Grand Central Terminal Main Concourse in New York City, March 4, 2006. (Janke and Diliff via Wikipedia). Permission granted via cc-Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license.
This is a subject matter that normally would be too complicated for me to write about here. But then again, the work of explaining any aspect of the human condition is complex work. Especially when addressing American racism, its origins, its subatomic parts, and its effect on humans beyond the material and physical. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Maya Angelou, bell hooks, and so many others have described the Black body and what the Black body has had to endure at the hands of American racism. But perhaps one of the most serious effort to address the psychological impact of American racism on Blacks and Whites was W. E. B. Du Bois’ in Black Reconstruction (1935). It’s a book that is the very definition of tome, covering twenty years of history with a sociological lens determined to cut to the marrow of what occurred during Reconstruction as if the reader was an eyewitness to each day’s happenings between 1860 and 1880.
Thanks in varying measures to Derrick Bell, David Roediger, Patricia Hill Collins, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Michael Eric Dyson, and many, many others, intellectuals and scholars have made much progress with the oft-quoted phrase “the wages of whiteness” over the past quarter-century. But while many have explained the wages of Whiteness, most haven’t tried to define it, especially when it comes to the psychological.
For a refresher, this was what Du Bois actually wrote about Whiteness and wages in Black Reconstruction:
“A sort of public and psychological wage,” Du Bois wrote on page 700. Most scholars have explained rather thoroughly the public or material wages of Whiteness, of American racism for Whites on a structural and institutional level. Many have attempted to do so on an individual or internalizing level. But Du Bois was one of a handful who attempted to explain both the collective and individual impetus for being comfortable in racism. A founding member of the field of American sociology, an expert American and Black historian, Du Bois in 1935 discussed with great explanatory power the nature of American racism and how it developed over time to trump class divides.
But this only gets at the material. As for the psychological, Du Bois spent a significant amount of his 760 pages in Black Reconstruction attempting to do so. Except that, as a sociologist, Du Bois explained the psychological wage primarily in terms of group and interpersonal dynamics, and not in terms of group thought or a sort of collective thought.
On page 52, though, Du Bois hits home with the following about American racism’s corrosive effect on those practicing it at the individual level:
What Du Bois described in 1935 was not just the effect of American racism on the individual Southern planter. If Du Bois had possessed a copy of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V), what he described we would call narcissistic personality disorder in 2016. Phrases like “inflate the ego…beyond all reason,” “arrogant, strutting, quarrelsome kinglets,” “expected deference and self-abasement,” and “were choleric and easily insulted.” These could easily be “a persistent manner of grandiosity, a continuous desire for admiration, along with a lack of empathy,” the DSM-V general description of narcissism.
A couple of quotes and a general description of narcissism are likely insufficient to link Du Bois’ prescient nod to social psychology on the issue of American racism. This is what the DSM-V says about narcissistic personality disorder in full:
In order to determine if a patient may have narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), a psychiatrist must determine if that patient meets at least any five (5) of the nine (9) standards below:
- A grandiose logic of self-importance
- A fixation with fantasies of unlimited success, control, brilliance, beauty, or idyllic love
- A credence that he or she is extraordinary and exceptional and can only be understood by, or should connect with, other extraordinary or important people or institutions
- A desire for unwarranted admiration
- A sense of entitlement
- Interpersonally oppressive behavior
- No form of empathy
- Resentment of others or a conviction that others are resentful of him or her
- A display of egotistical and conceited behaviors or attitudes
(American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
Now there are actually far more serious personality disorders that can be part of a larger set of self-destructive, dangerous, or even lethal behaviors, in which narcissistic personality disorder can be entangled. Most individuals with narcissistic personality disorder are not dangerous or self-destructive, and often function as normal or even high-performing human beings. In other words, there are levels of narcissism here, from the ground floor to the edges of the known universe.
Ah, but the DSM-V is describing the behavior of individuals, and not that of a class of people or a society, like what Du Bois attempted to do in Black Reconstruction, right? Yes and no. Du Bois used one individual example after another to build the case that the “white laborer” had come to have the same aspirations for the “public and psychological wages” that the Southern planter class had obtained through generations of owning slaves. Only, Blacks by the time of Reconstruction were slaves no more. The best way for Southern White elites to provide poor Whites all of the amenities of American racism without the latter either revolting against them outright or joining up with Blacks to fight grinding poverty was to codify American racism in the form of Jim Crow.
But where I and Du Bois are not on the same page is in the nature of American racism and narcissism as variables. Du Bois essentially argued that the psychological wage of Whiteness was the effect of American racism on Whites over time. The problem is, where does American racism come out of psychologically and sociologically? The simple yet true answer is out of gaming an advantage through greed and the desire for profit, through fear and the disdain for those whom have been deemed lesser, and through a willful ignorance and ignoring of the condition in which one has left other human beings. And that, for those who are reading, is both racism and narcissism, two separate yet interdependent ideas that help to prop each other up.
Before digging deeper into this, there are two things I want to make clear. One is that to think about American racism and American narcissism as part of the collective culture, think first of an atom. If racism were an atom, narcissism is its neutron. An atom doesn’t necessarily need a neutron to be stable (think Hydrogen atom, for example), and neutrons can be used to split atoms. People can be individually or collectively racist without necessarily being narcissistic, in other words, but the two often go hand-in-hand. Or, one can think about racism as the result of the social construction of race (to slightly quote Barbara Jean Fields), while narcissism is a psychological construction from which socially-constructed racism can spring, and then the former can be reinforced by the latter.
However, do not get it twisted. Just because I am saying that narcissism is a part of racism and vice-versa does not make racism a psychological illness by any means. That narcissists often function normally in nearly all social settings means that the personality disorder is a flaw or weakness of the human condition, not a disease. Racism is the attempt to take as much advantage of this flaw for oneself or for one’s group as better than others, and then use that success to reinforce the belief that one person or one group is better than another by taking even more advantages, materially and otherwise. American racism and American narcissism are two bosom buddies, and intertwine and intermix much more freely in the American context than virtually anywhere else.