We Don’t Need Nice, We Need Justice: Racism and the Moral Blindness of White America

This past week, Chris Rock noted in an interview that in his estimation, America is producing the nicest white people in its history.

Perhaps. But if so, this only suggests the pitiable limits of niceness and its utter irrelevance for the production of something approaching justice, or for that matter even insight. And if so, it may merely signify how far we had to come out of the pit of whatever one takes the opposite of nice to be: mean, nasty, cruel, selfish, and so on. In short, it’s pretty thin gruel in the pantheon of praise, however sincerely Rock may have meant it.

One can be perfectly nice, after all, and still fail to see that which is right before you, staring at you from the computer screen as you watch Eric Garner killed on the streets of Staten Island by an officer who compresses his jugular vein with a chokehold, and still others who sit on his back, thereby compressing his chest and restricting his ability to breathe. The officer who applied that pressure to Garner’s neck might well be “nice” in the sense that he is kind to old people, babies and animals. Likewise, the grand jury that decided yesterday not to indict him for any crime might well have been filled with nice people, who send get-well cards to sick friends and relatives, participate in Secret Santa at work and volunteer at the local food bank. And what of it? Their niceness did not, clearly, provide them with the gift of comprehension, as they managed to watch an officer kill a man who posed no threat to him whatsoever—no reaching for his gun, even in some paranoid fever dream, no charging him like a bull, or as Darren Wilson put it to justify his killing of Mike Brown, like “a demon.” Their niceness came laced with nothing so helpful as empathy as they watched a man choked to death, gasping for air, all because he had been selling loose cigarettes on the street and dared to tell the officers to leave him alone when they decided to harass him for that most serious of crimes.

Their niceness, however real it may be in some abstract sense, means nothing. It will neither bring Eric Garner back nor prevent the deaths of more just like him. So too, I suspect there may be at least a few nice white folks on that grand jury outside of Akron that refused to indict the officer who killed John Crawford a few months ago in the Walmart there. Among their number may well have been at least a few white folks, for instance, who have nursed a wounded bird back to health or taken soup to a shut-in. But from this possibility, we are supposed to conclude what, exactly? Perhaps only this: that nice people can watch cold blooded murder on video—a video that completely contradicts what the officer said about the incident, and also gives the lie to the claims of the possibly nice white man who first alerted police to Crawford’s presence in the store—and still see nothing at all in the way of a crime. Clearly whatever part of the brain controls niceness is not remotely connected to one’s optic nerve, so let us at least make note of this for future reference.

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Far More Than Anecdote: Quantifying Racism and White Privilege in the Criminal Justice System

“Personal anecdotes don’t prove anything. The justice system isn’t racist. Black people are arrested more often because they commit more crime. Period. End of story.”

So read the message in my inbox this morning, sent by someone who had happened across my essay about Ferguson, the grand jury decision in the Darren Wilson case, and the history of police misconduct in black communities. To the writer of said missive, that history didn’t matter; even if true, in his mind it was no longer relevant—a trifle of an earlier less enlightened era when compared to the present. Yes, racism may once have plagued the nation’s legal apparatus and those charged with enforcing its rules, but today if black youth die at the hands of police or find themselves in jail or stopped and searched on the streets, it is either the result of their own wrongdoing, or the wrongdoing of others like them. To the extent crime rates are higher in black communities than white ones, according to this logic, any and all black people (especially males) will simply have to accept the possibility that regardless of their own criminality or lack thereof, they may be subjected to suspicion, profiling, search, harassment, even violence at the hands of the cops. Life as a walking contagion is simply the price that must be paid for wearing the epidermal uniform of the team with the higher rate of offending. Innocent until proven guilty, on this rendering, is but a theoretical contrivance with no applicability to those who are dark; a legal standard meant for show, and for no more serious reason than that. Because of the odds represented by the y-axis on some social science graph, the black people represented on the x-axis can be stripped of their humanity and reduced to walking actuarial tables.

This is America. Welcome to it.

