Racial distrust in America

By John L. Jackson Jr.
Basic Civitas, 278 pages, $26

When clips from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s sermons hit the national media earlier this year, colleagues and friends inundated me with questions: How could the Rev. Wright believe the words he preached? Does such a smart man really think that police officers supported inner-city drug use? Does Mr. Wright really believe that the government has anything to do with AIDS? At the time, I endeavored to explain Mr. Wright’s words in terms of history and the African-American prophetic tradition. Now, after reading John Jackson’s illuminating and penetrating Racial Paranoia, I would see Mr. Wright’s preaching and the responses to it as part of a broader American culture of paranoia over racial issues. Mr. Wright’s suspicion of the American government, his ambiguous claims, and the news frenzy all trafficked in a racial paranoia that Mr. Jackson wonderfully analyzes in the context of American media, music, literature and everyday social interactions.

Mr. Jackson defines racial paranoia as the fear that groups harbor about other groups, possibly hating or discriminating against them. It is the concern that others are receiving more, that in secret or in private, certain groups despise others. Fears of racial paranoia mark global politics as much as they do everyday life. It is this paranoia that leads to questions about authenticity and reality: Did the government purposefully destroy the levees in New Orleans to wash away African-American communities? Do people of color receive less cream cheese on their bagels than white patrons? Was a white crew member laughing at or with comedian Dave Chappelle? Whether rational or not, these worries impact our world.

Rampant racial paranoia emerged following the civil rights revolution of the 1960s. Before then, as Mr. Jackson shows, there was little to stop whites from being as blatantly racist as they wanted to be. Whites could be honest, but they were also paranoid. With slavery, they sowed distrust and reaped fears of slave rebellions. At the same time, African Americans hid their feelings. As poet Paul Laurence Dunbar phrased it, they had to “wear the mask” for fear of either the lash or the noose. All of this changed in the last generation. In the wake of the 1960s, overt white racism became a political liability. The George Wallaces of the nation gave way to the Ronald Reagans, where racism became veiled and coded. Identifying racism or racial discrimination became even more complicated as “political correctness” began to dominate American society. From the 1970s to the present, it has become increasingly difficult to know for sure whether and where race has been a factor. This has created profound suspicions among African Americans.

In Mr. Jackson’s analysis, several crucial engines drive racial paranoia. There are “canonical texts” that ground conspiracy theories in African-American communities, such as Samuel Yette’s 1971 book The Choice, Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall’s 1990 The COINTELPRO Papers, and Frances Cress-Wesling’s 1991 work The Isis Papers. Then there is hip-hop, as much a musical form as it is a performance style, information grapevine and spiritual persuasion. In one of the finest examinations of hip-hop in American culture, Mr. Jackson shows how it deploys and transmits racial paranoia through an emphasis on feeling over seeing, believing over knowing, and sensing over defining. Hip-hop artists use racial paranoia to politicize African-American youth by seamlessly associating de jure, de facto, and internal racism. Finally, the American media highlights and overplays any racial story, especially any story of racial paranoia.

To combat the distrust and suspicion of racial paranoia, Mr. Jackson recommends that we admit to internal racism and allow people to express their racial fears. African Americans must be willing to hear these claims without immediately reacting, while whites must be willing to acknowledge that some African-American concerns are accurate. Then, Mr. Jackson contends, whites and blacks must make friends across the color line. Whites must invite black coworkers to dinner, not just chat casually with them at the office. The conclusion may be the most unsatisfactory portion of Jackson’s book. Racial Paranoia is primarily a media and cultural study. Mr. Jackson is brilliant when analyzing hip-hop or the comic styling of Dave Chappelle. By shifting to a personal and social solution, Mr. Jackson seems to offer little to the problem he identified. Alas, we should not be too critical of Mr. Jackson for failing to solve the problem of race and racial paranoia in the United States. No one else has.

A far better cultural anthropologist than historian, Mr. Jackson failed to convince this reader that post-1960s America is really that different from pre-1960s America. Racial paranoia ran rampant long before the civil rights movement. As Mr. Jackson points out, many whites not only trembled at the possibility of slave uprisings but also worried about the power of African-American male sexuality -- so much so that oftentimes when lynching a black man, castration was part of the crime. Before the end of acceptable blatant racism, moreover, many African-Americans wondered about what lay below the surface of whites’ actions and words. The brilliant W.E.B. Du Bois continually wondered what went on in the minds and hearts of those he called “the sweeter souls of the dominant world.”

For those who want to better understand the feel of contemporary racial issues, Racial Paranoia should be placed alongside Cornel West’s magisterial Race Matters. Mr. Jackson’s book raises numerous important questions, especially whether it is actually paranoia that he identified or perhaps creative brilliance on the part of embattled African Americans. Just like other myths, contemporary African-American concerns may speak to deeper realities than most Americans want to admit. This is the genius of Mr. Jackson’s book. He provides a place for us to begin speaking about racial codes and authenticity without being beholden to the often-unknowable realities and falsehoods.

Edward J. Blum is the author of the award-winning book W.E B. Du Bois, American Prophet and Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865-1898.

National Catholic Reporter September 19, 2008

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