The Shape in the Fog

Fog_viaKevanI find, of late, that reading the news is like glimpsing some hulking form through the fog. I grow tense as my eyes trace the contours, what little of them I can make out. I cannot tell what the shape may be, nor if it is boulder or beast. Each time I begin to grasp its form, the fog rolls and settles, or a breeze remakes the outline. Perhaps it is not even one thing, but many. Is it a forest? I am not sure.

The fog, though readily seen, extends beyond any reckoning. Who can tell if the soup of opinion, condemnation, fear, pain, doubt, and anger in this place, obscuring my view, is the same as it is in any other place? Of necessity, the state of the fog elsewhere is unknown.

I, and we, strive for objectivity, for some kind of map of the view obscured, and thus for some better intuition about the shapes hiding behind the greyness. I see, and feel certain, that a kind of hate is growing in my country. Not a new kind, but an old kind that, for a time, we had denounced (with the tacit understanding that denunciation would not equate to elimination, and that we would not pursue the latter too closely). What is the shape of this hatred? I can’t say fully. It seems, on one hand, to be a bitter resentment of immigrants, and on another to be an unjustifiable claim of whiteness as superiority, and on another to be a comfortable disdain for black Americans, and on another to be an old package of prejudice whose yellowing edges and dusty patina have somehow rendered it more palatable to a few.

What I can tell, with some certainty, is that we have run two ideals against one another: we have said that you may believe what you wish, but you must act as society deems appropriate. And we have said also that as a society, we will accept a diversity of belief and be hesitant to judge. In so doing, in claiming both ideals and refusing to look at their opposition, we have outlawed the performance of racism, and let the actual practice settle comfortably into the fog. The practice confers privileges, and we are loathe to give that up.

Is it any surprise when the performance returns to mirror the practice? As a society, we claim economic and social justifications for the same vicious prejudice white supremacists embrace openly and, if I may say, more honestly. Is it any surprise when the whitest of our political parties and leaders embrace their whiteness as empowering, and insist their privilege is defensible? As a society, we have not taught our members otherwise. Instead, we have taught them that believing these things is acceptable, even if avowing them is not. We have taught them to practice racism without becoming, overtly, racists.

So the belief, which we have carefully tolerated, now spills back into performance. It spills into votes. It spills into self-justification, and violence, and hatred, and a shape reemerges in the fog.

The whitest of us wear their privilege itself as if it were defensible. They are used to being immune to the consequences of their actions and having those consequences fall on others. Is it any surprise when their condemnations of violence come in the same breath with blame for others? Our president says, when an avowed Nazi attacks and kills people whose only sin is to claim supposed American ideals, that the victims are the guilty. He invents a boogeyman, an “alt-left,” that is somehow more worthy of condemnation than white supremacists. Our parents and grandparents fought and died to stop Hitler’s Nazis. But Trump’s Nazis are white Americans, and white Americans do not see themselves. They have the privilege not to.

So, Trump’s white Americans look down at immigrants working for a pittance, and resent their work. White Americans are losing their jobs, but they lose them to their own policies and their own unwillingness to share—so a few of them take more and more, and ship jobs overseas, and automate, and the rest of them blame immigrants. The consequences of their actions cannot be their own. After all, they cannot see themselves.

And Trump’s white Americans see that the country is divided, and hate that it is so. But they claim a black man divided the country, when it was, truly, their refusal to be led by a black man. The division is not what they despise—it is that they now have half when they want the whole. They yell, “take our country back!” But the consequence of that greed cannot be their own, so they blame a black man. They cannot see themselves, only him.

And Trump’s white Americans say that costs are too high, and the government is too big, and that the faltering steps of America, tiring and divided that she is, are due to the inclusion of anyone different. They have had, until now, the privilege to harm others and be immune from the consequences. But the world is moving beyond them, and so they are feeling the discomfort of losing their immunity. And the whitest party of our government argues about who to blame and how to hurt them, never seeing the consequences of their own choices.

