Friday, March 27, 2015


Ruminations about the Good Life


Last week I ran across a video from the Getty Museum that showed how illustrated manuscripts were made around the year 1000. The process began with transforming animal hides into parchment. That was a long, laborious undertaking of scraping, stretching, treating the hides until they became soft and smooth surfaces that would take up ink and paint and would, unlike paper, last literally for more than 1000 years.
Preparing the parchment was just the beginning, then a scribe would slowly and laboriously write out the text after having prepared his ink and cut a goose quill just right. The letters were placed on the page one by one, one next to the other, each exactly the same size, each straight up and down.
Once the text was done, came the illustrators with their elaborate designs and miniature

paintings in gold leaf and many colors.

This work took a very long time and a great deal of effort. It required enormous concentration. Multitasking was not possible when the task at hand required your complete attention. Not everybody could do this work. It took many years of patient apprenticeship and practice to acquire the necessary skills.
Two characteristics stand out in this process. Whatever people did in 1000 took a great deal of effort. That was not only true of producing illuminated manuscripts. It started early in the morning when someone had to revive the remaining coals in the stove or the fireplace to make a new fire for cooking breakfast. No automatic coffee makers or other labor saving devices. Every part of the day required physical effort, concentration. Life was a struggle.
Our life today is totally different. Ease and lack of effort are supreme goals. We buy many devices because they will, their manufacturers tell us, save effort and make life easier. An easy life is nice. But after you have run 5 miles as fast as you can and are really out of breath you have accomplished something. After driving 5 miles, what have you achieved?
It is not an accident that having children is so important to us because having and raising children has not become any easier than it was a long time ago. Children still are new persons every day, and will challenge us in many ways. There is no way of automating child-rearing. There are no machines to deal with uncomfortable questions, unreasonable demands, or temper tantrums. When your children are grown up you know that you have accomplished something very difficult and you take pride in it, however it works out.
You do not take pride in the coffee your automatic coffee maker made during all those years.
To the extent that life has been made easy by all sorts of labor saving devices and by having other people do things for you that you used to do yourself, such as buying ready-made clothes sewn in China or Thailand instead of making then yourself, life has become awfully convenient but not very satisfying. After a long life you may take pride in all the good bread you baked, but you will not take pride in all the sliced bread you bought in the supermarket.
What we do is worth doing when it requires an effort. Challenges are worth taking up. Having exerted yourself to accomplish something that you found difficult, that you barely pulled off because you put in some extra energy and concentration, gives real satisfaction. Popping a TV dinner in the microwave and pushing the button does not. (Obviously not everything difficult is worthwhile doing, but few things that are easy foster contentment.)
There's a second way in which our world is very different from that long gone day when life was difficult and challenging.
I learned about the illuminated manuscripts from a video. I stumbled on this video through an app called "StumbleUpon" which literally provides you with a series of random websites some of which may interest you, many of which do not. There are millions upon millions of websites, every day brings more. There are Facebook pages, twitter messages, etc. etc.
There is the Super Bowl, and hardly is that past when we have March Madness while we already follow our favorite baseball team in spring training. Soon it is opening day and then there are the golf tournaments and the car racing.
And all the while people are making youtube videos that go viral and which you don't want to miss. There are not only new trends but millions of people pretending to start new trends and in all this madness you are rushing as fast as you can and you can't keep up.
The most common description of who we are, these days, is "extremely busy." We do too many things. Few of any of them occupy as fully. Our attention is scattered and concentration lacking. We are extremely busy with things which require few skills, require no physical or intellectual effort, are done in the blink of an eye, and do not require concentrated attention.
At the end of a busy day what have we done? What have we accomplished? Who are we?
In this setting it is very difficult to have a sense of oneself as a clearly defined person, who does a difficult job patiently with concentration and considerable effort. In this setting it is very easy to lose oneself, it is very difficult to have any sense of oneself at all.
The lives we lead in this supercharged culture overwhelm us with stimulation but make it very difficult to take satisfaction in accomplishing challenging tasks. It is difficult to be in touch with who we are in a world where innumerable things constantly demand our immediate attention.
Is ours the good life in 2015?

