Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The Internal Critic and Intersectionality: Who's Looking Out For the Minority Right?

Ampersand's latest post argues that there is a material difference between blacks accusing other blacks of being a "race traitor," and whites doing it. Specifically, he argues:
I don't find Blacks using the term "race traitor" objectionable the way I'd find the same term used by whites (liberal or not) objectionable. It's a little like when Chris Rock uses the word "nigger." I don't think it's acceptable for whites to say "nigger," by and large. But at the same time, it's not my place, as a white guy, to police the language Blacks use when having debates about Black identity politics within the Black community. That's none of my business.
[...]
Context - that is, what race the speaker is - does matter. It's clear that when blacks use the word "nigger" or its derivatives, they're not using it in the anti-black way it's typically been used by white racists. Similarly, the analogy between right-wing racists who have used "race traitor" (for whites who favored civil rights), and anti-racist Blacks who use the same term, doesn't hold much water.

Before I begin, I'd like to note that I was way too casual in the whole "race traitor" deal. It was a heated statement, and I regret it. More embarrassingly, from my perspective, is that the "book by two Georgetown Law Professors" is one I've actually been meaning to read, and both the authors (Mari J. Matsuda and Charles Lawrence III) are writers I admire and consider myself to be heavily influenced be. Also, I agree that context matters, and that there is a qualitative difference between white racists using phrases like "race traitor" and the same sort of claim being made by black leftists to other blacks. My argument thus should not be construed that both are equally objectionable, just that both are, indeed objectionable at all.

That being said, I disagree with Ampersand that blacks calling other blacks "race traitor" is akin to the use of "nigger" by blacks. The reason is simple--and it has everything to do with the context of use. Like Amp, I may find the use of "nigger" by blacks distasteful. However, blacks don't use it in a context designed to degrade or isolate the subject of its use (whereas any white usage necessarily carries with it the baggage of past racism). By contrast, "race traitor" is an epithet designed to intimidate, the purpose is to assault minorities who aren't displaying the proper "solidarity" and the intent is to strip them of their blackness--if you're not with me, you're not black.

I briefly overviewed the theory of intersectionality in a previous post, but it's worth running through again:
[Intersectionality argues] that the experience of a double minority is different than the sum of the two minority groups she belongs. For example, the status of a Black Woman is not merely Woman + Black. Similarly, the status of a female minority conservative is not just Female + Minority + Conservative. The simplest reason why this is so is because whereas becoming a conservative by itself means joining a relatively popular and broad group, becoming a minority conservative means being subjected to endless taunts of being an "Uncle Tom" or traitor, accusations (and occasionally, true moments) of being "used" by majority peers, and other hardships. In other words, while my (White) life would not be significantly changed by switching my political affiliation, for a minority, this switch comes with a lot of baggage. Because the tropes associated with "conservative" are contingent upon one's other identities, one can't simply atomize conservatism (or any other identity) and examine independently of the rest.

Ampersand views this entire spat as intramural, blacks arguing amongst themselves about what it means to oppose racism. To me, this obscures the divisions in power relations that exist within the black community. Since the black left is far more powerful than the black right, the effect of them using this term is to leverage the influence they have over anti-racism discourse to suppress views they don't like. This is akin to when minorities began to criticize the fact that civil rights scholarship was nearly all-white (and didn't cite to any emerging minority writers). See Richard Delgado, The Imperial Scholar: Reflections on Civil Rights Literature, 132 U. Pa. L. Rev. 561 (1984). The terminology used by black leftists is not neutral debate, it is a deliberate attempt to link black conservatives to an ideology inherently opposed to black people. It's like a Jew calling another Jew a Nazi--irrespective of the validity of the criticism itself, the term is offensive because of the particular tropes and tenors it carries in the Jewish experience. Acting as if this was just folks debating ("free speech"?) blinds us to the realities of power and forces us to pretend that Blacks do all agree on the terms and conditions regarding opposition to racism--and moreover, we have to play that role by accepting the very controversy that is under dispute--that black leftists are "right" in how they frame the racism debate and the conservatives are "wrong."

This does not address the second part of Ampersand's critique--that even if we (white liberals) think that the term is wrong, it's none of our business. As I wrote in my last post, my Jewish background places me deeply opposed to the "it's not our problem" school of thought. The history of genocide is replete with examples of tyrants who knew that if they just kept their actions an internal affair, they could escape international notice and condemnation of even the most brutal of crimes. Within this paradigm, Hitler's crime was not that he slaughtered millions of Jews, it's that he invaded Poland (which of course made it "everybody's problem"). Had he just concentrated on the Jews in his own border (like Turkey with Armenians, Rwanda, Cambodia, Sudan, etc.), he'd have been home free. I reject this logic.

