Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Isms don't kill people. Or maybe they do.


It's so weird for writers like Bret Stephens to try to warn us that "antiracism divides the world into racial identities" when all its iconography looks like this. From "4 Lessons on Anti-Racism from Brené Brown and Ibram X. Kendi", Illustration by Angelina Bambina/Adobe Stock via Mindful.

The overall funniest thing about Mr. Bret Stephens ("Race and the Coming Liberal Crackup") trying to explain the "antiracism" concept to his readers is his serene confidence that he can do it without reading anything on the subject (spoiler: he can't), but I very much like the way he falls into this interesting rhetorical sandpit on his way:

Morally and philosophically, liberalism believes in individual autonomy, which entails a concept of personal responsibility. The current model of anti-racism scoffs at this: It divides the world into racial identities, which in turn are governed by systems of privilege and powerlessness. Liberalism believes in process: A trial or contest is fair if standards are consistent and rules are equitable, irrespective of outcome. Anti-racism is determined to make a process achieve a desired outcome. Liberalism finds appeals to racial favoritism inherently suspect, even offensive. Anti-racism welcomes such favoritism, provided it’s in the name of righting past wrongs.

He's interested in the concept of individual autonomy, but he can't talk about any individuals, only what isms do, believing, scoffing, dividing, being determined, finding things offensive, welcoming things.

Isms—political or epistemological or ontological positions that an individual may take—don't do any of those things. People do. 

The only verb in the whole paragraph that describes something an ism might do is "entail", as in the logical relationship (and not the legal one in which Mr. Bennet's five daughters could not inherit a share in his miserable estate, which was all destined for Mr. Collins). And he's using it wrong, too, I think: for example, the belief in individual autonomy doesn't entail personal responsibility in market liberalism, according to which rationally self-interested individuals make the decisions but it is the invisible hand of the market that is responsible for the outcome, and social liberalism doesn't affirm or deny personal responsibility except on a case-by-case basis ("he's depraved on account he's deprived"), but places a large share of responsibility in the hands of the collective, "society" (the thing Margaret Thatcher didn't believe in), not as entailed by some first principle but as a principle in its own right.

Moreover, antiracism isn't an ism! It's defined in the thinking of its primary exponent, Ibrahim X, Kendi, as a form of action, a repertory of things individuals can (and should) do, opposing racism not merely in their beliefs but in their behavior: identifying racism, describing it, and dismantling it. Racism itself is a form of action, for that matter, according to the theory, before it becomes an ism properly speaking:

Kendi has a very different way of understanding what — or more accurately who — produces racism. Groundswells of racism don’t produce racism policies; in fact, it’s the other way around. Those in power use racism to justify their policies, wielding the emotive power of ignorance and hate as tools at their disposal.... "Instead of racist ideas leading to racist policies, I found racist policies leading to racist ideas."

(As in the obvious example of racial chattel slavery, the buying and selling of workers on the basis of their skin color, a racist action, which leads to the idea that Black people are genetically subhuman, a racist belief.)

And since you can't be antiracist unless you start acting on those three lines—inaction, says Kendi, is a form of racism—the antiracism theory actually does logically entail a concept of personal responsibility, as liberalism does not—our responsibility as individuals to put our money where our mouth is and attempt to do something about racism.

Touché, Mr. Bret.

Also, on the subject of "dividing the world into racial identities", it wasn't W.E.B. Du Bois, or Marcus Garvey either, that forced all the Black people to live in the same New York or Chicago or St. Louis neighborhoods, but plotting on the part of greedy capitalists, or a fruit of the racist action that comes ahead of racist ideas, and it isn't an antiracist thing: the responsibility of antiracists, Black people and their allies, is, again, to see it and analyze it and see if they can take it down. Or as Kendi says,  

One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an antiracist.

It's not the antiracist who divides, even conceptually:

Nobody, regardless of race, says Kendi, is simply racist or anti-racist in a static way. “What we say and do about race in each moment determines what, not who, we are.” It isn’t helpful to fall into essentialist categories around race, says Kendi, because we all have the ability to change our behavior as we gain awareness—and we have the ability to admit when we’ve made mistakes: “Essentially, to be anti-racist is to admit when we’re being racist.” 

Mr. Bret thinks if you notice it and say something about it that makes it your fault. I suppose as a question of Tory manners, racism is a little like farting in company, and the genteel thing is to pretend it didn't happen. So we must disagree.

But what about a case like that of Ma’Khia Bryant, a Black teenager who was shot and killed last week by Nicholas Reardon, a white police officer in Columbus, Ohio, at the instant that she was swinging a knife at a woman who had her back against a car?... 

Maybe there wasn’t time for Officer Reardon, in an 11-second interaction, to “de-escalate” the situation, as he is now being faulted for failing to do. And maybe the balance of our sympathies should lie not with the would-be perpetrator of a violent assault but with the cop who saved a Black life — namely that of Tionna Bonner, who nearly had Bryant’s knife thrust into her.

The reason the interaction only lasted 11 seconds is that the officer put an end to it by killing the girl. It would have gone on longer if he'd allowed it to. He greatly increased the chance of a loss of life by using his gun—a gun wielded by a shooter trained to aim for center mass is a lot more lethal than a six-inch steak knife, especially if the person with the knife is "swinging" it. It wasn't a poignard that you could "thrust into" somebody. I feel very sorry for Officer Reardon—every time a cop kills somebody that's an awful failure of policing, and a terrible thing to have to live with, even if it's more a result of systemic racism in his training (if, as seems pretty plausible so far, it's the training that made him overestimate the danger he was in himself, and stopped him from using pepper spray or a stun gun, or just waiting a few more seconds) than his own insufficiency. We really need to wait for the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation to finish its own independent investigation  of what happened, but it's certainly imaginable that he didn't save a Black life at all. (Update: this is revised from a pretty intemperate earlier version; thanks to knowledgeable commenter Jeff Ryan for pulling me back) .

