Racism and the refugee problem

In a less racist country, the reasoning would go like this: the people fleeing ISIS from Syria hate ISIS more than we possibly could, more even than the French could. Attacks on the scale of the tragedy in Paris are routine in ISIS-controlled areas, resulting in entire cities being levelled. If we let them in and generously provide for them, we would be building up a community of grateful, patriotic Americans whose presence and loyalty would undercut the message on which ISIS thrives.

Note that I didn’t say a more “rational” country or use any other vague and formalistic word. Yes, people lack logical reasoning and long-term thinking on this issue, but it’s not like they had a spontaneous brain-fart — it’s racism that’s deluding them. Only extreme racism could make you think that people’s shared ethnic background would create a bond of loyalty that transcends murder, rape, destruction of homes and livelihoods, etc.

Note also that I didn’t say a “kinder” or “nicer” country. Yes, people are being exceptionally heartless, but again, it’s not some random moral failing on the part of individuals. Racism is what makes people see refugees as less worthy of concern, just as it’s what makes people inclined to explain away the murder of unarmed blacks by police. Only racist logic could make the extremely remote possibility of an ISIS “sleeper” sneaking in among the refugees into an excuse to deny thousands of people the chance to rebuild a livable life.

The Republican governors who are refusing admission to refugees aren’t simply idiots, or crazy ideologues, or heartless bastards — though they are undoubtedly all those things. The root cause of all of that is that they’re racists.

It’s the racism, stupid!

Every time Blacks in America make a significant advance, there is a violent backlash. Emancipation and Reconstruction gave way to the KKK, lynching, and Jim Crow. Civil Rights was quickly followed by Nixon’s “Southern strategy” and the War on Drugs. And now Obama’s election — and *especially* his reelection (which proved it wasn’t a fluke) — has prompted a wave of mass shootings, overwhelmingly carried out by disaffected white men, coupled with a wave of legislative actions to make guns ever more pervasive in public places (including precisely the kinds of places that are targetted by mass shooters) and measures like Stand Your Ground that presuppose that the state somehow has an interest in allowing fights to escalate.

In the postwar era, the strategy became much more subtle. The open bigotry of Jim Crow was no longer acceptable, at least among the upper classes. Instead, the system deployed seemingly race-neutral criteria that could be easily mobilized in racist ways. The racism of the War on Drugs is evident, for instance, in the differential treatment of crack and powder cocaine. Both are literally the same substance, but one is more often used by blacks — hence it carries harsher penalties than the stereotypical pastime of high-powered white lawyers.

The current backlash is even more elusive, in part because there is a clear taboo against pointing it out as such. The Tea Party is about liberty and American values and — ruh roh — taking back our country! From whom? Well, you know…. Similarly, why exactly do we need all these guns? Who are we expecting to run into such that we’ll need to defend ourselves? Criminals? Hmm… what do they look like? I bet the mental image is strikingly similar to Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown or even Tamir Rice. But you can’t say that in the mainstream media, because white men feeling accused of racism is regarded as a more serious matter than black people being literally gunned down in the street.

Despite the campaign of silence, there is occasionally a news story that cannot be explained away, like the bizarre attempt to boycott the new Star Wars film for its supposed advocacy of “white genocide.” Like every mass shooting, though, such things are by definition isolated incidents that we can only shake our head at and must never “politicize.” But for those with eyes to see, the racist backlash is literally the only way to make sense of American politics since Obama’s election.

Weaponized ideals and ethical profiling

High ethical standards initially seem to be a good thing. Even if we cannot always live up to them, there is value in recognizing and enshrining an ideal. At the same time, ethical standards are not used solely as an object for aspiration. They are also used as a basis for judgment. And that leaves room for high ideals to be weaponized.

The way this works is analogous to racial profiling. For instance, it is well known that in the United States, virtually every driver exceeds the speed limit. Indeed, following the speed limit can often create a dangerous situation. Nevertheless, the police still enforce this ultimately unenforceable law, and when they do so, they tend to pick out members of groups who already receive disproportionate police attention, namely people of color. In the same way, when we’re dealing with an impossible ethical ideal, those who are judged or punished for not following it will often be selected from disadvantaged groups — a phenomenon we can call “ethical profiling.”

