Modern Racism vs. Postmodern Racism
“Racism” is a tough term today. Anyone who has watched the news lately will know that. Much of this is due to the inherent conflict between the term in a modern sense and a postmodern sense. The modern sense is more familiar and follows from the norms of the Enlightenment. It generally holds that individuals are racist or not, and that, being tied to the individual, it is dependent on attitudes and beliefs that someone has in regard to race. The presentation of the term is thus straightforward. The postmodern sense is only recently known, and it is based more on a meta-analysis of the society in which racial conflicts and iniquities occur. It de-individuates, focusing instead on systemic patterns. It addresses impacts, not intentions, making it fundamentally different from “racism” as most people have known it.
The divergent framework of these terms leads to disagreement in their application. In discussions where racism is in play, particularly in America in the year 2020, the different frameworks lead to adverse conclusions on who is racist. Is it the white guy? Is it the black guy? Folks disagree, sometimes vehemently. In the scenario I describe below, we will see a rare scenario where the two terms align.
First, we need context. I give free consultations to drivers who receive traffic citations. For those unfamiliar with North Carolina, its traffic laws are considered some of the strictest among the fifty states. Here, many traffic violations that would cause a slap on the wrist in another state instead lead to a mandatory appearance in court, steep fines, and maybe even a license suspension. Thus, the legal system in this state is one that can make or break vulnerable individuals and spiral out of control.
If someone has a single FTA that is never resolved, the DMV will never allow them to drive again.
Folks who get suspended may also be cited for driving with a revoked license (this is called “DWLR,” and it is common that folks do not even realize they are suspended when they get a DWLR). Causes of suspension can include missing your court date for a previous citation (and many also do not realize that they ever had to go to court in the first place). A DWLR can be a pretty bad conviction to have on the record, but many courts will work out a deal if the person can get their license reinstated and show proof of this to the court (not all of them do this).
What gets tricky is if someone has missed court (called an FTA) in a jurisdiction that does not strike the FTA. The FTA, in brief, will cause an indefinite suspension and needs to be resolved before someone can be allowed to drive again. If someone has a single FTA that is never resolved, the DMV will never allow them to drive again. If someone has an FTA for a DWLR case, a paradox can emerge. Dismissing an FTA case can resolve the FTA, but if the FTA will never be stricken by the court, then a person cannot get their license reinstated to show to the court. If they cannot get their license reinstated, they may not be able to get DWLR case dismissed. Often, a person could resolve both the citation and the general suspension. Instead, the best any attorney could do is plead them to an offense, sometimes even the DWLR itself, which can lead to further suspension.
Given all this, we now might ask: What do the modern and postmodern versions of racism illuminate for us?
I was giving a consultation to a gentleman who had been cited for DWLR. He missed court for this citation and got an FTA. This citation was issued in a jurisdiction that does not strike FTAs. He had stumbled into the paradox that I just described. Checking my attorney’s information about that jurisdiction, his best case scenario was the following: Our attorney would have to get the case back on the court calendar and then plead him to the DWLR. This would contribute to potentially 12 months of suspension. Thus, there was no solution to get him reinstated relatively soon. The best that could be done with this process would be to end the indefinite suspension and bring it to an eventual end, but the gentleman could not simply have his license back in the moment the case was resolved, like other people in other jurisdictions could.
Naturally, he was not happy about that, and that led to the pivotal moment of the scenario. I was trying to give him this information and let him know what his real options were. While I tried to lay it all out, however, he kept objecting. Again, he is not being told what he wants to hear. I probably tried to explain this sequence about five times, all the while he kept interrupting and trying to argue the information that was straight from the attorney. Eventually, he stated, “You may be talking to a black man, but I’m not that black man.” Shortly after, he uttered some expletives at me and ended the call.
Now, this gentleman is in a tough spot, and his emotions are unsurprising. Any attorney he hires is going to have the same obstacles. By refusing to go through the necessary process to resolve the case, he will always be suspended. As bad as a 12-month suspension is, it is, at least, a finite period. Given all this, we now might ask: What do the modern and postmodern versions of racism illuminate for us? Where was the racism?
The modern school would likely put it on this gentleman. If we take his remark as proof that he never trusted me because he believed I am white, then that is an attitude on race held by an individual. The modern school concludes that this man is, to some degree, racist, considering that he does not trust white people or maybe, more broadly, people who are not black.
Where would the postmodern school put it? Well, given the internal logic of it, they would also put it on this gentleman. The impact of his behavior is what matters here, not his intentions or attitudes toward me or toward himself as a black man. The impact is that the criminal statistics will be more weighted against black Americans, as well as the economic impacts of that burden. It just so happens that he himself will be the statistic. He is contributing to the systemic problems, however understandably, and his intentions are not relevant in the postmodern lens.
The postmodern take, while requiring more layers, may shed light on something that the modern take does not. He is not the only statistic impacted here. The gentleman was unaware that the information I was sharing with him, the information that he was rejecting, was provided specifically by one of our black attorneys. In essence, the impact of his decision, whatever his intentions were, is that a black man in a profession that historically predominated by white men was not given due credibility or opportunity to take a case. Thus, the statistic is not only against the gentleman in his overall criminal record; it is also against the attorney in his career and professional success. It is these two facts that would be contemplated under postmodern racism.
As I looked back on this, I found the alignment between the two schools of racism interesting. Would this form a rare point of agreement or more argument? Does it show that one or both schools are insightful? Does it instead show that one or both are contrived? Does it show that a third school is worth developing? I will not answer those questions myself, but I will leave it for the reader to digest and ponder. Many stories where race is relevant exist, after all. The question is always what these stories have to teach us.