Beyond the Chessboard

Se recuerda cuando Varadero era para ricos y nada más
Y por la playa, playa tan hermosa
El pueblo no podía ni caminar
Aquello estaba en manos de los míster
Y casi solamente se hablaba inglés
Hasta que un día se formó la corredera
Y desde entonces Varadero del pueblo es para ti y para mi

There are more variations of possible chess games than atoms in the universe. Unfortunately, despite the rather fitting simulacrum of it being white’s game to lose, racial politics are far more complicated than chess. In a previous post, I highlighted the failings of a colorblind ideology, and to see society as only black and white is still a form of colorblindness. The false dichotomy of race in America stems as an artifact of history. Both of the landmark cultural revolutions in the United States in the last two centuries, the Civil War and Civil Rights, were ostensibly black and white. The Civil War particularly, left a legacy of bitterness and resentment in the southern states, and established a deeply entrenched racial feud, divided solely by the color line*.

In reality of course, race represents a spectrum, more like the colors of a rainbow, a symbol famously co-opted by another diversity-championing group. Indeed, the analogy is fitting. Anyone with a basic physics background is aware that the myriad hues generated after a summer shower represent varying wavelengths of visible light. Hence, when we categorize color into the classic seven groups (ROYGBIV), we are making a gross simplification to facilitate our understanding of the phenomenon. The same is true for race. We are dealing with a continuous trait, dictated by the common ancestry of all life on earth, but we discretize it for simplicity and convenience. But we must be careful; working with well-defined categories makes it easier to justify unequal treatment of individuals that fall into those different categories.

Throughout history, the ruling elite have attempted to limit access to education to all those unfortunate enough to not fall on the favored end of the race spectrum. Such policies have their root in the overwhelming inclination of people in power to maintain the status quo. Ignorant masses are passive and malleable. Educated masses are unruly and capable of riposte. Speaking on the Civil War, DuBois notes:

“the South believed an educated Negro to be a dangerous Negro. And the South was not wholly wrong; for education among all kinds of men always has had, and always will have, an element of danger and revolution, of dissatisfaction and discontent.”

Fear-mongering is a common tool employed to stall, or halt entirely, policies that encourage multiculturalism in schools. Of course, those who adopt such a stance fail to recognize the fact that fear of a backlash is tantamount to an admission of guilt. If white people hadn’t acted so abhorrently, they would have nothing to worry about. Thus, despite the clear need to make education accessible to all, it is whites that most obviously require schooling. Access to education will be for naught, if the ruling class is not taught the fallacy of white supremacy, and introduced to a diverse array of societal perspectives to broaden their cultural horizons.

Without early intervention in the public-school system**, narrow-mindedness and archaic stereotypes will continue to flourish. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explains “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story”. From this, it naturally follows that even positive stereotypes cause harm. They are still stereotypes, they still paint incomplete pictures, and of course, they still use whiteness as a benchmark on which to measure all other races. The pervasiveness of stereotypes in society acts as a bellwether for the degree of multiculturalism that society has achieved. The fact that a society still clings to racial stereotypes is an indication that not enough effort has been made to learn about cultures not your own.

In the grand scheme of things, our experiences are so narrow. Richard Feynman used to compare the scientific process with trying to figure out the rules of chess, when you are only allowed to see a little corner of the board from time to time. This analogy extends nicely to everyday life. One of the most wicked curses of the human condition is to only glimpse the world through such a narrow lens. In the context of race, many have not had the wealth of experience required to overcome stereotypes, and continue to misinterpret the nature of reality. We can expand our field of vision through experience, and many have revelatory “a-ha!” moments when a swathe of new truths is suddenly revealed, and our preconceptions shattered. The progress of society appears to be on a similar trajectory; long periods of stasis punctuated by dramatic social and cultural revolutions. Feynman’s closing words seem apposite:

“Unlike the chess game, though… In the case of the chess game, the rules become more complicated as you go along, but in the physics when you discover new things, it becomes more simple. It appears on the whole to be more complicated, because we learn about a greater experience; that is, we learn about more particles and new things, and so the laws look complicated again. But if you realize that all of the time, what’s kind of wonderful is that as we expand our experience into wilder and wilder regions of experience, every once in a while, we have these integrations in which everything is pulled together in a unification, which it turns out to be simpler than it looked before.”

