless dehumanisation? Because history also says millions of white people in white society suffered all the same for the whims of capital. History reminds us of the industrial revolution, and it’s effects on peasant society. History reminds us that the industrial revolution, driven by profits, objectified and exploited millions of white people too. So is capitalism to blame? It’s quite hard to blame an ideology. An ideology is not a person. An ideology can’t accept responsibility and apologize.
The two pictures are quite instructive no? In both cases, there is dehumanization and exploitation in the name of geographically dispersed profit. Sure the miners are being paid, but does that make it any better? Dare we argue one form of exploitation over another? If someone’s getting paid, does that make it better? Even if it’s just a subsistence wage? I think liberally we’d like to argue that literal slavery is worse than metaphorical slavery. But isn’t the bigger picture the same regardless? Aren’t people and the planet all being exploited and destroyed by a small minority of wealthy, geographically displaced folk? Isn’t that what occupy was trying to explain?
And what are we looking for anyway? What kind of absolution are we striving for in this endless struggle for “justice”? Again, there are far more questions than answers, and perhaps, again, that’s entirely the point. Perhaps as long as we can keep discussing, keep considering, and perhaps if we stop blaming and assigning responsibility, perhaps then we can “move on”? What does moving on even mean? Utopia? It’s hard to rationalise outcomes amidst all this complexity. It’s easier to just ignore it, and carry on, watching movies, playing video games, getting drunk, eating out. All the supposed pleasures of western life. But then we remember that the price of non-essential consumer goods (TVs, computers, cell phones) has been going down, while the price of food and rent keeps going up. 1 And wages stay the same. So is it capitalism’s fault?
Here I am again, trying to find someone to blame. I guess it’s because I don’t want to accept responsibility. It’s easier to blame something or someone else than accept personal responsibility. Black or white, I live in this world, I have a voice, I have choices, I have responsibility, so perhaps I’m to blame. And so are you. Perhaps we’re all to blame, and the moment we accept we’re all to blame, and quit trying to blame someone else, perhaps then we can have an honest discussion.
This post was heavily influenced by two articles and a book I’m in the middle of reading. Check them out if you have the time.
“The Road to Wigan Pier” – George Orwell