Practical Philosophy

The Obligations of the Lucky

Every once and a while, something makes me realize just how lucky I’ve been. After I was born and before, a lot of fortunate things broke my way. A short list:

  • I was born as a naturalized citizen in the United States, at a time when the country was near its height in world prestige and importance.
  • I was born a white-skinned person in those United States.
  • I was born to comfortably middle class family, which fast-tracked me to a comfortably middle-class debt-free existence.
  • I was never abused as a child, nor made to quietly suffer any meaningful injustice.
  • I was never told by the dominant society that my sexuality was unacceptable or disallowed.

I could go on, but you probably get the point: I’ve had a privileged existence so far. And very little of it is a result of any specific actions I took, qualities I adapted, or hard work I put in. I’ve just been lucky.

I think one of the hardest things about being so lucky is that you become blind to how many good breaks you got. If you see people struggling where you’ve never struggled, and you miss your luck, you’re not very empathetic to their hardship. You’re likely to think that everyone else should just work as you did and would have success as simply and painlessly as you’ve had.

I think that way sometimes. I think “Wow, everyone should just do the things I do and see the things I see. Then they’ll be as well-off as me.”

But then, usually, I catch myself. I recognize how much random good-fortune and the privileges of traits about myself I never really picked factor into my success.

Any anger I publicly display is — as a white man in America — likely to be read as legitimate and worthy of consideration. It’s not really more likely to be well-founded than the anger of a black woman, but her anger is likely to be read as pedestrian and misguided by the world at large. She’s much more likely to be considered touchy, angry, or disagreeable than I am, because of her unchosen characteristics.

When I’m pulled over for speeding, there’s a high likelihood that I will safely and effortless make it through that traffic stop with nothing worse than a ticket. I’m not likely to suffer the indignity of being pulled from my car for an unnecessary road-side sobriety test. Or have my car searched for drugs or other contraband. I will not, as a browner skinned man might, see a police officer leer at me a little too hard and work unnecessarily to find something else to ticket me for.

The world I live in is a privileged one. And my first obligation is to never forget that. To remember that I didn’t earn all that I’ve got. I did work hard and I did earn some of it; it’s foolish to pretend that I’ve not had some impact on my own life. But I was also given opportunities, and the benefit the doubt, a lot more than others, and I can’t forget that.

Because I remember that, and because I know the subtle injustice of a society that makes it a little more likely that I succeed than most others, I owe it to them to keep the difference in mind. To do my best to listen and understand. To do my best to share to others like me, who fail to see their invisible good fortune, my understanding of the ways in which the system is failing those who haven’t quite had such luck. Privileged people seem to hear a little easier when their privilege is explained by similarly lucky people. Because I possess a straight, white, American, cis-gendered male form, my speech is more likely to be given a respectful hearing.

The world we have today is probably the fairest one to have ever existed. The rates of unstructured violence, of enslavement, of arbitrary decisions passed off as justice, are lower than they’ve probably ever been in history. But that’s a long distance from saying that our world is completely fair, just, and free of coercion. The obligation of those lucky enough to have it easy is to work extra hard — specifically because they don’t need to — to make the world fairer and more just still.

american society, politics, USA

Was Reagan A Racist?

One presidential candidate is lighting up the New York Times Opinion page with impassioned attacks and defenses. No, it’s not Barack Obama, Ron Paul, Hillary Clinton, Mike Huckabee, Jon Edwards, Rudy Giuliani, Dennis Kucinich, or Mitt Romney. It’s Ronald Reagan.

Ronald ReaganThe crucial question of the day, if you’re reading the New York Times Opinion pages at least, is whether or not Ronald Reagan was making a veiled appeal to the Southern white electorate in his 1980 campaign.

The claim, made many times by columnists Paul Krugman and Bob Herbert, is that Reagan, by speaking about “state’s rights” when he visited the Neshoba County Fair outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1980, was sending a conscious message to white racists that he was on their side. Because Philadelphia was famously the location of the murder of three civil rights activists in 1964, the choice of location was both an intentional and powerful message by the Gipper that, like Nixon and Goldwater before him, he wanted the vote of Southern white supremacists.

To Krugman especially, this is absolute proof that the Republican party was racist and is thus worthy of little more than disdain. It’s one of his central, and oft-mentioned problems with Republicans. It was mentioned at least three times in his recent book, The Conscience of a Liberal.

