Paranoia is easy to wave away and laugh about. The craziest of conspiracy theories are known about by almost any American. It is redundant, in respectable company, to even say a conspiracy theory is crazy. But this condescension toward the paranoid misses the fundamental relevance of paranoia.
This country is a paranoid society, I would argue. It goes beyond the radical conspiracists and affects us all. There could be many reasons for this state of affairs. The most obvious one is that we live in a large and diverse country. Few other countries come close to the distance found here between geographic regions and ethnic cultures. Furthermore, the distance between the powerful and powerless is at least as vast and growing vaster. In the space between these distances, there is much room for fantasizing and projection, for fear and mistrust.
I find myself more sympathetic and understanding of paranoia than many people, partly because I have my own paranoid leanings. I came of age reading Robert Anton Wilson and listening to Art Bell on Coast to Coast AM. I tend toward considering all perspectives, even when they seem improbable, if only for amusement and the exercise of my imagination. This isn’t to say I will waste my time trying to make sense of incoherent ramblings or unsupported speculations. Nor does it mean I won’t judge harshly and call bullshit. I’ll look at someone’s evidence and claims, but I will do so critically with utmost intellectual standards.
I take paranoia seriously because it feels like an all too reasonable response to the world we live in. Particular paranoid responses often aren’t plausible or relevant. Sometimes they can lead to harmful beliefs and dangerous behaviors. Still, paranoia taken on its own terms is a useful and maybe a necessary attitude. It simply tells us that there is something that isn’t known and that such is a less-than-optimal situation. So, even when paranoia leads to an invalid conspiracy theory and/or problematic levels of mistrust, the impulse itself shouldn’t be denied or ignored.
Truth often hides in odd places, if we dare to look. But we can’t know what truth that might be until we look for it. When we notice paranoia, we should take very seriously what is provoking it.
There are plenty of issues an American should be paranoid about. Trust needs to be earned, most especially in a supposed democratic society. Yet particular individuals and groups in our society have proven to be questionable in their trustworthiness. We have endless examples of trust being abused and betrayed, often in major ways.
One of the greatest of injustices in this country, of course, is that of racism… or call it racialization, racial bias, institutional racism, racecraft, the New Jim Crow, whatever. Everyone acknowledges the dark past beginning with slavery, but political correctness has made it near impossible to speak openly and honestly about the continuing reality and the enduring repercussions.
From Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness The New Reality of Race in America by John L. Jackson:
“Most commentators don’t emphasize, however, that the stakes of political correctness are located in a slightly different place than our conversations on the matter imply. The culture of political correctness actually generates one of the essential foundations of contemporary racial distrust. Since most Americans aren’t as transparent as Archie Bunker (even when he’s trying to hide his ethnocentrism), PC policies actually lose their ability to cultivate the kinds of good-faith dialogues they are meant to foster. Instead, blacks are stuck in the structural position (vis-à-vis white interlocutors) of their ancestors’ slave masters: they see smiles on white faces and hear kind words spilling from white mouths without the least bit of certainty about whether those gestures are representative of the speakers’ hearts. “The American Negro problem,” wrote Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal in the 1940s, “is a problem in the heart of the American. It is there that the interracial tension has its focus. It is there that the decisive struggle goes on.” And it is there that the search for racial honesty and truth continues today. But not in the same ways that Myrdal emphasized.
“When individuals’ words and some of their actions can no longer be trusted, we look for other seemingly invisible and interior clues about people’s racial positions. We long to look past calculated performances and into the very hearts of men and women. Social analysts should take the features of this need, this search for de cardio racism, seriously—this racism attributed to the hearts of other-than-explicitly racist actors. De cardio racism is imagined to be a kind of hidden or cloaked racism, a racism of euphemism and innuendo, not heels-dug-in pronouncements of innate black inferiority.
“We’re living in a moment when what I’m calling de cardio racism has elbowed out room for itself at the head of America’s political table, right alongside still operative de jure and de facto forms (think of sentencing disparities for possession of crack versus powder cocaine as a contemporary version of the former and our seemingly effortless, self-perpetuating reproductions of residential and educational segregation along racial lines as a twenty-first-century instance of the latter).
