Sunday, April 21, 2019

The Racist System


One of the lovely things about being married to the same person for most of your life is that you can, well, talk about things.  Non-trivial things.

Like, say, the other day, when we had a frank conversation at the kitchen table about Israel.  She, Jewish.  I, Christian.  She, deeply committed to the state of Israel while troubled by its current hypernationalist leadership.  I, continuing to genuinely struggle with the idea that a nation organized around a particular ethno-religious identity is the best way to insure the well-being of the Jewish people.  It didn't help with Babylon in 587 BCE.  Or with Rome in 70 CE.

It was a third rail conversation, which being friends and partners for multiple decades made possible.

So the other night as we went out to dinner, we decided to talk about race.

She, of the opinion that racism is primarily systemic, a matter of the structures of society.  I, of the opinion that racism manifests primarily interpersonally and culturally, which makes it both more amorphous and harder to fight.  We discussed, with the appropriate level of heat, our variant perspectives.

My particular struggle was with the word "systemic."  I understand systems as a matter of structures, laws, and policies.  So of course racism can be systemic.  Nazi Germany, Apartheid South Africa and the segregationist American South are three primary examples at a state level.   Redlining in real estate was another. Wherever formal structures are designed to keep one "race" in a dominant position over another, you have systemic racism.

As I see it, that is not primarily how racism has maintained its hold over our country.   The civil rights movement made major progress on that front, but what it could not eliminate was the deep seated racism that manifests in culture.  Racism became less defined by political science and the law, and more social and anthropological.

Meaning, you can have a generally uniform legal structure, but it will be differentially applied based on cultural biases.  Like, say, how we treat a rando who murders a black kid for the crime walking through a neighborhood.  Or how we respond to a black man politely asking law enforcement not to strangle him to death for a trivial misdemeanor.  Things like that.  Making systems race-neutral does not mean that racist application of the law is eliminated.

And our society is the farthest thing from class-neutral, with race as an inherited proxy for class.  And our society is under the thrall of an administration that is willing to use cultural racism to foment advantageous division.

It's painfully complex.  We disagreed, but it wasn't bright line disagreement.

But that challenging conversation left me wondering about the idea of systemic racism, as I define it.  Where, specifically, does that exist now?  What formal structures, policies, and processes are actively racist, fomenting or reinforcing race-based hatred in America?

The first that popped to mind revolved around current immigration policy, because, duh.  "Scary Brown People Are Scary" is pretty much the go-to whenever this benighted, amoral administration is feeling pressure for its venality and incompetence.

But the second?  The second system that reinforces racism isn't governmental.  It's corporate.

It's my contention that the structures of corporate social media...the algorithms that show us the things we want to see...are actively racist.  They are what systemic racism looks like in this strange new era.

They have been explicitly designed to feed us things that draw our attention, and that heighten our engagement.  Anger, fear and resentment do that, powerfully and consistently.  When we are enraged, we are engaged.  When we are engaged, we can be monetized.

And so every day, from a cultural foundation of racial bias, Americans are shown terrible things that "they" do.  We are worked into a frenzy of fear and the sharing of fear.

It is part of the design, a formal and structural element which plugs into the seething gristle-white maggot of our cultural race fear.  Culture may still be where that demon truly lives, but our shiny new machine feeds that demon, because that's what we made it to do.

I'm not quite sure what one does about that.