The racism in Get Out is not the current threat

**Spoiler Warning**  The below discusses Get Out and has some mild spoilers so bear that in mind and maybe see the film first.

Get Out is often held up as a penetrating analysis of the politics of current racial dynamics. But its targets are not the real drivers of the current state of racial politics.  Firstly, a disclaimer – this is not one of those hot takes where someone just picks something popular and explains why you’re all wrong to like it. I loved Get Out, it was great. Genuinely funny, creepy as hell, and incredibly well-observed. I don’t have a word to say against it.

Except, maybe the way it is being discussed as a film that has so much to say about the post-Obama zeitgeist. The film is openly set the post-Obama world, and a couple of characters discuss the fact. Given the subject matter, some scenes consciously evoke the numerous incidents where white Americans – and particularly the police – have inflicted fatal violence on African Americans with impunity.

But the real target of the film’s biting critique is a form of racism that feels – at the moment – as if it has been superseded: the smug, hypocritical Boston brahmins who profess liberal views but secretly view black people as inferior – to a murderous extent in the film. Bradley Whitford’s role in particular, could be summed up as “What if Josh Lyman ran an underground slave trade?”

I’m not claiming that this is no longer a problem or that we should not object to this type of racism.  But the racial animus that has defined the last year or two is not the genteel hypocrisy so brutally exposed in Get Out.

Instead it is  the more open, and violent xenophobia, that labels all Mexicans rapists, brands MPs traitors and murders them, attempts to ban Muslims  or evokes Nazi propaganda in it’s campaign posters.

Explanations of the various political upsets that took place over the last year have been many and varied. But no one can seriously claim that they were marked by the immense confidence; the presumption of natural superiority that underlies the the hypocrisy of the Armitage family. These people are at pains to express their liberal credentials because they view the resentment and bigotry that fuelled Trump’s election campaign as below them. They are the “elite liberals” that have been the target of so much of the populist billionaire posturing we have seen in recent years. The ones so often railed at by the Daily Mail and Spiked. They don’t view the black characters as truly human, but they don’t hate and fear them for it.  Trump’s election and the referendum campaign weren’t characterised by a smug, superior condescension; one that indulges in a creepy fetishism of black bodies. Instead, they were characterised by  a simmering and often open resentment against people of colour. A  belief that society is a racial zero-sum game that whatever progress was made (or perceived to be made) by ethnic minorities came at a cost of white people.

Get Out is sharply observed, laugh out loud funny and genuinely creepy. But, it has little to say about the resentment that is really driving our current politics.

 

 

Why is the working class always white?

One of the most persistent, and frustrating fallacies that has popped up routinely in the last decade or so, is the idea that that class and race are entirely separate categories and that white and working class are natural corollaries. Yet the working class is multi-ethnic group.

This normally takes the form of a commentator, or politician (normally white, normally male, often middle class) declaring or implying that action to address racial inequality is taking place at the expense of action on class inequality, and in particular at the cost of the white working class. What is particularly galling is this lament is often wailed by voices that demonstrate very little other interest in addressing economic injustice.

The chart below provides the latest ONS figures (based on the 2011 census) for employment broken down by ethnic group in the UK. Clearly employment is not identical to class. Nonetheless, it calls into question any implication that ethnic minorities are benefiting from a economic system rigged in favour of the non-white population.

Employment % by ethnicity, 2014

ethnic employment %

This is a critique that is also voiced on the left, Simon Jenkins recently castigated the identity-politics obsessed left for failing alienating the white working class and clearing the path to Trump and Brexit.  Ironically those who tend to fret about the splintering effects of “Identity politics” seem to advance a politics that explicitly splits off the interests of the BME working class, in order to create an imagined, snowy white working class whose interests must be addressed independently.

Implicit in this claim is the assumption that people experience only one type of discrimination – class or race based. It is not possible, in this schema for people to be both BME and working class.

In this simplistic formulation, concern for racial injustice is the preserve of the effete metropolitan elite. A boondoggle that allows them to avoid thinking about the uncouth poor.

It is for this reason that we should welcome the latest joint publication from Class and the Runnymede Trust. Minority Report  is a series of essays that pick apart the ways that race and class issues operate in the UK. Importantly, it identifies the way that discussions of one are often used to erase or disguise the other.  As the editors point out “the ‘white working class’ analysis tends to sidestep or even erase the existence of the ‘black working class’”.

We see this effect apply not merely in regard to race, feminism and women’s rights and LGBT rights are also often dismissed as being an elite, liberal distraction. As if the history of the elite in the UK is one of warmhearted embrace of women’s liberation and LGBT rights. The fact is that the working class includes women too, some members of the working class are LGBT, and some are black.

A name I call myself?

Over the course of my life i have struggled to come up with a satisfactory term for my ethnicity. I have an Indian parent and a White English parent, and one of my grandparents was Jewish.

When i was in Primary School I was called half-caste. This was a reflection of the different skin tones present in my ancestry. I think the decisive factor at the time was skin colour, and the term half-caste picked up on the fact that mine was clearly darker than the white kids, but obviously not as dark as people whose parents both came from a sunnier place. The fact that there was some Jewish heritage in there, didn’t really feature at the time.

At some point, I think when I started secondary school, I was made aware that half-caste was insulting. I don’t remember it being explained to me why, but i was told the correct term was mixed-race and so that’s the term i used for at least a decade and a half. Mixed race has obvious advantages.  Mixed race is obviously more neutral. It sounds flatly descriptive, broad enough to cover those who’s parentage might be geographically disparate even if you wouldn’t know it from their skin tone.

