Racism, structure, and spectacle

Norman, Oklahoma came into my world four years ago. As my partner’s hometown, I’ve spent more time than I ever would have dreamed shuttling in and out of Will Rogers Airport and around the highways of Oklahoma. And I was there just a few days before the video of the now infamous spectacle of SAE fraternity’s racist song became national (and international) news. While my partner sighed at yet another negative representation of his home state, I found myself bewildered not so much at the actions of the young ‘brothers’ of SAE but the amount of attention these young men’s antics were receiving in the national media. Even more striking to me was the fact that the DOJ report on the Ferguson Police Department had recently been released and not but a few days before the video went viral many were protesting in the streets of Madison, Wisconsin over the killing of Tony Robinson another unarmed, young Black man. Yet I could not find much about Mr. Robinson in our national news outlets nor did I speak with any of my family members about the DOJ report. But Oklahoma was another story.

There is not much, in my view, that can be said in the defense of the SAE members, and I certainly do not condone their actions. For a long time I have often considered many fraternities and sororities across the US based on principles of exclusion (and often violent exclusion) as the basis of membership. This piece, however, is not about these issues. It is rather about the fact that this video, and in particular the use of the n-word (with a hard “r” sound) and invocation of lynching, has the capacity to capture national attention in a way that things like the DOJ report on Ferguson’s policing does not. This is not to downplay the actions of SAE. The University of Oklahoma is taking the steps it needs to in order to deal with these students and, to be sure, it sounds as if frank conversations about race and racism on campus at OU has been needed for a long time. But as America tries to have these same conversations too, it seems like we are so far off the mark. I don’t doubt that racism for most American’s is easier to understand through the actions of SAE. This is what concerns me. It’s much harder to raise a fuss about ‘structural inequality’ than using the ‘n-word.’ But the n-word, as D Moore insightfully put last week, obscures the much larger malaise of racism that has built our country and continues to be alive and well.

So how do we talk about structural inequality and racism in the US? Is ‘structure’ really too abstract for us to talks about or imagine? To a certain extent I have thought it might be. As I often ask myself when I use the term, what do we mean by structural inequality and how do we wrest it away from deep convictions about individualism and derservedness that shape the ways we think and talk about the American notion of equality of opportunity? When racism continues to be attached to what SAE does and not to the gross differences between who and how different people in this country are policed, housed, or employed, or how we decide the ways money is distributed we need to continue to push ourselves towards filling-in the image of structure as a more familiar version of racism and inequality. Maybe we need to begin by asking about the relationship between racism and inequality again and how they have come to be separated over the past 40 years since the Civil Rights movement (and long before). Could we think about racism as a form of inequality or unequal treatment before the law again? Or even further, to follow the line of giving form to the abstraction of structure, can we think of law and legal systems as forged within and through racial worldviews, where commonsense notions of difference are not external to structures but fundamental to how they are built, and the norms of law and legality they reproduce?

This is rehearsing much of what has already been said by so many folks by now (and for so long) that I often feel silly saying them again and again as I try to explain to friends and family that, while I find the actions of SAE utterly disgusting, I certainly do not see it as THE evidence that racism exists today in America. If racism were only the flippant antics of 20-something good ole boys it might be easier to understand and talk about. But when racism colors every aspect of American life from access to education to equal protection before the law we’re moving far beyond the choices of individuals towards the question of who and/or what makes certain choices possible or impossible in the first place. That is the move from individual to structure that attempting to distinguish between intentional and unintentional racism cannot account for. The fact that the first large news outlet I can find covering the story of Tony Robinson is based out of the UK (The Guardian) reminds me how powerful racism is in its ability to go completely unnoticed through the spectacle of the racist songs of young men. To clarify, it is far more troubling that at a time when some of the first prolonged national attention to structural racism and inequality in the form of national scrutiny of policing can be so easily overshadowed by the poor decisions of a group of young men and perhaps chalked-up to the ‘backwardsness’ of middle America. But the New York Times doesn’t mention Mr. Robinson for days. All the news that is fit to print, and some things are news but others are just….normal? Is Tony Robinson’s death so normal as to be less surprising than what SAE sings about? It might not be fair to compare but these lines are crossed and messy. The question is, how do we begin to disentangle them?

I do not think structure is too hard to imagine. It would do us all well to take the time to reflect about the worlds we’ve made for ourselves and each other. Who decides how we police our communities? How we distribute our wealth? And what inequality and racism look like? The insidiousness of racism is the way it can so easily operate under the radar. So we need to change the way we look at things. Hopefully some good can come out of the antics of SAE for OU and Norman, OK. But we’d do well to not lose focus on our Madisons and Fergusons too.

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