the Varieties of Racism

I’ve been reading a fantastic book (Dog Whistle Politics) on the coded racial language that politicians use to scare people and get votes (specifically, how Republicans are able to get poor white people so scared that they will vote against their own interests).

Actual hatred or animosity. The Klu Klux Klan, for example, when they were hanging black people from trees. Simple, obvious, crazy, gets all the attention; yet it’s the least common nowadays. Do you know many people that actually hate black people? Didn’t think so (or at least they won’t admit it).

The sad thing about this form of racism – actual hatred – is that our Supreme Court has adopted it as the only kind of racism…good luck proving that your employer actually hates you because you’re black. According to Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow), this has made the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 impotent and meaningless.

The American prison system is the best example (read The New Jim Crow if you want your mind blown). If you look at the shocking statistics of African American men in our prison system, you can only come to one reasonable conclusion: the entire criminal justice system is, so to speak, racist. Or, another way to put it, African American men are disproportionately represented in the prison system (and that’s a huge understatement). But it’s a tricky thing. One person is not behind this kind of racism, it happens slowly, and it’s hard to track down. But it’s effects are quite obvious; a racist tree will produce racist fruits; whether it’s housing, jobs, or government programs.

If a white person walks by a black person on the street, typically something will happen in their brain that resembles fear. This is sad be true (I have read that several experiments were done on this). In America, we have been taught to fear black men; and so we do. It’s nothing that we did, it’s simply the air we breath, the culture we live in, what we learned from media, and the long history of oppression that we inherited. As Carl Young might say, racism is part of our Collective Unconscious. And that is a scary thing.

Nixon used race as a political tool, called the Southern Strategy

Perhaps the most insidious of all is when politicians use racism for political gain (again, utilitarian thinking rears its ugly head). According to the book I’m reading, both parties are to blame but especially the modern Republican Party, which was essentially built on a racial platform (called the “Southern Strategy”). Have you ever wondered why poor white people vote for a Party that gives tax cuts to the rich and slashes social spending? Whether it’s the coded racial language of politicians, the race-baiting of right wing media, or the non-stop fear mongering about Muslims and terrorists – white people are scared shitless.

Some people make the argument that we evolved to naturally discriminate against human beings that look different than our tribe. I’m skeptical, and I’m not sure if this is widely accepted, and I don’t know how much science this is based on, but I do know it’s out there. Some people explain the happiness of Norway and Sweden, for example, by pointing out the fact that they all look similar. People obviously point to their progressive tax code and liberal laws as well. Interestingly, racism seems to be infecting these countries as outsiders trickle in.

I suppose I can see an evolutionary advantage to being skeptical of “outsiders”–that is, people that clearly are not part of your own cooperative survival group–but race is a different concept all together.

the Varieties of Racism

Why theories about other people are wrong

Person: “People are stupid.”
Wise Person: “I’m so sorry you feel that way about yourself.”

We do this all the time. We have a theory about “how people are,” a handful of negative, blanket statements like “people are irrational” or “people are selfish” or whatever, that we like to sarcastically talk about with friends to pass the time or lament how we cannot save the world because, you know, people are like this or that. These conclusions about human nature start out perhaps by random experiences with people, watching people on TV, a book we read, an ideology we consumed. These things end up ingrained, a part of our worldview – the way we view and treat other people.

Other people. Except ourselves.

That’s my point. The fatal flaw with all these half-baked theories is that they never include the person behind the curtain, the theorist himself. You call people stupid and, for some odd reason, never include yourself in that statement? You are not stupid. It’s just those other people who are the stupid ones. What kind of arrogance is that? What kind of blindness?

When we make blanket statements about vast groups of people, we should realize that we are actually subscribing to a particular theory of human nature. We are saying: this is what human beings are like. Therefore, shouldn’t we apply it to ourselves first? Is it true about you? No. Okay, then perhaps it’s wrong (on many levels).

One way to trick ourselves, of course, is to put people into neat little buckets like “republican” or “liberal” or “black people.” Luckily, we never put ourselves in any of the buckets we make fun of. Nice try. People are people. If Republicans are stupid, and republicans are people, and you are a person, then you are stupid.

My blindness, perhaps, might be the opposite. I am categorically opposed to negative theories of human nature, ask you can probably tell, for several reasons (one is purely pragmatic…what good will that do?). I positively assert that human nature is basically good, that we can do anything, that our potential is unlimited. However, at least I apply it to myself. I believe that I am basically good, that I can do anything, that I am unlimited. I believe this about other people too. That’s the difference. If you have a poor view of human nature, that’s fine, and you might be correct; but please apply to yourself.

Why theories about other people are wrong

"rights" talk is a fancy way of expressing feelings…right?

I recently finished a fascinating book, Moral Tribes, that argued, believe it or not, against rights. Specifically, he argued that “rights” are really words that we hide behind. I think there is some truth to that.

Abortion is wrong because all humans have a right to life. Abortion is okay because all women have a right to choose. Gay people have a right to marry. The government has a right to define marriage. We cannot kill one person to save five because people have a right to life. Whether it’s carrying a gun into the library, burning a flag, or not vaccinating your children, we love to use “rights” and “duties” when talking about moral issues, when making moral judgments, or justifications, or rationalizations. Rights do all the heavy lifting, they are the argument; we hide behind them, they sound objective, smart, impartial, universal.

But what if the word “right” is nothing more than a fancy way of saying “I don’t like it.” In other words, “I don’t like abortion, it feels wrong.” A feeling, a gut reaction, an emotion, subjective. Everything else – all the arguments, justification, rationalization – is extra, meaningless, scaffolding. “I like when mothers can choose.” Same thing. First comes the feeling, then comes the argument to justify the feeling. If you keep asking why, you eventually get to feelings, intuitions, and gut instincts.

