Sunday, June 14, 2009

In racism today

-Is there seriously a discussion going on about whether the Democrats or the Republicans are the real racists? Hasn't it long since been settled that evils specific to modernity come from the worst bits of the left and the right? And, more to the point, isn't the important thing that neither major political party is eager to claim credit for racist violence?

-"[T]here’s a racial component, which I’m not sure I understand," writes Timothy Egan about the Amanda Knox trial, which he's been covering from a thinly-veiled pro-Knox angle. Something about these two posts about the now-notorious Italian murder case just seems... off. I guess I'm confused. Is Egan trying to claim that an all-American (read: white, delicate-featured, blonde-and-blue-eyed, athletic, not-too-worldly, middle-class, college-partier) young woman is incapable of murder? He denies this in the second post, but it's not hard to see how people read this in the first, in which he brushes aside all the legitimate reasons Knox is on trial, in favor of a portrait of her wholesome naivete. Or is it just that he happens to be from the same city as the accused, and to have a daughter who's on paper much like her? If so, couldn't he have made that clear, and not held forth on her sportive Christian background as though this proved anything one way or the other? Is there something sinister about the fact that Egan's daughter used the pretext of this gruesome murder case (and, one guesses, nepotism, although that alone is expected and, if annoying, not sinister) to get an op-ed in the Times, complaining about how being from the same town as the accused is making her own study-abroad experience less delightful than it otherwise might have been?

But back to the father. Isn't it a bit odd that he claims to come to the case with neutrality ("I have no agenda. I came to this story cold."), after writing earlier: "In Seattle, where I live, I see a familiar kind of Northwestern girl in Amanda Knox [...]" How "cold" is that? During the Dreyfus Affair, French Jews famously made a point to not assume, on account of shared background, that their coreligionist was innocent, at least until this became too obvious to deny. But I suppose this is a sense of restraint specific to members of minority groups, if not turn-of-the-century French Jews. At least Egan does not seem any less loyal an American for sticking up for Knox, because for better or worse, Knox is being presented - by Egan and by her detractors - as pure Americana.

And this, from his own self-defense, in the second post. Argh:

I’d like to comment on some of the general points made by readers to the post. First, the headline: “An Innocent Abroad.” Many people took this to mean that I believe she is innocent. I’m not sure what happened to Kercher, but I do know there so many holes in the prosecutor’s case as to raise reasonable doubt, at the least. The headline was supposed to be vague in a literary way — an allusion to Mark Twain’s book, “Innocents Abroad.” Maybe I should stay away from literary allusions, particularly when they can get lost in translation.

Ah, so it's all about a failure to pick up on literary allusions (particularly, he seems to imply, on the part of foreigners, presumably, given who was commenting, Italians), and not that Egan argued - in the post title and the post itself - not only that the accused should be assumed innocent unless proven otherwise, but that this much was certain. As if, if Italians only improved their English and read Twain, they'd get the ambiguities Egan intended. Is he serious?

From what I've read, it seems ample evidence, including DNA, suggests Knox should at least be tried. But I agree with Egan, and with all reasonable people, that it's tragic when people are jailed for crimes they didn't commit, and do not assume that someone who's shown evidence of fairly extreme racism, anti-Semitism, and general coldness towards her roommate's death is necessarily guilty of murder - one can be unpleasant and not a murderer... or for all I know, reading this from thousands of miles away, she's actually a lovely person. But I don't think it should matter - the trial will, I'd imagine/hope, be about whether Knox killed someone, not whether she'd be fun to spend time with otherwise. The issue here is Egan's piece, not Knox.

So I disagree both with those who think that her white privilege is such that arresting her somehow makes things 'even' for people of color/people with less deer-in-headlights mugshots who were/are in prison unfairly - better all should get the pretty-blonde treatment than the other way around - as well as with Egan, when he suggests that this young woman being spacey and athletic and not-so-worldly somehow proves her innocence. And the fact that she worked to save up for her study-abroad experience? I've never heard of any college student not working to save up for studying abroad. It's hardly a sign of great financial hardship. Nor is it clear to me why it matters, for the purposes of this case, whether Knox was a scholarship student or a trustifarian - the murder did not, it sounds like, have anything to do with money. But I digress.

I don't know. It's all very reminiscent of the death of Rachel Corrie, another photogenic young blonde from Washington State (where I've never been, but which if the press is to be believed is where Real America intersects with Well-Meaning Liberal America) whose behavior abroad was frequently interpreted as naive for reasons that, I tend to think, have more to do with continued societal notions of blondness-as-purity than with any particular ignorance on the part of either the pro-Palestinian activist or the woman now on trial in Italy.

Even in this day and age, hair color (when assumed to be natural) has such significance, it's kind of insane. In this, although Italians are typically both white and Christian, the racial angle to the case that Egan claims not to understand is not only about how Knox falsely accused a black man of the murder for which she's on trial, or that the woman who was killed was of mixed race, but is also about the ancient North-South Europe divide. Because we in America are so used to seeing racism as about blacks and whites, because that's typically how it manifests itself in our country, it can be easy to miss this other variant, especially when Americans are the ones engaging in it.

In the interests of universalism, I'd like to think this frustrates me both as someone who's never, not even as a child, been blonde, and, even more so, as someone against bigotry who also happens to have dark brown or black hair, depending the light I'm standing in.

Anyhow. In the interests of not making this post even longer, I'll leave it at that.

1 comment:

Jeff said...

Washington State (where I've never been, but which if the press is to be believed is where Real America intersects with Well-Meaning Liberal America)

It's not an intersection, it's a boundary - Real America to the east of the Cascades, Well-Meaning Liberal America to the west.