We have reached, I fear, a point of critical decision. There are people who have decided, without consulting the rest of us, that they deserve preference in policy, unequal representation in government, and the biggest share of American prosperity. They will not be content unless they get it, and because they had it before, they will not accept that they can have it no longer. What will the rest of us decide about how to deal with them? We are complicit, too, in ignoring them for so long. Is there any right decision left?

As the American system has lurched step by step towards greater justice, it has reached a strange place. For many—for women, black Americans, LGBTQ Americans, Muslims, immigrants, and so many more—the injustice is palpable, but changeable; there is a glimmer of hope and change. Yet for the privileged white Americans, even the slightest rebalancing of those scales feels like a massive loss. So white Americans declare that greater justice is fine, in abstract, but only if it comes at no cost to them.

So here we are, one half of our country seizing change and demanding it continue, and the other half refusing categorically to give up any more of their wealth, condemning anyone who asks for it, and pining for the time when injustice was overwhelmingly, rather than just mostly, in their favor.

And there are Nazis in the streets, and we have a white coward of a president who cannot even say no to them. Who slightly agrees with them. Whose supporters, in thoughts deeper than they can grasp, think the pain of losing some power is greater than the pain of racism and fascism, because those same supporters know the burden of the latter will fall on people who are different. Those same supporters know they are not the ones who pay.

This is the shape in the fog—it is not a forest of trees, but of white hoods. And just as it was before, the people hiding behind those hoods cannot see one another, and do not admit to their shameful greed. And just as it was before, the people cowering behind those hoods believe they are justified in their actions, or do not care. And just as it was before, prominent people in power say the words of condemnation, but deny that these events are the consequences they themselves inspire.

The shape in the fog is still with us, closer than we knew, and shifting, slowly, as the mist moves. It looks like hoods today. But it may look like the American flag tomorrow.

After all, it looked like the flag yesterday.

 

Image Credit: Kevan

Protect and Serve Whom?

philando_viaTonyWebsterI have been pulled over. I have been in accidents. In both cases, I have interacted with the police. Once I was pulled over for speeding at 1am, which I was, because I missed the transition from 55 to 30. I was doing 60 in a 30, and the cop said “you don’t have a record in New Hampshire, so I’m going to give you a ticket for 45mph instead.” I certainly didn’t fear for my safety.

Once I was pulled over for doing 65 in a 45, along with a dozen other cars, because the police had camped out at the speed limit transition just over a hill, and I didn’t slow down fast enough. It wasn’t fair, but I wasn’t in danger.

Once I was pulled over for doing 37 in a 25, because it was raining and foggy and I missed the sign. I tried to explain that. The cop was surly, and wrote me a ticket for 40 in a 25 instead, and claimed on the ticket that the weather was “clear and dry,” and was definitely punishing me for doing anything other than meekly agreeing with him. But I wasn’t afraid—just annoyed.

Obviously, I am not black.

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The Novel and the New

notnow_viaellaOver the past year the Black Lives Matter movement has called attention to disproportionate police violence against disproportionately black Americans. For many black Americans, this was a breakthrough into the mainstream for a challenge they have lived with their entire lives. For many white Americans, this is a new and surprising piece of information about the world.

If you are a white American, it’s understandable that you would find it novel to think black Americans have more to fear from police officers. After all, you may have lived your entire life without worrying much about the police, and certainly without feeling like you have no control over whether you live or die at a traffic stop. You might wonder what we, a free and just society, should do about this new problem.

But of course it isn’t a new problem—just novel to you. It’s an old problem, and what’s new is that white people, by and large, now know about it.

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The Missing Words

police_viathomashawkThere are a bunch of people out there right now who want to tell you “support the police” and “blue lives matter.” Many of these people also say slightly more nuanced things like “there is more crime in black neighborhoods so police are needed there” or “there are a few bad apples, but the police need the freedom to act” or “black people would be safe in encounters with the police if they just do what the police tell them.”

But all of those phrases have a missing word, right there at the end where it matters the most.

That word is “unconditionally.”

