activism, race, racism, social justice, Uncategorized

Why I Support Black Lives Matter

After the Dallas shootings of officers by an unhinged individual (not associated with BLM), I feel that it is important to reiterate support for Black Lives Matter and discuss why so many of the arguments raised against them are fraudulent. Below is an adaptation of an OpiWiki response that I made at http://opi.wiki/discuss/190010/What-is-your-attitude-towards-the-Black-Lives-Matter-movement

Black Lives Matter, by and large, has been a peaceful movement that has raised serious issues that just weren’t being acknowledged prior to their work.

Dave Chappelle had a bit about police brutality in his comedy special, “Killing Them Softly”, focusing on how much white blindness there was on the issue. That was back in 2000. The Rodney King beating was in March 3, 1991. The Wire was discussing police brutality issues in the context of Baltimore back in 2002. When I was in high school and college, police brutality issues got raised by politically-minded people on the left wing.

The black community has dealt with a toxic and moronic war on drugs, the devastation to black communities as a result of neo-liberal investor’s rights globalization, and too many police departments having a siege mentality for decades.

None of it broke into the mainstream or got conservative networks like FOX to even talk about the issue until #BlackLivesMatter.

Even if the only legacy of the movement is that a discussion about the proper role of the police enters the mainstream and remains there, that will be a colossal victory, and one that anyone that is part of that movement can be proud of.

But, of course, there is no reason to believe that #BlackLivesMatter won’t accomplish major objectives beyond that already-titanic success. We’ve already been moving toward legalization of marijuana and a scaling back of the war on drugs, and #BLM arrived at just the right time to push that forward even further. And many police departments are stepping up and recognizing that they need to do something about bias in policing. While Michelle Alexander’s recent AlterNet analysis is an appropriate bit of perspective, I disagree strongly with her that we won’t see huge improvements if law enforcement at a national level takes the challenge of community policing, bias training, sensitivity to the diverse communities they serve, and a real ethos of community improvement to heart. While it’s true that such institutional measures can only go so far, such institutional measures also themselves push forward the deeper structural and cultural changes that need to happen.

There are a few arguments made against Black Lives Matter that need to be addressed, because they are themselves monstrous obstacles to progress and reconciliation.

The notion that Black Lives Matter has to say that every life matters is just imbecilic. It’s a trite statement that no one disagrees with conceptually. There’s simply no need to say that white lives matter, because there is no institutional threat to white lives as white lives. But there is such a threat to people of color, and almost every major social institution, from the media to the criminal justice system, routinely reiterates the notion that black lives in fact are problems to be contained or controlled.

Chainsaw Suit's fantastic strip.

A lack of specificity is the goblin of trite minds and of those who want to cheat you. “All lives matter” is a non-threatening slogan that suggests precisely no course of action. Worse, as Kris Straub points out humorously here, it’s actually misleading and counter-productive to talk about everyone’s problems as if they are all of equal magnitude at all times. We deal with specific problems at specific moments. The reason why all too many people say that #AllLivesMatter is because the status quo is generally fine for them, so dealing with the specific problems that produce the issues BLM is protesting is costly. That’s fine: We’re all stakeholders and we all have legitimate concerns about the consequences and direction of social change. But the notion of #AllLivesMatter is a disingenuous way to shut down conversation instead of starting it.

Even the fact that “All Lives Matter” emerged as a counter to #BlackLivesMatter is, when one thinks about it, so grotesque that it’d be hysterical if the consequences weren’t so real. As Arthur Chu’s fantastic tweet points out, “Do you crash strangers’ funerals shouting I TOO HAVE FELT LOSS”? It’s a funny notion to imagine someone doing that precisely because it’s so absurd, cruel and stupid. A person doing that would have a psychopathic sense of entitlement and a deep, unabiding narcissism. Yet collectively, all too many people of all stripes feel that it’s appropriate to respond to people expressing grief, heartache, rage and, yes, hope for improvement with the idea, “Well, we all have problems”.

And those who offer this tripe are usually being colossal hypocrites as well. Imagine how the right wing would scream if those of us who want to regulate guns responded to gun rights advocates by saying, “Hey, it could be worse, you could live in North Korea” or “Hey, buddy, all rights matter”.

Some have said that they’d rather have the statement be “Black Lives Matter Too”. While I’m sympathetic, once again it’s easy to see why it’s such a toxic suggestion. No one should have to append “too” to a statement that they matter. Rhetorically, the notion that people have to say “black lives matter too” is a statement indicating, “White folks, and cops, matter by definition, first and foremost. You have to append your mattering afterwards. You do matter, sure, but you’re the last people we mention. You’re an afterthought”. The fact that it is so difficult for so many people to just say, without any proviso, that black lives do in fact matter is precisely why BLM chose that slogan.

Similarly, the black-on-black crime argument isn’t just an evasion, it’s actually a colossal act of racism in and of itself.

Again: Imagine if this were used against any common conservative bugaboo. Imagine if the liberal response to the “War on Christmas” allegations weren’t, “You have no special right to have your holiday dominate public spaces” but was instead “Hey, guys, as long as Christians are bombing people and torturing captives, you should expect that you get shut out of public spaces”. Imagine if anyone complaining about affirmative action costing them their job was told, “You know, as long as white collar crime is disproportionately white, you should be glad you have a job”.

It’d be monstrous to say those things. It’s monstrous here.

A whole community cannot be judged by their criminals. The fact that some black individuals are guilty of crime is in fact no justification for naked black teenagers to be shot. There is no collective racial responsibility unless one is in fact not just a racist but the kind of venal racist that assumes that there’s some kind of mystic connection between people who share some genes. Bringing up black-on-black crime in response to complaints of police brutality to the face of grieving mothers and tormented communities tells them, “Until you fix every problem in your neighborhood, I won’t even listen to you”.

Of course, the argument is stupid on many more levels, but just the colossal racism involved in asserting that argument alone should give any reasonable person pause. In reality, police brutality helps cause black-on-black crime. Criminals in minority communities are more able to get away with violence because their victims are much less likely to trust the police or want to cooperate with them. Moreover, when justice is arbitrary and random, actual criminals are able to plausibly claim that they’re just being set up or facing the same injustices that other people have. An “us-versus-them” dynamic is why gangs tend to emerge. Organized crime overwhelmingly tends to come about when people can’t rely on the ostensibly legitimate authorities to protect their turf, honor and respect them, and give them real opportunities. Organized crime acts as a de facto militia, government and underground economy all in one, as destructive as it is. Again, one only need to watch The Wire to see how poor police behavior helps push communities away into the kind of isolation, fear and desperation that breeds crime.