Friday, March 20, 2015


Resisting racism

Racism is so deeply entrenched in our culture that few, if any, whites can honestly say that they never catch themselves thinking racist thoughts. It behooves all white Americans to continue struggling against the profound hold racism has on our attitudes.
But it is also important to understand that many institutional injustices need to be confronted.
I mentioned in a previous blog that using and selling marijuana are as common among white young people as they are among young blacks but, by and large, only the black young men end up in prison. Wildly unfair law enforcement practices need to be targeted if we are going to reduce racial injustice.
Wealth and income have a great deal to do with who ends up in prison and who does not. It is completely unacceptable that in a nation which prides itself on adhering to the rule of law, poverty automatically increases one's likelihood of ending up in prison. An adequately financed and staffed legal defense service needs to be run by various government agencies in order to reduce racial injustice.
In many cities neighborhoods inhabited primarily by persons of color have the worst public transportation. At the same time more people in those neighborhoods cannot afford to maintain reliable automobiles and are therefore dependent on efficient public transportation to go to their jobs. Planning public transportation so as to enable the people most in need of it to get to work, is an important priority in the face of racial inequalities.
In New York City rent-controlled public housing has more building code violations, such as leaking water pipes, than so-called "market value" housing. People with low incomes, many of the persons of color, are not adequately protected by the cities code inspection and enforcement department.
Many other cities have similar experiences: housing in poor neighborhoods is poorly inspected. Building codes are not enforced against landlords in those neighborhoods.
Black children, a new study shows, are seven times more likely than other children to grow up in the worst neighborhoods in the country. If they are stuck in the poorest neighborhoods from age 1 to 17, only 76 percent will graduate by age 20, compared to 96 percent of black children in affluent neighborhoods.
Of course, you don't have to be black to suffer from bad surroundings. Among non-black youth, 87 percent graduate from high school if they grow up in the poorest neighborhoods, compared to 95 percent from affluent neighborhoods.
The longer children spend in bad neighborhoods, the worse their chances of graduating from high school, researchers found.” (http://www.psmag.com/books-and-culture/poor-neighborhoods-mean-fewer-high-school-grads-37)
These residential differences and the resultant educational deficits for children growing up in poor neighborhood is directly reflected in differences in the median income between White and Black families. For every dollar earned by a White family, a Black family brings home 60 cents. Lower educational levels of the children growing up in poor neighborhoods accounts in part for that difference. So does the assignment of lower paying jobs to Blacks and Hispanics.
One of the results of all these limitations placed on young black men and women is that they feel profoundly devalued. Their confidence in their own abilities is really low. Young Black persons, when given the opportunity, for instance, to attend a good college are so intimidated, they sometimes cannot function. (http://www.thisamericanlife.org/play_full.php?play=550)
These observations have several important implications. While it is important for whites to keep working on enhancing their awareness of their own racist attitudes, doing so is not enough. There are a number of clear and blatant injustices that need to end. Only citizen activism will do that. Blacks and Whites holding hands and singing “We Shall Overcome” will not do the job.
The second implication is tactical. It is not helpful to call various government agents – from police officers to school board members to code enforcement apartments – "racist." That just makes everybody really defensive. It is preferable to press for these different government departments to do their job properly, to enforce existing law in all communities, to provide first-class schools in all parts of the city, to enforce building codes against all landlords, not only the landlords in middle-class communities.
It is time to stop talking quite so much about racism and to make the many different changes that are so urgently needed by demanding that government do its job as mandated by law.

