George Lipsitz, “Introduction: Bill Moore’s Body”
August 31, 2011 § 1 Comment
Lipsitz opens with a brief rundown of what it means to be white in America. Whiteness, he argues, is about options and access. It means being part of a system that works, and is designed to work, for you, or at least is weighted heavily in your favor. It means that the Man –embodied by the legal system, the housing market, accepted employment and educational practices– is, ultimately, on your side. In itself this isn’t a bad thing, it’s just that the more whitey gets the less is available to others; white supremacy is thus defined as the willful allocation of resources, the depletion of which has a direct and directly negative impact on those who weren’t born into the same strata of privilege — a far cry from the hood-wearing racism of yore, which was as conspicuous as it was destructive. Indeed, this so-called possessive investment in whiteness isn’t necessarily a mean-spirited or even a conscious act, making it all the more insidious. Lipsitz goes on to describe the murder of white civil rights advocate Bill Moore. A postman, Moore somewhat cutely decided to “deliver a letter” to Mississippi’s Governor Barnett, who had just refused a court injunction demanding the desegregation of Ole Miss. Moore planned to walk from Chattanooga to Jackson and really give Barnett a strongly-worded piece of his mind, but didn’t make it past Alabama. Because of course he didn’t, jesus. Moore became a martyr for the cause, and had a huge influence on the then 15 year-old Georgie Lipsitz. In fact he describes his own book as an effort to “deliver Moore’s letter” after all these years (annoying). The rest of the chapter chronicles the aftermath of Moore’s death, and argues that more white people need to choose not to be racist — the implication being that it’s as simple as flipping off a light switch.
There’s something kind of odd to me about this selection. For one thing I’m writing this at 4:30 in the morning, but it’s more than just that. I suppose if I had to pin it down, really barf up a nutshell version, I’d say that this introduction emits the slightest whiff of liberal white knight bullshit. It’s pretty clearly addressed to a white audience, and feels more than just a little self-congratulatory — it’s as if the reader (not to mention the author) is prefigured as some kind of culture hero just for thinking that racism is bad. I’m reminded here of Walter Benn Michaels, who argues in The Trouble with Diversity that the neoliberal and entirely well-intentioned equality fallacy –which posits that race is only skin deep and that ultimately all people are created equal – sure sounds great (I mean what self-respecting liberal would be caught dead claiming the contrary) but has the unfortunate side-effect of equating perceived inequalities with a failure of imagination. Unlearning prejudice thus becomes synonymous with eliminating prejudice, making the solution to inequality thought, not action — an outlook that tends to distract people from actual, material inequality (not a criticism I’d necessarily apply to Lipsitz, since he does address a number of structural issues).
More significantly in the context of this work, especially given Lipsitz’ weird assertion that racism and/or white supremacy-slash-privilege is something one can choose to cast off, just like that, the equality fallacy results in the –again, well-intentioned– belief that thinking nice things about them, whatever form this “them” might take, is a political action in itself. It’s not not a political action, but as Benn Michaels argues, thinking nice things about minorities is as far as most white liberals take their liberalism. This is the danger of the equality fallacy — not due to the sentiment it expresses, but because the sentiment it expresses is, more often than not, all it ever manages to accomplish. Status quo thus maintained, white people can go about their business convinced they’ve done their racially-sensitive deed for the week. Which isn’t to condemn Lipsitz, not exactly. More a recognition of the slight wariness I feel whenever I encounter white people giving themselves a big thumbs up for having the courage to read books.