Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Corruption of Power

Are Americans obsessed with race? My friend, Bernie, left a comment along these lines, and I have also heard this from others, both American and non-American. And I suppose we are, as a country, pre-occupied with race, either in the machinations we go to avoid thinking about or talking about race (at least in an accurate sense) or those who feel compelled (as I do obviously) to think through the implications of the fact that this country -- its riches, its greatness, its problems -- were founded through the cheap labor of others, most notably those who were deemed darker and inferior than certain European colonizers (most notably British, French, and Spanish). In a nutshell, when labor is either free (slavery) or so cheap it's almost the same as being free (indentured servitude), and when you are able to take land for free (from indigenous people) then you are going to make a profit, which will allow you to buy/take more land and profit off of it with more free or cheap labor, and before you know it, you are a captain of industry.

I remarked yesterday to a friend that it seemed as if almost all indigenous groups around the world are marginalized and figured as "darker" than the colonizers. In Japan, it's the Ainu people. In China, it's the Weigars of the West. In Taiwan, it's the indigneous Taiwanese. In each of these cases, it's not white European colonizers creating this hierarchy but the colonizing tribes or ethnicities who come in, take the land, subjugate the people. And as my friend said, perhaps this is because those who colonize need to marginalize and "other" the people they have just colonized, in order to solidify and consecrate their power.

So it's about power.

I am ,of course, simplifying things. But in a book I'm reading of the history of Chinese in America, there is a small section that discusses community organizers and the ways they get co-opted within the system--that they start out railing against the system and critiquing the government, and then they get sucked into the government--they move from being community activists to being appointed to boards and commissions and then to winning seats on city councils or mayorships, and before you know it, they become part of the system. And the system, being corrupt, often corrupts those it sucks in. The authors list some prominent former black mayors, such as Marion Barry. And I couldn't help but think about Barack Obama--he had left a lucrative job in corporate America to become a community activist in the Southside of Chicago. And he's now running for President--will power corrupt him? Has it already? Or are there politicians and leaders who can compromise, as politics require, yet keep their integrity intact--to remember the legacy of race in this country and realize that they want to stand up and make a difference?

I hope so. We need someone who can make a difference. We all need to believe that WE make a difference--and an example, a model, one who inspires, could make power not a matter of corruption but confidence.


Anonymous said...

Race has definetely been an issue since the very beginning. People tend to group with others who are like them, whether it be same ethnicity, color, etc.

Socioeconomic status, political affiliation, notions of nationality/citizenship all attempt to unite people, but the cohesive properties of these types of agrupations are considerably less weaker than those of race.

Even within race/ethnicity there tend to be schisms. So what is human nature all about? Where does common humanity come in to play?

Yes, there is seemingly a preocupation with race in Amercia, however I believe that while prominent, it tends to draw our attention away from issues of race in other countries. Genocide in Darfur for instance. We occasionally hear about it in the media, but it is by no means a preocupation for most Americans.

For the average American, Healthcare, income, housing, and possibly American Idol are the foremost concerns.

We cannot go back and change history. Analyze it yes.

Globalization is defintetely here to stay. The reality of labor and explotation are, and it pains me to say this, here to stay.

Maybe one day the surplus of cheap labor will be no more. Once this has occured and it costs way to much to produce goods, then a new system of just and fair economic practices will be developed.

Until then, we must continually analyze, criticize, and offer fair and just solutions to the problems at hand.

Jennifer said...

I think there is something enduring about boundary making, divisions, groups. But I guess what I also think is that we have evolved--I mean this really literally--we are supposed to learn from our mistakes, to try to exceed our best selves. The advances in technology that we have made suggest that we can put our minds to good use. So why can't we do this from a socially conscious point-of-view? I don't know. Maybe. I do want to think that we can reach a place where we don't rely on cheap labor and we don't rely on a hierachical system to "other" someone to do it (sigh). I suppose in the absence of sure answers, we can only have faith. Hope may be naiive, but we can't help but have faith (now I'm paraphrasing Cornel West, but hey, he's a smart guy so I don't mind referencing him).