Can Book Clubs End Racism in the US? Hmmm…well…

The Huffington Post published an article on August 19 about the increasing popularity of book clubs focused on racism. The author of the article concludes that such clubs represent a first step in the path to appreciating the effects of racism on both sides of the divide.  I suspect that some white people will buy these books so as not to be caught flat-footed when the subject of recent literature on white supremacy arises at a cocktail party, or at whatever passes for a cocktail party in the year of Covid-19.[1] These are the Good Whites, those desperate to keep up the appearance of open-mindedness, but resolutely opposed to measures that might increase black presence in their neighborhoods and their children’s schools. All well and good, I suppose.

I, like any Good White, learned in school the officially-stamped US version of the history of racial oppression, which informed me about slavery, then the Civil War–which liberated the slaves—Reconstruction–which healed the wounds of the war–a bit of Jim Crow, a dash of Civil Rights, and ipso presto, a renewed nation in which any economic and social lag among blacks was attributed to laziness, drug abuse, etc. One who reads books such as White Fragility or White Rage might move a bit further along and arrive at the conclusion that despite the institutional racism that blacks have confronted for over 400 years, despite ongoing police brutality, despite statistics pointing to the widening chasm between black and white on sociological fronts too numerous to recite, we need only to engage in meaningful conversations and stir in a pinch of American optimism, and everything might turn out all right in the end.[2] 

Both books deplore institutional racism in the United States, and rightly so, but then peter out into softly-worded recommendations of ways to ameliorate the situation. I, however, believe that one must know the causes of a disease in order to attempt to cure it. In line with this, a knowledge of the history of race relations in the United States should be a prerequisite for discussing the matter intelligently. After finishing White Fragility, I was no better informed about racial tension in the US than I might have been had I read something by Charles Dickens. White Rage does provide a history of white suppression of blacks in the US, in a somewhat vitriolic tone, but in the end offers up a few pages of anodyne suggestions. The real problem is that this US racism business works at the gut level.  It is so deeply baked into the bread of US society that even well-meaning people on both sides find themselves incapable of expressing their thoughts on the matter without leavening that bread with apologies and mealy-mouthed suggestions as to how to rectify the problem.

If one wants to approach the issue of racism in the United States, one has to get one’s fingernails dirtier than that. As for books, I recommend the following works that cover the early history of slavery: The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist and Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon.[3] These titles suggest that a full appreciation the legacy of slavery might resist a book-of-the-month-club bromide. These two books make for grim reading, indeed. Any book that includes a chapter entitled “Anatomy of a Slave Mine” makes for grim reading, the harrowing stuff that causes you to bury your face in your hands as a Good White, as a beneficiary of institutional racism.

Let us, then, turn now to yet another book, one that keeps coming to mind when I think about the recent racial crises. Several years ago, Thomas Frank author of a book called What’s the Matter with Kansas? posed the question of why struggling small farmers from places like Kansas supported a Republican party whose policies undermined their economic position on every level.[4] Such people struggled far more mightily under measures put in place by Republican policymakers than they might have had the Democrats held the reins of power. Why did such people, in election after election, vote in ways that jeopardized their economic present and the future of their children? The answer: God and guns, over a bottle of domestic beer. Workers quivering on the cusp of financial ruin would rather have endured penury so long as the man occupying the seat of power purported to share their sentiments on two articles of the bill of rights, and voiced the message they sought in the “aw, shucks” manner of George W. Bush, or Ronald Reagan.  Republicans across the country knew that, played to it, and remained in control of the presidency and Congress until a couple of mis-managed wars and Barack Obama did them in.  In 2008 it had for a brief moment appeared that the US had finally surfaced from below the waves of its racist past.  Instead, the solution bobbed there unsteadily for a few years before being pulled back down again. In my view, the reaction to the election of Obama in places like Kansas unearthed the third, erstwhile unspoken, pillar of Republican support: racism. And we’re back where we were, except that our current president makes no bones about his distaste for people who don’t look like him. It’s on now…

White supremacists cling to racism like they cling to their belief in their god, or to the barrels of their guns. Racism in this context is a visceral, gut sentiment with centuries of momentum behind it.

To wit, not long ago I was forwarded a text from Fox News covering the near-fatal shooting of Chip Banks, a former NFL player, black, who lived in Atlanta after his professional career ended.  I read the Fox News briefing and scrolled down to the reader comments. No words of sympathy, no hope for Banks’s recovery. Instead, I came upon comments suggesting that Banks had got what he deserved, that he was in the ‘hood, and death would be the best thing that ever happened to him. One commenter posted a set of dubious statistics—pregnancies, drug usage, welfare—in support of his notion that blacks should be run out of the USA.  There were full-throated racial epithets as well. All this for a man clinging to life.[5]

No civil conversation, no book club, can contend with that.

If you wish to understand the sinister racist subtext, the baked bread, of American society, set aside the books and watch Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. In that movie Sal, a white owner of a pizzeria in a black neighborhood in New York City, has throughout the movie called out his older son, whose openly racist attitude offends Sal’s black customers. Sal goes so far as to tell a black employee named Mookie that he considers him a son.  Late in the movie, Sal objects to the loud music emanating from the boombox of a black customer named Radio Raheem. When Radio Raheem increases the volume, Sal hurls the N-word at him.  After a struggle, the place erupts, and white police officers arrive to finish the job by killing Radio Raheem with a chokehold. The pizzeria burns. Sal was a Good White, who said the right things until the tension between black and white became too great, and he revealed his racist colors in the end. Do the Right Thing was made in 1989.  It might have been made in 1979, in 2019, or in 2049.

[1] I suspect that the popularity of current best-sellers on the subject of racism will wane in time, just as the post-9/11 uptick in popularity of books about Islam subsided.

[2] DiAngelo, Robin. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism. Beacon Press, 2018. Anderson, Carol, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, Bloomsbury, 2017. I believe that I could have chosen any two books on the topic at random and come away with the same opinion, such is the surfeit of books on racism in 2020.

[3] The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, Basic Books, 2014. Blackmon, Douglas A. Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, Anchor Books, 2008. A review essay focusing on these titles will appear in a later post.

[4] Frank, Thomas, What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, Picador, 2005.

[5] I have since learned that Chip Banks is on his way to recovery.

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