Tag Archives: race

Racism, Hot and Cold

It’s hard for conservatives to talk about race. Maybe we could make it easier.


Liberal/conservative conversations about race often go like this one that happened on MSNBC at the end of March.

There is an incident (in this case Sean Spicer scolding a black female reporter, April Ryan) that shows lack of respect for a person of color. The liberal (in this case, Jason Johnson) places it in a larger context, a pattern of disrespect, and calls it out as racism. The conservative (Matt Schlapp) takes offense at the accusation and a shouting match ensues, ending any real exchange of ideas.

To an extent, I think this is a calculated tactic on the part of conservative pundits (or, at least, somebody calculated it at one point and others have imitated): There can be no discussion of patterns of disrespect based on race or gender. Any attempt to start such a discussion has to be shouted down.

Accordingly, any individual incident has to be presented as a unique occurrence and explained by the details of that particular situation. (Schlapp explains that Spicer “got feisty” with Ryan because he was under pressure to get through a lot of news that day.) Attempts to put a racial context around the incident have to be shut down. [1]

But whatever Schlapp or other talking heads might have in mind, it’s worthwhile to consider why their conservative viewers approve of this tactic and never see it for what it is: In conservative circles racism has a very specific meaning that usually doesn’t apply to the situation at hand. To conservatives, racism means conscious hatred, an intention to harm or humiliate a person purely because of his or her race. It isn’t that racism doesn’t exist, but it applies only to the KKK or the Nazis.

To Schlapp, then, it is absurd and outrageous to imagine that Sean Spicer is at his podium thinking “I’m tired of black reporters getting uppity with me, so I’m going to slap this one down.” That’s what Schlapp means when he says, “You don’t know what’s in Sean’s heart.”

But of course, Johnson had never claimed to know what was in Spicer’s heart, or to see conscious hatred there. He was pointing to a pattern of behavior both for Spicer and throughout the Trump administration, in which non-whites are shown less respect. There might be all kinds of reasons for such a pattern.

For example, what if Spicer simply sees blacks (or women) differently than he sees whites (or men)? [2] What if it’s his mental habit to interpret black actions more negatively, and to feel that harsher responses are appropriate? In that case, he might have been entirely unaware that he was treating April Ryan differently than a white White House correspondent like Peter Alexander or Jeff Zeleny, because even if Alexander or Zeleny had done the same thing, it would have looked different to him.

To the conservative mind, though, that’s not racism. If there is no conscious hatred involved, then it’s totally unfair to suggest comparisons to the KKK, as they feel racism does.

“So fine, then,” a liberal might say, “give me the word that applies to this situation and we’ll use it.”

But then you hit the root problem: There is no conservative term for the habitual and perhaps unconscious tendency to see people of another race differently, judge them more negatively, and react to them more harshly. In the absence of such a term, there is no way to point out the phenomenon and discuss it. You can’t ask about the elephant in the room, because elephant refers only to mastodons, who died out ages ago. There is no word for the big, gray animal swinging his trunk around, so any attempt to discuss him inevitably veers off in some other direction.

A conservative might respond that I’m describing an esoteric phenomenon of so little consequence that it doesn’t really need a name or a discussion. But that is completely unconvincing after eight years of the Obama administration, during which conservative media outlets repeatedly raised their audience’s outrage when Obama did things white presidents had been doing without incident for decades. I don’t claim to know what was in the hearts of the people who felt that outrage — I doubt that most of them were consciously aware they were applying different standards to Obama — but the pattern of observable behavior was clear and obvious. [3]

Likewise, this is the whole issue behind Black Lives Matter. It isn’t that people become cops because they like to kill blacks. (I mean, some small number probably do, but I doubt it’s typical, and I believe the system tries to weed those guys out.) But white guys can safely carry semi-automatic rifles through Target, while a black guy in Walmart gets gunned down for picking up a toy. Cops just see young black men differently, judge their actions more negatively, and respond more harshly. We can’t have a rational discussion of that issue because conservatives refuse to call it racism, but don’t offer any alternative term for it.

We could give them one.

I know this isn’t a new idea. In liberal circles, there is already a distinction between conscious and unconscious bigotry. We often talk about implicit bias, and there is even a test you can take for it on the internet. But every term I’ve heard smacks of some liberal bastion like psychology or academia. None of them would sound right rolling out of a conservative mouth. A conservative talking about implicit bias would impress his fellow conservatives about as much as a macho man talking to his locker-room buddies about relationships and commitment.

If we want a real discussion to start, what we need isn’t technical jargon appropriate for an academic journal, but some ten-cent words already in everyday use, taking advantage of some metaphor that ordinary people might come up with if they happened across the phenomenon on their own, without ever attending a course in racial studies.

Here’s a common metaphor that might work: Emotions have temperature. Hate and anger are hot. If you feel a vague aversion towards someone, you are cool to them, and if the aversion got stronger you might want to freeze them out.

If we apply that metaphor to racism, then the kind conservatives already acknowledge, the conscious hatred that Emmett Till‘s killers must have felt, is hot racism. When Richard Spencer calls for “ethnic cleansing” to turn American into a “white ethnostate”, that’s also hot racism.

Cold racism, on the other hand, doesn’t actively wish harm on people of color, but simply fails to factor in their interests or to weigh them as heavily as the interests of whites. Those who watched Eric Garner die saying “I can’t breathe” and felt motivated to make excuses for the police choking him — most of them probably weren’t feeling hatred or anger towards Garner, they were just failing to feel compassion for a fellow human being. The problem wasn’t their heat it was their coldness. [4]

The kind of racism that whites can live with and not notice — the kind that simply sees blacks differently and then acts in a way that feels appropriate to that harsher perception, without any awareness of personal animus — could be described as room-temperature racism. The room-temperature racist feels like he is the one acting normally, and doesn’t understand why others are getting upset with him.

That, I believe, describes Sean Spicer. An avowed white nationalist like Richard Spencer knows that race is an issue for him. But Spicer just believes he’s responding appropriately to what he sees. The details of the Holocaust (to bring up another recent example) just don’t stick in his head. Why, he probably wonders, are Jews so bent out of shape about that?

If liberals started consistently applying a temperature gauge to racism, I think most moderates would understand the metaphor without much explanation, and conservatives might eventually get it in spite of themselves. Some talking heads — the ones who are consciously looking to disrupt discussions of race — might keep reacting with outrage to any mention of racism, regardless of temperature. But part of their audience might realize that finding room-temperature racism in the patterns of Spicer’s responses isn’t the same as fitting him for a white hood. They might eventually recognize that there is a consistent phenomenon in the incidents that carry that label.

Elephants, they might come to understand, are not mastodons. Occasionally there is one in the room. Maybe there should be a conversation about it.


[1] Conservatives, in their usual pot-and-kettle way, claim that it is liberals who shut down discussions by bringing up racism. But this is true only if you begin with the premise that racism can never be discussed. Apparently, it is impossible for conservatives to respond to “That’s racist” with a skeptical “How?”.

[2] In this article I’m going to focus specifically on racism, but what I’m saying could apply to any form of bigotry. We could talk about hot and cold sexism, hot and cold nativism, and so on.

[3] In 2014, I documented a long series of examples, but two moments should stand out in everyone’s memory: State of the Union addresses have contained debatable statements for as long as I can remember, but no white president was ever interrupted by “You lie!“. And the entire Birther theory, which as late as last summer was still given credence by a majority of Republicans, demonstrated that a large number of Americans were ready to believe anything negative about Obama, regardless of evidence.

There are comparable examples of baseless conspiracy theories about white presidents — that George W. Bush was complicit in 9-11 or FDR was secretly Jewish. But all of them stayed on the fringes of public debate. None ever caught on like Birtherism or stayed viable in the face of clear evidence and repeated debunking.

Now, does that mean that Joe Wilson was consciously thinking, “I can’t let that nigger get away with saying that”? Am I implying that everyone who doubted Obama’s citizenship is a potential cross-burner? Not at all, but it is part of a long pattern of seeing blacks differently, judging them more negatively, and responding to them more harshly.

[4] When I google “cold racism”, most of the examples are of the form “stone cold racism”, which is a different thing. It’s the hardness of the stone that’s being evoked, not the temperature of the feeling.

Justice and the Police

Inside our nation is a colony of poor, mostly non-white communities whose police are not under their democratic control. Jeff Sessions wants to keep it that way.


Recalling Ferguson. I remember exactly when I came to accept that Darren Wilson should not be prosecuted for killing Michael Brown: when I read the Justice Department’s report on the shooting. Until then, no entity I trusted had been able to examine all the evidence and report its findings to the public.

From the beginning, the Ferguson police had shown no interest in uncovering the truth; Wilson was their man, and they wanted him to go free. The local prosecutor, likewise, did not want to get on the wrong side of the police, and even Missouri’s Democratic governor saw the case as too hot a potato to pick up.

