Wednesday, August 26, 2009

America and race

Having recently watched Gran Torino and The Wire, I was struck by the following observation: race is quite a big issue in America.

I appreciate that the bold originality of this insight might shock you.


worm said...

tis true, tis true. they take both race and religion very seriously indeed. It must be hard work being an American and having to let everyone know how seriously you take being from whatever culture that you are from all the time.

Having lived round the world I think we can safely say that the british are a damn tolerant and laissez faire bunch compared to almost any place I've ever been.

Brit said...

Well our own problems are manifest (witness those revolting chavs at West Ham last night for an nasty, depressing surprise), and we don't want to be complacent about it... but yes, we do seem to have somehow become unusually uninterested in race, despite being so cosmopolitan.

martpol said...

In Britain, I think the importance of race has been superseded by (a) religion (conversations with teenagers suggest this) and (b) country of birth. Thus the BNP look like ridiculous relics when their members are exposed as racists pure and simple; but frighteningly in step with a substantial section of public opinion when they talk about asylum seekers and Britishness.

Anonymous said...

We in Canada have reached a higher stage of civilization than you and the Yanks and are no longer troubled by either race or class, but boy, do we ever hate the frogs.

Brit said...

Although, Martpol, we have just absorbed a phenomenally large and rapid economic immigration from eastern europe with barely a whimper of discontent. Down at our quacks all the info is in English and Polish.

Peter - do you hate the frogs even more than the yanks then?

Anonymous said...

Decisions, decisions.

martpol said...

"Although...we have just absorbed a phenomenally large and rapid economic immigration from eastern europe with barely a whimper of discontent."

Yes, allow me to clarify: country of birth, where that country is (or may be, or might sound like it should be) involved with either Islam or terrorism or both.

Anonymous said...

Upon reflection, I would have to say that we really don't do hate very well. Our specialty is the whine. We're the Eeyore nation.

malty said...

It has to be said that the British love a good hate, not necessarily racially motivated, for example take that privileged cowardly cheat who's name is similar to Kennedy, hated with the same intensity as Sting, Manchester United and AA Gill. It's not that we don't like Greeks or Ugandans or the odd Swede, well, actually we do hate them, the blonde, Nazi swine, it's just that we don't like foreigners or southerners, northerners and estate agents.

also Ryanair and Microsoft

Brit said...

Well that's the funny thing. I think that, relatively speaking, we're really rubbish at hating. We don't even hate the Krauts anymore, if we ever properly did, and even with the Frogs it's only out of a sense of duty.

I would say, contra Martpol, that taken all round and given the big news stories of the last decade, Britain is remarkable for its lack of Muslim-hatred.

Sean said...

The M5 is not hard to hate.

Hey Skipper said...

... race is quite a big issue in America.

Among whom?

Scarcely any Americans I know ever broach the subject. You have to go to professional race mongers for that.

Just so with religion. Outside of blogs, almost no one gives a tinker's darn about what someone else believes.

Shoot, it isn't like Americans are going to outlaw blasphemy.

Americans, truth be told, reserve their energy for hating either or both of the Yankees and the Red Sox.

Mike Beversluis said...

HS is right - I enjoyed The Wire, but Baltimore via David Simon is about as historically accurate as Deadwood.

Peter: Not so much Eeyore as Ned Flanders.

Brit said...

Really? Almost everything that comes out of US TV seems to be backlit by Race, from stand-up comics ("white guys drive like this, black guys drive like this") to Tony Soprano harassing Meadow's mixed-race boyfriend. Are you saying TV land is making it all up?

Brit said...



martpol said...

Brit: "Britain is remarkable for its lack of Muslim-hatred"


Skipper: "Outside of blogs, almost no one gives a tinker's darn about what someone else believes"

I wish this were the case, but I've talked to plenty (not a majority, but a lot) of school children who are virulently anti-Islam and often, by extension, racist.

The basic message of such exchanges is: "They should be banned from coming over here and building their mosques, all they're doing is spreading terrorism" - sometimes interspersed with the kind of "send them back home" messages with which the BNP would be well pleased.

Of course, the "they" is defined in the loosest sense, and when we discsuss their views further, it often becomes clear that people don't really know what they hate. But that doesn't mean they don't hate it.