Friday, March 13, 2015


Racist Cops”


When the Black Panthers first organized in Oakland in 1966—close to 50 years ago—their Ten Point Program called for an end to (white) police brutality in black neighborhoods. “ 7. We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of Black people, other people of color and all oppressed people inside the United States.”
Fast forward to Ferguson and we see the same demand, louder to be sure, but still the same demand.
Nothing has changed in the last 59 years. How can we have a Black president, a Black Attorney General, a Black Supreme Court Justice but nothing is changed for the Black kids on the block?
How can we explain this to ourselves? What lessons can we draw for changing this disgraceful situation?
Many people give a two-word answer: “Racist Cops” thereby oversimplifying a complex situation. They make it impossible to make change because they are not willing to think carefully about why police rampages continue in Black communities.
Racist Cops” is as biased a statement as what many whites say or think about young Black men being unwilling to work, being unwilling to take responsibility for their actions. The one statement, as much as the other accuses large numbers of people of negative attitudes. As long as each sides parades its prejudices, we cannot move forward.
It has struck me for a while that when policemen shoot at young Black men they appear to shoot to kill, not to disable, not to throw off their presumed attackers. Individual policemen do not make up the rules. Their shooting to kill must be approved by police chiefs, by the mayors and city councils to whom the police chief answers. The racism here is not limited to the police but to the people who run our cities and towns.
Some of these people, for instance city councilors, are elected. The permission for policemen to shoot to kill has not to my knowledge ever been an issue in city elections. How many citizens have quizzed their city-council candidates on that issue? Ordinary voters are involved, however peripherally, in making rules for police conduct. White liberals who say “Racist Cops” are evading their own complicity.
Michelle Alexander has been writing and speaking eloquently about the mass incarceration of young Black men. Studies show that among young men, Whites are as often involved in trading and/or using marijuana than Blacks. But Blacks are six times as likely to be incarcerated as whites.
Here is where the “racist cops” explanation is seriously incomplete. Policemen make the arrest. But it is the prosecutor who asks for a long prison sentence, preferably for a felony conviction. A judge instead of chastising the prosecutorial staff, cooperates and sends the young man away for five years.
Prisons are often private enterprises whose profits go up with every additional prisoner. Prison corporations are known to lobby legislature for increasing mandatory sentences, and legislatures cooperate. The main motivations are familiar capitalist desires to increase profits; racism is not the main issue.
Prisoners come under the care of parole officers at the end of their terms.
Here are prosecutors, judges, legislatures and the parole system—all of whom see every day the overwhelming preponderance of prisoners of color, but no one raises an alarm. The entire judicial and the entire criminal justice system cooperate in perpetrating gross injustices. If we were satisfied to blame the policemen's racism we would miss completely the pervasive injustices encountered at every turn in our system of legislation, law enforcement and “corrections.”
But there is more.
It is a commonplace that “everyone commits crimes—only the poor get punished for it.” Unable to pay for a good lawyer, the poor are inadequately represented in court, often by lawyers completely unprepared for mounting a serious defense. Many localities jail people for not paying fines. Poor people unable pay fines return to prison. Middle class people and the rich pay and get on with their life.
The problems of young Black men with the criminal justice system have to do with a complex system corroded by racial injustices. But those difficulties are intensified by the pervasive poverty of the same Black young men. Our society is unfair to people doing the low-paying jobs. One large source of the injustices perpetrated against young black men and more and more against black women is the result of our economic system which produces increasing numbers of poor people.
If we strive for racial justice, we must stop putting all the blame on the police. We must call out the gross failures of the economic system to provide a decent living for every hard working citizen, and the failure of that same economic system to provide decent employment for everyone. We must also see clearly that prosecutors, judges, legislatures, in cities, states and at the federal levels and voters are all involved in this by refusing to challenge the ongoing injustices of the criminal and judicial system.
It is just too easy to say “Racist Cops.” The troubles of Blacks in the US are much more extensive and what I have mentioned so far is only a small part of the entire range of persecutions and inequalities.
Predominantly white legislatures in most states have passed laws that disenfranchise felons. In Ferguson a third or more of Blacks are convicted felons who cannot vote. That is one reason why a city with a Black majority of 67% is governed by an elected white City Council, a White city manager, a white police chief and a predominantly white police force.
Felons, however, are not only disenfranchised. More often than not they cannot find work. They cannot work—except in some illegal activity. They are unable to maintain their families. Trying to do so will soon land them in jail again.
In recent days a research institute at Brandeis documented the sharp rise in unequal asset ownership between whites and Blacks. The report states that ”in 2011 the median White household had $111,146 in wealth holdings, compared to just $7,113 for the median Black household and $8,348 for the median Latino household”--a difference of more than $100,000.00 in assets!--reflecting many factors, among them residential segregation in our cities which, in turn, reflects racial discrimination. But it also reflects the lower wages earned by many Blacks, the glaring inadequacy of many schools in Black neighborhoods. And, of course, it also reflects once again the mass-incarceration of young Blacks and the economic disaster a felony conviction is.
The list of restraints imposed on persons of color seems to have no end.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

