Sunday, February 17, 2013

Race and the privilege of innocence

Cross-posted from the blog for my course on modernism and childhood.

On Tuesday we'll be discussing a number of readings around the concepts of race and innocence, and lo and behold, here comes a news item that fits right in.

You may have heard about the column that Emory University President James Wagner wrote in the alumni magazine in praise of compromise.*

And what is the key historical example he holds up as embodying the virtues of compromise? Uh-oh.
One instance of constitutional compromise was the agreement to count three-fifths of the slave population for purposes of state representation in Congress. Southern delegates wanted to count the whole slave population, which would have given the South greater influence over national policy. Northern delegates argued that slaves should not be counted at all, because they had no vote. As the price for achieving the ultimate aim of the Constitution—“to form a more perfect union”—the two sides compromised on this immediate issue of how to count slaves in the new nation. Pragmatic half-victories kept in view the higher aspiration of drawing the country more closely together.

After the whole entire internet, including Gawker and Salon, exploded in a collective "say what?," Wagner prefixed the column with a semi-apology clarifying that he didn't mean to suggest that the 3/5 Compromise was itself a good compromise, just that compromise was good. (You'd think you'd want to illustrate that point with an example that doesn't radically call it into question, but okay.) As the tech journalist Tim Carmody observed,

Wagner apologizes for his "clumsiness and insensitivity," framing his column as a bumbling, stumbling error, a sort of intellectual version of a lack of motor skills. He seems bewildered that anyone could take him to be suggesting that slavery was okay, because that wasn't his point. But the fact that it wasn't his point is the point. It only makes sense to view the 3/5 Compromise in a purely formal register—as an example of compromise rather than a famous historical instance of wealthy white men bartering with one another over the political value of black bodies—if you can only imagine yourself as one of the barterers and not as one of the bartered, if slave history is not your history. Wagner was thinking of "compromise" as such, from the point of view of the people in a position to compromise: the wealthy white male landowners who had a legal say in this country's founding; he is, as it were, innocent of blackness. Circulating in a universe in which enfranchised whiteness is the norm and disenfranchised blackness is not on the radar except as an abstract concept to be bartered over, Wagner demonstrates a basic unawareness, compounded by his after-the-fact bewilderment that others don't share it.

In his apology, Wagner asks, "In retrospect we can fairly ask ourselves, would we have voted for the Constitution—for a new nation, for 'a more perfect union'—if it meant including the three fifths compromise?" Americans who would have been the bartered, not the barterers, might quote Tonto in The Lone Ranger: "What do you mean, 'we'?"

Another term for Wagner's position of racial blinkering is "white privilege." Because whiteness is a social "default" category, it allows for the possibility of not thinking about race. One is sheltered, as it were, from the necessity of thinking about race by belonging to the default racial category. In our reading of Stockton's The Queer Child for Thursday, we saw how weakness and ignorance are reconstituted as sites of privilege through the concept of innocence. The frame of "clumsiness and insensitivity" invokes an "innocence" that attempts to make ignoring the racial context of the 3/5 Compromise not only forgivable but requiring of protection.

This is the logic underlying what sociologists call "colorblind racism": protect my innocence (of race); don't make me know. But of course, the racialized subject never gets to inhabit that position of innocence, never gets to not know.

In our reading for Tuesday, Anne Cheng quotes Kenneth Clark recounting how disturbed he was by the "doll tests":
We were really disturbed by our findings, and we sat on them for a number of years. . . .Some of these children ... were reduced to crying when presented with the dolls and asked to identify with them. They looked at me as if I were the devil for putting them in this predicament. Let me tell you, it was a traumatic experience for me as well. (ix)
What is so disturbing to Clark is precisely innocence outraged: the young child forced to admit to knowing about race—the young child's self-awareness.

The Melancholy of Race is not a book about childhood; it's a book about race. Yet as Robin Bernstein has so powerfully shown in her book Racial Innocence (2011), discussing race often brings us back to tropes of childhood and innocence, and especially innocence violated or destroyed. As we know from our readings so far, "innocence" is a much more complicated concept than it's often taken to be. What James Kincaid calls the "flatness" of innocence, which "signifies nothing" and "does not interfere with our projections," is also a mechanism for whitewashing a racial history, in a double sense (qtd. in Stockton 12). "I am sorry for the hurt caused by not communicating more my own beliefs," Emory President James Warner writes, invoking the blankness of innocence.
We see these truths in hindsight. In retrospect we can fairly ask ourselves, would we have voted for the Constitution—for a new nation, for “a more perfect union”—if it meant including the three fifths compromise? Or would we have voted no—that is, voted not to undertake what I hope we see as a noble experiment, however flawed and imperfect it has been. Would the alternative have been a fractured continent, a portion of which might have continued far longer as an economy built on the enslavement of human beings? We don’t know; nor could our founders know.

"We" don't know; they didn't know; no one knows; don't make me know. Innocence is its own closed loop, its own tautological defense.


*Two notes: 1. I taught at Emory last year. 2. It's worth observing that Wagner's praise of compromise was in service of recent administrative decisions at Emory to cut funding to the liberal arts, including the journalism, visual arts, and education programs. Before its abrupt shutting down this year, Emory's education department produced the most black Ph.D.s of any program in the country.

Cheng, Anne Anlin. The Melancholy of Race. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print. Race and American Culture.

Stockton, Kathryn Bond. The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009. Print. Series Q.


Hillary said...

I love your thinking about racial innocence!

Anonymous said...

I have never seen this stated so clearly and succinctly. Thank you--and I hope to help others understand by referring them to this column and the works you cited. I'm book-marking your blog right now...

Anonymous said...

I agree with the anonymous commenter above. This was one of those startling blog posts that encapsulate the best and clearest thinking on a topic and upon whose shoulders other online discourse may in future stand.