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Labels that Blind

Updated on January 2, 2012

In a particularly ridiculous college exercise, we were asked how we would find a friend we had lost contact with in a mall without using ethnicity, skin color, or other possibly 'negative' markers and descriptors. The utility of this exercise was not apparent to me at the time, and I had an argument with a young woman, who proclaimed that she would never describe anyone as 'black', about the absurdity of the entire endeavor. I was not defending the use of derogatory terms for anyone, but rather pointing out that descriptors were necessary if we were ever to find this proposed missing friend, given that the other assumption was that we, and our friend, were strangers to those we were asking for information. I insisted that there was a difference, a very important difference, in asking someone if they had seen our friend, a tall, weight-lifting young black guy (his name was Billy, and he drank his coffee with way too much sugar and cream), about 6'6", wearing a University of Texas sweatshirt, and describing the same young man using what is now whispered as the N-word. And I did not think the fact that Billy was 'black' would come as a surprise to him. He would worry about my sanity and grip on reality if I had not noticed it myself. The young woman with whom I argued saw no difference between describing someone, and in that description including their skin color, and calling them a N---.

This experiment, that argument, and the politics of expression occur to me today in reaction to my reading of Umberto Eco's The Prague Cemetery . The main character of that novel, a loathsome man and a forger, perceives people only as members of categories, and within their assigned category they are all the same, share qualities, largely negative, and intentions. I think that the reason I remained comfortable with describing an absent friend I hoped to find as 'black' and the young woman in my class did not was the lack of substance I ascribed to the category. In using it, I was describing the presence of melanin in my friend's skin, and nothing more. I was saying nothing about his character, his intelligence, his athletic attributes, or his sexual drive. I think the young woman put a lot more content in the descriptor 'black' than I did, forced into it a lot of information and assumptions that had nothing to do with physical appearance. For her, 'black' was a category of people with specific characteristics, intentions, and qualities, substantively different from white.

As a good liberal, I was raised to believe that skin color, religious preference, and sexual attraction were neutral qualities, that they were categories which noted a meaningless difference. To some extent, this is true. However, the history of being black in America is substantively and clearly different from the history of being white in America. The difference in history, in access to economic opportunity and to justice, is important, it has meaning, and the meaning of that difference is one of grave importance to blacks, and to whites. That history can be used to construct meaning, and is so used by those I consider thoughtful men and women, by those who struggle with high hopes for this country and with its more bitter realities, and by men and women I consider less thoughtful who worship 'the good old days' of firm foundations and true Americans. Categories are both useful and dangerous at one and the same time.

In the dreamland of the perfect realization of American liberal utopias, racial differences, religious differences, and all differences between people, do not matter. Every individual is assessed only as an individual. The weight of social condemnation, economic injustice, racial injustice, and social exclusivity disappear. Unfortunately, this is a utopian scheme in which I have no faith. As humans, we categorize, either inventing our own categories or accepting those the larger society gives us. It is a necessary part of organizing the world, of making sense of our largely superficial meetings with others and our interactions with society: we constantly judge people, policies, and perceptions as "good", "bad", or undetermined. The liberal rejection of categories is based on the realization that the categories we form, the labels we use, are too often wrong, that they do not apply or when applied magnify injustices already present. Of course, liberals run around using their own categories, but they do not recognize that what they are doing mirrors the actions of those they reject, or claim that their categorizations are more true than others. They too are involved in making sense of the world and its population, they too are making decisions and judgments.

What can be done then? My prescription for the problem is attentiveness. You have to pay attention to the categories you are using and to the content you ascribe to them. You have to remind yourself of the fact that these categories are not natural, that they speak not to an innate, external essence, but only to a process by which the human mind filters the data it receives. Categories are a necessary fiction, but they are nonetheless a fiction, artificial and subject to change, to adjustment, and to, when they are found to be incorrect or producing more evil than they cure, destruction. You cannot allow your categories to become fossilized forms that instead of organizing received information determine the information received.

I described my friend Billy as black. He described himself as 'black as the Ace of Spades'. To us, this was a description of the color of his skin, of an external characteristic with no other content involved. Yet, to other people, some with good intentions and some without, 'black' included content we did not give it, content which made being 'black' a marker of his essential (internal) identity. They assumed knowledge of who he was, what he thought, how he would behave and think from his being 'black' that in many ways ran counter to who he was, what he thought, and how he behaved. It made it unnecessary for them to talk to him, to hear what he had to say, or to engage with him at all. They had it all in 'black'. They placed him within a fossilized category, and he became further evidence in a chain of 'proofs' for what they believed about black men in America.

I have experienced recent problems with my own categorizations this past year regarding Ron Paul. This man from Texas has gained some national notoriety of late as the protest candidate of the Republican party, standing outside the gates throwing stones at the party men. For this reason, people are paying attention to him, and some of those people are very resistant to looking at less savory elements of his past and politics. For quite a while he got a free ride on his past, even though his quiescence regarding racist statements made in newsletters bearing his name and pushing his program to his profit were part of the public record. For a few weeks, I battled one of his followers on Facebook, to no avail. I could not get the young man espousing Ron Paul's fitness for the presidency to address the issues I had with the man, and many of these issues were related to his racism, or at least to his acceptance of racist money and racist accolades. You can't run a newsletter for a decade or more, accept racist propaganda within that newsletter, and then run from the implications and responsibility for doing so. Opportunism does not make the action better: I am not a racist, but I am good with you being one so long as you send me checks and give me your vote. It does not void the questions I have regarding your character, your suitability for office in this country, and your integrity.

