Sunday, August 26, 2018

Structural racism

One of the welcome, but unexpected effects of the Black Lives Matter movement is that more White people want to know what it is like to be Black in the United States today. Whites are beginning to listen and some of us are trying to learn the effects of anti-Black racism on Black lives.
The Lancet is one of the most prestigious medical journals in the English-speaking world and beyond. It recently contained a long article that showed that in any state of the US where police shot and killed a young, unarmed black man, large numbers of Black citizens suffered in their mental health. ( The Lancet, Volume 392, July 28 – August 3, 2018,) They were more depressed, anxious, fearful. Their sense of themselves, their self-esteem suffered. They felt more uncertain about their position in their social world.
The article showed the mental health effects of the murders of unarmed, young Black men and women on Black people. The murder of unarmed, young Black men and women, the article showed, did not have the same effects on White people. The murder of unarmed, young Blacks by police had a very specific, deleterious mental health effects on the victims of structural racism. It was felt particularly vividly by Black mothers, and by Black women expecting a child.
The article made use of what is now a familiar concept, the concept of "structural racism." Racism, this term implies, should not be understood primarily as the prejudiced thoughts and feelings and behavior of individual Americans. When we talk about racism in America we are not just talking about this or that person who has mistaken beliefs about Black people – beliefs that ascribe defects to Black people that they have no more than any other group in our nation.
Instead we are supposed to think of racism as consisting of social systems, of structures, instead of as the prejudices of individual persons.
This is an important insight, but it must be understood correctly. Structural racism is often understood as saying "racism does not consist of the beliefs or actions of individual White people. Racism is perpetrated and perpetuated by the system or the social structure."
Many White people like to talk about structural racism because they understand it in that sense that individual White people are not responsible for the existence of racism, for the murder by police of unarmed, young Black persons, for the inequality in opportunities for jobs or education between Whites and Blacks, etc. So I as a White person do not have to feel responsible. I should not feel guilty because it is not what I do or say that injures Blacks. It is the system.
But that is, of course, a complete misinterpretation. Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri was killed by a specific policeman. It was a specific grand jury that decided not to indict that policeman. Police who shot Black persons, if they were indicted, were absolved by specific juries. Racist acts are committed by specific White persons.
Black persons recounting their experiences over and over again experience the same indignities and assaults from different White persons. Talk about structural racism rejects the notion that there are just a few White people who are racist – "a few bad apples" – the startling and destructive fact is that different, totally unconnected White people will denigrate Black persons in the same ways as other White people. ( Austin Channing Brown, I'm Still Here, Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness [New York: Convergent, 2018] This is a book White people need to read.) More or less all White people will at times act in racist ways towards African-Americans – and of course against other persons of color, against other people who are not really White or whose whiteness is somewhat marginal as for instance Jews or, in Europe, the Roma, or Native Americans in our country.
That is what makes racism structural. It isn't just this or that person being mean or perhaps just ignorant and self-involved. It is all White people, all the time, with very few exceptions. Some of these White people are trying really hard not to be racist but even those of us who try hard, fail much more often than we like to admit.
One of the astonishing facts about structural racism is how it pops up in the most unexpected places. Several years ago A TIME Magazine reporter looked at the calls of umpires in different sports and found that in different sports White umpires tended to make calls against Black athletes more often than against Whites. (Katie Rooney, “Are Baseball Umpires Racist?”TIME August 13, 2007)
Structural racism plays out even in sports and it plays out in two ways. It plays out in the acts of White umpires and it plays out in the silence of the White public that does not protest these injustices.
In part they fail to protest because they don't know what is going on. But more and more White people are learning about the structural – that means ubiquitous, inescapable-- injustices done to members of Black communities but they refuse to do anything. They do not protest.
White people stick together and protect each other even when their racism is illegal or blatantly immoral. That racism is structural not only because it is everywhere but because it consists of an unspoken White solidarity against the suffering of Blacks. White police who killed Blacks can feel pretty safe because of the Whites who will protect them.
It is like Catholic priests who abuse children can feel assured that their bishop will protect them. It is like men in commercial or political organizations who sexually harass women. Until very recently they could be sure that other men would protect them also.
Structural racism means that all of us, Whites, regardless how well we mean, are responsible for the maltreatment for the injustices done daily to African-Americans because we commit overt racist acts, that we may not even recognize, or we refuse to protest those done by others.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

