Saturday, March 9, 2013

In Post-Post-Racial America

Ta-Nehisi Coates recently wrote an op-ed for the New York Times that has been getting some well-deserved attention.  Beginning with an incident that befell the actor Forest Whitaker in a deli near Columbia University, in Coates's own neighborhood.  An employee, suspecting him of shoplifting, insisted on frisking him in public.  Whitaker didn't call the police at the request of the employee, who was fearful of losing his job, but he lost his job anyway.

Some of the comments under the op-ed are appalling, like this one from "Scott" in Chicago:
I am starting to have misgivings about articles like these: All that is good in the world (that I have observed) comes from tolerance and a willingness to forgive. Nothing ever good stems from quests for perfection and purity.
That one got 764 recommendations.  I see no basis in Coates's op-ed for Scott's accusation that Coates is on a quest for perfection and purity.  It would be closer to the truth to say that Scott is demanding "perfection and purity" from the targets of American racism.  But I started to have misgivings about people like Scott long ago.

Then there was this one, from "Ross" in Rochester NY:
You cannot take one data point and extrapolate it into a conclusion. When you do that, you're guilty of the same behavior that allows people to see a black murderer on the news and conclude all blacks are bad people.
Of course there is not just one "data point", there are many.  This is a popular tactic: accuse the critic of being obsessed with one isolated incident, then as the isolated incidents multiply, change the subject: the critic is indulging in "reverse racism," or dwelling on events that happened long ago, or something like that.  But the attempts by many white people to minimize racism in the US constitute data points, with a multiplier effect as they try to deny the significance of the original events.

Then there's Jorg Lueke from Minnesota:
I hope that the author has recovered from his fatigue of good people. The attitudes of guilt, victimization, and anger, are understandable for a moment but they are not attitudes to live by if we want to live in a society where prejudgements no longer occur. The owner commited no wrong act and yet now both author and wife will spread negative feelings and emotions every time they see this deli potentially infecting their friends and children. Will that make things better? For what really? Because they read about someone else being treated poorly once by an employee? We need to work on living in the moment and acting in the momeent with lover, understanding, and compassion. Compassion for Forrest Whitaker, compassion for the Deli owner, compassion for the employee. Guilt and anger do not break the cycle.
Notice: "someone else being treated poorly once by an employee" -- the Gothamist article I cited above included a report by an eyewitness to the frisking on Forest Whitaker that she has "seen the guys there do this to a black customer before. I have also heard them say some racist crap about the Obamas too. It is unlikely I will be shopping there again."  So it's not "being treated poorly once", though how many times do you have treat one person poorly before it becomes a problem?  Jorg Lueke seems to be notably lacking in "compassion" for people who must endure poor treatment constantly: he sees them as bitter complainers.  He also fails to show compassion for Ta-Nehisi Coates, who in the op-ed clearly expressed his conflicted feelings about what to do.

Best of all, "Ralphie" from Fairfield CT:
Yes racism is a terrible thing -- and to be called a racist, or have it inferred that you are a racist simply on the basis of your skin color is also a terrible thing.
This is what is known as false equivalence, as well as lying: Coates had not called anyone a racist "simply on the basis of the color of your skin."  (I've often encountered this tactic in online discussions of gay issues: if I refer to "homophobes" or "bigots", someone will accuse me of assuming that all heterosexuals are bigots.  Since I hadn't said anything like this, it becomes clear that they assume that "homophobe" and "heterosexual" are equivalent.  But they aren't: many heterosexuals are neither homophobic nor bigots, and many gay people are homophobes and antigay bigots.)  Ralphie goes on to express his belief that "we've made great progress over the last 50 years" -- against the resistance of people like him, I'd say -- and begs us not to "cast the 'R' word about as if it explains every unhappy event"  The "'R' word"!

Coates also posted to his blog at the Atlantic about the incident and the op-ed.  The discussion in comments there is much better than at the Times.  Like this comment, the first in the thread:
What I don't think white people understand is the collateral damage this causes to black people who have to deal with what Forest Whitaker went through, from a psychological point of view. You start to see ghosts. You think you see racism everywhere in your interactions with white people. For some, it becomes such a problem that is inhibits their own personal/career growth.
I'm a white person, and I understand that collateral damage at least intellectually.  I have tried to imagine what it would feel like to have grown up knowing that hostile people were looking at me, waiting for an excuse to yell epithets at me, or better, to get me alone in a secluded place and beat me up?  Or seeing me as a threat, just for existing in the space they consider to be theirs?  The closest I've come to feeling it has been some occasions when I was out for a walk late at night, and was almost the only person in sight on a street -- except for a woman who I could see gather into herself at the sight of me, not knowing whether I was a threat or not.  Some men get indignant about that; I don't.  It doesn't begin to compare to growing up black in America, and I'm not saying that it does.  Most of the time I'm invisible in white society; black people never are, from the day they're born.

Some would argue that I have a double standard here.  I've been asked what I would think, while I walked down an empty city street late at night, if I saw a group of  young black men approaching.  I would feel somewhat apprehensive, it's true, but no more than I'd feel if I saw a group of young white men approaching.  The 18-35 age group among males commits most crimes, I believe.  But I have been out walking late at night in large American cities and passed groups of young black men who paid me no attention at all.

Coates commented in reply, "From a cold calculating position, even if it is racism you can't know. There's nothing you can do about it, so you shouldn't bother thinking about it."  But not thinking about it doesn't always work.

Someone else posted a great quotation from Martin Luther King that I will hang on to:
Now the other myth that gets around is the idea that legislation cannot really solve the problem and that it has no great role to play in this period of social change because you’ve got to change the heart and you can’t change the heart through legislation. You can’t legislate morals. The job must be done through education and religion. Well, there’s a half-truth involved here. Certainly, if the problem is to be solved, then in the final sense, hearts must be changed. Religion and education must play a great role in changing the heart. But we must go on to say that while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that is pretty important, also.
--Martin Luther King, Jr., Address at Western Michigan University, December 18, 1963
(You may remember, as I do, a distinguished white philosopher from England who couldn't grasp the point King was making here.)

Some commenters seemed to miss King's point (though maybe I flatter myself by supposing that I get it).  One said that "No, you can't use legislation to make people less racist but you can use it to erase the racism that was legislated into existence."  Another said that passing a law against lynching is "quite good enough."  King said, "I think that is pretty important, also", which seems to me quite different than "quite good enough."  King didn't deny that other institutions besides the law must be active against racism -- he was rejecting the claim that because the law can't do everything, it can therefore do nothing and shouldn't be tried.

I don't know how much progress we have made against racism in the US.  Certainly there has been some, but not as much as most white people evidently want to believe.   Many racists have learned to avoid blatant expressions in public, but they keep leaking out anyway.  To some extent the Internet has facilitated their exposure, as people assume that what they say online is "private," even as it is publicly accessible; so you get incidents like the racist Hunger Games fans who were furious to find that some of the characters were black, and were played by black actors in the film.  And then you have "a fellow on Twitter by the handle of 'YesYoureRacist' who simply re-tweets people whose tweets are of the form 'I'm not racist, but [horrible thing]' -- it's an astonishing thing to see them all collected in one place."  Or the white Louisiana judge who refuses to marry 'interracial couples': "I'm not a racist, I just don't believe in mixing the races that way."  Besides, he has lots of black friends!

I don't have any conclusion today, because there is no conclusion.  This story is going to be in progress for a long time.