The Delusion that Only Individuals are Real
Am I responsible for America’s racist past, even though I myself immigrated to the US from India when I was just eight years old? My parents had arrived two years before. What do my family and I owe to the descendants of those whom white Americans enslaved? What are my obligations to America’s First Nations peoples? After all, speaking in historical terms, we just got here.
Our capacity to answer such questions is critically limited by a pervasive failure in American imagination, namely an incapacity to understand that human beings belong to each other and are not just free-range individuals.
Consider, for example, the highly orchestrated and ongoing brouhaha around Critical Race Theory. At bottom, the fracas is rooted in an overblown focus on the individual as a creature detached from others and the culture and history around her. Explaining how this mistake works will require a few steps.
Considerable numbers of white Americans have been persuaded to be in a panic about Critical Race Theory (CRT) although few who are panicked can explain what CRT is. They just know that it ought to be kept out of schools. Never mind that no elementary or middle school and few if any high schools in the US teach CRT. Under the banner of opposing CRT, much talk about race faces state endorsed opposition, not just in schools but even in colleges. In some states, what began as opposition to CRT has now become tantamount to opposing any discussion of race whatsoever. The ensuing limitations on freedom of speech—especially in education, where debate and the development of critical thinking are prime goals—and the dangers to the job security of instructors are chilling.
One stated reason for these constraints on teaching about race is that white children ought not to be made to feel guilty or uncomfortable about being white. The presumption appears to be that both guilt and discomfort would ensue if white children are taught about America’s long legacy of white supremacy.
But is the point of knowing about America’s history of enslaving Blacks and the genocide of Indigenous peoples really about making little white Johnny feel personally guilty or uncomfortable?
Ironically, a central goal of CRT is to help students understand that racism is not about what you or I personally feel. Racism is not primarily a sentiment in the hearts of individual racists. In fact, racism is not primarily about the individual.
On the contrary, CRT holds that racism is about the structures, histories, policies, and institutions that systematically privilege one racial group over others. Indeed, the very idea of “race” is itself one of those structures. The belief that human beings come in a variety of races is a notion invented in order to privilege one so-called “race” at the expense of others. CRT explores the historical and social construction of race and the factors involved in imagining one race to be superior. Critical race theorists can rightly insist, “It’s not just about individuals, and it’s certainly not about little Johnny!”
But this is precisely where CRT bumps up against a fixed and pervasive American habit of mind: only individuals are real. If only individuals exist, then it follows that only individuals can be the source of anything or be held responsible for it. Or feel guilty about it.
Little wonder then that there is such an immense blowback against teaching about racism in schools. If only individuals exist, then only individuals—and not societal structures and institutions—can be racist. The goal of racism education therefore must be to blame individual white kids.
Ironically, if there wasn’t such a fuss about removing CRT from schools and the students had learned it, they would know that they are not personally the problem. No guilt; just better understanding of history and society. Weirdly enough, we need more CRT, not less.
Although I have focused on CRT, it really doesn’t matter what the issue happens to be. Consider the question of mass shootings. As I write, news is circulating about a mall shooting in Texas with at least nine dead including children. Here too, many Americans reduce the issue to a matter of good individuals and bad individuals. My right as a good individual to own a gun—which I take to be a constitutionally guaranteed personal right—cannot be compromised by the deeds of bad individuals. As I would never do anything to harm you with my guns, it makes no sense to restrict my gun ownership.
Presumably the ratio of good and bad persons is constant in every country, but no country has anywhere near the number of shootings as the US. Why? To answer, analysis must move beyond individuals to historical and cultural reasons for gun ownership and to policies and vested interests that make it possible—and for many, desirable—for nearly anyone to purchase any gun of their choosing, including military style weapons that kill scores of people in seconds.
Unfortunately, if analysis of any issue comes down to the motivations of individual actors alone, nothing can be done by local, state, or federal government—or even in civil society—other than offer up “our thoughts and prayers.”
To address any pressing issue in public life, Americans must be able and helped to think about structures, policies, histories, and communities. The most basic lesson is this: I do not live apart from everyone else. We are each of us part of groups—families, churches, civic associations, towns, cities, and states. These groups are organized by implicit covenants, explicit contracts, laws, and policies that structure our common life. We only come into awareness of ourselves as persons as we are nourished and supported by the social institutions and groups of which we are a part. Groups, institutions, organizations, policies, and histories are as real as individuals are, and good and evil can reside not just in human hearts but also in the tissue of our common life.
Much in public life is not my individual fault. But I am responsible for the actions of groups to which I belong. As a recent immigrant to the US, I am not individually responsible for events in American history that transpired long before any of my rural South Indian ancestors could imagine moving to the US. In fact, for much of US, Asian Exclusion Acts, implemented by white Americans, meant that almost no one from India could emigrate to the US.
And yet, when I became an American citizen, I became part of the American project and its vexed and complicated history. I have not enslaved anyone, but I am now part of a nation that did, with horrific violence. To join the American project is to assume responsibility for my nation’s past—even if I don’t feel personally guilty. This is what makes me an American citizen rather than just an isolated individual. Borrowing from the language of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, I know that, “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
Despite the fact that I am not guilty of what my new nation did before I arrived, assuming responsibility means I must nonetheless be committed to redressing wrongs that are writ into the fabric of the nation. So, I am committed to reparations for descendants of the formerly enslaved, I am opposed to racially biased electoral gerrymandering, and I support a variety of measures to oppose the proliferation of military style weapons on American streets. I may not be guilty, but I must shoulder my share of our collective responsibilities to our common life.
John Thatamanil is Professor of Theology and World Religions at Union Theological Seminary. He is also Priest and Volunteer Curate at the Anglican Church of St. John the Divine in Victoria, BC, and Theologian to the Diocese of Islands and Inlets. He is the author of Circling the Elephant: A Comparative Theology of Religious Diversity.
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