HUMN 250

Racism on the Road

On Camus' Novel and a Modern-Day Plague

Ask a group of people to define the term “racism,” or to name examples of it, and each person will likely give a different, though related, answer. Ideas may include Nazism, racial segregation, white supremacy and ethnocentrism. Racism is the belief that race determines one’s traits or abilities, and it says that one racial group is superior and another inferior. By the dictionary’s definition, prejudice can broadly refer to any “preconceived judgment or opinion” (“prejudice” 2a). In the article “Racism: An Explanation,” published in the Tufts University student newspaper, American studies major Lauren White differentiates prejudice from racism by describing the latter as “a system of advantage … that benefits the majority … by disadvantaging the minority” (White n.p.). One modern form of racism is racial profiling, a controversial practice the ACLU defines as “any police or private security practice in which a person is treated as a suspect because of his or her race, ethnicity, nationality or religion” (“Racial Profiling: Old and New” n.p.). One particularly egregious form of racial profiling, often colloquially termed “driving while black,” is the use of race as an excuse for police to stop black drivers without good reason. It is essentially state-sponsored racism, and it plagues society in a way that calls to mind Camus’ novel "The Plague."

Albert Camus’ "The Plague" involves a town ravaged by an infectious disease, and the novel’s primary focus is on how the town and its residents deal with the epidemic. The novel raises four main issues: the plague itself, the denial and indifference of many of Oran’s citizens, inadequate governmental response, and dehumanization. Like the disease in the novel, racial profiling raises the same issues: the problem itself, the denial and indifference of many citizens, inadequate governmental response, and dehumanization.

"The Plague" begins by introducing the town and its residents, and the plague itself has not yet appeared. The narrator does not show any obligation to mince words about Oran. He calls it “ugly” and says it has a “smug, placid air” (Camus 3). He then says that there is so little evidence of nature in the town that, save for the sky above, the seasons are indistinguishable from one another. The townsfolk are no more impressive: Their work ethic is driven only by greed (3-4). The citizens’ self-centeredness persists far into in the novel, impairing their ability to effectively fight the disease. Similarly, those who practice racial profiling, or who exacerbate it by not taking action, often do so because their own selfishness gives them excuses to “justify” their behavior. That egotism can blind the person’s judgment to the point that they do not even recognize or acknowledge the plight of others around them.

In Oran, rats begin dying, and, though at first the deaths seem like isolated incidents, no one can explain the fatalities. A hotel concierge, on seeing the rats, denies that his hotel could be infested or at fault, arguing that the whole thing is probably some children’s prank (8-9). Even as the death toll increases, people either do not see or do not admit to the reality of the unsanitary conditions—including the health threat they pose, and the possibility that the dead rats may be symptomatic of a bigger problem. It is not until some time has passed—and human deaths have started to occur—that the doctors begin to realize just what it is that may stand before them. The denial and indifference that characterizes Oran’s citizens, including some doctors at first, parallels the denial and indifference of politicians and unaffected populations to racial profiling.

Oran’s townsfolk give little thought to the deaths of such people as the concierge, M. Michel, and the band trombonist, Camps. When two streetcar conductors talk of Camps’ fate, the conversation is one of idle chitchat, and neither person seems concerned or even interested (24-25). Michel and Camps are apparently considered unimportant to society, and their deaths do not seem to trouble others. As with racial profiling, the problem is considered by many to be unimportant because those who suffer are thought unimportant. In both cases, people do not believe the malady can strike them—until its capacity to cause harm proves them wrong. The effects of the plague and of racial profiling can impact everyone, not just the direct victims. David Harris, law professor at the University of Toledo College of Law, wrote a research article titled “The Stories, the Statistics, and the Law: Why ‘Driving While Black’ Matters.” He says of racial profiling, “The damage done to the legitimacy of the system has spread across racial groups and is no longer confined to those who are most immediately affected” (Harris n.p.).

Both the plague in Oran and racism in the U.S. are dismissed by some people as either no longer a problem or as altogether fictitious. As even Oran’s doctors, mainly Dr. Castel, admit, most are hard-pressed to believe the plague could have resurfaced (36). It is regarded by many as an illness that had long since “vanished” or been eradicated. Many apply similar reasoning to racism, making it a concept that is all too easy for them to deny. Bernard Chapin, a college instructor and columnist for Men’s News Daily, is one of countless people who tries to discredit racism’s existence or pervasive influence. In the article “White Without Apology,” he says that institutional racism is “a creation of the university Marxists” and that “the entire concept of ‘oppressed’ and ‘oppression’ is merely idiotic Marxist claptrap” (Chapin n.p.). Although his analysis is suspect at best, his attitude is probably emblematic of many others. Some people, such as those who aren’t susceptible to being racially profiled, are convinced that racism doesn’t exist in today’s world, as if it is just an antiquated memory of a problem that somehow ‘went away’ after the American Civil Rights Movement. While many discriminatory practices have been outlawed, racial profiling still remains a form of racism that generally has not been made illegal.

