Thriving in the Crosscurrent:

Clarity and Hope in a Time of Cultural Sea Change

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On Race, Racialism, and Racism

“The Matter of Race”: A Sea Change Perspective

• Jim Kenney (Thriving in the Crosscurrent: Clarity and Hope in a Time of Cultural Sea Change)


Actually, racialism is fading fast. Recent developments on the American political scene strongly suggest that our youngest generation is postracial. Racism remains on the scene but is increasingly socially rejected. We can easily imagine a postracial social atmosphere in the twenty-first century. Something is stirring.

• Jim Kenney, Thriving in the Crosscurrent, 49.


Is racism resurgent or in retreat in 21st-century America? A black president occupies the White House, but a measure of racially-tinged anger seems to be surging up against him. Why? How are racial attitudes influencing the current volatile political mix in the United States?


When we’re thinking in “sea change” mode, it’s inevitable that race comes up. After all, if we’re really in a period of accelerated cultural evolution, shouldn’t the last vestiges of racially influenced judgment and social behavior be disappearing from the American scene? Well, even believers in sea change sometimes expect too much from the evolutionary process; but the fact is that racism is almost everywhere in decline. Even in the southern, western, and rural regions of the country where racial prejudice was once at its most intense, the change is evident. But so is the backlash.


Perhaps the most important approach to the racism question in a sea change context revolves around the concept of the “eddy,” the whirlpool of resistance to genuine cultural progress. There is simply no real reason to doubt the extraordinary advance of global activism on behalf of social justice and human rights, and the simultaneous decline of patriarchy, classism, and racism. But it’s far too easy to misunderstand the eddying forces of resistance to change as real indicators of things to come (rather than as laments for things passing).


Especially now, as we approach the political storms of the last quarter of 2010, it’s understandable that ordinary good-willed people see entrenched prejudice wherever they turn. But it’s with those ordinary folks that we need to begin. A generation or two ago, many of the whites among them would likely have espoused a deep antipathy toward people of color. Their vocabulary would have been laced with words like “colored,” “nigra,” “coon,” “nigger,” or simply “them.” Who can deny the evolutionary change that we’ve all witnessed?


·      Slavery, widespread just a few generations ago, has all but vanished as a cultural pattern in most of the world;

·      Racial segregation is legally and culturally discredited in the United States and in most other countries;

·      People of once systematically oppressed ethnicities, while still encountering resistance and serious obstacles to advancement, nevertheless find opportunities unimaginable to their own parents and grandparents;

·      A new generation in America and Europe—and increasingly in the developing world—is coming to regard racialist attitudes as curiously anachronistic and insupportable.

What’s more, social science, not so very long ago, regularly employed the construct of “race” to in attempts to model cultural differences. The fading of that convention is one itself a dramatic sign that things are changing.


Theories about the evolution of cultures, it turns out, need not be racialist at all. Races, in fact, seem to be convenient fictions, based largely on relatively minor physical differences. New theories suggest that, genetically, humans differ only slightly from region to region. Why then do human societies differ so dramatically and how do they change? That’s still the question, but theoretical approaches have changed radically. Cultural evolutionism is back….

            • Jim Kenney, Thriving in the Crosscurrent, 39-40.


It seems that the differences among the Earth’s human communities emerge from the complexities of culture, rather than from inflexible biological laws. And, if that’s the case, there is no group that is exempt from the progressive cultural evolution that’s now underway. 


Sadly, though, the eddying energies of racially-based misunderstanding, mistrust, bias, and hatred have not dissipated. In fact, in politically-charged times like our own, they intensify. The quiet but steady evolution of pluralist openness, however, can never really be slowed by cultural ignorance and political cynicism.


One year ago, in a column on opposition to the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court, journalist Bob Herbert captured the essential destructiveness (and the ultimate futility) of the racialist eddy. He wrote,

It was always silly to pretend that the election of Barack Obama was evidence that the U.S. was moving into some sort of post-racial, post-ethnic, post-gender nirvana. But it did offer a basis for optimism. There is every reason to hope that we’ve improved as a society to the point where the racial and ethnic craziness of the Gingriches and Limbaughs will finally have a tough time finding any sort of foothold.


Those types can still cause a lot of trouble, but the ridiculousness of their posture is pretty widely recognized. Thus the desperate howling.


Posted: 9/16/2010 4:16:05 PM by Sea Changes Administrator | with 0 comments

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