Out of a Concern for Justice: Ghosts and Racism

Part 1 in our series on "Horror, Ghosts, and Hauntings"

More from this series to come...

Leah Milne, University of Indianapolis

Leah Milne is an instructor in the English department at the University of Indianapolis. She is an unabashed foodie, an aspiring sewist, and a lover of all creatures (but most especially cats).

Leah Milne is an instructor in the English department at the University of Indianapolis. She is an unabashed foodie, an aspiring sewist, and a lover of all creatures (but most especially cats).

After former basketball team owner Donald Sterling’s racist remarks made him the subject of controversy, boycotts, and financial feuds, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar appeared on the show “This Week” to speak about the ethereal nature of racism—as it is experienced by racist whites. “I’ve did a little bit of research,” Abdul-Jabbar told host George Stephanopoulos, “and more whites believe in ghosts than believe in racism.” The statistic, while certainly provocative, proved to be a little more complicated than that. Racism, as Abdul-Jabbar himself wrote in Time magazine the day after his appearance, is defined in a myriad of ways and no true measure of the latter statistic really exists.

Abdul-Jabbar was right, though, in his belief that the issue is partly a problem of definition. “Donald Sterling is not a racist,” he writes, “in his own mind.” He goes on to list other white Americans who had recently achieved notoriety for similar reasons. “Paula Deen, Cliven Bundy, Don Imus. Not racists…. All of them could probably name several people of color among their friends, close acquaintances and business associates. All could probably cite minority folk they’ve personally helped through their generosity.” These persons’ surprise at being called prejudiced reveals how Abdul-Jabbar’s claim is not inaccurate, but rather difficult to measure. After all, how many people, especially in the public eye, are willing to go on the record as racists in the first place?

In fact, measuring whether more white people believe in ghosts than racism hinges upon the subjects’ perception of racism. Michael Norton and Samuel Sommers conducted a study that ultimately showed that whites see anti-white bias as a larger and more widespread problem than anti-black bias. What’s worse is that the white people surveyed perceived this bias as part of a zero-sum game. Norton and Sommers conclude, “not only do Whites think more progress has been made toward equality than do Blacks, but Whites also now believe that this progress is linked to a new inequality—at their expense” (217).

Regardless of the intricate nature of Abdul-Jabbar’s oversimplified claim, there is a certain appeal in the comparison. In Eddie Murphy’s famous Delirious, he asks, “Why don’t white people just leave the house when there’s a ghost in the house? Y’all stay in the house too fuckin’ long.” He parodies the scene in Poltergeist where little Carol Anne is stuck in the television set. If it had been him, he muses, he would have left her there and gone straight to the police station. “I just came down so when she ain’t at the school you don’t think I killed the bitch or anything like that,” he tells the officer.

Comedian Paul Mooney is even more straightforward when he announces, “There are no ghosts, white folks, and I can prove it. If there were ghosts, slaves would come back and fuck you up; you do know that. Oh,” he jokes, “only the white ghosts get to come back?” One wonders whether the prevalence of slave ghosts would change Abdul-Jabbar’s perspective on both ghosts and racism. Would racism decrease if the racists were forced to contend with supernatural slaves? Would racism get worse? Mooney and Murphy’s jokes work on multiple levels. While ghosts are often associated with specific, formerly living persons, we rarely think of them as mired in identity politics or, for that matter, in politics of any kind. After my uncle died in the Philippines, we were mournful for a long time, having been unable to get the last-minute time-off from our various jobs to fly across the globe to attend his funeral. My superstitious cousin, anxious of the repercussions, allowed the guilt to take over, fearing that our uncle would haunt her as she slept. “Why?” My dad wryly remarked. “It’s not like he had a passport. They wouldn’t even let them into the United States!” We each have our own ways of approaching grief.

Grief and guilt, in fact, seem to haunt ghostly depictions of race and class in much of today’s literature. Ghosts function in ethnic American literature as a way of contending with the past while also forcing that past to make themselves felt in the present. In her poem, “Duende” (2010), Joanne Diaz writes that “every easy life / stands on the ghosts of those who suffered for it.” If post-racist America really existed, the air that enwrapped it would certainly be thick with the traces of ghosts.

Showing that the United States still faces many challenges in improving race relations, Toni Morrison’s novels are replete with ghostly figures: The title character in Beloved (1987), while a living breathing person in the narrative, is often said to represent the many lives lost to slavery, a sentiment now yoked in my mind with Paul Mooney’s vindictive ghosts. Morrison’s later novel, Home (2012), features the ghost of a murdered man wearing a zoot suit, an outfit seen in the 1940s as a symbol of nonconformity to dominant American culture. The Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 involved white sailors assaulting Latino, Filipino, and African American youth wearing these suits. Though unaware of this connection, the protagonist Frank is haunted by the ghost at moments of the deepest guilt for his own violent actions during the Korean War.

Home actually features two ghosts. The second is a baby whose toothless smiling face haunts Frank’s sister Cee, a victim of nonconsensual forced sterilization after a eugenically-minded doctor conducts experiments on her. The infant ghost evokes both Frank’s killing of a young girl in Korea and the children that Cee will never have. Home’s paired ghosts illustrate the tragedies that never die, the beings that continue to haunt the living. Avery Gordon, in her astonishing Ghostly Matters (2008), describes ghosts as “a loss, sometimes of life, sometimes of a path not taken” (63). She continues, however, that ghosts may also represent “a future possibility, a hope” (64).

More than a loss, then, ghosts breathe and move, interacting with the living. Not unlike the “living ghosts” in Ruth Ozeki’s My Year of Meats—that is, the mistreated women who willfully remain in an in-between state in order to persecute their previous oppressors (176), ghosts of the past choose to linger among us, phantom visitors compelling us to fulfill their wills. As Gordon explains, “the ghost is alive, so to speak. We are in relation to it and it has designs on us such that we must reckon with it graciously, attempting to offer it a hospitable memory out of a concern for justice. Out of a concern for justice would be the only reason one would bother” (64).

This concern for justice fuels the call for anti-racist actions in politics, education, and art. Ghosts are, in effect, haunting us more so than ever, and yet racism continues to flourish, morphing into different forms and hiding under different designations. These ghosts demand that we remember their names and faces even as they are listed in our news coverage, emblazoned on street protest placards, and ringed by flowers and wreaths at funeral homes and memorials. They ask, after their struggle, to simply be seen as real.