It reminds me of working in the Law Library. Patrons many times come in asking about “their rights” on any number of subjects. But sometimes what they really mean is this: I want x. Does a “right” exist to allow me to get x. In other words, please give me a fancy legal term that will magically get what I want.

Well, overall I think this is a negative, simplistic, reductionist view of human beings, similar to the “boo-hiss” theory that reduces all moral reasoning into simple emotions, so I don’t buy it for those reasons. I apply it to myself (which everyone should do), and I do find some truth in it.

Here’s the point. The argument tends to stop when you throw the R-bomb, and that’s really the worst thing. I believe in a right to life, you believe in a right to choose. Let’s go our separate ways, right?  Wrong. It’s not that simple. Public policy needs to be written, and these issues bear directly on laws that influence our lives. So politically at least we cannot ignore each other. Also, we might kill each other (people have killed for much less). Therefore, we need another solution.

Joshua Greene’s solution is to reduce rights talk into Utilitarian calculations. How much suffering does abortion cost overall? How much happiness does gay marriage promote? And let’s go from there.

Sounds promising. Does it work? Well, sadly, according to what I read in his book, it doesn’t. His utilitarian solution to abortion, for example, the only problem he tackled, was horribly complex, speculative, long-winded, not mathematical, and ultimately not convincing…it ends up being pro-choice, which is fine, but it leaves the reader scratching his head as to how the argument got there and how smart you have to be to engage in moral debate for God’s sake–do we all have to go to Harvard to think correctly about these issues? Greene takes nuanced thinking to a whole new level here, to the point of meaninglessness. Maybe I will stick to my “rights talk” – much simpler and people get my meaning. In fact, the same old arguments against Utilitarianism rears its’ ugly head – it’s very very hard to actually calculate suffering and happiness.

"rights" talk is a fancy way of expressing feelings…right?

Top 5 Kalamazoo Foods (co-authored with Katherine Platte)

1. Bangkok Flavor!

Not just because it’s Thai food – I’m not cosmopolitan – but because it’s awesome food. Pad Prik is my favorite: chicken, red & green pepper, spanish onion, green onion, & mushroom in a garlic brown sauce. That’s really the main question: what sauce?: brown (garlic) sauce, or red/yellow/green curry sauce with coconut milk. They are all delicious. Spicy as you want. Tastes nothing like Chinese food by the way, no MSG. Lunch prices are around 6 dollars, which seems ridiculously low to me considering the flavor explosion.

Katie: What?  We have the same favorite restaurants? At least we have something in common! I like all the curries with coconut milk, especially with eggplant and mushrooms to soak up the flavor. The fried tofu is amazing. The only downside is that everything I love the most has fish sauce in it, so isn’t really vegetarian. You can get food cooked in mushroom soy sauce so that it is vegan/vegetarian, but it isn’t the same. I like the food “hot” which is warm enough that your nose runs, but you can still taste all the flavors. It is still really good “medium” which is what I got while I was pregnant.

2. Saffron

Fine Indian food, buffet style. I must admit the first time I had it, I didn’t like it that much. I wasn’t used to the weird flavors. Also all the food looks really similar, like mush. But after that, I loved it. The rice pudding especially blew me away. I have like five servings of that shit. For reasonable prices, you have to go during lunch on weekdays or Saturdays. We rarely go.

Katie: Best food ever! I know the vegetarian stuff is vegetarian. The reason it is #2 is that if you go to the buffet you never know what dishes you are going to get, obviously. If they always had the spinach and paneer and the Korma and if the buffet was spicier it would be #1.  At dinner you have to buy the dishes, rice and naan separately so it adds up fast.

3. Shawarma King

Lebanese food. Again, I’m not picking foreign foods just to be cool….I really do like these the best. It’s a meat sandwich wrapped in pita bread with a pickle. I get Chicken Shawarma with Feta. But it’s really the white garlic sauce (=God sauce) that completes everything and makes it….a little bit REAL nice. The meat is slow cooked on a vertical pole. Picture a hug wasp nest except tender and delicious.

Katie: God Sauce!!! I could eat here every day and not get bored. Lots of great sandwiches, but hard not to get the falafel with god sauce every time it is so good. and the hummus is amazing, sometimes it comes with a monkey face made of olives and onions.

4. El Gallo Blanco

Best Mexican food in Kalamazoo. The best way to explain the food is like this: picture a huge pot of flavor. Now picture your food being placed into that pot of flavor, and marinated in flavor for 24 hours. I’ve never had chicken so flavorful in my life. I go really simple: get the grande chicken burrito, which is around 6 dollars for two meals.

Katie: I thought the tamales were great the first time I went here, but they keep on getting better. What I order is a lot different then what Matt gets, no slow cooked pot of flavor exactly, but really good. My favorite mexican restaurant in Kalamazoo and they don’t even have my favorite mexican food, chili rellanos.

5. Qdoba

Self-explanatory and self-evident.

Katie: I differ here. I think I would have put Bell’s at #4 and El Gallo Blanco at #5. I don’t want to like Bell’s food since it was horrible for so many years (“well there is one veggie burger at the bottom of the freezer, or you can have a peanut butter and pickle sandwich”) but they really picked up their game with the competition from other breweries in town. Now they have awesome tempeh burgers.

Honorable mentions: Shakespeare’s nachos, Beer Exchange onion rings, Erbellis calzones, Bells Jumbalaya.

So, I do realize that we give special treatment to foreign food. It must have something to do with the fact that it’s special, we didn’t grow up with it, etc etc.

Top 5 Kalamazoo Foods (co-authored with Katherine Platte)