Monday, April 20, 2015

Excellent article on what Ferguson means

This is another in the NYT series of interviews with philosophers about race.  I think it is the strongest of the series.  Professor Naomi Zack gives a clear, non-polemical explanation of what is at stake with Ferguson, North Charleston, and the countless other instances in which black lives, American lives, have been wasted and desecrated.

Here is Professor Zack's adroit redefinition of "white privilege", a term I personally have never been very satisfied with:

"The term 'white privilege' is misleading. A privilege is special treatment that goes beyond a right. It’s not so much that being white confers privilege but that not being white means being without rights in many cases. Not fearing that the police will kill your child for no reason isn’t a privilege. It’s a right.  But I think that is what 'white privilege' is meant to convey, that whites don’t have many of the worries nonwhites, especially blacks, do. I was talking to a white friend of mine earlier today. He has always lived in the New York City area. He couldn’t see how the Michael Brown case had anything to do with him. I guess that would be an example of white privilege."

By Ms. Zack's rendering, whites do not so much enjoy special privileges as they are simply treated the way people are supposed to be treated.  (Actually white folks do benefit from a number of outright privileges beyond their just due, like having people overlook typos when they make them, overlook their inadequacies in the workplace, etc., but let's not get into that for now).  It's like the old Chris Rock routine.  Not being falsely imprisoned isn't a privilege, it's what's supposed to happen in a civilized society.  Not getting shot for no reason isn't a privilege; no one should get shot for no reason.  If it were up to me, we'd stop talking about "white privilege" and use a term like "oppression of nonwhites", which I believe rightly removes the focus from the positive normal situation and directs it to the denial of normalcy to certain groups, which is after all the problem we're trying to resolve.  I'm not attempting to tiptoe around white sensibilities, but rather call things out for what they are.  If you tell white folks (or anyone, for that matter), that what they know they are entitled to (in this case, common decency) is an undeserved privilege, you are first of all wrong, but you furthermore will lose the ear and the sympathy of these people.  If on the other hand you make it clear that decent treatment is a right for everyone, and you point out the tangible ways in which the present state of affairs denies certain groups these rights, you may make allies of these whites, who are after all the ones you want to listen up and stop being oppressive.

A side note to bolster my case.  Once you start defining privilege not as an extra goodie that people get above and beyond what they're entitled to (which is the real definition), but rather as the relative well-being of one group as compared to another (which is how "privilege" is misused in the term "white privilege"), then you spiral into unproductive cycles of accusation, guilt, and dismissal of valid concerns.  This is because almost any group in today's hyper-connected world, and certainly any group in the most powerful country in this world, can be shown to be "above" some other group on the ladder of [usually unwitting] exploitation and oppression.  The white citizen in the US is much less likely to get shot by police than a black man.  That unarmed black man's choices in clothes, food, and political candidates have effects on workers in the many countries in the world that are under the cultural, economic, and political sway of the US.  Those workers in Vietnam or Honduras benefit from (and vote for) national policies in their countries that keep food prices low in the city, and thus immiserate their peasant brethren that are trying to make a living by selling these food crops.  Those peasants cut down rainforest and plant coca, thus completing the cycle as they contribute to pollution and addiction in the community where the white citizen is trying to raise his kids.  We're all connected in relations of oppressor and oppressed, or simply "privileged" and unprivileged, so if you condemn one group for the "privileges" it enjoys as compared to another group, you'd have to invalidate every group's claims for justice for itself too, because every victim is also in some other way an oppressor.  Such reasoning is a paralyzing way to think; it was the same reasoning that led apartheid-era whites in South Africa to argue that blacks there had no right to complain of the very real oppression they suffered, because their objective living standards were in fact higher than the black populace of any other African country at the time.  Those people lucky enough to live lives relatively free from oppression should not be scolded or told to ignore the aspects in which they do suffer; there is no such thing as "excessive" rights. 

