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Race, Culture, and Ferguson

PBS recently aired a town hall meeting on race.  This is in the wake of the riots in Ferguson Missouri.  The show was really, really depressing.  There was a lot of talk along the lines of “we have to better understand each other.”  Whenever anybody in a public forum says anything along the lines of “We have to do this” you know nothing is really happening.  Nobody “has” to do anything.  Nobody is going to suddenly act differently after being told to do so by a stranger on a PBS show.  People are too busy just getting through their day to care about “reaching out across the racial divide” and doing some sort of “bridge-building.”

Racial issues are intractable because they deal with culture.  This is “deep culture”– how we think and perceive the world. I am not talking about food and music and folklore.  I’m talking about how you move, perceive, act.   If someone asks why African Americans don’t do better in our culture, it’s because they come from a different one.  And there is no particular reason why they should do well: I don’t blame them at all.  African culture evolved in Africa where the environment (natural and social) is totally different.  The more similar a culture is to our own (e.g. European, Asian) the more functional someone can be in ours.

You might say “but they’ve been here for like, 150 years.”  So have many other groups, and they still have their culture.  Irish Catholics act Irish, English Protestants act their way, Asian immigrants act their way, etc.  Everybody is immersed in their own culture.  This culture is not something you can objectify and change easily.

There isn’t some “basic culture” that we all share.  And assimilating to a new culture happens really, really slowly.  It is not something you can just will to do and do.  This is because your perceptions of the world are part of your culture.  There is no “outside.”  So you can’t even see what someone else sees.  You can try to empathize, but when you do, it is forced and shallow.  This is not a character flaw.  You can’t just “stand in someone else’s shoes” because their shoes are part of their centuries old culture which you do not, and can not, “get.”  It’s not an object and you can’t grasp it the way you grasp an object.