That’s a thought that many, perhaps most, Americans share, even if they are increasingly reluctant to say it out loud. Why reluctant? Because in this era of with-us-or-against-us politics, to have misgivings about the left’s new “anti-racist” narrative is to run the risk of being denounced as a racist.

I'm finding myself able to sympathize both with the dead girl with a knife and the living man with a gun, in this case. Stephens advises us to redirect our sympathy from the one to the other, overcoming our "reluctance" to acknowledge the "misgivings" that perhaps "most" of us have. Who's using a "with-us-or-against-us narrative"? 

The idea that white skin automatically confers “privilege” in America is a strange concept to millions of working-class whites who have endured generations of poverty while missing out on the benefits of the past 50 years of affirmative action programs.

I'm sorry, really? What affirmative action programs did you have in mind? Almost nobody gets into Harvard, for one thing, and any effort to get more Black kids into the mix had zero effect on my kids' numerical chances of getting in; the same kind of mathematics applied to affirmative action in the job market in 2003

Government statistics do not support this myth. According to the U.S. Commerce Department, there are 2.6 million unemployed Black civilians and 114 million employed White civilians (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2011). Thus, even if every unemployed Black worker in the United States were to displace a White worker, only 2% of Whites would be affected. Furthermore, affirmative action pertains only to job-qualified applicants, so the actual percentage of affected Whites would be even smaller. The main sources of job loss among White workers have to do with factory relocations and labor contracting outside the United States, computerization and automation, and corporate downsizing (Ivins, 1995).

and still does. While Black people still suffer in vast disproportion from lack of credit (including home mortgages), decent schools and medical care facilities, and social mobility.

Even for low-income families, other groups’ disadvantages — though serious — are not similar to those faced by African Americans. Although the number of high-poverty white communities is growing (many are rural; solicitude for these prompted Texas Republicans to support the Ten Percent Plan), poor whites are less likely to live in high-poverty neighborhoods than poor blacks. Nationwide, 7 percent of poor whites live in high-poverty neighborhoods, while 23 percent of poor blacks do so. Patrick Sharkey’s “Stuck in Place” showed that multigenerational concentrated poverty remains an almost uniquely black phenomenon; white children in poor neighborhoods are likely to live in middle-class neighborhoods as adults, whereas black children in poor neighborhoods are likely to remain in such surroundings as adults. In other words, poor whites are more likely to be temporarily poor, while poor blacks are more likely to be permanently so. . . .

It's 150 years of systemic discrimination, following the end of Reconstruction, and by no means ended by affirmative action programs such as they are, that has created this situation. While affirmative action itself has been whittled away gradually by Supreme Court decisions for more than 40 of those 50 years, since 1978

Not that there's any reason to heap shame on the heads of "millions of poor white people" who don't understand this, as they don't understand how Republican policies have kept them mired themselves in poverty, drug addiction, and immobility too, because conservative media, churches, and politicians keep telling them Blacks are getting "free stuff" that doesn't in fact exist or to which (like SNAP benefits, Medicaid, and the abysmally inadequate TANF assistance) they in fact have equal or better access.

Holding ourselves and others accountable for racist actions is critical, but feeling shame for having acted in racist ways is not helpful—and here’s the difference between the two. Kendi uses a powerful analogy to explain why we need not bring shame to the effort of dealing with our own racist conditioning. In America, says Kendi, it’s as though racist ideas are constantly rained on your head: “You have no umbrella, and you don’t even know that you’re wet with those racist ideas,” because the ideas themselves lead you to believe that you’re dry. “Then someone comes along and says, ‘You know what, you’re wet, and these ideas are still raining on your head. Here’s an umbrella.’ You can be like, ‘Thank you! I didn’t even realize I was drenched.’”

  Mr. Bret's peroration begins with his first and only reference to/quote from Kendi:

Ibram X. Kendi, the most important anti-racist thinker today, argues that “the only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.” Some liberals will go along with this. Many others will find themselves drifting rightward, much as a past generation of disaffected liberals did.

Please give us the whole quote, Bret, with Kendi's sources, LBJ and Justice Blackmun, and the main idea (my bold):

The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination. As President Lyndon B. Johnson said in 1965, “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.” As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun wrote in 1978, “In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race. There is no other way. And in order to treat some persons equally, we must treat them differently.

Most importantly, antiracist discrimination isn't discriminating against any particular persons (well, except representatives of racism, meaning mostly politicians and the occasional willfully ignorant op-ed writer) but for particular persons and against institutions that fail to reform themselves.

As for the concern trolling at the end there, about that coming "liberal crackup" between liberals who think asking them to be against racism itself is fair and those who think it's asking too much, I always think twice before getting worried when a Republican warns me my conduct is going to lose me an election. I know what happened 50 years ago, and I know who's responsible for it, and they may well think they can do it again, or hope they can do it again. But I think last year's outpouring of emotion over the murder of George Floyd, a long time coming, showed that we're a different country now. And I also think it's always worth trying to do the right thing, even if it's a little risky. Mr. Bret Stephens's mileage may vary on that one.

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