This essay, “Starting Points,” by Tricycle‘s Features Editor Andrew Cooper, first appeared in Turning Wheel in 1993. Cooper uses the two-year anniversary of the beating of Rodney King as his own starting point to explore the birthplaces of racism and how to approach the predominant whiteness of American Buddhist communities. “Starting Points” reminds us of the first question that we must ask ourselves in the process of making our sanghas more inclusive: Where do we start? Though the essay is almost two decades old, it’s a question that in many ways, we’re still asking.
March 3, 1993—This morning, someone on the radio said that today is the second anniversary of the beating of Rodney King. The news got me thinking about that event and those that followed, and as I sipped tea and stared at the paper, my mind wandered through its recollections. I found myself coming back over and over again to single incident that, for all its relative insignificance, gave me a way into one corner of the meaning what happened in L.A.
Several days after the verdict was announced, after the flames had mostly died down, I watched Ted Koppel interviewing some young black men, members of gangs in South Central. Koppel’s questions were focusing on the day-to-day violence of their neighborhoods, referring particularly to drive-by shootings, a symbol to many of the cruel randomness of gang violence. One of the men eventually interrupted Koppel in mid-sentence, asking, “What about George Bush’s fly-by shooting in Iraq?”
Koppel deftly sidestepped the issue. In The Second Sin, the psychiatrist Thomas Szasz observes that, in the human realm, the law of survival is not kill or be killed; it is define or be defined. The language, assumptions, emotions, and values that define the starting point of a discussion shape whatever course it may take. The news media worked hard to frame the unrest in L.A. as criminal activities with little, if any, political content. The explosion of rage was portrayed as a riot of looters and gang members, not a civil uprising, a rebellion of a disenfranchised citizenry. The question the man put to Ted Koppel cut to the heart of the matter in a way that endless professional analysis did not, because it spoke from a reality in which violence in the streets and violence by the state cannot be cleanly separated. For a moment, the media’s carefully constructed frame broke down. But it was just a moment. The camera, after all, belongs to ABC.
The question about fly-by shootings was also a question about power and the representation of reality, about the power to define the framework in which people make sense of their lives. Oppressive ideologies like racism grow out of that place where power and perception intersect. They extend themselves not only through articulated doctrine but also through unconscious processes, codes and images, and through conceptual categories that are so deeply ingrained in convention that they appear self-evident and natural. Until the framework is unpacked and restructured, one is stuck within it. That’s what that gang member was doing—unpacking and restructuring.
The idea of race is a good example of an ideological category. As Ashley Montagu argued years ago in Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race, the very way we understand race—as a biological designation—is a “modern discovery,” a historical construct that developed in the eighteenth century as a way of justifying the slave trade. The notion of race comes to us laden with the history of white supremacism. When we take up the term, accepting its validity and forgetful of its historical production, that history exerts its power to shape our very perceptions. The starting point is already poisoned. We might have to use the term, but we don’t have to take it for granted.
The understanding that conceptual designations shape perception is, of course, a familiar one to students of Buddhism. But Buddhist analysis tends to focus on the ultimate emptiness of all concepts, and remains naïve about the historical forces that lead to the production of particular ones. But to forget this historical dimension is to be shaped by it.
I wonder what conditions make it possible for those Buddhist communities that are overwhelmingly white and middle class—like the ones I’ve been and am a part of—to not take more seriously the issues of race and racism. The whiteness of a community may or may not be an indicator of racism, but the denial that that whiteness is significant is a sure sign of it. It’s a matter of the starting point. The question is not whether such and such a community is racist. Given that racism is a pervasive social and ideological force in the West, the question is how does it operate in our personal and collective lives. How does the life of a particular community reflect and reproduce the broader social pattern? Recognizing that no one is immune, we are less likely to step into the cycle of blame and defensiveness that undermines serious discussion.
Like any deeply held delusion, racism abides in what is unsaid as much as in what is said, in what is unthought as well as what is thought. It is both inside and outside the realm of conscious intent. It chooses us as much as we choose it. But choices are constant, inevitable, and they matter. That’s a starting point.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.