The horrible case of 8 year-old Leiby Kletzky lost on a seven block walk to meet his mother, kidnapped and murdered by a stranger he'd asked for directions, has prompted various forms of outrage and advice. One thing I've seen quite a few places is the recommendation that children be instructed not to ask men for help, on the basis that men are more likely than women to exploit a child. And I can't help but wonder if that's really the advice we should be giving?
How much harm does it do children to make them afraid of men, to be given the not so subtle message that men are by nature dangerous? I can't help but think that childhood lesson produces a lasting impact that is very real, but also hard to quantify. And is the damage done by that lesson given to all children truly less than the impact of the assaults/killings/abuses directed at a minority of children? We can easily say that protecting even one child from abuse is worth just about anything, but that would be a lie. While it's hard to compare these things, as a society we clearly do... All parents could escort their children everywhere they go until they are 18, to ensure their safe passage, but society has decided that the children's mental health requires the risk of them being given independence, accepting the horrible things that could happen when they exercise it. So is a society tainted by the fear that men are likely to abuse them worth the reduced harm to some children? I'm not sure.
And separate from that, does the warning to avoid men when in need not cross (or at least come infinitely close to crossing) a very sexist, stereotyping line? What makes me uncomfortable is that you could use a similar logic to explain to a young daughter that she should stay away from black boys. Statistically they are more likely to commit crimes. This advice would make her "safer". But that would be a horrible message to send a child; I can't imagine any decent parent doing it. It's offensiveness is obvious, the fact is black people aren't genetically more likely to commit crimes, the increased crime rate is explained by socioeconomic factors. And so now we turn to the advice for daughters regarding men. Are men more likely to commit crimes because of genetic/hormones or is it because of other factors (environment, education, culture, etc.)? If it is not genetics/hormones then it would seem wholly "unfair" to discriminate on that basis, just as it would be to warn whites about black people when the root danger is socioeconomic, not race. Presumably one would argue that crime is more common among males for genetic/hormonal reasons, and I'd probably agree that there is some truth to that. But I'm not sure even that is enough to make it an acceptable form of discrimination, when every individual male is being judged with comparison to the aberrant males.
And of course all this relates somewhat to my earlier discussions about SlutWalk and whether or not women advising women to take precautions in situations where their behavior and/or dress could put them at elevated risk constitutes sexism. In that case my argument was that it's not sexist (against women) to make women aware of the risk of assault and mention precautions they could take to improve their odds, as long as those precautions outlined do not necessitate women being restricted in how they dress or where they go, and so long as society does not see those who flout these precautions as no longer being victims, should an assault occur. In this situation with children, I see a few key difference. There is in this case the prejudgment that all men may be potential kidnappers/pedophiles/murderers. In this case the solution is to avoid asking all men for help, and it is the blanket nature of the warning that I think makes it so sexist. If the advice given to children was instead, ask any adult woman or any adult man in some degree of authority wearing an employee's uniform engaged in his duties (e.g., grocery store manager, postal worker, city construction worker, etc.) then I would feel the advice less sexist and more reasonable; I do not know what the right selection criteria would be for men equally unlikely to violate children as the average woman, but I'm sure there are some.
In high school I had a beautiful white cocker spaniel named Champ. When an African American would come to the house he would bark furiously. Was Champ a racist dog? Can dogs even be racist? The explanation of Champ's racial bias was pretty simple. My family is white. We weren't terribly social. My mom had few friends come over, and the ones that did were probably all white. I had few friends over, and the two or three I regularly did were all white. The only African American (or non-white) people Champ experienced were there in a role which dogs inherently hate: meter readers, mail men, and delivery people. I didn't realize my dog's bias until I invited a friend over who was African American and Champ absolutely would not stop barking at him, which was totally uncharacteristic of his normal behavior with white strangers who come over. So again, was Champ a racist? By the literal definition I suppose he was, his reaction to a new person was based on race. He was using race as a mechanism for judging people. But I would argue that this sort of racism, if it really is to be considered racism at all, is somewhat unavoidable, and not in the same class as a bias which has no contextual explanation or basis. If Champ had gone on to have numerous positive experiences with non-white people and persisted in his negative reaction to non-white people, then I think he can more confidently be labeled a racist dog. But that may not entirely be the point.