Experience is the enemy of ignorance. Critical thinking skills help too. If the education system wants to lead the charge for racial equity in society, which indeed it must, teachers should provide opportunities to develop critical thinking skills and broaden experiences. Once our children are released from the pervasive monochrome ideology, we can move past the overly simplistic black-and-white model of society, and extol the contributions of all creeds and colors.

People are much more complicated than chess, but the game still has much to teach us about society and the nature of human experience. Simplification is always the first step in understanding, and as such chess provides a nice jumping-off point to begin the discussion on race. We just need to make sure it is not the end of the discussion. Incidentally, as I write, the top 5 FIDE rated chess players from the United States, representing the 2nd, 8th, 11th, 20th, and 35th in the world rankings respectively, are Fabiano Caruana, Wesley So, Leinier Dominguez Perez, Hikaru Nakamura, and Jeffery Xiong.

 

* As an aside, the Civil War was not an end to slavery, just as the Civil Rights movement was not an end to racism. Slavery is alive and well in western society; capitalism operates as a form of economic slavery, from which death or incarceration represent the only avenues of escape.

** and you have to get them young! The school-to-prison pipeline is a clear indication that it is never too early to challenge and remedy societies racial inequalities.

The Plaster Race: Papering Over the Cracks in Western Society

Twenty-one years in captivity
Are you so blind that you cannot see
Are you so deaf that you cannot hear
Are you so dumb that you cannot speak
Free Nelson Mandela.

From the immortal works of Joseph Mallory Turner to the rainbow stripes of the pride flag, color is a preeminent feature of the human experience; color is something to be cherished. Yet a new swathe of left-leaning types are avowing colorblindness when it comes to race in society, and parading their affliction as a badge of honor. As a self-proclaimed liberal, I do not enjoy being lumped in with such ilk. Hailing from the British Isles, my definition of liberal is very different from that most espoused in the United States. I do not declare myself to sympathize with any one political party, but I am simply ‘alive to the dangers inherent in all forms of power and authority’*. American liberals need to take note. Whilst well-meaning in intention**, the naivety of liberals has contributed to the ongoing racial inequality and institutionalized oppression in American society. Colorblindness rejects people’s cultural heritages and can perpetuate, or even exacerbate, racial injustice. To quote the incomparable Christopher Hitchens, ‘the denial is so often the preface to the justification’.

The attitude of burying one’s head in the sand, in the vain hope that the problem will be resolved by the time you reemerge, is preposterous. Not to mention the immense level of privilege that is required to ignore race – we are not all that fortunate. It would be laughable if not so damaging. Chief amongst the perpetrators of misguided colorblind policies are our school systems. Indeed, they may represent the root of our problems. When teachers adopt the policy of blanket treatment for their students, they are grooming their pupils into faceless drones that lack any sense of individuality. These policies are enacted operating under the assumption that all pupils are starting off from the same place, and therefore when presented with the same opportunities, each has an equal chance of success. In modern society, this is simply not true, and will only act to perpetuate racial inequalities and preclude remedial action.

Colorblind ideologies are tantamount to identity theft. Race should be, nay must be, acknowledged. The antithesis of colorblindness is multiculturalism, wherein differences between members in society are recognized and valued. Again, the schools have a very important role to play here. Children must be taught about ethno-racial diversity from the outset, and educated as to why multiculturalism should be celebrated. To me this seems reasonably straightforward. Massive strides can be taken with the minimum of effort: history and geography classes can become more global in extent, and more closely tied to current affairs; biology classes can spend more time on humanity’s African origins and broader evolutionary concepts to promote the kinship of all life on Earth; music classes can abandon the European Conservatory template and give more weight to the folk traditions and cultures that have shaped 20th century popular music. Just three examples from a ‘multicultural curriculum’.