“Given this newfangled reckoning of American racism’s potentially cloaked animosities, the white man’s newest burden is hardly lightened by political correctness—just as black people’s deepest racial suspicions are only bolstered by America’s current penchant for dressing up every ideological position (no matter how reactionary or elitist, partisan or self-interested) as simply another better version of egalitarianism.”
Without genuine public discourse, the silence belies something unspoken and unadmitted.
“As an anthropologist studying how black people talk about race, I’ve heard this silence described many times and in many ways, but one young security guard in Brook – lyn, New York, captured the thrust of the de cardio racism critique most succinctly: “They were sending dogs to maul black kids in the street forty years ago, and all of a sudden there are no racists in America at all.” De cardio racism asks, where did all of yesterday’s racial wolves go, and why do all these sheep seem to be standing around licking their chops?””
Racism hasn’t disappeared. It has simply mutated into some strange creature, a mind parasite that burrows deep (as the Toxoplasma lies hidden in the brain of rats telling them that they want to run fast in open spaces, that the smell of cat urine is actually a pleasant smell to be sought out). Hidden behind political correctness and post-racial colorblindness, the infestation of this soul-sickening mind-warping racial oppressiveness goes untreated.
“The point isn’t that race is less important now than it was before. It’s just more schizophrenic, more paradoxical. We continue to commit to its social significance on many levels, but we seem to disavow that commitment at one and the same time. Race is real, but it isn’t. It has value, but it doesn’t. It explains social difference, but it couldn’t possibly. This kind of racial doublethink drives us all crazy, makes us so suspicious of one another, and fans the flames of racial paranoia. Nothing is innocent, and one bumps into conspirators everywhere.”
This isn’t to deny the progress that has been made, but it is to look deeper past the superficial narrative and into the even more intransigent problems.
“The demonization of public racism is clearly a social and moral victory, but it has come at a cost. Political correctness has proven tragically effective at hiding racism, not just healing it. In sacrificing noisy and potentially combative racial discussions for the politeness of political correctness, we face an even more pernicious racism, a racism that’s almost never explicitly declared, except among the closest of confidants. But as the “White Like Me” skit’s lampoon shows, people recognize the fact that racism might be even more effectual under the cover of color blindness and rhetorical silence.”
The fact that political correctness has become the ultimate defense of racism is one of the saddest results of all. The words of political correctness are invoked like an invisibility spell. With this talismanic use of magical words, all the old racisms simply take new form and in some ways they are more powerful than before. Now they are presented, instead of as belief and bigotry, in the guise of neutral observation or even scientific reality.
We Americans live in a society, not just of vast geographic and cultural divides, but also of vast racial and class divides.
There is no other major developed country in the Western world with equivalent high of rates of economic inequality and no other country anywhere in the world with even close to our high rates of incarceration rates; other high rates of social problems could be added to these two egregious examples. The injustice of this American society is beyond comprehension. Those on the bottom or those threatened with ending up on the bottom have a lot to fear. If you are deemed useless or simply in the way in this society, you will be lucky to fall through the cracks rather than be ground beneath the wheel. And no one in the mainstream media will bother to report on your sad fate. You’ll just be another faceless number or maybe not even that.
It is hard to blame people, under these oppressive conditions, for lashing out at shadows.
“When you wire skepticism and paranoia directly to questions of racial discrimination and inequality (and in a context where economic inequality is rising just as social safety nets are deteriorating precipitously), you then have a perfect storm for severe responses to severe times.”
The danger in our society isn’t in being paranoid but in not being paranoid enough, especially if you are part of the economic underclass or worse still the racial under-caste. But paranoia speaks of deeper undercurrents still. In a society of fear, the sickening taint of mistrust and doubt seeps into our very pores.
“De cardio racism can even be hidden from the very person who harbors it. They may not even admit racist feelings to themselves. If we were all self-aware and totally self-transparent, every psychotherapist in the country would be begging for bread.”
Now there is paranoia for you. The monster lurks within the unsuspecting. Look in the mirror, if you dare, and see what may look back.
