“I Don’t See Race” and Other Ways We’re Taught to Fight Over Scraps

A short essay for my white American friends:

I don’t see race. I treat everyone exactly the same.
If the South wants to secede, let them.
Affirmative Action is a prejudice of low expectations that holds black people back. It’s reverse-racism.
All lives matter.
There is only one race: The human race.
“I don’t see race. Stop making me see race!”

Meritocracy. You have what you’ve earned. And where you don’t have, it’s because you didn’t work hard or smart enough. Everyone can just be. Live and let live, and work for your pay. Black, white, yellow, or green; we’re all playing the same game. A couple obvious exceptions: the government took something that was owed you and gave it to some poor person, leaching off the system. Undocumented aliens are working for cheap and suppressing wages. Affirmative Action lifted someone beyond their capability and put them ahead of you. In any case, the meritocracy is under attack!

It’s worth observing, here, that this is faulty on its face. There is no meritocracy. A CEO who makes 200x what the average employee does may work harder than those employees (arguably), but not 200x as hard. Could you imagine working 200x harder than you work? Even if you’re self-admittedly lazy and only accomplish a couple of hours of work in a given week, what does 200x your productivity look like? Would you have time to bathe yourself or chew your food? If the CEO doesn’t sleep at all, there’s still only 168 hours in a week.

Moreover, at this point, who can truly believe that Trump got where he is by working hard or working smart? Ridiculous. And one ought to consider the possibility that he isn’t an exception to the rule. Children born poor tend to become poor adults, and children born rich tend to become rich adults. Funny how the meritocracy manages to achieve that.

Friend, there is no meritocracy. You may want a meritocracy, but one doesn’t exist, at present. And it isn’t about government intervention. And no immigration policy has been conceived by mortal man that would enable a 200x pay gap. If we eliminated environmental protection, poor people would not suddenly start getting rich at a sensible rate.

It’s important, here, to observe that white families average about 13x the wealth of black families. No, white bread-winners aren’t working 13 times as hard as black bread-winners. So if we don’t see race, it’s because our eyes are closed. “But there’s no biological basis for race!” Sure. Yet, white families are still making 13x black families in the U.S. There’s something else going on here.

The meritocracy may be made up, but as it turns out, it’s crucial that we believe in the meritocracy and we need scapegoats when when there’s any chance peoples’ eyes might open to this. Things don’t work like they should in a meritocracy… whose fault is it that the meritocracy is under attack? You probably see where I’m going with this. People of color, especially black and brown people, are a pretty effective scapegoat. And if it isn’t them, it’s governmental programs or social policies that support them.

That probably sounded conspiratorial and speculative. Let me put it another way. There’s a useful technique powerful people have consistently used to maintain their power. You won’t find it in high school history textbooks (for obvious reasons) but it’s well-documented. It goes like this:

  1. Divide the people into two (or more) categories.
  2. Throw one side a scrap. Tell them they’re better than the other(s). Give them some limited economic mobility and a few social niceties.
  3. Let them fight each other.

Cynical? Absolutely. But justifiably. Here are a couple of examples from history:

The Rwandan Genocide

You may have heard about the Rwandan Genocide in which as many as a million Tutsi people were murdered by their Hutu neighbors. Sounds like some ancient ethnic or religious tensions boiling over… except nobody really knows what the difference between a Hutu and a Tutsi is! In fact, the only way they were able to carry out the genocide was by carefully inspecting government issued IDs that listed “ethnicity.” And you say,

… is the difference between a Hutu and a Tutsi?

Yeah. Nobody knows. And not from lack of investigation. But it was an awfully convenient distinction for their German and Belgian overlords. The Tutsi were “more European” (however that’s measured) and were thrown a few economic and administrative scraps from the colonial table because of their “racial superiority.” The Tutsi were really happy not to be treated as badly as the Hutu, and the Hutu resented the Tutsi for the unequal treatment.

Guess who was a buffer against insurrection? Right. The Tutsi. The colonial government was powerful, and it was only a matter of discretion that maintained a system in which the Tutsi had some authority and mobility. And those darned Hutu were ready to rock the boat at any time. But, ultimately, it was scraps. Scraps from the master’s table.

Only, people have a long memory when it comes to past injustices, and the resentment remained decades after the colonials were gone. In the end, the Hutu decided to “cut down the tall trees” and… calling the outcome a humanitarian crisis is a criminal understatement.

The Germans and the Belgians established a system that divided the local population, threw one side a scrap, and robbed the land of its wealth and its people of their livelihoods and cultures to build empires. And they never got their comeuppance.

Sorry. The bad guys won this one.

Bacon’s Rebellion

Here’s a story a little closer to home. This delicious-sounding conflict was never mentioned in any textbook I ever read in high school, but it’s crucial to understanding race in America, even today. You see, Nathaniel Bacon built a coalition of black slaves and whites from the lower classes and indentured servants who fought the colonial governor and powerful elites until they were eventually put down.

