by Jeremy Young | 8/02/2009 12:57:00 PM
I want to thank Aaron Bady for his latest entry in our ongoing discussion about Lucia Whalen and race. The amount of thought Aaron has been putting into this conversation is amazing, and he is making a lot of sense. He has shown himself to be a thoughtful and worthy intellectual sparring partner. I want to thank as well my interlocutors at The Wild, Wild Left, via Facebook and e-mail, at Aaron's place, and right here in the comments section at ProgressiveHistorians. Many of you have forced me to reexamine various aspects of my position, and that's unquestionably a good thing.

I also want to offer one apology, particularly to some of my PH commenters. Over the course of this discussion, I have essentially walked back some of my criticisms of Whalen, and I was too proud to admit it; the upshot was that I have waited too long in admitting that some of your criticisms were right on the money. For the record, I no longer believe that Whalen acted inappropriately in reporting Gates to the police. My continuing frustration with her revolves around the fact that she is insistent on denying any racism in herself at all, despite the fact that virtually all white Americans have at least some racism hardwired into their brains.

Aaron's latest post makes a lot of sense, and I don't feel the need to address all of his points, simply because I agree with some of them. What I do want to discuss are Aaron's contentions that we should focus on the consequences rather than the motivations of racism, and that we should seek to mitigate racism's effects while waiting for a solution that can end or significantly decrease those effects. Also, I want to address the notion that a more open and honest dialogue about race -- something that both Aaron and President Obama are pushing for -- can have meaningful effects on the experience of race in this country. My response to those points follows.

Believe me when I say that if I felt we could deal with racism's consequences without dealing with its motivations, or mitigate its effects without resorting to painful and difficult structural change, I would wholeheartedly support doing so. Unfortunately, those are exactly the things we have been trying to do since the last important civil rights legislation was passed in 1970, and staring us in the face are forty years of history and a barrel of socioeconomic indicators telling us we have failed. Against such a backdrop, the idea that more work in this vein can alter the course of history can have only two implications. One, that decades of work by scholars in African-American studies and related fields, public debates over race (including an important one in March 2008), and the like have been grossly ineffective and mismanaged -- something I do not believe. Or two, that continuing to do the same things we have been doing for forty years will eventually have the desired effect. This to me is a gradualism argument that resides in a fantasy world. Trying to mitigate the consequences of racism without rooting out its motivations and root causes has not worked. It will never work.

I have a similar objection to the idea that more dialogue will solve the problem -- and this represents perhaps the most deeply-held disagreement between Aaron and myself. Though I am in training to become an educator, I am deeply suspicious of the notion that education can achieve macro-level change. That is to say, while I know for certain that education can change individual minds -- I have seen it happen, and it has happened to me -- I do not believe that these individual changes add up to societal change. The idea that education is the vanguard of societal transformation has reigned supreme ever since John Dewey promoted it nearly a century ago; even Marx, despite his awareness of the need for major structural changes in society, displays a ludicrous optimism that enough education about Marxist doctrines will naturally bring the proletariat around to Marx's way of thinking.

Both Marx and Dewey have, I believe, been proved wrong. The work of B.F. Skinner has shown us that rational discourse cannot and will not achieve societal change, because sub-rational operant conditioning overrides rational instincts. Individuals can of course stand against this tide, but if you are expecting an entire society to do so you are misplacing your optimism. Further, Skinner and various child psychologists have shown that most of the relevant operant conditioning takes place when the subject is very young. That is to say, by the time we can get children in school to try to convince them racism is wrong, they already either have it or they don't, and the rest of their lives will be spent fighting against the tendencies that are already hard-wired into their brains. This is likely why Sugrue's argument about integrated housing has such currency; influencing who a child's neighbors are is almost the only thing we can do to change their race-related wiring at a time when it's actually effective.

But to return to the matter at hand: if school-age children are too set in their ways to have their basic views of racism meaningfully altered, then we adults are clearly too far gone. For us, attempting to mitigate the consequences of our racism is a lifelong struggle against our inclinations. We can accept that such a struggle is important and worthwhile while admitting that the vast majority of Americans are simply not going to undertake it; they haven't the moral fiber or even the desire. Doubtless denials like Whalen's only feed their desires to sweep their own racism under the rug, but the bottom line is that you cannot get most people to fight their inner natures, no matter how heroic some few of us may be in fighting our own. If we could do so, Wal-Mart would go out of business, climate change would be under control, and all bigotry would cease to exist. Clearly, this is a fantasy world, not the reality we live in.

Focusing on changing individual minds through dialogue might change a mind or two; it might have changed Crowley's attitude toward Gates during their confrontation. But changing one mind does not fix the larger issue. The societal problem is not that Gates was arrested in his home; it is the socioeconomic indicators Roediger mentions in his book. No amount of talk or thought about race is going to put more than a dent into those numbers. We know this, if for no other reason, because the last fifty years are living proof. If we did not have a frank and open discussion about race in the 1960's -- a discussion in which even Malcolm X and George Wallace had seats at the table -- then I don't know what such a discussion would look like. More recently we have heard frankly and openly from Pat Buchanan and others on the conservative side of the race debate. There was a long time in our history when race was taboo, but for half a century race has gotten a thorough Habermasian treatment in the public sphere. The stark result is Roediger's socioeconomic indicators -- many of which, as he notes, are getting worse.