So, I had to think, is Ron Paul a racist? If he is not, but is merely an opportunist or an incompetent, does this make him a valid candidate for the presidency? Is his possible racism insufficient grounds for rejecting him as a candidate, as the Paulite after months of rejecting the idea that he was a racist at all, claimed? In what category did Paul belong? I reject Paul. I have not decided whether he is a racist in his heart, and by what evidence could I ever claim to know that anyway? He is, however, a racist in his actions, in that he has promoted and condoned racism in his newsletter, he profited from that promotion, and was comfortable doing so until external pressures and the need to gain a wider influence changed his course. Whether believer or opportunist, he is not the man this country needs. He does not represent the America I believe in, the America I desire for my son. I can't vote for him. I will not have his propaganda in my home.

Most of Ron Paul's appeal I believe is unconnected to his newsletter and his views on race. His appeal is built of the desires of dissatisfied voters. Neither political party is working. A recent analysis by two historians of the present Congress condemned it as the most dysfunctional in history. And we have had some pretty bad Congresses in the past, so reaching number one status took some doing. What we want, what we think we deserve from our government, is not what we get. Ron Paul is the outsider who promises to tear the entire system down. Libertarian doctrine is his weapon of choice.

Libertarian doctrine is a strange phenomenon. It began as a theory of legal interpretation: how should we read and interpret the American constitution. In this field it falls on the side of strict construction: what is written is written, and everything else is dross. Personally, I favor a more balanced approach to interpreting the Constitution, for I think strict construction will make the constitution a dead letter in American life, so limiting it to those situations the founding fathers could see or forecast themselves over 200 years ago that it would cease to be of use in guiding policies and practices today. But, as a legal approach to legal questions, libertarian doctrine lies well within the traditions of the United States and can be usefully applied as a corrective to modern deviations from constitutional law.

Libertarian doctrine as a theory of government has problems, grave problems. I think, first and foremost, because it was not formulated as a theory of administration, as a way of doing political work. I want a president able to do political work. It seems strange to me that our objection to politicians is that they are political. I think being political is a job requirement. We have taken "political" and made it mean something else--corrupt, malicious, narcissistic--choose your adjective. Beyond his use of race-baiting over ten years, I do not see how Ron Paul's policy of destruction will help the political situation in this country. I do not see how from the bully pulpit of the White House he could magically destroy the 'culture of Washington' and replace it with a purer (oh, how I hate that word!) America that would also function. How, in rejecting administration, would he invent an effective administration? What would it do?

Some people I have met who support Ron Paul point to him as the man trying to return 'power to the people'. This is a phrase with which I have some difficulty. Who are the people? What are they do to do with this power returned to them? How do we know when that phrase is thrown up that it is more than a demagogue's play? After all, both Huey Long and Adolf Hitler made appeals to the people predicated on returning them to power, albeit Hitler returned the people to power in a highly mediated way, with himself as the voice of that volk . The power of the people, like the power of the parties, is a very troublesome thing, far more opaque than it sounds.

That is all for now. I have written myself through one topic and into another. And I have to go play with Minimates now. The five year old commands.


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    • Ed Michaels profile image

      Ed Michaels 6 years ago from Texas, USA

      I think that equating liberal with racist may be taking the wrong impression. I am, in many ways, a liberal. I think that what happened with the young woman in question is that she had been taught, and had accepted, that 'black' in America had been historically used as a negative marker, and that therefore it must remain one. She was overconcerned with not hurting people's feelings, and through a lack of contact with people not of her background, had no information of other ways to fill the content of the category she used. I would also propose that automatically filling 'black' with positive content alone, and using it as a positive filter of reality with no discernment and analysis than those who use it is a negative filter, is problematic.

      However I do think that many liberals do slide over into racism in their patronizing defense of those they identify as disadvantaged, or as ethnic minorities. They treat people as if they are automatically unable to assess and develop approaches to their own situation, but are awaiting a white liberal savior to provide them with an appropriate definition and strategy of their problems and their possibilities. It is the intellectual equivalent of patting a child on the head.

      thank you both for your comments.

    • rachellrobinson profile image

      Rachel Woodruff 6 years ago from Southwest Missouri

      Interesting article, I suggest some research into the NYPD's policy of not racially profiling. I believe in the 90's the NYPD decided that they would no longer use racial markers to describe suspects. Instead the ended up issuing BOLO's on bland descriptions and had higher crime rates because they didn't want to say a person's race or even gender when a crime was committed, it was a huge disaster.

      When it comes to describing either a suspect in a crime or a missing person it is necessary to tell the person's skin tone, and that doesn't make you racist.

    • Cassie Smith profile image

      Cassie Smith 6 years ago from U.S.

      I think it's bizarre that your college exercise calls ethnicity and skin color negative markers. It's evident to me that to the liberal, they've attached special meanings to certain words and they think the rest of us look at it the way they do. Just goes to show you who the racists are.