Monday, March 26, 2012

George Zimmerman and Whiteness

The painful case of Trayvon Martin has elicited a great deal of thought and discussion about what it means to be black in America, including among non-blacks.

The case of George Zimmerman also bears consideration. With a British first name and a German last name, one would be forgiven for assuming Zimmerman is white - but his family assures us he's Hispanic, and his photo suggests ancestry other than Kraut-Mick. So who is he? Does he count as 'white' anyway - after all, he was a neighborhood watch captain in a gated community, with a prejudicial attitude against young black men in hoodies. The circumstances make him sound 'white'.

But what is meant by 'whiteness' in this context? The perspective from which much African-American scholarship is written, and from which the older generation speaks, is somewhat Marxian: a bourgeois white class maintains its privilege and alliance with the elite, and excludes a black proletariat. An Hispanic who has joined the bourgeois is as good as white. By contrast, poor Hispanic farmworkers get lumped into the 'minority' category of the binary taxonomy.

This binary view of race has been, in my experience, the primary approach to 'race in America' by those whose intellectual ancestry is from the Civil Rights movement. In a recent workshop on race & inequality in my neighborhood, this approach was on display - despite the fact that Hispanics outnumber blacks here, no Hispanics were represented, and their community was lumped together with blacks under "people of color". Likewise in college classrooms (including my own at times), high schools, and sometimes churches, I've seen this approach used. Some use the word "brown" instead of "black" now, as a more inclusive catch-all.

The binary approach was absolutely the right one for the Civil Rights movement itself. White America was using the convenient fiction of "separate but equal" to justify oppression, and blacks were uniquely singled out for mistreatment. And whites responded well to that set of ideas in the generation following Civil Rights; you would be hard-pressed to find a white today who would publicly defend Jim Crow as "equal".

However, the binary view has not aged well, and does not serve America, blacks, or minorities particularly well in the 21st century. In this post, I'll focus on just one aspect of the binary view of race relations: whiteness. Regardless of whether Hispanic or Hmong or Quechua agree with being lumped together as 'minorities' or 'brown', most whites don't think that they belong to the privileged bourgeois. This matters. If whites don't think of themselves as privileged, they won't be open to the idea that they need to make accommodation for those who are not privileged.

Approaching whites with a binary, Marxian view of race will fail to achieve minority objectives if the whites reject that narrative. Whether right or wrong, the view that was effective in breaking down legal racism will be ineffective in achieving 21st-century objectives.

The average American is a recent immigrant. Not many of us came over on the Mayflower. My white friends are proudly Polish, Irish, Italian, and Russian. Many of those with aristocratic-sounding names are actually 'ethnic', and had their names changed at Ellis Island or while running from the law. Few whites can trace their lineage back to the Civil War. They are willing to accept that there is a privileged Anglo-Saxon (or Norman?) upper class, but they know they aren't part of it. After all, their grandparents came to the U.S. with nothing; they migrated to California during the dust bowl; they faced "Irish Need Not Apply" in the 1800's or Sacco & Venzetti during the 1920's.

The places where white racism is the strongest - the neighborhoods famous for 'white flight' in the 60's, or race riots in the 70's - are 'ethnic' white neighborhoods. High-status whites feel a certain noblesse oblige and embarrassment about their ancestors' Princeton & Yale pedigrees. They may be racist, but they are at least ashamed of it. But an urban white whose name ends in a vowel is less likely to have sympathy when another group asks for special accommodation, or claims that its situation is unique and can't be understood by outsiders.

'White guilt' only works with whites who are a few generations deep in privilege. I'm keenly aware that I was born several rungs up the ladder - but my Jewish grandfather had to flee through five countries just to get to America. And my Lebanese great-grandfather came here in 1905 to work in mills. The Yankee last name they were given doesn't preclude a strong ethnic identity in the family today. Jewish & Lebanese are only "white" today because those groups have achieved parity with Anglo-Saxon-Norman Americans. Of my two truly white grandmothers, one was a bona fide elite and the other was from an impoverished fishing village in Maine, where her ancestors had come after being forcibly resettled from Scotland to Ireland by the English crown. Guess which of them took a vow of poverty and marched with Dr. King?

George Zimmerman probably doesn't think of himself as a white-privileged individual. He has probably been racially profiled before. He would dispute the notion that he's any more privileged than Trayvon Martin's family - after all, Martin's new stepmom lived in Zimmerman's own community.

Because people like Zimmerman with diverse and not-very-privileged backgrounds make up the majority of Americans - and even a large share of elites - today, appeals for change based on notions of white privilege are less and less effective. Arguments against inequalities in 21st-century America will have to be much more nuanced and reflect the diversity of the elite and of the aspirational middle class.


bpf said...

Good article.

Carol Douglas said...

When you write something like "those whose intellectual ancestry is from the Civil Rights movement" I'm just so darn proud to know you.

I have a Scottish surname. So does my Belizian former painting student. He is generally identified as black; I'm generally identified as white. But with the largest percentage of my forebears being that part of Italy settled by the Greeks and only a hundred miles from Tunisia (and considering my general appearance) I'd hazard a guess that said former student and I do not have significantly different genetics.

Having said that, I was with this student when he experienced the only "painting while black" incident I've ever witnessed: a property owner telling him--hostilely--to get off his grass, while we were plein air painting. I have painted outdoors more than 1000 times, and I have never been told to move off someone's verge. So I can only conclude it was the combination of his being young and being visually black that did it.

People can be so weird at times.

Chops said...

Being male doesn't help either. It's certainly true that visual blackness is the strongest negative marker in American daily life.

I ran across a quote from Jesse Jackson today: "There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery. Then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved. . . . How humiliating." (He said it in 1993; Juan Williams quoted it today in the WSJ).