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August 21, 2012

Race, Culture, and Resilience

Over the weekend the blog princess read something that disturbed her. In a post entitled, "How Culture Works", an author describes a novel about Japanese families interned during WWII:

At some point the family returns to their home which they discover has been inhabited by people they do not know. All of their furniture is gone and there's (presumably racist) graffiti on the walls. When they lay down for bed, they all sleep in the same room.

...When I read this, I thought of all our previous conversations around culture. Specifically, I thought of how brothers come home from prison institutionalized (acculturated) to their old lives, and have to struggle to make their way in the new. And of course, more broadly, I thought of the black community, whose entire experience in America has been marked by great violence.

What Otsuka gives us here--and for the rest of the book--is a traumatized family, reeling long after the initial trauma has faded. They struggle to regain their shape, their old easiness with their neighbors, their sense of beauty and self. It sounds so familiar.

The bolded lines struck me most forcibly: "It sounds so familiar,", and "I thought of the black community, whose entire experience in America has been marked by great violence". Familiar, why? What has the author personally experienced to make a story about families driven from their homes during wartime without evidence of wrongdoing, without so much as a hearing, seem "so familiar"? Under what circumstances was his family driven from their home, his belongings and business taken from him, his family's freedom of movement abruptly curtailed? If he has not experienced these things, how can they be "so familiar"? How can he truly understand something he has never actually experienced?

What great violence (presumably racist in nature, like the graffiti on the walls of our Japanese family's home) has marked this author's life? If the "entire experience" of American blacks has indeed been marked by great violence, what is the nature of that violence? How is it perpetrated, and by whom? Perhaps our author is a statistical anomaly - a black victim of white on black crime? I don't know his personal history. According to a few bios available online, he grew up in West Baltimore - just down the road from where we live.

The quotes illustrate a phenomenon that can only deepen already festering grievances between groups of people with different perspectives and interests: the racialization of human conflict and - perhaps more disturbingly - the perpetuation and adoption of other people's grievances: the nurturing of resentment and hatred.

Let's begin with the part about the "entire experience" of blacks in America being "marked by great violence"... as opposed to, what? Are we to infer that the experience of blacks in Africa has been marked by uninterrupted goodness and light? To this day, Africa continues to experience unbelievably horrific violence that is far worse and more pervasive than anything in the experience of today's American black community. American slavery itself would not have been possible, were it not for the already widespread practice of African slavery, which gave rise to African slavers trading human beings for other commodities they could sell for a profit:

At first the Europeans went to Africa to trade for gold, other metals, feathers, and ivory tusks. Soon it was discovered that many of the African Rulers would also sell their slaves who were taken to distant places and traded for other supplies. When colonies were settled in the Americas across the Atlantic Ocean they established trade routes with them as well. In 1532 AD, the first slave was taken directly from Africa to the Americas.

To this day, slavery is still practiced in much of Africa and Asia.

As for violence against American blacks, despite the media hype surrounding the Trayvon Martin case, the fact is that the vast majority of violent crime is intra, rather than inter-racial:

Each year, roughly 7,000 blacks are murdered. Ninety-four percent of the time, the murderer is another black person. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, between 1976 and 2011, there were 279,384 black murder victims. Using the 94 percent figure means that 262,621 were murdered by other blacks. Though blacks are 13 percent of the nation's population, they account for more than 50 percent of homicide victims. Nationally, black homicide victimization rate is six times that of whites, and in some cities, it's 22 times that of whites. Coupled with being most of the nation's homicide victims, blacks are most of the victims of violent personal crimes, such as assault and robbery.

The magnitude of this tragic mayhem can be viewed in another light. According to a Tuskegee Institute study, between the years 1882 and 1968, 3,446 blacks were lynched at the hands of whites. Black fatalities during the Korean War (3,075), Vietnam War (7,243) and all wars since 1980 (8,197) come to 18,515, a number that pales in comparison with black loss of life at home. It's a tragic commentary to be able to say that young black males have a greater chance of reaching maturity on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan than on the streets of Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Oakland, Newark and other cities.

A much larger issue is how might we interpret the deafening silence about the day-to-day murder in black communities compared with the national uproar over the killing of Trayvon Martin. Such a response by politicians, civil rights organizations and the mainstream news media could easily be interpreted as "blacks killing other blacks is of little concern, but it's unacceptable for a white to kill a black person."

How do our perceptions become so distorted that this kind of context free recording of history becomes the accepted truth? The abuses of slavery and the Jim Crow era were real, and continue to be worth remembering. But the Japanese were not the only emigres from the Axis powers to be interned during WWII (there were German and Italian internment camps too).


What are we to make of such troubling incidents in history? The answer is likely to depend on how selectively we consider them. If we choose to excluse the tragic history of African and Asian treatment of people of their own race - if we consider only Japanese internment by a mostly white America and overlook the internment of Germans and Italians - if we speak vaguely of an entire American experience marked by great violence and somehow neglect to mention that our own generation (whether white or black) is far more likely to experience violence at the hands of one of our own race than at the hands of The Other, it's easy to come away with a distorted view.

What can we say of a culture (or a micro-culture, as I've never been convinced that there's any such thing as a monolithic Black or White culture?) that views history through a selectively distorted lens?

Throw a stone in America and odds are, you'll hit someone whose ancestors experienced racial or religious persecution. My daughter in law is a Jew. We are Christians. Her ancestors are from Eastern Europe, a place known for pogroms. On another level, we are both women. If we want to feel persecuted or nurture some shared sense of grievance, we could (and some women do) choose to focus on the fact that 99% of rapists are male, though not all of their victims are female. What does this say about men? Not much really, without the vital context that the vast majority of men are not rapists, or that men rape men too.