This happens most of all when the high ideal is extremely abstract. For instance, we are told that it is ethically most salutary to be non-violent. Though violence may be sadly necessary under certain circumstances, we should aspire to avoid it to the extent possible. In the world as we know it, however, avoiding it completely is often utterly impossible — particularly when “violence” can be so broadly defined as to include property damage, or impeding the normal run of things, or speaking too harshly. Everyone is violating the ideal in some way or other, but only the protestors (by definition a less powerful group than the powers that be) are judged for doing so. This effect is of course amplified when the protestors are black.

We might also think of the demand to cherish every “life” to the fullest possible extent. Really following this demand would require changing literally everything we do every day, even if we’re only limiting ourselves to human lives. Once again, it is an impossible demand, and once again, only the most vulnerable — women with unexpected or unwanted pregnancies — are expected to follow through on it. The ethic of life is weaponized in the service of ensuring women’s subordination and punishing their sexual expression.

None of this is to say that there aren’t people who don’t sincerely hold the ideals in question. For a select few, aspiring to a high ethical ideal becomes a true vocation to which they dedicate their whole selves. The problem arises when the unique achievements of these ethical heroes become a weapon of the powerful — for instance, when the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., is weaponized to shame and denigrate the contemporary black community, or when the heroic voluntary self-sacrifice of Christ is imposed as a baseline expectation on women and the poor. In such cases, we’re dealing less with mere hypocrisy than with something like blasphemy.

Mass shootings and the devalued currency of privilege

According to Hobbes, the state exists to save us from the dystopian state of nature, in which we are constantly vulnerable to interpersonal violence. We submit to the sovereign’s violence in the expectation that being subject to one possible source of violence is better than being potentially attacked from all sides and at all times.

In the contemporary world, as Agamben and many others have pointed out, there are sites where the state of nature reemerges within the bounds of the state. Though Agamben emphasizes that one is subject to unlimited state violence in such situations, one should also note the return of a vulnerability to interpersonal violence as well.

This is the case, for example, in prison, where in many cases the most fearsome part of the punishment is abuse coming from other prisoners. We can see a similar dynamic in urban areas targetted in the War on Drugs: the police are present in an extremely disruptive and heavy-handed way, even to the point of gunning down innocent people in cold blood, and people also remain vulnerable to interpersonal violence within their own community. Indeed, the police presence produces even greater criminality by exposing those populations to disproportionate imprisonment. In both cases, the black community bears much of the burden of this double dystopia, this worst of both worlds.

If we turn now to the phenomenon of mass shootings, it seems that one can draw a parallel: in an era of vastly increased state supervision of the population, there are also outbursts of random interpersonal violence. In this reading, the experience that has become normative for blacks in America is somehow “overflowing” to affect the white community as well. This is one way of understanding the fairly common claim that America has a baseline level of violence and the shootings represent something like localized spikes.

I don’t think this works, however, at least not so neatly. Continue reading “Mass shootings and the devalued currency of privilege”

The paradox of underfunded urban schools

Let’s try to reconcile a few apparently contradictory propositions about the American school system:

  • Most local school districts are funded through property taxes.
  • Property values in most major urban areas have literally never been higher.
  • Urban schools are perpetually underfunded.

How does the math work out here? Well, you pull money out of the schools in any way you can. Set aside funding for experimental charter schools at the expense of existing public schools — because surely entrepreneurs can come up with some radically more effective way of educating students! Let those charter schools cherry-pick students and leave the students requiring more intensive work to the public schools. Set up testing regimes that penalize “underperforming” schools by cutting their funding.

And of course, this is all after you’ve taken money off the top through “tax increment funding” (TIF) districts that effectively cap the amount of property tax revenue that can go toward the schools and pool the gains into a slush fund to encourage further “development.” In Chicago, such districts have proven to be the salvation of blighted areas such as the Loop and the financial district.

It’s much more complicated than traditional “white flight,” but the underlying logic is the same. Systemic racism for the neoliberal age.

What does it mean to be complicit with social injustice?

The term social justice has become almost a cliche, so it can be hard to step back and ask what it actually means. One way to read it is as an attempt to include “social issues” within the sphere of justice. Another way, which I think is more interesting and productive, is as an attempt to think of justice itself differently.