Only the Obama administration’s Justice Department was far enough removed from the local power structure to be objective. So its report was what finally convinced me: Wilson’s account of the incident was closer to the evidence than the hands-up-don’t-shoot narrative that had been echoing through Ferguson’s black community.

Even after that report, I still believed that Wilson’s animalistic (and at times even demonic) description of Brown was racist. I will never be convinced that killing Brown was his only option, or that he wouldn’t have found another way to resolve the situation if Brown had been white and middle-class. But even so, I knew that if the case went to trial and I were a juror, I could not vote to convict.

Simultaneously, though, Justice issued a parallel report about the general state of policing in Ferguson. The primary mission of Ferguson’s police, the report found, was not public safety, but generating revenue for the city by citing poor blacks for violations that carried fines. Likewise, the municipal court’s mission was to monetize those violations, and if possible to multiply them by making the court process as difficult as possible to navigate without incurring further fines.

The community’s response to Brown’s killing, the two reports implied, was based not so much on the facts of that particular case as on a hope: Maybe finally the police had done something so egregious that the outside world would have to notice the illegal and unconstitutional abuses Ferguson’s black citizens had to endure every day.

The Justice Department had noticed. It worked out a consent decree with the city to change how its police and court systems operate. It is one of many consent decrees Justice has worked out with cities all over the country.

But it’s not going to do that any more.

From oversee to overlook. This week, the Trump Justice Department, led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, gave notice that it was getting out of the business of overseeing local police. In a memo to his department heads and to local U.S. attorneys, Sessions wrote:

Local control and local accountability are necessary for effective policing. It is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies. [1] … The Deputy Attorney General and Associate Attorney General are hereby directed to immediately review all Department activities — including … compliance reviews, existing or contemplated consent decrees — … in order to ensure that they fully and effectively promote the principles outlined above.

That memo had immediate effects, though perhaps not entirely the ones Sessions intended. His subordinates tried to torpedo the consent decree that Obama’s Justice Department had worked out with Baltimore just before leaving office. But the presiding judge was having none of it, ruling that

The case is no longer in a phase where any party is unilaterally entitled to reconsider the terms of the settlement; the parties are bound to each other by their prior agreement. The time for negotiating the agreement is over. The only question now is whether the Court needs more time to consider the proposed decree. It does not.

Having received the judge’s blessing, the Baltimore agreement is now in force. However, the outline of an agreement that had been worked out with Chicago is not yet official, and may well go back to the drawing board. Mother Jones paints the larger picture:

A report released in February by Samuel Walker, a police reform expert at the University of Nebraska in Omaha, determined that most consent decrees enforced by the Department of Justice since 1994—when Congress passed legislation granting the DOJ oversight authority over local police agencies—have been successful in achieving long-term reforms. Consent decrees are binding legal agreements, and once signed, they are overseen by a federal judge and an appointed monitor. The DOJ’s ability to interfere with that process is limited, [former Obama Justice official Jonathan] Smith said.

But there are things the DOJ can do to undermine it. It could ignore violations of decrees and stop taking police departments to court because of them. It could also seek to renegotiate the terms of a decree or to have it dropped altogether—though that would be difficult even with the cooperation of a police department, Smith said. “After all, these injunctions are entered to protect the public interest,” Smith said.

Why isn’t local accountability enough? But even if we recognize the damage likely to result from Sessions’ decision to stop overseeing and start overlooking police abuses, we have to admit that the first line I quoted from his memo is quite true:

Local control and local accountability are necessary for effective policing.

The obvious question to ask, then, is why such local accountability doesn’t exist in so many places. The black citizens of Ferguson live in a democracy, after all, and local elections are held on a regular basis. Why did they — or the black citizens of Baltimore or Chicago or dozens of other cities — have to raise the attention of the national media and of Washington in order to get local reform?

The answer to that question is in Chris Hayes’ fortuitously timed A Colony in a Nation, which came out last month.

This book makes a simple argument: that American criminal justice isn’t one system with massive racial disparities but two distinct regimes. One (the Nation) is the kind of policing regime you expect in a democracy; the other (the Colony) is the kind you expect in an occupied land. … If you live in the Nation, the criminal justice system functions like your laptop’s operating system, quietly humming in the background, doing what it needs to do to allow you to be your most efficient, functional self. In the Colony, the system functions like a computer virus: it intrudes constantly, it interrupts your life at the most inconvenient times, and it does this as a matter of course. The disruption itself is normal.

Ferguson and the Founders. Hayes begins, like I just did, in Ferguson, where the goal of policing is not public safety, but revenue enhancement. And he draws a parallel I would not have thought of: to the American colonies in the decade before the revolution.

In high school American History, we were all taught that the revolution was about “taxation without representation”. But in fact, Hayes argues, the colonies had existed under onerous tax-and-tariff laws for a long time. From Britain’s point of view, the purpose of the American colonies had always been to produce raw materials for British industry and markets for its finished goods. From the beginning, the colonies had been barred from trading with rival powers and taxed steeply when they traded with the homeland.

And from the beginning, the colonies had been rife with smugglers, some of whom (like John Hancock) achieved great prestige. Colonial life was largely one big smuggling conspiracy. Ordinary people did their best to interfere with customs agents, and juries often let guilty smugglers go.

What changed after the French and Indian War wasn’t so much the British laws and taxes, but their policing regime: They began trying to collect the taxes the law said were owed.

The British crackdown essentially inaugurated America’s first tough-on-crime era. It was a classic crackdown: more customs officials were granted more expansive powers, while courts were streamlined to produce swift punishment and avoid the maddening jury nullification … After 1763 customs officials no longer looked the other way in exchange for small bribe. Instead, they began operating in ways that looked a lot like what we now call “stop and frisk.” … American colonists were subject to British invasions of their carriages, ships, and homes without the safeguards enjoyed by their English cousins.

It wasn’t the financial burden of taxes that caused the revolution, it was the “insulting and humiliating” policing necessary to collect those taxes.

No wonder places like Ferguson sometimes seem so rebellious now.

Real community policing. Among law-enforcement theorists, community policing means that police maintain relationships with the local community. The image of community policing is the cop walking a beat, recognizing and being recognized by the people he passes.

But Hayes raises the stakes, pointing out what community policing might mean: Not individual cops maintaining relationships, but an entire system of policing — what laws get enforced and how — that is responsive to the community being policed.

That sounds incredibly utopian until Hayes points out that such systems already exist: on college campuses. First he describes the lax enforcement of drug laws he remembers from his student days at Brown. But then he reports the shock to his Ivy League sensibilities when he got a job in Madison, home of the University of Wisconsin.

Nothing I’d seen during my college years quite prepared me for the sheer insanity of a big football program home game. Tens upon tens of thousands of people, of all ages, were shit-faced drunk. Frat row was in a state of debaucherous pandemonium, with dozens of students passed out on lawns and outdoor couches, amid no small amount of vomit, urine, and broken bottles.

He wonders about the role of race.

[W]ould all this (mostly harmless) mayhem meet with such enthusiastic tolerance if it were a hundred thousand drunk-as-hell black folks streaming through downtown Madison? Something tells me, no chance.

The couple I was staying with had season tickets to the games, and while they rolled their eyes a touch at some of the excesses, they were part of a community, and they understood and embraced that this was a community ritual, a norm collectively arrived at.

Compare that mental image to the militarized police rolling down the streets of Ferguson during the Michael Brown demonstrations. Was that display of force also “a norm collectively arrived at”? Or was it control from the outside?

If you took a lot of [student] behavior out of the Nation and put it in the Colony — say, out of Harvard Yard and into a big city housing project — if would provide the material for dozens of articles on the pathologies of poverty that hold back poor people of color. People sleep all day; they engage in loud, frequent relationship dramas while having numerous different sexual partners, and they get into drunken arguments and brawls and consume ungodly amounts of controlled substances.

University police know that their job is to serve the interests of the students they police (and their parents, who pay the bills). No one wants to pay hundreds of thousands to send their children to college, only to have them sent from there to jail, or to come home with a criminal record. So universities are policed in a way that minimizes those outcomes.

No doubt citizens of the black and Hispanic neighborhoods of New York didn’t want to be routinely stopped and frisked, or to see minor confrontations spiral out of control until their fellow citizens were imprisoned or dead. Black citizens of Ferguson didn’t want police to see them as prey, as sheep to be sheared for the benefit of the municipal budget. But they lacked the power to get the policing they wanted through local democratic channels. And now, under the Trump administration, they will also lack the power to go over the heads of local political interests and get a sympathetic hearing from federal officials.

Larger factors. So far, my summary sells Hayes’ book short: It paints a far larger picture, including discussions of white fear, the difference between law and order (and public safety, which is a separate consideration), and the financial value of order to owners of real estate.