And, of course, men like Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and Barack Obama have all harshly criticized gang violence and criminality in black communities and have made many major efforts to try to resolve them. I have not met a single person anywhere in BLM or in groups that sympathize with and ally with BLM who don’t say loudly that black-on-black crime is a serious problem.

Oh, and another niggling little point: We don’t pay the salaries of gang members. There’s no collective social responsibility for the actions of criminals. There is for anyone who we employ as our civil servants. The fact that this tiny distinction has to be repeatedly pointed out shows just how deep the well of denial of racial animosity goes in this country.

But, of course, black-on-black crime is supposed to be something that the black community fixes. The very same people who claim that we’re all in this together as Americans then want to cut their fellow Americans out to dry and not help. The causes of crime everywhere are complex, but we have decades of sociology about those causes, and poverty and community structure are the leading suspects. Crime isn’t a black, white, Hispanic or Asian issue: it’s an American issue. Resolving long-standing issues like failing infrastructure, poor employment prospects, a low minimum wage, segregated and failing schools, etc. is part of the picture of solving crime.

The black community and the white community aren’t monoliths. There are specific neighborhoods, specific people and specific groups. Yes, we are all in this together, and yes, there are shared responsibilities that we all have. I’ve talked extensively about how white communities need to take some responsibility for the poison of racism. A huge part of that is that “With great power comes great responsibility”, of course, but ultimately what is good for the goose is good for the gander.

But no movement toward justice should ever be forestalled because of another tangentially related problem. That’s not how responsibility works.

Let’s conclude by thinking again about Rodney King. Did the man lead police on a drunken car chase? Yes. That was a colossal mistake and a serious crime, and he deserved to be brought to justice and punished to the fullest extent of the law. But he didn’t deserve to be beaten by hotheads. We don’t want police officers cracking the skulls of unarmed men like, say, Henry Davis, a man in Ferguson who got put into jail because of a confusion about his identity.

In a democracy, we should never be afraid of our police. We are paying their paychecks. We should expect that they can execute justice calmly, compassionately and intelligently. If they can’t, they don’t deserve their job. If police are to (reasonably) expect that their sacrifices are honored, then they have to earn our respect with exemplary behavior. If the job matters, it has to be done right.

Advertisements
Standard
activism, changemaking, politics, social justice, Uncategorized

Bill Gates and Technocratic Solutions to Social Problems

Patrick Bond, a really insightful thinker, offers a really good analysis of the limitations of charitable approaches like the ones Bill Gates proposes.

I’ve actually been impressed by how erudite and compassionate Bill can be on issues, recognizing risks ranging from the serious threat of a pandemic to the still-salient specter of nuclear war. But Gates is at his heart an engineer, and he embodies a problem I’ve often discussed before and been disappointed to see in otherwise-decent people: the idea that problems can always be solved by a technical or engineering or technological approach, and indeed that such an approach is always the best. But human beings aren’t machines and societies aren’t computers, and you can’t just hack problems away. It’s always worth it to try for clever solutions and to try to leverage technology and creativity to go for unorthodox approaches, but the problem is that those ways of thinking are usually efforts to try to be apolitical. A political problem doesn’t become less political when you try to pretend it’s just a debugging exercise. Smart technological and scientific solutions to social problems need to occur alongside political, social, economic and cultural change, in conjunction with artists, activists, attorneys, civil servants, social workers, psychologists, and others. Instead, folks like Bill tend to try to skip that part.

We should always try to look for win-win solutions, and we should have optimism in the power of the brain. But we should also have optimism in the power of the heart too, and when we use exclusively technical approaches, we’re actually expressing severe pessimism in human potential.

Standard
politics

Meritocracy and Government: How Can Americans Be So Inconsistent?

One thing that rationally-minded, thinking people often struggle with when entering into the fracas that is politics in any guise is the fact that people aren’t just inconsistent, they don’t seem to have the slightest inkling or concern that they are indeed embracing opposed ideas.

For example: A belief in meritocracy and a belief in government malice and corruption.

Why are these ideas so opposed?

When people raise an idea like, “There are structural barriers that are creating inequality” or “Consistent patterns in policy maintain racial inequality” or “The 2008 recession deeply harmed the black-middle class”, there is a consistent refrain:

“I worked hard for what I get!”

“If you’re poor in this country, you just didn’t work hard enough. Stop blaming others”.

Logically, these stated positions would fall from the mouths (or fingers) of people who believe that America is fair and competent, that the governmental and economic institutions are consistent, efficient and arbitrary.

How many Americans actually believe this?

Two-thirds of young Americans don’t.

Even more ironically, it is blacks who often have the best things to say about government . The very ethnic group that so often has a very bad view of police and the criminal justice system are often willing to trust that government in crucial respects.

Those activists and scholars who say that racism, sexism, or class inequality are pernicious in this society overwhelmingly point to government as a cause. They point to the Federal Reserve’s failure to craft monetary policy that benefits the poor. They point to the way that agencies like the SEC became captive to the rich and corporations, and thus failed to act in a way that would have prevented the 2008 recession. They point to taxes, deregulation, cooptation of regulatory agencies, governmental failures to invest into infrastructure, and minimum wage not following productivity because politicians want a chance to raise the minimum wage as a fetish to shake at their constituents like a shaman enacting a rain dance during a monsoon. Consider how bad foster homes or the failure of social workers can cause poor children and young adults to fall through the system. Consider how government policy can affect housing availability and price, and thus impact homelessness.

So why are these claims so hard for people to swallow?

It’s easy to understand why Americans might believe in the meritocracy of the economic system, against all the evidence. That is a propaganda battle that the rich won.

But given how deep anti-government attitudes are in America, isn’t it astonishing how those attitudes fall short of enabling so many Americans to accept easily that there are barriers that go beyond individual effort for some people’s success? Is it that weird to believe that government is racist if you already believe it’s malevolent or incompetent?