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Of Gods and Monsters: Valorizing the Rich in a Culture of Cruelty

The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Culture of Cruelty: How America’s Elite Demonize the Poor, Valorize the Rich and Jeopardize the Future (San Francisco: City Lights, 2015) This section explores the way that many (especially on the right) valorize the wealthy and insist that unlike the poor — the so-called “takers” in society — the rich should be praised for their unique contributions to society. In this portion of the book, and in this excerpt, I respond to the idea that the wealthy carry a disproportionate share of the nation’s tax burden, or that they have been successful solely because of their own efforts, demonstrating that in fact the wealthy are as dependent (if not more so) on government than the poor and working class. In coming weeks I will post a few more excerpts from the book, which is in the editing process currently. Note, there may be slight changes to the final text when it is released in book form.

When Mitt Romney issued his now-infamous “47 percent” remark during the 2012 presidential campaign, in which he insisted that roughly half of the American public is dependent on hand-outs and will never be persuaded to “take responsibility for themselves,” many in the media and among the general public seemed shocked. But was there any reason to be surprised that an economic plutocrat like Romney might feel that way? Fact is, Romney (as with his running mate, Paul Ryan, who previously had suggested as many as 60 percent of Americans were “takers” rather than “makers”) was not going off-script in the least. He was merely giving voice to an all-too-common belief among the nation’s ruling elite and their conservative media mouthpieces: namely, that the poor are simply different from the rich in terms of values, work ethic and talent. While the latter create jobs and add value to the larger society, the former simply live off the more productive.

Of Makers and Takers: Taxes, Public Subsidies and the Real Face of Entitlement

Rather than criticize the wealthy, the poor and working class should be thanking them for all the good they do, or so the thinking goes. According to billionaire real estate investor Sam Zell, “the one percent work harder,” and rather than criticize them, everyone else should emulate them. Likewise, Forbes columnist Harry Binswanger has said in all seriousness that anyone “who earns a million dollars or more should be exempt from all income taxes,” and because even that tax rate of zero is insufficient thanks for all the good they do for the world, “to augment the tax-exemption, in an annual public ceremony, the year’s top earner should be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.”

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I Was No Angel Either: Crime, Deviance and White Privilege in America

He was no angel.

That’s the refrain, repeated for over two months on social media by defenders of Officer Darren Wilson, convinced that Michael Brown was little more than a violent and dangerous thug, worthy of death that August day in Ferguson.

From the beginning, Brown’s strong-arm theft of cigars from a local market was used by Wilson’s supporters as justification for whatever happened to him. “Thieves deserve their fate,” came the refrain from many a (mostly white) Facebook feed—this, from persons who have never openly advocated death for, say, Wall Street bankers who stole a lot more than Swisher Sweets. Nor have they likely ever contemplated what such a maxim might suggest about the merited destinies of their own white ancestors, for whom theft of land and the labor of others was central to the development of the very country those same commentators now call home.

“He had weed in his system,” cried others, suggesting that marijuana use either justifies being shot by a cop, or at the very least might explain his “aggressive behavior” towards Officer Wilson—the kind of thing that could only be said by someone who had never smoked much weed. Attacking police officers is, as a general rule, the last thing on your mind when you’re high.

I should know, as I spent quite a bit of my time when I was Michael Brown’s age in just such an altered state, never once concerned that such a condition might serve as a rationale for my demise at the hands of law enforcement. Indeed, I never even gave much thought to the likelihood that such behavior might land me in jail. All this, despite the fact that…


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Repetitive Motion Disorder: Black Reality and White Denial in America

I suppose there is no longer much point in debating the facts surrounding the shooting of Michael Brown. First, because Officer Darren Wilson has been cleared by a grand jury, and even the collective brilliance of a thousand bloggers pointing out the glaring inconsistencies in his version of events that August day won’t result in a different outcome. And second, because Wilson’s guilt or innocence was always somewhat secondary to the larger issue: namely, the issue of this gigantic national inkblot staring us in the face, and what we see when we look at it—and more to the point, why?

Because it is a kind of racial Rorschach (is it not?) into which each of these cases—not just Brown but all the others, from Trayvon Martin to Sean Bell to Patrick Dorismond to Aswan Watson and beyond—inevitably and without fail morph. That we see such different things when we look upon them must mean something. That so much of white America cannot see the shapes made out so clearly by most of black America cannot be a mere coincidence, nor is it likely an inherent defect in our vision. Rather, it is a socially-constructed astigmatism that blinds so many to the way in which black folks often experience law enforcement.

