Racism as Epistemological Problem
Updated: Jun 10
The most important philosophical treatise of the 20th century is not a dense work of abstract German musing. It did not emerge from the smokey halls of Oxbridge.
It‘s a Bob Dylan song.
That said, although Dylan is the genius responsible for the litany of cutting questions that form the backbone to the tune, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ I find it somewhat more profound when Sam Cooke poses the inquiry.
The song presents a set of damning interrogatives: Some serious, some tongue-in-cheek. They all serve to illustrate the parallel absurdity and intractability of a set of significant social problems, most particularly the problem of racism and segregation.
The jugular is the final question. When floating from Cooke’s voice, it becomes painfully obvious that this is the most important. In fact, Cooke has re-arranged the verses from Dylan’s original, so that this particular question serves as the climax of the piece. It is a question that defines his existence, as a black man, in a way that Bob Dylan cannot fathom. It is the one to which he most emphatically demands an answer:
How many times can a man turn his head Pretending that he just doesn’t see?
In context it is very clear what Cooke is talking about. It comes on the heels of this previous line:
Tell me, how many years can [a] people exist Before they are allowed to be free?
Like all the questions that come before in the song, many of them significantly less profound (Tell me, how many seas must a white dove sail / Before she sleeps in the sand?), the response is the same:
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind The answer is blowin’ in the wind.
To risk didactic over-explanation, Cooke’s question about the averted gaze (pretending that he just doesn’t see) is an epistemological question as much as it is a moral one. It is a question about the conditions of belief. Why is certain knowledge seemingly unattainable for some person or persons?
How many times can the white man turn his head, pretending that he just doesn’t see? On what faulty foundation is he able to maintain that he has no idea what is going on?
This is, I submit, is not only Sam Cooke or Bob Dylan’s question. It is the question of race in America. It is perpetual. It has been a damning question at virtually every stage of American history. This is the question that one population (black) in this country consistently puts to the other (white): How can you keep saying that you are unable to see that which I see so clearly? Why do we know so differently?
I once thought that racism in America was predominately a history of white people justifying evil actions. My ancestors hated black people and used specious arguments to justify it. This is only partly true; and just wrong enough to be grossly misleading. The real history of racism is better understood as a history of denial. It is a history of epistemological blockage. It is the history of one people perpetually convinced that they know, for sure, that this particular evil (racism) does not really exist, or is misconstrued, or not as serious as the other claims it is. It is the history of a people living in a bubble (quite literally) and convinced that the people outside their bubble are lying about what the outside world is like. A world which we white, within-the-bubble, people see through a shimmering, translucent, wall.
Here are a few vignettes, cultural and contemporary, that get at this epistemological conundrum.
The question is perhaps most famously and explicitly put by W.E.B. DuBois (1868–1963), in his development of what he calls “the veil.”
DuBois means several things when he talks about “the veil.” But for our purposes, it is the use of the metaphor of covering, and obscuring, to explain how it is that white Americans do not see black people. He means, in the first instance, the fact that they do not see black persons as fellow Americans and fellow human beings. But it is also, in another instance, in reference to the fact that Americans do not seem to see black Americans at all. They look at, with their ocular faculties, black persons and black bodies. But they do not see themexcept as a projection of their own fears, interests, psychological needs, and filters. What this amounts to, among other things, is an inability to see the realities of and suffering of black persons.
Hence begins what will remain a significant trope among black intellectuals and artists. Why don’t they see? Why do they pretend that the realities which we announce and name, aren’t real?
Let me step out of chronological order for a moment to situate this broader history within my own biography.
I grew up with a certain set of beliefs about race. Everyone I knew (notably, all white people, like myself) held the exact same beliefs. These were beliefs in which I had almost complete confidence:
1. The prevalence of racism is, for the most part, exaggerated.
2. I am not, for the most part, racist.
3. Black people complain about largely made-up or over-blown concerns to excuse their own failures.
4. The generation of white people before me was wrong on each of these fronts, but we have now corrected their failure.
I don’t know when it happened, but there came a time in my life somewhere between the middle of college (at a conservative, very white, Evangelical school) and the end of seminary (at another conservative, very white, Evangelical school) when I confronted the epistemological question that underlaid these three assumptions.
How did I know that each of these beliefs was true? What was the foundation for these claims? Was it based on evidence or experience? And why did these beliefs differ so much from those whose pigment is different than mine?
White denial is not a recent, or even a mid-century development. It goes pretty far back.
Consider this statement from President Andrew Johnson, Abraham Lincoln’s successor:
“His [the black person’s] condition is not so exposed as may first be imagined. He is in a portion of the country where his labor cannot well be spared. Competition for his services from planters, from those who are constructing or repairing railroads, or from capitalists in his vicinage, or from the States, will enable him to command almost his own terms. He also possesses a perfect right to change his place of abode, and if, therefore, he does not find in one community or State a mode of life suited his desires, or proper remuneration for his labor, he can move to another where labor is more esteemed and better rewarded.”
-President Andrew Johnson.