But the book will have done an important job if it simply gets its central image into the public discussion: Some parts of the United States are nothing more than colonies run for the benefit of other parts.

To the Colony, Jeff Sessions is like the new governor sent over by George III to maintain control. And the next time there’s a shooting like Michael Brown, we will never really know what happened, because no disinterested party will ever investigate.


[1] Actually, it is the responsibility of the Justice Department. In essence, Sessions is saying that he will not enforce the following paragraph of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.

§ 14141. Cause of action

(a) Unlawful conduct

It shall be unlawful for any governmental authority, or any agent thereof, or any person acting on behalf of a governmental authority, to engage in a pattern or practice of conduct by law enforcement officers or by officials or employees of any governmental agency with responsibility for the administration of juvenile justice or the incarceration of juveniles that deprives persons of rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States.

Can We Get Real About Opioids?

The problem isn’t in Mexico or on our southern border. It’s here, and it’s us.


All my life I’ve been hearing about the drug problem, but mostly what I’ve heard are attempts to dodge responsibility. Those attempts have taken two main forms:

  • It’s not my problem. The middle-aged, middle-and-upper-class whites who run the country project the problem onto inner-city blacks or white-trash teens, who can be written off. In other words: I don’t need to do anything, they just need to shape up.
  • The solution is to punish somebody else. The problem isn’t the American demand for drugs, it’s the supply chain. If we just extend the death penalty to pushers, or seal the border, or launch para-military operations against drug cartels, or spray enough herbicide on the poppy fields of Afghanistan or the coca fields of Columbia, that’ll fix it.

In recent years, though, that first dodge has been breaking down. The opioid problem has started to climb up the national agenda not just because the overall number of deaths has increased, but because drug abuse has increasingly begun to affect whites, rural and suburban communities, and people who are both over 30 and above the poverty line. In cynical political terms: people who matter.

Let’s review a little: Drug overdoses killed 52,000 Americans in 2015. That’s more than car accidents (35K) or gun deaths (36K). The National Institute of Health estimated that in 2013, 1.9 million Americans were dependent on pain relievers, with another million or so dependent on heroin, sedatives, and tranquilizers.

That’s such a big deal that it’s pushing down the national life-expectancy-at-birth numbers, which in 2015 fell for the first time since 1993, from 78.9 to 78.8. (That’s the National Center for Health Statistics number. For cross-country comparisons, the World Health Organization figures slightly differently. It rates the U.S. at 79.3, well below Japan at 83.7 and culturally similar Canada at 82.2.)

But what makes this a politically serious problem is that it’s hitting white people: The 2015 national life expectancy decline might turn out to be a statistical anomaly, but white life expectancy has barely budged since 2010.

That doesn’t just change the importance of the problem, it changes the rhetoric. If drugs aren’t just a problem for “those people”, then we can’t solve it by telling them to shape up. The rhetoric has to soften, and lean more towards empathy than tough love. During the campaign, Trump said this about the opioid problem:

We’re going to take all of these kids — and people, not just kids — that are totally addicted and they can’t break it. We’re going to work with them, we’re going to spend the money, we’re gonna get that habit broken.

But so far that’s been a shaky promise. The for-now abandoned TrumpCare plan would have eliminated the ObamaCare mandate that insurance policies cover addiction treatment, not to mention the millions of people it would have left without insurance entirely. He claimed to increase funding for addiction prevention and treatment by $500 million, but apparently that was just him taking credit for the 21st Century Cures Act passed under Obama.

But Wednesday was opioid abuse day at the White House, so Trump appointed a commission that will issue a report in October. That’s some real action for you.

While he waits for that report Trump continues to use the second dodge: He’s spinning drugs as a border-protection issue that the Wall will solve. Wednesday, after listening to several people’s stories of addiction that began with prescription drugs, he said:

So it’s been really — it spiked over the last eight to ten years.  Would that have anything to do with the weakening of the borders? Because a lot of it comes from the southern border.

Like so many Trump statements, this presents a thicket of misperceptions that you have to hack your way through. First, the border hasn’t “weakened” in recent years. We’ve had more fences and border agents than ever, and fewer people crossing illegally.

And then we get to the reality of the drug problem: About a third of the 52,000 opioid overdose deaths in 2015 were from prescription drugs, and many of the illegal-drug ODs are simply the end of a story that began with legal drugs. Even if we could shut off all the heroin and fentanyl coming from overseas — it’s mostly from Mexico right now, but that doesn’t mean drug importers would give up if we capped that particular pipe — the problem wouldn’t be solved.

And then there’s the assumption that the Wall would stop Mexican drugs cold. Even granting the shaky assumption that Mexico lags behind in crucial ladder technology, bags of pills or powder are not that hard to throw. Fill a football with them, and any high school quarterback could complete the pass.

In short, the only real way to attack this problem is on the demand side, not the supply side. We have to prevent people getting addicted to prescription opioids, and help current addicts (to both legal and illegal drugs) quit. The Great Wall of Mexico won’t do that.

What would? Three things:

  • Finding ways to manage chronic pain without addictive drugs.
  • Reducing the overall level of despair among people that the 21st-century economy is leaving behind — over-50 folks in rural areas as well as non-white inner-city youth.
  • Funding effective rehab programs for everybody who wants to quit.

None of those is a just-do-it thing. We know how to build walls, but chronic pain and despair and effective rehab are much harder questions. The difference is: They’re the right questions, rather than just new ways to dodge the problem.

Should I Have White Pride?

2016 brought white nationalism into the mainstream discussion. Now we have to answer questions we used to ignore.

Writing them off. Throughout my lifetime, liberals have felt that we didn’t really need to argue against the more explicit forms of white racism. The KKK was bad; Jim Crow was bad; the Nazis were bad — that was pretty much all you needed to know.

Of course you’d run into arguments where racism might play a more subtle role and be harder to isolate: Affirmative action is unfair to whites; neighborhood schools are more important than desegregation; the over-representation of blacks in prisons or among the poor is due to their own broken family structure and lack of middle-class values; and so on. Whites who weren’t necessarily hostile to blacks or to civil rights in the abstract often found these points convincing, and some skill was required to defend the liberal view without alienating people who might be with you on some other issue.

But if the conversation came around to “I just think they’re genetically inferior” or “I’d like to send them all back to Africa” or “The Jews run everything anyway”, you didn’t need any skill. Just stop the conversation and write those people off. That kind of dinosaur racism was dying a well-deserved death, and those who still spouted it were probably turning off a lot more people than they convinced.

Many forms of white grievance just merited a one-line answer. Why isn’t there a White History Month? Because in American schools every month is White History Month; teachers don’t need any special reminder to mention George Washington or Thomas Edison.

You particularly didn’t need to argue against explicit racism during political campaigns, because all major national candidates considered racism toxic. That’s why there were “dog whistles“: Even a candidate as conservative as Ronald Reagan couldn’t appear to side with white racists, so he went to a town made famous by civil-rights murders and came out in favor of “states rights”. That was as far as he could go without risking a backlash from whites who found racism disgusting.

The new world of 2016. But the 2016 campaign sent us a clear message that times are changing. It was never any secret who white racists were supporting for president, and Donald Trump did relatively little to distance himself from them. When David Duke, an unrepentant former KKK grand wizard, endorsed him, Trump’s first reaction was to refuse to reject that endorsement:

I know nothing about David Duke. I know nothing about white supremacists.  And so you’re asking me a question that I’m supposed to be talking about people that I know nothing about.

His speech to the Republican Convention centered on a non-existent immigrant crime wave: brown Hispanics and Muslims are coming for your family. Indiana-born Judge Curiel couldn’t possibly handle the Trump University fraud case fairly, because “He’s a Mexican.” He called for an explicit religious test on immigrants and tourists. He retweeted stuff from @WhiteGenocideTM. Trump’s ostensible appeals to black voters were typically delivered in white suburbs to almost entirely white audiences, and consisted of negative stereotypes of black life:

You’re living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58 percent of your youth is unemployed. What the hell do you have to lose?

He even touched what (since the Holocaust) has been the third rail of American political racism: antisemitism. In what Senator Al Franken called a “German shepherd whistle“, Trump’s closing-argument commercial connected Clinton to Jewish financiers, echoing an earlier tweeted image of Clinton, a pile of money, and a Star of David — which also originated with white supremacists. (Trump has never explained how so many racist memes come to his attention. Does he follow Twitter users like @WhiteGenocideTM?)

Since the election, Trump has gotten far more agitated by a polite appeal from the cast of Hamilton to “uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us” than by a roomful of white supremacists shouting “Hail Trump!” and giving straight-arm Nazi salutes. When asked about the neo-Nazis during his interview at The New York Times, he said, “Boy, you are really into this stuff, huh?” When pressed, he said “I disavow and condemn.” But it wasn’t at all something he felt he needed to clear up.

