Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Black male privilege

This is an NPR segment from a professor who has written about what he calls "black male privilege".  It's a provocative name for something that doesn't seem that controversial to me.  Essentially the professor, L'Heureux Lewis, argues that our society's narrative and focus on the very real oppression of black men is sometimes to the detriment of black women and the black community as a whole.  

I don't presume to comment on how accurate or not is Lewis's analysis of black society, but I believe that what he is describing is a trend that applies to anyone or any group that feels oppressed or under attack.  When you are being oppressed in some way, it is possible to "center your oppression to the exclusion of others", as Lewis puts it at one point in the interview.  By focusing on your or your group's own oppression and suffering, you can ignore the suffering of others, or what's worse, you can contribute to that suffering.  I'm not even just referring to the sort of sterile "oppression Olympics" that can occur when we try to argue and hash out who has it worse among women, gays, blacks, Jews, Latinos, etc.  This type of self-centered argument occurs mainly in online fora and really doesn't hurt much of anybody. 

No, what I am more concerned about is when a focus on our own suffering leads us to hurt others.  In today's interconnected world, almost all of us serve as both oppressor and oppressed in different aspects of our lives, or at least we participate on both ends of a larger, worldwide societal dynamic that creates winners and losers in each situation.  A white woman may be getting paid less than her male colleagues doing the same job, but she can also frame a black man for a crime he didn't commit based on the credence that society gives her testimony.  That black man is abused by the justice system, but he just bought food whose low price is determined by the terror and threats levied on the undocumented Latino immigrant workforce in the fields and restaurants that provide the food.  A tractor driver in that Latino farm labor workforce gets paid poorly for his work, but he owes his job at a California rice farm to the voracious demand provided by the Haitian market thanks to a series of unfair and damaging agricultural policies forced on Haiti by US political pressure over various decades.  Even the Haitian farmer, who is destitute because her millet can't compete on the market with the imported, subsidized California rice, is wearing shoes and clothes made in China, without worrying about the working conditions in the factory that made them.  And to bring it full circle, the Chinese factory worker suffers from a lack of worker protection, but also benefits from the trade and industrial policies enacted by the Chinese government, which have drastically reduced the job prospects for that white male US employee that was getting paid more than his female counterpart.

Almost all of the examples in my hypothetical chain are economic, and are thus beyond the control of any individual person in terms of assigning "blame" as oppressor or oppressed.  Who wins and loses in an economic transaction may seem to some like a separate question from other aspects of oppression or advantage, like for example standards of beauty or legal rights or how we treat one another.  But firstly, economics underlies and is intertwined with other aspects of privilege or disadvantage in a society, such as the justice system, racism, intolerance, physical violence, standards of what is acceptable or beautiful, etc.  Secondly, by participating in any economic transaction or any other interaction, we are in one way or another making a small choice in what values, what laws, what working arrangements we promote with our economic decision.  And in that sense all our actions occur within and contribute to the prevailing economic and social arrangement of our society, whether or not we are aware of the underlying structure (of racism, of cultural values, of political economy) that informs our own decision and determines its larger effects.

The bottom line is that unless we become more aware not only of our own travails and suffering, but also of the suffering of our fellow human beings, and above all how we ourselves contribute to or fight against that suffering, we are all condemned to continue suffering.  Only by going beyond our own bubble and trying to envision and create systems that make us all better off will people in general improve life for themselves and for others.  In this respect I welcome Professor Lewis's call for black males to recognize not just their peril but also their privilege, but I would extend that call to all of us.  It is good to attempt to overcome our own oppression at the hands of others, but we must make sure that we do not overcome oppression by becoming oppressors ourselves.

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