Excuse the simplification of the title of this blog post.
The news of the death of James Craig Anderson, a 49 year old auto plant worker in Jackson, Mississippi has stirred up so much interest, that it made the national news. For those, not in the know, a group of middle class white teenagers from Brandon, Mississippi, decided, on a whim, to drive to Jackson and assault the first African-American they saw. I assume that this happens much more than the newspapers are willing to report, but this time, parking lot security cameras caught the event on video, allowing the entire country to see the exact depth of racist violence that still pervades in American society a full 40 plus years after Civil Rights.
Personally, I find the event sickening, revolting, and reprehensible, though, having grown up in Mississippi, hardly surprising. What interests me, though, is a single statement by a boasting 18 year old Deryl Dedmon after he savagely ran over a stunned James Anderson:
“I ran that nigger over!”
There it is. The N-word in all its glory doing the deed that it was created to do. Words such as this work to objectify people, to rob them of all that makes them an individual, to disregard their humanity.
At present, I am reading Amartya Sen’s “Identity and Violence” which, in part, addresses the very issues raised by Deryl Dedmon’s brutal killing of Mr. Anderson.
Simplified classifications run deep in common speech. Sometimes they act as place markers for concepts we don’t truly understand or for ideas where we (or our listeners) don’t have sufficient information to parse out any underlying complexities. Sometimes, classifying people can be done with good intentions, such as defining policy that helps Native Americans or in discouraging racial discrimination.
Sometimes, however, they are used as tools of violence. They can demean, isolate and weaken our opponents, by relieving us of the need to understand and recognize the thoughts, the opinions, the very existence of those we don’t like or agree with.
I believe in the inherent goodness of people. Most humans, if given a true choice, would not do evil to other humans provided they understood that their actions truly are, in fact, evil. Labels such as “N****er,” “Liberal,” “Muslim,” “Tea Partier,” (I’m being fair) “Fag,” “Gaijin,” remove the humanity of, well, humans. They allow us to say and do things that we wouldn’t do to those we know and love. After all, commiting violence against people is wrong. Committing violence against objects is somewhat acceptable.
Sen notes that identity and classification allow violence to occur, sometimes even causing it, often even encouraging it. New labels can be applied for self interested means. Note that Rwandans coexisted with one another for centuries, until the poisionous labels of “Hutus” and “Tutsis” pitted neighbor against neighbor, and led to the death of thoursands.
Beyond Sen’s book and Mr. Dedmon’s reprehensible actions, the poisonous political battles in the current United States are filled with the very type of rhetoric that seeks to divide and subject. Blog posts, TV commentators and politicians regular use perjorative terms such as “Liberal,” effectively ending debate and swiping aside political civility. Likewise, Tea Party backed politicians have effectively dug their own grave, by labelling themselves in this case, asking for divisive vitrol from the left. “Muslim” has become a convenient key word to label nearly a quarter of the world’s population which represents a vast landscape of cultures, languages and histories that often have little in common with one another.
We are more than our labels. We can be Americans at once, liberals politically, homosexuals, broccoli eaters, Christians and heavy metal fans all at once. To do what Mr. Dedmon did, to reduce a human being to a single, convenient classification to ease the application of violence against his person, is the root of humanity’s inability to get along. Dedmon killed Mr. Anderson twice, first by killing him physically, then by robbing him of his personhood by loudly boasting to his thouroughly stupid friends.
Let us not be Mr. Dedmon. Let America move beyond the vile and hateful and simplistically stupid rhetoric that has poisoned us for the past 200 plus years.
Sen A: Identity and violence: the illusion of destiny. Allen Lane; 2006.