Conventional notions of justice are deeply individualistic. They are about individual guilt and the punishment that accrues to it. That individualistic sense of justice seems to be behind the objections to my claim that all white Americans are complicit with slavery. Many of them point out that in criminal law, complicity is a very narrowly defined concept that could not possibly incorporate crimes committed before one was born. This is true, because criminal law is overwhelmingly individualistic in its approach — hence the difficulty it has had in prosecuting things like organized crime.

Within their individualistic framework, it sounds like I am calling for some kind of collective punishment for the sins of one’s ancestors. That’s why I reached for “committing mass suicide” as a sarcastic response — from the individualistic perspective, which is centered on guilt and punishment, that’s the reductio ad absurdam of my claim. It’s likely that if I had chosen to engage in dialogue rather than gotten impatient, one of my interlocutors would have volunteered the “mass suicide” consequence themselves. I decided to head them off at the pass, which in retrospect was a bad choice.

In any case, a more social concept of justice recognizes that individual choices are not the only relevant factors. We all move within social systems that we did not choose and that we cannot significantly change through individual effort alone. One of the most powerful systems is that of race, which in America grows directly out of the experience of slavery. People of “white” races may have been enslaved in the past, but the fact that they are now recognized as “white” means that the disadvantage that might have accrued from that history is no longer very relevant. The consequences of the enslavement of Africans in America, by contrast, are ongoing and massively relevant. Every white person benefits to some degree from the differential treatment of blacks. Sometimes, as in cases of extreme poverty or social marginalization, that benefit is negligible. In most cases, however, it is significant, constituting advantages in wealth, education, social status, and vulnerability to police violence.

The individualistic model of justice has a hard time dealing with that form of complicity. It results in frustrated questions about what the individual can or should do — or dismissive rhetorical questions about what the person pointing out the social injustice has individually done. The underlying assumption, that it is impossible for any one individual to change such social systems, is true. What is not true, from a social justice perspective, is that such systems are therefore morally irrelevant. Systems can be changed through collective action, and complicity with social injustice creates an obligation to join into that collective action in some way. It means that black problems, for instance, are not only black problems — they are white problems, too. Blacks should take the lead in defining what it would mean to solve them, but whites also have a moral responsibility to help them reach their goal.

Several of my new interlocutors have objected that if we’re complicit in slavery, that also means that we’re complicit in all other ongoing injustices. Again, from the individualistic standpoint, this is a reductio ad absurdam — if we’re responsible for everything, we’re responsible for nothing. But from a social justice perspective, that is no counter-argument: it’s the whole point. Absolute individual moral purity is not available to any of us given the unjust social systems that shape our lives. That means that individual moral purity is also not a relevant point of reference. If it were the standard, then we would once again be on the road to mass suicide as the only possible response. In a social model of justice that is not focused primarily on individual guilt and punishment, however, the point is not to condemn people to deprivation and death — it is to find ways to live together.

tear it down: The Undercommons

Amidst growing protests against systemic and state-administered premature death, and beyond #hashtagactivism, calls for a new black radicalism are resounding.  In The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, Stefano Harney and Fred Moten advocate for “the undercommons” as a subject of such radicalism, “the prophetic organization that works for the red and black abolition…not so much the abolition of prisons but the abolition of a society that could have prisons, that could have slavery, that couple have the wage, and therefore not abolition as the elimination of anything but abolition as the founding of a new society.”

Join InterCcECT for a reading group on The UnderCommons, chapters 0-6, on Thursday 9 July, 4pm (purchase the text or follow the link to a free version made available by the publisher).

VENUE CHANGE: La Haven Coffee, 1241 S Michigan.  (Roosevelt Station)

Why deny obvious racism?

In the wake of the horrific white-supremacist terrorist attack in Charleston, a disturbing number of people — including the governor of South Carolina — seem dedicated to downplaying, ignoring, or even denying the obvious racist motivations of the attacker. Arguably the only thing he could have done to make his intentions more clear would be to tattoo “I am a racist” on his forehead. Why deny it?

This is especially strange to me because the usual reactionary strategy would be to seize upon this extreme and exceptional instance of racism in order to imply that only such extreme and exceptional cases are properly racist. Probably the best-known example of this dynamic is the treatment of rape, where the exceptional case of a stranger using extreme violence is taken as the normative case. In both instances, the intent is to take advantage of the existence of extreme cases in order to downplay more common, everyday cases.

