Our African Humanity: Towards an Ecology of Racism

“…the time has passed when the so-called race question can be relegated to secondary or tertiary theoretical significance. In fact, to take seriously the multileveled oppression of peoples of color is to raise fundamental questions regarding the very conditions for the possibility of the modern West, the diverse forms and styles of European rationality and the character of the prevailing modern secular mythologies of nationalism, professionalism, scientism, consumerism and sexual hedonism that guide everyday practices around the world.” Cornel West, Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America. 1994

1) Towards an ecology of racism

Racism is rarely examined as an ecological problem. Analyses of environmental racism focus on toxic waste and other environmental impacts that fall disproportionately on poor people of color. For example, the rapid growth of the Sahara desert in Africa as an effect of massive poverty is another legacy of centuries of Euro-American exploitation of that continent.

In Chicago, where I live, there has been significant concern about “food deserts” in large stretches of poor black or hispanic neighborhoods. Large grocery stores refuse to build in these neighborhoods, so residents are forced to travel significant distances or buy from local convenience stores at inflated prices with limited selections. As always, every ecological problem is simultaneously a problem of economics and politics, but now it seems apparent that they are also about race.

2) Dark skin, dark origins, dark destiny

The primary marker of race is skin color. A child of African descent raised within a Euro-American family, with limited exposure to their racial social group will still become the victim of racism, as white supremacist psychosocial conditioning operates on those white persons the child encounters. Skin color is an ecological phenomena, a fact rarely acknowledged.

Dark skin arises in the sun-soaked climates of Africa, Southern Asia, and South America. In other climates different variations arise, but once established within the genetic code, the trait persists beyond the original ecosystem. In sun-deprived climates, “white skin” becomes predominant. Humanity first evolved in Africa and moved outward across the continents. This suggests that our biological foremother was in fact dark-skinned. Racism is therefore in part a hatred of our original genetic heritage.

Human beings evolved from higher primates in Africa and thus racism is also a close cousin to speciesism, a hatred of animality. Such hatred has connections with the predatory instinct where animals other than one’s own kind are seen as potentially a meal or a competitor for food. White racism is therefore a legacy of predatory instincts.

Dark human skin, in the white racist imagination, is a signifier of animality, of prey, of fearsome threat. In our racist world order, one part of the human race oppresses and exploits another part of itself through ecological warfare. However, evolution also has a mutuality factor that has been shown to advance the health of an entire ecosystem far more than the predatory instinct. Overthrowing racism is therefore a necessary component of ecological progress and planetary wholeness.

3) Psychological genesis of individual racism

Racism is not inevitable, but arises in early childhood. My father told me stories of how he had a black best friend up until just before kindergarten in the 1940s. After schooling began, a rigid segregation was imposed in his West Texas hometown, where I was also born, though I never experienced school segregation in my childhood.

Various psychosocial theorists have focused on early child-rearing as the genesis of individual racism. One Freudian-influenced theory focuses on potty-training or the “anal stage” as the period in which aggression towards a dark subhuman other emerges. A child’s own feces are originally not experienced by an infant as smelly or dirty, and the infant enjoys and expects the several daily cleanings of their diapers, including the pleasurable genital contact.

As the caregiver urges the infant to begin using a toilet, a struggle of wills ensues. The toddler wants to continue the diaper phase with its attendant pleasures. The caregiver wants to put an end to having to clean dirty and smelly messes and to handle the child’s excretory and sexual organs. The toddler has to somehow be induced to accept the caregiver’s valuation of their feces, their genitals, and anus. The toddler takes the first steps towards maturity at the expense of her original sense of self by becoming self-disciplined, yet emotionally ambivalent about this newfound skill.

This self-discipline often takes an aggressive turn, as the toddler grieves the loss of the earlier stage of intimacy and holding. Mastery of the anal products becomes a subconscious attitude towards all disciplinary activities. Work becomes the opposite of play. Dirty smelly things become messes to control.

Joel Kovel summarizes the anal phase’s relationship to white racism thusly, “The anal phase is so important in discussing racism because anality is the form of drive behavior which predominates during that time when a child is painfully detaching himself from his mother and establishing himself as a separate person. In this light, excrement — what is expelled from the body — becomes symbolically associated with the ambivalent feelings a child has about his separation from his mother and the establishment of himself as an autonomous person. Dirt becomes, then, the recipient of his anger at separation; while the love of possessions becomes the substitute for the love of what has been separated from him. Since racism involves the separateness of people, so must it become invested with anal fantasies.” White Racism: A Psychohistory. 1970.

The anal phase’s development of the human hatred of dirt and smell undergoes developmental changes as the child grows. A complex experiential transformation of early aggressive conditioning is necessary for black skin to become the object of racialized fear and hatred. That it nevertheless succeeds in taking root in some form in nearly all Euro-American adults indicates its immense power.

4) Racism, Slavery, and Criminality

The connections between anal self-discipline, work, property, and obedience find social expression in systemic dehumanization and criminalization of dark-skinned persons. Historically, racism has relied on a prejudicial charge that blacks are lazy. The Atlantic slave trade arose out of the need of early modern capitalism for a massive infusion of cheap labor. Racist assumptions about black peoples gave rise to the practice of coercively enslaving them by the millions.

Once U.S. slavery was abolished however, the persisting projections of black laziness gave rise to a criminalization of the entire African-American population. Blacks were disenfranchised politically, subjected to economic barriers, educational disadvantages, and a relentless regime of police repression. Today a massive prison population of 2.2 million has been formed in the U.S. that compares to the heights of slavery and continues to grow. If one includes the number of  released criminals the total number of criminalized people of color dwarfs the total U.S. slave population in any given year of its existence.

70% of all incarcerated persons in the U.S. are non-white. This is entirely out of proportion to the general population. Are white people simple more moral or virtuous? Or, are our laws, police, courts, and jails a massive institutional machinery aimed specifically at criminalizing people of color?

Although important advances have been made in African-American freedom and achievement, such as the election of a black president, there is still an oppressive racist infrastructure at work in our society. It is also important to remember that most non-whites live outside the U.S. and are the recurring targets of American imperialism. Africa continues to struggle with the legacy of centuries of Euro-American colonization and exploitation.

5) The Many-Headed Racist Monster

White Racism infects and pervades our world. It is human self-hatred externalized into systems of destruction and suffering. Religion gives it mythical support, capitalism profits from its exploits, armies mobilize its offensives, governments legislate its priorities, and the earth itself is strangled in its entrails.

There is hope, hope in the sheer numbers of people of color. We should be deeply inspired by the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. While racism wasn’t completely overcome in that era, a lasting shift in the power of racism was achieved. It is our duty in this day and age to press further towards freedom and equality, and one day win a final revolutionary overthrow of all systems of racial oppression. Then, we will truly embrace our natural heritage, our African humanity.

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