Of course it’s an open empirical question to see if government is affecting inequality, and to what degree it is. People should be skeptical of any report, any statistic, any scholar. But what we see when we suggest that there may be barriers that people of color, women, the poor, and other groups face is not skepticism, it is out-and-out denial. It is a refusal to even engage with the statistics.

Conservative politicians, journalists and opinion leaders can have their inconsistency on the government’s capabilities dismissed easily: They are either ideologically unable to see the inconsistency, or don’t care. The anti-government rhetoric in the U.S. has been a boon for corporations and the rich, who could use it to selectively dismantle what parts of the safety net they felt willing to dispense with.

But why are so many rank-and-file conservatives, often themselves in the anxious middle-class, so willing to accept that government can’t handle healthcare but will accept that government is of course not standing in the way of racial equity?

To their credit, some libertarians recognize that government is involved in creating inequality as well. Their belief that inequality should cause no concern even when not caused by government should be rejected, of course. It’s perfectly valid to be willing to see a society that has a little less prosperity and growth but is more equal in how it distributes it. And inequality always causes serious problems ranging from democratic deficits to loss of growth.

Still, this inconsistency shows that the “small government” rhetoric that people have is superficial. It’s shallow.

Conservatives are by and large perfectly willing to believe that government can try people fairly, that police officers and judges and juries are immune to any kind of bias, that there are no destructive influences that drive the criminal justice system to imprison so many people unnecessarily.

Conservatives are by and large willing to believe that government can not only invade and bomb countries, but in so doing so fix complex social problems. They of course accept as rote that welfare must always cause the undesired consequence of dependency, but will resist heartily the idea that we can’t kill enough people to make us safe.

Conservatives are by and large willing to believe that government could successfully impart a Christian ethos through schools. Even if they want to pay teachers less, they do insist that those same teachers could possibly impart ideas like prayer or intelligent design to their children.

Conservatives are willing to insist on deficit reduction, but resist the idea that it may be worth to look into military waste. They’re willing to look for Medicare fraud but not for military contractor fraud.

Our political beliefs as a species are formed by our anxieties, our perceptions. It’s easy to believe that the FDA is incompetent but the military is a paragon of efficiency, especially when you know a soldier but no one in the FDA. It’s easy to think that providing welfare or social services are easy when you haven’t had to do it.

The Dunning-Kruger effect, the phenomenon where people are insistent that they are competent at a field until they learn the slightest bit about it, is one of the most vital insights we have to have in psychology and is eminently applicable to politics. It is easy for the conservative taxpayer to think that the system is selectively inefficient until they are called out both on the inconsistency of their beliefs (and the media-based sources of those inconsistencies) and how they are assuming that fellow Americans they’ve never met are bad at jobs that they don’t have the first clue about.

It is easy for a person who is white to not realize the difficulties of working and living in a society where one encounters constant discrimination. And it is very difficult to help that person correct that misperception, because so many barriers encountered by non-whites (and women and LGBTQ people) are qualitative and deeply ambiguous.

It’s important that they be corrected on this, as gently as possible. We’ve allowed government to become a mechanism to harm and control the poorest and most vulnerable people in society, as well as allowed inefficiencies in our government to prevent people from getting resources that they need. Reasonable people can disagree about whether or not a particular policy is warranted. But it’s simply asking for efficiency to insist that whatever policy is actually adopted must be fulfilled properly, without bias, corruption, regulatory capture or inequity.

Standard
politics

#BlackLivesMatter, Bernie Sanders, and Democratic Tactics

Tactical debates are some of the most unpleasant and yet most important aspects of trying to commit for positive social change. People involved in them are discussing the hard work of other people with similar commitments. Coalitions can be tested, and suspicions can flare. The radical fringe can snootily dismiss anything but the most extreme tactics as compromise; those who lean more centrist can in turn snootily imply anyone with problems of conviction with certain tactics as being politically naïve and committed to staying in the ivory tower.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of #BlackLivesMatter’s recent hijacking of a Bernie Sanders rally on Saturday the 8th in Seattle has been that the debate about tactics for a better society became one that a lot of people in the mainstream became involved in. The activists used the opportunity of Michael Brown’s death on August 9th of last year to confront Sanders on what they viewed as a position that has had relative paucity on specific matters of race.

#BlackLivesMatter has been a fantastically successful organization. They have rightly pushed forward the causes of racial inequality and have created almost unprecedented awareness about issues like white privilege and police brutality. If we’re lucky, they’ll continue to do great work. And sometimes, organizations like #BlackLivesMatter have to go a little far to challenge people’s sensitivities.

Still, when I heard of this action, I called it a “travesty”. And even with some of the wonderful responses from the Bernie camp that have been elicited, I still find myself massively uncomfortable with this action.

Don’t get me wrong: #BlackLivesMatter’s assertion that white progressives and liberals too often soft-pedal race is well-taken. Even as I was becoming a bona fide anarchist, I still tended to downplay the role of race as compared to class, viewing the specific causes of racial inequality today as being largely the results of previous generations of racism combined with current trends in classism. I can see the trend they’re talking about. And, for some white progressives, their views becoming broader and more in line with complementary holism doesn’t just come about after being presented with the compelling data of the ongoing salience of race (and gender and sexual orientation and political power) in American life above and beyond class.

But momentarily getting a blip of consciousness is not going to cut it. Even getting a Presidential candidate to discuss race more specifically isn’t worth potentially causing the scuttling of an organization and in-fighting.

I think the reason why #BlackLivesMatter may have taken the tack that they did was that they viewed Sanders as being just like any other Democratic politician feigning progressivism early on to build cred.

But Sanders just isn’t that. My Facebook wall is blowing up with people sharing Sanders’ posts. Millennials love him. Here’s a candidate that isn’t calling them lazy narcissists but is laying down, clearly and repeatedly, the basic facts about inequality and corporate domination in the U.S.

From the standards of anyone on the Left, Sanders’ statements are at best “No duhs”. But from the perspective of people who haven’t heard anything like it, Sanders is something objectively new.

I haven’t had this much hope for a Democratic candidate who could actually win and might make good changes since Obama. And Sanders’ campaign so far is blowing Obama’s out of the water in terms of consistent discussion of inequality on all levels: Unemployment and job training, tax rates, the post-Citizens United ability of corporations to truly hijack the political system…

Plenty of people, white and black, male and female, have become galvanized for Bernie. This is something new.