If, on the other hand, you focus not on what legitimate rights the dominant group in a society holds, but rather on the legitimate rights denied to oppressed groups in the society, you begin to get somewhere.  In this logic, you are no longer paralyzed by your supposed privilege.  Your claims and causes are not invalidated by the other aspects in which you are comfortable and your rights respected.  No, when we truly seek out oppression and attempt to stamp it out at its root, we are all empowered.  The white citizen can work to fight pollution and addiction in his neighborhood.  The black US citizen can demand that police respect black lives.  The black South African can demand an end to apartheid.  And in the meanwhile, to the degree that our enjoyment of decent treatment in society is at the expense of another group, we must also fight that, or at least accept the validity of that group's fighting the oppression we cause.  If the white citizen working to curb pollution in his community also happens to be a cop who harasses and threatens blacks, he's got to change, or at least understand when those he hurts fight back.  The Honduran citydweller has a right to demand better pay from the clothing factories that cater to US tastes and budgets, but she also must stop benefiting from unjust laws that give her cheap food at the expense of farmer income and dignity.

Anyway, getting back to Professor Zack, I liked this quote from her too:

"In the normal course of events, in the fullness of time, these differences will even out. But the sudden killings of innocent, unarmed youth bring it all to a head."

She shows a calm and magnanimity that is rare in the heated discussions about race in the US.  I find that often people who work and think on issues of racial injustice in the US get so [justifiably] worked up, and so zealously pursue a guilty party, that they lose the sympathy and the complicity (if there was any to begin with) of the very people whose ear and collaboration they need.  Pointing out white folks' share of guilt for the injustices in our society is the right thing to do.  But again, if you focus too much on white guilt, you lose the attention and sympathy of the most important audience, the very white people whom you need to stop oppressing others.  This then means that they can continue to act as if our society's disrespect for black lives is simply someone else's problem.  Such a sentiment is of course fundamentally wrong, because these black lives are not the lives of some "other", but rather the lives of our neighbors, our coworkers, our compatriots, our fellow voters and taxpayers and creators that all of us rely on to keep the society working.

Again quoth Ms. Zack:  "In Ferguson, the American public has awakened to images of local police, fully decked out in surplus military gear from our recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, who are deploying all that in accordance with a now widespread 'broken windows' policy, which was established on the hypothesis that if small crimes and misdemeanors are checked in certain neighborhoods, more serious crimes will be deterred. But this policy quickly intersected with police racial profiling already in existence to result in what has recently become evident as a propensity to shoot first. All of that surplus military gear now stands behind such actions, and should offend members of the public who protest."

How can anyone in their right mind believe that the militarization of our police, the mutation of "to serve and protect" into aggressive pursuit of civilians as targets, is somehow a problem that doesn't affect us all?

I don't know if the ultimate goal is or should be to enter a post-racial moment.  I'm not naive enough to insist on a colorblind society, and certainly not to believe that we already live in one.  As Ms. Zack says, "We cannot abandon race, because people would still discriminate and there would be no nonwhite identities from which to resist. Also, many people just don’t want to abandon race and they have a fundamental right to their beliefs. So race remains with us as something that needs to be put right."  That said, I aspire to a day when the racial differences between different people are simply not as important to those people as their common investment a shared society.  In such a society, blacks and whites would remain different and conscious of that difference, but they would also recognize the fundamental importance and humanity and right to decency of the other group.

I once again love Ms. Zack's very practical, matter-of-fact treatment of this.  "If America is going to become post-racial, it will be important to get the police on board with that. But it’s not that difficult to do. A number of minority communities have peaceful and respectful relations with their local police. Usually it requires negotiation, bargaining, dialogue — all of which can be set up at very little cost. In addition, police departments could use intelligent camera-equipped robots or drones to question suspects before human police officers approach them. It’s the human contact that is deadly here, because it lacks humanity. Indeed, the whole American system of race has always lacked humanity because it’s based on fantastic biological speculations that scientists have now discarded, for all empirical purposes."

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