On the 50th anniversary of Wendell Berry's book on racism

Berry begins The Hidden Wound by reflecting on personal experience, including stories shared in childhood. Learning about his great-grandfather selling an “unmanageable” slave brought home to him the inescapable brutality, the “innate violence,” of slavery. The violence was systemic, and every slave owner complicit. Even a master who did not want to use cruelty had to exercise at least the cruelty of abandonment: selling the slave into cruelty somewhere else.

As Berry notes, many accounts of Southern culture were unable to face this. The oddly nostalgic bookKentucky Cavaliers in Dixie used “a poeticized, romanticized, ornamental gentlemanly speech, so inflated with false sentiment as to sail lightly over all discrepancies in logic or in fact, shrugging off what it cannot accommodate, blandly affirming what it cannot shrug off.” Looking for models of honest treatment of race, Berry even found much Christian preaching evasive, and much Christian practice hypocritical.

Berry saw racism as something constructed to protect a sensitivity. He compares racism to Puritanism; the two “have meshed so perfectly in the United States” because both are contrived to insulate uncomfortable lies from being exposed by the uninhibited honesty of childlike candor. They deny something in human nature in order to enforce an oppressive code of behavior.

Read all of "Race & Anti-fragility" by Joshua P. Hochschild at Commonweal Magazine.


Revisiting Wendell Berry's "Racism and the Economy" (1988)

In his 1988 essay, “Racism and the Economy,” Wendell Berry addresses these questions [of racial/economic inequality] directly with a clarity probably beyond the reach of the shared metropolitanism of Baldwin and Buckley. He begins by diagnosing the “contagion” of racism as a form of hubris or pride: “The root is in our inordinate desire to be superior – not to some inferior or subject people, though this desire leads to the subjection of people – but to our condition. We wish to rise above the sweat and bother of taking care of anything – of ourselves, of each other, or of our country” (47). This allows Berry to set racism against people of colour in the wider context of the exploitation of cheap labour. In essence, he agrees with Baldwin that the American Dream has been too often built through the sweat of others.

One of the ways we manifest this desire for superiority is in a hierarchy of labour. Many Americans enslaved Africans to do the kind of work they refused to do themselves, “what used to be known as ‘nigger work’—work that is fundamental and inescapable” (48). Berry argues that this impulse to force others to undertake menial work infects even those who push for greater racial equality and hence taints such aspirations. Berry writes,

The “success” of the black corporate executive, in fact, only reveals the shallowness, the jeopardy, and the falseness of the “success” of the white corporate executive…. It only assumes that American blacks will be made better or more useful or more secure by becoming as greedy, selfish, wasteful, and thoughtless as affluent American whites. The aims and standards of the oppressors become the aims and standards of the oppressed, and so our ills and evils survive our successive “liberations.” (49)

In short, the socio-economic order created by European expansionism and racism not only tilts systems and structures against people of colour, it also defines the goals towards which they strive. Though Berry does not explicitly make this connection, fundamentally western economies – and especially corporations – define the beata vita, the happy life, for everyone.

Read all of "Baldwin. Buckley, and Berry on Racism and the World Order" by Mark Clavier at Front Porch Republic.