Still, it's so easy to think you're special - that the panoply of human history, which is marked by violent oppression and savage persecution of so many groups, by so many groups, for so many reasons (or no reason at all) has singled you out for special attention.

And then there's the Rape of Nanking, committed by Asians against other Asians:

Or unspeakable horror of Dachau, where predominantly white Germans tried to exterminate predominantly white Jews.

Or the mass killings and rapes in Darfur, which could be about race or sex or religion or just resources, depending on who one talks to, but is undeniably horrific regardless of the etymology.

We are a savage and brutal race: the human race, I mean. It is easier to divide into groups than to remember what we have in common; our essential humanity with its twinned propensity for savagery and self sacrifice. "How Culture Works" is an interesting topic, because culture can broaden or restrict awareness; it can distort or clarify history. My grandmother's family were of German ancestry. Does my daughter in law harbor secret resentment against my ancestors for offenses she has never personally experienced? If so, does she resent me more for being part German or all Christian? Is blame passed from mother to daughter or father to son? How about victimhood?

The deliberate distortion of history by selective omission strikes me as something of a cultural dead end - the ultimate First World problem to be worried over by people clutching secondhand horrors to their bosoms because they confer an unearned sense of specialness. The idiocy of some feminists blaming all men for the transgressions of a few is about to be replaced by some men's rights activists blaming all women for reasons no more convincing. A pox on both houses.

Where does it all end? And is this really how culture should work? God, I hope not.

Posted by Cassandra at August 21, 2012 08:06 AM

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The blame aspect of this travesty doesn't trouble me so much as what it tells me about the danger of group interactions. I know we can't get by without group interactions and that they're by no means inherently bad, but from an early age I have found peculiar horror in the leeway people will give themselves to be unjust to an individual because of his membership in a perceived group. I'd prefer we left groupthink to the situations in which it is absolutely unavoidable, and scrupulously avoid it when we are dealing with an individual.

Posted by: Texan99 at August 21, 2012 02:30 PM

This is what I love about Jonathan Haidt's work - he manages to convey both the survival value of what he calls "groupishness" and its enormous destructive power.

I am just so tired of identity and grievance politics. We're tearing our own country apart, and for what? Most of the time our own groups - our own acquaintances, friends, neighbors - pose the greatest danger to us. They also have the capacity to bring us the greatest joy. They can hurt (or delight) us because we let them close.

We know this, and yet we spend endless amounts of time and energy fixating on Stranger Danger and the idiocy of hating/resenting/being offended by people who are different from us: who in many cases have little to do with what we value most.

So stupid, and really so tragic. We fear the wrong things and work overtime to mitigate the wrong risks.

Sorry, Tex. I'm tired and cranky. Culture is supposed to lift us up - to pass wisdom and perspective from older, more experienced members of society to those with less of both qualities. It's supposed to teach us positive responses to life's difficulties - techniques that will help us overcome challenges, not wallow in them or give them power over us.

When culture passes down lies and distortions, when it fosters self destructive attitudes and behaviors, it undermines the very ends it is supposed to help us achieve.

Posted by: Cassandra at August 21, 2012 05:13 PM

Interesting discussion. I think it worthwhile to disassociate the "Jim Crow" experience of blacks in America from the WWII experience of Japanese/German descended americans during WWII. It is also important to remember that there actually WERE Japanese in the US who were actively helping Imperial Japan--not too many, but some; just like there were ethnic Germans helping the Nazis etc. Not saying the internment camps were "right"; but they were understandable given the actual circumstances at the time.

Posted by: CAPT Mongo at August 21, 2012 06:22 PM

And that's the problem, isn't it? What do you do if you find that some members of an identifiable group are engaged in a dangerous crime? (1) Identify the ones who are doing it and lock them up, or (2) lock up everyone with similar backgrounds, because better safe than sorry?

If you choose (2), you undermine the basis of the civilization you're trying to protect, if you happen to be an American. So what doth it profit?

Posted by: Texan99 at August 21, 2012 06:31 PM

Well, Texan 66, it doth not profit the society at all, IMO. However, those of us who want to judge the actions of people in the past need to consider what those people knew at the time, and what the context of their decisions was. Absent such informed consideration, such judgements are usually --well--ill considered at best. Revisionist history ain't, in short.

Posted by: CAPT Mongo at August 21, 2012 06:56 PM

I like the right vs. understandable distinction. Saying a thing is understandable doesn't mean it was right, even retroactively.

But there's a HUGE distinction between looking at past actions through a lens that pretends there was no actual risk or legitimate concern, as opposed to acknowledging that risk or concern and going on to say, "But it still wasn't right."

Of course that's a far more difficult argument to make, which is why so many folks only present part of the picture.

Posted by: Cassandra at August 21, 2012 07:23 PM

Speaking of all of which, Cass, I don't know if you read Walter Russell Mead's long-form piece on race and America, but I thought of it while reading your piece today. I recommend it to you.

Posted by: Grim at August 21, 2012 08:11 PM

Agreed, Madame Princess. We were watching the Ken Burns series on "War" recently, and I was struck not only by the stories about the internments but also about the contemporary attitude toward the atom bombing. It's hard from the perspective of 2012 twelve to look at either of those choices as they appeared to people in the 1940s. There were dangers from both that were barely apparent at the time, and I'm less inclined than I was as a youngster to judge either very harshly. In fact, the whole series made plain a huge gap between public opinion then and now: in many ways, contemporary society seems full of wincing ninnies, incapable of facing a choice or paying a price.

Posted by: Texan99 at August 22, 2012 11:34 AM

To answer your question, Grim, no I hadn't seen the piece. I will take a look at it tonight after work.

Posted by: Cassandra at August 23, 2012 04:20 PM