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The Complicit Majority

crowd_viazoikoraki
It’s easy to say members of the fringe aren’t part of the group. We’d prefer that they not be, at least we it comes to public perception. The fringe is an uncomfortable reminder of the flaws in our beliefs: as the Westboro Baptist Church is to Christians, as PETA is to environmentalism, as racist Trump supporters are to Republicans, as GamerGate trolls are to gamers, and so many others. We want to say these people are not really Christians, or environmentalists, or whatever group they claim to be part of.

But that’s rarely true—more frequently, these are the members we uncomfortably ignore, espousing views we have left carefully unstated inside our communities. They are bad actors we tolerate in our midst because, somewhere, we decided that solidarity trumps civility. When they finally become the loud voices, we suddenly want to distance ourselves from them, but it’s too late. Our complicity is already established.

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Little White Lies

fingers_crossed_viadanielgiesPeople lie. People lie pretty much all the time—but most of those lies aren’t the sort of lies that matter. They are untruths that we expect and reinforce socially. They are lies that are, in a sense, required.

“How are you today?”

“Fine, how are you?”

I have trouble with things like that because I always want to answer truthfully. It took me a while to accept that it’s not a real question so much as a script, and that the answer is part of the script, and that because the answer doesn’t convey real information, it isn’t really untrue. It’s not really a lie. I may not be fine, but if I say that I am, that’s fine.

That’s a lie that isn’t really a lie, repeated for the benefit of a social script. We like social scripts, and they make us feel better. They make us feel like we understand the world. But there are lies we tell ourselves, too. There are social scripts we repeat to ourselves, and others, that are deeply, fundamentally, untrue. And while most of us know that “fine” doesn’t really cover it when the lie is about ourselves, it’s easy to forget that the scripts don’t really cover it about anyone else, either.

Especially if they have a different experience. And especially if the script is a script for those of us with social privileges. Like, say, if you’re white.

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“No, Where Are You Really From?”

chairs_viaWildInWoodsThat was the question he asked, to a man near the front, when the first answer wasn’t good enough.

It was a workshop I attended recently with people I did not know. Some of them had traveled a ways to attend, but so had the presenter. And, when he called on the man, the presented asked what is an entirely reasonable question: “where are you from?” It was relevant to the work at hand, and something entirely acceptable to ask in a group.

“Boston,” the man replied.

With nary a missed beat, the (older, white, male) presenter replied, “no, where are you really from?”

I couldn’t miss the unspoken “…because of course you aren’t one of us.”

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A Few Bad Apples

Apples_viaThomasTeichert
Reliably, whenever issues of sexism, racism, and prejudice appear, so too does the phrase “a few bad apples.” University professors are harassing their students, but universities and media hasten to remind us that they are just a few bad apples. Police officers are abusing the people they are supposed to protect and serve, but mostly when those people are black—still, it’s a few bad apples.

“A few bad apples” is in-group language. It’s what you say when you identify with the group in question, and you just can’t believe anything bad about that group because it would also mean something bad about yourself. It is, in essence, group-level denial: that person did something I can’t be associated with, so that must mean they don’t really represent my group.

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Racism, Sexism, and the Fundamental Attribution Error

Lookingout_viaAllenLaiWe all know racism, sexism, and similar –isms are things we shouldn’t admit to; even those who embrace them ideologically would rather express them in different words. The disclaimer mad lib is simple: “I’m not _____, it’s just that _____.” Islamophobia? No, no, it’s just that there really are Muslim terrorists, so my fear is justified! Sexism? Are you kidding? Women just choose lower-paying jobs than men do. Racism? Don’t make me laugh. Black people just commit more crimes, so of course the police need to pay more attention to them. For Americans, for white people, for men, for those on the inside, an –ism is easily explained away by external factors.

From the outside, it looks a bit different.

If you’re a woman in the United States, you have probably gotten attention you didn’t want from men who didn’t want to take no for an answer.

If you’re black in the United States, you have probably gotten attention you didn’t want from police who assumed you were guilty of something.

And you’ll notice that what these things have in common is not, necessarily, some internal core quality (which is how many white people think about racism, how many men think about sexism, etc.). Instead, what they have in common is behavior, and a system that says that behavior is okay.