More challenging will be an overhaul of the standardized assessments that are ingrained in our measures of academic achievement. Standardized tests have many flaws, not least that they were developed with only white men (boys, I should say) in mind. Ergo, the tests are not standardized at all. On the contrary, they are extremely biased. This bias is indicative of the inherent bias in society as a whole; a society that is much more easily navigable to those that the society has been built around. We are all products of society, but only some of us fit the mold.

In the annals of history, when classrooms had more testosterone than televised wrestling, and were paler than frightened milk, treating everybody the same way probably came at little cost. Indeed, it makes sense. Today however, it makes no sense. We need to open our eyes to reality. We must learn from each other and band together, in order to address the systemic problems in our society. Otherwise we will remain in our cultural infancy, with the blind leading the blind.

 

 *Karl Popper, 1962

**the flawed philosophy likely stems from a bastardization of MLK’s dream.

Novel Narratives and Legion Lenses: The Importance of Historical Pluralism

Sing a song full of faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.
Lift every voice and sing.

At the turn of the 20th century, James Weldon Johnson captured the frustration of a peoples whose voices were not being heard, and raised a call to arms to those whose stories were not being told. History is written by the winners, and if anybody has ‘won’ the last century (or indeed the last five), it is white Europeans of privilege. Marginalized people must speak out, for the good of society, and for the good of history. If we do not learn from history, we are doomed to repeat its mistakes, and if our interpretation of history is distorted and incomplete, we certainly cannot learn much from it. Revisionist history is not a new idea (the long-standing debates between the Whig interpretation of history and Marxism have been raging for decades and show no signs of abating), but has developed a new dimension in the context of Race Theory. It is clear to see that the importance of these types of discords (Whig vs Marxist) is not to elucidate which interpretation of history is correct (that would be futility epitomized), but to raise the consciousness of historians to the plurality of their discipline. The history of race relations in the United States is in dire need of revision and expansion. By telling every story, we combat the willful omission/expunction of, or sometimes well-meaning obliviousness to, the salient problems that haunt our annals and still plague modern society.

It should be noted at this point that giving voices to the untold narratives of history is necessary, but not sufficient. George Orwell warned us as such. If the public continue to engage in ‘doublethink’*, then the myriad stories and interpretations of historical events will have little social impact. Indeed, doublethink is a tongue-in-cheek turn of phrase, as it actually represents the complete lack of thinking (in order to maintain the paradox in one’s brain, and not critically evaluate the discrepancies). No, rather we are looking for something more along the lines of DuBois’ ‘double-consciousness’, whereby we should hold two contradictory historical narratives in our mind simultaneously, with the aim of accepting the fact that people have entirely unique perceptions of the world, each shaped by that individual’s experiences and sense-of-place in society.

Once we reconcile the pluralistic nature of reality, and gain an appreciation for the tapestry of history and its myriad interwoven threads, we will open the door for empathy. We are past the point of purporting ‘color-blindness’ when it comes to the issue of race, the ideological equivalent of burying one’s head in the sand. Claiming to not see race is not only ineffective at combating institutionalized cruelty, but also denies people their identities. Running the gamut from classrooms to cemeteries, diversity is something to be openly discussed, and hopefully celebrated. Championing diversity in this manner, taking multiple perspectives into consideration, facilitates critical thinking by highlighting biases in particular narratives, thereby reducing our own biases. This is akin to comparing how Fox News and CNN report the same stories, or indeed which stories they chose to report. Only with breadth of experience can we combat the majoritarian history currently espoused by the powers that be.

