Natalie Solent

Politics, news, libertarianism, Science Fiction, religion, sewing. You got a problem, bud? I like sewing.

E-mail: nataliesolent-at-aol-dot-com (I assume it's OK to quote senders by name.)

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Friday, June 02, 2006
Fecklessness and power. John Weidner, Betsy Newmark and Eugene Volokh have all posted about the following definition of "Cultural Racism" put out by the Seattle public schools administration:
Cultural Racism:

Those aspects of society that overtly and covertly attribute value and normality to white people and Whiteness, and devalue, stereotype, and label people of color as “other”, different, less than, or render them invisible. Examples of these norms include defining white skin tones as nude or flesh colored, having a future time orientation, emphasizing individualism as opposed to a more collective ideology, defining one form of English as standard, and identifying only Whites as great writers or composers...

Following media attention this definition has been removed and replaced by less obviously offensive blather.

The policy decision that "emphasizing individualism as opposed to a more collective ideology" constituted racism came to my ear like a little echo of the draft European Constitution: an attempt to build in a left-wing position without going to the trouble of arguing for it. Under this definition pretty any student daring to defend Republican ideas could have been accused of racism. And that was the idea. It was all about power.

The idea that "having a future time orientation" constituted racism was a little more interesting. The stereotype of blacks as being feckless goes back to the era of slavery. I would guess that the slaves probably did tend to fecklessness, as a rule, although not as much as the masters thought they did. This relative lack of a future time orientation among the slaves was not because they had black skin but because they had no power. There is less point in making plans for your old age when you know that when your strength starts to fade you can be literally "sold down the river" . There is less point making plans for your children when you know they may be taken from you as soon as they are old enough to work. Even for those slaves who were allowed to earn and save those savings were insecure. Defenders of slavery made another point, which remains true despite the source: that a slave did not have to worry about where his next meal was coming from or where he would sleep that night. It was all organised for him.

Slaves did make plans, of course, but they tended to be secret. Plans of escape and rebellion were secret for obvious reasons. But most slaves did not escape and did not rebel. Their plans had to be secret because they involved manipulation of their masters, cajoling them, bringing them round - and people do not like to be manipulated. To some extent I would imagine that the slaves kept their plans secret even from themselves, "compartmentalized" as we would say now: it is human nature to pretend to oneself that one does not dream of a better future when the chances of the dream coming to pass are low.

Naturally, the white slaveowners preferred to think of their slaves as childlike creatures, living for the moment, incapable of making decisions for themselves. I dare say that there were social penalties imposed on any white who talked too long about instances of thrift or self-discipline he might have observed among the blacks.

And there still are, in Seattle schools. How odd.

ADDED LATER: When writing the last line above, I slightly misread - or understood at the wrong angle - the Seattle "anti-racism" policy. I was thinking of it as narrower than it is; as saying that it was racist for whites to favour having a future time orientation (in blacks or whites, presumably) when in fact it says that simply having a "future time orientation" is, in itself, racism. (It says elsewhere in the policy that only whites can be racist.)

I doubt if the slaveowners liked to see evidence of determined long term planning on the part of their chattels. The parallel may seem extreme, but I'm not the only one to make it.

ADDED LATER YET: I really shouldn't've had that beer. These days I seem to have the alcohol capacity of, well, a pint glass. I keep getting that parallel slightly wrong. The desire on the part of those in authority to punish those under authority for making long term plans does indeed suggest that they wish to train them to be less than fully independent citizens. But in this case the victims were white, not black, so bringing Mason Weaver's book into it, as I did in the link, wasn't as relevant as I thought it was. Then again, we're all human beings, and I bet these guys find ways to infantilize blacks as well. The very obscurity of these speech codes is part of their power: you can never be sure you aren't breaking some rule you've never heard of.