        How to deal with terrorism.

At the end of his three-day summit on how to deal with terrorism, Pres. Obama recommended that we be tolerant, that we support democracy, and respect human rights.
It is difficult to resist the impulse to say: "Look who's talking." This president has conducted a war in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. The United States was a leader in the bombing of Libya, and is now a leader in the bombing of Syria and parts of Iraq. The United States is not in a position to recommend tolerance. Given the sorts of friends we have such as the president of Egypt or the king of Saudi Arabia or Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel our support for democracy is, to say the least, beset by ambiguities.
In another portion of his message, Pres. Obama recommended that we take seriously the alienation of many young men both in the US and in Europe. Here is a picture of the young men who have trouble finding work, who are not respected, who are oppressed by the local police force, having resort to murder and terrorism. Were President Bush and his cronies alienated and therefore they invaded Iraq and Afghanistan? Are the members of Congress alienated who regularly vote to allow the military adventures of our governments, and to lavishly finance the military?
The president of the United States any day of the week kills more people than all the terrorists together.
The entire presentation is hypocritical. We are the largest purveyor of violence in the world and we point a finger at young Muslim men in Europe or perhaps young black men in the United States? This hypocrisy is not only morally objectionable, but we have no hope of dealing with the enormous amount of violence in this world if we insist on misrepresenting it.
For 2015 our government expects to spend $550 billion on "defense." A country that spends more than half its national budget on military equipment and soldiers should not point fingers at violent young men in the inner cities. It is hypocritical, it is a really bad joke, and it shows a will to be untruthful and a refusal to regard violence in the world realistically.
These misrepresentations completely ignore that America is drunk on violence. A good deal of our entertainment in films and computer games is violent to a bizarre extent. One of the standards of masculine virtue is to be violent on the football field and if possible give the other guy a good concussion. Familiar statistics tell us that one in four women will in her lifetime be sexually harassed or raped. Violence within families has reached epidemic proportions. Most Americans take that in their stride but when two policemen in New York, or a few journalists in Paris are murdered everybody is completely outraged.
Our nation is deeply divided over rights to carry weapons whose only purpose is to make violence more lethal. Every year 30,000 Americans die from gun violence. When toddlers accidentally shoot themselves, or women who wear a gun in their bra commit involuntary suicide, no one questions whether we are not profoundly on the wrong path.
Violence permeates our schools. In spite of a great deal of discussion and different programs, bullying continues and guns find their ways into schools.
But we continue to point the finger of blame at "terrorists."
That just makes no sense at all.
Any reflection about terrorism and how to deal with it, that does not begin by facing our own addiction to violence is bound to fail. As long as we go around and sound off about the violence committed by the Islamic State or Boko Haram and act as if we were peaceful lambs, the downward spiral of violence will continue. We will be attacked more frequently and we will go around bombing more and more civilians.
A great deal of the fault for violence in the world lies with us. Until we admit that and until we raise the question whether we want to continue spending too much money on the military, and continue having bases all over the world, and whether it is acceptable to go around attacking people with airplanes and drones in many countries, nothing will change. Windbags, hypocrites, and people who refuse to think about what is going on in the world will continue to confuse the issue.
Very many very innocent people will continue to die.

