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University Goes For Pushbutton Solution

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The impact of RAT programs historically has not been to further and enhance anti-racist struggles but to divert, dilute and subvert them, to "ease tensions," gloss over contradictions, and redefine problems so that their solutions fit.

Last year, the struggle against racism at U-M intensified sharply. In response to a series of blatantly racist incidents, students occupied the Administration building overnight, disrupted the Board of Regents meeting, and focused national media attention on the struggle at U-M. Consequently, the University was forced to respond. The response, however, has been geared more toward suppressing future protests than combatting racism. By defining the problem of racism as a problem of individual attitudes as opposed to a problem which is systemic and institutionalized, the University is, in effect, depoliticizing the anti-racist campus movement. This approach conveniently deflects blame from university officials and minimizes the fact that they have virtually ignored the anti-racist demands made by student activists last term. This overly simplistic, apolitical and ahistoricai view of racism is dangerously misleading and undermines progressive anti-racist struggle.

Over the summer, the University has brought n several "professional" race relations consultants to conduct wordshops on "unlearning racism" for students, staff and some faculty. These consultants, while their approaches vary, are connected to the Katzian philosophy of Racism Awareness Training (RAT), popularized over a decade ago.

The primary strategy for fighting racism advocated by RAT is for individuals to understand other cultures and their own prejudices against people who are different. Whites, who are the focus of the RAT technique, are asked to carefully explore and confront their personal biases as the best way of combatting racism. Facilitators suggest they begin to do this by identifying how they themselves have been targets of discrimination as gays, people who are overweight, elderly, or from single parent homes.

RAT emerged in the late 1960's, on the heels of the Civil Rights and Black liberation movements of that same decade. It was coordinated by school administrators, social workers and government bureaucrats in urban centers where Black protests had been most intense. Not suprisingly, Detroit was one of those centers.

One of the most comprehensivo RAT programs was set up by the U.S. military to "ease tensions" between Black and white G.l.'s. That program was put in place by the Defense Department essentially to "cool out" Black soldiers who were mounting increasingly militant protests against racism and discrimination within the military. The programs consisted of cultural awareness sessions including sonal and often emotional exchanges between whites and Blacks.

As RAT evolved, it increasingly focused on white racist attitudes which were confronted in all-white workshops, by "expert" white facilitators. A popular RAT slogan is that "racism is a white problem." This slogan exposes the fact that RAT facilitators are concerned solely with racist attitudes as opposed to racist policies, practices and institutions. Such a statement has validity only if one is discussing the psychology of racism. If we talk about the material reality of racism in peoples' lives it is primarily a problem for people of color.

This personalized approach to racism was packaged and distributed widely by white Oklahoma professor Judy Katz in a 1976 book and subsequent training program. In 1978, RAT went international and a center was set up in Britain. Not surprisingly, RAT was adapted to British needs at a point when anti-racist struggle against the fascist National Front, led by Black and Asian youth, was at its peak. The impact of RAT programs historically has not been to further and enhance anti-racist struggles but to divert, dilute and subvert them, to "ease tensions," gloss over contradictions, and redefine problems so that their solutions fit.

To the degree which RAT addresses racism as a political issue it suggests that racism is prejudice plus power. This formulation is problematic because it defines the primary foundation of racism as personal prejudice.

It is more plausible to think of American racism in reverse. It is the power to subjugate, enslave and exploit which is racism's foundation. Racist stereotypes, theories of racial inferiority, and even a pseudo-scientific definition of race itself, carne largely as justificaron for the oppressive social relations that had already been created. As a former Black Panther leader once observed, "African people were not brought to America as 'negroes.' We were brought here as slaves." In other words, European colonists did not span the globe, implement an elaborate trade network and carefully construct the social and economic system of slavery simply because they did not "like" Africans. African slaves were brought to the Americas primarily as economic units to satisfy the insatiable labor needs of an expanding agricultural economy.

Racism is an exploitative set of relationships that oppresses some and benefits others. Racism divides poor people along racial lines, conveniently designates people of color as those who will be at the bottom of the social and economic pyramid of American capitalism, and provides visible and vulnerable scapegoats to blame for a whole array of social problems. For those who rule and profit from the current social order, racism is not accidental at all.

RAT facilitators essentially divorce racism from its political and historical context and charactcrize it as one big misunderstanding. RAT reduces racism from the level of the political to the level of the personal, suggesting that by changing attitudes, one by one, we will eventually, albeit gradually, change the world. This sounds appealing to many Americans who fear confrontation, disruption and the disorder of mass protest. This approach implics that we can just sit down calmly and quictly and talk things out. The only problem is this personalizcd approach ignores the very basic question - Where do bad ideas come from anyway?

Changing the nature of education, reallocating material wealth, desegregating communities will do more to change ideas and, more importantly, improve the lives of people of color. Individual or group therapy sessions which deal with racism in the abstract for two hours only sends everyone back to their segregated lives, stratified institutions, and differing levels of privilege, feeling personally cleansed and absolved. RAT gives people a way to feel better about themselves without doing anything to change the racist reality all around them.

Yes, racist altitudes must be combatted, but struggles based solely on countering attitudinal racism while leaving the entire racist apparatus of society unscathed is not only inadequate but counter productive. Programs such as RAT serve only to detract attention from the political movement to effect social change. Whites should instead learn to reject personal racism by joining in the anti-racist struggle and by accepting leadership from those who understand racism best, those who have been its principal victims - people of color. Moreover, racist personal attitudes are most likely to be challenged in the context of on-going relationships and struggle rather than a two or eight hour workshop which deals with the issue in the abstract. Racism has no pushbutton solutions.


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