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.
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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.