Since law school, however, I've lived overseas in environments where American-style race-based identity politics appear absurd. Racial classifications in China, India and Kenya - where I've spent most of my time since 2004 - exist, of course. Broadly speaking, such classifications are enormously crude, relatively overt and highly-tolerated by the societies. Jargon and academic methodologies haven't yet throttled these inequalities: they are facts of life. If one chooses to engage them, one does so concretely, not conceptually.
As a result of my experience, I stubbed my reading flow on the following passage in Dan Chiasson's otherwise fine New York Review of Books review of Adam Bradley and Andrew DuBois' book, The Anthology of Rap:
Only in hip-hop is the age-old comedy of grown-ups trying to understand young people yoked so uncomfortably to the American tragedy of whites trying and failing to understand blacks. Age incomprehension is comic, since everyone young eventually grows old; race incomprehension is tragic, since nobody knows what it is like to change races.I'm guessing that, thirteen years ago, when I was in the fishbowl of American race relations, these sentences would have seemed moderate and sensible. My view now is a bit different.
What strikes me first is the lack of proportion. American race relations certainly has its tragic dimensions, most saliently its violence and its capacity for depriving large swathes of humanity of the fundaments of life - including recognition of their humanity. But whites trying and failing to understand blacks isn't high on the list of "tragic" elements in the American race relations saga.
Next is the lack of precision. Chiasson begins talking about whites trying to understand blacks, but then recharacterizes the issue as "nobody knows what it is like to change races." In this shift, problems abound.
First, people do know what changing races feels like: people pass (for instance, Anatole Broyard).
But the larger issue is that achieving understanding across the racial divide and "chang[ing] races" aren't equivalent. "Chang[ing] races" is not the point: being another race is.
The question is not one of whether whites can understand blacks, but whether anyone can understand being a different race than the one into which he or she has been born. In assigning whites an empathetic task without a reciprocal role for blacks, Chiasson assumes a typical, American identity-politics "moral white person" responsibility that manages nonetheless to dehumanize blacks by exempting them from the empathetic tasks inherent in the social contract.
The obvious situation in which this variety of one-way empathy works is in the animal rights context: we're supposed to feel compassion for the rat in the cancer drug trial, but the rat has no burden of empathy for the cancer patient whose life is saved by the drug. I'll admit that I have doubts as to whether this paradigm is appropriate for animals; I have no doubt that non-reciprocal empathetic relations are not suitable for humans.
Once Chiasson's issue is framed in terms of anyone's capacity to understand the racial experience of anyone else, the issue isn't tragic, but universal. (I doubt that Chiasson would have written, for example, that blacks trying and failing to understand whites is tragic.)
The problem isn't even particularly American, but one that has arisen between peoples interacting for eons. Power and wealth imbalances between the groups are better indicators of the extent of eventual understanding that any member of either group will achieve (or not) than are classifications of "white" and "black." Only unusual people (and never the group as a whole) will deviate from the pattern set by his or her group's demographic profile.
Which brings me to my final observation about the quoted passage: its disconnect from actual interactions between white and black people. Indeed, Chiasson's next sentence is: "Growing up in Vermont, I met a total of one black person."
An empathetic attempt grounded in the concrete, rather than the conceptual - and Chiasson goes on to discuss looking up "afro" in the dictionary - seems likely to have yielded a different insight, perhaps this one: Only in hip-hop is the age-old comedy of grown-ups trying to understand young people yoked so uncomfortably to the reality that too many American whites and blacks are willing to settle for superficial relations defined by commercialism, vulgarity and distanced hyper-conceptualization.
This abstract compartmentalization of race matters doesn't defend us or protect us from whatever we fear from engaging the issues concretely. To the contrary, such extreme conceptualization only corrupts our thinking. Inevitably it implicates books in our dirty work: in this blog post alone, an anthology, a book review and a dictionary have been caught aiding and abetting.
American race relations may be the only topic as to which I would advocate: Read less. Engage more. Don't settle.
(Image of Dan Chiasson from Wellesley College website)