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Reading Race in a Vacuum

July 29, 2009

But before getting to my comments on the news coverage of the Gates scandal, let me point you to Pam’s excellent recent post over at Teaching Anthropology; she and I are both thinking about race and affirmative action this week!

I haven’t watched a lot of news on the Gates arrest; what little I saw was crap. I saw a talking head suggest that Gates and the cop who arrested him need to have a face to face chat session, so they could apologize to one another and “make up,” so to speak. Gates would see, of course, that the cop wasn’t really racist.

The problem is that this event doesn’t really have anything to do with the arresting officer being racist or not. Making it seem as if this were an event between only two people abstracts out from the set of systematic social relations in which this event is significant.

To use a sports metaphor, one cannot understand the actions of two football players without understanding what the team as a whole is doing (and has done in the past). To understand why a safety drops back to help a cornerback cover a wide reciever, the last thing we would need to focus on is those three individuals. What we would want to think about is what the offensive scheme is. What is the defensive scheme? Does this defensive scheme work well against this type of offense? Have other defenses used this scheme against this offense in the last several games? Did it work or not? The players are relevant to understanding the play, but the schemes they are situated in is much more important for understanding their behavior.

Similarly, to understand the cop’s action and Gate’s response, we can’t just focus on these two “players.” We need to think about the history of the teams and the systematic ways these teams have interacted in the past. Abstracting out from the system and its history promotes ignorance.

However, if it is so ignorant, why do we do it? First, because systematic thinking is complicated and hard. It’s easier for the story to be about a “good guy” and a “bad guy.” Ultimately, we usually prefer a childish way of seeing the world.

In addition, abstracting from the systematic social relations and their history can serve the interests of the dominant group. If the field has been slanted to benefit one team, the last thing that team wants to do is draw attention to their unfair advantage–maintaining the invisibility of their unfair advantage permits the advantage to continue.

Some might say that I’ve forgotten Gates and the officer—this post isn’t about them any longer. That’s right! That’s the way it should be!

For more on the ways I think it is useful to think about systematic privilege, see this inordinately long post.

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