I think that #BLM didn’t understand this need, and in so doing I think they made a number of errors. And even if their specific action ultimately may do more good than harm, I am very scared about what it shows about the movement and what may happen in terms of coalition-building and alliances.

First: Poor people deserve a safe space too, as poor people qua poor people.

Bernie Sanders’ rallies have become a place for people to hear that their struggles are systemic, to be freed of guilt.

#BLM showed disrespect for that. I suspect they would be livid if gay protesters hijacked their rally.

We always have to be very careful when we penetrate the space that is being created by people to talk about something that we admit is perfectly valid and indeed essential.

Second: #BLM’s action is undemocratic in its norms.

When a group of people show up to a place, investing their time and effort to support someone, it is deeply unfair to prevent them from being able to talk about what they wish to talk about.

This is obviously a complicated matter. But I’m trying to think of other situations where resistance has perhaps skirted around democratic norms and I can’t think of many. The recent white supremacist protest where a person satirized them by playing a sousaphone the whole time undermined them while letting them speak. The civil rights movement in general emphasized passive resistance: At best, they caused inconvenience and disruption, not actually preventing people from speaking.

After all, now that #BLM has done this, what maxim can they use to defend a white supremacist or a Sanders supporter taking over one of their rallies?

The means that you use to achieve an end influence that end. Organizations historically have struggled to act in ways that are undemocratic or coercive and maintain their integrity. A better society has to be won by the kinds of actions that would be natural in that better society. And I would hope that a good society would never have a person silenced by others with another agenda.

Third: #BLM has unfortunately for many reinforced the idea that class and race may indeed be opposed objectives. And for many, they want to see class inequality ended.

I despise the idea of “oppression Olympics”. I do not believe in sacrificing progress in one area over any other. I will always reject such false dichotomies. Justice is justice is justice.

But one can make a very reasonable argument that, of the inequalities that we face, class is the one that has gotten worse in the most dramatic way and has been least-well challenged. In the 20th century, we saw revolutionary wins for women, people of color, and recently LGBTQ people. There were transforming changes in institutions: The right to vote, the practical ability to enter the workforce, the end of legal marital rape, the end of Jim Crow, and legalized gay marriage. While racism, sexism, and homophobia and heteornormativity are not gone as institutions, certainly they have been sharply mitigated. But, as regards class, we have seen virtually nothing that can be viewed as a revolutionary change. Corporations still retain the power that they always have had. Workers remain roughly as helpless as they ever have been. And, since the 1970s,

It is not a winning strategy to make people believe that they have to make a choice between race and class. And while #BLM did not explicitly or implicitly do this in their message, their action, bereft of broader context, said to many people, “I’m being asked to choose between supporting Bernie or #BLM”.

This is a loss for both movements. It’s a loss of opportunity to discuss. Luckily, on spaces like Tim Wise’s Facebook page, there have been smart, coalition-building discussions and debates. But I truly fear that, for the next year, I am going to have to do more work now when I introduce anything having to do with #BLM.

Fourth, and this one is tough: A lot of people view black activists, as they view gay or female activists, as irrational or entitled or misinformed or aggressive or ideological.

So much of my activist work day to day is engaging with people and trying to get them to see that it does not make one automatically irrational (an “SJW” or an ideologue) to assert that discrimination against women qua women or people of color qua people of color is real and substantial enough to assert “privilege” for men or white people.

Yes, #BLM can’t be held accountable for bad stereotypes. But actions like this can make them seem remarkably petty and entitled. Sanders’ response makes him seem to many that he is just clarifying something obvious. It seems to many that #BLM forced an issue, undemocratically, that Sanders obviously agrees with, and that #BLM attacked the person closest to their viewpoint who can possibly win.

As activists, we must all unfortunately swallow our anger and frustration at bigotry and injustice quite often in order to bring people on board. We have to communicate to people who have not had the opportunity to be informed and enlightened on these matters. As tough as it is, when we fail to do this we fail as activists.

Fifth: I think #BLM is showing some degree of ideological myopia.

Supposedly, some of the controversy came about because Sanders said “Black lives matter, white lives matter, Hispanic lives matter”. I understand why #BLM took exception with this, but this is in fact the only just formulation.

We want a society where all lives matter equally. #BlackLivesMatter as a slogan is so powerful because it challenges people to recognize that black lives so often are treated like they aren’t. Obviously, this is also true of Hispanics, who are routinely demonized. Sanders’ quote here is perfectly consistent with an idealistic platform. Sanders’ statement in response, “I was especially disappointed because on criminal justice reform and the need to fight racism there is no other candidate for president who will fight harder than me”, is also perfectly on point.

Compare this to some of Obama’s statements, where he actually declared that this is a black and a white and a Hispanic America. Not a single #BLM supporter I’ve spoken to has quoted a single line from Bernie that rhetorically obliterates the racial and gender inequalities being faced. He hasn’t talked about that issue, but there are a host of issues that Sanders hasn’t brought up that matter hugely and tremendously. Unfortunately, when you’re building a coalition, sometimes you need to stay on a single message.

I see in this action a belief that racial inequality is so obviously the leading issue, so obviously the most pernicious, that anyone who disagrees otherwise or wants to spend their time focusing on another issue must be silenced. I get very worried when I see that logic, implicitly or explicitly.

If we were able to improve the class inequality situation in the United States, that would help many poor people of color and many communities of color.

Now, I will say that I have seen many reactions from Sanders’ supporters that are grotesque and deeply unfortunate. Many were unable to put aside anger to try to in turn forgive and build coalitions themselves. Many repeated mythologies about inequality that are deeply toxic and problematic.

But this is the door I fear that #BLM opened. Instead of getting an opportunity to raise the consciousness and allow Sanders to speak through something like an open letter or a question at his rally, they forced their issue into the limelight over another issue. I think many will find that an unforgivable action. When people are angry, their better angels rarely rise to the surface.

In any instance, #BLM did what they did. Now, it’s up to left coalitions to push forward a clear and deep understanding of how totally interlinked race and class are, how the two systems of oppression crucially depend on each other and how efforts against one rob the other of power.