Monday, February 16, 2015


You call this democracy?


With the beginning of the new year we look forward to a national legislature resembling nothing as much as a married couple about to enter a really ugly divorce. Cooperation has ceased a long time ago. The only kind of conversations consist of bickering, of trading insults, of making absurd accusations that blame the other for what they are clearly not responsible for. The analogy breaks down only because Democrats and Republicans cannot get divorced.
The history of this disastrous impasse is clearly complicated. It involves the fact that ours is a capitalist democracy where political parties act as if they were competing businesses, striving for power to make the other party ineffective. It involves the rapid development of different ways of communicating and the development of complex skills of manipulating information, misleading the public, making criminals appear to be benefactors of the public, and real heroes to be threats to public security. It involves the logic of representative democracy where common people are really sidelined and the country is run by a political class. Democracy is transformed into an oligarchy.
One element in this gradual decay of democratic institutions is our misunderstanding of what democracy should be. The most common account of our democracy asserts that ordinary citizens wield their political power by selecting representatives. If representatives do not promote the projects dear to the voters, they are punished by not being reelected. Central to democracy are elections. They are supposed to be the mechanisms through which common people express their opinions about policies they want the government to adopt. Democracy is about shared decision-making. Hence democracy works out to be a free-for-all between people who think differently about a wide range of issues from welfare, to gun control, to foreign wars, to the treatment of homosexuals. And on and on.
What has been lost in this focus on elections is a simple truth. Democracy does not consist of ordinary people running their country's affairs. It consists of ordinary people running their country's affair together. By focusing on elections, our idea of democracy is all about opinions and, more specifically, about differences of opinions. But differences of opinions are completely paralyzing unless the people who are different know how to cooperate in spite of their differences of opinion.
Only as cooperation is democracy a feasible project. As we see in our present experience and as, I fear, we will see much more clearly day in and day out for the next few years, where elections and different opinions are in the center of so-called democratic institutions, what you get is really an oligarchy. Where different parties fight for the power to impose their ideas on others, the project is a coercive one. The majority gathers its strength to coerce the minority. The democratic promise of allowing everybody to participate in governing – even if only minimally – is broken. Instead the conservatives dominate the progressives, or vice versa. The center of what we call democracy is domination.
A genuine democracy prizes cooperation. It values especially highly cooperation between those who disagree quite fiercely with each other. There are places where pro-life and pro-choice women manage to cooperate on sex education or adoption services projects even though they continue to disagree about the morality of abortion. These groups provide a small part of a foundation for real democracy. They trust each other, they work together. They thereby make it much more difficult to consider forcing the other into positions they find unacceptable.
Democracy is not primarily about voting. It is primarily about people working together in spite of serious differences, in spite of serious disagreements, in spite of the blatant inequities of everyday life in America today.
It takes more than goodwill to promote that sort of cooperation. It takes a good deal of hard work, of very difficult conversations, of joint projects which fail, of being hopeful in spite of real frustrations at the difficulties of overcoming the divisions in our society. The project begins with civility, with foreswearing insults of one's opponents, of voicing one's ugliest suspicions of the other as proven facts, of blaming one's opponents for all sorts of misdeeds. Democracy, as cooperation, begins with being respectful of one's opponents.
If that is not difficult enough – think of being respectful of Wall Street traders who invented subpar mortgages packaged as investment instruments – the next undertaking--having real cooperative projects with people you tend not to trust--is even more difficult. But it is clearly essential.
Until we put major efforts into such cooperations, we should stop bragging about our democracy and instead go to work trying to restore it.

