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Why literature matters in debate about race and immigrants

The people who voted for Donald Trump did so for a variety of reasons, but chief among them was the sense of their having been economically abandoned for several decades. Trump has promised to restore their economic dignity. That is a laudable goal.

However, through his corrosive campaign rhetoric, Trump has also made it acceptable to speak in hateful ways about many groups of people including Mexicans, Muslims and blacks. These groups are now feeling extremely vulnerable: Their fears are about the safety of their bodies and their lives.

This is anxiety that most white Americans – regardless of their economic status – are insulated from.

In the United States, whiteness confers power and privilege even when undercut by economic destitution. As the nation prepares itself for a Trump presidency, it is important to remember that this power and privilege will intensify.

Feminist Peggy McIntosh enumerated 50 of the things white people can take for granted in her 1988 essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” including:

“I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.”

Twenty-eight years later, this, it would seem, is one of the white privileges that is not being accorded to the black athletes who have chosen to kneel, sit or raise a fist during the playing of the national anthem before a game. Just consider this reader’s email to USA Today and note the ease with which the rage is articulated:

“When these (expletive) take a knee they are spitting in the faces of soldiers … They are spitting on the graves of everyone killed on 9/11.”

The commentator’s rage makes no room for the non-violent expression of the athletes’ outrage at the injustice experienced by black males.

From left, San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Eli Harold, quarterback Colin Kaepernick and safety Eric Reid kneel during the national anthem before an NFL football game. AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

My research on empathy, antipathy and how we perceive those who are unfamiliar makes clear that there has been no meaningful acknowledgment by politicians or the mainstream media of the power and privilege of whiteness. And yet if we as a country want to ensure “equal justice for all” then it is crucial for groups with power to recognize the advantage they have and address that imbalance.

From discussions in my classrooms and from my research, I have learned that there is relative “safety” in using literary texts to practice “what if” scenarios about our own capacity for understanding the “pain of others” and for recognizing how our power and privilege can contribute to others’ injury, whether that be material, political or emotional.

White on black justice

The first literary example I want to use broke ground at the time of its publication by drawing attention to the automatic and unexamined privileges conferred on whiteness.

In Richard Wright’s 1940 novel “Native Son,” the white attorney general tells the prisoner Bigger Thomas, a native of the south side of Chicago:

“I know how you feel, boy. You’re colored, and you feel that you haven’t had a square deal, don’t you? … I know how it feels to walk along the streets like other people, dressed like them, talking like them, and yet excluded for no reason except that you’re black.”

Richard Wright. Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress

Despite the psychological manipulation of the prisoner that this superficial display of empathy demonstrates, even the limited acknowledgment that being black is a frustrating disadvantage is a rare admission.

But here is what the fictional attorney general does not do.

He does not acknowledge the historical and political forces that have created the institutions that automatically give the advantage to people like him.

Juries in the 1940s were entirely composed of white men. That did not, however, strike those in power as being inherently unjust, because white men were deemed capable of being able to weigh the evidence and make fair and unbiased decisions.

“Native Son” sold an astonishing 215,000 copies within three weeks of its publication. Its primary impact was that it offered white readers a searing look into the black protagonist’s deep pain and fierce anger. But it did not lead to change, if we are to judge from the housing discrimination in Chicago in the 1940s that created deep and entrenched economic, social and political segregation.

Several years after its publication, some black readers, most notably novelist James Baldwin, were infuriated at what they saw as the two-dimensional portrayal of Bigger’s fury and enraged despair.

Yet, over the years since its publication, “Native Son” has continued to be reassessed and reconsidered – performed on stage in 2014 and re-reviewed in 2015 – so powerful has been its message of systemic and pervasive racism.

The privilege of being unaware

Unthinkingness is a central theme in the poem “To the Lady,” by Mitsuye Yamada.

