America's ongoing crisis in cultural identity is at the root of its social unrest, and can be traced to a Cartesian preoccupation with essence driven by colonial ethnocide. An existential awakening is required to mend the nation's deep divides, writes Barrett Pitner.
As a Black American, my familiarity with the absurdity of American society is all I have ever known. How could a society that projects itself as a beacon of freedom for the world also be built around slavery? How could a global champion for democracy systematically deprive Black Americans of their voting rights? How could a pillar for the rule of law also have a legal system that disproportionately sentences Black Americas to longer prison sentences than white Americans? The list of American hypocrisies that Black Americans must confront can easily make you question your own sanity.
To understand how America has maintained the ruse for so long you only need to know two words: ethnocide and Existentialism. Tragically, America has always been in this dire state, but has long been able to mask its destructive absurdity with a facade of inspirational reality.
“Ethnocide” was coined in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin alongside its far better known sibling: genocide. Lemkin was a Polish Jew who fled the Nazis and escaped to America. While in America he implored the American government to intervene during World War II to save Jewish people, yet the Americans he met were unwilling to believe that Europeans could commit such despotic acts. In order to convince the American public of the atrocities befalling his people he committed himself to creating a new word to define this particular atrocity. This word became genocide, but initially it was genocide and ethnocide.
Since Jewish people were both a genos (people) and an ethnos (culture), he envisioned that genocide and ethnocide would be interchangeable. However, over time the words diverged and formed separate definitions. In genocide a people are exterminated or forcefully removed, and as a result their culture dies with them. During ethnocide the culture is destroyed, but the people remain.
Tragically, America has always been in this dire state, but has long been able to mask its destructive absurdity with a facade of inspirational reality.
Around the late 20th century, ethnocide started being used to describe colonial indoctrination programs that were forced upon indigenous people such as the Carlisle School in the United States, and the residential school system in Canada that forcefully removed indigenous people from their culture and literally beat and tortured a westernized education into them.
However, to fully understand the scale at which ethnocide has shaped American society, and many of the societies in the Americas, you must apply the language of ethnocide to the transatlantic slave trade. The explicit purpose of the slave trade was to forcefully remove the culture of African people, but keep their bodies in order to create a chattel slavery system. Europeans severed African tribal and familial bonds. Prevented Africans from practicing their religion and speaking their native tongue. They even worked to destroy African names, and replaced them with dehumanizing identifiers that are no longer culturally acceptable to say out loud.
Ethnocide did not aspire to break the bodies. It hoped to break their souls.
America’s ethnocidal foundation has systematically normalized a culture of perpetual division and exploitation. From slavery to the present, America has implemented countless laws and social mores that sustain the divisions of ethnocide. The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement shines a light on the terror that regularly befalls Black Americans at the hands of their own government.
For centuries America has gotten away with blaming the enslaved and the subjugated for their lower station in life, but COVID-19 has made the absurdity of these arguments obvious to the world.
COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted communities of color in America due to the stark discrepancies between the American experience of white and non-white people. Many Black Americans have ailments such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and asthma that have a direct correlation to the unhealthy food, stress, and polluted air that are often associated with living in poverty; and this makes them more susceptible to dying from COVID-19. Additionally, communities of color often occupy the jobs that America considers “essential” such as postal workers, garbage collectors, food production workers, and domestic workers; and as a result, these Americans were not allowed to shelter-in-place to help slow the spread of the disease. America’s most vulnerable were forced to work amidst the pandemic, and unsurprisingly this only exacerbated the problem.
The chaos that we are witnessing in America exists because the United States does not have a collective cultural identity.
The chaos that we are witnessing in America exists because the United States does not have a collective cultural identity. We might claim to be one nation, but we are not one culture. Sustained division and exploitation is the American norm, and because of this Americans feel emboldened to behave as individuals without any collective obligation. American Individualism is perceived as an extension of freedom.
When given the option of individual freedom and death (such as refusing to wear face masks), or unity and life, an alarming number of Americans are opting for the former and not the latter. America’s dependence on ethnocide partially explains this absurdity, but to further understand this repugnant state of affairs we must also examine the European philosophy of Existentialism.
One of the foundational tenets of Existentialism under Jean-Paul Sartre is that existence precedes essence, which countered the dominant Cartesian philosophy of “I think therefore I am.”
Under Descartes’s philosophy essence defines existence, and your essence can be nearly anything. Your essence roughly equates to the thoughts and ideas that can shape your identity. Your religion, language, skin color, sexual orientation, proclivity with a particular skill or craft can become your essence, and having an essence is a perfectly natural part of life. We all have a multitude of essences. Under a Cartesian philosophy, your essence — or the thoughts that shape your identity — determines your existence, and under this rubric it became incredibly easy to conclude that those with different thoughts, and essences did not exist on an equal plain.
Europeans became empowered to consider themselves superior to other people purely based upon their own thoughts and without any concern for reality. Since the 1800s Existentialist philosophers in Europe have articulated the necessity of seeing the world not though an essence-focused lens.
Existentialism is incredibly important for understanding the chaos of America because our entire society is built around essence. Ethnocide is based around the propensity of European colonizers to view African people as non-thinking objects whose existence would be best served as a perpetually enslaved people. Extracting the culture of a people becomes much easier when you never considered them to be people in the first place. American colonizers eventually shed themselves of their European identities, and found purpose and meaning from the white essence assumed. Via the one-drop rule, where one drop of African blood would make a person perpetually Black and never white, the essence that European colonizers created for themselves required the absence of Blackness.
America has never had an existential awakening. We are yet to believe that existence precedes essence.
America’s racial divisions between Black and white are actually not based on race at all. They stem from a philosophical commitment to creating a culture in the Americas that prioritizes white essence and white thought ahead of existence.
America has never had an existential awakening. We are yet to believe that existence precedes essence. Our conflicts over the racial constructs that ethnocidal colonizers created equate to the absurdity of searching for meaning and commonality amongst two essences created for the explicit purpose for them to never mix.
If America seeks to grow and progress as a society we must work to dismantle our ethnocidal society and understand that culture precedes race. We must have a culture that prioritizes the existence of all of our people instead of one fueled by fabricated racial divisions and ethnocide.
Trump and his administration obviously prioritize essence, and the identities they cling to, more than the existence of the American people. This is an absurd reality, but it has always been the reality of America.