Arts  •  March 5, 2017

Why Racism Is a Chronic Problem—Reflecting on the words of James Baldwin

For me, one of the most memorable clips in the documentary “I’m Not Your Negro” was the following. (It’s originally from “Florida Forum, Miami, 1963.” You can see it here on YouTube.)

“My estimate of the Kennedy administration, part of my estimate of the Kennedy administration, is that, first of all, the Kennedy brothers, like almost all the white Americans, even with the best will in the world, know very little — in fact, I would hazard, until recently, virtually nothing about what we like to call the Negro problem. You know, most of the white Americans I’ve ever encountered — really, you know — had a Negro friend or a Negro maid or somebody in high school, but they never, you know, or rarely, after school was over or whatever, came to my kitchen. You know, we were segregated from the schoolhouse door. Therefore, he doesn’t know — he really does not know — what it was like for me to leave my house, leave school, and go back to Harlem. He doesn’t know how Negroes live and it comes as a great surprise to the Kennedy brothers and everybody else in the country, I’m certain, again, you know, that like most white Americans I’ve encountered, I am sure they have nothing against Negroes. That’s really not the question. The question really is a kind of apathy and ignorance, which is the price we pay for segregation. That’s what segregation means. You don’t know what is happening on the other side of the wall because you don’t want to know.”

What I would like to explore here is why “you don’t want to know.” All peoples of color are interested in how White people live, what they talk about, what they value, and how they think. It’s only White people who are not interested in how the others live. Why? This is what power does. The most powerful do not need to know what the less powerful think.

There is a popular quote by the entrepreneur, Jim Rohn, which sheds some light on why:

“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”

This is often quoted in the business world to encourage people to spend more time with more successful people if they want to be more successful themselves. This, I believe, is relatively universal. In every culture around the world, people behave this way. They all look up in order to make progress in life. This is why the most powerful have no need to look down. This is why White people see no point in learning how the others live. Because, up there, it’s all White.

This isn’t just about race; it’s also true about gender. Gloria Steinem recently wrote an op-ed piece about how men dismiss films women like as “chick-flicks.” Men can ignore and dismiss what women like but women can’t, because men have more power in today’s society. Many people have also pointed out that Harry Potter became such a universal hit because the main character is a boy. If it had been a girl, boys would not have paid attention to it.

As I wrote in my previous post, this is true in the Western intellectual circle too. “Western” is really a euphemism for “White.” It makes how they draw the line to define their specializations sound legitimate. If you read any books by White intellectuals, you cannot avoid running into a barrage of references to other great thinkers like Kant, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Lévi-Strauss, Foucault, Lacan, Wittgenstein, Chomsky, etc.. They cross many different languages, disciplines, and cultures, yet one boundary they never seem to cross is race, as if they are all contributing to the shared goals of their own race. On the other hand, if you read the intellectuals of other races, references to the White intellectuals are common. So, it’s not that how White intellectuals draw the boundaries is grounded on some fundamental differences beyond which further expansion of their knowledge would be useless and irrelevant. As Baldwin said, they just “don’t want to know,” because all those who hold power, prestige, and authority in their fields are White. They only look up.

But this isn’t a problem only for White people. We are all guilty of it. If all we ever look is up, then how can we blame the people above us for doing the same? In fact, soon enough Asians will be as powerful as Whites given the pace of the economic progress China is making. The combined economic power of China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan can surpass the West. Soon enough, they wouldn’t have much reason to pay attention to what White people think. At that point, Asians would be the primary target of criticism about racism. Talking about “Yellow privilege” and “Yellow guilt” wouldn’t be a joke. When Asians become as powerful as Whites, conflicts between them wouldn’t be seen as “racism”; it would be more like rivalry. This tells us that racism at its core is a socioeconomic problem.

What can we do about this? The answer is simple: stop looking up to more powerful. Turn Jim Rohn’s quote on its head. Because you are indeed the average of the five people you spend the most time with, in your choice of five, include people from both above and below you. Not only that, force yourself to cross the racial boundaries, because if you don’t consciously intervene, you will naturally surround yourself with familiar faces, and in most cases, this means the people of the same color. I believe that racial affinity is genetically built into us. Just as, today with the overabundance of food, we have to fight the urge to overeat, we have to fight our natural tendency to form racial cliques.

Those on the Alt-Right would probably ask: “Why is racial affinity a bad thing? What’s wrong with living in a racially homogenous community as long as we respect the rights of others to do the same?” There is nothing wrong with that morally. In fact, my native country Japan is a racially homogenous community. As long as they are not trying to eradicate other races from this earth, other countries would have no problem with Japan being racially so pure. But in a way, Japan is lucky because it’s an island. In most other parts of the world, it’s no longer possible to maintain such racial homogeneity in a nation. The law of physics dictates our future: entropy. The technological advancement will make this earth ever so smaller, and we are going to become more racially mixed over time. That is the inevitable and unstoppable direction we are headed.

Diversity is the reservoir of creativity. As machines and computers take over our mindless jobs, the only thing we humans could offer of value will be creativity. Homogeneity will stifle creativity. It’s already happening in Japan. After the massive influx of the American culture, their economy flourished for a while but it has stalled. It’s been going nowhere for the past few decades. Just looking at what happened to SONY would tell us what’s happening to Japan. Given the wide variety of assets they owned, SONY was in a prime position to compete with Apple, but their brand has slowly faded from the consumers’ mind. What happened? They failed to complete on creativity. Their competitive edge was the efficiency of production. Once other countries like Korea and China figured out how, Japan could not compete on creativity alone. They were no match for the bottomless reservoir of creativity the US has. That comes from diversity.

