Faithful reader Lynn Chadderdon sends a link to the Sean Gonsalves article posted at “Working for Change” in which the columnist counsels against careless use of the word “racism.” For example, he lives at Cape Cod where there aren’t many black folks, so when local movie theaters fail to schedule black movies, he hears the complaint: “It’s Racism.”
“Well, yeah, this is America,” answers Gonsalves. “The ripple effects left behind in the wake of white supremacy are still with us, even if not overtly. But locales that are mostly white are not going to ‘get black movies’ at the local theater. And it’s not racism. It’s supply and demand. The almighty dollar, to borrow a phrase from the O’Jays famous song ‘For the Love of Money.’ ”
To which we reply one more time: everything follows from where one begins. Gonsalves begins with a concept of racism that can be separated from a concept of supply and demand. That’s how he defines racism in the first place. So, of course. one must choose between racism and economics.
Yet Gonsalves recognizes that his own conceptual map is more influenced by “white” conceptions of racism than by “black” ones. Or to speak more directly to the concepts involved, Gonsalves recognizes that there is a big difference in defining racism as “intent” (the ‘white’ usage) or as “effect” (the ‘black’ usage).
When black folks at Cape Cod diagnose their movie choices as effects of “racism”, Gonsalves says that they are unintentionally communicating a concept of “intent” to their predominately white Cape Cod audience. However, it is not “racist intent” that moves movie managers but “intent to make money.”
But what if black folks at Cape Cod are asking their predominately white audience to “listen up”? That is, what if black folks at Cape Cod in sharing their discontent over racism at the movie theaters are seeking from the community some recognition of the ways that even the so-called “level playing field of supply and demand” is a racist field after all? That there is no way to separate “supply and demand” from racist effects in a racist economy?
What if black folks at Cape Cod are making use of “black usage” in order to raise issues that run much deeper than “white usage” allows? In that case, we would encourage columnist Gonsalves to not lead the retreat into “white usage.” Rather we would encourage attention to the cover story at Black Commentator this week and, “Reject the Language of White Supremacy.”
Once upon a time I taught Northern students. And Northern white students have a way of speaking that is just too precious. For example, some will say: “We live in an all white town, so there is no racism where I live.” You gotta admit that’s cute stuff. Neither beautiful nor true, but quite cute indeed.
On the other hand, I have been driving my spouse to work this week and my favorite morning radio is “Wake Up Call” with Rev. Frank Garrett. This show reminds me that even if one adopts the “black usage” of racism and does not try to revert to cute white language, there is still a limit to the value of the term.
In Rev. Garrett’s analysis of the social and political scene in Texas, I hear no retreat from “black usage” of “racism as effect” yet there is a point where in the judgment of the wise reverend one must find some way to move forward “in spite of.” This is what I take to be the deeper meaning of the recent counsels of Bill Cosby. It’s a way of saying, especially to young people, “look you have to make a way here — you cannot carry your analysis of racism around like a crutch, because it will not help you take your next step.”
In the worlds of “white usage” and “black usage” the Cosby talk is what I call “family talk” — it is a talk that wisdom adopts among families who are undergoing hard times. Yes, says the family, we are living in hard times, but we cannot let that knowledge impair our creative effort. Despite the world, we must proceed to succeed.
There is a great existential courage in the Cosby talk, especially if it remains logically connected to “black usage” in the wider analysis of racism. There is also a sugar-coated delusion in the Cosby talk if it simultaneously links itself logically to “white usage” where racism has no “effects”.
But the problem of succumbing to “white usage” is that it demands nothing more from white America than that they merrily pursue their beloved laws of “supply and demand.” And what that comes down to may be best remembered by all Americans as we review what Frederick Douglass said when he was asked to give his thoughts on the Fourth of July.
GREG MOSES is editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review and author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. His chapter on civil rights under Clinton and Bush appears in Dime’s Worth of Difference, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org