We Need to Talk About Racism (Pt. 1 of Many)

Jake Halpern is the author of the Darren Wilson profile appearing in this week’s New Yorker. The profile is garnering a lot of attention. However, at this moment, I’m more interested in Halpern’s “All Things Considered” interview, which I listened to on my drive home on Monday.

CORNISH: In the end, how did this change your understanding of Darren Wilson?

HALPERN: I think that meeting someone in person, whoever they are, meeting their family, seeing their child – you inevitably see them in a more human way. That’s true. And yet, reading the police reports, even to some of his own police reports, I also felt like he is a human, but he was part of a system that was really doing some bad things.

I think I saw the contradictions of it, the really egregious things that that police department did and some of the checks that this guy did – the pedestrian checks and whatnot – that were super questionable and where there were real suffering as a result of it, and yet simultaneously see this guy as a three-dimensional human being. And it was complicated. It made it difficult to kind of come up with easy answers and, you know, swift, knee-jerk conclusions.

You probably know by now that I consider myself to be a Nerdfighter, so you may also know that Nerdfighters hold the maxim to imagine others complexly in ultra-high regard. It’s the Golden Rule of Nerdfighteria. You might think, then, that I’d be psyched about Halpern’s flat-footed attempt at nuance — his obvious belief that Darren Wilson is more than the worst thing Wilson’s ever done.

Except…we aren’t really hearing a complex imagining of Wilson here, because Halpern seems unable to imagine a human being who is fully human and fully racist. Even though we are complex enough creatures to be both of those things at once.

In trying to resolve a contradiction which does not exist, Halpern sets up systemic issues — racism, in particular, but a whole mess of accompanying factors as well — as somehow outside of human identity. This is obviously nonsense; nothing humans do is truly outside of human identity. Yet in Halpern’s estimation, you can see Wilson as a cog in the machine OR as “a three-dimensional human being.” To see Wilson both ways at once is to invite cognitive dissonance and a nascent migraine, simply because one construct precludes the other.

These constructs are no good, so let’s chuck ’em.

Our biases, both good and bad, are a part of our complex humanity. This fact does not excuse harm that comes from bias; it accounts for it. Darren Wilson was able to murder Michael Brown because the murder of people of color by white men is one of America’s original sins. We haven’t truly acknowledged this sin, and we’ll be unable to escape it until we do. Until then, this dynamic, in the fullness of its history and its nihilism, comprises an unseen part of the American identity. We can and should attempt to root it out from the depths of our soul.

The intellectual dishonesty required to situate America’s original sins outside of our social identities is vast and disturbing.

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Why I Do “Social Change,” Not “Social Justice”

Nota bene: “Social change” and “social justice” mean many different things to different people, and my notions of “justice” are heavily influenced by my social location as well as by my perception that justice in America is often no more than a brand name for things which are incredibly unjust. My goal in this post is not to offer some kind of authoritative definition of either “social change” or “social justice,” nor to challenge people who are dedicated to the idea of “social justice,” but to describe some ways in which “social justice” is not a simple term with which good people should reflexively agree.

Now, to the post!

“Justice” — retributive, distributive, restorative or transformative — is an ideal. It involves the address of past wrongs.

It is righteous; it is critical; it is evasive; it is unreal; and it is insufficient.

Justice happens by degree, and it can happen to a seemingly-sufficient degree without ever really challenging the status quo. Even restorative justice can take place as a way of protecting the powers-that-be. Think about it: Someone can be “restored” in the view of society, though reparations (either paid by the one being restored or paid to the person, their family, or their descendants) or through rehabilitation, and still nothing will have altered whatever caused the original injustice.

We say “social justice” to distinguish it from “criminal justice,” but in both instances, justice asks, “What wrongs do we have to right?”

On the other hand, my social change asks, “What do we have to destroy so we can role the dice on building something better?”

Let’s look to a current case: Sandra Bland. For those of you who haven’t been following the news out of Texas, Sandra Bland was a black woman detained after a traffic stop who later turned up dead in her jail cell. The official story of her “suicide” is almost comically inconsistent.

Sandra Bland deserves justice; there is no question in my mind about that. And if that justice was vast and encompassing enough to prevent all future deaths in police custody, that would be pretty good. I couldn’t be critical of that kind of justice.

But justice as I know it, as I’ve seen it practiced, is incapable of such a project. Once you get too far from where you began, conventional ideas of “justice” begin to think that one thing has nothing to do with the other. Social justice that starts to seem inconsistent to the uneducated lay person is going to be stymied by accusations of injustice (when you ask the powers-that-be for too much, too quickly, you get silenced with accusations of injustice). Our concept of “justice” is just too. damn. small.

What I believe we should do is gather wisdom (and determination) from tragedies, such as the death of Sandra Bland, and use that wisdom to critically examine everything, everything, everything.

Test everything, everything, everything. Then try to change whatever fails the test, even if it doesn’t fit neatly into the box of a past wrong we need to set right.

And as long as you are doing that, you can call it whatever you’d like.