This Week: Race and the Ideology of Individualism
“Quote” of the Week: Meritocracy Myth Destroyed in 19 Words
Introduction to a Couple of Individualistic Ideas
Race and the Myth of Meritocracy
Belief in a Just World and Race
Race And Individualism
Odds and Ends (aka Cleaning Off My Desk)
This issue finally concludes, for now, my epic series on Individualism and the History of Racism. (I never gave it a title, but that could have been it!) In my recent thinking about racial justice, I’ve come to see that there is a deeper Thought System that supports our highly-racialized culture. And that Thought System is centered on the ideology of Individualism. In this final installment I point out a couple of very common ideas that enable racist thinking and practices to continue to do damage here in the 21st Century.
I’ve spent so much time recuperating, and writing this Epic Series that I haven’t gotten around to mentioning very many of the salient items that have appeared in the news over the past couple of months. I begin to address that this week with “Odds and Ends.”
Speaking of recuperating, it looks like I’ll be doing more recuperating over the next couple of months as I recover from injuries sustained in a bike accident last week. I damaged my hand sufficiently that they tell me I need to undergo another surgery in order to repair things. How this will affect my publication schedule I do not know. I very much appreciate the patience of Nygaard Notes readers during this past many months of health issues and the consequent irregular publication schedule. I’m hopeful that this latest surgery won’t disrupt things too much, but who knows? If anyone is curious, I have a complete rupture of the ulnar collateral ligament in my right hand. So, if you know of any outstanding hand surgeons in the Minneapolis area, please tell me now! Otherwise I go to the Mayo Clinic next week. What a year I’m having!
I do mention Trump in this issue, if you were wondering.
Thanks for sticking with me through thick and thin.
“Quote” of the Week: Meritocracy Myth Destroyed in 19 Words
On November 8 2011 the London Guardian published a piece by the journalist George Monbiot called “The Self-Attribution Fallacy.” According to Monbiot “self-attribution” means “crediting yourself with outcomes for which you weren’t responsible.” Because it so succinctly demolishes the idea of a “meritocracy,” the following sentence—which is the first sentence in Monbiot’s column— is hereby declared this issue’s “Quote” of the Week:
“If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.”
Introduction to a Couple of Individualistic Ideas
One of the best places to look for clues as to which ideas and ways of thinking are dominant (hegemonic) in a culture is to look at the origin stories that are told about the creation of the society. The idea of the Social Contract is the cornerstone of the dominant origin story of the United States. The story of free individuals who freely enter into a contract to govern themselves, creating a government “of, by, and for the people” and deriving its legitimacy from the “consent of the governed” is a part of the education of every public school student.
As I’ve been arguing for several issues now, the historical record does not support this view. Nonetheless, the story is truly hegemonic, and it is kept that way, in part, due to a rigid adherence to the ideology of Individualism. Certainly one of the organizing principles of the United States, Individualism has achieved that status because it is useful to the maintenance of the myth of the United States as based on egalitarian, democratic principles. Equally important, it obscures the reality of the United States as a racially-organized society.
I’ve explained the theories about the human tendency to maintain a favorable image of one’s self and one’s group, known respectively as “Ego Justification Theory” and “Group Justification Theory.” And I’ve pointed out that these two dynamics go a long way in explaining why so much effort goes into perpetuating the mythology of the U.S. as an inclusive, democratic society. For white people to believe otherwise—that the U.S. political and economic system is a system characterized by domination of one (white) group over all other (non-white) groups—is simply too painful for most of us to deal with.
Two highly-individualistic ideas have come to play a central role in shaping the thinking of USAmericans. One is the idea of the United States as a Meritocracy. The other idea is the widely-shared Belief in a Just World. Let’s take a look at each of these ideas in turn, with an eye toward how they shape our thinking about race.
Race and the Myth of Meritocracy
In a 2004 article called “The Meritocracy Myth,” scholars Stephen J. McNamee and Robert K. Miller, Jr. summarize their book of the same name. In their first paragraph the authors explain that the idea of a meritocracy is central to the set of ideas that make up what is called “The American Dream.” They say that, “According to the ideology of the American Dream, America is the land of limitless opportunity in which individuals can go as far as their own merit takes them. According to this ideology, you get out of the system what you put into it. Getting ahead is ostensibly based on individual merit, which is generally viewed as a combination of factors including innate abilities, working hard, having the right attitude, and having high moral character and integrity. Americans not only tend to think that is how the system should work, but most Americans also think that is how the system does work.”
