The Age of Consent and Learning to Live in Richard Wright’s “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow”

 

 

 

The following is an essay I wrote as an undergrad.

 


 

The chapter “Racial Formation” in Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s work Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s (1994) asserts that social structure and racial ideology are not mutually exclusive when discussing the problem of racism, and they are inseparable when contemplating the circumstances and results of racism in the United States. This claim is crucial to understanding the contradictory elements of life for people living in the racialized American society because it relies on the concept of hegemony as the dominant power structure. Both social structure and ideology are factors in the process called racial formation and this can be explored in Richard Wright’s “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow” (1937). One of the most striking and telling components in the work of Omi and Winant is the notion of consent as a critical piece to hegemony. First the concept of racial formation should be analyzed to see exactly what role hegemony plays.

It is difficult to talk about racial formation because it is a concept that must be thought about in abstract terms, yet remain relevant in the context of past, present, and future events. Omi and Winant coin the term as a way to discuss the complex interaction of social, cultural, economic, and political forces that have, continue, and will structure the experiences of people living in the racialized American society. Describing it as a “sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed” racial formation is the dynamic process that has defined what race means in the United States (55). Using this concept the sociologists explain the interconnected nature of race as part of a distinct social structure and dominant ideology that permeates the day to day lives of both the victims and the perpetrators of racism. This argument is facilitated by two key components: the existence of “historically situated projects” that work to define race and the “evolution of hegemony” in the United States over the last century (55-6). These racial projects are vehicles for the transformation of what was once a racial dictatorship, characterized by slavery and Jim Crow brutality, to the current racial hegemony that is reliant on more subtle and internalized methods of dominance. Social structure and ideology are formative pieces in the racial hegemony that Omi and Winant claim to be the current circumstances of race in American society.

First introduced by Antonio Gramsci, the concept of hegemony is defined as the “conditions necessary… for the achievement and consolidation of rule” (67).  This type of power structure is different than the so-called racial dictatorship that existed in the United States before the Civil Rights era because it relies on a “combination of coercion and consent” to establish its preeminence (67). Breaking down hegemony into its two component parts helps to understand what Omi and Winant are ultimately claiming. In a society, such as the United States, power has been attained and wielded most often through methods of coercion such as violence, but in the last century’s move away from the de facto racial dictatorship there arose a more complex and elusive method of rule: gaining complicity.  

The move from dictatorship to hegemony allows for a more pervasive and internalized structuring of power based on consent or “the incorporation of  many of the key interests of subordinated groups, often to the explicit disadvantage of the rulers themselves” (67). Dubbed as appropriation in Marxist thought, this concept is critical to understanding how racial formation has become a function not so much of choice but of habit, or unconscious submissiveness, because in its transition from “dictatorship to democracy” the United States has assumed the cultural characteristics of the oppressed to facilitate assimilation into the new power structure. Because hegemony “operates by including its subjects, incorporating its opposition,” one of its main goals is to redefine the cultural signifiers to coincide with the ruling power and thus forcing compliance through every means at its disposal (68). In the current racial hegemony every thing that was once thought of as distinct cultural signifiers must now be considered as part of the structure in which they reside.

The notion of consent is striking in this discussion of racial formation because it denotes compliance and acceptance with a given action or behavior. Questions arise: Why would anyone consent to hegemony? Or Why would anyone consent to discrimination? The answers to these lie in the definition of consent itself both as described by Omi and Winant, but also in the dictionary. Consent as part of hegemony is both ideologically and social structurally passed down from institutions such as slavery and the iron fist of Jim Crow where it operated strictly as coercion through violence. In these terms it is possible to think about the American 20th century as the “Age of Consent” because in many areas of society, most notably race relations, consent became the dominant method of attaining power. By appropriating the life, culture, and social functions of a dominated group the powers-that-be have been able to consolidate power through our own self-restraint.

Using the Freudian term of repression is helpful to contemplate the way this process works because if we consider the period before the Civil Rights era as childhood and the post-Civil Rights as adulthood we can see how consent is formed in a way that defines behavior. Human development, much like the development of a society, happens in stages, and the transition from child to adult requires one to resist urges of self-expression that are not acceptable in open society. It is this way with consent as well because as culture is appropriated by the dominant class it is redistributed to those from which it was taken, but in a perverted form that is imbued with specific meanings that from its acceptance back into dominated culture. This acceptance back into the subjugated life is the Trojan horse of hegemonical rule because though it has the same look, touch, and feel of the old ways it is now wrought with the meaning of the sociohistorical circumstances that came before it. The age of consent, as I call it, is a period in American life that is marked by misleading and subtle forms of racial projects that perpetuate discrimination not in concrete terms of physical dominance but in the abstract terms of mental dominance.

Richard Wright’s “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow” (1937) is a look at how this process of consent works in the concrete world of the pre-Civil Rights American South. Labeled an autobiographical sketch, Wright’s work tells several stories of how he learned to live by the so-called ethics of Jim Crow. This sketch is written before the end of legalized racial discrimination and it provides a look at how the transition from dictatorship to hegemony occurred for those most affected by it, African Americans. Here the age of consent happens at an early age for Wright because as a child to play safely he had to learn a brutal lesson from his mother about how black and white people should interact. His mother having lived in the horror of white oppression her entire life beat her already bloodied son for fighting with white children not as a means of punishment but as a lesson that could only be taught through violence.

The first lesson Wright learns is a telling one because even though he was beaten by his mother what he gained was “an overarching symbol of fear” of white society (Wright 227).  This fear would guide him throughout most of his life miring him in contradictory situations that could not be easily navigated. For Wright the “age of consent”, beginning with the lesson learned from his mother, became critical to his ability to survive because he used the lessons learned to resist the dominance that surrounded him as well as his “refusal of the ‘common sense’ understandings which the hegemonic order imposes” (Omi and Winant 69). Ultimately the concept of racial formation is what Wright describes in his work because “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow” one can find examples of racial projects at work in the transition from dictatorship to hegemony. Wright acknowledges that move saying that his so-called Jim Crow education “was no longer brutally cruel, but subtly cruel” (Wright 235). The sublty of racial hegemony is represented in Wright’s work as an permeating force that operates on an internal and subconscious level of the oppressed person. It is important to note however that by calling these illusive figures out into the light, Wright opens the door for the oppressed to reclaim their own culture by acknowledging its collusion with their own dominance.

Racial formation is an ongoing process that is based on both social structure and cultural ideology. Understanding it as a dynamic process that is not confined to anyone particular description or methodological discourse allows for race relations in the United States to be examined in a more complete way because it allows for the inevitable contradictions to be accounted for. Taking on hegemony as a major component to the current processes of racial formation allows for events and racial programs such as Richard Nixon’s so-called Southern Strategy or Affirmative to occur in the same political realm. Richard Wrights intimate knowledge of this process through his own life’s lessons gives an important perspective on what it means to consent to the racial hegemony that Omi and Winant describe as the current sociopolitical power structure.


 

Works Cited

Omi, Michael and Howard Winant, “Racial Formation.” Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1980s, Critical social thought (New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986): 53- 76

Richard Wright, “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow.” Early Works, The Library of America 55-56 (New York, N.Y: Library of America, 1991): 225- 237.

 

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