Academia, Atoms, Black History Month, Capitalism, Carbon, Exceptionalism, Frederick Douglass, Higgs Boson Particle, Ida B. Wells, Imperialism, Institutional Racism, Martin Delany, Metaphors, Narcissism, News Media, Physics, Public Intellectuals, Quantum Physics, Racism, Social Media, Subatomic Particles, Systemic Racism
A few months ago, I found myself pondering the many years in which I and a cadre of experts, scholars, and trolls have written and talked about American racism. The evidence (or lack thereof) that those who fight for racial justice and those who fight for White supremacy (or at least, a White-dominated status quo) have gathered. The sense of righteous indignation or dispassionate sense of racial superiority expressed in sound bites, at conferences, in classrooms, in faculty and staff meetings. I found myself thinking, “We’re never going to convince the majority that they have built themselves a hypocritical house of cards, are we?”
Of course this is true. A person doesn’t have to be a pessimist or fatalistic to arrive at this conclusion. Long before Ta-Nehisi Coates or the great late Derrick Bell, or James Baldwin or Malcolm X, or even W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, there was the sense that the house that racism built could never be broken down with faith and words alone. Frederick Douglass, Martin Delany, and Ida B. Wells (or Wells-Barnett) said as much in the nineteenth century. It would take action, perhaps even, a calamity to break down this house.
I started thinking about American racism as an atom, then. It could be as simple as a hydrogen atom, but despite the preponderance of Americans who will live out their lives in willful ignorance, America and its racism is a bit more complicated than one proton and one electron. That’s the America most of my students think they live in. When it comes to racism, America is more like a carbon or iron atom before being smashed at light speed in a particle accelerator in Switzerland. With lots of protons, neutrons, and electrons. Enough so that it could combine with anything and corrupt everything.
Carbon is very much a constantly morphing combinator. Scientists can make virtually endless chains and structures with carbon — along with its companions, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen — giving us plenty of other organic compounds not found in nature. That is American intersectionality in a nutshell, between racism, class inequality, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and other -isms that combine and recombine from one generation and one issue to the next. Stereotypes, microaggressions, and death by a thousand cuts, are its results.
But carbon molecules in the natural world already exists in long and almost endless chains. Our DNA and its double-helix strands, the structure of hydrocarbons that make up petroleum and natural gas. Even without the interventions that make interpersonal, individual, and internalized racism the fodder for social media and American politics, structural racism and institutional racism are already well embedded in America’s vast array of institutions.
Then there’s the stuff that’s beyond the mix of the six electrons, six protons, and six neutrons that make up a carbon atom. Quarks, leptons, bosons, among as many as 248 subatomic particles — including gluons, neutrinos, and photons. The newly discovered Higgs boson particle (as of 2012), for instance, is apparently what provides matter mass.
The subatomics of American racism, though, are fairly well-known and haven’t been new to us researchers for decades. Imperialism, American exceptionalism, narcissism, and capitalism. They all help give mass to American racism, so that it is not just a matter of perception, or, as some mavericks have suggested, a disease or psychosis. These are the particles that convert the energies of racism into a tangible, weighty reality.
Yet atoms and their subatomic particles aren’t forever. Heck, electrons are often in two places at the same time, their quantum locations change so often. The way scientists know all this is through atom smashing at places like the Hadron collider in Switzerland. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to smash protons straight into a group of atoms to explode its subatomic contents. Ultimately, somewhere between fusion, fission, and smashing, to break down the carbon-like atom that is American racism. But I don’t think those of us working to do so should hold our collective breath.