I suspect that people who have been marginalized—that is, people who belong to targeted groups—are less likely to think that is how the system works. Nonetheless, it is likely true that such people are not “most Americans.”
The sociologist H. Roy Kaplan speaks about the idea of the meritocracy and how it leads people to blame the victims of the exclusionary policies created by a white supremacist system. He says that “We are raised believing in the notion of a meritocracy—that one can become successful by embracing the concept. The assumption in this proposition is that of a level playing field where we all have equal opportunities to develop our abilities and potential. Conversely, if someone or group fails in the game of life in America, then that is because of some personal defect of character or even biology. We have seen this theme repeated in attempts of the wealthy and their apologists … to link intelligence to success and superior genetic endowment. It is a recurrent theme used to blame the victims of systemic, institutionalized racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia and all other forms of discrimination used to marginalize people who have been systematically prevented from participating fully in this society.”
In their paper “The Psychology of System Justification and the Palliative Function of Ideology,” the scholars John Jost and Orsolya Hunyady note that “One type of ideology (meritocracy) is particularly effective in placating people in democratic, free market, post-totalitarian systems. Meritocratic ideology refers to the conviction that ability and hard work lead to success and, conversely, that if people are not successful or if they fail in some ways, it is because they have not worked hard enough or they do not have the necessary abilities. Subscribing to a meritocratic ideology serves to increase the confidence and the esteem of those who are privileged and to ease their consciences.”
The continue, “For members of advantaged groups, rationalising the status quo also means rationalising their own position of advantage… . For members of disadvantaged groups, however, one of the (unintended) consequences of rationalising the status quo is the internalisation of inequality. That is, to the extent that one subscribes to the legitimacy of the system and its outcomes, one accepts blame or responsibility for being in a state of disadvantage.”
And to bring home the real-life consequences of such “internalization,” here is anti-racist activist Betita Martinez, from a paper “What is White Supremacy?”:
“Few whites understand what internalized racism does to people of color, who do not discuss those effects easily themselves. The self-hatred, desire to be like whites or even to be white, and assumption of inevitable failure are the dreadful legacy of White Supremacy’s teaching those lies by every means at its disposal. Maintaining control over any community has always required not only physical domination but also the ideological that says: Things are as they should be. As you inferior creatures deserve them to be.”
The progressive Christian blogger Morgan Guyton, in an excellent essay from 2014 called “Color-blinded-ness” IS Racism,” discusses “a critically important lesson [for] white people today who think mistakenly that ‘color-blinded-ness’ is the goal.” He connects Enlightenment thinking with “colorblind” ideology, and points out a philosophical/spiritual problem with the whole idea of “merit.” Here’s how he says it:
“When people today say they’re racially ‘color-blind,’ they’re usually making a very specific ideological statement, that they can rise above their cultural preferences (just like the original Enlightenment thinkers) and judge all people ‘equally’ regardless of skin-color and solely based on their ‘merits.’ Here’s the very large unrecognized assumption that’s being made here: that human worth can be boiled down to a single number so that one person can be said to have ‘more’ merit than the next person. I imagine that most cultures throughout history would scratch their heads at the idea that people’s identity can be reduced to a number that ranks them above or below other people. Some people are simply better at hunting; others are better at blacksmithing; others are better at playing the flute; but the idea that the variety of skills and idiosyncrasies in each human being needs to be boiled down to a single number called ‘merit’ is a thoroughly ‘white’ Enlightenment concept, because it expresses the goal of trying to strip away all specificity and subjectivity from reality to convert it into universal data that can be evaluated objectively and rationally.”