Sunday, February 8, 2015


Humility


The Polish parliament adopted a European convention opposed to family violence, which includes recommendations for what children should be taught about equality between men and women. In a very bitter debate many parliamentarians objected that teaching children the equality of men and women goes against traditional family values, against established ideas about the different roles of men and women. Many of these objections were based on what were thought to be Catholic values. Equality between the sexes was seen to violate religious teachings.
I thought that was really interesting because it showed that Islam has no special place in the war of men against women. Catholicism can hold its own. It made me wonder whether newspapers in Yemen or in Pakistan constantly reported about priestly child abuse, as our papers continue to report so-called "honor killings."
If you are a Protestant this story may reinforce your detestation of Catholicism. But thinking about that reminded me of the slave castles on the Atlantic coast of Ghana. There slave traders erected massive stone buildings to hold black men and women for shipment to the New World. The ground floor was taken up by a large dungeon crowded with future slaves. On the first floor, right above the dungeon, was the chapel where the Dutch Reformed slave traders sang their hymns in praise of God and thanked him for purging them of sin.
Secularists may want to bolster their case from all these narratives. But the Soviet governments that committed genocide against their own people were devoted secularists. Cruelty to other groups of human beings is not limited to practitioners of different religions. The Nazis had no religious commitments.
Can we learn anything from these horror stories?
It seems to me that male chauvinism, child abuse, vicious racial prejudice, and genocide all are committed by people who are self-righteous, consider themselves better than others, privileged and deserving their privilege – in short people deficient in humility. Men are lacking in humility who believe that it is their role to be the dominant force in the family and in the world, to control resources, make decisions, lay down the law and, where necessary, enforce it violently. Many different religions suffer from the same shortcoming. Secularists are notorious for believing that they are superior to religious persons.
We must understand what humility is.
The humble are prepared to recognize their limits and shortcomings. They can admit those because they have a good sense of what they know and what their competences are. We should not confuse that clear-eyed awareness of what one is and is not able to do of the humble with people who are constantly apologizing, often for what they are not responsible for. Humility is quite different from low self-esteem.
Humility thinks critically. Not for them the credulity of those who consistently distrust themselves. Many people believe what they hear on Fox News, or in other places that promote distrust of established wisdom. The humble trust their own intelligence and use it to form their own opinions. They well know that they may make mistakes but trust themselves to repair those.
Humility respects outstanding accomplishments. But, unlike many people, it does not automatically salute persons in authority – elected officials, doctors, law enforcement, military authorities, ministers. Humility requires both trust in oneself and the willingness to incur responsibility for making mistakes.
Humility is different from the false modesty of many people who secretly believe that they are as good as human beings come, they work hard, they are sexually continent, they are never loud, or drink to excess. They do their duty day-in, day-out-- all the while quietly congratulating themselves for not being like those people – African-Americans in the US, Irishmen in Britain, Greeks and Turks in Germany, Palestinians in Israel, etc.
Aware of what they are good at and where they tend to fail, the humble do not need to bolster their self-respect by looking down on other groups, usually stereotyped.
Humility is especially in short supply in the US. Our position in the world is that of the richest and most powerful people the world has ever seen. Our leaders keep telling us that we must maintain our position of superior power. We are the leaders of the first world. We look down on "old Europe," not to mention on the "developing world," while we marvel at their incompetence.
But that attitude, as the controversy in the Polish parliament illustrates, produces terrible injustices. The attitude that we know what's right, that we do what's right, and therefore can lord it over others, has for long done great harm to women, to children, to Africans destined to be sold as slaves, to Armenians or Jews. Lack of humility, a prominent characteristic of citizens of the US, is the cover for a good deal of brutality in this world.