The more we deny something the more we fear being judged to be in denial. Still, it isn’t just that this judgment may come from others but that we too have suspicions about ours own potential guilt, a sense of past sins and ongoing complicities. Everyone understands that each of us harbors ugly thoughts, cruel grudges, repressed memories, and who knows what else. So much of civilized behavior is pretense, as much to convince ourselves as others. For certain, political correctness isn’t a recent invention. People have been speaking around uncomfortable truths and dangerous ideas for as long as humans could speak.
“The eighteenth-century French philosopher Voltaire once claimed that human beings really only speak to conceal what they truly feel, as much to miscommunicate as anything else. Humans are complicated and dissimulating creatures with the uncanny ability to misrepresent themselves and their deepest inner thoughts, to be purposefully economical with the truth. It could be as harmless as a “little white lie” about how good your child was in the school play or as catastrophic as a governmental cover-up of Watergate-like proportions. And there are few areas of public life where people put these gifts to work as often as they do in the context of discussions about race.”
It doesn’t even matter if we’d rather not admit to what underlies our own thoughts and motivations. The data points toward the inconvenient knowledge of our all too human tendencies. Research shows a million examples of hidden biases and prejudices, many of them racial.
“Although nobody went on CNN or Fox after the Hurricane Katrina disaster to proclaim that they would like to donate money to white victims instead of black ones, a Washington Post/Stanford University study found that white Americans were willing to provide more financial assistance to white victims than black ones, to the tune of about $1,000 extra a year. And the darker the victim, the less money she would have received, with lighter-skinned blacks benefiting from about $100 more per month than those who couldn’t pass the brown-paper-bag test (i.e., those not lighter than a brown shopping bag). Americans may hardly admit it in public, but they are clearly willing to put their money where their color biases are.”
I have my doubts that we, as a society and as individuals, would know how to be non-racist, even if we tried. We are the products of our society and are no more capable of being colorblind than Pavlov’s dog could be mute to the sound of the bell.
“If psychologists have shown that people don’t even necessarily know what makes them happy, they may not be able to identify exactly what makes them potentially hateful or discriminatory either. If we can “stumble on happiness,” we might be able to stumble right into prejudice as well.
“The more blatantly racist a society has been in the past, the steeper its climb out of explicit racial discrimination and the harder it is for contemporary citizens to shake fears of de cardio racism. The farther we advance from overt racist doctrines and laws, the more material traces those past sins leave behind, which means all the more surfaces to which contemporary racially charged paranoia might stick.”
Alleging that our dark nature is to be found in our genes or elsewhere instead of the unconscious hardly alleviates the paranoia. Ours is a society full of people claiming secret sins are hidden away within the hearts, minds and bodies of their neighbors, coworkers and fellow citizens. All white people have hidden racist beliefs and thoughts. All black people (along with other minorities) have hidden inferior genes and culture. And all of society has hidden structures of privilege and oppression, of class warfare and cabals of special interest groups. Endless seething nightmares of paranoia.
The real dark secret is the paranoia itself. We all go on acting normal as these dark visions play out in the background of our daily activities and interactions. It isn’t about proving one’s own preferred paranoia and disproving all others. The paranoia itself always speaks to our shared reality. The question is: What does it signify? What are we really afraid of?
“Rumors about race, racism, and racial distrust are not just fringe beliefs held by a few hard-line crackpots, not even the kinds just mentioned. They define the surreal core of all racial stereotypes and race-based social policy. Race, as a concept, is only useful as a way to ground conspiratorial claims—about research on inherent cognitive differences between social groups or about secret government surveillance technologies. Race is one of the shortcuts we use to convince ourselves that the social differences we see in the world merely reflect more latent and inflexible differences in genes or culture. And racial paranoia is the realization that we are all far too afraid and polite to deal with any of these assumptions head-on.”
Racial paranoia is just another expression of the return of the repressed. If we don’t deal with an issue at the conscious level, our unconsciousness will find a way to force the issue and command our attention. The central conflict of race itself demands resolution.
