Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Ideology of Whiteness and the Trayvon Martin Debacle

In the wake of the Trayvon Martin killing in Florida, the issue of race in America has once again hit the front burner of our national consciousness. The rhetoric of race has rippled through communities across the United States, this time fueled and aggravated by partisan television commentators and their army of devoted listeners who have taken their message to the internet. Race baiting for political gain may once again put our nation at risk of civil unrest and embarrass us internationally.

Different accounts of what happened surface daily in the press. If Florida doesn't adequately investigate this ambiguous incident, the Federal  Office of Civil Rights surely will. I remember the race riots of the Sixties and the Chicago Democratic Convention. Believe me, our country does not want to see a repeat of those times. It was a zero sum game for everyone, and some cities never recovered from it.

Racial discrimination against people of African descent has been a feature of the cultural and political landscape in America for over three hundred years, but its roots run deep in European history when white supremacy was taken for granted and Europe sought to master and control people of color to amass great wealth and political control. The Triple Passage of the Eighteenth Century made England rich and powerful, and planted the scourge of white supremacy in the New World with its legacy of racism.

The ideology of whiteness in America was further advanced by the American labor movement of the 1930s and 1940s. As jobs became scarce during the Depression, black men were discriminated against in hiring and could only get the dirtiest and lowest paid factory or foundry jobs. This priced most blacks out of the housing market and forced them into overcrowded inner city slums with substandard housing.

The problem of employment for black women was not as pronounced because of the large number of underpaid domestic service jobs available. Often, black women could get jobs when many of the men couldn't, which further destabilized the African-American community. The uniform of a maid only reinforced the imagery of subservience for black women and supremacy for the white women who hired them.

As industry burgeoned in the Twentieth Century and the labor movement took off in America, many of the old rivalries of the immigrant Europeans who worked in the factories had softened by the second or third generation. Now, these "white" workers organized and conspired against blacks from the South, who were arriving in the northern industrial centers in growing numbers looking for work and the promise of a better life.

The article linked below attempts to answer the difficult question: What is white culture anyway? It isn't as easy to define as you might think.