“We don’t notice anything odd about this,” says Guyton, “because the ‘white’ ocean in which we swim is built upon the myth of objective meritocracy, whether we’re talking about test scores, sports statistics, stock prices, or political polls. We measure worth through numbers. And we rarely question whether some kids are a lot wiser than their test scores measure or whether the most valuable player on a sports team is actually not the superstar who posts amazing stats but the quiet team player who does a thousand intangible things that stats can’t measure… .”
Guyton goes on to say, “Objective meritocracy is the foundation of most of the systemic evils that Western European civilization has committed over the past 500 years. How ironic that it came out of a civilization purportedly built on the cross of Jesus Christ, who died to save a world full of sinners from the meritocracy that keeps us from facing the truth about our imperfections and accepting the worth that can only be received as a gift from God. Imagine a world where people stop making each other into artificial numbers of merit and simply delight in all the ways that God’s image has been refracted through the richness of culture and color in all humanity. When meritocracy dies, racism will die too, and we will have a far more beautiful world.”
Meritocracy is a thoroughly individualistic construction. Another individualistic ideology that is related to, and supportive of, the ideology of a meritocracy is the Belief in a Just World.
Belief in a Just World and Race
I discussed The Belief in a Just World, or BJW, back in 2012, in NN #515. BJW is a theory developed by Melvin J. Lerner and described in his book The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion. The theory suggests that most people want to believe that the world is fair. And not only fair, but also orderly and predictable. After all, says Lerner, if it’s true that people really do get what they deserve, and deserve what they get, then one’s success (or failure) can be explained. And, once explained, then presumably one will know what to do in order to preserve one’s successes or reverse one’s failures.
This theory is very reassuring to many people, as it imagines an orderly world. And an orderly world is a world that many people want. But what happens when the world that we want collides with the world that we see, which is often filled with suffering, filled with injustice? As Lerner says, when we become aware of another person’s suffering it “is often a painful experience” and, since “most people are interested in reducing their pain” they employ “mechanisms . . . that are at least temporarily effective in reducing the stress associated with witnessing an injustice.”
Effective they may be, but these mechanisms often seriously distort our thinking about racism. Here are a few of the ways these tricks confuse us.
One of the mechanisms that we use to reduce the pain induced by injustice is to deny the existence of the injustice that most troubles us. As Lerner describes it, “This is a primitive device, but it works. All it requires is an intelligent selection of the information to which one is exposed. And it has the added advantage of requiring no direct distortion of reality.”
When it comes to our racial history—wherein the injustices have been unbearably painful—there has been a concerted effort to protect white people from thinking about them, or even being aware of them. Part of the rage that white people direct at Black Lives Matter activists is due to the activists’ demand that white people take a good hard look at the world as it is. And many white people—as BJW theory predicts—would like to preserve their ignorance and go on believing that the world is just. An awareness of the history, and current reality, of racism makes it very difficult to maintain one’s Belief in a Just World. In order to hang on to their belief, many white people deny the degree, the prevalence, or even the very existence of racism. Post-racial? No.
Another method of lessening the pain of reality, says Lerner, is to “reinterpret” the event (or pattern of events), leaving the facts more or less intact, but placing them in a context that lessens the apparent injustice. Lerner mentions three different techniques used to reinterpret painful events.
The first technique for reinterpreting an event is to reinterpret the outcome. The technique here is to tell oneself that “the victim’s fate is seen as rather desirable, where the suffering and later greater benefit, was good for the soul, made the victim a better person.”
Such reasoning has often been used to justify the bloody practices associated with European colonization of the Western Hemisphere (and elsewhere). Such justification for colonial conquest was perhaps most famously expressed in the poem, “The White Man’s Burden,” by the Englishman Rudyard Kipling. In it Kipling exhorts “the White Man” to “Go send your sons to exile/To serve your captives’ need.” The burden taken on by the white man was “To seek another’s profit/And work another’s gain.” The “gains” (so the conquerors told themselves) took various forms: access to heaven via conversion to Christianity; assimilation into the more-civilized European culture and norms; integration into the capitalist economy of the conquerors.
Put simply, “One of the justifying principles behind colonialism was the need to civilize the purportedly backward peoples of Africa.” And it was not limited to Africa, of course, but extended to anywhere else on the planet that the “white man” found non-white “savages” in desperate need of being rescued from themselves. In this process there evolved the mythology of the benevolent conquest, in which all of imperialism’s crimes were committed for the good of the “captives,” as Kipling called the non-white populations.