So Trump doesn’t treat racism as toxic, and in fact it hasn’t been. He won anyway, or perhaps he won because. And that puts us in a new world. White nationalist and white grievance arguments are entering the mainstream, and we have to answer them now.

White grievance. The essence of the white-grievance argument is that mainstream culture imposes a double standard on whites, and puts us in impossible situations where anything we might say or do is wrong.

At that neo-Nazi conference Trump eventually got around to disavowing, the speaker who started the “Hail Trump!” chorus was Richard Spencer. He put the white-grievance argument this way:

In the Current Year, a white who takes pride in his ancestors’ accomplishments is evil, but a white who refuses to accept guilt for his ancestors’ sins is also evil.

In the Current Year, white families work their whole lives to send their children to universities where they will be told how despicable they are.

In the Current Year, the powerful lecture the powerless about how they don’t recognize their own “privilege.”

In the Current Year, a wealthy Jewish celebrity bragging about the “end of white men” is “speaking truth to power.’

In the Current Year, if you are physically strong, you are fragile. Black is beautiful, but whiteness is toxic.

In a lot of ways, I’m Spencer’s target audience: I’m a white man whose German Lutheran ancestors settled in rural Illinois just before the Civil War. I think I come from good people — nobody who shows up in history books, but ordinary folks who worked hard and did right by their neighbors and raised their kids to do the same. My parents’ hard work (and mine; I got scholarships) sent me to universities (Michigan State and the University of Chicago), where I did indeed get introduced to the dark side of American racial history and some of the advantages being white had given me.

Like Spencer, I don’t believe that whites are despicable or that whiteness is toxic. I do think slavery was a very bad thing — not sure whether Spencer agrees or not — but my personal feelings about its legacy are too complicated to sum up as guilt. (BTW: I think right-wingers went off the deep end responding to Lena Dunham’s short conversation with her Dad about “the extinction of white men”, and I’m not sure why her Jewishness is relevant. I don’t feel the least bit threatened by her animated video, and I’m confident that no actual white men were harmed in the drawing of it.)

So why don’t I have the kind of white pride Spencer is trying to promote and defend? And why don’t I feel aggrieved by a culture that doesn’t approve of expressing that pride?

My pride. I’ve got some. As I said already, I feel pride in my ancestors.

I also feel pride in being an American. I write a lot on this blog about American history and the Constitution and the tradition of our laws, and I hope my words convey the amazement and wonder I find in it all. Naturally, we have villains as well as heroes, and I try not to pretend otherwise, but none of that ruins it for me. In some ways it’s even better once you understand that none of the characters in our story were gods, that they were humans with all the flaws you can see in humans today. Many of the great things they did were also terrible at the same time, and at the end of it all, somehow, here we are.

I love the English language, and what other writers have done with it. Not just the giants like Shakespeare or Faulkner, but anybody who can turn a good phrase. If you ever happen to be in the room while I have my nose in a book, don’t be surprised if I suddenly jump up and interrupt everybody else’s conversation with: “Oh, you have to hear this!” and then start reading aloud.

I take pride in Western Culture, the whole dead-white-male tradition of the so-called “Great Books”. I have loved Plato since I stumbled across a translation of “Apology of Socrates” in junior high. The abstract beauty of Euclid, Periclean democracy, the cosmopolitan Stoics, infinitely logical Spinoza, and that long, long dialog (continuing to this very moment) between what we want to believe about the world and what we can make sense out of — irrationally, I feel like it is all in some way my own, as if in rediscovering it I had thought of it myself.

I even feel a certain amount of ethnic German pride, though American Germans have been playing that down since the world wars. I can’t speak the language, but I read it well enough to appreciate its unpretentious logic, where you can reason a word out syllable-by-syllable in the same way you might sound it out it letter-by-letter. (Wahrscheinlichkeit, for example, breaks down as true-seeming-ness: probability.) Watching the World Cup, I started rooting for the German team as soon as the Americans were eliminated.

If you ask white supremacists about their “white pride”, they’ll point to a lot of this same stuff: White people wrote the Constitution, created German and English, and are responsible for nearly all the Western classics. The pride I just expressed, they would claim, is white pride.

And that’s where they lose me.

My identity. Ancestry is largely genetic, I’ll grant you. But the other pieces of my identity aren’t. When I listen to the Hamilton soundtrack, for example, I feel both American pride and English-language pride; the fact that Lin-Manuel Miranda is Puerto Rican and most of the cast is  something other than white doesn’t diminish that.

One of the things I love about my national heritage is its lack of boundaries. If you have something good in you and you want to bring it to America, we’ll take it and make it our own. Is Einstein too Jewish for Hitler? Fine, we’ll take him. English literature is the same way: Joseph Conrad‘s first language was Polish, but who cares? Heart of Darkness is an English classic. Western culture is great because it is porous and permeable; anybody who masters it, like Salman Rushdie, becomes part of it, no matter where they were born or who their parents were.

Without that permeability, I couldn’t claim most of Western culture either. Plato and Homer were Greek; they’re no relation of mine. (If Plato ever talked about my Germanic ancestors, he would have used the Greek word barbaros, from which we derive barbarian.) Descartes was French, Tolstoy Russian. So why should it bother me that Edward Said was Arab or Haruki Murakami is Japanese? I envy the things Martin Luther King did with spoken English and Ta-Nehisi Coates does with written English. Should I not learn from them because they’re black?

Anybody who claims Western culture as “white” doesn’t really get the point of Western culture.

White identity is artificial. But there’s an even bigger problem with identifying as white, which the last section only hinted at: Most of the historical heroes I would want to claim had no idea they were white.

The Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock didn’t think they were white, they thought they were English. Columbus wasn’t white, or even Italian; he was a Genoan working for Spain. (Spain itself was a new idea then, having just formed from the union of Castille and Aragon.) Shakespeare, Milton, and Cervantes weren’t white. Whiteness just wasn’t a thing yet.

When it did it become a thing? When the white/black distinction became the basis of slavery.

Blackness was invented at the same moment. The dark-skinned people who were loaded onto the slavers’ ships weren’t black, they were Yoruba, Ashanti, Dogon and dozens or maybe hundreds of other ethnicities. They spoke different languages, ate different foods, and worshiped different gods. They became black when their new masters imposed a common experience on them and saw them as interchangeable.

Something similar, if much less extreme, happened to the Poles, Czechs, Irish, and other Europeans who came through Ellis Island. They were allowed to keep a little of their previous identity, but considered backwards if they took it too seriously. (You can see that process happening in the background of all those making-of-the-Mafia movies. Lucky Luciano had become an Italian-American, but the previous generation of bosses — Maranzano, Masseria — were still greaseballs.)

Imagine trying to organize a White Heritage Festival. What food would you serve? What ancestral costumes would you dress your staff in? The reason those question seem so silly is that there is no white culture. There never has been.

Whiteness is about being the master rather than the slave. That’s the sum total of it.

Why white pride is different from black pride. Whiteness and blackness were created at the same moment, by the same act of enslavement. But they were not created equal. White identity and black identity are both in some sense artificial, but there is no equivalency between them.

When Africans were enslaved, the masters did their best to erase any prior African identity. Italian immigrants could form their own neighborhoods, like Little Italy in Manhattan. On the frontier, entire regions were settled by Germans or Swedes. But the cotton plantations did not recognize any prior tribal distinctions, and any attempt by the slaves to practice a non-Christian religion or preserve a language the masters did not understand was put down harshly.

Slaves of all tribes were all housed together, and encouraged to breed like cattle. To the extent they were taught anything about their African motherland, they were told it was a land of savages who were little better than animals. How generous the white man had been, to bring them to a Christian land and teach them civilization!

When you grasp even that much about the black experience in America, you understand the job black pride needed (and still needs) to do: On the one hand, it needed to celebrate the polyglot culture the slaves made for themselves, how it continued after Emancipation, and its contributions to the larger American culture. And on the other, it needed to reach back beyond slavery, and recapture a sense of Africa as a place of origin, with its own history and traditions.

There is no similar task for white pride. I know exactly what part of Europe my ancestors came from, and German ethnicity is there for me whenever I want it. If I eat schnitzel and drink beer during Oktoberfest, no one will condemn me. I could put on lederhosen and dance to an oompah band if that would do something for me. If I want to go deeper, I could read Faust, recite the poetry of Rilke, or attend a Wagner opera.

Similarly, you can celebrate your Irish roots on St. Patrick’s Day, and make something more out of that identity if you need to. If Italians want to congregate on Columbus Day, critics might dispute their choice of hero, but not their right to a holiday. A few miles from my apartment, there’s a Greek festival every year on the day of some saint whose name I can never remember. It’s a good place to get baklava and spanakopita.