So it was hard to ignore when David Brooks, a rather conservative columnist at the Times, took issue with the claim. In last Friday’s column, “History and Calumny,” Brooks made his opinion completely clear, even as he obfuscated about who was really to blame.

Today, I’m going to write about a slur. It’s a distortion that’s been around for a while, but has spread like a weed over the past few months. It was concocted for partisan reasons: to flatter the prejudices of one side, to demonize the other and to simplify a complicated reality into a political nursery tale.

The distortion concerns a speech Ronald Reagan gave during the 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., which is where three civil rights workers had been murdered 16 years earlier. An increasing number of left-wing commentators assert that Reagan kicked off his 1980 presidential campaign with a states’ rights speech in Philadelphia to send a signal to white racists that he was on their side. The speech is taken as proof that the Republican majority was built on racism.

Brooks then goes on to explain–with no shortage of credible citations to emphasize his point–that the week after receiving the nomination, Mr. Reagan was actually trying to recruit black voters–mostly Democrats since the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt–to join the Republican movement. As Brooks says, “Reagan delivered a major address at the Urban League, visited Vernon Jordan [a black lawyer, activist, and adviser to President Clinton] in the hospital where he was recovering from gunshot wounds, toured the South Bronx and traveled to Chicago to meet with the editorial boards of Ebony and Jet magazines.”

As Timothy Noah made clear on Slate that same day, Brooks column was clearly about Krugman, though it (intentionally) failed to mention him by name. After reading Noah’s piece I thought the matter was rather finished. That is until I read Tuesday’s page, in which Bob Herbert renewed the claim with full force: Reagan was aware of and happy with his racist provocation in Mississippi. In Mr. Herbert’s words:

The murders were among the most notorious in American history. They constituted Neshoba County’s primary claim to fame when Reagan won the Republican Party’s nomination for president in 1980. The case was still a festering sore at that time. Some of the conspirators were still being protected by the local community. And white supremacy was still the order of the day.

That was the atmosphere and that was the place that Reagan chose as the first stop in his general election campaign. The campaign debuted at the Neshoba County Fair in front of a white and, at times, raucous crowd of perhaps 10,000, chanting: “We want Reagan! We want Reagan!”

Reagan was the first presidential candidate ever to appear at the fair, and he knew exactly what he was doing when he told that crowd, “I believe in states’ rights.”

Reagan apologists have every right to be ashamed of that appearance by their hero, but they have no right to change the meaning of it, which was unmistakable. Commentators have been trying of late to put this appearance by Reagan into a racially benign context.

That won’t wash. Reagan may have been blessed with a Hollywood smile and an avuncular delivery, but he was elbow deep in the same old race-baiting Southern strategy of Goldwater and Nixon.

Mr. Herbert, like Mr. Brooks, doesn’t explain that the primary “Reagan apologist” he’s concerned with is a fellow Times columnist.

Comparing the two columns, its undeniable that Brooks makes a more persuasive case about Reagan’s goal during the first week of his campaign. Mr. Herbert’s rebuttal completely ignores the strong and credible argument made by Kevin Drum (and cited by Mr. Brooks) at the left-of-center Washington Monthly that though Reagan’s history on racial issues is embarrassing–notable for his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights act, his ignorance of South African apartheid, and his attempts to roll back the 1965 Voting Rights Act–this story is overblown.

Perhaps Mr. Reagan was a racist and a race-baiter, but I’m not sure why it’s worth debating in a newspaper. The obvious interpretation, as is so often the case in questions of history, is that the past is serving as a proxy for the present. By highlighting this story Krugman and Herbert intend to raise questions about racism in the modern Republican party. Brooks defense is an attempt to claim that race is a non-issue to the party and its backers.

But I just wish the New York Times Opinion page would stop using the 1980 Philadelpha Speech as a stand-in for legitimate questions of modern politics. Let’s honestly address an interesting and non-emotional question, like if “law-and-order conservatives,” who oppose anything but wholesale deportation for illegal immigrants, are really just racists. I’m sure that’s an issue we can all talk about in a relaxed and detached manner…

american society, politics, review

Review: The Race Beat

The Race Beat: the Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff tells the story of the role and influence of the media in covering the black civil rights from its beginnings to 1965. Essentially, as their subtitle suggests, the authors make a convincing argument that that national (white) media’s coverage of the Southern struggle was essential to the passage of the landmark legislation of 1964 and 1965 (that’s the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act for those keeping score at home).

