Racism and the conundrum of American individualism

Saturday، 27 June 2020 11:15 PM

By Darim al-Bassam

I was reading last week an article published by the conservative American Institute for Economic Research.
The article entitled: Individualism is the Answer.
The author Raymond Niles stated that there is only one way out of the current racial crisis in the United States, but, for him, it is not a message that the people are in the mood to hear right now.
With images of police killings, calls to defund the police, mass protests, rioting, looting, and generalised mayhem on our minds, most Americans are not in the mood to hear that the answer lies in us.
It lies in each of us.
It lies, according to Raymond Niles, in the fundamental American principle of individualism.
On all sides, he said, Americans are hearing the opposite message right now.
They are hearing that what matters most is their group identity: their racial identity, their socio-economic identity, their gender, their age.
Americans have additionally been lumped into groups in the response to the coronavirus pandemic.
They are told, in the most intimate ways, whether they can work, where they can eat, whether they can socialise or come together to see sporting events or plays or engage in religious observances (but protests are okay). The answer to all these problems, they are told, lies in collectively restricting their liberty.
It is in this dry-tinder atmosphere that the police killing of George Floyd is the spark that has set our society aflame.
Nile emphasised that the answer, although Americans don’t want to hear it right now, is individualism.
Still, it merits saying now so that when passions are cooler, they can consider it and begin to use this principle to restore their society.
The principle is individualism, as in “the individual versus the collective.” America, according to Nile, was founded on the principle that the government has only one purpose: to protect the rights of individual Americans.
It was not to protect groups of Americans as such, whether identified by race, gender, socio-economic status, age, or any other designation.
The relevant unit is the individual, not the collective.
For him, in the response to the coronavirus pandemic and the George Floyd killing, but even earlier, Americans are being pressured on all sides to identify themselves fundamentally, not as individuals, but by their group identity.
They are asked to identify themselves primarily by their skin colour, their socio-economic “class,” their gender, whether they are a foreigner or native-born, whether they are Red-state, or Blue-state, and whether they deserve such collective guilt-inducing labels as “privilege” or “oppressor” or its opposite, “victim.”
Mass protests and mob violence further pressure Americans, almost as a self-defence mechanism, to identify themselves by group affiliation.
There is psychological safety in numbers.
This is a profoundly unAmerican way in which to view ourselves, says Raymond Niles.
For him it has and will lead to disaffection, violence, and maybe even a new civil war.
It certainly is playing itself out in an intensely polarised group-versus-group politics.
In the midst of all this, the rights of the individual are lost.
The slogans and protests and violence all have the effect of pulling us to identify ourselves primarily by our membership in a particular group, not to identify each of us by our own unique, individual identity.
George Floyd had his individual rights violated.
Yet, the collective memes and protests are trying to make us forget our individual identities and accept blame or to seek comfort and protection solely on the basis of group identity.
He ended by saying that this can only lead to a war of all against all.
Raymond Niles ideas represent the dominant white cultural discourse.
Individualism is the core of American culture and the most representative integral part of American values.
It is a moral, political and social philosophy, emphasising the importance of personal, self-contained virtue as well as personal independence.
Research spanning sociology, social psychology, and political science emphasises that the American public is decidedly “individualistic.” 
Friedrich A Hayek, the 20th century Nobel Laureate in Economics and a noted social philosopher was the one who helped developing the concept of individualism as an American prelude.
In 1946, he made a speech at Trinity College, Dublin to which he gave the title Individualism True and False.
He was speaking at a time when Europe and much of the world had committed self-destruction through warring governments.
He wanted to point out how this could be avoided by future generations.
His prescription was the system of Individualism.
Individualism is rooted in the belief that humans exist to fulfill themselves.
Set apart from other animals by their intellect and capacity to reason, humans are self-aware and knowledgeable of their interests, desires, and preferences.
Moreover, humans possess, or are capable of possessing, scientific ideas that enable the realisation of those interests, desires and preferences.
This self-realisation is possible only when individuals have the freedom to determine the course of their lives-the freedom of choice.
The private ownership of property and a free market system are central to the concept of freedom.
Property ownership prevents dependence on and exploitation by others.
One need not offer up oneself as a wage-earner.
Independence and security can be attained through one’s own toil.
Rational, self-reliant and in total control over his or her’ production, the individual is suited to venture out into an open market place, where, for one’s exclusive benefit, one barters and trades at will.
Self-realisation is not only possible-it actually occurs in this market place.