“In the early 1970s, psychologist Joseph White penned what is now one of the most classic formulations of black paranoia as a reasonable response to white racism. “Part of the objective condition of black people in this society is that of a paranoid condition,” he writes. “There is, and has been, unwarranted, systematic persecution and exploitation of black people as a group. A black person who is not suspicious of the white culture is pathologically denying certain objective and basic realities of the black experience.””
There is more to racial paranoia than fear-fueled suspiciousness and dark visions. Very much real social conditions, historical and present, give plentiful evidence for mistrust. How could the average black person in this society not at the very least have some occasional misgivings? Heck, I’m a relatively privileged white male and even I have healthy skepticism about the good intentions of certain people who share this society with me. A bit of paranoia is a perfectly normal response when faced with such deeply entrenched power structures and power disparities.
“What detractors pooh-pooh as irrational racial paranoia might represent an appropriate, if incomplete, response to euphemized forms of racism today.”
So, what kind of response is needed?
Simply trying to be more reasonable and rational won’t save us. We humans never lack for reasons, never lack for an ability to rationalize and explain away. The surface level of our thoughts and words is just so much distraction. If we seek justice and fairness, there is no way for us to keep an objective distance and keep ourselves clean from the inersubjective muck of it all. It is all too personal for all involved.
“As a society we should never pretend that we have successfully reasoned or legislated our way out of race’s suffocating grasp. Our historical investment in it is too dynamic and affective for that, too irrational and deep-seated. We are being naive if we think that we can sit down and intellectualize ourselves out of its sticky clutches, if we imagine that ending explicit commitments to blatant types of racial discrimination must mean that we are done with racism’s awful legacy for good. It is a trap that scholars fall into as well, assuming that all they have to do is objectively “deconstruct” race, prove it isn’t real in the biological ways that we once thought, and then imagine that by doing so they have somehow inoculated us all against its most hazardous features, dulled its sharpest talons. That isn’t nearly true.”
“We want to believe something very similar about racism and accusations of racism. If we can prove that a particular allegation of racism is unfounded or untrue, we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief and try to move on. That is part of racism’s power. It tricks us into thinking that we can wish it away with a string of logical premises and conclusions, with a singular decree of guilt or innocence. We fantasize about isolating this thing and determining its measurable impact once and for all, especially now that blatant forms of racism have been so thoroughly demonized in mainstream society.”
Yeah, I’ve lately read a number of books whose authors could be accused of falling into that intellectual trap. I’m not sure it is an entirely fair accusation, but I understand the point. Intellectual analysis of data is just a tool. It is one tool among many and no less useful when needed.
If I had an accusation against the author of this book (John L. Jackson), I might say that he didn’t ground his argument in enough intellectual analysis of data. His argument would have been so much stronger had he been as thorough as, for example, Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow. It was the data-driven strength of Alexander’s presentation that made her book so effective in its impact and hopefully its influence.
I love that Racial Paranoia presents fresh insight and an innovative perspective. So, I wouldn’t judge Jackson too harshly for I understand his purpose. He is making a very important point that maybe no one else is making, at least not in the way he is making it. The only comparable book I’ve come across is Racecraft by Fields and Fields. Both books try to get beyond the standard repeating of data and, in doing so, try to get past the cognitive traps of our own making.
Some have criticized Jackson for what the perceived failure to more fully include the problems of more overt racism, but I especially think that is unfair.
“I do want to argue that racial paranoia isn’t racism, but racism is also still alive and well (even in its more explicit guises). I don’t want to privilege individual psyches over larger structural forces. In fact, I want to argue that a structural transformation in the American racial order created current versions of race-based paranoia. All I suggest is that we not simply reduce accusations of racism to simplistic assessments of truth or falsehood. We shouldn’t just try to vet them for provable accuracy and then go on to something else once we think we’ve shown a particular allegation to be unfounded. Instead, I want to remind us that we now live in a political atmosphere that promotes racial dissimulation and insincerity. The self-conscious parsing of racial speech brings a certain kind of distrust and bad faith into the center of every interracial conversation, even if through the back door and against some people’s best intentions.”
