Clinging to Advantages

Over the last few weeks I have been very critical of American society and how we have treated black people and failed to live up-to ideals of freedom and equality for all. I have scrutinized white culture and politics and how our nation developed a system of mass incarceration that treats people differently based on race, and then hides behind ideas of colorblindness to deflect charges of racism and discrimination. However, it is important for me to address the human nature which drives the behaviors and attitudes of our majority population and dominant culture, so that I can better understand how we arrived where we are today.

 

In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander writes, “it seems that an aspect of human nature is the tendency to cling tightly to one’s advantages and privileges and to rationalize the suffering and exclusion of others.” I have written about John Biewen and his podcast Seeing White, and one of the key take-aways from his podcast was the understanding that racial discrimination followed economic exploitation. When our nation was not yet independent, we did not have genetic science, and we did not have complete working ideas of evolution and biology. In the United States wealthy European settlers enslaved black people for economic gain, and to justify that exploitation, stories, myths, and the idea of what would become the basis for “race” came into being. We would not have race and the creation of a caste system if people were not exploiting humans for economic gain in the first place. This system was never authentically understood or based on reason or science, but based on myth and the self-interest of those whose privilege provided advantages.

 

The quote from Alexander reminds us that we cannot just be critical and cast a judgmental eye on those who push back against our challenges to racial injustice. To a much greater extent than we ever truly recognize, we act more out of our own self-interest or our perceived self-interest than we act based on reason and altruistic values. I do not believe that the world is zero-sum, and I think you can cut behind popular views of the world as being win-lose to see ways in which we all grow and benefit even if we appear to be giving something up. However, the loss of status, the loss of social privilege, and even the loss of economic advantages can truly feel like a loss if you view the world as zero-sum. Giving up any of these things produces short term pains, and the payoffs are often far away and hard to recognize. Asking one group to give up their advantages and privilege may be necessary to ensure longterm stability within a population and may lead to greater economic prosperity for all over a generation or two, but the individual who must give up status and power may feel as though they have given up more than others, and they may feel attacked and victimized.

 

This is a challenge we must work through as a society. As we ask white people to step away from privilege, we must find a way to demonstrate that we are not attacking them personally or punishing white people for having been successful in our traditional system. Often times overall wealth and privilege is not as important for an individual as relative wealth and privilege. If you have more status among those around you, it does not matter that you are less wealthy and less powerful than those you will never meet or see. This vision needs to be shifted so that we look not at our status relative to those around us, but instead look toward stability and opportunity for humanity as a whole, recognizing that we, and our children, can still be prosperous and important, but in a larger system that depends on human connections more than it depends on individual wealth and success.
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Believing You Are Doing Right When Doing Wrong

A trait we all share as human beings is the ability to rationalize our actions and find fitting excuses for our decisions, priorities, shortcomings, habits, and behaviors. We can take the worst part of ourselves and put a positive spin on it, explaining away the negativity or at least explaining why we are justified in our wrongdoing. Ta-Nehisi Coats looks at this human ability in terms of racism in his book Between The World and Me.

 

Coats quotes Solzhenitsyn and writes, “‘We would prefer to say that such people cannot exist, that there aren’t any,’ writes Solzhenitsyn. ‘To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law.’ This is the foundation of the Dream—its adherents must not just believe in it but believe that it is just, believe that their possession of the Dream is the natural result of grit, honor, and good works.”

 

In the passage above, Coats refers to The Dream as the false history and false memory of our nation’s founding, of slavery, and of our nation’s reconstruction following the Civil War. The Dream is not any one particular thing, but a set of experiences and life expectations afforded to white people in America but historically denied to African Americans. At the turn of the 20th century The Dream was denied to African American’s based on a false understanding of biology, genetics, and race, and allowed stereotypes to mascaraed as evidence based truths, lodging deep within our countries consciousness and as Coats would argue, still affecting us today.

 

We do not see overt racism very often in the United States today and it is generally quickly condemned by all. With overt segregation behind us, it is easy to assume that we have opened the doors of opportunity to all, and to assume that our success as an individual was no more likely than the success of any other person. We all had to make good decisions along our path and we all had to fight through obstacles with a sense of pride. Surely if we could do it, then so could any other person. Our focus on ourselves and the challenges we surmounted blind us to the reality that other people did not have the support, the starting point, and the random good luck that we had. What Coats refers to as The Dream is a set of circumstances that provide opportunities to some (opportunities that are hard to see) and criticizes those who do not achieve the same level of success without also having the same opportunities.

 

We think that what we are doing is good and just, but we are failing to recognize the ways in which we are maintaining division within society. We explain away our failure to act to help people by focusing on the sacrifices we had to make, on the frugal decisions we made with our money, and on the challenges we overcame. We do not see how our jokes, our inability to act, and our hidden acts of segregation (hiding behind economic household segregation) change the lives and opportunities of others.

 

This way of thinking allows systems to operate with unjust consequences and outcomes for racial minorities. Our human mind finds ways to take the blame off us and to place it on others who suffer, face greater challenges without support, and have historically been discriminated against. The act of recognizing the opportunities afforded to us but not others, and the act of recognizing how much we would struggle in another person’s shoes without the same opportunities is quite humbling, and takes away the facade of The Dream that Coats describes. Ultimately though, if we cannot recognize our self-interest and our brain’s ability to manipulate how we describe our self-interest, we will never reach a point where we are more just in our actions and decisions.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

One of the things that struck me about Cory Booker’s United is  the way in which he draws unusual connections between people in society, particularly the connections he highlights between people who live during different times. Going back several generations, Booker’s family had lived in poverty as the descendants of slaves, something Booker did not actually know until he had an ancestry check as part of a television show. His parents were able to escape a cycle of poverty that had dominated both sides of his family. Growing up, his parents made him deeply aware of the sacrifices made by his family and by people in the United States that allowed him to have greater opportunities.

 

He writes, “I’ve said many times of my generation that we drink deeply from wells of freedom and opportunity that we did not dig, that we eat from tables prepared for us by our ancestors, that we sit comfortably in the shade of trees that we did not cultivate. We stand on the shoulders of giants.”

 

The saying, “shoulders of giants” was originally used to demean a politician, but Booker repurposes it to show how close we  truly are to the people who came before us. We benefit from the choices and decisions of our grandparents and ancestors and owe much of who we are to the people whose hard work helped create the situation and environment we were born into. Through our childhood we are supported and dependent on others to prepare a life for us where we can truly survive and thrive.

 

In a recent episode of the Brookings Cafeteria Podcast, Brookings Scholar Richard Reeves shares a section from his recent book, Dream Horders, and the section he shares describes the American Dream as an opportunity for man and woman to reach toward their full potential, unhampered by society. For so many of us, this potential is only possible thanks to the members of our family who made choices that paid off not so much for them, but rather for us. Booker recognizes how much our lives are influenced by what happened before we were born and when we are infants, and he points directly to the benefits we enjoy that we did not earn.