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Poverty Denialism in a Culture of Cruelty: Bashing the Poor as Right-Wing Amusement

The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Culture of Cruelty: How America’s Elite Demonize the Poor, Valorize the Rich and Jeopardize the Future (San Francisco: City Lights, 2015) This section explores the way that many (especially on the right) downplay or dismiss the problem of poverty and the hardship faced by the poor and unemployed. In coming weeks I will post a few more excerpts from the book, which is in the editing process currently. Note, there may be slight changes to the final text when it is released in book form. 

In 1981, Texas Senator Phil Gramm lamented: “We’re the only nation in the world where all our poor people are fat.” It was, to Gramm, clear evidence of how exaggerated the problem of economic hardship in America was, and how horrible the nation’s welfare state had become. Apparently, poor people aren’t really suffering or deserving of much sympathy until their ribcages are showing and their eye-sockets have all but swallowed their eyes. If the poor are fat, it’s not because so many of the cheapest and most readily available foods in poor communities are high in empty calories, sugar and non-nutritional ingredients—or because, in general, the U.S. food supply is overly-processed and unhealthy—but rather, it must be because poor people have it too good and are able to do a lot of fancy eating at public expense.

America’s culture of cruelty has long been fed by this kind of thinking: namely, the belief that the poor and unemployed really aren’t suffering that badly. This “poverty denialism” rests on three claims: first, that America’s poor are fabulously wealthy by global standards and thus, should essentially stop complaining; second, that the poor buy expensive food with their SNAP benefits and have all manner of consumer goods in their homes, which means they aren’t poor in any sense that should cause concern; and third, that large numbers of welfare recipients commit fraud in order to get benefits, and then misuse the benefits they receive. In short, these are not the deserving poor—their pain is not real.

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Your Bumper Sticker is Not a Philosophy: Reflections on Voting and the Limits of Radical Purity

You hear it often when you reside on the left of the political spectrum in America, especially around election time.

Sometimes it’s discussed and debated in whispers, other times in rather bombastic tones. It’s a debate about whether truly progressive folks, let alone radicals, should be willing to vote for clearly compromised Democrats, despite how far from our own views they obviously are. Some say yes, while others insist no, and just as strenuously as the first.

I know all the arguments on both sides. I know them because at some point in my life, I have probably made them all, depending on the situation.

When it comes to the arguments for not compromising, for not giving our votes to candidates whose policies seem so similar to those of the right, even now there are times when I still find myself attracted to them, at least partly.

But this is not one of those times.

For those of us on the left, there is something almost sacramental it seems about refusing to vote, while insisting with all the wisdom of a bumper sticker: “If voting changed anything it would be illegal,” or that “The lesser of two evils is still evil.” It’s almost a rite of passage for progressives to counsel abstention from exercising the franchise, or to advocate voting for a third party candidate—not because they have any chance of winning, or because by voting for them we will actually be helping to build that third party into a viable political force, but simply so that our conscience can be clear. We can vote for that radical alternative, and then drive back to our homes from the polling station in our fuel-burning vehicles, take off our shoes manufactured in a sweatshop somewhere, and then send out a blog post or social media message on our overpriced, virtual-slave-labor-produced technology, telling everyone how awesome it feels not to have contributed to evil today.

There’s something cathartic (in a juvenile, angst-driven, anarchy-tatted kinda way) about preening as a moral superior because you didn’t give in to the two-party “duopoly,” or whatever the hell Ralph Nader calls it. Maintaining one’s ascetic sense of unsullied ideological purity feels good. So does heroin, of course, but I’m not sure the indulgence of either is one’s best bet for safety in the long run. Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that voting is the key to real political change; it self-evidently is not. But to think that it means nothing, or so little as to not recommend the activity is to engage in a dangerous moral conceit. Dangerous because there appear to be others, every bit as committed to their worldview as we are to ours, who feel no qualms about pulling that lever, or pushing that button on the touch-screen—even though I figure they also know it isn’t the sum total of political engagement.

