Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Social Injustice Warriors

A strange article at The American Conservative today: George Hawley, billed as "an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama," takes on the question of White Guilt.
One of the most persistent tropes on the racial right is that the major cultural institutions in the United States aggressively push a story of white guilt. The media and the education system—from pre-K to postgraduate—are the most frequent targets of this accusation, though increasingly churches are also charged with being strongholds of the “Social Justice Warriors.”

According to this narrative, white Americans face a constant barrage of derision, persistently hearing about the evils of their white-supremacist ancestors and the unfairness of their current unearned privilege. They are told that their racial sins can never be truly washed away, but they can achieve partial atonement by signing onto various progressive causes, especially generous immigration policies and policies designed to uplift African-Americans...

I do not challenge the veracity of any of these stories, though I am not sure how one would objectively, numerically, and conclusively demonstrate that the leading cultural institutions in America are pushing an anti-white message. People who attempt to do so typically just gather collections of anecdotes, and that is a game that both sides can play. The left, after all, has long argued exactly the opposite, proclaiming that white supremacism is pervasive throughout society.
Hawley then cites one study, which finds "only a minority of white Americans admit to feeling any kind of guilt about race ... This was even true of young whites that supported Bernie Sanders."  This susprises him: "even though I believe that most white Americans do not really feel guilty about race, I did expect more to at least pretend to do so."

Hawley's argument seems thoroughly muddled to me.  

1) Right-wing propagandists claim that Social Justice Warriors want white people to feel guilty. 
2) Some rather spotty evidence suggests that white people don't feel guilty.  
3) Therefore the SJWs have failed in their quest to make white people feel guilty, Q.E.D.

Since Hawley's major premise is at best dubious and probably false, he has no argument.  It's worth noticing other strange moves he makes: what do "generous immigration policies" have to do with white guilt?  Most anti-immigrant policies in the US have historically been directed at people we'd now consider at least kind-of-white: Italians, Greeks, Jews.  The Middle Easterners that racists are now trying to keep out of the country are as "white" as those groups.  The bit about "policies designed to uplift African-Americans" is also revealing.  The primary aim of the Civil Rights movement was to stop racism; racial "uplift" was supposed to come from within the "race."  I suppose Hawley has affirmative action in mind; if so, he doesn't understand that policy.

Notice too the false equivalence of "The left, after all, has long argued exactly the opposite, proclaiming that white supremacism is pervasive throughout society."  I think one can make a better case that white supremacism is pervasive throughout American society than the "opposite," since after all white supremacy was enshrined in law and other institutions for most of our history, and attempts to de-institutionalize it met with intense organized opposition that hasn't stopped to this day.

But even if this position were false, it isn't the "opposite" of the "racial right" claim that the Social Justice Warriors hate white people and want us to feel guilty.  Hawley couldn't even phrase his straw man to include the term "guilt."  Invoking guilt is, as I said, a distractive move.  The white racist denunciation of collective guilt in this case is amusing, given their own fondness for assigning collective guilt to their opponents, real and fancied.  Blacks, Muslims, feminists, liberals, homosexuals, Social Justice Warriors are faceless collective entities.  Only straight white males are atomistic individuals with no connection to each other.  Any similarities between the behavior of one straight white male or another (or millions of others) are purely random and coincidental.

One of the commenters who agreed with Hawley (not all did) declared that "the Christian notion of original sin has been transposed by secularism from something that is common to all humans to the property of white, straight, males."  Blaming "secularism" is odd, given the prominent role of Christian ministers from conservative denominations in the Civil Rights movement.  Whether this transposition happened or not, I take it that the commenter accepts the notion of collective guilt -- except for straight white males, who are responsible for nothing, especially not their own attitudes or behavior.  Racism is just part of original sin, I suppose, and nothing can be done about it until the Kingdom comes and we all have new, resurrected spiritual bodies.

I'm a 66-year-old white male of leftish politics.  As far as I can remember, the Civil Rights movement never aimed to make white people feel guilty.  Nor did the women's movement.  I myself have never been asked to feel guilty for being white or male.  (That's not to say that it has never ever happened in all of history; movements for social justice have their share of irrational doofuses, just as movements for social injustice do.)  What the Civil Rights movement asked for was an end to racism.  White racists and apologists for racism often reacted by trying to characterize this as a demand for them to feel guilty, which would of course have been a useless demand since they have no conscience.  But it was a distractive move, whether conscious or unconscious.  I don't want them to feel guilty, though: I just want them to stop.