Standard
personal, politics

My Own Trajectory with Anti-Racism and White Privilege

When I bring up issues of white privilege, racial inequality, and discrimination, I often get negative responses, no matter how humble, specific or on-topic I try to be. This can be tough. It can lead all of us on all sides to be more arrogant than is justified. But as much as I do think these are matters of injustice, and as insensitive as people can get, I do get the negativity and the skepticism.

The average person who reads a lot of statistics that seem to undermine their worldview is likely to get angry. They’re worried that they may be being hoodwinked. They worry that some activist is trying to get their vote or try to make them support some kind of electoral politics that might harm their own interests by using guilt. They worry that they’re being insulted or attacked for things they had nothing to do with that happened decades before they were born. They’re afraid that their country and the people they love are being spat upon, even though every country has had its problems.

I understand that. It can be tough to keep track of the truth. It can be tough to sort out which statistics are relevant and which aren’t. It can be tough to listen to someone else who says something that is totally alien to your experience. I realize that, with all the writing I’ve done on this topic, I still haven’t discussed in one place my own history with this topic. I want to share this because I feel that I should be accountable to it. There was a time where I didn’t believe in white privilege or in racism as being a dominant social institution.

When I was in middle school and high school, I was pretty politically informed. My parents listened to NPR. I read lots of history books and political science books. As my friends started to get into Mumia abu-Jamal, Rage Against the Machine, the Seattle protests, and the other left strands in the 1990s, I found a lot of their arguments to be perhaps a little specious. They would point to the disproportions of black men in jail, for example, or disadvantages of sentencing. They would point to the poverty in ghettos and the ongoing residential segregation. My position until late into high school was that racism per se was of declining importance in America. (Growing up in a mostly white town and spending most of my time with people of left-leaning hippie persuasions, I was able to be unaware of black perspectives on this problem and how much people of color by and large report experiencing widespread discrimination). I viewed the state and corporations as being the dominant institutions, and saw that formal apartheid had been rolled back for what I believed to be long enough to have made it so that racist bias in particular was less important than usual. I viewed the problems that people of color faced in the U.S. as being primarily caused by an admixture of factors: Poverty due to prior inequality in the United States, the worsening of neo-liberal institutions that slammed the already poor, and individual acts of discrimination that, though only done by the minority of whites, still could block opportunities just enough times to lead all else held equal to people suffering disproportionately. After all, it only takes one racist DA to send a lot of people to prison.

So think about how poverty alone could explain a lot of the racial gaps that we seem to see if you don’t look carefully. Sure, a lot of African-American men are jailed, but being poor means you are less likely to have top-flight legal representation and that you are less likely to have political clout. Seeing the OJ trial, I found it quite clear that there was racialized resentment at play throughout the trial, especially with Mark Fuhrman. But OJ’s victory seemed to show that a black man with enough money and clout could indeed get away with murder, just like a white man with enough money. Because of my understanding of history and society, I could hold onto the idea that race per se was of declining importance and view race as secondary to resolving income inequality, brutal capitalism, and the damage being done by investor’s rights treaties like NAFTA.

In fact, a Chomsky book even helped contribute to this idea. Chomsky pointed out that a lot of sociology in the West takes into account race, but then cited a researcher, Vicente Navarro, who looked at class as a predictor of health and found it to be much more serious. (I should note Chomsky went on to make a very important point that stuck with me: “On the other hand, it’s certainly worth overcoming the other forms of oppression. For people’s lives, racism and sexism may be much worse than class oppression. When a kid was lynched in the South, that was worse than being paid low wages. So when we talk about the roots of the system of oppression, that can’t be spelled out simply in terms of suffering. Suffering is an independent dimension, and you want to overcome suffering”).

I should note that I never gave much credence to the idea that black poverty was a cultural failing. Even in middle school, I recognized that, if a group of people are doing worse in a broadly sociological sense, it just can’t be due to some characteristic they share as a group. Sure, rappers singing homophobic and misogynistic lyrics, or people wanting to be on welfare rolls instead of working, or people resenting whites instead of working on their own problems, do exist. But while individual people can be lazy, or ignorant, or unintelligent, or criminal, people as a group aren’t any of those things. If a people with a cross-section of skills and backgrounds are encountering barriers, it’s not because of them but because of the society they live in. After all, plenty of white folks also listen to music with destructive messages, abuse welfare, commit crime, or blame others for their problems. But these people just never seem to have it as bad.

I also recognized that people’s traits don’t emerge in a vacuum. If a group of people are resentful of another group, there’s some kind of reason why that reason is taking hold, whether that’s due to internal elites in that group taking advantage of and blowing out of proportion simmering rivalries or due to an actual pattern of abuse. If a group of people are more likely to be criminal, it’s because the opportunities to join normative social life are limited. There’s a reason why people turn out the way they do, and it’s because of other people before them. That’s why it’s so myopic and destructive to blame them exclusively for their decisions and thereby refuse to extend help or second chances, like the universe only came into existence forty years ago. There are no perfect human beings, so we all owe each other some help and opportunity to do better and be better.

Still, I would reject those who pushed forward an idea of racism as being incomplete or looking only at a narrow slice of the problem. I won’t deny that there was great arrogance in that view, and that if I had bothered looking into it on my own, I might have come around much earlier.

It took not only the work of Tim Wise and other anti-racist scholars on the left (including actually reading Mumia’s work) but also taking sociology classes and seeing the sociological evidence to realize that I had been looking at only part of the picture. Specifically, my awakening to the idea that race matters was from Tim Wise’s careful decimation of David Horowitz in an e-mail debate. As a high school debater, I loved reading great debates. Tim carefully laid out source after source after source, referring to both conservative and liberal scholars… I highly recommend people read it, as it’s a good primer as to both conservative and leftist views on the topic of race.

But that fascination with watching a conservative blowhard get decimated didn’t last very long when I actually took multicultural studies classes and talked to other people. Sure, I was angry conceptually at the injustice that Tim discussed, that I subsequently read repeatedly in Z Magazine. But it’s one thing to be conceptually mad at racism in America and thereby attend a protest against Israeli occupation, and another thing to see the face of someone you like and know that they got hurt because they encountered something I read in a book. Then it became clear to me that, in fact, these issues really matter. I saw so many white participants in these multicultural studies come to deeply regret how they had lost so much of their culture over the years, from their language to their names. I saw Asian participants struggle with balancing their American identity with their Asian names and heritage. They literally had to choose whether to be Rex or Renjun, Amy or Chun.

