No one could play down the racial dimensions of the massacre of eight people, six of them Asian American, at three area spas in Atlanta, Georgia, last week.
It was a hate crime that not only sharpened the sense of vulnerability of the Asian American community but also triggered a vigorous national debate — yet again — about the perennial issue of race and racism in America.
Is there a tense in the grammar of American sociopolitical culture, at some deep-seated archetypal level, that sanctions the ‘othering’ of people not fortunate enough to be of European stock?
Though few Americans today dispute the existence of racial discrimination in their midst, let alone attempt to cover the shame of it, fewer have been able, since the founding of the American Republic, to weed it out.
Almost sixty years after the Rev. Martin Luther King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech to a crowd of roughly 250,000 people on the Mall in August 1963 (“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character”), the dream of racial equity continues to elude people of colour in America, and has remained, well, just a dream.
In an emotional address while visiting Atlanta last week, President Biden decried the rise in violence against Asian and other ethnic Americans. “It’s wrong, it’s un-American and it must stop”, he declared. Engaged Americans — and there has been a surfeit of them, all the way from Thomas Jefferson to Oprah Winfrey — have made equally impassioned pleas for it to stop.
But it has not.
‘Otherness’ on people of colour
How then to explain the phenomenon of a young nation, with a vibrant political culture and an abundance of social capital, gifted with a Declaration of Independence asserting that “all men are created equal”, that continues to thrust a sense of ‘otherness’ on people of colour 245 years after the fact?
True, the Founding Fathers knew, as Socrates had taught, that there are necessary reasons to make the “city” free and open to men, but they were also heirs to and the product of the European intellectual tradition, most notably the Age of Enlightenment, a heady time when reason was to have triumphed over superstition and ignorance, replaced by concepts such liberty, democracy, tolerance and free thought.
But it was also a time of contradictions, for the Age of Enlightenment thrived alongside the imperialist enterprise and the slave trade, colonialism and la mission civilizatrice, which necessitated the emergence of a paradigm that justified — that needed to justify — plus-minus dichotomies between Europeans and non-Europeans, that is, superior and inferior species of men.
Diffusion of conflicted ideas
And just as the diffusion of these conflicted ideas was never a source of angst for the thinkers in that “enlightened” era, their diffusion in America by the Building Fathers, in their seminal tracts, such The Federalist Papers, was never a source of angst either. And since America, in its early formation, had an economy that depended on the institution of forced labour, including the enslavement of African peoples, Europe’s race thinking fit in smugly at the time as a vehicle to justify that institution.
Yes, let’s face it, belief systems, long rooted in the archetype of a culture, die hard and take long to become forgotten dust. And, no, let’s not delve into the convoluted mind of a racist, trying to discern what propels him into ‘othering’ people of colour. To do that is to fall into the garb and glove of a mad mathematician intent on taking Pi to its final decimal point. So let sleeping dogs lie.
At the end of the day, all we are left with — all we can do — is to propose that a healthy, dynamic society, or one that aspires to be such, needs public intellectuals, social critics, engaged citizens and others to ask uncomfortable questions, questions about how, sadly, one’s ‘city’ got here and how, happily, it can get there.
A straightforward answer to one of these questions is that racism will not die when racists die. It will do so when we all, not just in the United States — for racism is endemic worldwide — come to realise that no one person’s life matters until the lives of those who had been ‘othered’, through no fault of their own, are seen to matter in equal measure. Tough road ahead, no?
— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile