Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Direct Answers to Direct Questions

Chuck Dunning posted this to his Facebook page:

These are good questions, and I welcome the opportunity to respond. Of course, I speak only for myself and whosoever chooses to identify themselves as agreeing. And please understand that I'm not trying to shout you down or "refute" the questions... but you did ask.

So here are some direct answers, respectfully given to these good questions:


When you say "Black Lives Matter", I actually don't think you mean they matter more than others, not in the slightest... until and unless you shout down anyone who says "All Lives Matter". It's the shouting down that has created the misunderstanding by communicating that this is intended to mean that Black lives actually do mean more. 

If you really mean to say that they mean no less than others, you should try to be more understanding of those who express the very same message in a less confusing way. And if someone says "Hispanic Lives Matter", or "Asian Lives Matter", etc. then that should be OK, too, because you know what...? They do. 

Members of the Guiding Light Church of Birmingham, AL
Singing All Lives Matter.

I have little advice for the person using "All Lives Matter" other than they do it with respect, without stepping on somebody else's message, so it doesn't look like they're "correcting". But if they're using it in their own context, then they're perfectly fine, because it's not your message, it's theirs. They deserve respect, too.

And that's all that really needs to be done about that particular misunderstanding: just tolerate that not only do other lives matter, too, but that it's not wrong to say it.  AND, that they actually agree with you that Black lives matter! And if someone does defend himself against being dismissed for simply saying the truth, "All Lives Matter", then try to understand that the defense is not intended for you, but for the misguided critic who is using "Black Lives Matter" in a way that you are not. 

And in all of these topics, please remind yourself, just as I have to remind myself, that when someone reflexively answers defensively, they may not be responding directly to what you just said. These same topics of conversation come up often, and based on those previous conversations they may be anticipating a line of argument that you weren't going to offer.


I know White privilege is real. I'm going to spare you my life's story because it doesn't matter, except for this little bit, which does: my school's demographics. Today, W.J. Keenan is 96.6% Black. When I attended it wasn't that, for sure... we had some White students, but it was still overwhelmingly Black. At least three quarters, and I'm being conservative. This included some very accomplished people in my homeroom alone[1]. I was very often the only White kid in a class, and usually the only White kid in the locker room. Actually, this was pretty ironic, because my father was Native American and my mother was Jewish. But I look White, so as far as anybody's concerned I'm White. These are the sort of demographics commonplace among Blacks elsewhere in the country, with the colors reversed, Now these were High School demographics, but they were the same kids that I followed from grade school to middle school and on to graduation. This was my environment for twelve of the most formative years of my life. These were my friends. 

Most of my teachers were Black, too. And I saw in my school a far greater diversity among Black people than I have since learned that most White people expect. For instance, I know that Blacks are liberal and conservative on a broad spectrum. My friends liked Country and Rock and Funk. And Blacks are very conscious of skin color among Blacks. These friends and teachers, diverse and interesting people, never once used the phrase "White Privilege" because nobody had invented it. Nevertheless, I did, to some extent, feel it.

For instance, my stepfather was a bigot (and I'll save that talk for another time... it could take all day). And I was bussed to school, so my neighbors were White, although they were mostly old, too. And I never once was surprised when I turned on the television to see someone who looked like me. I was surprised now and again to walk into a classroom and see someone there who looked like me. I was undeniably in the minority there. So although I can't precisely share Whoopi Goldberg's delight at seeing Uhura in Star Trek, I can comprehend it. And I haven't to my knowledge been turned down for a job because of my skin color, but I have been turned down for everything else, so while I can't share that experience, I can comprehend it.