Friday, January 30, 2015


2015


Here are some of our domestic issues that we bring along unresolved from the year that ended: the minimum wage, immigration, police conduct, Obama care. These are not our only problems but they are important ones.
You notice immediately their common element: racial conflict is important in each case. Many Americans imagine all poor people as persons of color. The minimum wage conflict affects poor people the most. Immigrants are largely nonwhite. Conflict about police conduct centers on the treatment of black people by white policeman. Obama care has to do with the racially tinged opposition to his programs.
As we begin 2015, we encounter the old nightmare of the United States – the conflict between whites and persons of color, more specifically African-Americans.
It is tempting to respond with some good advice to ourselves and our fellow citizens. We may admonish ourselves not to be prejudiced, not to believe stories that whites tell about Blacks that have no foundation in fact. We may remind ourselves of the signal contributions to our national culture made by African-Americans.
That sort of advice, though often repeated, has proven useless. We are as deeply divided by racial animosity as we ever were. These common bits of advice completely misunderstand the powerful and dark forces that keep racial conflict alive.
There is nothing the matter with pre-judging persons. We cannot avoid pre-judging. When you need help clearing the leaves in your yard in the fall, and some young fellow offers to do the work for you at a reasonable price, you need to decide whether to trust him to do a decent job even though you don't know him at all. You look him over, you listen to how he talks and you decide that he is trustworthy. But that is, of course a prejudice because you don't know this person and you just go on the little bit of information you have about him, how he looks, how he talks. Perhaps you consider his clothes or the vehicle he came in. But you still prejudge him.
It is not useful, either, to admonish people not to judge others on the basis of poorly documented stories. It is totally astonishing what bizarre stories people believe when they defend their prejudices, say, against welfare recipients. The fact that some of those accounts are complete fabrications makes no difference to people who believe that every welfare recipient is a lazy cheat. No mountains of evidence will change their mind.
In racial and other conflicts, truth is not really at issue.
Racial prejudice is fueled by emotion, by fear or anger. It does not have a lot to do with the facts and statistics and real histories of African-American or of white families. It does not have a lot to do with who did what to whom. Discussing real history is pretty irrelevant to moderating racial animosities.
We need to face up to these often very deep-seated emotions. Here we can only make a brief beginning.
Supposed that a black family buys the house next to mine. My first reaction is panic. I feel threatened, I am afraid the value of my house will go down. Then I feel thoroughly ashamed of myself. I remind myself that all I know about my new neighbors is that their skin is darker than mine.
I try to imagine their feelings. Are they frightened? Are they afraid for their children, remembering Emmett Till or the four young girls killed in the bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama church?
When I meet them, I am civil and welcoming. I try not to be excessively friendly, thereby showing how acutely I am aware of the difference in skin color between myself and them, while I'm pretending not to notice it at all, as white anti-racists, like myself, often do. Relations are uncomfortable until my new neighbors cease being the black couple next door and become the unique individuals that I know and like as my neighbors. I may also not like them very much; they may not like me. But now we are known to each other and the emotion of the first encounters subsides.
One strand in racial conflict is the fear of people we do not know. Racial conflict is fueled not by the relations between races but by my, and your unease in the world. It is easy for us to be afraid not of known threats, but of unknown persons who, we fear, are a danger to us. One source of racial conflict is our perception that the world is extremely dangerous and we are barely able, if at all, to survive in it.
Why does our world seem so precarious and threatening? White people may well feel guilty for their treatment of the descendants of African slaves. But we too have been badly treated. We have been bullied and made fun off as children. We have been neglected and abused. We have been victims of many different forms of violence. We grow up excessively aware of possible threats to our well-being, always expecting to be harmed by strangers as well as by people we are close to.
Our world overflows with violence leaving us fearful, always prepared to encounter threats, coercion and humiliations. That leaves us unsure of ourselves; it also leaves us with a reservoir overflowing with anger. Prejudice against persons of color (or those who are “white”), against the opposite gender, against folks speaking poor English, against those with different religious practices from ours—all are welcome opportunities to unload some of that anger. We transfer the violence and humiliation we experience on to others.
Racial conflict is an aspect of this circuit of violence—someone excites our rage with violence and we visit that anger on someone else. Racial dissension will remain an important part of our lives until we manage to construct a less violent society.