A pottery cone is a cone-shaped object made of a pyro-sensitive material (in the early days, some kind of clay) so when a pottery kiln reaches a certain temperature, the cone droops. Pottery kilns are made with a tiny window one can look through and if your eye doesn’t melt (don’t worry, there are provisions for this) you can see which of a series of different cones have melted, and thus estimate the temperature of the kiln. You then add fuel if necessary, and keep a record and an eye on the clock, and over time your pottery fires just right.
The pottery cone, reaching a certain level of heat and then falling over, is a metaphor for Confederate monuments in America. The perennial racism-fueled conflict between white supremacists and everyone else flows and moves, waxes and wanes, and always generates heat. Every now and then enough heat is generated, and some sort of civil meltdown occurs in relation to one of these statues. This has happened since the very first months after the Civil War. It has happened more frequently, it has been more widespread, and it has been accompanied by much greater heat, in recent years. So, the statues are drooping, in their own way, like the pottery cones.
The falling statues are the direct result of activism, but they are also metaphors in their own right. They are metaphors of a changing demographic. The racist and classist cancer that infects society in the United States is perpetuated mainly by less educated white men, and although it appears in other societal tissues to some degree, that is currently the main source of the disease. Progressive minded people have been engaged in an open conspiracy for decades now, consisting of two parts: 1) Educate more, and 2) make sure “education” remains education and does not become indoctrination (or it wont’ work). This conspiracy has been only modestly successful, so the number of metastasizing cells, as it were, has not diminished much via liberal education.
But racism is becoming unfashionable, and that is probably the best thing that could happen to it. What was once de riguer, or at least, not something one complains about, in all areas of white or white-ish society, is now widely recognized as bad. Active racists know this, and they revel in its badness, with the new war cry of “make the liberals cry.” The key difference between now and 50 years ago is this: Out of fashion, racism is not recruiting from the young as much as it could, and is withdrawing rapidly from many areas it once held sway. This means the source, less educated white men, are aging as a demographic.
Racism in America will ultimately be addressed by the death of most of the racists.
Most people will react to this idea with the following, or something like it: “But racism will always be there, because of the basic nature of human beings.” This is one of the great lies of racism, that racism is natural, inevitable, and therefore, possibly, normal and even good. This is the Naturalistic Fallacy being used to excuse or underwrite nefarious behavior. Don’t be fooled by that fallacy. Also, despite the fact that we find racism of one sort or another in many societies, you need to know that American racism is it’s own thing. Racism in modern America grows out of American history. American slavery, American immigration, American isolationism, the American frontier, and many other things American are either unique, or at least, very different in America than any other place or time, and the combination is utterly unique. It is not some sort of demented American exceptionalism to claim that running a physically large country (or set of closely interactive colonies) for centuries on the back of widespread slavery, so that most of the people in the slave regions were the slaves themselves, is unique. (The Caribbean of course is part of this story, but lets not give this discussion over to the professional historians until we hit the comment section below.)
To understand this better, consider just one aspect of racism against East Asian people in America. In the 19th century, Chinese people, usually imported workers, were viewed, literally and unabashedly, by most white Americans, as subhuman. There wasn’t even a little apology there. They were a form of monkey that could talk in a lot of white people’s minds. The legislation to keep them out, the norms and regulations that gave Chinese workers less protection than the mules that died along with them building railroads across the mountains, clearly document this, as do the depictions and writings of the time.
Today, a different belief about East Asians pervades American culture. While many of the White Supremacists may view East Asian people as subhuman (I don’t put much past them), today East Asians are more often viewed as superior (like how well the kids do in school), of a more effective or demanding culture (how the parents of those school kids keep things under control) of greater physical prowess (East Asian marshal arts have redefined American fighting) and more gentile and artistic (see all the Asian influence in all the arts) all at the same time. Now also consider the plight of the Irish, considered sub human (again, monkeys that can sort of talk), or the Italians (monkeys that can talk very loudly) or the Polish or other Eastern European groups, and so on and so forth. All of these groups went through a period of intense denigration, were the subject of attack and murder, and economic disenfranchisement. Until the weren’t. That all went away. We see almost no remnant in day to day life of any of that.
American Racism is centered on, and consists mainly of, disdain for African Americans, the descendants of kidnapped Africans bred as a slave population on which our economy was based, and from which our country grew strong. This core of American racism is different from the other, just mentioned, racist historical trends, let alone racism among humans in general.
Yes, American Racism is big, bad, ugly, utterly unique, and most importantly, American racism exists because of its own specific history. Anything that arises from context and history can be put down with new context and future, if that future is unfriendly to it. White supremacy reproduced itself generation after generation in America not because it is innate, but because it is very large and very strong, very convenient, money-making, and desired even by those not directly engaged in the most obvious forms of it.
But now, the cones are melting. The reasons racism is good are melting away. Racism against African Americans is no longer economically neutral or convenient for an increasingly large part of the white dominated business world. In fact it can be downright damaging. It is hard to find a city or state where a wink and a nod in favor of racism increases your vote count. Individuals with histories tied to the American racist model are politically doomed these days, but not in the old days, where the “old days” were five years ago or so. Prosecutors who rode the law-and-order wave of recent decades are increasingly inviable as candidates for executive office, because that “law and order” movement is what made Americans the most incarcerated population in the world, with a strong racial bias. An up and coming mover and shaker who wore blackface to his frat party is no longer seen as a mere doofus. The societal and cultural feedback loops have been breaking for some time, but in recent years, they are being systematically identified and ripped asunder. This is one of the key roles of the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” It is an ironic statement designed to pop the racist mole so it can be solidly, and with finality, whacked.
I am not suggesting that racism in America is suddenly over, or that it is going to become unimportant any time soon. Rather, I’m saying these three things. 1) Racism of the kind we see in America is not a mere reflection of human nature, and to see it as such is not only factually wrong, but defeatist; 2) while American racism is big and complex and should not be underestimated, if it was a disease, it would be best cured by cutting out that one element of society that keeps it going, less educated white men; and 3) we need to keep up the pressure, to stop them from recruiting or spreading their culture, over the next 30 years while most of them die off. Under current conditions, with Covid-19, the tendency of these very men to also disdain science may speed the process. We can talk about that after a 30 day period following the upcoming in-person Republican National Convention sans mask.
Of course, we speak here in statistical generalities. Lots of less educated white men are not contributing to this problem. But the demographic of less educated white men has a lot of ‘splainin to do.
“It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words, “And this too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!”