I am watching Mississippi Burning again as it is available on Prime. And I am thinking how little racism has changed since 1964. It's still as prevalent as ever.
— Meow (@ablackcatstail) August 28, 2022
He’s right of course.
I replied, thinking of Simone de Beauvoir’s point that even if we were somehow to eliminate racism, sexism, and all the other ways we have of dividing ourselves into “us” versus “them,” we would still find yet other ways of dividing ourselves into “us” versus “them.”
If we take de Beauvoir’s point seriously, we understand that racism will never go away, indeed that the hope that it will be a thing of the past is its own form of denial, where denial is confirmation, and that racism is part of the human condition.
It’s certainly not the answer I was looking for. Horrifyingly, it’s also the starting point for a “soft” paleoconservative position. The “soft” paleoconservative claim is that racism need not entail disdain or animus but that segregation is necessary to avoid inevitable conflict between races and ethnicities. This claim fails to recognize that people of different races do in fact often get along, even intermarry, often happily. We can, in answer to Rodney King’s lament, all get along.
But part of that getting along, I am thinking, means recognition, not denial. It means abandoning the vain hope that racism will ever cease to be an issue. It means coming to terms with the fact, indeed the inevitability, that it is and always will be an issue.
Because, drawing on a Jewish tradition I learned about in my last days at California Institute of Integral Studies, justice is a goal never to be achieved, but also never to be abandoned. Because justices arises from the striving for justice and when we arrogantly presume we have achieved justice, we have in fact lost it. And so it is, I would suggest, with anti-racism.
This is to recognize a paradox, and thus to grow up a little more, of fervently wanting justice, fervently wanting an end to racism, sexism, ageism, and all the other ways we have of dividing ourselves into “us” versus “them,” of fervently working towards those ends, and of simultaneously recognizing that these ends will never be achieved. It means some humility, it means finding a way of addressing these issues without patronizing, it means recognizing fault within ourselves.
As these words appear on my screen, it seems an odd way of looking at the problem. But it might be the right one.
- Simone de Beauvoir, “Woman as Other,” in Social Theory, ed. Charles Lemert, 6th ed. (Philadelphia: Westview, 2017), 268-271.↩