WASHINGTON, July 25, 2013— One of the reasons race is so confounding in this country is failure to understand what it is. With George Zimmerman called “white Hispanic,” Tiger Woods self-identifying as “Cablinasian,” and even the blondest and bluest-eyed wanting to tell you about their cousin nine-times-removed who is Cherokee, many think the lines of what it means to be white and non-white are suddenly blurry. They are not.
Made simple: race is not in anyone’s genes. It is instead external. It is about the treatment one is accorded by others in daily life.
Just because race is not genetic does not mean it is any less real than a physical attribute. 7 p.m., November, and the United States Congress are made-up, human inventions, and race is as real as they are. To be white, therefore, means to be treated as white by white and non-white people, and to be black is to be treated as black by black and non-black people.
To adopt this understanding of race is to the settle the question oft-heard this year: since both Obama and George Zimmerman are biracial, why is one white and the other black?
First, it should be noted that “Hispanic” is an ethnicity, not a race. And, since it involves people of mixed indigenous American and Spaniard ancestry, not only is “white Hispanic” possible, it’s actually redundant.
But more importantly, understanding race as about treatment by others means the relevant question is not who is in Zimmerman’s family tree or where his ancestors came from. The determining factor is what will a man who looks like George Zimmerman or Barack Obama be treated as in everyday life in America? That explains why one is white and the other is black.
Understanding race as about treatment also helps us unpack the reaction to Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev placement on the cover of “Rolling Stone.” The outrage over Rolling Stone’s decision to give Tsarnaev rock star treatment “reflects,” David Leonard observes, “discomfort with the image not fitting expectations of what a terrorist looks like. It defies dominant stereotypes…[and] the popular narrative, popularized by Bill Maher, that terrorism is an outgrowth of sexual frustration of males.”
Tsarnaev on “Stone” is maddening because he gives lie to the simple binary of dark skinned foreigner commits terrorism while everybody else suffers from it. This matters because, for dark-skinned males, the nation always presumes to know why they commit their crimes:
Fort Hood murder? He’s a radical Islamic extremist. Case closed.
Chicago gang murders? It’s their culture. End of story.
People committing vandalism amid protests? Just senseless lawbreakers. That’s all.
But when white men kill, that’s supposed to be unusual and not conforming to type. “Strange” means the motives must be complex and not simple. So, for the Menendez brothers, Columbine shooters, Adam Lanza, Jared Loughner, and James Holmes, the depths of their souls are plundered, Freud is consulted, and un-hugged moments and Oedipus complexes are explored in a national media psychiatric examination spectacle.
In “Rolling Stone,” the Associated Press, Huffington Post they get flattering and sympathetic portraits which tell of their penchant for longs walks on the beach, kittens, and romance novels. Thus, they become:
Not shady, but “reclusive.”
Not depraved, only “troubled.”
Never bad, just “misunderstood.”
This displays a stretching to understand, to rationalize, to inhabit the position of another which the nation is not displaying toward the young men shooting each other in Chicago.
Princeton’s Christy Wampole was brazen and ludicrous in propounding this, writing: “Because resources are limited, gains for women and minorities necessarily equal losses for white males … Can you imagine being in the shoes of the one who feels his power slipping away? … Who feels himself becoming unnecessary?” Apparently, for Dr. Wampole, losing their power is the scandal, not having it in the first place.
More typically, the national discourse asks questions like:
“When did he snap?,” which assumes a kind of Ex Nihilo Theory of Bad Acts. At 10:07 a.m. Tuesday he was an angel. At 10:08 a.m. Tuesday: Poof! A monster. Out of nowhere. Like magic. Black magic, presumably.
“How did the neighbors not notice?” This assumes neighbors who are watching, taking an interest in each other, friendly, or at least talk. That reflects assumptions about how neighborhoods behave in middle class neighborhoods versus inner cities.
“Weren’t they raised in a tree-lined suburb with ‘stable’ two parents?” Being assumed here is whether those factors have something to do with propensity for committing crime. In fact, while many summon “Avoid the Ghetto” smartphone apps, they unwittingly miss, for decades, the Ken Lays and Jon Corzines and Bernie Madoffs robbing their whole neighborhoods blind.
Finally, in cases like Ariel Castro, Jerry Sandusky, abuse and molestation, generally, “how did no one see the signs?,” is asked. This assumes all it takes is for capital-G “Good” people to stop the capital-B “Bad” people. First comes the atrocity, then comes the vanity, David Brooks reminds in “Let’s All Feel Superior.”
This is also precisely what the NRA’s new jingle gets wrong: “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” That is well-nigh useless in a world where most crimes are committed by someone the victim knows, and few think of their families as divided into “good guys” and “the bad guys,” yet statistically that’s were most threat lie.
The nation should disabuse itself of juvenile moral landscapes composed only of “good people” and “the bad guys,” and instead seek to understand everybody’s crimes, rather than only some, as a means to ending those crimes. To do otherwise is to engage in the fantasy that, by avoiding this neighborhood or that, locking one’s car here but not there, danger can be avoided. If for only this reason, Roxane Gay observes, it’s good that Tsarnaev is on Stone because, “We need a reminder that we will never truly know whom we need to fear.”