The book begins with a summary of the work of now infamous sociologist Gunnar Myrdal, a Swede studying race in the South for the Carnegie Foundation in 1940s. In An America Dilemma, which was effectively the first and most influential study of America’s race problems, Myrdal sought to understand, “How had the South’s certifiable, pathological inhumanity toward Negroes been allowed to exist for so long into the twentieth century?”

Myrdal’s conclusion, which is effectively Roberts and Klibanoff’s thesis, is that the problem was not one of malicious hatred for Negros from all white, but rather a fundamental misunderstanding of their disposition and social position in the South and the country at large. Myrdal argued that once attention was focused on racial issues in the South, the tide would inevitably have to turn in favor of equal rights for Negroes, something they weren’t getting in 1944.

Roberts and Klibanoff tell that story. The story of how White northerners learned better, how they learned of the ugly reality of the Southern system. They begin with the lead up and aftermath of the landmark Brown v. Board decision. Telling how, slowly, efforts to integrate southern school both garnered more support within the black South, more opposition from segregationist whites, and garnered more attention from outside observers.

The book covers the gambit, from segregationist local papers, large bodies like the Times, Newsweek and NBC, and smaller struggling black newspapers and their reporters. Though their focus is undeniably on the papers and reporters covering the race beat, Roberts and Klibanoff manage to tell the story of the early successes and struggles of civil rights organizers as well.

They seem to have, with understandable reason, ended their narrative in 1965, devoting only 13 pages to the story after that. This is it likely because of the declining role of the press as a central concern of the movement. But one cannot ignore the rapidly increasing factionalism and militancy among the movements many groups, not least of all after the ascension of Stokely Charmichael at the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

Regardless, the story is a compelling one, worthy of a Pulitzer Prize. Its essential lesson is, as Congressman John Lewis told the authors, “If it hadn’t been for the media… the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings, a choir without a song.” The lesson is the possibility for media to have a role in uplifting the most destitute and denigrated in society.

For though it contradicts the traditional narrative, civil rights advances in the 1960s were not won when those protesters who sat-in at cafes, when they marched under threat of violent retribution; the changes were won when the world at large saw, in stark visuals, that these things could happen. The will to change the status quo, Roberts and Kiliboff tell their readers, must be preceded by knowledge of the harsh injustice inherent in the status quo.

It is that which the civil rights movements, and The Race Beat, have to teach. And if we learn better the contours of the movement and it’s observers in the process, all the better.

american society, politics, ruminations

On the School Busing Ruling

Today the Roberts Court struck down the ability of school districts to use voluntary race-based busing policies to try to create greater diversity in their school (story here, opinion here [PDF]). That news reminded me of this encounter:

It was Martin Luther King Day. I was in downtown Denver that morning. Riding the shuttle to work.

A somewhat disheveled 20-something stood there with a sign. “End transportation discrimination.”

Seeing me looking at the sign, he proudly announced he was going to meet a civil-rights leader. That he wanted to make them aware of the fact that there were black children being bussed half-an-hour a get to school, even though they lived within 200 yards of a school that they could attend. He seemed genuinely concerned that this was an issue of fairness. That the black students were being mistreated.

There were a number of African Americans on the bus. A 55 year old grandmother, riding with her grandkids, didn’t take a stance when he told her. She said that it was interesting, but not much else.

A black man in a suit got on. He read the sign. He said that it was done so the district could create a diverse school environment, and to assure that all school were of similar quality.

The young man seemed only a little interested. He’d already made his sign and was one his way. He simply repeated his story to the man, who said little else.

A block later, the sign-carrier got off the bus. I was left wondering. I hadn’t realized that busing still occurred, and even where it wasn’t mandated. I didn’t know what its real effect was. I didn’t know if the kids he knew had been forced to go to a different school of if they’d volunteered.

And because I didn’t ask, I’ll never know.

Whether it was good or bad, they probably won’t be doing it anymore.

Maybe the sign-carrier did win.