Thinking about Thinking about Racism: A Response to Jeremy, Natalia, and Ahistoricality’s Responses

by zunguzungu

When done constructively, even commentors who take you to task (perhaps especially?) force you to think about why you said the things you did in ways that are almost always useful, and this is no exception; in thinking about Jeremy’s and Natalia’s critiques of my position (in comments to this post) I find I haven’t so much abandoned it as I’ve found it easier to situate it as a particular approach to a problem we are all basically in agreement about, which helps clarify what my particular (unspoken) stakes and agenda might be and how they might differ from that of others.

Where I think Jeremy and I disagree, for example, is that I take the assumption that we know what is really driving an action or set of actions to be, in this case, counterproductive. Which is why the substance of my defense of Whalen is conducted in different terms than was his critique. Jeremy, for example, disputes the idea that Whalen‘s “not mentioning Gates’ race is evidence that she wasn’t motivated by racism” but I’m less and less interested in whether it was. As Jay Smooth nicely points out, the conversation about whether someone is racist is not the conversation we want to have, for all sorts of reasons; the conversation we want to have is the one where we’re talking about the kind of harm or damage an action actually has, and how we develop ways of thinking about minimizing the effects that a social fact like racism has.

Which is to say, especially if we adopt the position that everyone is at least somewhat racist, we enter a different kind of problem-space that the one in which the question is whether we are racist or not: instead of asking a question to which we already know the answer (but for which we have only long term solutions), we have to ask the question of how to mediate and mitigate the existence of that racism. So when Jeremy writes that “I don’t believe a white American can call the police on a black American without being racist,” I’m fully in agreement with him. Where I disagree is in how we address that problem: while Jeremy focuses on motivations (what happens in the mind of the white person making the call), I think we should be focused on consequences (what happens as a result of that action). Given that racism prevents us from looking at the situation clearly, how do we think about thinking about what to do when, for example, presented with what looks like a black man committing a crime?*

This is why, when Jeremy writes that “I think the idea that we can take steps to mitigate [racism] is facile and foolish,” I deeply disagree with his framing of the problem: he puts forward two thing we can do to destroy racism at a societal level (integrated housing and acknowledgement of racism’s existence) but while I agree that both of these things should be done, I think it’s dangerous to refuse to think in about what to do in the time before our society has cast racism into the dustbin of history. Racism is a fact now and for the foreseeable future, and it’s for that reason that we need to think about mitigating its effects in the racist society we live in now. We have to think about how to minimize the effects of our actions exactly by acknowledging our own racisms and by trying to think critically about the ways those subtle racisms infiltrate our thoughts.

This problem, then, is an epistemological one, which is why I put so much more stock in Whalen’s decisions not to say things than in the things she did say. For me, the key thing is that whereas Gates, Obama, and Crowley each assumed comprehension of the situation, each presumed to be able to say what had happened and was happening and why, Whalen is the person in the situation whose actions seem to emphasize the opposite, the fact that she didn’t know who those two men are, the fact that they might be either homeowners or burglers, etc, and tried (unsuccessfully) to get the police to share her knowledge of these unknowns.

The major critique I’ve made of Crowley, in this sense, is less that he acted in a racist manner — though, he obviously did — but that he acted as a bad policeman in his presumption of complete control of the situation. Which is to say, instead of acting within a role circumscribed by an awareness of all the things one does not know, he acted as if he had the right to determine who was and wasn’t guilty. This was an abuse of power for all sorts of reasons, but the one I fixated on was the manner in which it runs contrary to a basic principle of policing: that a do no harm imperative has priority over the imperative to prevent a crime from going unpunished. The presumption of innocence, after all, is a reminder that a person might be guilty of a crime, but you don’t take action them unless you have evidence, and it expresses a more general jurisprudential sense that the police’s job is to de-escalate, not fundamentally reconstruct volatile situations.

Anyway, my argument now is not about who was most justified in taking the actions they took (who was right, whose heart was pure), but who took the most cognizance of the problem that they might not be right (the question of, given the presence of inescapable racism, what to do). It is hardly surprising if Gates got pissy when Crowley burst into his house, but if he jumped to the conclusion that he was being racially profiled, the fact that he was right doesn’t mitigate the fact that shouting racism only escalates the volatility of this kind of situation, and never solves it: as Jay Smooth points out, calling racists “racist” is satisfying but it actually lets them off the hook (as Crowley’s “I’m no racist” demonstrates, it allowed him to change the focus from his indefensible actions to his unknowable motivations, winning the argument by default). The fact that Gates was justified in saying whatever the heck he wanted to (since it is no crime to call a cop racist, and shouldn’t be) is a different argument, and one that should be centered on Crowley’s actions, not Gates.

But no one here is defending Crowley or attacking Gates’ motivations. Which is to say, the fact that Gates was far more justified in what he did (and Crowley far less) is not pertinent to my argument: I’m interested in thinking about how we make the unknowns of a situation into “known unknowns” and how we identify our own racial blindspots so that we can work around them. Assuming we know everything about the situation as it unfolds only hampers us in doing that, and Gates seems to have fallen into that trap in a way that was tactically unsound (even if he had the constitutional right to do so). Which is why Tenured Radical’s line of thinking in the post I linked to (and almost everything Ta-Nehisi Coates has written on the matter, and on the police in general) seems to be the important one: instead of determining whether or not our analysis of the situation is or isn’t racist, we should be thinking about whether the consequences of calling the police can are worse than the consequences of not calling the police.

Therefore. The fact that Lucia Whalen’s decision to call the police was, with the benefit of hindsight, the wrong one doesn’t change the fact that in approaching the decision to do so, she did the only thing any of us can do: she tried to take stock of what she did know (it was possible that break-in was in progress) and what she couldn’t be sure of knowing (whether she only thought this was the case because the men were black). Maybe she didn’t do this enough; certainly she must regret having done what she did in retrospect. But the problem of when to call the police and when not is an extremely difficult and possibly unanswerable one, and it’s not a choice we can simply wish away by changing the frame and talking about some future horizon of progress when racism is gone. And this, I think, is the effect of Jeremy’s statement that “I think the idea that we can take steps to mitigate [racism] is facile and foolish”: by saying it is impossible, we don’t have the discussion about how to do it. But if you are in that situation, you have to make a choice (and when we are in that situation, we do make a choice).

Where Jeremy’s objection has the most force, I think, is the recognition that this “teachable moment” has essentially boiled down to a happy story telling us that everything is going to be better now that we’ve all set down at the table and talked out our grievances. And this is exactly why Lucia Whalen needs to be at the table, and why her dilemma needs to be part of the conversation: what we need to be striving for isn’t to remove our human or American failings, but to think more clearly about them. Which is, of course, exactly what Jeremy has been pushing for. But I think an important way of doing that is, while not lionizing Whalen (as both Jeremy and Natalia rightly called me on doing), to recognize that her dilemma in that situation was at least as representative of the problem that America as a whole has to think about: an acknowledgement of our own failings so that we can learn to think around them. When the utopian day comes that racism is a thing of the past, naturally, we won’t have that dilemma. But in the now-time, we have to both work to bring it about and work to mitigate its effects right now.

* As Ahistoricality pointed out in comments over at Jeremy’s blog — where a parallel version of this conversation is happening — white people don’t have a monopoly on anti-black racism; non-white people might have a monopoly on suffering from it, but they get to do so at the hands of non-white people as well.