See our Photo of the Week (and archive of more)

Opinion Advertize Permissions
To be notified of new articles Survey Store About Us

Why the phrase "Racial Tension" is Misleading

by Omar Swartz
Denver, Colorado

This essay engages with a lingering trait in U.S. society, often mistakenly referred to as “racial tension.” It argues that the phrase “racial tension” conceals a racist ideology, downplaying the history of White racism (and classism), as well as the responsibility for that racism in constructing and reinforcing contemporary social inequality in the United States. U.S. society is less committed to social justice and equality than what its official myths suggest.

What people frequently refer to as racial tension has always existed in the United States. With European colonization, there arrived individuals from a variety of nations who confronted a heterogeneous indigenous population. These Europeans -- themselves bitterly divided along racial, class, and religious lines -- fought each other as they fought and exterminated the Native population of North America. In addition, the Europeans soon imported slaves from Africa. The first Africans appeared in Virginia in 1619, and slavery attained a formal legal status after 1660. In short, from the 16th century forward, what we now call the United States has seldom experienced racial peace or social justice. Rather, a more accurate characterization, historically, is that the United States was a society founded on the principle of social intolerance. This intolerance was not an accident but was the result of planned conquest and genocide. U.S. Americans today are the heirs of perhaps the most egregious form of terrorism and brutality known to the modern world (i.e., variants of Manifest Destiny). Fundamental to the United States’ moral progress, and to the much-needed humbling of the U.S. character, is an acknowledgement and repudiation of this past. Even more important, however, is that in our repudiation of the past we repudiate that part of our culture that causes us to be an intolerant people today. During the Vietnam War, Philip Slater remarked:

Americans have always been a people with marked genocidal proclivities: our systematic extermination of the Indian, the casual killing of American blacks during and after slavery, and our indifference to dropping an atomic bomb on a large civilian populace -- we are, after all, the only people ever to have used such a weapon -- reflect this attitude. We have long had a disturbing tendency to see nonwhites . . . as nonhuman, and to act accordingly.

Since most U.S. Americans refuse to acknowledge this “proclivity,” we have not changed much since the 1960s and early 1970s. Moreover, since the end of the Cold War, the United States has grown increasingly bold in making life difficult for non-White people around the globe (as currently the case in Iraq). In light of the above, the term racial tension is misleading, suggesting a mutuality of wrongdoing. A rope has tension when parties of near equal force pull on either end. Racial tension, therefore, implies that African Americans, as well as Anglo Americans, were equally responsible for the travesties committed against the African American. Similarly, the term racial tension implies that the Native Americans and other ethnic groups bear responsibly for the sufferings that White people have inflicted on them. Such sentiment is insulting. African Americans, Native Americans, and others (such as the Vietnamese) were, first and foremost, victims. Few people, for example, would use the term racial tension to describe the climate of Europe in the early 20th century, in which Jews were subjected to genocidal anti-Semitism. European Jews made an extended effort to assimilate into the larger European society and were surprised by the hatred that was directed against them prior to and during the Second World War. The Jews were not “pulling on the end of a rope,” contributing to a tension in European society.

What U.S. Americans label as racial tension and use to describe U.S. history is nothing more than ethnic privilege and exploitation, as well as the lingering effects of genocide (the claim that the Europeans came to the New World with the intent of slaughtering, enslaving, and plundering is undisputed). These settlers were little more than glorified (and successful) oppressors who have never been held accountable for the unfathomable suffering they created. Such accounting is in order. As the privileged today are the heirs of such brutality, they will remain morally tainted by the actions of their ancestors until they (meaning all U.S. Americans) learn to renounce their privileges, as well as the deleterious policies that uphold them. Pursuing this goal encourages all of us to examine our responsibility for the continuation of the current order, reminding us that, as U.S. Americans, we are all responsible for the actions of our government and its policies, and it is up to us to accept agency in initiating change. If do not work to create a more just world and simply consume without care for the cost of our consumption, we are no different than Christopher Columbus. Like him, we plunder the world and condemn our fellow humans to a life of suffering and deprivation, and like Columbus, our legacy of oppression will deprive us of the fair and ethical communities toward which our imaginations drive us.

The world is profoundly diseased in a variety of ways: economically, ecologically, morally, and politically. Although barbarity and suffering existed prior to Western conquest of the New World, the Europeans (and later the U.S. Americans) made barbarity and suffering a permanent condition in what we now call the developing world. Thus, the Western world, in particular the United States, is to blame for many current world conditions of poverty and injustice. Moreover, the same Western forces that created our diseased world remain and prevent the world’s healing process (i.e., the doctor is systematically poisoning the patient). For health and balance to return to the planet, the Western nations must atone (through action) for more than 500 years of colonialism, slavery, and genocide. As a result of Western conquest, the non-Western world has internalized what we may identify as the “White man’s disease.”

In the second half of the 20th century, many non-Western people in the developing world have embraced some of the worst aspects of the Western colonial and racist past. Much of this is the result of inheriting the deleterious psychological and cognitive structures of Western militarism and environmental degradation. Specifically, what we now call the “developing world” was constructed by (or in the image of) its colonizers. Because of colonial and neo-colonial influence, the developing world is fundamentally different than that which existed prior to colonization, in which poverty, disease, malnutrition, starvation, and mass murder were largely unknown. Although the colonial powers have withdrawn from their former colonies, the deleterious cultural epistemes of the colonizing nations remain, embodied in neo-colonial relationships that must end so that the developing world can heal. The bloodshed that followed nearly every effort of decolonization in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East was the result of epistemic residues of colonization, as well as outright manipulation by the former colonial powers. Given the success of the colonizing nations in demonstrating the effectiveness of being brutal, selfish, exploitative, and manipulative of local ethnic differences to gain economic advantage, most post-colonial governments adopted these tactics; many are scarcely more just than they were under colonial rule. Western society is wrong for blaming these societies for creating their own conditions, and an important goal of the Left is to make this point clear. Poverty and social injustice in places such as Africa and Asia are almost exclusively the result of Western influences.

The Western nations (in particular, the United States) have largely refused to acknowledge that its wealth and privileges are the result of historical and contemporary theft, mass murder, and slavery. For hundreds of years, wealth in the world has flowed from the southern regions of the globe to the northern, and continues to do so. In the name of a greater vision of humanity, passionate critics work toward stopping this injustice by writing and teaching on these issues. To assert the claim that the West is responsible for the condition of the developing world is not to engage unbalanced representation; rather, it is restating an accepted historical fact. To deny this history is to curtail the possibilities of our achieving a just future. The horror of the past speaks out to us as clearly as the horror of the present (to experience the suffering of one is to experience the suffering of all). Furthermore, to deny our past as a community embodying a Western perspective (which may include many non-White people) is demeaning to ourselves as members of a self-professed moral community. In short, the denial of our past causes Western culture to be grounded in a lie that hinders our future moral growth. Many U.S. Americans (as well as many Europeans) believe that Western civilization is a “higher” civilization than all others. Evidence for this misconception is grounded in Western affluence and global dominance. This dominance fuels the Western ego, mystifies the past, subverts the notion of social justice, and impedes the developing world’s effort to overcome its perceived sense of inferiority.

About the author: Omar Swartz, J.D., Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Communication, University of Colorado at Denver

Published in In Motion Magazine - October 18, 2004