Monday, September 28, 2009

Racism: More Than a Mosquito

Cultural commentator John McWhorter uses the mosquito as a metaphor for racism. I'll include two portions from his recent column in the New Republic that mention this metaphor:

"Like mosquitoes, some small, irritating racist element will always exist in every society..."

"It is certainly not pretty that some people's take on Obama is likely mediated by racism. But the phenomenon is less a matter of open bigotry than a breach of civility. Who ever thought that all people would be civil at all times? And who ever thought, given the inherent imperfectability of humankind, that racism is somehow different from our other flaws and could be subject to complete elimination? No one pens doorstop volumes announcing that mosquitoes still exist. We know they do, and we assume they always will, because life isn't perfect. The issue is how close to perfect we can expect to get. Surely, healthcare, two wars overseas, and a deeply ailing economy are more important than mosquitoes -- or whether some people's feelings about Barack Obama are less than, yes, civil." (Read the whole thing here)


  1. Phillipe,
    The CDC statistics are discouraging but the cause of the differences is not obvious from the statistics. Is it racism when city governments consistently fail to encourage development, especially the introduction of decent food stores and banks, in low-income neighborhoods? Oftentimes the mayors and councilmen are of minority stock, so racism, per se, is moot.
    Black-on-Black crime is endemic in some areas and accounts for the high homicide rate among blacks. Is that racism?
    Colorism, e.g., the favoring of the dark or light within an ethnic group is widespread as well. This can be found in the Persian community, the Hispanic community, etc.
    Classism, which in the US is based upon "personal net worth" (a phrase I truly enjoy as we know we are all born noble) more than patrimony - although that factors in occasionally - can be found throughout society. Visible minorities are not immune from this disease.
    So, IMO, the term "racism" or "institutionalized racism" is too narrow.

    Where do these "isms" begin? We as humans feel a logical need to categorize all things and persons. God shows our inclination toward this in the book of Genesis wherein Adam names (in a taxonomic sense) all creatures. We come from the womb with some templates and continue matching patterns every day and hour. This pattern-matching is inherently prejudice but judging from a pattern provides the initial opportunity to choose fight or flight. If we encounter a lion loose in the subway, we match that gestalt to the template of a dangerous carnivore and don't wait around to determine through experience that it is a friendly charming feline.
    We need to overcome this matter of pattern-matching when it comes to our fellow man. This is an important part of our individual ongoing spiritual education. So, the next time I meet someone new, I'll try to make sure that the second question I ask him is not "So, what do you do for work?" - that is the subtle American form of classism, and a hard habit to break.

    The term "prejudice" as in pre-judging, may be more apt than racism. Unfortunately, since we are all guilty of it, it doesn't permit any one person or group the privilege to claim victim status.

  2. Thanks Reed. You've made some good points and I'd respond by saying that it depends again on how racism is defined. Structural racism, which is what I'm referring to could play a role in all of the examples you mentioned. For example, having racial and ethnic minorities in positions of power does has not prevented the disparities the Office of Minority Health is talking about. In some cases, minorities have demonstrated bias towards other minorities in health care settings for instance. When we view racism as primarily about individual attitudes it limits our analysis and capacity to effectively combat the problem. Structural racism is ultimately an issue of outcomes more than individual attitudes, it does not require racist individuals to operate. All it requires is indifference.