Wednesday, June 21, 2006

on the radio, it wasreported that a math teacher in Washington state gave a controversial lesson, which touched a nerve because it touched on the issue of race. I assumed that this would be a 'standard story' of the form 'the teacher wanted to interest the students, so s/he chose examples relevant to youth. for the case of inner city youth, the problem might be something like:
supposing you have N dollars. you are a capitalist, and want to invest this in a way to maximize your return. you could buy flower and sugar and milk and oil, and then allocate these ingrediants among various recipes to make bread, cake, and cookies, in a way to maximize sales. or, you could do the same for different drugs (eg crack, weed, heroin, etc.). you might also want to invest in accessories, such as blunts, rolling papers, syringes, etc. You may also want to invest in a gun, or a crew who include both marketing representatives and security agents. The issue is to maximize profit.

It turned out this sort of example was not the one cited on the radio.

Instead it involved Condoleeza Rice dropping a watermelon off the white house, and the idea was to calculate the time required for it to fall using newton's law (F=mg=ma). One would assume it was a large watermelon, otherwise one might use the statistical mechanical version, p=exp (-mgh/kT).

Supposedly, because Rice is black, and there is an old idea that blacks and watermelons go together (eg old photos of Charlie Parker and crew eating watermelons on the back of a car), this was one more stereotype. If Rice were white, one might think instead of something more like her dropping a nuclear weapon on Iran, or other kind of stereotypical white behavior.

One could interpret this another way. Perhaps when she threw the melon off the white house (assuming this is true) she was being a terroist---though i guess this would be seen as racist, since most terrorists use something more terrorizing. Or, more likely, maybe she was having a 'African Liberation Day' celebration, in the sense of realizing that somehow she had come into possession of a watermelon, and this she felt was too stereotypical, so to liberate herself from the 'black identity' she took the watermelon to the white house roof and said 'no more identity politics'. She might have combined this with a calculation, noting that maybe, just as Lousisiana democrat Jefferson had recently been raided for corruption, that police were on the white house lawn coming to search the white house for evidence of corruption. Rice would, after a calculation, quickly lob the watermelon on the men in blue, and while they tried to figure out whether this was a terrorist attack, she would go an remove any incriminating evidence. In these interpretations it seems unlikely that this act can be viewed through a racial sterotypical lens.

Another example of racial interpretations is a recent column on the zmag.org web site, Znet. A black south african writer criticizes a white south african writer for implying that post-apartheid south africa was descending into the violent chaos of pre-western colonialist africa. This is implied because the white writer discusses how after apartheid ended, a child herding farm animals had them cross a road into a formerly white residential area. The picture is of savage africa invading civilized white areas.

However, an alternative view is that there is nothing in this scene which suggests post apartheid will be a regime of pre-civilized violent chaos. It may be taken to suggest it will be 'pre-civilized'. It may imply that white areas of south africa, where well dressed elites do civilized things like attend art gallerys, fine restaurants, and academic lectures, will dissapear, because there areas are invaded by, and degraded by, pastoralists. No more beatifully landscaped gardens, for example. But, it also means that the violence associated with colonialism also dissapears, for the 'civilized' forms also coexisted with apartheid and its gulags, exploitation, and (what could be termed genocidal, in the sense of racist) brutality.

One can imagine that 'nonwhite' civilization, well known from Timbuktu, could still exist, assuming the pastoralists decide to leave some areas free from animal husbandry, although this may not have existed in south africa. (I do believe some examples of ancient civilization have been found in Mozambique.)
Of course, Timbuktu as a non-white, indigenous african empire, may have had its own associated forms of violence and chaos, which are generally associated with the wealth creation that permits the practice of civilized activities. So one could replace a chaotic and violent apartheid era white dominated civilization with an all black one.

In sum, one could easily interpret the white writer's image as one of emotional neutrality, seeing the replacement of a dual civilized and violent colonialist empire with a more simple, yet also leisurely and rural nonviolent way of life characteristic of south africa before whites arrived. (I guess if all the white people in South Africa were vegans, one could argue that maintaining a brutal apartheid rule was less violent than a post-apartheid regime which involved animal agriculture. Its all good.)

From this view, the south african writer might actually have projected a more 'eurocentric' view on the picture than the white writer, associated rural agruicultural lifestyles with less civilized behavior, even chaos and violence. The alternative view would be to ask what exactly is so civilized about an empire which requires brutality to fund its explorations into science, art, philosophy and wine tasting.