The economic identity acquired as a result of venturing into the market place has crucial significance for individualism.
A person’s economic identity speaks volumes about and gives meaning to the civil and political freedoms enjoyed by that person.
Individualism makes institutionalised charity and government welfare unnecessary, and, in fact, harmful to the degree that it interferes with the working of the market.
Individuals are collaborative and giving.
They focus their efforts on that part of society that they know – family, community, small group; they don’t need to serve the world.
This spontaneous collaboration of free people results in great institutions on which civilisation arises.
In my opinion, pure individuality is impossible in that everything (identity, truth, meaning, purpose, etc.) exists in relation to other things.
Many white people are far away from this metaphysical reality, however, and instead act like waves that deny their connection to the rest of the ocean.
The purpose of this article is to offer a critical analysis of how the Discourse of Individualism, rather than ameliorating racism, actually functions to obscure and maintain racism’s manifestation in the lives of Americans.
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 (Flax, 1999). Therefore, the discourse of Individualism posits race as irrelevant.
In fact, claiming that race is relevant to one’s life chances is seen as limiting one’s ability to stand on one’s own; standing on one’s own is both the assumption and the goal of Individualism (Flax, 1999).
It is important to note that processes underlying racist ideologies and discourse production are largely not explicit.
That is, there is no need to assume that discourses that support racist relations are intentional or even conscious.
As Van Dijk (1993) states, “Intentionality is irrelevant in establishing whether discourses or other acts may be interpreted as being racist” 
As I mentioned in my previous article Racism is a systemic, societal, institutional, omnipresent, and epistemologically embedded phenomenon that pervades every vestige of people’s reality.
Racism encompasses economic, political, social, and cultural structures, actions, and beliefs that systematise and perpetuate an unequal distribution of privileges, resources, and power between white people and people of colour, with whites the beneficiaries of that unequal distribution (Hilliard, 1992). Because it obscures how social positioning impacts opportunity, the Discourse of Individualism is a dominant discourse that functions ideologically to reinforce and reproduce relations of unequal power.
So profound is the influence of race on the core ethos of the nation’s identity that it is common to speak of the United States of America as “a white country.” Commenting on life in America, the historian Roger Wilkins (1995) writes: Whites have an easy sense of ownership of this country; they feel they are entitled to receive all that is best in it.
The invisibility of white identity and white privilege is supported by an individualistic — and thus putatively fair, meritocratic, and universalistic — ideology.
For John Hartigan (1997), for example, the point is that “studies of whiteness are demonstrating that whites benefit from a host of apparently neutral social arrangements and institutional operations, all of which seem — to whites at least — to have no racial basis”. By hiding the structural relations of race, this ideology of neutrality and fairness is believed to obscure the source of both white difference and advantage.
In a nutshell, the claim is that compared with others, whites should be more likely to adhere to generally universal and “color-blind” ideologies and explanations of individual success, specifically, that American society is fair, meritorious, and race-neutral, that hard work and effort are the keys to success, and that any individual can succeed if she or he tries hard enough.
This argument has resonance well beyond the field of whiteness studies proper, and this ideological position has earned several different labels.
Ryan Smith (1997) term it “laissez-faire” racism.
Whites may be able to see and understand the ways that blacks and others have been disadvantaged by the racial system, but they tend instead to attribute their own success to individual effort and hard work.
This “colour-blind ideology” can explain why racism can continue to exist as a structural force without anyone thinking of themselves as a racist.
It shows how the points about white identity and white privilege are connected.
Colour-blind racism can exist when whites disavow prejudice, but at the same time decline to support structural remedies such as police reform or affirmative action, which they may see as favoritism.
From this colour-blind point of view, to address racism – and sometimes to even talk about race – is to perpetuate it.
The paradoxical effect is that by highlighting individual causes of inequality and by denying the structural effects of race, the outcome may in fact be a reinforced sense of the “natural” inferiority of those disproportionately nonwhite individuals who are disadvantaged.
I would like to end the article by identifying what dynamics of racism does the discourse of individualism mask? According to DiAngelo, Robin (2010) there are seven dynamics (1) Prevents a Macro Analysis of the Institutional and Structural Dimensions of Social Life,(2) Denies Social and Historical Context, (3) Denies Collective Socialisation and the Power of Dominant Culture (Media, Education, Religion, etc.) to Shape our Perspectives and ideology, (4) Individualism, as Well as Universalism, is Only Culturally Available to the Dominant Group, (5) Functions as Neo-Colorblindness and Reproduces the Myth of Meritocracy (6) Hides the Accumulation of Wealth over Generations, (7): Makes Collective Action Difficult.

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