But this very flexibility opens up a range of tensions that we find under the surface of much of our thinking about race and ethnicity. Race may be a construct, but ethnic categories nonetheless have a solidity to them. inscribed in census forms and population statistics they present themselves as objective descriptors of an unchanging reality. On reflection though, this reality is clearly fluid, subjective and highly contingent on historical accidents.

People who are ethnically Indian, for instance – are people who were born in, or who’s parents were born in India. But does that include people to the North West of the subcontinent? Prior to 1947 people who lived in Lahore or Karachi would have been ethnically Indian, but now they live in Pakistan. So, are they ethnically Pakistani? Probably we would say they are. But if we do are we basically saying that ethnicity is only a descriptor of the current geopolitical arrangement of the territory of your or your parent’s birth? It feels like we ascribe more meaning to ethnicity and race than that.

What about someone who has one parent from Delhi and one from Lahore? Are they mixed race? It would follow that they are now, but they wouldn’t have been in 1946.  That degree of volatility does not fit very well with the kind of definitional permanence we normally give to these categories.

Alright then, you may say; this is actually just a problem with ethnicity. Someone from Lahore is ethnically Pakistani because ethnicity is a fluffy, shifting changing thing. But Race, race is different. Race has some sort of genetic component, someone from Pakistan and someone from india share the genetic characteristics of the sub-continent, regardless of their ethnicity.

Let’s assume for the moment that there is something genetic about race, that isn’t present in ethnicity. Where does that leave mixed race? As a descriptive category it is surely so broad as to be basically useless. I am mixed race because my dad had a sufficiently different genotype from my mum, in this case, Indian and White (English? Caucasian? the terminology is a nightmare) but this mixture earns me the same categorisation as my neighbour who has one Nigerian parent and one Irish. What kind of racial categorisation can possibly encompass such as disparate group? Clearly when we use the term, we are not really referring to a genetic variance – and that’s before we get into the very shonky basis for assuming that racial classifications describe genetic differences anyway.

So what do we mean by Mixed Race then? It seems to me, that a common working definition would be: people who’s parents have sufficiently different phenotype that they are not obviously identifiable with one or the other? That seems to cover the definition at play, when I was identified as a half-caste and then later as mixed race at school. The fact that this definition operates would, for example, explain the hesitation we sometimes feel when someone argues that they are mixed race because one parent is Scottish but the other is English.

But there is clearly another in operation: people who’s parental background is sufficiently different, culturally speaking, that they feel that at least two different cultures shaped their outlook. This would cover people who identify as half-Scottish half English. There is a bit of this, in play if I think about the Jewish element of my background. Which, without getting to know a whole side of my family – and their penchant for a certain type of  Jewish joke – you would probably never detect.

When people discuss their background, it seems to me that there is often a tension between which of these definitions is in operation. So should we decide to call one of these being “mixed-race” and another “mixed-ethnicity”?

Which is in play when I think about myself- or have to tick a box on the census form? The answer is both. Neither really seems adequate. Race is socially constructed, and an overly deterministic view of it soon collapses into contradiction. But similarly, the fact the fact that I am visibly identifiable to myself and others as not White British, has impacted on my life in a range of ways i am loathe to deny.

In practice i still generally use the term mixed-race because its one that everyone recognises and that causes no offence. But I am always aware of its limitations and it still strikes me as deficient.

So if I had the choice, what would I call myself? I had hoped to find any answer to this question by the end of this blog, but the truth is I still haven’t

Race isn’t genetics (Why the Bell Curve is still BS.)

In 1994 Charles Murray and Richard J Hernstein published ‘The Bell Curve – Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life‘. The book claimed that economic and social outcomes of differing ethnic groups in the USA are explicable by genetic variations in intelligence. Most notably, it deployed this reasoning to explain socio-economic outcomes for African American communities.

I want to pick apart this claim, the logic behind it and why i think even if one of the premises may hold some validity the rest still doesn’t stand up.

The response to the book often took two forms. One was (reasonably enough) to accuse the authors of racism, and in particular of a sinister, eugenic racism reminiscent of the 19th and 20th century theories that were so popular in the build up to the second world war. The second was to attack the claim that intelligence could have a genetic component.

However,  I want to pick up a different strand that I feel is attached to this debate. One which I have not often seen cited in relation to debates about genetics, intelligence or the bell curve. I would like to talk about how loosely racial divisions map onto genetics and particularly in the west.

In particular i want to talk about it in the light of the essay “Ideology and Race in American History” by Barbara J Fields. When I read this it really clarified what we mean when we say that race is a social construct. Fields focuses on how blackness was constructed in America, and the way laws derived from the period of the Slave Trade created the idea of black heritage as an irremovable taint. Fields argues that these ideas have continued to shape the way that race is conceived in America to this day.She points to the example of

“a child belonging to a different race from one of his parents, or the well- known anomaly of American racial convention that considers a white woman capable of giving birth to a black child but denies that a black woman can give birth to a white child.”

The characteristics that people in America (and elsewhere) instinctively use to identify white and black people are those which they have been conditioned to select. They do not identify separate genetic groups, but social entities. They mark out people who tend to occupy particular socio-economic positions; and one or more of whose parents also did so. They may share some of a wide-range of physical characteristics (type of hair, shape of eyes and nose, skin colour etc…) but they will share them to wildly divergent degrees, and possessing or not possessing any of those characteristics is not a decisive in either direction.

The idea that Murray and Hernstein’s study demonstrated differences between genetically separate groups seems farcical. The basic categories of their study were not different genotypes and so conclusions on the impact of genetics are not justified. Intelligence may well be passed down from your parents, but race isn’t passed on through your genes.