Monday, April 17, 2006

Walter Mosley

Last week I ran an item proposed by Andrew Grant-Thomas of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity: he asked for suggestions of novels that might capture the phenomenon of "structural racism."
Structural racism, to [Grant-Thomas'] way of 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.
Surely there are many novels that fit the bill, I thought. Now I'm learning it's tougher coming up with titles than I expected.

I suggested Julian Barnes' Arthur & George might be one such book. But now I'm not so sure. Racism is clearly obvious in the novel, yet it's more evident as old-fashioned bigotry and institutional racism than in a way that fits the criteria outlined above. Or, perhaps, I just haven't unpacked it in the right way.

Similar doubts weigh heavily on my other possible candidate for this subject: Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins series.

Mosley is the author of twenty-three critically acclaimed books and his work has been translated into twenty-one languages. His popular mysteries featuring Easy Rawlins began with Devil in a Blue Dress in 1990. The series includes A Red Death, White Butterfly, Black Betty, A Little Yellow Dog, Bad Boy Brawly Brown, Six Easy Pieces, Little Scarlet, and Cinnamon Kiss.

Race is everywhere in these books. In Cinnamon Kiss Easy, who we first meet in 1948, is a Los Angeles PI with a day job as a school janitor in post-Watts LA. Following a lead in downtown LA, he suddenly notices two policemen eyeballing him.

Most Americans wouldn't understand why two well-dressed men would have to explain why they were standing on a public street. But most Americans cannot comprehend the scrutiny that black people have been under since the days we were dragged here in bondage. Those two cops felt fully authorized to stop us with no reason and no warrant. They felt that they could question us and search us and cart us off to jail if there was the slightest flaw in how we explained our business. Even with all the urgency I felt at that moment I had a small space to hate what those policemen represented in my life. But I could hate as much as I wanted: I still didn't have the luxury to defy their authority.
That's just obvious—even if (perhaps, unconscious)—racism at work. Yet time and again Mosley takes that reality and shows how it distorts nearly every aspect of our lives. The cops' suspiciousness feeds simmering rage and self-doubt, which means there's always the potential for violence when that rage boils over. And even when there isn't physical violence, the friction on regular public discourse is so evident that it makes regular interaction between members of different races unnecessarily inefficient. The corrosiveness of racism is of course worst for its direct victims, but society as a whole pays a price that's not always acknowledged.

But part of Easy's (and Mosley's) genius is that he illustrates these structural inequities and inefficiencies by exploiting them. In Little Scarlet, for example, the (white) authorities ask Easy to assist solving a crime to help prevent Watts from exploding (again). He has his own reasons for working the case, and he also wants to help prevent the black community from destroying itself. But there’s also this idea that if he gets inside the power structure—if only temporarily and warily—some things will change, for them and for him.

In a recent article in The Nation, Mosley makes a similar point in about contemporary national politics. Although obviously no fan of the current administration, he notes:

the Bush Administration has put black faces into high-profile jobs that carry clout on the international playing field. I don't have to like Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice to appreciate that once a black person has been put into a position of power, the second time around is much, much easier.
Isn't he saying here that racism is structural, and that affirmative action (even the kind that the Bush administration has practiced for this relative handful of prominent figures) is one way to ameliorate its effects?

Mosley makes a similar point with his science-fiction stories. He shows how the world might look if and when these barriers are removed or overcome:
In science fiction you don't have to accept the world the way it is. You don't have to run around saying, "I'm constrained by these notions of society, by these notions of history, by these general notions of morality." All of these notions or any one of them can go out of the window, and I think that's for anybody. For black people in particular, the future is all we have because the past has been taken away from us and the present is defined in certain ways. You can't write today about our president, or our senator, or our multi-billionaire industrialist. Black people tend to get pushed into certain cubbyholes that at least white people in the culture don't, and so what you can do with science fiction is you can make a whole different world. You could say, for instance, that in the year 2060 there are only black people. You don't even have to say why. In that way, you can begin to create worlds which become interesting and also become yours in a certain way.
Also on this point, see Mosley's article, "Black to the Future."

On the novelist's obligation to employ politics in his fiction, see this piece from the Washington Post.

Surely there are a multitude of novels out there that illuminate structural racism in a way that dry scholarship cannot. If you know one, send me the title and an explanation for why it fits. And, if I'm wrong about Mosley's contribution to the subject, let me know that, too.

--Marshal Zeringue