When we discuss whether something is racist, there’s a sort of monolithism at play. A leaf is green because we all perceive it as such. However, an object or institution’s racist character depends on people’s perception; something only becomes racist once people decide it is. Rather than asking whether something is racist, it’s more productive to discuss whether or not people find it racist.
If you had to guess how many Native Americans are bothered by the name of the Washington Redskins, what would you say? Fifty percent? Seventy-five percent? This issue has been at the forefront of conversations about social justice for years, so it’s only logical to conclude that this bothers a significant portion of the Native American community. A recent survey found that 9 percent of Native Americans polled find the name offensive. This isn’t an argument that the name is appropriate. If very few Native Americans actually take pride in the name, I don’t think there are many (if any) compelling reasons to keep it. But, this piece of data goes to show how fickle our perception of racism is.
In other policy domains, we can see similar ways in which we’ve essentialized the views of people of color. Consider this recent pair of surveys about racism in the United States. In one conducted by CNN, 17 percent of Blacks polled viewed the Confederate flag as a symbol of Southern pride. In another by Pew, 36 percent of Blacks surveyed had a “great deal” or “fair amount” of confidence that local police treat Blacks and whites equally. Neither of these numbers is particularly high, but they were both much higher than I’d been led to believe by leftist discourse.
Let’s be clear: Police brutality is a serious issue — no two ways about it. In that same Pew survey, just 0.6 percent of Blacks expected the police to use an appropriate amount of force in a given scenario. In regards to the Confederate flag, 73 percent of Blacks in the sample said that it should be taken down from government buildings. Clearly, these are both pressing issues that deserve action, but it’s important not to create a one-dimensional Black perspective to advance social justice causes.
This sort of measured stance is good for discourse, but bad for advocacy. Can you imagine the NAACP saying that they speak for 47.543259 (to use an arbitrary number) percent of Black people? It would be a catastrophe. They would lose credibility in the public sphere. These well-intentioned and often effective groups — whose efforts I agree with — seek to institutionalize a limited version of truth to suit their agenda.
A large part of an institution’s power lies in its ability to convince people that it best represents the truth. To better understand the relationship between truth and power, it’s helpful to borrow from Foucault’s theory of “regime of truth.” To quickly reduce his writing: What we conceive as truth isn’t absolute; it’s influenced politically and has an agenda. The struggle for power in the public sphere is based upon claiming heir to truth. This isn’t to make an argument that all truth is totally relative, subjective and individuated. It is possible to create a universal theory; however, we should not expect this to come from our political arena. As I previously discussed, groups focused on political actions are less concerned with representing the whole truth than with convincing the masses and policy makers that their version of truth is correct. Rather, we can use the arts as a lens to construct these coherent, comprehensive worldviews.
The television show “Atlanta” is a good example of how art can bolster our discourse. The show has a clear political bent; Donald Glover’s character often acts as a proxy for the show’s liberal audience. Additionally, it has other aesthetic goals beyond representation, such as humor and drama. However, the show does a lot of important work, like not breaking police brutality down into a simplistic Black-white binary. Early in the series, Paperboy, an aspiring rapper, is leaving jail when a Black police officer recognizes him and asks for a photo. The officer poses with Paperboy by holding his fingers together in the shape of a gun; the rapper is clearly nonplussed by the officer’s lack of sensitivity. As the two talk, the police officer gleefully reveals that he arrested famed Atlanta rapper Gucci Mane and doesn’t connect the dots between Gucci and Paperboy’s similar plights.
In this short scene, “Atlanta” demonstrates how people of color are incorporated into systems of oppression, which is an important nuance often left out of discourse about police brutality. I recall some conservative commentators claiming that race could not have played a role in Freddie Gray’s murder due to the fact some of the cops were Black. This demonstrates just one deleterious effect of leaving out important nuances like these in our public conversation.
Similarly, the show doesn’t shy away from presenting how prejudices, such as sexism and homophobia, exist within the Black community. These problems exist in all communities, but they morph depending upon their social context. It’s important to recognize that “Atlanta” is about Atlanta and tells a specific story that is underpinned by geographic, cultural and socioeconomic locations. Thus, we shouldn’t use it as a synecdoche for Black America. At the end of the day, this show is a single data point, but it does add important nuances to our conversation and is accessible to a wide audience in a way that other discursive modes aren’t.
Discussions of race are often based around the truth proffered by civil rights groups, which are extremely important, but don’t represent the entire truth. They’ll occlude facts and perspective that don’t advance their goals. This is true in all realms of policy. We can’t fully understand the effects of NAFTA solely by looking at employment statistics. We need to understand people’s narratives and communities’ responses to increasing globalization. If we want to have a full conversation about the issues in our world, we can’t rely on purely political sources of truth. Art like “Atlanta” isn’t the only way to end the discursive essentialism, nor is it necessarily the best way, but it provides an important first step.
Roland Davidson can be reached at email@example.com.