The various European identities were never completely erased, and are totally recoverable. In most cases, you can visit the original country, where the original culture may have evolved since your ancestors left, but was never overwritten by colonialism. There is no hole for white pride to fill.

Dark whiteness. But there is a dark place white pride can go to, and in practice it quickly goes there. Whiteness and blackness originate in slavery. So in the same way that black pride focuses on healing the injuries of slavery, white pride can celebrate that enslavement.

Maybe there is no white culture, but there was Confederate culture, the lifestyle of the slave-master. Spend any length of time on a white-pride web site, and you’ll run into the stars-and-bars, and “heroes” like Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Nathan Bedford Forrest. You’ll run into white people whitesplaining that slavery wasn’t really so bad, that the house slaves were practically members of the family, that blacks were better off on the plantations of Charleston than they are in the ghettos of Detroit, and so on.

Strangely, I never hear any black people, no matter how poor they are, waxing nostalgic about the old plantation days — just white people claiming that they should.

Guilt and responsibility. Probably the most persuasive part of the white-grievance argument is that people are trying to make us feel guilty for things we haven’t done. I personally had nothing to do with enslaving the blacks, committing genocide against the Jews of Europe, or stealing the homelands of the Native American tribes. All of that happened long before I was born. So why do liberals want me to feel guilty about it?

a white who takes pride in his ancestors’ accomplishments is evil, but a white who refuses to accept guilt for his ancestors’ sins is also evil.

This objection is based on a gross (and I think intentional) misreading of the liberal position on race.

Guilt is personal, not collective; if you didn’t do it, you shouldn’t feel guilty about it. But responsibility for making the world more just is collective.

Blacks were brought to America by force. They had their ethnic identities stripped away by force. Their labor built a great deal of this country and its wealth, both during slavery and during the times that followed when they were an exploited underclass. In exchange, they received very little of that wealth. Today, many continue to live as an underclass, with slim opportunities to make a better life.

I didn’t do that to them. No living white individual did. But American society as a whole — all of it, not just the white part — bears a responsibility to correct that injustice, or at least to stop perpetuating it.

How to do that, what would be fair, and what stands a chance of working — those are all open questions. Many legitimate points of view are possible. What is not legitimate, and what individual whites ought to feel guilty about, is taking a sucks-to-be-them attitude and sloughing off responsibility entirely. That’s not just something our collective ancestors did long ago. That is something we might be doing as individuals right now.

So what are we being asked to do? Not to feel guilty, but to open our eyes and stop rationalizing that American society is already just and everybody is exactly where they deserve to be. To recognize the ways that the game has been rigged in our favor. And to participate — fully, intelligently, responsibly — in figuring out and implementing plans to achieve a more just society.

Personally, I find that a project that I — as an American, a German-American, a participant in Western culture, and yes, even as a white — can take pride in.

The Asterisk* in the Bill of Rights

*except when black


The big debate in the Keith Lamont Scott shooting — the one that started the protests that have been going on in Charlotte since Tuesday — is whether or not Scott had a gun, and if so, whether it was in his hand. The police said he did and it was, though for days they refused to release video of the incident. [1]

The Scott shooting came a few days after police in Tulsa shot and killed another black man, Terrence Crutcher. But the Tulsa case was manslaughter, and a police officer has been charged, largely because Crutcher was unarmed. Even there, though, weaponry is an issue. (The officer claims Crutcher was reaching into his vehicle, and she feared he was reaching for a gun. But the video doesn’t corroborate that story.) Apparently she believed that if he might have been armed, shooting him dead would be an appropriate outcome.

Back in July another black man, Philandro Castile, was shot dead by a police officer during a traffic stop. Castile told the officer there was a gun in the car, which he had a permit to carry. His girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter were also in the car. The girlfriend claims Castile was reaching for his wallet when the officer shot him four times. So far, there have been no charges.

The NRA, an organization that exists to defend the rights of gun-owners, decided not to comment on the Castile shooting “while the investigation is ongoing”. My Google search for “NRA statement on Keith Lamont Scott” turned up nothing relevant, even though for days the only reason police gave for initiating the encounter was their belief that Scott was armed. (More recently, they elaborated that they also observed him rolling a cigarette which they believed to be marijuana.) North Carolina is an open-carry state, so having a firearm is not in itself a violation. [2]

So if you’re an organization working to make sure the government doesn’t hassle gun-owners exercising their Second Amendment rights, the initially available information in the Scott case would seem to be right up your alley.

Except that Scott is black. The NRA doesn’t do black. I mean, they will gladly let you join and accept your membership fees if you’re black, but don’t count on them to defend your Second Amendment rights. Because, well, what Second Amendment rights? There’s an asterisk on the Second Amendment. The Washington Post‘s Eugene Robinson reviews the facts of the Scott and Castile cases [3] and draws the obvious conclusion: “laws permitting people to carry handguns apparently do not apply to African Americans.”

If all they saw was a man with a gun who got out of a car and back in, what illegal activity did they observe? Why did they “approach the subject” instead of going about their business? Did they have any reason to suspect it was an illegal gun? Are all men carrying guns believed to be carrying guns illegally, or just black men? [4]

Cenk Uygar of The Young Turks noticed something similar, and brings up two other cases: Tamir Rice in Cleveland, the 12-year-old who was killed within seconds of police arriving despite the fact that his “gun” was a toy, and John Crawford III, who police killed in a Walmart near Dayton, because he also was carrying a toy gun which he apparently planned to buy. Like Rice, Crawford was shot within seconds after police arrived. Apparently, blacks with guns are so dangerous that police can’t be bothered to see whether they will drop them, or even to discover whether the guns are real at all.

That police behavior may be questionable, but it’s not obviously racist; maybe they’d be just as trigger-happy towards whites. But Uygar then shows three videos of cops patiently having conversations with uncooperative armed white men, none of whom wind up dead. In the last one, the man verbally abuses three policemen until they back away and leave him with his weapon. Uygar comments:

Yeah, that happens to black guys all the time in this country. Where they laugh at cops in their face and say, “See ya, tough guy. Walk away.” And the cops go, “OK, yes sir. You’re right, sir. You have constitutional rights, sir. Of course I’ll walk away.” … That happens all the time. No one, no one, I don’t care how right-wing you are, you don’t believe that. You know what they would have done if he was black.

Not that those uncooperative armed white men should be dead, but it shows that when white lives are at stake, police can be patient, carefully establish what is going on, and attempt to deescalate the confrontation. In one of Uygar’s examples, a clearly irrational white man goes to his car, gets his gun, and begins waving it in all directions, including pointing it at police. They attempt to talk to him, and when that doesn’t work, they fire one shot into his leg to drop him, rather than the 16 shots fired into Laquan McDonald in 15 seconds. He lives.

That’s why the movement is called Black Lives Matter. That guy’s life mattered to those cops. They didn’t want to end his life. They were careful with it. So we’re asking you to also be careful with black lives just as much.

The Second Amendment isn’t the only one with an asterisk: The Fourth Amendment has one too. [5] Without the asterisk, it reads like this:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

So when they talk about “probable cause” on NCIS, that’s not just some criminal-coddling nonsense made up by an activist liberal judge; it’s right there in the effing Constitution. The Constitution guarantees your right to be secure in your person, unless police have probable cause to believe you are involved in a crime.

Or unless you’re black.

Politico reports:

In a pre-taped interview on Fox News scheduled to air Wednesday night, Trump was asked by an audience member what he would do to address “violence in the black community” and “black-on-black crime.” Trump responded by proposing that “stop-and-frisk” policing, in which an officer is empowered to stop an individual and frisk them for weapons or any other illegal contraband, be adopted nationwide.

If a weapon is found, it is confiscated. The next day Trump clarified, saying that he only meant Chicago.

I think Chicago needs stop-and-frisk,” Trump said. “Now, people can criticize me for that or people can say whatever they want, but they asked me about Chicago, and I think stop-and-frisk, with good, strong, you know, good, strong law and order. But you have to do something. It can’t continue the way it’s going.”

Trump says nothing specific about race, but does anyone really believe that he wants police to stand outside of Water Tower Place and frisk upscale white shoppers for weapons? Will they cruise the Magnificent Mile during lunch hour, stopping white lawyers and bankers at random to see if they have any cocaine? (Sometimes they do.) Of course not. What will substitute for “probable cause” is that you are a young black man [6] wandering around in a poor, majority-black neighborhood.

You still might claim that the bias here is related to class, not race. But seriously, can you picture police cruising the trailer parks of Louisiana, frisking white good old boys and confiscating guns from Duck Dynasty types? Could that ever happen?

Of course not. The NRA would throw a fit.