We live in the technological age, where the majority of people are overwhelmed by the cacophony of information that besets their everyday lives. Thus, we must often settle for a very superficial understanding of issues outside of our area of expertise. It seems likely that our penchant for single, linear historical narratives stems in part from this predicament. A single story is much neater and simpler to grasp than the convoluted reality, and may be the only story that people afford the time to digest, if they afford any time at all. Nevertheless, if we do not confront the messy nature of history, real social progress will remain a pipe-dream. I am reminded of the old business adage: ‘a camel is a horse designed by committee’. History is transforming before our eyes into a lumpy, cumbersome creature, but I for one would take a camel over a racist horse any day of the week.

 

* “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”

Status Quota: Civil Rights and the Fallacy of Progress

Alabama’s gotten me so upset,
Tennessee made me lose my rest,
And everybody knows about Mississippi, goddam!

The exasperated cries of Nina Simone carry as much force as they did when she first declaimed them in 1964. This begs the question therefore, why so little progress?

The optimism of the civil rights movement, and its promise of racial equality in America, has all but faded into obscurity. Indeed, it has been replaced by legitimate frustration and anger at the snail’s pace of change and the militant resistance (literally) to social reform in this country. The oft championed legislation that resulted from the movement now seems like a token gesture, with some scholars opining that whatever progress was made in that turbulent decade has actually been rolled back by the powers that be. And who are the powers that be? Rich white people, of course.

In my youth, I had reservations about the lasting impact of civil rights on American society, and I am relieved to find I am not the only person who questions the rose-tinted view we typically ascribe to that period of history. I was led to believe (from my white teachers) that rational debate and peaceful protest had finally won over the old Masters, and had spurred them to enact anti-discrimination policy, out of the goodness of their hearts, now that they had seen the light. I hope you can all see the fallacy here; these people don’t have goodness in their hearts, they don’t even have hearts, they have dollar signs where their hearts should be.

This brings us to one of the founding principles of critical race theory; people in power, typically politicians, will do and say anything to remain in power. Thus, we see progressive equality legislation not as a moral deed, but as a pacifying concession to assuage the bleating of the proletariat when they get too raucous. In hindsight, the idea that politicians are not experts in, or even care about, the plight of African Americans seems rather obvious. The politicians I am familiar with don’t appear to know anything. I’m reminded of the fierce wit of Bertrand Russell in his 1932 essay, in which he explains:

“There are not only those who give orders but those who give advice as to what orders should be given. Usually two opposite kinds of advice are given simultaneously by two different bodies of men; this is called politics. The skill required for this kind of work is not knowledge of the subjects as to which advice is given, but knowledge of the art of persuasive speaking and writing, i.e. of advertising.’

And Bertrand would know; ‘politician’ was one of his myriad hats, and he had white privilege in spades.

Politicians are not guided by a moral compass, but rather by their own self-interests. Such people learn enough (and only enough) to discern which side of the argument suits them, and proceed to voice fervent support for that side. If the side they pick happens to align with public opinion, then politicians get to clamber upon their high horses, and declare themselves champions of the people. Give me a break. This concept is more tactfully described as ‘convergent interests’ in the CRT literature, but I’m not sure it deserves such equanimous language.

The civil rights movement has been touted as a textbook example of convergent interests. Protests in the sixties were fierce enough to topple the status quo, and with their jobs at stake, rich white men rallied, decrying: “Crisis! Something must be done!” That ‘something’ of course being anything that would maintain the status quo, even if it meant letting black people drink from white water fountains. Perish the thought.

This brings us to the crux of the issue; people in charge adore the status quo. This puts them in the minority (for once!). Privilege begets privilege, so long as the status quo is maintained, and thus resistance to change is the default position for anyone in power. Ergo, progress is painfully slow and undertaken begrudgingly. I developed a mantra to this effect when friends and colleagues would declare their unwavering fondness for western democracy and representative government. My glib reply?

Progress does not happen because of politics, but despite politics.

Social upheaval is permitted not to empower the masses, but to placate them. If inaction is more likely to topple the status quo, politicians will spring to work, otherwise they are lethargic as a cat after 5 hours alone in a seafood store.