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False Categories: Black-on-Black Crime

Photo Credit: Flickr user Phil CrisologoI maintain that doubting and refining (and sometimes rejecting) one’s ideas is a fundamental part of knowing. Without those habits, ideas become brittle and dogmatic, and demagoguery becomes common. Without those habits, we can develop entire concepts with ready-made distortion built in. I think of these concepts as false categories: words or phrases where peripheral qualities are used to define a convenient set of things regardless of relevance.

Have you ever had someone ask you a rhetorical question that just made you think “that’s a stupid question,” but you couldn’t put your finger on why? Did you find yourself reluctantly pulled along by their logic, knowing full well that there was a flaw somewhere but unable to find it? This has been my experience when I encounter false categories—I recognize that there is a specious premise in the question, but it take a while to parse it out because it was hidden in the language instead of stated outright.

Of course, categories are useful and effective shorthand for thought and debate. This is why we rely on them so much. But human beings are also too enamored of categories; we think too little about them, and we overlook false categories that contain questionable implications. You can draw a circle around any convenient thing and call it a category, and we do, especially when there is an ideological motive for doing so.

Case in point, the phrase “black-on-black crime.” For white people, racial tensions they had mostly ignored have become much less ignorable in the recent past. For those white people motivated to dismiss the idea that racism still has any role in American society, “black-on-black crime” is a refuge. “Look!” these people can say, “there are proportionally more murders by black Americans of black Americans! Black-on-black crime is the real issue you should focus on, not [insert topic here].” Black Lives Matter? Then why don’t they focus on Black-on-Black Crime (and stop picking on George Zimmerman, or white people, or police officers)?

On the face of it (ignoring the false choice idea that you can only focus on one thing at a time) the category of “black-on-black crime” is apparently real. FBI crime statistics bear out that there is, indeed, more crime within races than across races, and more crime overall in black communities. So one could be forgiven, after a cursory glance at the data, for thinking the category of “black-on-black crime” is a natural category with real implications. Which is where a lot of people would stop, so let’s not.

The phrase “black-on-black crime,” especially when used in discussions about structural racism, implies a false equivalency between crimes motivated by racism and crimes motivated by poverty. To suggest that the Black Lives Matter movement should focus on “black-on-black crime” instead of structural racism in police departments implies that because more poor black people kill other black people than do racially motivated police, the latter should be somehow less important. Even the premise that you could focus on one and not the other implies no chain of causality between a community unable to trust its police force and the levels of crime within that community.

The phrase “black-on-black crime” carries with it the implicit limit of violent crime, the sort of crime where one or two people have one or two victims and there is direct interaction between them. If one includes fraud, embezzling, tanking the world economy, or various other kinds of white-collar (and mostly white-person) crime, the question of who counts as a victim becomes altogether muddled. White people often talk about white-collar crimes as “victimless,” but I think all the people who got stuck in foreclosure after being bamboozled into bad mortgages would disagree on that point.

The thing that bothers me most about “black-on-black crime” is that it is fundamentally a bait-and-switch. The category acknowledges that race is an important factor in the discussion, but then uses that importance to divert attention and avoid responsibility. It betrays a deeply separatist view of American society and carries the deep conviction that races are just different, which leads treacherously to the idea that some races are more criminal. Crime in white communities is painted as an aberration, but the implication of the phrase “black-on-black crime” is that crime in black communities is inherently tied to the racial makeup of those communities. Never mind that we know crime is actually tied to the density and socioeconomic makeup of communities, and societal structures and history have conspired to make poor urban communities more black than white.

This is why I believe “black-on-black crime” is a false category. Like many false categories, it takes an incidental factor and paints it as causal. Usually that’s just a mistake, a cognitive shortcut that we take so often that it’s tough to avoid. In this particular case, though, it echoes a long and shameful history of white people judging other races as inferior.

Some white people try to convince themselves that they no longer do this. Some try to convince themselves that racism isn’t a real part of society. “Black-on-black crime” does have something real to say about race, but what is has to say is that uncomfortable white people are trying very hard to look away. Racism, though, will not be buried in so shallow a grave; it will keep rising to the surface until we deal with it honestly, and structurally, and humbly.