Andrew Johnson, responding to concerns among black persons about the terrifying conditions of post-emancipation America, simply maintained that these conditions did not exist. The black people were exaggerating or making them up. Remember, Johnson spoke these words at the same time that Jim Crow laws were first being enacted, ‘acre and a mule’ reparations (government handouts) intended for slaves were being funneled exclusively to whites, blacks were being lynched, and various localities were finding loopholes to re-enslave black men through vagrancy laws that made it impossible to leave your current job without being thrown in prison or a work camp. Johnson could not have been more delusional. And it is telling to recognize how much power one group of people has had in casting a vision of what is true. The one with the loudest voice has the power to define the conditions of plausibility.
Yes, how many times can a man turn his head And pretend that he just doesn’t see?
Almost everyone (white) agrees that racism was much more prevalent in 1965 than in 2015. Yet when you look at polling, rhetorical, and demographic data from that period, one wonders how this could be the case? The majority of white Americans in 1965 believed the exact same things as I did growing up: Racism wasn’t a huge issue. It barely existed, certainly not on a social-wide level.
Consider the infamous Evangelical, Bob Jones, Sr.
On the one hand he maintained “No race is inferior in the will of God. Get that clear.” [See belief #2, above: “I’m not a racist.”]. But he continued:
“God Almight allowed these colored people to be turned here into the South and overruled what happened [that is, slavery ended. The previous generation fixed ‘the problem:’ belief #4]. . . . For many years we have lived together. Occasionally there will be a flare-up. But the white people have helped the coloreod people build their churches, and we have gotten along together harmoniously and peacefully; and everything has come along fine [accusations of racism are over-blown and exaggerated, belief #3]. . . . The good white folks have always stood by their good colored friends. . . . I have the sweetest friendship with colored Christians [I am not a racist.]. . . There has never been a time, especially in the last ten years, when the white people in the South were so eager to help the colored people build their schools and see that they get what they ought to have.”
Perhaps Bob Jones, Sr., the controversial fundamentalist, is a bad example. But there’s plenty of evidence that on these points at least, he was right in touch with the zeitgeist: In 1968, a study “asked whether ‘Negroes are being treated in this community the same as whites are, not very well or badly?,’ 73% of whites insisted they were being treated the same and only 3% felt they were treated badly. And 58% of whites believed ‘Negroes themselves’ were more to blame than white people ‘for the present conditions in which Negroes were treated badly.’”
There has always been a divide between black and white opinions on the state of racism in America. As long as Gallup has tracked (1978–2011) the question“Black Do Not Have the Same Job Opportunities as Whites,” a sharp division between black and white perceptions is clear. While the (mostly white) general population does not typically believe there is a difference in access and opportunity, blacks overwhelmingly do believe there is a big difference in access and opportunity. This has been consistent divide for decades.
It is a consistent aspect of American public opinion: Regardless what they think of the prevalence racism in the past, white Americans have basically never consistently believed in the prevalence of racism or systemic inequality in the present.
Again, this was the realization that caused an epistemological crisis for me. If this set of beliefs belief was consistently shown to be naive and uninformed in the past, how did I know I wasn't just another cog in the same trend? How did I know, when my ancestors had been equally assured in the exact same belief, but were clearly so wrong? What gave me the right to be assured that I was so much more reasonable and informed than my ancestors, who also believed themselves to be reasonable and informed?
“I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.” -James Baldwin
In 1891 the Alabama Baptist reported “The Southern whites and Southern blacks are getting along admirably, and always will, if blatant politicians keep hands off” (as quoted by Emerson & Smith in the groundbreaking book, Divided by Faith, 41). Emerson and Smith similarly explain that while lynching was often condemned by the white populace, the general white Evangelical attitude in the late 19th century (which would persist), was that “what problems there were. . . rested largely with African Americans themselves. . . . They were largely poor and lacking education. Of special concern was their perceived lack of positive work habits [sound familiar?] and cleanliness, and their proclivity for crime [also familiar?] and desire for interracial sexual relations” (Ibid., 40).
Many Jim Crow policies were not defended on the basis of the idea of the inherent inferiority of one race, but derived from a myriad of other justifications (black crime, black laziness, states’ rights, etc), undergirded by a tremendous apathetic ignorance. Racism, understood as explicitly stated racial prejudice, was more or less taboo by the period of segregation. White Evangelicals who defended segregation did not believe that they were racist, because they did not have those conscious beliefs (most would have checked the box ‘all people are equal’) and were not engaging in extremist violent KKK-like actions. Historian William Martin says “Most evangelicals, even in the North, did not think it their duty to oppose segregation; it was enough to treat the blacks they knew personally with courtesy and fairness” (as quoted by Emerson and Smith, 46).
To sum up: Racial inequality thrives upon a foundation of epistemological blindness. It rests upon an inability (truly, an unwillingness) to look and see. As long as we keep telling ourselves straw-man stories about what our ancestors did and believed about race, we will continue to perpetuate their exact same form of self-assured ignorance.
James Baldwin, in the ’60s, said it best:
“Most white people I’ve met have never had anything at all against Negroes. That’s not really the question. No, it’s more a question of apahy and ignorance. You don’t know what happens on the other side of the wall because you don’t want to know.”
“You cannot lynch me and keep me in ghettos without becoming something monstrous yourselves. And, furthermore, you give me a terrifying advantage. You never had to look at me. I had to look at you. I know more about you than you know about me. . . . Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” -James Baldwin