Diversity is inherently inefficient. Just look at what happens in a PTA meeting of any public schools in New York City. It’s chaos. This is why the rich people run away to private schools where everything is much more efficient because of the homogeneity. This also explains why public schools are more prestigious in Japan; because every school is homogenous anyway, you might as well go to the free one. There is no need to run away from diversity in Japan.

But, when you run away from diversity, you are only running away from what it takes for a nation to be creative. For us to thrive, or perhaps simply to survive, I agree with James Baldwin that our future depends on how we solve the problem of race, on how we can break the racial boundaries. To do this, we cannot just keep looking up at the more successful, the more powerful, and the more famous, because the fuel that is going to drive us, the reservoir of creativity lies beneath us. The capitalists are already extracting the creativity from the poor as if it’s crude oil of this country. But if we don’t address the problem of race, the reservoir will sooner or later dry up.

At the practical level, what can we do to break the racial boundaries?

I admit it’s not easy for me either. One obvious way would be to physically plant yourself in a racially segregated community different from your race. That is, If you are White, move to a Black neighborhood. Some White anthropologists have done this, but being anthropologists, that was their full-time job. It’s not practical for most of us to do such a thing. Besides, this will allow us only to break one racial boundary.

For about twenty years, I lived in a tenement apartment building in the East Village of New York City. It was occupied by half White and half Puerto Ricans. In college, I managed to figure out how to socialize with White people, so the White half was familiar to me, but the Puerto Rican half was not. I struggled. The only way in I found was food, because I was genuinely interested in what they were eating in our shared backyard. Eventually I managed to be invited to one of their backyard parties where they served their baked chicken with rice and beans. Once my daughter was born, we were invited to their apartment too. That is, I successfully satisfied James Baldwin’s criteria: their “kitchen.” However, I failed to make any progress from there.

The reason why this type of strategy fails is because it lacks a structure that guarantees the interaction on a regular basis. If we think about it, all of our friends are made through some type of externally imposed structures. As children, we make friends from schools. College is a prime breeding ground for life-long friendships. Churches and temples too. As adults, we make friends through work, and once we have kids, we make friends through the schools our kids attend. Even if we make friends through shared interest, it’s usually through joining clubs, taking classes, or attending events on a regular basis.

Ironically, even in racially diverse cities like New York, we still manage to self-segregate these structures. The Puerto Rican neighbor who lived right under me had an entirely different set of these structures from mine, so even if I make artificial attempts to infiltrate their lives, it doesn’t last. We humans require organizational structures to get to know one another. Like many things in our lives, in order for them to stick, to become essential parts of our lives, they must become habits, something structurally imposed; otherwise we are not disciplined enough to keep at it. We become overwhelmed by other demands our lives make.

The online communities, like Facebook, make this situation worse as they are algorithmically designed to encourage homogeneity, to connect with people who are similar to us. We thus retreat into our comfort zones. Most people do not use Facebook to challenge themselves, to push themselves beyond their comfort zones. It’s a platform to make ourselves feel safe and relaxed; so it inevitably enhances the effect of racial affinity. The social media allow us to virtually stay connected to the members of our own racial tribes while keeping up the facade of diversity by physically living in close proximity to the people of other races.

What we should have on a platform like Facebook is an opposite algorithm to what it has today; it should suggest friends who are different from who we are. The algorithm should say, “OK, it appears that you already have too many White friends. Here, meet some Black ones,” “All of your friends are rich. Meet some poor people. Here are some suggestions,” “Most of your friends have graduate degrees. Meet some high school dropouts,” and so on… But such a platform would not be popular because it would be too stressful for most people. That is the reality of diversity. Even though everyone uses “diversity” as a buzzword, when they confront the real faces of diversity, they retreat back to the comfortable faces of their own tribes.

But there is a small group of people who are compelled by differences, whom we might call “crossovers.” Crossovers manage to learn the subcultures of other races and succeed in infiltrating them. Black crossovers are coveted by White people who suffer from the “White guilt.” The White people in these instances may brag about their Black friends, but what made those relationships possible were the efforts by the crossovers. All that the White people had to do was to accept the people who learned their ways.

A similar phenomenon is seen in the restaurant business. Many restaurants offer “ethnic” food in an environment where White people can feel comfortable in. They are “gentrified,” like a safari tour offered in a secure, air-conditioned bus. It is also seen in the Asian food section of supermarkets like Whole Foods where they repackage the products in White-friendly design and charge two to three times the price seen in Chinatown. In other words, White people expect the other races to do all the work of crossing over in order to make them feel comfortable. They wouldn’t accept them until their comfort zones are reached.

Some of my White friends are crossovers and their attitudes toward foreign things are fundamentally different from the ordinary people. For instance, when they see a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Chinatown where they can’t even name what they are serving, they get excited, not scared. This is the type of curiosity—not motivated by power, authority, fame, or money—that leads to creativity which is our ability to make unexpected connections.

James Baldwin was clearly a crossover. What made him special was his ability to speak to White people. The same was true for Martin Luther King Jr. The former was able to infiltrate the more intellectual White tribes whereas the latter, the more ordinary ones. When the minorities in America do all the hard work of crossing over for the White people, they are rewarded by fame—however, not so much financially.

Most White people sympathize with the plight of the minorities in America but are not interested in changing their behavior or pushing themselves beyond their comfort zones. So, how do they deal with their feelings of sympathy? By publicly displaying their feelings of guilt. By going to see films like “I’m Not Your Negro,” and publicly sharing their enthusiasm for it. It’s what some people call “Facebook activism,” yet another way to gentrify the fears of foreign things. They watch the lives of the Black people from the comfort of their movie theaters, like safari tourists, feel good about doing their part in feeling guilty, and go home and continue with their own lives.