An anonymous woman (we don’t know much about her other than that she is from the group in power) asks about the Japanese-Americans whose loyalty was questioned following the bombing of Pearl Harbor and who were incarcerated in camps:

“Why did the Japanese Americans let/ the government put them in/ those camps without protest?”

She is blissfully unaware of the political context that made it impossible for them to protest. Though two-thirds of the Japanese-Americans who were incarcerated during World War II were American citizens, they did not have the basic power to demand that their constitutional rights be upheld. They did not have the support of their neighbors, who were bystanders at best and hostile enemies at worst in this violation of their constitutional rights.

Japanese-American internment camp survivor Bill Shishima poses in in the window of one of the barracks from the internment camp at Heart Mountain, Wyoming at the Japanese American Museum. AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

It is the power and privilege of the poem’s lady that offer her the luxury of being unaware of the asymmetry of influence.

It is telling that after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, many Japanese-Americans came forward to offer support to Muslims, Muslim-Americans, and Arab-Americans so that their constitutional rights would not be violated in the same way.

Refusing to be willfully ignorant

Studying how power is hidden or revealed, understated or boldly displayed in the two examples above can set us on the path to introspection.

How does one become complicit in ignoring unequal power? What can we carry from literature into life?

Take the following instance in which an individual in a position of power appears to have engaged in introspective analysis and responded with nuance and complexity.

It takes place in an airport, a public space that has increasingly become associated with danger and where different groups of people are in different positions of power.

In a memoir essay by former sports broadcaster Varun Sriram that he submitted for a collection I edited, we learn of his airport experience.

Sriram, a young Indian-American man – looking, as he says, with his unshaven face and brown skin like everybody’s stereotypical image of the “terrorist” – tells how he foolishly left his carry-on bag unattended at an airline gate while he went to purchase a pizza.

A white woman who had been giving him hostile looks summoned a security guard who picked up his bag and left the area. When Sriram returned, he was told by the white woman that she had called the guard. In a panic, he went in pursuit and luckily saw the guard at a distance.

A Transportation Security Administration agent checks traveling documents of a passenger at Miami International Airport. AP Photo/Alan Diaz

Sriram apologized profusely for his carelessness and politely asked the guard if he could have his bag back. Sriram accurately described the contents of the bag, and the security guard returned it to him.

We will never know the exact reasons that led the guard to make the unusual gesture of returning the bag to Sriram and treating him as harmless rather than as a threat. But in “reading” this incident as one would a literary text, one can readily acknowledge that the guard, despite his obvious power advantage over Sriram, nonetheless appears to have used that advantage to make an empathetic decision.

Through literature to empathy and righteous outrage

Like airports, urban streets have been scenes of violence and danger. The merest gesture of a “wrong” move can mean death for an African-American male, as the recent events in Minnesota, Oklahoma and North Carolina have all too sadly revealed.

When we hear recommendations for training police officers, what exactly do we want?

I would argue that training must engage the imaginative capacity of those in power. It must lead them to acknowledge their power and privilege, and it must then give them opportunities to exercise their imagination in deepening understanding of themselves and of those individuals and groups over whom they hold this power.

Literature allows for such practice.

In the hands of a skillful facilitator, for example, it is impossible not to be outraged at what one can learn about the stranglehold of white power in an essay like “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow,” in which novelist Richard Wright shows us how the simple act of riding an elevator as a black busboy in the presence of white men can be fraught with life-threatening danger.

The question to be asked then is how that situation compares to the one on our streets today – nearly 70 years later.

A recent initiative in New York City has police officers visiting the Museum of Modern Art and being trained, through looking at paintings, in how to observe carefully and critically.

That we don’t similarly use literature to enlarge empathetic capacity and evoke righteous outrage is surprising and inexplicable. The times cry out, I would argue, for bold initiatives that bring literature into our courtrooms, banks, town halls, housing offices, police departments, health care centers and political venues to initiate necessary discussions about asymmetrical power and its corrosive impact. It will be particularly imperative in the times ahead.

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