Trust Whitey

FerugsonLiterature, [James] Baldwin suggested, was recruited to provide for everybody, in a manner noxious to none, the official story of racial difference within the emerging American project…Baldwin saw Uncle Tom’s Cabin as evidence that the actual work of sentimental discourses of liberal reform (past and present) was to establish an epistemology that guaranteed white salvation…For Baldwin abolitionist discourse was just a slight displacement of white supremacist religiosity. –Jody Melamed (2011)

The New York Times’s Dwight Garner reviews Jess Row’s new novel.

In Row’s near-future, people (with the right insurance) may elect for racial reassignment, a radical plastic surgery that cherry-picks phenotypes social categories presume are signal enough.

Garner approvingly relays Row’s old quip about the French–which reads as a dig only within Anglo-American pragmatism–that while such personal choice may work in practice, making individual patients happier, will it work in theory?

Reviewed here within days of Michael Brown’s public murder and the police ground assault on the town of Ferguson to follow, Row’s new math sums to an indulgent game theory of a post-racial America whose value to the system lies in confounding ugly talk about slavery’s legacy, history’s path dependence, and reparations.

The book, Garner declaims, playing to liberalism’s penchant for substituting aesthetics for liberation, delves the “power and pathos of first-world longings.” After all, “trust a white boy to know his Bob Marley,” writes Row, who, apparently out of just such a surgery, discourses extensively on Spike Lee, Prince, rap, reggae and Barack Obama.

Garner, as much of public health, appears enthusiastically oblivious to this pernicious kind of self-referential irony. Par for the Times‘s course.

The crux of the matter is whether Row, and the rest of white America, is too.

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5 Responses to “Trust Whitey”

  1. Hi Rob. I sense your main objective is to dispense with the niceties and point out the depth and pervasiveness of our dedication to ranking human beings – bad, better, best. Sure, Ferguson is disappointingly, again, about race. But if it wasn’t race, it damn well would be some other characteristic. Call it ignorance; call it narrow-mindedness; call it fear, bigotry, or xenophobia. Whatever it is, we’re deep into it as a species. I used to think that spirituality and evolution of consciousness was the best tool to rise above this dismal un-brotherly behavior. Now, I’m convinced it’s the only tool! Cheers.

  2. rgwallace Says:

    Yes and no, Andy. My main objective is redeploying Jody Melamed’s James Baldwin, whose point about liberal antiracism’s capacity to protect systemic apartheid can be applied, as Vincente Navarro and Sonia Bettez have pointed out in another context, to ‘progressives’ in American public health. So, yes, the depths to which such machinations go are indeed dizzying. But I see these as markers of our system rather than a monomorphic characteristic of our species, however on guard we’ll need to be under the best of circumstances. In that sense, in the face of some terrible odds, there is a hope (and a world to win). Cheers to you too!

  3. Yes, I see the parallel between liberal capacity to protect – whether consciously or not – systemic apartheid, and professional public health’s capacity to do the same with respect to … hmm … what … maybe the current health care access and health status of the population. But might there be a difference in intent? Deep down, perhaps liberals don’t really want a color-blind, just, fair society. And they won’t work hard or sacrifice for that end. But public health professionals – at least in my own experience – do, deep down, want accessible health care and better health status for all.

    In contrast to liberals who won’t work for meaningful change, public health progressives feel overwhelmed and powerless to make the systemic changes to social determinants they know are necessary. Though, as an aside, I do find encouraging the get-stuff-done collaborations between the public health and legal professions.

  4. rgwallace Says:

    To be sure, Andy, we run the danger of painting with too broad a brush. Or confusing effects for causes. Many a public health researcher *is* striving for a better world under difficult circumstances. But causality can run dialectic and effects turn into causes. Indeed, some public health progressives *are* the expedient liberals Baldwin excoriated. Bettez, to whom I referred above, documented a shift in the public health literature 1990-2010 from presuppositions around the importance of social justice in health etiology to a language around “disparities,” which Howard Waitzkin describes as “mere differences in outcomes, not necessarily related to any systemic patterns of injustice.” The sea change, starting under Bill Clinton, coincided with the country’s worsening inequality. Funding streams followed accordingly.

    Perhaps I’m too much the structuralist, but the “accessible” and “better” health for which practitioners can always strive to gracious kudos aren’t coming anytime soon under the neoliberal program on which much of American public health presently subsists. Whatever individual researchers believe.

  5. […] on class struggle, self-reliance, Black nationalism, and separatism that to this day bears implications on the everyday lives of communities across the […]

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