I think it's fair to extrapolate a wider distrust/hatred from this, given that much of what teenagers say is influenced by parents, friends and the media.

Brit said...

Hang on a second, Martpol. You're pressing teens on who they hate, and using that as evidence?

I'm not making any claims here about basic human nature. I'm just observing that given that the noughties will be remembered as the decade of The War on Islamic Terror, there is a noticeable lack of pogroms and broken windows in kebab shops.

Bristol has plenty of halal butchers and bloody great Mosque by junction 2 of the M32, and yet never once have I seen any of the following:

- anti-Islamic graffiti
- anti-Islamic leaflets pushed through the door
- white riots in Lawrence Hill

In fact, the only organised protests I've ever seen have been against George W Bush.

martpol said...

Fair point, Brit - the hatred is thankfully not translated into those sorts of actions.

But no, I haven't been "pressing teens on who they hate"! They've come out with the aforementioned views in the context of lessons I've been asked to teach on "active citizenship" and the like. I'll ask what issues they are most concerned about, and at least 50% of the time the issue of immigration is brought up, interchangeably with issues of race and religion.

So, we discuss the issue, and I attempt to start a genuine critical dialogue about it. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn't.

Hey Skipper said...


"They should be banned from coming over here and building their mosques, all they're doing is spreading terrorism"

Until a couple years ago, I lived not too far from Dearborn, Michigan, and worked right in the city.

It is the largest Muslim community in the US.

The only kerfuffle I can remember is when one of the mosques wanted to broadcast calls to prayer.

The Christians were up in arms, but had not a leg to stand on, since their church bells tolled on Sundays.

The non-believers just wished noise control laws applied to all religions, and every car propelled by thumping bass.

The City Council was to decide something or other. I have no idea how it went, except that whatever the decision was, there wasn't a ripple to be seen afterward.

My daughter sits at school lunch with the same group of a half-dozen or so girls, most of whom are of the fairly lurid evangelical Christian stripe.

According to my daughter, they let fly with a fair amount of stuff that would only take wings on the presumption that everyone around them shares their beliefs.

Annoys heck out of my daughter, but I tell her to just let it slide, because it doesn't amount to anything.

Which it doesn't. There is no anti-Muslim graffiti (their are Muslims here in Anchorage, BTW), etc.

I don't want to put a gloss on human nature, but if 9/11 had happened in, say, 1930 (okay, granted, the whole jetliner thing kind of ruins the hypothetical) the consequences for Muslims would have been entirely different.

Something has changed. I think Robert Wright explains just what that change is very well in Non-Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny.

Speaking personally, once upon forty-ish years ago (the time of the Watts riots), I took it for granted that blacks were not quite full fledged humans.

I was not alone.

Something changed, and it changed for the vast majority of Americans.

It is the professional grievance mongers who haven't yet broken the code.

Brit said...

Yes, I should point out that I didn't mean race-hate is a big issue in America, compared to here. But race consciousness is.

David said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David said...

Yes, yes, and you people with your House of Lords and your chavs are much more obsessed with class than we Americans.

Although a good friend of mine is convinced that class is everything in America, as evidenced by the fact that we never talk about it.

It's the last taboo, innit.

Whereas, in England, as near as I can tell, class has become literally an issue of talking, in the sense that it's all down to accent, with everyone in the nation trying to sound like they grew up in north London.

Anonymous said...

I don't think that race is at all the issue it used to be in most places, or among most groups, in the US, and our consciousness of it has decreased with each succeeding generation after the Civil Rights movement. That said, there's an undeniable inheritance and a history that isn't easily or profitably forgotten. If Hollywood and the media play more to race issues than is generally reflected in American society at large, it's probably because they find it a convenient and historically resonant mechanism for exploring character and conflict. It's too early, I think, to suggest that America has definitively moved on. But in real life, you have to look pretty hard to find that level of race consciousness in American society today, especially among persons under, say, 60 years of age.

Brit said...

as near as I can tell, class has become literally an issue of talking, in the sense that it's all down to accent

You're not far off, David. Certainly class can't be measured in financial terms. 'Tribe' is more accurate.

Mike Beversluis said...

Hey Brit - fair enough, although if Obama had lost or hadn't been nominated, that would prove???