I have yet to see the movie 12 Years a Slave, mostly because after nearly twenty years in a committed relationship with a “woman of color” I am not sure what feelings the movie will instill in me that I have not already explored during the course of my own experience and studies. An intense sense of outrage, certainly. The shock that comes with witnessing, albeit through the magnifying lens of the camera, the terrible and dehumanizing cruelty that one man can inflict on another. The shame of being associated, if only through the accident of hereditary skin color, with those who perpetuated such acts. But I do not need the spectacle of a movie event to awaken those emotions; I can run the full gamut on any given day by merely opening the newspaper, or reading through the online comments section of any story that has the temerity to discuss the concept of slavery in this so-called post-racial America.
How is it that, nearly a century and a half after a bloody civil war and reconstruction, a hundred years after the fight against lynching in the south, fifty years after the end of the “Jim Crow” laws, the race riots of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and, finally, the election of a black president that this deep undercurrent of emotion can still exist in America? Is it because, after all of that, we have still to address the root cause of the problem?
When trying to understand complex issues, it is often beneficial to examine other situations with similar characteristics. One thing that was learned during the Holocaust of the Jews, for example, was the importance of the bureaucracy as a means for setting the stage, and perpetuating, great crimes against humanity. Hitler, for all of his vaunted inspiration as an orator and leader, could not have enacted the “final solution to the Jewish question” without the help of a societal and governmental structure that magnified hundreds of years of latent anti-Semitism into those truly horrific events. Indeed, it was the troubling complicity of the common, moral people of Germany in the efficiently executed round-up and genocide of nearly 6 million Jews that caused Hannah Arendt to create the phrase “banality of evil” to describe the immense power of bureaucratic structures to enable the members of otherwise civil societies to collectively sanction large-scale horror. Yet, even the Holocaust required active management by Hitler and his crew to perpetuate it; when he and his cabal were removed from power, so was the impetus for continuing the atrocity. Thus, in this case, we see that the bureaucracy was merely a massive echo chamber for the original sin of Hitler’s anti-Semitism.
How, then, to explain the undying thread of racism spawned by America’s unique flavor of slavery? There is certainly no dedicated group of individuals with the longevity or power to perpetuate such a thing for the hundreds of years that it has existed. Thus, something much deeper and more elemental must be at work.
It is no surprise to anyone of color that American society, for all its words to the contrary, is still profoundly predicated on the entrenched rights of one race above all others. This is a country, after all, that was built on hundreds of years of slave labor, reinforcing and deeply engraining the trope of European superiority under the guise of economic necessity. And while the economics of slavery were ended by the Civil War, the bureaucracy of racial superiority was not; in the South it continued on overt display for the world to see in the horrific “strange fruit” that existed for nearly another century after the emancipation of the slaves, while the North at least made the appearance of subduing it to the ghettos. Yet, the continued pervasiveness of the racism that lies beneath the surface of our society, despite all of the energy devoted to eradicating it, implies something deeply insidious still at work; not the focused evil of a lunatic leader, nor the generalized evil of the bureaucracy, but the subconscious battle between reality and the delusion, masquerading as a self-fulfilling prophecy, of a group of people that have been told for centuries that they are superior to all others.
To be white in American society is to be brainwashed from birth, reinforced both overtly and covertly through innumerable cues, that you are a member of a superior race. To be non-white in American society is to be brainwashed from birth, reinforced both overtly and covertly through innumerable cues, that you are not a member of a superior race. And this pervades all levels and structures of our society, from the social discourse about race that we pretend to have, to the mores that comprise the most basic building blocks of the American psyche. Nearly a decade and a half into the 21st century, America is still fundamentally a nation that considers itself to be primarily populated by white people and devoted to their concerns, with everyone else relegated to the role of supporting cast; an enduring fantasy that is displayed and reinforced continuously nearly every hour of every day, on nearly every television channel, news media outlet, advertising venue, cinema event, and all the other communication channels by which a modern society defines itself.
For this is the quintessential truth beneath the unending racial divide in this country: the pervasive, cultural enshrining of one race born to service the societal expectation of all their lives a master; all others born to service the societal expectation of all their lives a slave; and a media environment that plays lip service to the contrary while insidiously reinforcing these expectations. Nothing will change as long as we remain shackled to these roles, whether we chose to admit it or not.
Somewhere between the dramatization of a black “free man” forced into slavery over one hundred and fifty years ago, and the reality of a black teen recently gunned down while walking through a modern gated community lies the soul of this country. The outrage that many of us feel when exposed to these events is not so much a response to the atrocity of their occurrence, but a subconscious reaction to our complicity. Most of us consider ourselves to be good, moral people, trapped in a self-perpetuating social structure of racial division that is too big for any one person to change. But Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil exists not because of the dehumanizing extreme of the all-powerful bureaucracy, but because of the simple refusal of those who exist within it to think and act.
Therefore, if you must go see 12 Years a Slave, then do not do so to simply tut-tut the experiences of America as it existed in the mid eighteen-hundreds, or to delve into some sense of moral outrage that will merely dissipate as you return to the bureaucracy of life. Use it as the impetuous for an honest self-examination of your own complicity in perpetuating the divide that exists between us, and to fuel a new complicity in destroying that divide. The great echo chamber of society works for good, as well as evil, and sometimes all it takes is the simple, courageous refusal of a little black woman to sit in the back of a bus to spark the forces of change that can suddenly sweep a nation, propelled by the helping hand of a white person with the courage to simply say “here, take my seat.”