I just finished browsing a piece by Adam Serwer, a race man of some repute. His title, "80 Years of Fergusons" sounds about the right kind of intriguing. I happen to think that Ferguson represents a good deal of retro - a kind of stunted growth for an American city. Throwback.
To the extent that I used to spend a lot of my time being a race man, I find it hard to argue with the sort of well-written and thoughtful things someone like Serwer might write, although I seem to recall that he gets on my nerves. And yet I know my former amis de guerre find my dismissiveness a bit annoying. I don't like to be the guy who nods his head and then walks home bored and does nothing anyway, but that's my profile. Nobody would be far from wrong to say that I don't care enough. In fact when it came to Jena, LA and whatever towns in Florida and Texas got the nation upset about T. Martin and S. Cotton, I made something of a stink to tell people they couldn't *make* me care.
There are two reasons I don't care enough, and perhaps neither should you, but they are related.
I don't care enough,
1) because my understanding of race is way too sophisticated to be communicated in the way Americans communicate about race. IE, if you might guess that the average American has read one or two books on race, I've read 50. Whereas most people tweet or thumbs up a Facebook post, I've been engaged for years writing essays about race. So basically nobody is saying anything I haven't heard before in one form or another.
2) I fundamentally don't believe that our relationships should be negotiated through any common understanding of race. In other words, even if I took all of the 50 books and boiled them down to a coherent, non-contradictory way of describing everything I know about race, I wouldn't want that to be the way you relate to me.
So I think most people, even those who are not self-serving in describing their racial pain or cockamamie theories, who honestly say they want an extended national conversation on race, are barking up the wrong tree.
And it is exactly in this juxtaposition where I lose most people, because it sounds like I want people to be colorblind in an ignorant way. I do want people to ignore race rather exactly the way people ignore blood type. I want no social weight to it and I want people to say "It really doesn't matter what blood type you are A, B, O, X Y or Z". But you and I know if somebody says "It really doesn't matter what race you are, black, white, red green or purple" that is considered disrespectful, ignorant and rude. When it comes to blood transfusions, I want a board certified doctor who has read the 50 books and has 20 years of experience handling my blood. I want him to be as accurate as it is possible to be. But I don't want him saying 'some of my best friends are O negative', or "we should pay attention to what happens in Liberia with blood transfusions and Ebola because it could happen to anybody." Because it doesn't happen to anybody and we should stop pretending that it does.
when people actually want to talk about race, it is because they expect to be the beneficiary through some sophisticated or simple means. When people don't want to talk about race, its because they expect to take a hit through some sophisiticated or simple means. In otherwords, all race talk is some kind of zero-sum game. It has to be, because that's how racial theory works. I can't say to any race man "Hey I'm only 37% black so Ferguson only applies fractionally to me". You know they don't want to hear that. The Intellectual One Drop Rule applies, you are either arguing for racism or against racism. There is no neutrality.
But there is if you really don't care, and that's the last thing many people want to hear, especially if you 'happen to be black'. But see I'm speaking as me, as I always do. I gave up my black privilege, to go out there and start my speeches "As a black man..."
Ferguson means more than it should because people want it to inform their racial consciousness, and people are struggling mightily to make it apply personally. People want the right racial t-shirt to wear that links them to Ferguson and to the right side of things now and backwards through history. Some people think their skin is that t-shirt and if you knew how to read it properly, you'd know they were on the right side all along.
That is the entire problem.