I’m not sure how we address the debilitating conditions that minorities continue to endure into the 21st century, but much like the treatment of debilitating drug addictions, the first step is admitting we have a problem.

We have a problem.

Serengeti: Endless Pains

Every year, more than a million wildebeest, accompanied by similarly colossal herds of zebra, march across the plains of east Africa. Like swarms of locusts, they devour everything in sight, and adopt a nomadic lifestyle in their continual search for fresh grazing land. This infamous migration represents one of the greatest natural spectacles on the earth, but all is not as it seems in the Garden of Eden. The conception of the Serengeti as a pristine wilderness, untouched by mankind, is a lie. More specifically, it is a carefully calculated piece of British propaganda, a vestige of the most powerful empire in human history, that is in dire need of revision. Just like the Garden of Eden, there were people here once. For over two centuries, Maasai pastoralists used the ‘endless plains’ to graze their livestock, feed their families, and make a living. As an aside, there are so many parallels between this story and events following European arrival in the New World as to be nauseating. See if you can spot them all!

The Germans reached that part of the rift valley in the 19th century, but never took to it. The British arrived on the scene just before the first world war, at a time when the Serengeti looked less like ‘The Lion King’, and more like a scene from the Wild West. Cattle everywhere, and not a fence in sight. Clearly a ‘tragedy of the commons’ situation, that befell most European attempts at shared resources, had been avoided by these savages. But it wasn’t long before things started to take a turn for the worse. In less than a decade, British travelers had nearly extirpated lions from the area, leading to cries* of “well this simply won’t do, whatever will we shoot now?”. Desperate to retain their grizzly pastimes, the British attempted to enact protective legislation to conserve the area’s natural resources… so that they could keep on obliterating them. Unfortunately, for the Brits at least, it is difficult to ring-fence an area and control the activities that can occur if people already live there. The conflict rages to this day, as indigenous Amazonian tribes are displaced in the name of ‘progress’. It doesn’t matter whether you are forcing people off their lands for natural resource protection, or natural resource extraction. It’s not Kosher either way.

Luck came in the form of everybody’s favorite founder of fascism, the crackpot dictator, Benito Mussolini. Mussolini had grand plans for Italy’s imperial gains, particularly Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia), and dispatched over 700,000 troops to the horn of Africa at the height of his power. Salient to our narrative, is what those soldiers brought with them. Rinderpest is a viral disease that causes fever, diarrhea, and eventually death of several ungulate species. The literal translation from German, ‘cattle plague’, tells you all you need to know. Thankfully, following a decades-long global eradication scheme, the disease was declared extinct in the wild in 2011, but in its day, Rinderpest caused unimaginable devastation.

When the bovine plague reached the great plains of East Africa, that was all she wrote. The cows died, the families starved, and the Maasai population plummeted. Just what the British were waiting for! Forcible eviction of a peoples from there land is an easier sell when there aren’t that many of them. Indeed, one can make the argument (and believe me they did), that you are actually doing these famine-stricken, jobless, impoverished people a favor by moving them. Such is the hubris of white privilege. In true ‘Trail of Tears’ fashion, the farmers were marched across the landscape, and told to set up shop 50 miles to the south in the Ngorongoro highlands**. Once the people problem had been dealt with, Serengeti National Park was established in 1951 to commemorate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. How lovely. Today, British tourists can experience an unrivaled level of guilt, as they traipse through Elizabeth’s ‘park’, the highest peaks of which offer stunning views over Victoria’s Lake…

Oh god, I need to stop before I punch somebody.

 

*albeit muted, on account of the plum-filled mouths.

**they were subsequently ousted from their new home in the mid-seventies, for fear that they might scare tourists, and again in the eighties, just for fun at this point, and even in this century (2006), the Tanzanian government are delivering ultimatums to tribal elders to get out the way or be pushed.