His point is that taking seriously racial paranoia is a necessary and essential part of our dealing with the more concrete racial problems that confound us.
“We promote racial paranoia when we combine discussions about color blindness with silent acceptance of continued structural differences in racial realities.”
As such, racial paranoia is a sign of our collective failure. It is proof of how far away we still are from coming to terms with the real issues at hand.
There is a further issue that brings me to my own thoughts on American society. Jackson touches upon this in the following:
“Some critics downplay the significance of Americans’ publicly concealing their racial biases in mixed company, even as some of these same naysayers admit that most blacks and whites don’t have many substantial relationships with one another. In fact, political scientist Robert Putnam argues that Americans who live in diverse communities are more likely to disengage from civic life than those who live in homogenous racial and ethnic enclaves. This just further highlights fellow political scientist Diana Mutz’s persuasive contention that “participatory democracy” (civic engagement, people rolling up their sleeves and taking part in political life) and “deliberative democracy” (substantive discussions about political life) operate at cross-purposes to one another.13 If the lack of racial intimacy breeds distrust, the increase of interracial contact only makes good-faith social dialogue and interaction a casualty of that social mistrust. Social distance can make the heart grow frightened, but it takes more than just passing a diverse array of strangers on the street to allay those fears.”
I’ve so far spoken only of our culture of paranoia. That is the challenge before us. But what is the antidote? I would suggest that the only force equal to the task would be a culture of trust. The fact that this country has such a culture of paranoia could be interpreted as demonstrating how weak is our culture of trust, but I don’t know if that is actually the case. Conditions supporting each might not be oppositional.
The reason I say this is because the United States, in the studies I’ve seen, measures relatively high as a culture of trust. Not as high, of course, as Germany or Japan. Still, we’re not doing too bad, better than most countries. Besides, one might point out that, if not for a significant culture of paranoia in Germany, the Nazis wouldn’t likely have come to power by scapegoating so many people.
A culture of trust is about social capital. And a culture of paranoia is one possible result of insufficient social capital. But a finer point must be added that there are many kinds of social capital that serve different ends.
That is what Jackson explains in the quote directly above when he says, ““participatory democracy” (civic engagement, people rolling up their sleeves and taking part in political life) and “deliberative democracy” (substantive discussions about political life) operate at cross-purposes to one another.” Maybe so. If so, that is quite a dilemma. I doubt it is a forced option of one or the other, but it could imply a necessary third that bridges the two, a factor of social capital that is of a higher order.
This is shown by yet another study. Children who grow up in multicultural communities tend to become more socially liberal as adults. For a social democracy, the ultimate form of social capital is social liberalism. Without it, social democracy can’t function. Multiculturalism teaches kids how to tolerate and accept, how to cooperate and compromise with those who are different.
As this all shows, it isn’t simply a matter of social capital or its lack. Rather, what is required is a balance of social capital that achieves a particular end. A different blend of social capital would be required in a traditional society than in a modern society. In speaking of cultures of trust, we must consider what kinds of trust toward whom and for what purpose.
A kinship-based society would measure low in these kinds of studies for people in those societies only trust kin, but their trust of kin is very strong. In America, there is less trust (or loyalty) to large extended families. Few Americans could honestly speak of having a traditional clan or a tribe to which they belong. Also, as we aren’t an ethnic nation-state, we don’t have the same kind of patriotism and communitarianism found in the countries that do measure highest as cultures of trust. The Japanese when dealing with other Japanese know that they can make business deals on a handshake for someone’s word is their honor and, when the Japanese fail by their own sense of honor, that means social death and if severe enough a responsibility to commit suicide. We Americans aren’t so honor-bound.
Even so, we Americans have our own variety of trust. Unlike societies of kinship and ethno-nationalism, we are more likely to offer trust to strangers more quickly and with fewer reservations. We are more likely to assume someone is trustworthy until proven otherwise, especially in terms of face-to-face personal interactions.
My dad gave an example of this. His career led him to visit many factories. He remembered visiting a closed-down Japanese factory, but Japanese management were wary about him seeing their operation since he was an outsider, not just an outsider to Japan for he was also an outsider to the company. In visiting American factories, it was more common for management to let him freely wander around factories that were actively being used.
