Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Privileged Communications

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Okay, so I’ve been thinking about it some more.  I think I’ve gotten it a little more straightened out in my head.

First, I’d say we’re still talking about luck, at least at base. 

The African-America teenager who gets followed around Nordstroms because the security guard automatically suspects him of being a shoplifter would not be so followed around if he was a citizen of, say, Botswana.

That is as much the luck of the draw as being born genetically capable of growing up to look like Gene Tierney at twenty.

But the bigger issue, to me, is that the common usage of the word “privileged” implies that the “privileged” person is part of a small group that gets special treatment not available to the vast majority of his fellow citizens.

But the problem of the Hispanic guy being followed around Nordstoms or the black guy being pulled over by the cops far more often than a white guy is not a matter of some small group of people having a “privilege” that is not available to the rest of us.

Rather, not being so pulled over or followed is the default setting–it’s what most people have most of the time.  It is, in other words, normal.

The Hispanic guy and the black teenager aren’t treated the way they are treated because some small group of other people have “privilege.”

If store clerks started following white women around the store and the police started stopping white motorists as often as black ones, no justice would have been achieved for anybody.  We would simply have a situation in which everybody was being treated unjustly, and there would be no progress at all toward more justice for the black and Hispanic guys.

Like it or not, framing this issue as a matter of “privilege” implies that you want not to improve the condition of the minorities involved in this equation, but worsen the condition of everybody else.  And it is a vast majority of everybody else.

And as soon as the general public gets the idea that that’s what you want to do, your chance of improving the level of justice afforded to the black and Hispanic guys goes out the window.

And this is not because the majority is racist and self-serving.  It’s because it’s a moral imperative that every person value and protect his own life and with it his own rights and liberties.  He can voluntarily agree to forgo such protection, but it would have to be voluntary. 

It is never morally licit for us to demand that other people sacrifice themselves. 

And it is certainly never licit for us to sacrifice them against their wills for the benefit of third parties (never mind ourselves).

All justice is individual and the first rule of moral behavior–pace Peter Singer–is that we must always treat fellow human beings as ends in themselves and not as the means to the ends of others.

Because of that, I am not as sanguine as Robert is that the tendency to follow the Hispanic guy around or stop the black guy more often is an acceptable trade off between rights and safety in the world we live in now.

What I do think I know is that fixing that situation–the unusual situation in which blacks and Hispanics find themselves these days vis a vis police and other security forces–will not and cannot be solved by people who are treated normally pretending that such normality is a “privilege” that they have illicitly acquired and behaving like nuns in a Chapter of Faults, scouring their consciences for every minute imperfection.

That’s what that reminds me of, all that “check your privilege” stuff.  Nuns sitting in chapter and making a list of all their “imperfections against the Rule,” no matter how minor, out loud and in front of everybody they live with.

The process is very similar to the re education techniques of totalitarian societies.  We might want to skip this kind of thing.

The problem with fixing this kind of thing is that it is operating on a level that isn’t really capable of rational fixes.

I was thinking about this during the whole George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin thing.

Now, the actual Florida law is and was such an incompetently framed mess that Zimmerman would practically have had to burst in on Martin while Martin was asleep in bed and fill him full of holes before he could fail to be acquitted.

But it’s possible that even with a law written with some semblance of common sense, Zimmerman might still have been acquitted, under what I think of as the Bernie Goetz paradigm.

In case you don’t remember, Bernie Goetz was the man who shot four black teenagers on a subway train in 1984, alledging that the way in which they approached him was a clear indication of their intent to mug him.

The result was like a replay of a Death Wish movie.  The jury refused to convict him on any charge but that of carrying a concealed weapon, and half the city lauded him as a hero.

As far as the New York Times was concerned, this was proof that the entire city of New York was deep-dyed racist, but I doubt that was the problem at all.

The problem was that most of the people watching the Goetz trial and reading about the circumstances of the assault had had personal experiences the kind of behavior Goetz said made him believe the boys were about to mug him–and, in those experiences, lots of people had in fact been mugged.

In other words, when Goetz said he feared for his safety because of the way the boys were behaving, people believed him and believed he was being reasonable.  Most people saw that behavior as a credible threat.

(The way it worked was this:  you’d be sitting on a mostly empty subway train with the conductor nowhere in sight.  A group of adolescent males, usually at least three, would walk up to your seat in the car and surround you.  They would crowd in around you and start demanding money.  Got five dollars?  Give me five dollars?  If you took out your wallet to give them five dollars, they took the wallet.  If you refused, the whole thing could get very physical very fast.)

Enough of the population of the city of New York at that point had either been the victim of one of these attacks, or had a friend or relative who had, or had witnessed one, that when Goetz described the behavior, it sounded more than credible. 

Most of these people–most of the city–believed that if they had themselves been caught in this circumstances (surrounded by a group of young black males on an almost deserted subway car) they would have been perfectly within their rights and within the bounds of reason and common sense to fear for their safety.

Now, justice is individual–not every young black man, or group of young black men, on the NYC subways in the early 1980s was bent on stealing people’s wallets and/or beating them up.  And assuming that every such young black male or group of males was so intending is certainly unjust.


It’s also inevitable in a way that cannot be stopped ever, anywhere.

Not a single person who saw Goetz’s defense as credible had to have a racist bone in his body. 

All he had to do was live in NYC and ride the subways at a time when these attacks were being carried out virtually exclusively by young black males. 