The reason I bring all this up is because of my own experience the other night,and my attempts to understand it. The other night I went out to walk another dog (this one shows no sign of the earlier one's race bias). It was about 1:00 am. My neighborhood is usually completely deserted at that time, I never see anyone. On the other side of the street, heading towards the front of a small condo complex was a young, early-twenties African American. If I had merely factually noticed his existence and his physical features, that would be the end of this blog post. But, I did more, and I'm still trying to understand what and why. I've been over-analyzing those milliseconds for the last few days and along the way I've surely begun to lose some clarity on what flashed through my mind, but I'll try to relay it as accurately as I can.
My reaction seemed to be something along the lines of suspicion, the feeling that he didn't belong, and that he might be a suspicious character. The big question I asked myself immediately after realizing the flash of reaction I had was to wonder if I would have thought anything of him if he had been white? or Asian? or...? And the answer appeared to be no. Without any context my reaction sure seems like a racist one. But, was it really? Am I? On some level I think we're all guilty of erroneous and unfair biases, but picking apart the reasons for my reaction makes me a little unsure about whether my particular reaction crossed that most important line.
As with Champ, there are contextual bits of information that may be relevant.
- Having seen them come and go for years, having interacted personally with quite a few of them, I knew everyone in the small condo complex of 6 or 7 units. The owners have been all in their thirties, forties, or fifties, and there have not been any African Americans living in the units. Seeing a younger African American approaching the complex was, therefore, unusual. But, does that absolve me of the crime of thinking he was out of place? I'm not so sure. Clearly in this case the only information available to me to form any sort of reaction his race, his age, his dress, and the lateness of the hour. His dress was normal and his age was a little young for the complex.
- The street on which I live has lots of whites, quite a few Asians, a number of people of Hispanic descent, but only one house two blocks down that has African Americans.
- The only African Americans I routinely see on my street live are a group of regulars who come through this neighborhood to get to the liquor store adjacent to my house, where they buy those single serving cigars which they then seem to fill with marijuana and smoke in the alley right behind my house.
So, like Champ, my experience of African Americans in my immediate neighborhood is very slight, and where it exists at all it is primarily negative (the drug users in the alley). I would argue that our brains, which are engineered specifically for the task of looking for patterns and trying to extract meaning from what can be meaningless or misleading data, are very prone to making unreasonable and unfair conclusions which may linger in our subconscious before occasionally bubbling up into our conscious mind. It was not right that I should see a person and make any assumptions about him based on his race, but is it necessarily racist? Or can it merely be unconscious pattern recognition spewing out erroneous notices? Is it racist to merely have such a brief reaction of suspicion in this situation, or does it only become racist when you accept that suspicion as valid?
I found the incident troubling because I knew I had felt something unfair towards a man who did not deserve my suspicion, and that my suspicion was most likely based primarily on his race. And all the context in the world doesn't remove those facts, though it might explain it.
I saw the same person the next day and had the urge to go up to him and apologize. But I instantly realized that I'd only be doing it to make myself feel better and in the act be burdening him needlessly with the awareness that he had been the object of my suspicion; sometimes I have well meaning but very stupid ideas.
Most of us strive to be better than we are, kinder than we are, fairer than we are, and I was disappointed with myself the other night. Hopefully this disappointment and my thinking about it will inform my future reactions.
Political Correctness often runs amok, and when it does its primary fault is that it denies very real but unpleasant truths. We shrink from the real discussion of the issue by being offended when a little boy tells an emperor he has no clothes. In the news today is the story of Harry Reid apologizing for making racial remarks about Obama during campaign. The comments he's being made to apologize for are:
He [Reid] was wowed by Obama's oratorical gifts and believed that the country was ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama -- a 'light-skinned' African American 'with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.'