I can actually feel White Privilege when I'm in an unfamiliar White neighborhood and feel safer than in an unfamiliar Black neighborhood. I used to think that this feeling was racist until a Black friend I was with told me she felt safer in a White neighborhood, too. Turns out, fearing for your safety isn't racist, it's survival, and most Whites start off with the privilege of not living in constant fear. They have a hard time when placed in an environment that looks kind of like that to them, and they over-react. And you see that reaction and you say, "Hey, that's racist," except it's not. Racism is hate. This is fear. And getting up in their face isn't going to make it better. Fear is based in ignorance, and that's handled by the very thing you're looking for... better communication. The easiest way to create a racist is to justify someone's fear.

And I know that many of people feel that there can be no such thing as a Black racist, but we both know that there are many Blacks who are fearful of Whites, and just as many Whites who have justified those fears. I don't care what you want to call it. Call it whatever you like, it's still a rose. Some of those Black fears are justified through White privilege, and I started to list a bunch of ways that White Privilege is felt, and how I've felt it personally, but really, you already know them, so that's unnecessary.

Now, you asked where the misunderstanding is coming from. It's not really the fact of White privilege. There are people who deny it exists, and there are plenty of White people who will set them straight. And it's not really that difficult to do. Here's a guy who does it right

What some people don't seem to know... or better, what some don't seem to put in practice, is that the genetics of an individual's privilege doesn't say anything about its environment. Many people, though they can't share the Black experience, can leverage their own experiences to comprehend it in principle. And a few comprehend it very well. But you don't know who these people are until you have a deeper conversation, so you can't just diss somebody off the bat because he says, "I know what you're going through."[2]

Of course he doesn't, not exactly. But I can tell you this: having been a poor minority White growing up among Blacks who were often more affluent than I and then having then gone out into the larger world, I have a perspective on White privilege that you probably don't have, and it would probably be informative. And this does not diminish what you say, but enhances it.

The Big Misunderstanding comes from insisting that people who do not share an experience can cannot understand it. They can. And even if they couldn't fully, when someone is trying to comprehend your point of view, it's a poor time to tear them down as though they were incapable of doing so.

For one thing, if that were true, then it would be completely and utterly pointless to bring up the subject at all except as a way of shaming. And since we know that's not what you mean to do, I'd suggest not approaching it in a belligerent or condescending way. Accept that when they say, "I understand", they're at least trying. And if you have to be condescending, then nod your head and smile at the 'idiot'. It'll move the conversation forward, he'll learn as he goes, and soon he won't be an 'idiot'.


While I know that you mean "the understandings" when you ask what to do about "them", I'm going to take a moment to offer at least a suggestion about privilege. It's not big; it doesn't change the world; but I think it can help. you might think it's condescending. That's not my intention. This is a suggestion, take it, leave it, or come back with something better.

First of all, it's by realizing that there are a lot of kinds of privilege, and they all boil down to one basic statement which is this:

"Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity"

People have been saying this to each other for 2,000 years, ever since the Roman, Seneca the Younger, wrote it down. In this sense White males are the luckiest m***f***s in the country, because there are a lot of opportunities for White males, and they happen to be naturally prepared for them. It ain't fair, it's not something they did or earned; but it's there. That is White privilege in a nutshell.

The proper response, I think, is what Mr. Winningham, my high school Chemistry teacher told us. "There are all kinds of opportunities. If they're not right for you, make yourself right for them." Of course, he meant education (teachers always do). But he was right. Hell, even with White privilege (and I'm working in a multinational corporation in IT dominated by Indians, so that's less of a thing than you might expect), I still have to learn several new programming languages every few years to make myself marketable. I still dress up for interviews, and I still act way more polite and formal in those interviews than I will six months into the job.

But if you're socially conscious it also means making opportunities that fit diverse people. This might mean creating minority businesses, but for a member of a minority often it has meant getting the haircut, putting on a suit, putting on or losing an accent, and doing what's necessary to succeed and be in a position to change the landscape. 

And it can mean accepting that sometimes privilege isn't White or Black; it's just opportunity; and being willing to accept it when it's offered; and accepting that someone else can meet opportunity with preparedness without being an "Uncle Tom" or an "Aunt Jemima". I'm not saying that you are saying this: but it does get said. 