[1] Saturday they finally did. The New York Times assessment: “It appeared from the two angles that he had nothing in his right hand. It was unclear what, if anything, Mr. Scott, who was right-handed, had in his left hand.” In the video, you can hear police repeatedly telling Scott to drop the gun. But in another video, you can hear Scott’s wife protesting that he didn’t have a weapon.

[2] It turns out that Scott didn’t have a right to carry a firearm, since he had a gun-related prior offense. But it’s almost certain police didn’t know that when they approached him.

[3] As they were known on Thursday, before the marijuana claim about Scott.

[4] Robinson’s conclusion is less compelling if the marijuana claim is true. But even then, we’re left with the question: What public danger required escalating the encounter to the point of death?

[5] If I wanted to expand the scope of this article, we could also talk about the “except when Muslim” asterisk on the First Amendment. Americans have a right to practice their religion, except when they want to build a mosque somewhere and Christians object. And the whole gay-marriage issue revolved around the “except when gay” asterisk on the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

[6] In the New York City example Trump cited, Latinos were also disproportionately targeted.

What Should “Racism” Mean? Part II.

Republican leaders are disturbed by Trump’s racist comments. But two-thirds of Republican voters don’t think they’re racist at all.


In a week that saw Hillary Clinton became the first woman ever to clinch a major-party nomination, probably more news-network air time got devoted to the effort of Republican leaders to distance themselves from Donald Trump. In the wake of his long series of attacks against the “Mexican” judge overseeing one of the Trump University fraud lawsuits, the word racist came up a lot, and few elected Republicans seemed willing to defend Trump from the charge that it applied to him.

Speaker Paul Ryan described a Trump statement as “the textbook definition of a racist comment.” Republican Senator Mark Kirk withdrew his endorsement of Trump, saying that in view of his recent statements “I cannot and will not support my party’s nominee for president”. Maine’s Senator Susan Collins refused to rule out voting for Clinton. Former senatorial candidate (and major Republican donor) Meg Whitman compared Trump to Hitler and Mussolini. And on and on. The most blistering attack of all came from the previous Republican nominee, Mitt Romney:

I don’t want to see trickle-down racism. I don’t want to see a president of the United States saying things which change the character of the generations of Americans that are following. Presidents have an impact on the nature of our nation, and trickle-down racism, trickle-down bigotry, trickle-down misogyny, all these things are extraordinarily dangerous to the heart and character of America. [1]

But if the primaries proved anything, it’s that the GOP’s leadership is out of tune with its voters, especially compared to Trump. So when YouGov asked whether Trump’s comments were racist, only 22% of Republicans were reading from Paul Ryan’s textbook, while almost 2/3rds said the comments weren’t racist. By a narrower 43%-39% margin, Republicans said that Trump was right to make those comments. [2]

What could they possibly be thinking?

Trump’s own explanation was far from convincing. In a prepared statement, he argued that his comments had been “misconstrued as a categorical attack against people of Mexican heritage” when actually they were just targeted at Judge Curiel, who apparently had it coming because he didn’t dismiss the Trump U lawsuit.

To me, that’s like yelling “Nigger!” at a black driver who cuts you off in traffic, and then feeling misunderstood when the blacks in your carpool take offense. You didn’t launch a categorical attack on all blacks, you just used a racial insult against one guy who had it coming because he was in your way. Why can’t they see the difference?

I got a better clue from listening to Bill O’Reilly. Wednesday night, Bill challenged Congressman Bill Flores about the Texas Republican’s use of racist.

Do you believe that Donald Trump gets up in the morning and says, “You know what? I don’t like Mexicans, I’m going to go out and try to make them look bad.”? Do you believe that? … Don’t you think it was more about Trump being angry with the judge’s decision in a civil litigation rather than the judge’s ethnicity? … OK, I get your point, but I think you understand mine as well. That you don’t use the R-word unless you are [talking about] David Duke, unless you have got a history of trying to denigrate minorities or other people.

Trump isn’t ex-KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, so he’s not a racist. Even labeling specific quotes as racist (which is all Paul Ryan did; he didn’t call Trump a racist) is apparent going too far. The most O’Reilly would say was that they were “unwise”.

And now we’re back on a topic I covered two years ago in “What Should Racism Mean?“. At that time I reviewed a long list of pseudo-scandals that President Obama had started … by doing things that previous presidents had done without upsetting anybody: put his feet on a White House desk, let a Marine hold his umbrella, send secular Christmas cards, and so on. Similarly, the luxurious White House lifestyle — unchanged from previous administrations — suddenly began inspiring outrage when a black family moved in.

So I raised the question: Is that racist? And I allowed for the possibility that some might not want to call it that.

I sympathize with people who want to reserve racism for Adolf Hitler ordering the Final Solution to the Jewish problem or George Wallace standing in the door to block black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama. The men who lynched Emmett Till or the grand jury that refused to indict them — those people were racists. I get that it doesn’t seem right to put them in the same category with the people who only just realized in 2009 that life in the White House is pretty sweet.

But a problem comes up: If you want to construe racist and racism very narrowly, then what words do you use for people who (for some reason other than conscious willful hatred) just can’t look at a black president or his family the same way they have always looked at white presidents and their families? It’s a thing; it really happens, and it has important political consequences. What do you call it?

The Trump/Curiel situation is similar. Trump is doing something morally objectionable here. He is taking advantage of his fans’ willingness to believe bad things about Mexican-Americans on flimsy or no evidence (just as, when he was pushing Birtherism, he was taking advantage of their willingness to believe bad things about a black president on flimsy or no evidence), in order to either put pressure on a federal judge or explain away why so many people are suing him for fraud.

In other words, once again he is looking at the public’s racial prejudices and saying, “I can make this work for me.” That doesn’t make him Hitler or David Duke, but it’s a despicable act that needs a name. What is it? O’Reilly’s suggestion of unwise doesn’t fill the bill, because there’s no moral component to unwise. Spending $35,000 on a Trump University course is unwise; Trump’s repeated and calculated abuse of Judge Curiel is something altogether different.

And if you are inside the conservative bubble, that “something” has no name. The word that the rest of the country uses — racism — has been declared off-limits and not replaced. And now that there is no way to talk about Trump’s offense, it doesn’t exist. Whatever is wrong with Trump’s statements can no longer be put into words, so they aren’t wrong — at least not to a plurality of Republicans.

George Orwell had this all figured out in the mid-20th century. As he wrote in “The Principles of Newspeak“:

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of IngSoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meaning whatever. [my italics]

In today’s Newspeak, as spoken by devotees of AmCon, racism has been stripped of all meanings beyond getting up in the morning and saying “I don’t like Mexicans, I’m going to go out and try to make them look bad.” It applies to active white supremacists like David Duke, and no one else.

But if treating a black First Family differently from all white First Families isn’t racism, what is it? If citing a judge’s ethnicity as evidence of his unfitness isn’t racism, what is it?

Unless they’re trying to restrict the language to make these issues “literally unthinkable”, American conservatives owe us some new terminology.


[1] To flesh out what Romney might mean by “trickle-down racism”, look at this report from the Southern Poverty Law Center about how the bigotry in our presidential campaign is showing up in our schools and on our playgrounds.

[2] Among all voters, a 57%-20% majority said Trump was wrong, and a 51%-32% majority said the comments were racist. For some reason YouGov’s headline characterizes that majority as “thin”, but it really isn’t.

Why You Should Care about Felon Voting Rights

Something important happened in Virginia this week: Governor Terry McAuliffe restored voting rights to Virginia felons who have served their time and completed the subsequent probations. In the age of mass incarceration, that’s a lot of people: more than 200,000 in Virginia alone. Nationally, an estimated 5.85 million people have lost their voting rights because of felony convictions. That’s bigger than the winning margin in every recent presidential election other than 2008.

But the question that probably leaps to mind is: Why would changing that be a good thing? The class of felons includes a lot of bad people, so why do we want more bad people picking our leaders? But felon voting rights are important for both micro and macro reasons.

The individual ex-con. The micro-level reason is that we want an ex-con to have a path back into normal life. (John Oliver did a great segment on this a few months ago. The ex-con’s difficulty re-entering society also made it into pop culture through the recent hit movie Ant-Man.) The old-fashioned notion was that by the time a prisoner got released, he had “paid his debt to society” and everything was square now. But in reality, many ex-cons can only hope for a second-class citizenship, which permanent disenfranchisement symbolizes. And if you can never hope for a normal life, returning to crime becomes more tempting.

Decades ago, you might start over by taking the Jean Valjean approach: Move far away and keep quiet about your criminal history. But in this era of universal databases, the relentless Inspector Javert has been automated: Your past is bound to catch up with you.

Large-scale voter suppression. The macro-level reason is that our criminal justice system is biased, so disenfranchising felons is a way to diminish the voting power of blacks, the poor, and other over-policed segments of society.