The second technique for reinterpreting an event is to reinterpret the “cause” of the event. “If,” Lerner says, “it is possible to attribute the victim’s fate to something he did or failed to do, then the sense of justice is often satisfied.”
One of the things that Europeans told themselves that indigenous people had “failed to do” was to find the True God. In the words of an online study guide for high school social studies, “Americans and Europeans both claimed that it was their responsibility as superior races to uplift, civilize and Christianize native peoples.”
I’ve already pointed out (in Nygaard Notes #600) the justification offered by Enlightenment philosopher John Locke for the seizure of indigenous lands: They weren’t “farming” it in such a way as to accumulate wealth. So the European settlers were, in Locke’s view, practically required to take the land and make it profitable.
The third and final technique for reinterpreting an injustice is to reinterpret the character of the ‘victim.’” To illustrate this point, here is Ian Haney López being interviewed a couple of years ago by Bill Moyers: “We need to understand that race has been one of the ways in which we’ve explained why certain groups get certain privileges and advantages and why other groups don’t get privileges or are exploited or are excluded from the country. This operates not just in terms of class relations and group relations, this operates in terms of a common sense understanding of who’s trustworthy, who is decent, who is law-abiding, and in contrast, who’s loathsome, who’s diseased, who’s dangerous.”
To sum it up, the maintenance of one’s Belief in a Just World virtually requires one to deny the reality of racism. Or any social oppression, in fact, since all forms of domination are based on the inclusion and exclusion of people as members of a group. Since a system based on domination and submission is so patently unjust, all of the techniques listed above are brought into play to deal with the painful realities of our white supremacist culture.
Race And Individualism
In the past three issues of the Notes, I’ve talked about how the great historical developments of the past 500 years have resulted in a world order dominated and defined by white people. I’ve explained how the dominant white population has gone about rationalizing its dominance, and the violence, cruelty, and genocide that has built and maintained a world order that elevates white people by denying the humanity of people who are not defined as “white.”
A state that deprives some people of equal rights and privileges can not call itself an egalitarian, democratic state. Yet we’re taught that a commitment to equal rights and democracy is exactly what makes the United States “exceptional.”
So the dissonance between the practices of exclusion that were defining aspects of the early United States (and the European project of which is was a part), on the one hand, and the soaring rhetoric of democracy in the nations doing the excluding, on the other, had to be addressed. And the way it was addressed was to define some people as “subpersons,” as less than human. Once that is accomplished, then any injustices visited upon these lower creatures would not be moral crimes, but would simply be the necessary actions of superior beings as they imposed order and justice upon the inferior species.
This is not only a historical problem. The idea that some people are not really people is still with us, and it’s still wreaking havoc on people of color throughout the world, and here at home.
Consider the innocent victims of U.S. drone strikes in Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and elsewhere, the scanty coverage of which (if they are covered at all in this country), would be inconceivable were the victims white. And the racial “otherness” of the major targets of U.S. military might—Iraq and Afghanistan—is used to justify U.S. failure to even bother to count the innocent victims. Or the not-so-innocent, for that matter. The European colonial project of “civilizing” the native peoples in order to elevate them from their savage state has strong echoes in the modern era when U.S. military might has been seen as one side in a “battle of civilizations.”
Here at home, examples of the tragic effects of the ongoing dehumanization of people of color are endless. One example: When testifying about his 2014 shooting of black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, officer Darren Wilson said that Brown looked “like a demon” to him. The defense, apparently, is that the shooting of a “demon” is different than the shooting of a human being.
Another example: When Hillary Clinton referenced in 1996 “kids that are called superpredators — no conscience, no empathy,” everyone knew she was talking about black kids. And locking up a superpredator is different than locking up a human being.
The historical European imperialist project required the subjugation, enslavement, and murder of untold numbers of people whose existence as people stood in the way of white European dominance in the emerging global order. The horrors were so great, and caused so much cognitive dissonance, and were so difficult to justify, that the victims had to be reduced to “subpersons,” to something less than human. Eventually an entire thought system evolved with “the ironic outcome that whites will in general be unable to understand that the world that they themselves have made.”