Most importantly, I heard African-Americans talk about being pulled over by cops, watched in department stores, ignored in classrooms, treated one way on the phone and another way in person. I heard my black Professor talk about how a white girl assumed that he was a valet in a parking lot. And I kept seeing how angry white folks got when black folks said that. Like some other guy being a jerk said anything about them. I never felt defensive unless someone said, clearly, “All white folks are racists”, which I may have heard less than five times in ten years of engaging with people on these issues. It was obvious to me that some cop or security guard that was letting subconscious bias guide them didn’t say something about me.

See, when I try to figure out if a social institution exists, I see if there are pervasive influences. I can say that America is “capitalist”, whatever that specifically means, and thereby classist, because I can point to classist patterns in health care, electoral politics, employment, foreign and domestic policy, and everywhere else.

I can say the same thing about racism, discrimination and white privilege. The evidence does not just say that it’s better to be white if you’re pulled over by a cop, or go to a department store. The evidence is clear: Being white (whether that is specifically being perceived as white or actually being of a European racial background) gives a person demonstrable advantages in wealth and income, employment, the criminal justice system, health care, housing, media representation, banking, and virtually every other institution in life. I did not come to accept this because I read one author or one article. It is because I have looked at every part of American life and found conservative (and mainstream liberal) claims that racism, discrimination and white privilege are no longer operant or are of declining importance to be demonstrably false.

So let me again say that I understand skepticism. I understand why people might view American history differently than I do. I understand why people may reject academics. I understand why people might be afraid to be bludgeoned by statistics, or may be afraid of being guilt-tripped. I can understand why it can be frustrating to be corrected by people about what one calls another group or about an opinion one has. It is absolutely possible to be skeptical about the existence and validity of white privilege without being a racist, or a jerk, or an idiot, or misinformed.

But there is something I cannot abide. Those of us who dismiss snidely the idea of white privilege, as if it were obviously false, are being arrogant. And they are dismissing the experiences of black people, and they rarely have any reason to do so. If you want to say, “There is no such thing as white privilege, get over it”, you are wrong and you are being a jerk. If you want to say, “Black people have no one to blame but themselves for their problems”, you are wrong and you are being a jerk. Well-meaning (i.e. non-jerk) people can disagree. But the idea that it is absurd that racism still matters in American life when we have just now elected our first black President to a second term even after African-Americans being in this country since before it was a country and when segregation and formal apartheid was a part of this country in the lifespans of a lot of still-living people is insane. It’s possible that America managed to really change incredibly rapidly in fifty years. But it is not so obviously the case that it justifies viewing others as obviously dishonest political opportunists for insisting that racism still matters.

Let me reassure you that plenty of scholars are very careful about what they say and don’t say. These issues are complicated. A lot of the people doing the work on this topic have no animosity towards whites; indeed, a lot are white. Researchers and activists in this field of all stripes struggle to find truth between the shifting sands of society. Those researchers who looked into subconscious bias using the Implicit Attitude Test, for example, were surprised and humbled to find out that decades of doing the work that they had done still didn’t make them less biased at a subconscious level.

And the reasons I have heard for why white privilege exists must be dismissed as laughably ignorant. They wouldn’t be offered by anyone with any intelligence, as they so often are, without a need to defend themselves. Like the claim, “It’s not a privilege to be white because there’s a lot of crime in my city”. (As if black-on-black crime didn’t exist). Or the claim, “Lots of black people are on welfare and don’t want to get off”. (As if white welfare abusers didn’t exist, and as if there weren’t plenty of middle-class black families that still lost their jobs in the 2008 recession or their houses and certainly weren’t welfare abusers prior to that while plenty of white middle-class families managed to weather the storm). Or the claim, “I see lots of white homeless people!” (As if there aren’t black homeless people, and as if a white homeless guy who cleaned up and dressed up wouldn’t find it easier to get an apartment or a job than a black homeless guy who did the same thing). In fact, I have yet to encounter a single claim against white privilege that passes muster. All of them were beating up a strawman.

So I ask that everyone, myself included, be a lot more willing to listen to other voices that they haven’t heard and be willing to do the research with an open mind to see if there’s anything to those voices. I hope that as many people as possible will pop over to Google Books or Google Scholar and look up “anti-black discrimination” or “racial discrimination in the United States”, and look at the bulk of the data. Don’t just cite the Heritage Foundation. (Or ignore it). Don’t just repeat memes you see on Tumblr. It is possible to look this data up and become informed. Because people who argue that white privilege exists don’t have to be totally right for it to matter to you. Maybe the only place that people of color still encounter discrimination is in housing markets. But if that’s the case, we should do something. Maybe schools and standardized tests are getting better about trying to deal with stereotype threat. But they should still be better about tracking blacks and Hispanics into remedial classes.

Living in a society that is striving to be free means we have to pay attention and learn. I fully suspect that in ten years I will have changed my opinions on a lot of topics, because I will have learned more and discovered more. Nothing stops you from being a conservative who recognizes that Hispanics aren’t all criminal parasites, or from being a liberal who recognizes that ostentatious consumption in the African-American community might be a pretty serious problem.

And let me close by pointing one thing out: However much of a problem we have with racism in America, it’s only us who can fix it, together. Black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American… We have to do a lot of work to forgive, to have truth and then reconciliation. And it matters. So I will hold everyone to the standard that they should care to make sure that, whatever they believe in, however widespread they view racism as being, they are sure that they are right beyond a doubt. I want people to have read the arguments, read the statistics, read the studies, and understood them. It’s just too important.

Standard
politics

Compassion Fatigue and Charleston

The shootings in Charleston have captured a nation’s attention.

There have been some pretty laudable discussions emerging from this tragedy. I have seen three narratives emerge: A discussion about mental health, a discussion about guns, and a discussion about race.

Let’s be clear: This issue is first and foremost about race. Dylann Storm Roof does not seem to be a lunatic, or a spree killer motivated by a psychological break. His manifesto clearly paints him as an intentional white supremacist, motivated by hatred against people of color. As Paul Street has pointed out, any other social problem that we view as being connected to this tragedy is secondary.

