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"In order to fix what is fundamentally wrong with race in America, those who had a lion's share in making things bad must bear a greater responsibility in making them better. Whites who have benefited, whether explicitly or unconsciously, from racial inequality must now be courageous in rejecting a belief in the moral equivalency of black and white views about race. Instead, they should acknowledge their obligation to give black beliefs the weight and consideration they justly deserve. Thus, when blacks view the criminal justice system with suspicion, when they are wary of white juries, when they believe that innocent blacks can be framed by police---for instance, as many blacks did in responding to the verdicts in the O.J. Simpson murder and civil trials---they are responding to a verifiable history of racial inequality. In such an unjust world, white skepticism about black juries' ability to convict white criminals does not have the same moral gravity as the claims of blacks victimized by a legacy of racial injustice.

To ask whites to understand this is not only counterintuitive; it demands a rejection of the claim to ethical innocence that masks white privilege and supremacy while reinforcing black inequality. That inequality brought into existence broadly differing group perceptions about what is good, what is normal, what is desirable, and what is achievable in regard to race in America." -- Michael Eric Dyson, I May Not Get There With You

International Blog Against Racism Week is over, but hey, why stop at a week?

During a discussion of the Henry Louis Gates arrest, a LiveJournal commenter who I'll call "Alice" wrote the following comment (making an argument along the lines that if Prof. Gates had just been a little more polite to the police officer who eventually arrested him, the whole unpleasantness could have been avoided):
"I must admit that 70 years as a woman has taught me not to expect any specific behavior from anyone, whatever the color or gender, and to realize that doing so can get a person into all kinds of confusion. Expectations of good behavior and good intentions often brings them in return, and courtesy often pays off with courtesy in return."

This account of race relations insults people of color, who know that if redressing racial inequality were a matter of simple courtesy, we wouldn't be having this conversation. And it excuses white people from the burden of understanding why a person of color might reasonably expect bad behavior from law enforcement officers and other authority figures.

But Alice isn't a racist. Or at least she would say she isn't. Guess what? As far as I know, nobody in history has ever admitted to being a racist.

And perhaps that's because for at least 200 years, nobody in America has ever had to be a racist. The racist decisions got made a long time ago. We perpetuate racism by failing to question the social structures whose original purposes have been forgotten but that quietly keep racial inequality going. We perpetuate racism by telling black people that if they were just a little more polite and less uppity, police brutality would stop. We perpetuate racism by exclaiming "I don't see what that has to do with race!" before giving the nearest person of color or ally a chance to explain what it has to do with race. We perpetuate racism by mocking those awful baggy pants the kids wear these days without recognizing that that particular fashion is how young black men express that their lives feel like prison. We perpetuate racism by chalking up racist actions either to the stupid behavior of individuals or to color-blind abuse of power. We perpetuate racism by arguing that black people themselves need to "address black-on-black violence" as a condition for white people addressing police brutality (as if one has nothing to do with the other). We perpetuate racism by arguing that social inequality is "about class, not race", while pretending not to know why you're far more likely to be poor if you're black than if you're white. We perpetuate racism by feigning concern for the effect of affirmative action on black self-esteem while esteeming ourselves highly despite the perks of a century of affirmative action in favor of white people. We perpetuate racism by cherry-picking black views when they agree with our existing prejudices (whether that means Bill Cosby or Barack Obama) and by relying on what (we believe) our black friends (would) say is OK rather than taking responsibility for our own moral integrity.

We perpetuate racism most of all by loudly asserting "I'm not a racist!" or "I don't see color" or "You're never going to convince people of your point of view by calling them racist." When you say those things, you're perpetuating racism because you're depriving yourself of a chance to learn what someone with a different perspective would say about, for example, the reason why a black man would see a police officer in his home as a harbinger of the dismal fate of black men in America while you would see it as someone trying to help you. In particular, you're telling any people of color in earshot that it's not worth it for them to bother to try to explain their perspective to you, because you've already decided you're not a racist and hence nothing they say can make you see your own unquestioned racial biases.

Does any of this mean that I, as a white person, am obligated to believe everything any person of color says? Besides the obvious logical problems with that idea, no, of course not. It does mean that I'm obligated to listen (not obligated to agree) and to defend my views (not myself). Ultimately, when I say things that reflect unawareness of how different America looks to a person different from me, that only reflects poorly on me. It's in my best interest to confront my own prejudices as often as I can, and to embrace situations where others urge me on in that process, even if sometimes that's painful.

It is unproductive to hold a press conference to declare you're not a racist. It is productive to take responsibility for your own actions and to admit that you're not a special, non-conforming snowflake and that social structures influence your behavior.

"There are no sexist decisions to be made.

There are antisexist decisions to be made. And they require tremendous energy and self-scrutiny, as well as moral stamina in the face of the basic embarrassment campaign which is the tactic of those assured of their politically superior position. ('Don't you think you're being rather silly offering your pain as evidence that something I do so automatically and easily is wrong? Why, I bet it doesn't hurt half as much as you say. Perhaps it only hurts because you're struggling...?' This sort of political mystification, turning the logical arrows around inside verbal structures to render them empirically empty, and therefore useless ['It hurts because you don't like it', rather than 'You don't like it because it hurts.'] is just another version of the 'my slave/my master' game.)

There are no sexist decisions to be made: they were all made a long time ago!" -- Samuel R. Delany, "Shadows"
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tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Tim Chevalier

October 2017

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