Noam Chomsky: "Intentional ignorance" fuels American racism

Linguist and activist tackles America's original sin in new interview

Published March 18, 2015 9:32PM (EDT)

  (<a href=''>fotostory</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(fotostory via Shutterstock)

Racism is deeply embedded in the institutions of American life, and has been enabled by an "intentional ignorance" of inconvenient truths, Noam Chomsky says in a new interview.

Speaking with the philosopher George Yancy for a feature on the New York Times' Opinionator blog, the linguist and left-wing activist brings his trademark analytical style to bear on America's original sin, examining the deep roots and sordid legacy of racial discrimination and dehumanization, dating to the earliest days of American society.

"The first black slaves were brought to the colonies 400 years ago. We cannot allow ourselves to forget that during this long period there have been only a few decades when African-Americans, apart from a few, had some limited possibilities for entering the mainstream of American society," Chomsky says.

"We also cannot allow ourselves to forget that the hideous slave labor camps of the new “empire of liberty” were a primary source for the wealth and privilege of American society, as well as England and the continent," he adds. "The industrial revolution was based on cotton, produced primarily in the slave labor camps of the United States."

Throughout the country's history, Chomsky says, enforcers of racial subjugation have been gripped by fears that the oppressed will rebel against the racial hierarchy.

"Some of the slave-owners, like Jefferson, appreciated the moral turpitude on which the economy relied. But he feared the liberation of slaves, who have 'ten thousand recollections' of the crimes to which they were subjected," Chomsky says. "Fears that the victims might rise up and take revenge are deeply rooted in American culture, with reverberations to the present."

The harsh realities of American racism and how it functions are seldom acknowledged, Chomsky argues -- the willful result of national myth-making and truth-shrouding.

"There is also a common variant of what has sometimes been called 'intentional ignorance' of what it is inconvenient to know: 'Yes, bad things happened in the past, but let us put all of that behind us and march on to a glorious future, all sharing equally in the rights and opportunities of citizenry,'" he explains.

Intentional ignorance dates to the earliest days of settlement -- when American colonists would reassure themselves that their displacement of Native Americans was part of a "humanitarian intervention" against "savagery" -- and continues to the present day, undergirding discussions of African Americans' alleged pathologies, for instance.

"The appalling statistics of today’s circumstances of African-American life can be confronted by other bitter residues of a shameful past, laments about black cultural inferiority, or worse, forgetting how our wealth and privilege was created in no small part by the centuries of torture and degradation of which we are the beneficiaries and they remain the victims," Chomsky notes. "As for the very partial and hopelessly inadequate compensation that decency would require — that lies somewhere between the memory hole and anathema."

Chomsky also detects old patterns of dehumanization in the popular film "American Sniper," about Iraq war veteran Chris Kyle.

"To give just one vivid current example, audiences flocked in record-breaking numbers to a film, described in The New York Times Arts section as 'a patriotic, pro-family picture,' about a sniper who claims to hold the championship in killing Iraqis during the United States invasion, and proudly describes his targets as 'savage, despicable, evil … really no other way to describe what we encountered there,'" Chomsky says. "This was referring specifically to his first kill, a woman holding a grenade when under attack by United States forces."

Amid persistent racism, however, Chomsky still sees prospects for progress.

"It’s easy to rattle off the usual answers: education, exploring and addressing the sources of the malady, joining together in common enterprises — labor struggles have been an important case — and so on. The answers are right, and have achieved a lot. Racism is far from eradicated, but it is not what it was not very long ago, thanks to such efforts. It’s a long, hard road. No magic wand, as far as I know," he concludes.

By Luke Brinker

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