Just Us

Only white people think the opposite of racism is “race-blind.”

– Jack Cheng, Trying Not to See Race Means Closing Your Eyes to Reality

How could I make her conscious of the racialization process to which her own Euro-American community had subjected her? I invented the Race Game and invited her to play it. For the next seven days, she must use the descriptive term white whenever she mentioned the name of one of her Euro-American cohorts. She must say, for example, “My white husband Phil,” or “my white friend Julie,” or “my lovely white child Jackie.” I guaranteed her that if she did this and then met me for lunch, I could answer her question. We never had lunch together again.

— Thandeka, Learning to be White (1999)

This week everybody was talking about topics that spin out of the Zimmerman case

like race

The most-discussed statement came from President Obama.

Obama did a subtle piece of framing here that is key in understanding the way the conversation has been going. The initial reactions to the verdict were to re-argue the evidence and the law, claiming that the jury got it wrong or that the prosecution or the judge botched the case. Obama doesn’t do that, and neither have most of the other commenters after the first day or two.

Later commenters have moved past that, largely because it’s a done deal. Like arguing umpire calls in baseball, it’s not going to change anything. Instead, they want to argue the justice issue rather than the legal issue. Forget whether the verdict is correct in a narrow legal sense; is it just? Is this what we want our laws to say and how we want our system to work?

Conservatives went both ways on Obama’s remarks, some polite, others not so much.

I channel-scanned through this large-panel discussion on Sean Hannity’s show (where Sean did his best to frame the discussion away from the justice issue) and felt like I was in some parallel universe. There is an odd notion on the Right that America’s race problem is created by people talking about America’s race problem. The last word in this segment goes to talk-radio’s Monica Crowley:

What [the race hustlers] have done is what the Left has done for decades, which is that they need the division. They have divided us by race, class, gender, ethnic group, age. They continue to do it because they need the divisions in order to divide and conquer. It isn’t about bringing America together, it’s about dividing us.

To me, the most striking thing about the pro-Zimmerman commentary (and Anderson Cooper’s interview with a juror) is how easily whites enter Zimmerman’s point of view and repeat his claims as facts (rather than treating them with the suspicion due someone trying to justify killing an unarmed teen), while Martin remains an Other; his point of view is not imagined and everything about him is open to suspicious interpretation, if not outright misrepresentation.

By contrast, the most effective liberal commentary brought Martin’s point of view back into the case. The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson wrote “I still don’t understand what Trayvon Martin was supposed to do.”

MSNBC’s Melissa Harris Perry raised the point of view of black parents: Where is a safe place to raise your kids? You leave the majority-black inner city to escape crime, but in the supposedly safe white suburbs your kids are under constant suspicion that can turn violent.

And the NYT’s Charles Blow raised another parental question:

We used to say not to run in public because that might be seen as suspicious, like they’d stolen something. But according to Zimmerman, Martin drew his suspicion at least in part because he was walking too slowly.

So what do I tell my boys now? At what precise pace should a black man walk to avoid suspicion?

And lest you think that black people had all the good insights, listen to 13emcha explain why she’s not Trayvon Martin.

and stand-your-ground laws

It’s nutty: With lax concealed-carry laws, you never know who might be armed, so it’s reasonable to be afraid of almost everybody. If you’re afraid enough of somebody, shooting him is self-defense. Which means the other guy has reason to be afraid of you and shoot first.

President Obama was pointing in that direction with these comments:

I’d just ask people to consider, if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?  And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman who had followed him in a car because he felt threatened?  And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.

Mark Fiore made a biting animation about Stand Your Ground, the Daily Show’s John Oliver blasted Florida for having it, and The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik wrote a fascinating piece on its deep roots in American culture, going back to dueling and a speech about armed violence that Abraham Lincoln gave near the beginning of his career; we tolerate vigilante and other outside-the-law violence

because the symbolic identity that guns provide matters more than the rational calculation of the harm that they do. When, Lincoln wondered, would Americans outgrow this feeling? In 1838, he thought it would happen soon. And here we are, still wondering.

I think irrational laws of any kind give more power to prejudice, because they rationalize multiple outcomes. In Stand Your Ground cases, for example, a jury could interpret the law strictly (giving the prosecution the impossible job to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the shooter wasn’t afraid for his life) and not convict, or it could fall back on the common sense that the law violates: “Come on! He provoked a confrontation with an unarmed teen and then shot him. Of course he’s guilty.” Either position can seem rational, but which one your mind drifts to depends largely on the prejudices you start with.

That’s why George Zimmerman is free and Marissa Alexander got 20 years.

and profiling

Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf points to the most disturbing thing about President Obama nominating Ray Kelly to head the Homeland Security Department: He’s an open proponent and practitioner of racial, ethnic, and religious profiling. If profiling is bad when George Zimmerman does it, why is it OK when the NYPD does it?

But also non-Zimmerman issues like the filibuster

Senate Democrats agreed (for now) not to eliminate the filibuster on executive appointments, while Republicans agreed to allow confirmation votes on seven Obama appointees. Republicans had been using the filibuster in an unprecedented way: to hobble agencies they don’t like rather than object to individual appointees. As a result of the agreement, the National Labor Relations Board will not have to shut down in August and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will get its first confirmed head.

But if you’re thinking Congress might be getting its act together to govern rather than just block everything Obama proposes, there’s still the House. Sunday Speaker Boehner brushed off the current session’s lack of accomplishments: “We should not be judged on how many new laws we create. We ought to be judged on how many laws we repeal.”

and Detroit’s possible bankruptcy

Atlantic has it covered. Salon points out that a Detroit bankruptcy will raise borrowing costs for all cities.

