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COLUMN

The Redundancy of Racism

Philip Burrowes

Last Wednesday, Gene Ray received something most MIT professors never will: a lecture hall packed with attentive students. With all due respect to the Time Cube’s “ineffable Truth,” his single most amazing accomplishment may have been to get the mostly white crowd to laugh at a joke with the punchline, “... and I’m going to hate you honkies.” Amidst the ensuing collective convulsions of joy, one person was compelled to comedically respond: “White power!” There was little discernible response to the comment, and the audience kept guffawing for several more seconds, but no doubt some thought such an outburst was unwelcome. Not because the audience was supposed to maintain some level of decorum, but because the phrase “white power” is obviously racist, right?

Often companion to that opinion is the idea that “black power” is not only a relatively innocuous phrase, but that it is even a positive statement. Most people who think that way will never articulate their reasons for it, but that does not stop the rest of the population from asking the obvious question. Why, exactly, is a phrase’s utility wholly dependent on the point of view for its speaker? Perhaps the question begins expanding to other similar phenomena, and soon people are wondering why there can be “black” magazines, “black” television, “black” jokes, etc., but substituting “white” for “black” would make them racist. There are any number of explanations of this which may try to explain the situation in practical terms without addressing the historical antecedent. Market success of these “black” enterprises allows them to succeed. Black people have concerns distinct from the rest of the population, so they are better served by specially tailored means. Capital flow from blacks to non-blacks is making the black community poorer, so it is important for them to support fellow blacks.

Without questioning the veracity of any of these statements (yet) it should be obvious that none of them answer the question of why this is the case. Quite simply, the reason “black” is used to qualify specific items is because the assumption otherwise is that they are white. Economic and political power has been and is concentrated within the hands of people who happen to be white (to be distinguished from white people), and so any institution is automatically perceived as serving those interests. Lest this seems like more “black power” posturing, simply think of what comes to mind when imagining “history.” Seeing a black person yet? Chances are, unless your family is not far removed from some other nation, you haven’t even envisioned a nonwhite person yet. In other words, the reason few people say “white power” is that it’s redundant.

Nowhere exists an immutable assertion to constantly remind black people that, no, they are not born into a position of impotence. If anything, the only inclination black people receive of their position is from the outside. Turn on a television and see another black person becoming a chalk outline thanks to police, watch black athletes in arenas surrounded by white spectators, or quickly scan the United States Senate. As a result, the white people laying claim to their “power” seem like little more than sore winners.

So you understand the point that black people might feel systematically underrepresented, so they over-represent themselves elsewhere (let’s assume; one probably can’t just take another’s word for it). You should furthermore understand this does not give carte blanche for actions which would be reprehensible for other groups. If the overwhelmingly white House of Representatives, for example, should favor white people for the sheer fact that they are white, the Congressional Black Caucus would be neither obligated to nor excused for favoring blacks. Along the same lines, it would be wrong for a television network, a musician, a clothing company, etc. to be construed as important solely because of the number of black people involved.

Herein lies the real problem with “black” products: reinforcing the notion of “black.” Simply promoting someone because of race gives us another Clarence Thomas. Choosing, however, between what is of black-interest and what is not implies that there are concerns which it would be aberrant for black people to have, thereby supporting the idea that are inherent differences between (and thereby the existence of) races. While it is understandable to let black people know they exist, being too extreme one way or another is ultimately racist.

Gene Ray, at this point, might be inclined to point out there are other races, although he would choose a definite number. In a nation which is nearly 90% either white or black, should both groups dedicate themselves to self-representation (albeit the former indirectly), the other 10% are left all the more excluded. Undoubtedly it would be fairer if enterprises on all sides realized that were in fact no sides, or that at least they are not so clear-cut. Still, it is better that black people empower themselves than leave “power” synonymous with “other.”