The Clare Spark Blog

February 8, 2010

“Who ain’t a racist? Tell me that.”

Herman Melville in old age

Melville readers will recognize the source of my title: Ishmael demands to know “Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that.” He might have been referring to Christianity and its warning not to be a slave to the passions. (See In the text of Moby-Dick, however, the statement refers to the condition of common sailors who must submit to harsh hierarchies on ships. Even so, it is an odd statement. Was Ishmael preternaturally free from 19th century racist sentiments?

There is a hot debate in Facebook over whether or not the Tea-Party brigade is racist or not. One person accused Tom Tancredo of racism in his efforts to end illegal immigration. Elsewhere on the web, scholars are debating whether or not the word “slave” is racist, preferring “enslaved” to describe what used to be called “slaves” and slavery.

I write this blog to remind us that there are rational reasons to worry about social services (including education, medical care, welfare, and the prison population) that are overburdened because of the availability of cheap immigrant labor. It has always been the case that semi-skilled workers have lost out to immigrants (and before that, slaves) who could work cheaper, hence driving down the cost of labor. Moreover, in my own state, California, the rapid influx of Latino labor (some of them employed by fellow Latinos at low wages) has strained the budget beyond endurance.

As for the debate over the use of the word “slave,” those who object to that word probably believe that language creates reality, and that the “slave” by being so named was deprived of “agency,” and was probably seen as a slave by nature. Whereas the term “enslaved” suggests that there is an oppressor to be stigmatized. Professor David Blight of Yale has rightly condemned this torrid discussion on H-Slavery (part of Humanities Net) as ignoring the old unresolved questions, such as whether abolitionists were motivated by morality or economics, or whether slavery was or was not part of the capitalist system. I agree with him and would like to see debate on the questions he raises. As for Herman Melville’s Ishmael, it was Captain Ahab who took little black Pip into his cabin, while Ishmael asked a question that would irritate current sensibilities. (Feminists in the 1970s sometimes pointed to sexism as equivalent to racism and slavery, and caught hell for saying it.)

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