That’s Charles W. Mills again, who adds,
“One could say, then, as a general rule, that white misunderstanding, misrepresentation, evasion, and self-deception on matters related to race are among the most pervasive mental phenomena of the past few hundred years, a cognitive and moral economy psychically required for conquest, colonization, and enslavement. And these phenomena are in no way accidental, but prescribed by the terms of the Racial Contract, which requires a certain schedule of structured blindnesses and opacities in order to establish and maintain the white polity.”
What Mills calls “pervasive mental phenomena” I call a Thought System (See NN #560, “The Creation of a Thought System”). And while Mills speaks of matters “related to race,” the problem with a thought system is that, regardless of the conditions from which it has arisen, it ends up shaping our thinking about everything. At the core of our blindness and confusion is an idea called Individualism.
In the last issue of Nygaard Notes I quoted Mills saying that “The simple central innovation is to posit a group domination contract which is exclusionary rather than genuinely inclusive, and then rethink everything from that perspective.” The key word here is “group.” Mills is saying that, once we move away from an individualistic thought pattern, the world looks different. But does he really mean we have to rethink everything? I think he does. That’s certainly what I mean!
“At the Very Core of American Culture”
In his book The American Ideology, political scientist E. C. Ladd states that “The American Ideology is ‘Liberal Individualism.” That is, it originated in European liberalism, with the latter’s emphasis on property rights and limited government. . . . At the heart of what resulted was an extraordinary and far-reaching individualism, which pervades and shapes all of the other components of the core American values, giving them their distinctive cast.”
And the authors of the book Habits of the Heart, put it more simply, saying that “Individualism lies at the very core of American culture.”
How Individualism serves to obscure the historical, and current, dynamic of group domination is summarized in a 2010 essay entitled “Why Can’t We All Just Be Individuals?: Countering the Discourse of Individualism in Anti-racist Education,” by educator Robin DiAngelo. DiAngelo explains that what she calls the Discourse of Individualism “is a specific set of ideas, words, symbols, and metaphors—a storyline or narrative—that creates, communicates, reproduces, and reinforces the concept that each of us are unique individuals and that our group memberships, such as our race, class, or gender, are not important or relevant to our opportunities.”
Of course, each of us are unique individuals. But we are individuals who exist in society, where power is unequally distributed. And it’s not only our opportunities and security that are affected by our location in the social structure. Many of our thoughts and ideas are also imposed on us, or inherited from those who came before us, or are in other ways socially constructed. As is the case with the idea of Individualism, which ironically denies, or at least minimizes, the social aspects of our personalities and of our mental processes.
Why is Individualism so deeply-rooted in U.S. culture? It certainly has to do with race, but the deeply-embedded ideology of Individualism shapes our thinking about so many things. We can’t, after all, think one way about some issues and another way about others. Journalists functioning in an Individualistic culture, for example, see and report things in certain ways. So what we get are endless debates about who is to blame for something, or which politician or executive can “turn things around,” or who is a “strong leader.” What we almost never get—due in large part to this unconscious bias towards the individual—is a serious discussion of how systems and institutions work, and how they have lives of their own.
(Those last two sentences were written by me back in 2010, in a piece called “A Perfect Storm for Propaganda.” I’m quoting myself! Well… I couldn’t think of a better way to say it.)
And here we come full circle. White people create a thought system meant to obscure the reality of the crimes committed during the Age of Conquest (and continuing). Centuries of struggle by the victims of the conquest meet with some success, but the basic ideology (at the core of which is Individualism) survives, and is wielded as a weapon to deny the reality of those most affected by the truths behind the myth.
More irony: The most ignorant are at the same time the most powerful, since the system was set up to benefit them. And that’s why the Black Lives Matter movement and the indigenous resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline project, centered in North Dakota, are so threatening. By questioning the very basis of the racial and economic ideology of the dominant (white) culture, these movements are demanding that we “rethink everything.”