Another significant parallel can be drawn between the way the government of Oran deals with the epidemic, and the way that the U.S. government has dealt with the current issue of racial profiling. In the novel, city officials are slow to act and hesitant to call the plague by name. One reason they do not take more immediate action is because they likely do not anticipate the consequences of their cautious, wait-and-see attitude. Not unlike the townsfolk of Oran, the town’s authorities don’t take decisive action until the plague has already become a large-scale problem, and even then, no one is really prepared to assume responsibility. So it is with the issue of racial profiling. Those in positions of power are the ones with the ability to impact and rectify problems through legislation or policy. Yet they often do not take the initiative to act, and it is especially true of politicians at the national level. A report on racial profiling, written by Amnesty International USA, gives an example of such inaction, saying that President Clinton was “[encouraged] by members of his administration to outlaw racial profiling,” but instead “called only for data collection measures” and did not “take measures to outlaw racial profiling” until his last week in office (“Threat” 33). Oftentimes, this hesitancy to act may be simply because no one feels required to take action, that it is a safer bet to maintain the status quo—an attitude no better than that of the unresponsive citizens. The fault lies with many people. To some extent, it is the individual police officer’s choice whether to stop someone just because he is black. But it is also the officer’s superiors, even the entire precinct or department, who often share responsibility for mandating or encouraging the practice of racial profiling.

David Harris explains the “reasoning” behind the use of racial profiling: “Blacks commit a disproportionate share of certain crimes, the argument goes. Therefore, it only makes sense for police to focus their efforts on African-Americans”; the practice is seen as “good policing” and a “rational, sound policy choice” (Harris n.p.). As Harris points out, this is circular reasoning. Police, convinced that blacks commit more crimes, focus their efforts on that racial group, and so the more blacks they pull over, the less concentrated the effort on others—especially whites—so naturally the reported statistics of crime-committing blacks will disproportionately increase. While this lacks a direct parallel to "The Plague," it serves as an example of how flawed logic is used to rationalize problems and intensifies them.

Both in the novel and in reality, there are people who are the protagonists, those who fight for a cause far greater than their own self-preservation. The people of Oran grow concerned as they realize that the disease respects no boundaries, and it crosses all borders and affects all groups of people. After the damage has been done, people come together more. In the novel, even outsiders who are not native residents of Oran come together. Jean Tarrou, a vacationer who writes slice-of-life journal entries about the town and its residents, takes action by encouraging participation in volunteer sanitation squads. He does so fully aware of the great risk to himself, also knowing the government’s response to be too slow and inadequate (125). His actions show the value of unity, morality and personal sacrifice, especially in times of crisis—and how the indecisiveness and formalities of bureaucracy inhibit progress. Likewise, those who speak out against racism and racial profiling, even in the face of opposition and improbable odds, are the heroes. For instance, the victims of racial profiling know how frightening and unsettling an experience it can be, as well as how powerless one can feel when confronted with it. Those who share their story, advocating for action by both individuals and the government against the practice, are people who possess the courage and resolve to fight for the cause of equality. Groups such as the NAACP, the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center are also heroes. Such organizations are composed of people working together to promote awareness and take concrete action, and not all of the people in such groups are direct targets of racial profiling. In an article titled “Wichita, Kan., Branch Helps With Racial Profiling Legislation,” Amanda Miller, contributing writer for The Crisis, reports on the cooperative effort of the “community, churches, the Citizens for Equal Law Enforcement and the NAACP,” who, along with Sen. Donald Betts Jr., succeeded in getting sufficient support for state Senate bill 77, which “defines and outlaws racial profiling in Kansas” (61). When people work together, and when leaders are bold enough to support what is morally right, great strides and progress become possible.

One of the most sinister problems brought to the surface both in "The Plague" and in racial profiling is that of dehumanization. It is manifest in different ways in the two situations. In Oran, having run out of room in the cemeteries, the city is forced to dispose of the bodies en masse by using the crematorium (178). While this is done partly out of necessity, it recalls the mass incineration of dead rats earlier, juxtaposing the image of the dead rats with that of the human victims. Those who have perished become subjected to the same fate, and even the most barebones memorial services have been suppressed in the interest of time. After the plague is over and Oran returns to normal, very few people bother to remember the victims, especially those who were forced into anonymity. This is also the experience of those who have experienced racism or discrimination, including racial profiling, because they too are treated as forgotten, faceless names or statistics. The ordeals endured and injustices suffered go unnoticed.

Once the epidemic is over, most of Oran’s people no longer pay any attention to the ordeal that has afflicted them for so long and claimed so many. The one notable exception is Dr. Rieux, who has revealed himself to be the previously unnamed narrator. He explains that he chronicled the story of the plague so as to “bear witness in favor of” the plague’s victims and “so that some memorial of the injustice and outrage done them might endure” (308). His thoughts reflect the many issues brought up throughout the course of the novel. Rieux considers and has seen how the town was affected not only by the actual plague, but also by the social ills that consequently came to light, especially denial and indifference, inadequate response of the government, and dehumanization. In Rieux’s eyes, however, the plague has had its benefits, as well. For one thing, people came together as a community, having finally realized that such plagues are everyone’s concern, not just the problem of a few. In the same way, racial profiling is a modern-day plague, one that raises the same issues as Camus’s novel: the problem itself, denial and indifference, inadequate governmental response, and dehumanization.

Through Rieux’s testament to the suffering of the plague’s victims, the novel emphasizes that society ought never forget those who endure injustice and tragedy. Many of those same people are people who did not give up, or just passively accept their fate, but who (like Tarrou, for instance) instead took a stand for what was right and fought for both their own life and the lives of others. Rieux points out that the plague can remain dormant for ages, only to resurface later—it can never be truly defeated (308). In much the same way, racism may at times seem to subside but is always there. Fighting and opposing racial profiling, and all the forms racism may take, is the one way to expose and contain this modern-day plague.