Contempt root of racism

by Edward Green
Barbados Nation
June 27, 1999

In recent months my country, the United States, has been reminded, forcefully, of the unfinished work of fighting racism. I mention two just instances: in Indiana, there was the arrest of Jay Scott Ballinger, who admitted to having set church fires in as many as 11 states. In Texas, John William King was declared guilty of the almost unspeakably brutal murder last year of James Byrd, Jr. – dragged to his death on a southern road for the “crime” of being black.

As a white North American, who is an organist at a predominantly Caribbean church in New Jersey, I am ashamed such horrors still occur. To make sure the next century for our hemisphere is kinder than the last, people in America – North and South, and Caribbean – need seriously to ask: Why do people act in these horrific ways? And what do these terrible events have to do with the everyday racism that doesn’t make it to the headlines – the racism, for instance, that can show itself in a factory cafeteria as a man gets a table of friends to laugh at a “joke” which makes millions of people of a different skin colour look ridiculous?

Eli Siegel, the great poet and educator who founded the philosophy of Aesthetic Realism, explained that racism begins with the hope for contempt – the “false importance or glory” a person gets by making less of the reality of other people. “There is,” he said, “a disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world.”

Before a person can participate in a racist act – can make an unkind joke, use a demeaning word, refuse to hire someone or rent to him, or even attack him on the streets – that person, I learned, first has to have years of everyday contempt, moment after moment in which there is a lack of desire to see who other people are and what they deserve.

No one begins life racist; but all of us can yield to the temptation of hoping to feel superior to other people, especially when we feel unsure of ourselves. This is one reason why racism can flourish at times of economic uncertainty – like our own.

And it is this hope for contempt, aesthetic realism explains – the desire to think other people’s feelings are less important than our own, that we have a right to put aside, even annihilate their feelings any time we please – that, quietly accumulating over years, leads eventually to the terrible things which shock us in the newspapers.

In his book James And The Children, a consideration of The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, Eli Siegel writes: “According to aesthetic realism, the greatest sin that a person can have is the desire for contempt. Because as soon as you have contempt, as soon as you don’t want to see another person as having the fullness that you have, you can rob that person, hurt that person, kill that person.”

Emotions bound up

One of the clearest places where contempt can be seen as the cause of racism is in the terrible wave of church burnings. I know from my work as a church musician that there are large emotions bound up with a church building – the emotions of many people: what they felt as they saw baptisms, weddings, funerals; as they sang hymns, heard sermons, and had moments of deep spiritual feeling – of sweet and large gratitude to God. All this emotion matters, is real, runs very deep – and whoever burns a church scorns it all; feels he has a right to turn it into nothing.

As a citizen of the United States, I see contempt as a national danger. It makes many of our state governments heartlessly cut medical and hospital care at a time of budget surpluses. It made the federal government slash welfare support while clearly knowing that for many poor people – especially for immigrants – jobs do not yet exist to support their families, feed their children.

And there is a terrifying contempt for the lives of people in the US government’s continuing desire to force other nations – through bombing, or through devastating economic boycott – to bend to our will; all for the purpose of guaranteeing American corporations the “freedom” to exploit these countries, their people and their land, for US profit.

Contempt is national and international; but it is also a personal emergency. It is what causes the pain between men and women, parents and children. It is at work in every conversation where we talk, not to understand another person, but to have our way with them.

At the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City, a not-for-profit educational foundation where I am honored to be on the faculty, people are learning the alternative – the one honest, intelligent use of our minds: the hope for respect.

Respect is the feeling – the accurate feeling – that we grow bigger every time we try to be fair to what is not ourselves. Respect is what our minds were meant for; it is the sanest, the most beautiful emotion.

And respect for people, I learned, begins with asking, and honestly trying to answer, this greatly kind and urgently necessary question which Eli Siegel first presented: “What does a person deserve by being alive?” It is impossible to think deeply about this question and hurt another person.

• Edward Green is a feature columnist for the international magazine, US African Eye, published in New York City. He is a composer, and a professor of world music at the Manhattan School of Music. The Aesthetic Realism Foundation is located at 141 Greene Street, NY, NY 10012; tel: (212) 777-4490; web site:

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