This might relate to a behavioral trait I’ve heard many foreigners observe in Americans. Americans on average are more openly gregarious, quick to help others, go out of our way to make people feel welcome. But to many foreigners this feels superficial. I can only imagine that it is something like how my Midwestern mother felt when interacting with our Southern Belle neighbor in South Carolina, a cordial friendliness that was just a formality. This observation of foreigners seems to show that there are two levels of trust. In everyday interactions, Americans act trustingly. But otherwise, Americans go by the policy that deeper trust needs to be earned. We don’t give someone that deeper trust simply because they share our kinship or our ethnicity.
Racial paranoia seems to operate on that deeper level.
It goes back to slavery, as Jackson explains. Many slave masters weren’t so wealthy that they could sit around sipping iced tea on the veranda. They had to be out there working in the fields with their slaves. Even for wealthier slave masters, their entire lives were intimately entwined with their slaves and, in the more isolated Virginia plantations, this went as far as slaves being part of an extended sense of family. It was the simultaneous closeness and distance between people in a slave society that necessitated trust even as it provoked paranoia. Segregation offers a false portrayal of geographic separation, but the reality is that people lived separate lives while often living next door to one another. Even after slavery, whether as sharecroppers or servants, blacks in the Deep South tended live near the whites they worked for. My Southern Belle neighbor, for example, had a black woman who was her personal servant for years and only lived a few blocks away.
A similar dynamic has happened also between other diverse demographics: ethnic groups, regional populations, etc. This is an immigrant nation and so that has meant diverse people have had to learn to work together, even when there was potential for animosities and inequalities. This has been magnified by the American tendency to move around a lot from region to region. American-style cooperative trust goes hand-in-hand with wary mistrust.
It could be that the paranoid imagination is how societies process divisions and conflicts. As people imagine dark possibilities, they imagine brighter possibilities as well.
Along with being an immigrant nation, the corollary is that this is a dynamic society. There is a constant influx of immigrants and, about every few generations, a new large wave of immigration comes along. This has meant that, unlike traditional societies with established ethnic populations, Americans in general has never been able or particularly interested in trying to remain unchanging.
Like all of modernity, this dynamic instability is taxing on human nature. There is an endless need for negotiating and renegotiating relationships. No seeming certainties go forever unchallenged.
This reminds me of my eternal fascination with boundaries and boundary types. I’ll let this angle bring me into my concluding thoughts.
The reason race is most prone to paranoia is because it isn’t an objective category. It can be almost anything to anyone. This is clearly shown with issues of definition. Even relatively dark-skinned North Africans are technically Caucasians. A large number of American blacks have as many or more European genetics than African genetics. There is a long history of light-skinned blacks passing as whites and also some examples of whites passing as blacks (e.g., John Howard Griffin). Then there are all those ethnic groups that have struggled to fit into American categories: Italians, Irish/Scots-Irish, Eastern Europeans, Jews, etc.
America is one of those places where differences come to die, although some take longer than others, race being one of the more stubborn. There are few ethnic immigrants whose American-born descendants aren’t assimilated within a few generations, often along with marrying across ethnic divides.
As boundaries shift, everything else shifts along with them: social identities, religious practices, communities, etc. And so we as a society shift from what is known to what is unknown, to what has been to what might be. This past century has been a time of the greatest shifts in American history. It shouldn’t be surprising that, when so much is up in the air, paranoia would become rampant. Of the uncertainties of our age, racial identities and categories are among the most challenged. A large part of the population today has few if any ancestors who were in America during slavery or even Jim Crow. The very history behind racial dogma is becoming ever more irrelevant, and so its ideological nature is becoming more obvious.
At the same time, the historical racial divides have been growing as the class divides grow. The racial order that benefits the few is increasingly becoming harmful to the many as those in power become increasingly oppressive in maintaining all aspects of the social order. It is in the interest of those least worthy of trust to discourage the development of a culture of trust.
The only thing that can move all of this forward against such resistance is public dialogue. Even paranoia expressed is more constructive than silence.