We have talked racism to death. If it is not dead, it is because talk is not an adequate weapon against it. What we need now is action. Action is what ended slavery; action, on the part of Rosa Parks and others, is what ended segregation; action at Selma and elsewhere is what forged civil rights law. Now we need more comprehensive action of a kind the government alone can provide. Dialogue isn't going to get us there; law and power need to stand alone in forging a solution.



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Blogger AndrewMc on 8/02/2009 2:12 PM:

I saw a comment earlier in one of the editorials on the Washington Post to the effect that one of the great things about these "national conversations on race" is that they are over before we actually ever get to discussing anything uncomfortable. So very true.

Great essay here. I need to digest.


Anonymous Aaron Bady on 8/02/2009 2:37 PM:

A couple quick thoughts. I don't see why you are painting the "mitigate racism's effects now" vs. "destroy racism as a whole" distinction as a question of either or. They are not exactly the same thing, and I realize that, but doing the one doesn't have to mean not doing the other. There is a danger that we become complacent about root causes by only focusing on symptoms, of course, but there is also the danger that in focusing on the big picture we lose sight of the small. And anyway, my sense of how we mitigate the effects of racism is exactly what you've been saying we should do: we learn to deal with it as a social fact by recognizing and thinking about how to manage our own complicity in it.

Also, re: the distinction between talking and acting, I feel the force of your argument without quite agreeing with the terms in which it's laid out, which is to say (as AndrewMC points out) the problem isn't that all forms of talking are hopeless, but that the conversations that happens tend to be staged in ways that prevent them from actually achieving anything. That's because people like Obama are more interested in appearing to look like racial mediators without actually paying the political cost of ruffling the kinds of feathers that one would need to. And I think excluding Lucia Whalen from the discussion actually helps that happen; if we had to have a discussion about what she should have done and why what she did was problematic, a lot of really uncomfortable questions might get aired. Not to say that such things solve everything, but they have their effect. And let's not forget that any kind of direct action has the power that it has precisely because it becomes a kind of discourse: marching to Selma or whatever only has the power it has because of how it comes to signify. Which is not to say that your sense that we have to move past the kinds of talk we've been using is misguided, but simply that we have to recognize (as I think you would be the first to say) the difference between easy talk that makes us all feel better and the kinds of conversations that actually *do* something.


Blogger Jeremy Young on 8/02/2009 3:26 PM:

I do not believe it is possible to mitigate racism's effects now. Therefore, I believe any time spent attempting to do so is wasted effort. If I thought we could have a meaningful effect, I would support the two-pronged strategy you suggest. Since I do not believe such an effect is possible, I would prefer to focus all our efforts on achieving long-term change, that is, policy change.

The gap between us, I think, is that you believe there is some form of dialogue that we haven't tried yet that will help the process along, while I believe such dialogue is fool's gold. Let's remember that Selma was effective because it changed the priorities of one man: the President -- who then whipped up the support in Congress to pass meaningful legislation. The effect Selma had on ordinary people is immaterial; change only occurred because policymakers (and especially the President) decreed that it be so.


Blogger nickname on 8/03/2009 6:37 PM:

IMO, the fact that Ms. Whalen called the police is evidence of someone who doesn't have good judgment.

She may be employed at Harvard but
like GWBush, it doesn't appear that
her experience there has had any
positive effect on her ability to
think and reason.

She's exactly the kind of neighbor
I WOULDN'T want. Sounds to me like
someone who is eager to be of "help" -- especially if doing so
might result in causing problems for others.


Blogger AndrewMc on 8/04/2009 11:34 AM:

I'd want my neighbors to call the police anytime they see someone breaking in to my house who they don't recognize. If they aren't sure, they should call.

I'd also want them to be able to tell the difference between one black man and another. Now, some of that is cultural, but some of that is biological as well--people have a harder time distinguishing facial features in people not of their own race. There's a lot to overcome here.


Blogger nickname on 8/04/2009 5:31 PM:

Yes, of course you would want someone to call the police if they saw someone breaking into your house, but that wasn't the case with the incident at the home of Mr. Gates.

Ms. Whalen failed to use good judgment IMO. The facts as reported, certainly didn't warrant
calling the police. Taxi in front of the house, bags, two people.

BTW - The police knew or should have known who the owner/legal resident was BEFORE they even arrived at the location, assuming they were given the correct street address.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 8/04/2009 8:59 PM:

The police knew or should have known who the owner/legal resident was BEFORE they even arrived at the location, assuming they were given the correct street address.

Actually, not only don't the police have that information at their fingertips, they're not allowed to have that information unless they have probable cause to get it.

People seem to be getting their Constitutional knowledge from CSI these days. At least watch L&O, where they get most of the actual law right!


Blogger nickname on 8/05/2009 6:48 PM:

If by "that information", you mean

who is listed as living at a specific

street address, THAT is public

information which ANYONE can easily

and quickly obtain.