At a conference (Economics, People, and Planet) in Denmark, a tall Nordic-looking man and a mixed-race woman wearing press badges asked me for an interview. They put me on camera and the woman said, “I’ll ask you the same question I’m asking all the keynote speakers. What does the conference topic have to do with the most important issue facing the world today?”
I paused for a moment, wondering what the most important issue facing the world today might be.
Before I could answer, she said with a little exasperation, “Racism!”
I said something like this:
Racism is a key enabling factor in the economic system that is ravaging our planet. You see, inequality is built into the system, and racism is a way to make that inequality palatable. You can say, for instance, that black people deserve to be poor because they are black. Without racism and other forms of chauvinism, you see everyone as brothers and sisters equally deserving of a good life, and economic injustice becomes intolerable. However, racism isn’t the cause of economic injustice; it is one of its justifications or excuses. Inequality, intensifying inequality, is built into the system, and if it didn’t fall along racial lines it would fall along some other lines. If you could magically remove racism, in our present system there would still have to be some on top and others on the bottom. In fact, I have read arguments that racism was basically invented as a justification for slavery – an effect of slavery and not a cause. Because after the fall of the Roman Empire, slavery fell out of favor in Europe. It was considered wrong to own another human being. In order to own one then, a way had to be found to dehumanize people, to make them less than fully human. Racism was how that was accomplished. The same kind of thing goes on today: even if we no longer think it is OK to own someone, more subtle forms of slavery and oppression seem acceptable when we see other races or cultures or any subgroup as inferior. It means that working to end racism, which is important for many other reasons as well, also helps to address economic injustice. And vice versa, it also means that changing the economic system removes a basic motivation for racism.
The woman became angry. She spoke at great length about how racism is the cause and not the result of economic injustice, that we whites had better watch out because people like her are going to rise up and overthrow us, and what I need to do as a white male is stand down, shut up, and give people of color a voice. The scene was beginning to attract attention from one or two of the organizers.
After several minutes of this, I became annoyed and asked her, “If you think I as a white male should shut up, why are you interviewing me?”
At that point she and her assistant were hustled out by the organizers. Apparently they hadn’t been invited, weren’t bona fide press, and had basically crashed the conference.
I wasn’t very happy with this result. The experience the woman walked away with merely reinforced her feeling of being oppressed and silenced. Reflecting on it, I think the problem was that I believed this was actually an interview. It was not – the interview as a cover for another kind of interaction. If I’d realized that earlier, I’d not have attempted to elucidate my views and instead would have just listened to her, asked for her story. There is real pain there, and no intellectual argument about whether racism is the cause of economic injustice will change that.