Diverse Fiction and Changing the News

black lives matterThose of you who wonder why some writers are pointing out the lack of diversity in both characters and authors might want to pay closer attention to the news.

  • Members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma not only sang about having no black members, but used imagery straight out of lynching to emphasize how strong their objections were.
  • Police officers in San Francisco – San Francisco! – exchanged racist emails and texts with each other, also including lynching imagery. In a city that is 6 percent black, 38 percent of those killed by the police over the last 30 years have been African American.
  • And then, of course, there’s Ferguson, Missouri: poster child for blatant racism. As the recent Department of Justice report points out, the city used its police force to raise city operating funds by targeting black residents for minor offenses. And some officials apparently believed this was appropriate because African Americans lack “personal responsibility.”

That’s only the tip of the iceberg for blatant racism against African Americans. It doesn’t address all the micro aggressions out there, the little things that pile up, or all the other people who are subject to everything from minor disrespect to greater risk of death because they’re seen as somehow less than human.

Here’s the thing that has struck me most forcefully in all the recent stories about racist behavior: So many of the people involved believe that their actions are justified because black people are “inferior.” I remember that nonsense from my childhood, but I thought people had finally outgrown it. Apparently not.

The OU fraternity is considering suing the university for expelling students for their racist video, claiming First Amendment protection. I’m a big believer in the First Amendment, but I think the frat’s money would be better spent in educating its members about racism. After all, fraternity boys usually go on to be powerful people in their communities. Even if it can be argued that they have the “right” to threaten violence against others – and that’s questionable – it doesn’t mean they should exercise that right.

The San Francisco situations indicates that what’s going on in Ferguson is just the most obvious example of how the belief that some people are not worthy of being treated as human can infect public institutions. I’d like to think Ferguson is an extreme case, but I’m afraid it’s not.

Though it is pretty bad. As Ta-Nehisi Coates points out:

One should understand that the Justice Department did not simply find indirect evidence of unintentionally racist practices which harm black people, but “discriminatory intent”—that is to say willful racism aimed to generate cash. Justice in Ferguson is not a matter of “racism without racists,” but racism with racists so secure, so proud, so brazen that they used their government emails to flaunt it.

Coates goes on to point out that, according to the Justice Department report, many Ferguson officials justified their plundering ways by saying that African Americans lack “personal responsibility”. The excessive fines were, in Coates’s words, “just making sure the reprobates pay their fair share.”

A few years back, I wrote a review of Michelle Alexander’s brilliant book, The New Jim Crow. Along with a discussion of the explosion in prisons and increased incarceration of people for petty crime, Alexander explained how black and criminal came to be conflated terms.

It was a disturbing book for many reasons, but the thing that bothered me the most was the fact that despite the Civil Rights Movement and the significant changes that have been made over the past 50 years, racists have still been able to manipulate the legal system to the detriment of African Americans.

As a believer in fiction, I think stories are an important way to combat this nonsense. I applaud Jim Hines for again publishing a series of guest blog posts on the need for diversity in SF/F, both in the stories and the authors. (I contributed to this series this year.)

Stories help create our culture. Too many stories of the past perpetuated racist nonsense. We need to undercut their power with new stories, different stories, a wider range of stories, stories that reflect the real world.

Maybe if we get enough of those stories, we’ll have better news to read.




Diverse Fiction and Changing the News — 3 Comments

  1. One of the themes of The American Slave Coast (October, 2015) is how and why this calumny came into being — in order to serve as justification for color-based slavery, of course. A slavery, moreover, that was decreed in law from the beginning, i.e, 17th century, into perpetuity, with no recourse for liberty.

    Writers such as T Jefferson encoded these justifications into global conviction. In the U.S. it became not only legal definition, but, as encoded in the Constitution, which is a sacred text in the beliefs of So Many, a legal, sacramental conviction. It hasn’t gone away in the least.

    Love, C.

    • You know, I have an optimistic — though apparently unrealistic — habit of believing that when certain changes are made, people will begin to see the light. I recall a conversation with my father, who was a little kid during the Scopes monkey trial, in which we both expressed surprise at the way fundamentalist Christianity had come roaring back. Having grown up surrounded by it, but also having grown up in a changing world, we both thought it would fade away.

      The same appears to be true with racism. It might be based on more than slavery and the Constitution. Even many abolitionists believed black people were inferior. Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People makes clear the obsession with racial “purity” held by many people, including, say, Emerson. (Her criticism of Emerson drew lots of negative comments on her book — which is brilliant — on Amazon.)

      You’d think in a world in which we’re all finding out more and more about our genetic history we would let go of this mythology about racial purity. But apparently not.

  2. History teaches us unpleasant lessons. Which we never learn.

    For another instance, starting already with the War of 1812, the fantasy based on absolutely nothing, was that the U.S. would invade and conquer Canada — which would be greeted with cheering crowds throwing flowers upon their liberators. Plus, this was a war for which the nation was utterly unprepared to fight, with no army, navy, money or understanding about anything.

    Yet we are still expecting to be greeted as beloved liberators and still are utterly unprepared for every war in which we’re currently involved.

    Yes, that’s how deep the formation of this color based racism dug into ‘white’ people: for one thing, the slaveowning southern elite were very clever in keeping this as the principle marker of difference, i.e. white supremacy. No matter how poor, downtrodden and oppressed and worthless you were were, you were white, and not a slave, and once you got yourself a nubile female slave you too would be inevitably joining the ranks of the elite.

    Also, one would be hard put to find any industry, particularly in banking, finance, insurance and mercantilism of every kind — all the fortune-making industries — that weren’t neck deep in profits made from slavery in one way and another. They were all as invested in the myth of white supremacy and the natural inferiority of people of color as anyone in the South.

    Naturally this affected the abolitionists too. But abolitionists and even non-abolitionists such as Lincoln, learned better.