Thursday, April 13, 2006

Andrew Grant-Thomas raises an issue

Andrew Grant-Thomas wrote in with a very interesting query:
A nice piece of fiction can often drive home a given idea in a more penetrating way than even the most tightly argued essay. No argument from you, I'm guessing. I'm looking for suggestions for a novel or two, short stories maybe, that capture a particular social dynamic I spend a fair bit of time thinking about -- "structural racism."

At least in the US we mostly think about racism nowadays in terms of individuals (old-school, Archie Bunker-style racism), or policies and practices (institutional racism) that treat people better or worse on the basis of race or ethnicity.

Structural racism, to my thinking, is the idea that the joint interaction of institutions also can and often does produce bad outcomes, often unintentionally. For example, a university shows some extra admissions love to applicants who took advanced placement courses in high school. Race-neutral on its face, right? But we know that every state has both top high schools that offer a lot of AP courses and not-so-elite schools that have few, if any, such courses. And we know that black and Latino kids are almost always more numerous in the schools with few AP courses; those schools are disproportionately located in the poor neighborhoods those kids live in and financed by local property taxes; those taxes are paid by people with low incomes and even less wealth; and those current racial gaps in wealth have their roots in historical policies and practices that systematically transferred wealth from whites to nonwhites.... The point is that you cannot single out any one institution -- much less a particular group of individuals -- as the racist culprit here, but, together, they produce and transmit serious inequality all the same.

The novels that come to my mind that may capture at least some of this structural dynamic -- Native Son, Grapes of Wrath (maybe), anything by James Baldwin -- tend to be from another era and, I think, also tend to be constrained by inordinate attention to the inside-the-head and intra-institutional stuff that, while still very important, can deflect attention from the inter-institutional dynamic structural racism highlights. For obvious reasons, novels written before, say, 1980 also tend to focus on black-white dynamics.

I'm guessing that the last 10-15 years have seen any number of works that approach this question of racial and ethnic inequality in what I'm calling a structural way, and do so with reference to Latinos and Asian Americans -- and maybe even to poor and working-class whites -- as well as to blacks. Unfortunately, it's just a guess, since I'm also one of those individuals you had in mind in creating this blog -- people who'd happily lap up a lot more novels, short stories and poetry if they felt they could afford the time. So…suggestions welcome.
Andrew Grant-Thomas is Deputy Director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University. Previously he was Director of the Color Lines Project at Harvard University. He holds a PhD in Political Science and a MA in International Relations from the University of Chicago and a BA in Literature from Yale University.

As Andrew notes at the top of his message, one goal of this blog is to highlight fiction that illuminates social issues. So, while also thinking about novels that portray life in theocracies and in societies where the executive's power to imprison is unchecked by the judiciary, I've also been noodling on his question.

I've come up with two candidates that may fit the bill. One is a recent work of literary fiction from Great Britain and the other is a crime fiction series set in Los Angeles. I'll post my case for these works in the next few days.

Do you know a work of fiction that brings home the impact and prevalence of structural racism? Send in your title, along with an explanation how the book captures the issue, and we'll share it with your fellow readers.

--Marshal Zeringue

UPDATE: I've taken a stab at novels that might fit the bill: Julian Barnes' Arthur & George and the Easy Rawlins series by Walter Mosley. Check it out.