Now, they did some terrible things during their rebellion (especially to American Indians), so don’t confuse this as any kind of endorsement of Bacon’s general politics. But that’s quite a coalition to assemble. Right? I mean, the slaves and the lower class whites? A little common ground, there?

Common ground was precisely what terrified the elites. Of course, there was already a distinction between the black slaves and the white indentured servants, but — boy howdy — what if, in teaming up, they ever forged some kind of a filial bond? They might even demand a seat at the table!

Nip it! Nip it good!

In order to prevent any kind of future uprising, the powers-that-were hardened the racial caste system. They threw a scrap to the indentured servants, guaranteeing them a few rights and privileges not provided to the slaves and told them they were better than black people in general.

“Don’t rock the boat, slaves! We didn’t get a seat at the table, but we’re actually doing kind of alright.” This is what the powers hoped the lower class whites would say. They were a buffer. They were made complicit in the subjugation of the black slaves… and they were made complicit in their own subjugation. They got a scrap. And that scrap lasted into the formation of the United States as an independent country.

But slavery ended, right? Sure. As a formal institution. But the caste system was useful to the people in power. Why would that end? The northerners might have found slavery detestable, as a practice, but even there, it was “known” that black people were an inferior race. The mentality had survived abolition in the North. Why, when the southern elites retained power after the Civil War, would it fail in South? On the contrary, they set up laws to guarantee a differentiation.

Again, they were not worried about black people attaining real power if given real freedom. That could never happen! The rich elites were few and all knew each other. They were no more likely than poor white people. The game favored the elites as long as they stuck together. But there was real danger in a coalition of black people and lower class white people.

No doubt, many drank their own Kool-Aid and truly believed in the inferiority of black people. But why should the Jim Crow laws be necessary if black people were actually inferior and unable to gain on a level playing field? At some level, the mucky-mucks knew. And, of course, new techniques were employed when Jim Crow was struck down. But all of that is the subject of another essay.

The Racial Kicker

The point of all this is, race and racism are all about power. These divisions are intentional. By all rights, they should die out on their own after a few generations, but they aren’t dying out at all.

“Hold on, now,” the astute reader will now say. “What’s wrong with not seeing skin color, then?”

Race has come into being. It may not be biological, but it’s definitely real. Let me be concrete: I’m not proud to say I’ve been pulled over. But I’ve never been pulled over for being white. My first name, “William,” has never kept anyone from calling me back about a job position. When I got “the talk” as a kid, it was about the ins-and-outs (so to speak) of sex, not about how to appear least-threatening to a police officer.

Race matters. As I said, by all rights race should be turning into subculture. But there is strong incentive not to let it die. Could you imagine what might happen if white people weren’t afraid of black or brown people and embraced them as siblings? What if white people started listening to racial minorities and *gasp* believed their stories? Could you imagine?!

Pandemonium! The proles might realize that fair-shake they aren’t getting is caused by something other than Mexicans or Affirmative Action. They might even try to build some kind of society where everyone gets a portion of the bounty our machines produce, and where people who work get paid a fair wage for it.

The horror! The horror!

Not talking about race (refusing to listen to black and brown people, in particular) doesn’t undermine the lie. You treat everybody the same, regardless of race? Let’s assume there’s nothing subconscious influencing your behavior. Now, the very success in treating all people the same means people of color are at a disadvantage because of the extra hurdles they have to… hurdle… in order to reach you.

Race is here. And it won’t go anywhere as long as it’s useful to them that have. And it’s very useful to them that have. A few black and brown people will reach the top, but they aren’t welcome there. Even if they were, to be honest, racism would still be useful because it divides the filthy commoners and keeps them occupied with how “the other” is doing relative to themselves.

Cynical? Maybe. But I’ve illustrated two concrete examples in history you can look at for yourself. There are countless more. You didn’t learn it in high school because the unwashed masses need not be taught this stuff. But we have the primary documents. Historians all know this stuff. Knowing how the elites acted to buttress their power in the past tells us something about what that power does to people. And now, why would the elites of today behave differently from the elites of yesteryear, particularly when their fore-bearers developed such a successful technique?

What’s that? That can’t happen in modern society? Let me ask, is it because we live in a meritocracy?

Listen, listen to people of color. They can’t not process this stuff nor fail to revisit it daily. By acknowledging race, and by finding a place on the front lines against racism, you undermine the system that subjugates them. Moreover, you undermine the system that subjugates you. We’re being played — denied a seat at the table — and we’re being presented with scapegoats to redirect our anger. Scapegoats, mind you, that haven’t even been thrown the scraps we’ve gotten, and who we ought to embrace as siblings.

One last note: Ending the system that perpetuates racism will not end racism, nor the pain of race. There will be ideologues who explicitly want to perpetuate white supremacy long after the illusion of meritocracy is broken. But we can make the ground less fertile for their ideas to take root. And there is generational pain and wounds that don’t heal overnight. Remember how people in Rwanda felt after the colonial governments left. This pain will be a lasting legacy of our present era. But we can end the cycle. Let’s end the cycle. The most valuable thing we can do is to listen to the experiences of our comrades of color.