But, that having been said, it does make sense that, if guns were better regulated, perhaps skinheads wouldn’t get them as often. And it does make sense that, if we had better mental health treatment, some very angry people might be able to talk about the real source of their problems and anger.

I, of course, look at Dylann Storm Roof and see a very consistent pattern, which is common in violence. He’s male. He’s white. He’s 21 years old, young and angry and full of spittle. He’s a skinhead, responding to what he views (correctly enough) as a huge ethnic change in Charleston. We can see how angry people, who feel like they or the people like them were once in charge and had power but have had that power taken away from them,

Just today, I read an article about fanatic violence in America, and this is what came up: “The primary character structure of who’s involved in fanatic violence are shown here to be people who were raised in authoritarian-oriented backgrounds, who find themselves marginal, and “unnecessary” persons in postmodern American society.”

That seems to be a terrifyingly accurate picture of Dylann Storm Roof.

But here’s where I find myself very much alienated from the present cultural proceedings.

In fact, ironically, I found myself agreeing most with the Economist’s analysis. Their cynical tone is grotesque, and they are utterly wrong to think that it is impossible for Americans to civilize their society, but I too saw this shooting as just part of a pattern: A pattern of compassion fatigue, of highly localized atrocities causing all of us to pour out wonderfully human responses like anger at injustice, compassion for the victims, and tears at the violence in the world. But so many of us will spend those emotions, outpouring our heart to these tragedies, and then be too exhausted to make sure that residential segregation isn’t a problem in our own neighborhoods, or that the banks in our communities are not systematically screwing over people of color. The cycle of outrage exhausts our mental and emotional resources, leading us to focus on problems we can’t do anything about. I am sure so many of you have heard people talk about how afraid they are about a world full of terror attacks and shootings, which they can’t stop or protect their family from. I have a friend who reacted to the shooting with fear that it’d spark renewed racial conflict and anger. In the social media era, we participate in a myopic, short-term cycle of bursts of outrage. It’s not just the big media institutions doing this to us anymore: We are participating in the flagellation.

The reforms that we are hearing discussed include removing the Confederate flag, having better mental health infrastructure, regulating firearms… A lot of them make sense. In particular, if we would improve our social infrastructure, from foster care to mental health screenings, millions of people would be better off.

The problem with the entire discussion is that Dylann Storm Roof, with his name that evokes the idea of quaint Southern hillbillies to many of us outside of the South, is that you can’t take very much from what he did as indicative of broader culture and broader social problems.

White liberals, and even many progressives and leftists who really should know better, have a big problem: We always like to think about the problem of racism as the KKK, as skinheads, as racist rants by comedians.

We get on our high horse and become incensed by the “N-word”, while we say little about the lack of a full employment policy that keeps quite a lot of people, people of color especially, perpetually out of work.

The compassion fatigue cycle that our media, social and traditional, lock all of us into is not conducive to changing these things.

No one can do anything about Dylann’s actions. They are now another part of our tragic racial history.

Perhaps someone can do something about Mr. Storm Roof himself. Perhaps outreach from the right people could lead him to abandon hate. (Given where he is likely to be going in the near future, this is a long shot).

But the vast majority of us getting up in arms can do very little. People in the South can have another iteration of the symbolic debate to eliminate the Confederate flag. And those of us in the North can… try to push through gun legislation, I guess?

People ride wave after wave of crises like these and iteratively lose hope. And all of us, left and right, allow it to keep happening.

How many white liberals posted something to their Facebook walls about this tragedy but have said nothing for years while the segregated schools in their communities are named Martin Luther King Jr. High?

How many of us have remained quiet while our coworkers said racist jokes, because “They’re just kidding around”?

How many of us have turned a blind eye to a homeless person, or to a person emitting that telltale aura of deep depression, instead of trying to do something about it?

Most of us are not Dylann Storm Roof. Most of us are not members of Stormfront. But every one of us has grown up in a society that has had racial and class divisions.

The average American is not as angry as Dylann Storm Roof, but they will have subconscious biases. For example: When you inform the average white American of the huge disproportions in terms of incarceration in the criminal justice system, many actually react positively, increasing their support for more brutal policies! See, they assume, logically enough without some kind of narrative that explains why the assumption is ignorant and racist, that the disproportionate incarceration must mean that black people are disproportionately dangerous. Then we have the fact that, “Between 1976 and 2011, the percentage of young whites who said they never worried about race relations nearly tripled”. Given how ignorant so many white people, even very well-educated young whites, are about privilege, can we really be so surprised that people like Roof might well think that blacks are not disenfranchised but actually an incredible danger to them?

The average mentally ill person in the United States will not shoot up a church or a movie theater. They will quietly suffer, trying to keep the chasm of their depression or their anxiety from engulfing the people close to them. They will keep coworkers and friends at bay from their pain.

And people like Dylann come from a real place. They have real anger. They see crime in their neighborhood. The statistics may be distorted, the presentation of the crime may be racialized, and the media may be overhyping the bad and underplaying the good, but there are real threats in some communities. They see that it is harder and harder for people like them to get a job. They are afraid of threats from terrorists, afraid of not being able to provide for their family. And too many people will lecture them for being racists instead of asking, “Why are you so angry?”

Because, in fact, the threats that Dylann and people like him really face aren’t from people of color by and large.  The poverty and the lack of opportunity that we all face, especially the millennial generation, are a result of policies pushed forward by a very small elite, who are mostly white straight males. But the corporate media will not discuss that to any real degree, being owned by mostly white straight males. And even with parallel communication networks and parallel media being possible as a result of the Internet and modern technology, we on the left side of the spectrum have not been able to give people a coherent alternative worldview that might let them let go of their anger and put it toward something better than just lashing out and hurting.

That’s something we can actually do something about.

Those of us outside Charleston are not likely to be able to do much to help that community heal. But we can all make sure our own communities’ wounds are better salved. Every single one of us can learn more about the cultures that we live with. We can listen when we are told about segregation and discrimination. We can make sure local businesses are hiring fairly, local banks are lending fairly, local apartment complexes are renting fairly. We can raise consciousness about the anger and hopelessness so many of us feel.

Standard
politics

The Psychology of Color-Blindness

When we see people keep on insisting on a viewpoint against all evidence and reason, we can know that they’re holding on for something having to do with something besides rationality.