None of this, of course, does anything about White privilege. But it could just possibly put someone in a position where White privilege doesn't matter.


On the third item, I don't think we have misunderstanding at all, because I think we DO have a problem with institutionalized racism in our legal system. AND, if I knew someone who thought everyone in our legal system is racist, I'd set him straight quick.

We have many problems with our legal system, but I'm going to limit myself here. A person could write for weeks describing problems with every stage of the system, as you well know. As you didn't list everything you could have, neither will I. Sadly, I won't be as brief, because I want my White friends who read this to understand it completely. Also, I want to make myself understood so that if we do have a misunderstanding, you know where it actually is.

To start with, we incarcerate more of our citizenry than any country in the world. We do so in large part using mandatory sentencing for "victimless crimes", drug charges and the like. One thing you have to understand about me is that I'm a Libertarian, and I'm a big fan of government keeping out of business that the government has no business being in. And just as commerce isn't the Federal government's business unless it crosses State lines, neither Federal nor State law has any business messing with you or me unless we are interacting with someone else. There can be no crime unless someone's rights have been violated... by which I mean that there should be no such thing as a "victimless crime". To my mind, what you think isn't rightly a crime, folks; and what you do is only criminal if it steps on someone else's rights. But we have people in both parties who don't believe that, and as a result, genuine differences of opinion on how to live your life can result in a prison sentence.

I bring this up because most of these convictions are of economically disadvantaged people, and most of them are people of color. Not only should they not have been arrested for their non-crimes; but they should never have been given mandatory sentences that can keep a man in jail for possession longer than for murder. This is institutional, and it could be changed tomorrow if our lawmakers just started repealing bad laws. This isn't about political parties, either. Our Congress has been changing hands back and forth for decades, and they could have done something about this at any time whatsoever. Instead they made it worse.

It is also institutional because the government has an economic interest in jailing people. It's a common myth that the 13th Amendment abolished slavery. It actually left a gigantic exception, and I'll highlight it for you:
Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation
There is a corporation named UNICOR (also known as "Federal Prison Industries" or "FPI") that is wholly owned by the United States Government. It engages in manufacturing of products for sale to the Government and to the general public, and it outsources labor to private companies. UNICOR was created in 1934 to produce goods and services. They claim that "the whole impetus behind UNICOR is not about business, but about inmate release preparation." In practice, they put inmates to work making products that often are made by no one else, and sold to no one else. Because of UNICOR, some prisons are actually profit centers for the government. They cost nothing to run, at least as far as a prison budget, because they get it from sales charged to the Defense budget. Not only that, but the Federal Government is required by law to purchase from UNICOR before seeking bids from private suppliers. And these are products that are made with labor that can cost anywhere from minimum wage down to as little as $0.23 per hour.  Twenty Three Cents.

Does that sound like slave labor yet? 

If you're not pissed off about this, I didn't explain it well enough.

What do you think would happen if three quarters of a million able-bodied prison laborers had their drug charges commuted tomorrow and they were sent home as free men and women? Would our current government even allow it? Perhaps there's a reason that so many people are put in jail for outrageously long sentences. I say that reason is institutional. I say it's the creation of arbitrary laws to lock up otherwise innocent people for profit. I say it's wrong, and that any White man should be as pissed off about it as any Black man.

My intent in choosing this example wasn't to minimize any problem that is uniquely Black, but to point out that some problems that seem uniquely Black, aren't.

Now... you asked what we can do about it. 

About the perceived misunderstanding... continue the conversation, because institutional racism is not only a White vs. Black problem. Starting with areas of common interest offers a wedge by means of which additional issues that are unique to Blacks are made clear.