And all of this is highly relevant to the hateful and xenophobic “movement” ignited by the Donald Trump campaign, and helps to explain why it has so much energy behind it. The call to “Make America Great Again” has less to do with traveling back to the past than it has to do with denying the future. The Census Bureau projects that the white population will make up less than 50 percent of the American population sometime around the year 2045. That can’t be stopped, and white people fear (perhaps rightly) that as the demographics change, the increasingly-visible cracks in the wall of ideology that has so long protected white people may eventually cause the wall to collapse completely, with results that are impossible to predict.
How history will view the current period won’t be known until long after we’re gone. But I believe that, at this historical moment, what we are witnessing may be a fraying of the global system of white supremacy that has been erected over more than five centuries. The transition to what comes next won’t be easy—there’s great conflict already—but in order to even begin to understand what is happening, and what we might do, we need to challenge the prevailing Individualistic Thought System, and learn to think in new ways.
Working to dismantle racism and the Individualistic Thought System that supports it is a good place to start. For, after all, changes in consciousness lead to changes in social structures and policies. And changes in structures and policies change our consciousness. So, let’s work on one or the other or—better yet—both!
Odds and Ends (aka Cleaning Off My Desk)
Writing From the White Racial Frame, Example 1
The New York Times’ conservative columnist, David Brooks, wrote a column before the Democratic National Convention this summer, in which he addressed Hillary Clinton. In the process of telling Hillary that she needs to be less wonky and start addressing the deeper reasons that voters are alienated, Brooks wrote,
“Americans are no longer confident in their national project. They no longer trust their institutions or have faith in their common destiny. This is a crisis of national purpose. It’s about personal identity and the basic health of communal life. Americans’ anger and pessimism are more fundamental than anything that can be explained by G.D.P. statistics.”
Notice that Brooks refers to “Americans” who are “no longer confident in their national project” and who “no longer have faith in their common destiny. Who is he talking about? He’s talking about white Americans, no doubt, as they are the ones—presumably—who had this confidence back in the good ol’ days.
One of the clues that someone is seeing the world through the eyes of a powerful white man (and it isn’t only powerful white men who do this), is that they tend to universalize their own experience, pretending that everyone sees the world as they do. (In the tradition of the Enlightenment philosophers I’ve been talking about.) So, if Brooks, or someone Brooks knows, loses faith or confidence in something, then suddenly “Americans” are losing faith and confidence. By the same token, the “anger and pessimism” of white Americans may well be mirrored by hope and optimism on the part of people of color, since a less-racist “national project” signifies different things to different people.
Brooks writes on the editorial page, but similarly revealing comments are found in the news pages, as well.
Writing From the White Racial Frame, Example 2
Consider a front-page article from the Times of September 23rd. The article appeared three days after the police in Charlotte North Carolina killed a black man named Keith Lamont Scott. Serious protests ensued, and in this context the Times ran a front-page article with the headline, “Shooting Jolts Self-Esteem of Charlotte; Erosion of Reputation for Racial Amity.”
When I saw that headline, I thought, “Now, that’s a very White thing to say!” Indeed, the lead paragraph reinforced my impression, saying that Charlotte “has always been a place that has prided itself on order, consensus and a can-do corporate mentality that turned a locale with no real geographic reason to exist into one of the hemisphere’s financial dynamos.” Charlotte has also, says the Times, “gained a reputation for racial amity.”
So the “place” known as Charlotte had its “self-esteem… jolted” which damaged its “reputation.” I kept reading, and in a few paragraphs I found this:
“LaWana Mayfield, a black woman who is a member of the City Council, said the week had been ‘a wake-up call for some people in Charlotte.’ But she quickly added: ‘For a lot of people in Charlotte, it’s not a wake-up call. It’s a reality that we have already been dealing with.’”
We can guess that, in her example, “some people” are white, and “a lot of people” are black. Black people make up 35 percent of the population of Charlotte.
So, “a lot of people” seemed to be invisible to the headline-writer, and the two men who actually wrote the article chose to emphasize the jolt to the self-esteem of “Charlotte,” by which they mean the white people of Charlotte, as Ms. Mayfield makes clear. How about a headline like this: “Protests Are A Wake-Up Call for White People in Charlotte; Black Voices Become Audible in Wake of Latest Shooting.”