We all do it. We all pick ideological positions based on our hopes, our fears, our dreams and our nightmares. Sometime we act out of simple ignorance, and a careful explanation can get us on the right track. But sometimes, we’re afraid of what something we don’t want to believe might mean.

I engage with people on the topic of white privilege, gender privilege, and other progressive issues a lot.

My position is pretty simple: I, as a white straight American male of a middle-class background, have a ton of options and advantages. I still have struggles. I still have heartaches. I still face difficulties. (As a millennial in particular, I have seen an opportunity structure shattered because of the greed of previous generations).

So one will often see people ask, “Is the white homeless guy privileged?” Not in absolute terms, of course not. But compared to the black homeless guy? How can anyone deny that the white guy is probably going to be better off? Clean both of them up, send them in to a job interview, and the white guy might just be able to make it. But even the cleaned up black homeless man is going to still make a white employer have just that little bit of niggling subconscious bias, if nothing else.

These are complicated ideas, and people can have all sorts of valid disagreements.

But then there are some ideas that are seemingly asinine, and yet they’re deeply rooted.

One such issue is the idea of color-blindness.

White people, both liberal and conservative, often propose this kind of argument:

“Racism comes as a result of seeing race. If we just stopped talking about it, the problem would go away”.

Now, if one thinks about that position for a few seconds, the obvious problems start to come about.

For one thing, people have their subconscious biases no matter what happens. We might as well tell the depressed person, “Just pretend you’re not depressed”, or the victim of sexual assault, “Just act like there’s not such a thing as rape”. If subconscious bias exists, we can’t cover it up.

But, see, many people do deny that they are depressed, or deny that something bad and traumatic happened to them, because that way they don’t have to face the hurt and the pain of the truth.

This color-blind ideology protects our egos. It makes it so we don’t have to admit that we might have our sight occluded by things we didn’t control. It lets us be rational and loving without any more hard work.

It might be possible for all of us to transcend race. But we wouldn’t do it by pretending we weren’t biased. People have to admit their biases before they can transcend them. A good journalist doesn’t transcend his biases by pretending he’s not a Democrat: A good journalist learns techniques to compensate for the way that his party affiliation may color his reporting. Overcoming bias is active, and it requires admitting it. It also requires castigating and criticizing those who remain biased. Yet people in these discussions often try to say that calling out the actually biased person is part of the problem, when a moment’s thought would indicate that it’d be part of the solution.

Another problem with the color-blind assertion is that it’s a bad causal model. Yes, of course if people didn’t see racial groups at all there would be no racism. But if people saw racial groups and embraced the diversity they saw, there also would be no racism.

Racism, bias and the white privilege that comes about as a result of not being the subject of those biases is about more than just the recognition that people are different. It’s about that recognition becoming about a stereotype, a belief that all black people or all inner-city black males or all Muslims are the same. It’s then about that stereotype becoming used to deny the humanity, the effort and sacrifice, of individuals.

It’s possible for people to live together and know that they’re from a different culture.

But people often struggle to accept a complex causal model. We like to blame others for making us angry, even though it’s obviously the case that it takes two to tango and if we didn’t have something that we were holding onto we wouldn’t be angry.

Color-blindness lets us imagine it as being simple. We just stop talking about race.

Finally, color-blindness can’t rectify the results of past inequalities.

We didn’t just make up racism or nationalism. The whole of the modern world has been decided by the biases of those who had the guns.

There are trillions of dollars that white folks have that black folks couldn’t get access to because of previous inequalities.

So if you look at the net worth of African-American families, their median wealth is $4,900. Whites have a median wealth of $97,000. That’s about twenty times as much. But the difference in income is more like 61%. You see similar disproportions between Caucasian whites and Hispanics (classified as “white” in the Census).

FT_14.12.11_wealthGap2

Even if we were to be so good at being color-blind that we started paying people of color exactly as much as whites, this gap would take time to go away.

Hell, even if we gave black workers 10% more on average, it’d still take time for that wealth gap to disappear.

Worse, the wealth gap has actually worsened in the aftermath of the 2008 recession.

But, see, when people face a huge problem, they often search for some kind of cognitive approach that will justify them not having to do something.

The most pernicious part of color-blindness as a theory is that last part: “If we just stopped talking about race, it’d go away”.

No need for marches. No need for letter-writing, or boycotts, or challenging businesses. No need to stop listening to a comedian that we used to like but said some really bigoted things and didn’t apologize. No need to interrogate Paula Deen or Kramer.

Instead, we just stop talking about it.

And this is why this idea has to be rejected so staunchly. Even though it’s high-minded, even though it comes from a real place and has a real point, we have to fight it. Because it’s in fact a very high-minded and noble excuse for inaction, and nothing more.

I struggled to try to figure out where this color-blindness idea came from, and why it’s so hard to get otherwise rational people to abandon it. It’s such an emphatically wrong concept, and I don’t recall it actually being endorsed by any movement. It’s certainly not something people of color generally offer.

Take a similar idea that’s been embraced collectively. Many people say that being gay isn’t a choice but is genetic.

Why has that been embraced?

Because gay advocates made that argument pretty compellingly.

It was a movement that pushed that concept into the mainstream.

So if you have any debate about gay rights, the idea of choice and genetics comes into play, because there was an actual source of that idea.

But I don’t see a similar source for this white color-blindness idea.

It seemed to have taken root on its own.

When that happens, you can be sure that it’s psychologically motivated, to protect our egos and our hopes.

I’ve learned from years of working with people in pain that the thing that they need to hear to conquer bad constructs is something hopeful. The same is true here. People need to hear that embracing an idea beyond color-blindness is worth it.

So, let me try.

Talking about race and stereotypes doesn’t make us a bad person. We’re so afraid sometimes that if we say something wrong people will jump down our throats. But it’s better that air our concerns and do our best than be silent.

Admitting that people are different doesn’t mean that we hate them.

It is possible for us to end white privilege. It’s possible for us to do the work to challenge inequality.

And this is something we’re all in together. No one chose to have slavery and Jim Crow lead to inequality along racial lines. No one alive chose patriarchy, or chose economic inequality. And the fact that a lot of people of color have disadvantages doesn’t mean that no one else has a right to complain or express their hurts. The point is for us to get everyone’s boat higher, not some people’s lower. We want to see everyone doing better and being better.

But we can choose together to not accept it.

Standard