(By the way–nobody who was not shot by Bernie Goetz or not perceived to be a threat for mounting such an attack was “privileged” in any way.  In fact, if there was any “privilege” as the word was used in that FB discussion, it belonged to the young black males, who could largely ride the NYC subways without fear.  They didn’t have to worry that anybody would attack them.  That’s why the Goetz case was so huge.  The victims were not supposed to fight back, and no other victim ever did.)

After the Trayvon Martin case had really gotten going, I found myself struck beyond words–okay, I’m never beyond words–by the local news.

During that period of three or four months, there were at least two dozen violent crimes reported in the state of CT (in the news, not just the police blotters).

And of those crimes, all but two were committed by young African American males.

The percentage was similar on the national level.

There was a point where I began to wonder if somebody was doing it on purpose–as if a whole slew of people were determined to prove all the stereotypes right.

I am not saying here that it is at all right or just for people to look at young minority men and automatically assume they’re criminal.

I am saying it might be almost impossible to stop it as long as what we see is what we see. 

The assumption does not need to be in any way racist.  To be racist, it would have to be based on an inner conviction that young black males are more likely to be criminal because they are black.

What’s more likely to be operating is a sort of collective unconscious built up of image after image in the news. 

That’s what I like to think of as the Pit Bull Problem.  Most pit bulls are friendly, gentle creatures–just ask my sister in law; she’s trying to rescue every stray one in CT–but most of the viscious dog attacks we hear about on the news involve pit bulls or pit bull mixes.

The result is that, relying on untrue stereotypes or not, several municipalities have tried to or succeeded at banning the breed within their borders.

And yes, I know that human beings are not pit bulls.  I’m just trying to point out that the psychology of the two situations is not the same.

I sometimes wonder if this is the unintended consequence of another attempt to eliminate racism as far as it could be eliminated.

When I was growing up, the news–local or national–almost never reported on black-on-black (or minority-on-minority) crime. 

They didn’t think such crime was very interesting, and the reason they didn’t think such crime was very interesting was very racist indeed. 

It was, they thought, just those people over there–that was the way they behaved, they were barely better than animals, why should anybody care?

Up in my part of the world, this was one of the first discriminatory practices to fall.  A little push came to a little shove, and the news outlets, newspapers and television both, started taking minority-on-minority crime seriously, and reporting it.

And there’s where the unintended consequences came in.

Black on white crime is very rare, so in the days of “they don’t matter,” “they” were almost never reported as committing violent crimes. 

The image that came through was of a community that was hardworking and decent if maybe a little stupid–racist enough, obviously, but nowhere near as breathtakingly negative as what we have now.

And that image, racist or not, did a lot to secure the support of people in the Northeast for civil rights.  Here were these perfectly nice people and they were being harrassed.  We had to put a stop to that.

The image that comes through now is not like that, and it is not like that not because the media are reporting on black criminals but not white ones. 

At the same time, however, most African American and Hispanic people do not commit violent crimes.

The problem becomes how to present the news in a way that makes that the more likely picture in people’s heads rather than the one we’ve got now.

And on that, the only practical move I can see is to go back to not reporting most minority-on-minority crime.

No, this will not solve racism in or country, or fix racial relations overnight–but it would put young African American and Hispanic males at less risk of stand-your-ground kinds of incidents. 

And in time, it might even ease off on the getting your car stopped/getting followed in the store thing.

Perception matters, even if it shouldn’t.

Talking about “privilege,” on the other hand, will do nothing but make most people reject your concerns before they’ve even heard them out–after all,  you’re telling them that they’re part of a special small group that’s getting things they have no right to expect, like safety and the presumption of innocence.

Written by janeh

December 22nd, 2013 at 10:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Privileged Communications'

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  1. Hmmm. Can’t say I’m thrilled by a “solution” that involves keeping me in ignorance so that I’ll behave as someone else wants, but I’m like that. And we’ve done interracial crime before. (And why not make minorities look even better by suppressing news of crimes with back or Hispanic perpetrators and white victims?)

    I used to know a Highway Patrol officer. They didn’t have a formal quota, but if he didn’t arrest a certain number of malefactors beyond traffic offenses, his superiors assumed he was slacking off. And it would hardly do to stop motorists at random: the payoff would be too low. But observing that criminals were not noted for their diligence, he pulled over every car with a license plate crooked, or only held on by one volt, and ran the license plate, the VIN and the driver’s license. It didn’t pay off every time, but he caught enough car thieves or persons wanted for some other offense to keep his superiors happy.

    Was he “privileging” drivers who attached their license plates properly? Engaged in an act of bigotry against those who did not? And would either answer be changed if it turned out that some ethnic group was more likely not to attach a license plate properly? (No, I have no idea. But I bet there’s an EO official panting to look into the notion.)

    Reach the point where race regardless of context tells you nothing about propensity toward crime, and effective policemen will not consider it. We lump “whites” statistically today, because police no longer keep a sharper eye on Jews, Italians and Irishmen, as they once did and needed to. Call me old-fashioned, but I think when you change the facts on the ground, the perceptions will follow. Trying to change the perceptions without changing the facts is a bit of an uphill climb.

    That said, I wholeheartedly agree that we should all enjoy safety and the presumption of innocence. I just keep in mind that they police are to provide the safety and the courts the presumption of innocence. The reverse won’t work well.


    22 Dec 13 at 2:37 pm

  2. I had a look at racial distribution in the US.


    Whites are 72% of the population. That makes white males about 36% of the population. Clearly a minority!

    I’m not sure that minority is still a useful concept.


    22 Dec 13 at 4:24 pm

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