The racial difference might be defended if it were solely the result of blacks committing more crimes than whites, but that’s far from the whole story. An ACLU report says:

[R]acial disparities result from disparate treatment of Blacks at every stage of the criminal justice system, including stops and searches, arrests, prosecutions and plea negotiations, trials, and sentencing. Race matters at all phases and aspects of the criminal process, including the quality of representation, the charging phase, and the availability of plea agreements, each of which impact whether juvenile and adult defendants face a potential [life without parole] sentence. In addition, racial disparities in sentencing can result from theoretically “race neutral” sentencing policies that have significant disparate racial effects, particularly in the cases of habitual offender laws and many drug policies, including mandatory minimums, school zone drug enhancements, and federal policies adopted by Congress in 1986 and 1996 that at the time established a 100-to-one sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses.

Racial disparities in sentencing also result in part from prosecutors’ decisions at the initial charging stage, suggesting that racial bias affects the exercise of prosecutorial discretion with respect to certain crimes. One study found that Black defendants face significantly more severe charges than whites, even after controlling for characteristics of the offense, criminal history, defense counsel type, age and education of the offender, and crime rates and economic characteristics of the jurisdiction.

Governor McAuliffe invoked the racial issue by comparing felon disenfranchisement to the poll tax, but I think a better comparison is to another Jim Crow relic: literacy tests. The literacy test had a similarly virtuous rationale: Do you want illiterate people picking our leaders? But it was applied in biased ways, and combined with other systemic discrimination (i.e., separate-and-unequal school systems) to keep blacks from voting.

Partisan politics. As so often happens these days, what ought to be a simple good-government argument has gotten swamped by partisan power politics. Blacks overwhelmingly vote Democratic, so Republicans are against anything that enfranchises more of them. (This has the cycle-completing effect of motivating more blacks to vote Democratic.) And so, Kentucky’s Democratic Governor Steven Beshear issued a similar order as he was leaving office, but the incoming Republican Governor Matt Bevin rescinded it before it could take effect. Felon disenfranchisement effects about 1 in 19 Kentuckians, but 1 in 6 blacks.

As Mike Dukakis learned when he became the Willie Horton candidate in 1988, felons (especially black ones) make for bad political optics. And that puts governors on the horns of a dilemma: Like Gov. Besmear, they can wait until they’re leaving office to restore voting rights, when critics can claim that they didn’t dare do it until they were slinking out the door. Or, like Gov. McAuliffe, they can restore rights earlier in their terms, and face the criticism that they are trying to remake their own electorate.

Optics or partisanship aside, though, it’s the right thing to do. We’ll have a hard time tackling the racial biases in our justice system as long as they continue to give one side an advantage on election day.

My Racial Blind Spots

What if I had to answer that debate question?


“What racial blind spots do you have?” CNN’s Don Lemon asked Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

Their answers weren’t all that impressive, and I suppose I shouldn’t have expected them to be. After all, the question resembles the standard “What is your biggest weakness?” challenge that job interviewers have been throwing at applicants forever, usually with disappointing results.

Probably nobody’s answer to Lemon’s question would be 100% accurate, because your biggest blind spots are always the ones you aren’t aware of, what Donald Rumsfeld used to call the “unknown unknowns“. If you can describe a blind spot, you’ve already taken a step towards filling it in.

So while it would be easy to stand in judgment over Bernie and Hillary’s answers, the more interesting question is: How would I answer Don Lemon? What are my racial blind spots?

Blind spots come mainly from the holes in a person’s experience, and I certainly have some. As a white person, I have been in the racial majority almost everywhere I’ve gone. I grew up in a mostly white neighborhood, went to mostly white schools, and earned my living in mostly white workplaces. In stores I (mostly) stand in line with other whites. If I find myself sitting next to a stranger at a bar, it’s usually another white. On TV dramas, I mostly watch white people deal with the problems of other white people. And on TV news shows — Don Lemon notwithstanding — I mostly watch whites interview other whites.

Being white may not be mandatory in my world, but it is normal.

I understand that not every white person’s experience is that limited. You might have been the one white guy on your high school basketball team, or the lone white waitress at a Mexican restaurant, or something like that. But I never was.

And that (lack of) experience gave me this blind spot: Thinking about race seems optional to me.

It’s not that I don’t think about race, or about the ways that non-whites’ lives are different from mine. Those sorts of issues come up all the time on this blog. I’ve written about how the Obamas’ experience in the White House has been different than other First Families. I’ve researched the racial history that my formal education swept under the rug. I wrote about Trayvon Martin and Ferguson. I’ve explained what dog whistles are, and how to notice them.

But I think about that stuff when I choose to. I have, for example, read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. And while I was reading, I thought a lot about growing up black in the Jim Crow South. But as soon as I put that book down, Angelou’s reality vanished for me as completely as Westeros does when a Game of Thrones episode ends.

And so, I have a hard time grasping that thinking about race isn’t optional for American blacks. To be black in America is to be constantly aware that many of the people around you are white, and that they might at any moment start reacting strangely to your blackness.

I just finished reading Democracy in Black by Eddie Glaude Jr. Mostly it’s a book about politics written by a Princeton professor. But a few personal stories sneak in. At one point in his childhood, Glaude’s family moved from the black part of their small Mississippi town to the “good” part, a section occupied by whites and a few upwardly mobile black families. On his first day in the new neighborhood, Glaude and another boy were playing in the dirt with their toy trucks, until the boy’s father came out and yelled at his son: “Get over here. Stop playing with that nigger.”

Another story concerned Glaude’s son Langston, who he sent to Brown. Langston’s urban studies class was assigned to visit a rich Providence neighborhood and make various observations. But in a wealthy neighborhood, a young black man sitting on a park bench with a notebook draws police attention, and being an Ivy League student or the son of an Ivy League professor is no excuse. With a hand on a weapon, a policeman intimidated Langston until he voluntarily left.

You can listen to stories like that (which nearly all blacks seem to have) and think: “Those are just isolated incidents. I’ll bet that doesn’t happen very often.” But how often would it have to happen before you came to the conclusion that you had to be on your guard all the time?

Blacks can never “check out” of race. They can’t say, “Today I’m just going to be a human being and forget about being black.”

But I can forget about race whenever I want, and so sometimes it seems strange to me that they don’t. “I don’t see race,” a lot of whites say, and I know what they mean: Of course I notice that the new guy at work is black, but it’s not a thing. I’m not going to go all In the Heat of the Night on him and act like black people shouldn’t have these sorts of jobs. I’m not going to harass him or insult him or treat him badly in any conscious way. If somebody makes it a thing, it’s not going to be me.

Because that’s how my blind spot tempts me to think about race: It’s optional. I can choose not to think about being white and he can choose not to think about being black, and then there won’t be any race problem.

But the new guy can’t just stop thinking about being black, any more than I could stop thinking about being white if somebody dropped me into the middle of Africa. What’s more, he shouldn’t, for the sake of his own safety. What if, when the policeman put his hand on his gun, Langston Gaude hadn’t thought about being black, and instead had thought about being an American citizen in a place where he had every right to be? Might he not have become the next Eric Garner or John Crawford?

That’s what “the talk” is about: Making sure that when the police show up, your black son will never forget that he’s black.

If you’re black in America, you never know when your blackness is going to become an issue. And if it is becoming an issue, you’d better not be slow to catch on, because you’ll need to implement some strategy — challenge, retreat, deflect, avoid — before things get out of hand.

Of course, race wouldn’t seem optional to me if I didn’t also have a second blind spot: a belief that unconscious racism doesn’t count. If I’m not trying to be a racist, well, that should be good enough. So of course it would be wrong for me to say (or even to think) “I don’t want to hire that guy because he’s black.” But if I just have a bad feeling about him, while one of his white competitors impresses me for no quantifiable reason — what’s wrong with that? Don’t I have a right to have hunches about people?

Sure I do. But before I act on those hunches, I ought to take into account the ways my thinking and feeling have been shaped by the cultural stereotypes built up over centuries. Even today, being black in America is like playing golf on a course that is more sandtrap than fairway. Getting to the green isn’t impossible, but just about anything blacks do exposes them to negative judgment, because there’s a very narrow path between lazy and pushy, between too sloppy and too flashy, between looking stupid and being a know-it-all, between refusing to stand up for yourself and being scary. That cellphone he’s taking out of his pocket looks like a gun because … well, it just does. And when Barack Obama acts like he’s President of the United States, it looks uppity. Who does he think he is?

We may not call people niggers any more, but the stereotypes that were designed to keep niggers in their place are still with us.

But if unconscious racism is something I have to take into account, then I have to think about race all the time. And that’s another thing to project onto blacks and resent: Why do they make everything about race? Why can’t we just be people together?