See, some things are pretty easy to understand, and this is one of them. If voting doesn’t matter, dear precious revolutionaries, then riddle me this:

Why are some people trying so damned hard to keep certain other people from doing it?

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James Baldwin on The Dick Cavett Show, 1968

A great and brief clip of Baldwin on Dick Cavett, explaining racism to folks who clearly don’t get it. Here, Baldwin explains the irrelevance of whether or not whites are prejudiced against blacks, noting that the real issue is how white institutions treat folks of color, regardless of intent, bigotry or hatred. A lesson worth remembering today…

Hard on Systems, Soft on People: Fighting for Social Change as If People Matter

“Be hard on systems, but soft on people.”

I’m sure this nugget of wisdom has been around for more than a while, but it was only about a year or so ago that I heard it: spoken into the room where several were gathered — parents and faculty at our daughters’ school — to discuss matters of identity and oppression: things like racism, sexism, heterosexism and the like.

The facilitator for the session, who offered up many other insights throughout the course of the dialogue, repeated this one several times, and with good reason. First, he explained, we need to be soft on people because people make mistakes, we hurt each other, we are all works in progress, and each of us is capable of saying or doing the wrong thing at any time — indeed we all have, many times — and so we should essentially extend to others the patience and compassion we would want for ourselves, as growing, changing, and hopefully maturing people. But also, and more importantly, when it comes to the issues we were discussing, be soft on people and hard on systems because it is the systems (racism and white supremacy, sexism and patriarchy, classism and capitalism, heterosexism and straight/cisgendered supremacy) that have distorted us, taught us the biases with which we all walk around to one degree or another, and in some ways damaged our ability to see each other as fully and equally human sometimes.

In other words, to go too hard on other people, as people, is to often miss the structural and institutional roots of their (and our) own bad behaviors. No one acts or speaks or writes, or anything, in a vacuum. We operate within the context of everything from our upbringing to our education to the media we consume to the peers with whom we associate to whatever happened to us an hour before the dialogue session, which put us in a pissy mood. And because no one knows another person’s damage completely, nor its source — and yet we know, intuitively, that we all have plenty of it — we should probably err on the side of system-based critiques and offer kindness to people whenever possible, knowing that who we all are today owes an awful lot to where we were yesterday, and the day and the month and the year and the decade before that. This is not to say that we let people off the hook for injurious behaviors or statements; it is merely to say that we acknowledge that there is, indeed, a hook; and it has a source that did not originate with the person we are placing there.

This maxim, to be soft on people but hard on systems is perhaps, at least in my experience, the most important guidepost any of us can follow when trying to challenge monumental social problems like racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, religious bigotry, ableism, or any other form of identity-based mistreatment. Among the reasons it’s so important is precisely the fact that it’s so incredibly hard to do, and this I say from personal experience, not just as some abstract observation.

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Resurrecting Apartheid: White Police and Politicians are Waging War on Black America

It seems like no exaggeration to suggest that at this moment, a half-century after the greatest victories of the civil rights movement, America is drifting backwards towards apartheid. It’s not a word I use lightly, nor one we are accustomed to using when describing our current condition. Indeed, its not even a word that most are willing to utter when referencing our past. It’s a word we like to reserve for others, for the formerly white-dominated South Africa, but not for ourselves, and certainly not now, what with a black president and all.

But beyond the presence of brown faces in high places, can anyone really claim without gagging on the sheer dimensions of the lie, that we are even within intercontinental-ballistic-missile-striking-distance of that state of post-raciality so many naive white folks assured us had arrived upon the election of Barack Obama? People like Rudy Giuliani and William Bennett and John Bolton and Ann Coulter, all of whom proclaimed racism essentially over as soon as the election had been called?

Is it really a stretch to call it apartheid, even as one after another after another after another black male (roughly one every 28 hours) — and more than a few black women and girls — are gunned down by police or vigilantes in city after city and town after town, unarmed, or armed only with an air rifle in a Wal-Mart? And this, even as white men can point their guns at federal officials or parade around the streets, or in Target or churches or Chipotle, or bars (because guns around booze is always a great idea) or anywhere they damned well please with weapons — real ones, with bullets — and be left to see another day? Or in some cases even lauded as heroes and the new “freedom riders,” standing up for their constitutional rights?

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