Social interactions in the United States between persons are always already informed by race relations, precisely because this society is and always has been made up of so many different kinds of races, nationalities, and ethnicities, and because this social mixture, unprecedented in the history of the world, takes place and is driven by a system that effectively builds wealth through conditions that reinforce political and economic inequality.
Importantly, this element in interpersonal sociobility is increasingly evident in all other parts of the world, too, including in those places that not long ago were either peacefully and somewhat obliviously harmonious (as the Chinese government would say), or largely homogenous, in which case the personal encounters with racial difference hardly occurred. So, it is not just an American thing. But the degree of attention given to race relations, the pure, universal obsession of it, seems very much to be an American thing.
Americans live with the question “What does race have to do with (fill in the blank, fill in with any social phenomenon at all)?” in the back of one’s mind all the time. How we collectively attend to that question determines much of the public discourse about race. The collective treatment breaks down into several levels of honesty and insightfulness, which do not necessarily align with political position. For example, I for one happen to believe that right wingers such South Carolina’s Joe Wilson have thought through their positions on race relations at an impressively detailed level. Indeed, the way in which Mr. Wilson walked the line by heckling President Obama through the doubly charged filter of health care reform and illegal immigration just goes to confirm the subtlety of the lout’s thought process.
The hubbub over the Wilson disgrace, now with Jimmy Carter weighing in full force, is in many ways predictable. For one thing, hasn’t Obama by now demonstrated beyond a doubt that he will not be provoked into anger by crude insults, racist caricatures, and old-fashioned epithets? As much as many on the left and especially many from his black constituency would love nothing better than a flash outburst from him, a direct confrontation and put down of the racist right, he has shown that it is simply not going to come from him. He made that clear a long time ago; he’s been called every name in the book, long, long before he ran for national office. It is simply not a game he plays.
Okay, whatever. It is a predictable progression. The Wilson intervention (which is exactly what it was), then the pundits weighing in, then President Carter openly naming the racism, then the Obama people saying those kinds of accusations are not their game.
On the question of race relations, what I am finding really interesting is the other story dominating the online headlines right now, the disappearance and murder of Yale graduate student Annie Le. One might say that this story is also following a familiar script: young woman disappears, corpse is found later, male acquaintence/workmate is identified as a suspect, the suspect is revealed as cocky and having had some problems with women in the past, loads of circumstantial evidence suggest that this is the murderer, cops close in….The only unknown to this story is whether the guy has the balls to kill himself before the heat arrive for the last time. Given picture of a loser that is emerging, I kinda doubt it. If anything, we may have another suicide chump on our hands.
But I find it fascinating, especially given the race flare-up going on in the Joe Wilson story, that there has been basically no mention of there being a racial dimension to the Annie Le story. Or at least, it hasn’t been raised directly. It is being raised indirectly; a great many of the profiles of the suspect, Raymond Clark III, make it a point to mention that his high school activities included membership in the Asian Awareness Club. Some of the shorter items even highlight this tidbit from Clark’s past. Why is this worth mentioning, if not to obliquely suggest that Clark had some (possibly pathological) interest in Asian people, and more specifically, Asian women? If this is indeed the question, then we should ask it directly, and not only of Clark. With regard to this story and the reporting of it, the question then becomes, why the oblique messaging? Is it not believable that this murder was in part or whole racially motivated? And what does ‘racially motivated’ even mean when, as anyone who knows anything about Asian American gender relations knows, white men and Asian and Asian American women meet, unavoidably, at the intersection of a long, transnational history of colonially-informed, sexually-mediated interaction?
Let’s flip it around. I think a lot more insight can be gained by thinking of Joe Wilson’s “You lie [boy]!” as an expression of white male privilege, emphasis on the male, under attack from not only the rise to power of so-called minorities, but of powerful women, in particular. As equal income-earners, as a higher educated segment of the society, as a greater proportion of the urban population, and so forth. What kind of contortions must we perform to see that Wilson’s “You lie [boy]!” was a shot across the bow of feminism, gender equality, and women’s safety? I have no doubt that Wilson would claim to be a defender of women’s honor, but that Old South canard about chivalry stands up about as well as the slaveholder’s professed love for his slave.
That leaves the Annie Le story as today’s racially-charged narrative.