Obviously there is value to letting groups solve their own problems, just as there is value in respecting national sovereignty. But this is predicated on the notion that all members of the group in question stand on roughly equal footing, and that the object under consideration is not whether or not to expel a disempowered sub-sect. Because I believe the position of black conservatives does not meet either condition, and because I believe that outsiders have obligations, when possible, to rectify even injustices that aren't within their own community, I register my disagreement with Ampersand.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

You wrote, "Also, I agree that context matters, and that there is a qualitative difference between white racists using phrases like "race traitor" and the same sort of claim being made by black leftists to other blacks."

In what way is the difference qualitative? The meaning, in both contexts, is the same -- that you have a responsibility to support your own race and providing any "aid and comfort" to someone of another competing race makes you a traitor to your own race. I'd argue that this "tribal" mindset, regardless of who expresses it, is exactly what turns many countries into living hells for their population, from the ethnic cleansing of the Balkans to the genocide of the Hutu against the Tutsi in Rwanda.

It's the reason why democracy fails to deliver freedom and prosperity in many place because democracy combined with that sort of "tribal" mindset does, in fact, produce the tyranny of the majority. That's exactly why so many people expect democracy in Iraq to fail. Unless the various Iraqi ethnicities can move beyond their "tribal" thinking, it may very well fail. Democracy does not work when people use its power to enrich their own group at the expense of others when they come to power. "Tribal" thinking is the antithesis of egalitarianism, no matter how it is justified or practiced. It fuels the "them" in the "us vs. them" mentality.

I'd argue that, instead, good people have an obligation to stand with other good people and reject bad people, whether they are part of their own group or part of an outside group.

That American blacks cheered as OJ Simpson was aquitted of murdering Nichole Brown and Ron Goldman set race relations back in the United States just as surely as a white jury aquitting the police that beat Rodney King did. That whites and blacks don't trust each other to do what's right and instead expect people to side with members of their own race regardless of how criminal their actions ultimately creates a fertile field to grow more racism.

The only way out of racism is to demand that people look beyond race or membership in an ethnicity and look at the ideas and actions of others on their own merits. Or, as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, create "a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Ultimately almost any argument concerning the race of an individual expressing an idea rather than an argument against their ideas is simply an "argumentum ad hominem" or an argument against the person's character, nationality, etc. rather than an argument against the person's ideas. Of course "ad hominem" attacks are a very popular way to try to suppress an idea when it's impossible to attack the idea, itself. If a persons ideas are bad, by all means argue against them. But attacking the person expressing an idea does nothing to refute the idea, itself.

Ampersand said...

I wish I had more time to post here today, because this deserves a well-thought out response. Alas... But let me thank you for posting this reply to me.

Let me say that I think it's partly a matter of deciding where our efforts are most effective. Certainly, if members of a minority groups start rounding up other members into death camps, that's no time to say "none of my business!" However, I think that extreme example, which you bring up, is not terribly useful in letting us know when to put ourselves into other, more mundane intra-group conflicts.

The terminology used by black leftists is not neutral debate, it is a deliberate attempt to link black conservatives to an ideology inherently opposed to black people. It's like a Jew calling another Jew a Nazi--irrespective of the validity of the criticism itself, the term is offensive because of the particular tropes and tenors it carries in the Jewish experience.

What if the charge is, in fact, perfectly valid? Imagine a Jew who explicitly sides with anti-semtiic groups and the Nazi party. Would it be wrong for Jews in the mainstream of the Jewish community to attempt to "isolate the subject of its use"? I'd say not; there are in fact times when it's legitimate to attempt to isolate someone from a community in non-violent ways. Using language which attempts to indicate that a person has left the mainstream of his or her community is one of those non-violent means.

Anonymous, in the quote you cite, MLK was saying that we should work towards the dream of a race-blind world; he wasn't saying that we are already in that world, or that ignoring race in our current, racist world was a sensible strategy. For example, he strongly favored affirmative-action style programs (although the term had not yet been invented), so clearly he wasn't advocating total race-blindness in the current world.

More to come later, I'm sure. :-)

Anonymous said...

Ampersand wrote, "Anonymous, in the quote you cite, MLK was saying that we should work towards the dream of a race-blind world; he wasn't saying that we are already in that world, or that ignoring race in our current, racist world was a sensible strategy."

I'm not claiming he was. But how much real progress toward a race-blind society has been made between when Martin Luther King, Jr. said those words and now? You aren't going to get to a race-blind society where people are judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin by judging people by the color of their skin. It hasn't worked in 40 years and it's not about to work now.