The Value of Life

Today I have a lot of questions and very few answers, but the questions are very important and are not always considered as clearly and carefully as they ought to be.
The question is deceptively simple: what makes life valuable?
The question arose in connection with a minor natural crisis. Earlier this year we found our trees infested with thousands and thousands of caterpillars. Standing under the trees one could hear these multitudes of small jaws chomping on the leaves. Chewed-up leaves would rain around you and cover the ground. All the while a gentle rain of black balls, caterpillar feces, was falling. After about a week many tall trees had no leaves left and we feared for them.
Then as suddenly as they had come, the caterpillars disappeared to be replaced by thousands of moths, little unattractive brown fluttering things. They were everywhere and came in the house every time the screen door was opened.
Now they have laid their eggs and they are gone. The trees fortunately are growing new leaves.
The whole episode was an astonishing demonstration of nature's struggle to preserve life, to continue life, to enhance and increase life. Nature regards all life, even the life of caterpillars and moths, as overwhelmingly important.
But – and here is the important thought – we do not. Some human beings regard animal life as valuable and therefore refuse to eat meat. They are vegetarians. Others go further and refused to eat eggs and milk and milk products such as cheese or butter. They are vegans.
But no one I know believes that plant life is valuable life. No one refuses their spinach on principle. No one I know hesitates to enjoy artichokes or avocadoes because they are living beings.
We do not, unlike nature, believe that life in all its different forms is valuable. So if we declare some lives, for instance our own, to have great value and that, therefore, our lives should be protected and cherished, we need to be able to explain how our life, human life, is different from that of the caterpillar or the tomatoes we do not hesitate to enjoy in the summer.
That question leads us directly into questions about abortion, into questions about the death penalty, into questions about wars – sending soldiers to their death, randomly killing civilians by bombing their cities. These are questions about the value of human lives. They are questions about the value of potential human lives. They are questions about what makes us human.
Many Americans believe fervently that the fertilized human egg deserves the protection of full-fledged human beings for its potential of becoming such human beings. Many of these Americans also accept the death penalty. We must ask them whether rapists and murderers do not still have the potential to become good human beings? And, on the other hand, does the fertilized egg not have the potential to become a rapist and murderer who, many Americans believe, deserves to be put to death, often in great pain.
The important insight is this: life itself, whether it be the life of humans or of caterpillars, is not valuable. We believed that human life is valuable because it is human. But what that human quality is that makes our life valuable is not at all obvious. The defenders of abortion as well as it's foes need to say more than that life is valuable. Caterpillars are more complex creatures than the recently fertilized human egg but that does not make their life valuable in the ways human lives are. They need to explain what makes a human life valuable. So must the defenders of the death penalty explain to us how the lives of human beings forfeit their value.
Why do our lives deserve protections not extended to grass and trees or to caterpillars?
Some people have better lives than others. Some need to work three jobs; they are always working and are not doing terribly interesting or fulfilling work. Cleaning offices and bathrooms is not that enjoyable. It probably does not give you a sense of pride in your accomplishment. Such lives are in some way impaired compared to the lives of people who have a job they love and are remunerated generously.
How do we decide who deserves the rich life – rich in satisfactions, rich in accomplishments – and who does not?
There is no obvious answer to the question what makes human life valuable. There is also no obvious answer to the question what makes some human lives more valuable than that of others. Why do some people deserve fulfilling lives and others not? Why do some people deserve to live and others not?
Brian Stevenson, the author of Just Mercy, who has spent a lifetime as an attorney for prisoners on death row, tells us that no human being is merely his bad acts. The thief is more than a thief and so is the murderer or rapist. All human beings have the potential of being loving parents, faithful partners and generous friends. It is the potential for being good human beings that gives value to our lives. It is the potential for redemption, for seeing the error of our ways.
Caterpillars and moths do not lead good or bad lives. Human beings do and that gives value to their lives.