There are two main angles to consider this from: First, an accounting angle that identifies the specific bad decisions or mismanagement got the city in trouble. The final straw is a revision in the formula for computing pension liabilities, which could bite a lot of city and state governments.

Second, the larger story of the local economy’s death-spiral. The population is down 26% since 2000 and is less than half of its size in 1950. And there aren’t jobs for the people who are stayed: Detroit has an 18% unemployment rate. Even if you could install brilliant, impeccable management, it’s hard to know what to do with a city that was built for a larger, richer population.

and yet another example of conservative pundit profiteering

Erick Erickson is the latest to get caught, show no shame, and pay no price. I review the history and some of the logic behind it in Keeping the Con in Conservatism.

and you also might be interested in …

The Koch brothers are spending a lot of money airing an ad to raise fear, uncertainty, and doubt about ObamaCare. Dr. Sanjeev Sriram — a real pediatrician, not an actor — goes through it point by point.

In general, you should be suspicious of any political ad that just raises questions. If you’ve got the resources to make an ad and put it on TV, couldn’t you have found some answers for us? If some particular person or agency has specific answers but is refusing to release them (like some of the Justice Department memos that justify drone strikes on countries where we aren’t at war), an honest ad will say that in so many words. But this kind of ad — one that implies questions aren’t being answered without actually saying that — is almost always dishonest.

At the height of the crack-cocaine epidemic in 1989, doctors in Philadelphia started a long-term study on the effects of cocaine on fetal development, expecting the so-called “crack babies” to have developmental and emotional problems that would follow them through the course of their lives.

Results are in now, and the kids did have problems. But it turns out that the control group — babies born in the same hospitals in the same time period to women of similar socio-economic profiles who tested negative for cocaine use — had almost all the same problems.

At age 4, for instance, the average IQ of the cocaine-exposed children was 79.0 and the average IQ for the nonexposed children was 81.9. Both numbers are well below the average of 90 to 109 for U.S. children in the same age group. When it came to school readiness at age 6, about 25 percent of children in each group scored in the abnormal range on tests for math and letter and word recognition.

The similarities persisted through adolescence and into early adulthood. Explanation:

The years of tracking kids have led [Dr. Hallam] Hurt to a conclusion she didn’t see coming.

“Poverty is a more powerful influence on the outcome of inner-city children than gestational exposure to cocaine,” Hurt said at her May lecture.

This points to a larger problem: American society’s state of denial about the effects of poverty makes us cast blame all sorts of places where it doesn’t belong — for example, on our schools and our teachers.

Having passed a ban on abortion at 20 weeks, Texas Republicans are now going for six weeks, which is claimed to be the earliest point at which a fetal heartbeat can be detected. 20 weeks was supposedly when fetus begin showing signs of pain, though that is disputed.

The Right focuses on these thresholds-of-unacceptability because they can’t convince people that a single-celled organism with human DNA has the moral heft of a human being. Neither of these thresholds impresses me because we ignore them in animals: Cows feel pain and have heartbeats, but nobody’s proposing to ban steak.

Here’s a threshold that seems more meaningful: the point at which an ordinary person can look at a fetal ultrasound and reliably tell the difference between human and chimp. I have no idea when that would be, but I’ll bet it’s quite a bit later than six weeks. (The Elephant Fetus Project was fooling pro-lifers at 11 weeks. Elephants.)

While we’re on the absurdities of pro-lifers, Alternet’s Adam Lee notes that the Bible says nothing about abortion directly, in spite of the fact that ancient folklore is full of miscarriage-inducing practices. And when the Old Testament legal code does discuss miscarriages, it clearly is not attributing to the fetus the full value of a human being.

If you want to be Biblical about it, the soul enters the body with the first breath, not at conception. Genesis 2:7. “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” That’s not where I would draw the line, but if you really want to follow the Bible that’s where it should be.

A Tennessee high school had a pro-abstinence assembly, which was filled (as these things usually are) with scary misinformation about sex, STDs, and contraception. What was even more disturbing, though, was the principal’s lack of concern when the inaccuracies were brought to his attention:

Fortunately, I believe the Hillsboro High School kids are smart enough to separate fact from fiction and that some of the opinions and scare tactics used in the presentation they will know are incorrect.

Know how? By trial and error? Locker room rumor? What’s the point of having schools at all, when we could just let kids “separate fact from fiction” for themselves? Anyway, Martha Kempner debunks.

What if we applied abstinence-only logic to the other kinds of trouble kids might get into?

Slate wonders “Why Don’t Farmers Believe in Climate Change?” and never comes up with an answer, but decides it doesn’t matter because farmers are cutting their fossil fuel use for other reasons.

Having just sold a 160-acre Illinois farm for almost 50 times what my grandfather paid in the 1920s, I think I can answer: Like most of the Midwest, Illinois had a major heat wave and drought last summer. If that’s just weather, no big deal. But if it’s a sign of things to come, then the land isn’t worth its current price and farmers who borrowed to expand (i.e. most of them) are going to be in trouble. That’s plenty of motive for denial.

Elizabeth Warren went on CNBC to promote her 21st-Century Glass-Steagal Act. Predictably, the hosts went after her, and she totally ate their lunch.

and let’s end with something fun

A long time ago we used to be friends, but I hadn’t thought of you lately at all … until Friday.

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  • ChrisM  On July 22, 2013 at 2:59 pm

    I don’t believe that Kelly has been nominated for DHS- Obama gave a somewhat glowing but very non-committal answer when directly asked about him in an interview. So there is some buzz, but it hasn’t actually produced any pollination yet.

  • Jeanne  On July 22, 2013 at 3:53 pm

    This has some interesting articles in it. jj

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