There’s an answer to that, but I hate to hear it: One big reason we can’t just be people together is that I don’t know how. I know how to pretend that I’m doing it. I know how to act as if I didn’t notice race. I know enough not to use certain words or tell certain kinds of jokes. I think I know how to get past my unconscious racism with individual people, eventually, once I get to know them. (But whether that’s true or not, you’d have to ask them.)

But I don’t know how to be people together with everyone, regardless of race. All I know is how not to notice when I’m failing. I can just take all that evidence and shove it into a blind spot.

Back to Ferguson

If Ferguson can’t justify its behavior, but can avoid change by pleading poverty, then what do we say to the guy who can’t figure out how to support his family without dealing drugs or robbing liquor stores?


In the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death in August 2014, the eyes of the country were on Ferguson, a city of 21,000 that is part of the St. Louis metropolitan area. Through the subsequent fall and winter, I discussed Ferguson several times on this blog, including “What your Fox-watching uncle doesn’t get about Ferguson” about the protests, and “Justice in Ferguson“, which covered the two reports the Justice Department issued last March.

The gist of what the Justice Department found was that in the specific case of Michael Brown, the evidence matched the account of the shooter, a white police officer, well enough that no charges were called for. (I felt good about my coverage here: I hadn’t claimed the officer was guilty of murder, but only that local authorities hadn’t performed a fair and credible investigation. The Justice Department’s investigation satisfied me.)

But Justice Department found that the more general complaints of Ferguson’s black community were justified: Policing in general was racially biased, and excessive force was commonly used, including inappropriate use of tasers and dogs. Complaints of excessive force were largely ignored, and officers were not disciplined. (As the Justice Department’s lawsuit — which we’ll get to in a few paragraphs — charges: “The supervisory review typically starts and ends with the presumption that the officer’s version of events is truthful and that the force was reasonable.”)

The Department’s report found that the root of the problem was even bigger than the police: Ferguson used its municipal court system to wring revenue out of the poor, creating an adversarial relationship between the police and the community. In short, the primary mission of the police was not to maintain order, but to find violations for which people could be fined. The city budget called for and depended on regular increases in revenue from fines.

Last month, Ferguson and the Justice Department worked out an agreement to reform Ferguson’s police and court practices without taking a lawsuit through the courts. But Tuesday, Ferguson’s City Council unanimously “approved” that agreement with seven unilateral amendments.

Those seven conditions on acceptance are that (i) the agreement contain no mandate for the payment of additional salary to police department or other city employees; (ii) the agreement contain no mandate for staffing in the Ferguson Jail; (iii) deadlines set forth in the agreement are extended; and (iv) the terms of the agreement shall not apply to other governmental entities or agencies who, in the future, take over services or operations currently being provided by the City of Ferguson; (v) a provision for local preference in contracting with consultants, contractors and third parties providing services under the agreement shall be included; (vi) project goals for minority and women participation in consulting, oversight and third party services shall be included; and (vii) the monitoring fee caps in the Side Agreement are changed to $1 million over the first five years with no more than $250,000 in any single year.

The arguments for these changes amount to: We can’t afford it. Ferguson can’t afford to raise police pay to attract better officers, particularly if the other reforms are going to reduce the city’s revenue. It can’t afford to monitor compliance with the agreement. It can’t afford to change as quickly as the Justice Department would like (and maybe stalling will allow it to strike a better deal with a Trump or Cruz administration). Revision (iv) gives the city an additional card to play: It could nullify the agreement by disbanding its police department and contracting out to some neighboring town or to St. Louis County. (Other nearby towns — a report by Arch City Defenders named Bel Ridge and Florissant in addition to Ferguson — also misuse their municipal court systems, and probably don’t like the precedent the Justice Department is setting in Ferguson. )

The Justice Department responded the next day by filing a lawsuit in federal court. The suit does not ask for specific remedies, but that the Court “Order the Defendant, its officers, agents, and employees to adopt and implement policies, procedures, and mechanisms that identify, correct, and prevent the unlawful conduct”. Presumably, the government has a court order in mind and thinks it has a good chance of getting it.

It’s possible to tell this story in a way that creates sympathy for Ferguson’s officials: Even if they now have the best of intentions, their budget is already in deficit, and that deficit will only get worse if the police and courts stop shaking down poor blacks for money. And if change also requires additional expenditure … well, where is that money going to come from?

On an abstract level, Ferguson raises issues similar to the ones in Flint: Once we segregate poor people into their own city or town, how does that municipality raise enough money to provide the basic services civilization demands? Where does the money come from to pump in clean water and truck out garbage? How are roads paved and buses run, so that people can get to their jobs? Who puts out fires? Who drives the ambulances and where do they take people for care? Who educates children and protects the innocent from crime?

If no external help is available, the answer is often to victimize the poor and voiceless. If somebody has to suffer, why not somebody the larger public doesn’t care about?

But we need to recognize where this financial-necessity logic leads: If Ferguson can’t justify its behavior, but can avoid change by pleading poverty, then what do we say to the guy who can’t figure out how to support his family without dealing drugs or robbing liquor stores?

The Justice Department may have no practical answer to the question of how Ferguson can afford to start policing its citizens fairly, with due regard to their rights as Americans. But nonetheless it must insist that the buck not stop there. If a Ferguson that respects the rights of its citizens is not financially viable and is doomed to bankruptcy, then the county and the state and even the nation have a problem. In truth, that problem already exists. The question is whether the rest of us will be allowed to hide it inside the borders of Ferguson and then look away.

Themes of 2015: Black Lives Matter

The third theme running through 2015’s Sifts has been Black Lives Matter. All year in the weekly summaries, I called attention to whatever the latest case was of unwarranted police violence caught on tape, from Walter Scott to Laquan McDonald.

In March, the Justice Department ripped the veil off the predatory police-and-municipal-court system in Ferguson, and the racist policing that enforced it.

[T]he City of Ferguson relies on fines for a major portion of its revenue. It regularly budgets for fines to increase, and it pressures the police department to meet its budget goals by finding more offenses it can cite citizens for. Its municipal court is an opaque, inflexible system that is hard to navigate, particularly if you are poor and/or lack transportation.

As a result, a minor initial offense can snowball into an endless and expensive series of interactions if a citizen fails to appear in court when expected (whether notification of a court date has been received or not) or fails to pay the full fine assessed (regardless of the citizen’s ability to pay).

In short, the Ferguson justice system is predatory and the citizens are the prey.

The counter-attack from the Right was that BLM is anti-police, or even promotes violence against police. I tried to answer that in “Rich Lowry’s False Choice“. (The choice was between the bad racist policing so many black communities see now, and no policing at all.) I drew the implicit conclusion from Lowry’s BLM-slandering article:

So that’s your choice, black America: Live in completely lawless communities, or STFU whenever police kill young blacks they already have subdued, or shoot down young blacks who are doing nothing wrong. You can have police who continue misbehaving the way they have been, or no police at all. There is no third alternative.

A second objection came from people who claimed to sympathize with BLM’s issues, but found BLM tactics unnecessarily rude, as when two young black women shut down a Bernie Sanders speech in Seattle in August. In “Why BLM Protesters Can’t Behave“, I raised the question “What if you must be heard, but no one listens to your polite voice?” and quoted an activist:

I’ll tell you why. It’s because nobody listens to black people until we fuck their shit up. That’s what works. And we are trying to survive, so that’s what we do.

In “Protesting in Your Dreams” I called out Ben Carson, and all the other people who somehow blame BLM for the non-existence of the protest movement they’d prefer to see, but who don’t lift a finger to start that “better” movement.

But what if your purpose is to support the status quo, and maybe to gain the gratitude of the Powers That Be by helping derail and delegitimize the only effective action that’s currently happening? Then you should do what Ben Carson is doing: Fantasize about protest movements that could be happening, but aren’t.

Because that’s one thing the Powers That Be can always count on: Fantasy protests never change anything.

And finally, in “Samaritan Lives Matter“, I answered the “all lives matter” point, using a frame that Christian social conservatives should be able to understand.

The point, I believe, of making the third man [in the Good Samaritan parable] a Samaritan rather than a generic human, is precisely that saying “A Samaritan is my neighbor” would stick in a Judean’s throat, while “Anybody can be my neighbor” probably wouldn’t. “Anybody can be my neighbor” is an abstract feel-good idea a Judean could hold in his head without raising any of his specific prejudices.

The same thing is going on with “Black Lives Matter”. It isn’t meant to say “Black lives matter more than white lives” any more than Jesus was trying to say that Samaritans are better than Judeans. The point of saying “Black lives matter” is that it sticks in the throat of a lot of white Americans. By contrast, “Lives matter” and “All lives matter” are nice, feel-good abstractions. When we say them, we can think about generic people — who we probably picture as white.