Race and The Idea of Individualism
Individual freedom is what America is all about. You can do what you want and make the most of your own life. Success or failure is up to you. That's what we are told and most of us think that is how we live. I think there is a lot of truth to all this. It's also a myth that has nothing to do with black people. But we believe in the ideal and strive to make it a reality. How we talk about individualism in relation to race is problematic, because it is an evasion that doesn't speak to blacks' experiences with systemic racism. Talking about individualism often hinders political discourse around race. However, none of this means individualism is irrelevant.
A narrow focus on individualism asserts that people are free possessing natural or God given rights to do what they want until they harm or impose upon others. In this case the only legitimate exercise of state authority is to prevent harm and keep individuals from imposing on each other. This kind of individualism leaves out some important things that make it difficult to discuss American racism. Consider this - until 1865 black people were slaves and considered property by law. They were not viewed equal to whites. Their lives and labor were used for the benefit of slaveowners who believed that freedom with its guarantee of property rights entitled them to own black people. Furthermore, any interference with slavery was viewed as an attack on slaveowners individual liberty. We now find this ludicrous and view it as a great contradiction in American history. Despite emancipation the ideas of freedom and individualism didn't always apply to blacks. Today more than fifty years after the legal victories of the Civil Rights Movement blacks are not fully free as individuals. Despite guarantees of legal equality systemic racism still makes a mockery of individualism when it comes to black people. Think about policing that involves racial profiling with stop and frisk. In this case no black person is an individual with rights to be respected. Blacks are criminals. They are a threat. The worst examples of racist policing are the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police.
At the same time people will argue that police killings and acts of discrimination are rare instances racism. They are individual rather than social problems. Certain people are racist. Racist individuals commit microaggressions, join hate groups, and explicitly believe in White Supremacy. Such individuals are regarded as unreasonable and less educated. They are associated with the working class and those living in rural areas. This is the conventional wisdom in American. However, racism is a systemic problem. It is subtle yet pervasive. Covert discrimination and disparate impact of otherwise neutral policies keep black people behind whites in almost every social and economic indicator. A narrow focus on individualism means we don't talk about systemic racism because most whites don't identify with the system or society. They identify as individuals who haven't done anything to blacks.
Focusing on individualism can hinder our political discourse about race. People talk about color blindness and not seeing race. They argue racism everyone is or should be treated the same. There's a lot of emphasis on merit, competition, hard work, competence, and making good choices. Doing what's right and having certain personal qualities enables you to succeed. Most people would say these things are individual not racial. Some people make it while others do not. Whites and others who think this way don't want government involvement in the marketplace or social programs to achieve racial equality. These people tend to be politically conservative and sometimes moderate. However liberal minded whites are not always interested in addressing race either. Individualism and color blindness are important to them too in different ways from conservatives. For them racism is a difficult and divisive political issue. White liberals want to win elections and advance their policy agenda. They don't want to lose white votes while addressing race or blacks' concerns. The renewed activist push against systemic racism by groups like Black Lives Matter troubles them. Black people demanding action as blacks not Americans is seen as identity politics by these liberals. They claim it denies individuals in favor of the group. They argue further: Calling white people and America racist is wrong and won't work anyway. Making race an issue puts whites on the defensive. They become racially conscious in opposition to blacks and anything that might help them.
Liberals emphasize the importance of individualism and being American. They argue for good paying jobs, universal healthcare, and stopping climate change that benefit and unify all Americans are more important than systemic racism.
Liberal and Conservative whites are often united in the belief that legal equality guaranteed by Civil Rights Laws and the decline in racist attitudes among whites means that inequalities are not due to discrimination or bias. Conservatives think blacks lack the cultural and behavioral characteristics to succeed as individuals in a competitive, market driven, society. They cite the decline of marriage and two parent black families. They also point to gun violence, drugs, and academic underachievement among blacks. Liberals look at the same problems claiming past racism has damaged individuals and created a kind of urban underclass. They point to the rise of a black middle class and successful individuals as signs of hope and progress. Individualism is the common denominator in both views of flawed blacks rather than systemic racism as the problem.
Does any of this mean that individualism has no place in discussions of race? Is the notion of individualism racist? I think the answer is no to both questions. However, it is important to realize that racism in law, public policy, the marketplace, and other social institutions interferes with individuals. It denies them the choices associated with freedom. Black people in America past and present have never been free or equal to whites as individuals because society has worked against us. Too often we talk about individualism in ways that deny this fact. When it comes to race whites want to talk about individualism outside any social or systemic context that gives it meaning or substance. This keeps us from doing anything about racism. However, whites benefit collectively while using the rhetoric of individualism, but blacks as a group are denied and dismissed. White individuals come together all kinds of common political pursuits related to taxation, and gun ownership. When it came to Slavery, legal segregation, opposition to forced busing, or affirmative action they come together consciously as whites not merely individuals. It is disingenuous and hypocritical to criticize blacks for fighting against racism while we collectively affirm our blackness. Groups coming together politically to fight for individual freedom made America.
Confronting and solving the problem of racism goes beyond any sense of high-minded moral purpose. The freedom and wellbeing of every American is compromised by systemic racism. Mass incarceration and poverty mean ever increasing taxes for jails and safety nets. Wherever people can't trust the police because brutality and murder have broken that trust; crime and unrest cannot be contained forever. Disparities in healthcare during a time of deadly pandemics put us all in mortal danger. We cannot talk about individuals as if society and systems that impact them do not matter. The same thing is true about groups. Individualism is central to American identity as it should be. But it is only meaningful if understood in the proper context. This especially true when talking about racism.
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