This rhetorical strategy is deplorable, yet clearly effective. What’s more, the Charleston massacre seems like an absolutely classic occasion for its deployment. So why are so many people opting for the seemingly much less convincing strategy of outright obfuscation and denial?

This is a serious question. I discussed it briefly on Twitter, but my hope is that blog comments will provide a better forum.

Racism in American culture: Some observations

It seems to me that since the late 1990s and early 2000s, structural and personal racism in American culture have gotten significantly worse, undoing much of the progress that was achieved from the 60s through the 90s. Representation of people of color in popular culture has declined, and the criminalization of blacks through the War on Drugs was accelerated by the advent of “broken windows” policing. The War on Terror exacerbated the problem, leading to racial profiling and a situation where the majority of people of color portrayed in the media were either domestic criminals or foreign terrorists. Meanwhile, Islam was racialized in a much more intensive way. The same administration that demonized Muslim countries could display criminal neglect of the black victims of Hurricane Katrina, whom the mainstream media shamed as looters and savages.

Paranoia surrounding Barack Obama, a black man with Muslim heritage, brought together both of these racist threads. His presidency was widely viewed as showing that we lived in a “post-racial” society, but the practical effect was to intensify the racist paranoia of a non-trivial portion of the population — it was as though their worst fears had come true. Obama himself is studiously centrist in all of his policy proposals and has consistently been eager to make a deal with Republicans at almost any price, but racially-driven hatred of Obama and a desire to deprive him of any achievements or legitimacy have led them to refuse to take yes for an answer almost constantly.

On the grassroots level, a growing movement of people who are literally protesting against state-sponsored random murder of blacks has faced an uphill battle for recognition and legitimacy in the public sphere, as the criminalization and demonization of black men leaves the majority of whites still giving the police the benefit of the doubt.

Thoughts? Am I being naive about previous eras? Are there some signs of progress that I’m missing?

The particularity of white supremacy

A common defensive move against critiques of the white power structure is to retreat into abstraction. Yes, it’s a shame that blacks are at such a disadvantage in white societies, but in every society, the majority places the minority at a disadvantage. If tables were turned, we’re assured, blacks would treat whites exactly the same way. The abstraction seamlessly gives way to naturalization: the way whites are behaving is a natural constant based on the very nature of human power relationships. We can all think of related examples: for instance, “many societies have had slavery,” a claim that attempts to defuse any argument that white enslavement of blacks was especially morally opprobrious — I mean, the ancient Greeks did it too!

In reality, though, white supremacy is a historically specific reality. It arose at a particular moment in history, growing out of a particular constellation of political and religious institutions, technological and economic developments, and time- and culture-bound ideologies. The very basis of white self-identification — the concept of race — was historically unique, as was the racial hierarchy by which whites legitimized the subordination of all other groups. Domination had been practiced before, but never in this precise form.

Similarly, it is true that various societies in the past have had slavery, but there were many factors in the white enslavement of blacks that were unique — and uniquely destructive. Race-based chattel slavery for life had never before been seen. The capture of slaves had never before been so systematic and regularized, much less carried out on such a large scale for such a long time. The absolute lack of any enforceable rights, particularly galling in the context of a society supposedly founded on principles of liberty and equality, was also a historical novelty compared to many familiar forms of slavery. One could even make the argument that to use the same word for the mainstream practice of Israelite, Greek, and Roman slavery and for modern slavery is misleading.

Why is this relevant? Because it renders the claim that the new boss will be just like the old boss almost completely indefensible. If another group or coalition of groups establishes dominance over whites, it will have arisen in conditions very different from those under which white supremacy originated. One of those new conditions will be the experience of having been a subaltern group (or groups) in the white racial hierarchy — a condition which their social position will give them a much more realistic view of than is typically accessible for those who have undergone mainstream white socialization processes. Given that these new rulers will be human beings, one can reasonably hope that they will not, at least as a rule, want to simply “turn the tables” and impose a condition they know to be dehumanizing and destructive on others. (Personal vengeance is a human impulse, too, but the entire basis for civil society is to restrain its pursuit.) Examples from individual countries, such as South Africa, tend to support this conclusion.

Indeed, the white supremacist order is so uniquely bad from a broad historical perspective that it seems reasonable to hope that its successor regime — should such a thing arise before our rulers completely destroy the material conditions of human life, which I am not entirely hopeful of — would be less bad, simply on the basis of statistical probability.