Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Race and the Jude case, pt. 2

Gene Kane had an interesting column on how, in his view, it doesn't work to "flip" racially charged situations. By this he means arguments that it is "just as bad" when African-Americans make a bigotted comment or act based on racial prejudice as when whites do. Another use of flipping the roles, as Kane sees it, is to allow white people to suggest that African-Americans are "overreacting" to a racially charged situation because white people wouldn't react in the same way. Thus, a white person might say that whites didn't riot after the O.J, verdict, so why should blacks have rioted after the King verdict.

In Kane's view, an all black jury acquitting a black defendant in a racially charges crime is not the same as an all white jury acquitting white cops accused of beating a black victim. He seems to be saying that, given the history of race relations in our country, blacks have an apprehension of racially based mistreatment that whites don't - or at least shouldn't - have. He writes:

Unless you're willing to rewrite hundreds of years of American history and replace the peculiar experience of blacks in this country with the immigrant experience of Europeans or even Hispanics, it's impossible to neatly switch things around to make a point about race.

There is a communal black experience that binds many African-Americans in cynicism and suspicion, confirmed by their knowledge about decades of institutional racism and discrimination. The natural tendency of some blacks to suspect dirty deeds and betrayal from powerful forces is part and parcel of the black experience

I certainly agree that there is at least a communal history of racial discrimination felt by African-Americans. It is strengthened by the nature of being a minority; someone who lives in a country where the overwhelming majority of people do not look like you or, perhaps, share important aspects of your culture. I will also concede that it is, from time to time, matched by experience, although, I would argue, not as much as it is perceived to be and at a frequency that is orders of magnitude less than it was as recently as fourty years ago.

But that doesn't mean that there can't be the same suspicion and same harm when racial suspicions are flipped. The oft stated liberal nostrum that blacks can't be "racist" because they lack power is both inaccurate (sometimes blacks do have power) and misses the innate harm of racism, i.e., threating another not as a unique fellow human being (and, if you wish, a child of God), but as someone who is "other" than you are and who is presumed to act and think in a certain why because of the color of their skin. Blacks are just as capable of committing that sin as whites and, when they do, cause just as much harm.

So, to continue our example, if an all-black jury acquits a defendant for racial reasons (as one law professor once urged [scroll down]), it is "just as bad" as when an all white jury does the same thing.

I agree that there are reasons that blacks are going to be more racially sensitive than whites. But there is a problem with that, which Kane seems to at least be willing to recognize if not to strive against. He writes:

It's why blacks react to perceived slights with outrage and fill the streets in protest of injustice or even stick up for black figures under siege by outside forces with misguided loyalty.

Granted, it's not always the best way to exist. But those who think reversing the racial component of a story is an easy solution seriously underestimate what it means to be black or brown in this society.

No, it's not always the best way to live and can, in fact, make it worse to be "black or brown in this society."

African-Americans marched in response to the Jude verdict and they should have. While I have argued that what the jury did may be, at least in part, understandable, marching was the right thing to do. What some cops did and what others wouldn't say was outrageous.

But something just as outrageous happened at about the same time. A kid was beaten to death in broad daylight. Some bystanders had the courage to come forward and name the criminals. One was rather promptly shot in the head. No one marched.

There is the reason that the continual search for racial drama and the preconceived notion that the real enemy is now, as it was in 1955, someone in power with a white face is "not always the best way to live." Over 120 people, overwhelmingly black, were murdered in Milwaukee last year. Everyone of them was killed by someone who was not a police officer. Police misconduct is inexcusable and must be addressed, but if and when we do that, it will not be what gets poor black people in Milwaukee "over." "Misguided loyalty" in support of demagogues who are smart enough to play the race card no matter what else they are holding just ensures poor and ineffective leadership.

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