To those who find offense in the idea behind the words he chose, I say... What I find deeply offensive about that statement is that it is a true and accurate reflection of our still racially biased America. There is nothing we should find offensive about someone acknowledging that truth. Would anyone seriously argue that Obama's odds of election would have been greater (or exactly the same) had his skin been very dark? You and I may wish his skin color didn't matter to many of the voters, but I'm not so naive as to believe it doesn't. And no one could reasonably argue that Obama's oration, and its lack of Ebonics, didn't make him a far more palatable candidate. Harry Reid made a true and accurate statement, and now must apologize for it, because that's easier than requiring those who find knee-jerk offense acknowledge the shameful truth in his statement.
To those who find offense in the phrase "Negro dialect", I say... The phrase may have been poorly chosen, but I'm not clear if that phrase would necessarily offend most people. And I'm not sure what phrase would have been the right one. The term "Ebonics" seems to be the preferred term for what he was referring to, though I must confess I feel somewhat uncomfortable using that term, it has never felt like a legitimate word, being used primarily in non-serious contexts, as part of late night comedians' joke. And it seems like that word only came into being within the last 10-15 years. Would African-American dialect be an acceptable term? The term "Negro" can certainly be a charged word, but I've never understood it to be an automatically offensive word. The word is to be found in the terms "Negro spirituals" and the "Negro League", and while those terms represent things born of cruel and always unequal treatment, the "Negro" in those phrases calls to my mind the very best of men and women. The "Negro" in those terms is the one who triumphed against adversity, found beauty in despair, demonstrated excellence in injustice. But perhaps the word has a very bad association for many, I can certainly imagine some hideous people using it offensively, but there I think it's the context and not the word that primarily offends. (To be safe, I never use the word.) Whatever the case, I would hope people could see beyond the word, and find in this context no offense.
To those who find offense in Reid suggesting Obama could choose to speak in Ebonics, well, that is reality. People routinely vary their speach patterns to fit in. I've seen African Americans do it, Southerners do it, rednecks do it, Bostonians do it, etc.)
(I know little of Harry Reid. I've heard his name quite a lot over the last few months with regard to the health care debate, but other than that I'm woefully ignorant of the man, and am certainly not defending him on the basis of any knowledge of him or fondness for him.)
It's a few days later, and the more I see people react to this, the more it puzzles me. When I've listened to people, from pundits to politicians to people on the street, no one seems sure exactly what part of what Harry Reid said was offensive. It's quite bizarre. Everyone seems to feel some obligation to suspect offense (white guilt or black outrage), but no one seems to be able to pinpoint the offense. A few seem to feel "Negro dialect" is an offensive term, but many people (and scholars) say it's a valid and inoffensive term, but technically different from Ebonics ("Negro dialect" being the dialect of slaves and former slaves). Others seem to feel you just shouldn't speak about how much "hue" can matter in public acceptance, regardless of that horrible truth.
The Republicans are thoroughly disgusting me with their attempts to make this issue into something. It's clear they are trying to use this to derail Harry Reid and delay, distract, or derail health care. I find it hard to believe men or women of intelligence could find anything worth outrage here. Their only arguable point is that this in some way is reminiscent of Trent Lott's statement back in 2002and as such we should all stop being so "touchy". And if that's their real point (which I doubt it is), then I'd agree with that. Strom Thurmond's politics in the 1940s were horrendous. But, I don't believe Trent Lott was in any way thinking about those aspects of Thurmond's politics when he opined that America would have been better off if Thurmond had won the presidency; Lott was surely thinking about the many racist-free contributions Thurmond had made to the US in the 50 years which followed. It may have been a short-sighted, stupid, and recklessly effusive thing to say, sure. And an apology was warranted, as it was now, but only because apologies cost nothing, and give us a moment to explain what we meant, and what we didn't mean, and give those who feel slighted an opportunity to feel heard, to be magnanimous, and to be forgiving (and to be loud and rally the masses when it's truly not enough).