About the problem itself... I think we can all start by not voting for the same jackasses we've been voting for year after year (and I address this to ALL readers, Black, White, Left, Right, and everybody else). And I'm talking about from County Council to State legislature, to Congress, to President. Everybody in there has had an opportunity to bring this stuff up, and with very few exceptions they've done nothing about it. And I'm not just talking about "legalize drugs"... that's just a tiny part of it. There are so many ways that the government has fucked you over, and me too, and if 40 years of doing the same shit hasn't worked, I think it's probably time to do some different shit.

And here's where I'm going to get chewed out, but I hope you understand that I have to be honest here: while we are addressing causes of actual institutional racism, we can't reflexively label as institutional racism things that are not. 

Why are there more cops and arrests in Black neighborhoods? Because there's more crime. To a certain extent, this is a "no win" for the police. If they patrol Black neighborhoods they're racist and profiling. If they patrol White neighborhoods, they're racist and looking out for the White man. If they don't patrol at all, they're racist and doing nothing. At the end of the day they have to put on their big-boy pants, ignore the criticism, and go where the crime is.

So we need less crime. And that's not an easy thing by any measure. And it's not something that somebody can impose. So I don't have a good answer for that, except to say that whatever the answer is, it will involve the people who live there being front and center. And here I am, some White guy speaking his mind, so what do I know? But I can tell you this: I firmly believe that no matter who you are or where you live, some ways of living are better and some are worse. And crime is worse. I think that Blacks must share that view. So even though we can't get rid of crime tomorrow, we can stop glorifying it today, and that would be a very good step. And people who are violent today because they care can become non-violent today because they care. And that would be a very good step, too.

And yes, we need to get rid of cops who abuse their authority, and those that commit crimes when they do it shouldn't be immune, they should be jailed. And yes, "Driving While Black" is a real thing, so we need to stop unfounded profiling. And yes, we need to make sure that people of all races (and that means all!) receive similar, fair penalties. And yes, we need to make sure that a "jury of your peers" means one in which the color of the defendant does not put him at an immediate disadvantage. And about a hundred other things. But we also need less Black-on-Black crime. Even if we eliminate all of those stupid things that shouldn't be crimes, we still have to address the fact that too many legitimate Black-on-Black crimes remain: homicide, robbery, assault, domestic violence... crimes with victims.

Because these Black lives matter, too. 

Thanks for reading.

[1]  I hesitate to name anyone because I don't want you to think I'm exploiting them for the purpose of a blog post. And besides, I haven't asked permission.

[2] I actually have to be very careful in conversation not to use phrases and idioms that I grew up using among my friends, because people who don't know me and assume they know my background will think that I'm mocking Ebonics. (I'm not... that's just the way folks talked, and even then only in the most informal circumstances. Any one of my Black teachers would have slapped you crosseyed if you tried to speak that way in the classroom) Am I being treated with prejudice? Yes, I think I am. I'm OK with that, because your prejudice is based on what you know of most White people. It's not intentional, and it's not racist. It is an error, but it's one you'd correct yourself in the course of getting to know me.

1 comment:

  1. I sent this post to the author of the meme. He returned this reply to me today:

    "Hi Dave,

    Thanks for the link, and the very thoughtful response. There are many things I like about it. One thing I most appreciate is your awareness of just how emotionally loaded these issues are, and how easily that leads to defensiveness. That defensiveness in turn frequently results in assumptions based on a myriad of factors. It seems to me that we are in complete agreement that the compassionate understanding of all sides and perspectives other than one's own is a worthy intention and objective. Beyond that point, you obviously dug into the complexity of these issues that's revealed when we begin to examine them with clearer heads and hearts. That's exactly what I wish more people would do, rather than making knee-jerk leaps onto ideological or partisan bandwagons of any sort. When we engage in real dialog, seeking to understand each other as fully as possible, unclouded by assumptions and unwarranted conclusions, it's much easier to find ways to work together for the good of each and all. We can even calmly agree to disagree on some things of lesser importance, rather than allowing them to become distractions from the core issues.

    Best wishes to you,