Sunday, July 10, 2016

Where is my outrage?

I need to confess something ... something that I'm ashamed of.  Shame is, I know, a word that's out of vogue these days, yet I can't think of anything more appropriate.  "Guilt" is something different, and "embarrassed" doesn't come close.

Yesterday on my Facebook feed I saw a piece that had been posted three months ago on imgur.  It consisted of two things -- a letter purported to be from a first-year law student, written anonymously, complaining about a professor having worn a Black Lives Matter t-shirt on campus.  "We are here to learn the law," the letter says.  "We do not spend three years of our lives and tens of thousands of dollars to subjected to indoctrination or personal opinions of our professors."

The second half of the post is claimed to be the professor's response.  (I'm describing it this way because it is, after all, the internet where I came across this and it's so hard to know if things are, indeed, what they appear to be.)  "I am accepting the invitation in your memo, and the opportunity created by its content, to teach you."  The professor goes on to say that he will present his response into two parts:  "Part 1 addresses the substantive and analytical lessons that can be learned from the memo.  Part 2 addresses the lessons about writing that can be learned from the memo."

It is brilliant.  The tone is brilliant.   The content is brilliant.  He articulates answers to the challenges made by so many folks who have been raised to think of themselves as white to the Black Lives Matter movement.  One example:  his first section is a series of naming the unspoken premises behind statements in the student's letter and, then, his critique of them.
Premise:  History doesn't matter.  Therefore sequences of cause and effect can be ignored (or inverted).

Critique:  To assert that the Black Lives Matter movement is about violence against the police is to ignore (and invert) the causal reality that the movement arose as an effect of police violence.  Yes, the movement is about violence, in that it is about the subject of violence, but it is not about violent retaliation against the violence it is about.  It is a tragic fact that rage as a consequence of racial injustice sometimes gets enacted as violence (although not nearly as often as we might expect, given the long-standing causes of that rage).  We can all lament the fact that violence begets violence.  But we can't even do that if we ignore that violence that has done, and is doing, the begetting.
Brilliant, right?  Clear.  Cogent.  I was so impressed that I immediately knew I would be re-posting the link, and referring to professor's arguments often.

So what am I ashamed of?  That I was enjoying it.  That I was reveling in this professor's ability to take apart the student's arguments -- which echo the arguments so many of us hear far too often, even from well-meaning people we know.  He said, more clearly that I ever will, what needs to be said.  And I was loving it.

But where is my outrage?  Where is my anger that these things need to be said at all?  How can I be enjoying something that was born out of such a painful, literally life-and-death reality?  There are real people lying dead on real streets ... and real mourning of real families and friends ... and real fear in the hearts of real people.  This is not a rhetorical exercise.  And the only reason I can sit back and enjoy with clarity (and, let's face it, the cleverness) of this professor's response is because I can sit back, because as a person who has been raised to think of myself as white I am removed from the reality that gives birth to the need for a movement such as Black Lives Matter.

I am the adoptive father of two sons of color.  The brown skin of one will no doubt at some point bring him into direct contact with this reality; the white skin of the other will no doubt shield him.  Yet however close to home this comes to me, what I realized this morning as I reflected on my response to the exchange between this professor and student is that I can sit back.  That I am sitting back more than I was aware of.

Of that, I am ashamed.

Pax tecum,


Print this post


Anonymous said...

White wealthy and middle class whites are hypocrites. They treat lower-class whites as if they were a caste. Ignore them. Celebrate all others and attack, assault, and push into increasing oblivion the whites lives that were deemed irrelevant and unworthy enough that plantation owners did not want to pay them and so they brought black slaves to America. House slaves during the civil war looked down on white poor. The white poor are a caste and continue to be so because of white wealthy class, including the media, who feel free to attack with sweeping generalizations. In fact, in today's world, it is truly poor whites who are the ONLY caste--they have no voice, they have no allies. This is the fault of hypocritical whites. This will not turn out good, because all people who are true victims will eventually see the light. Today, it is the festering anger of the poor white underclass that you should be paying attention to. But elitist whites won't even acknowlege the issue. Poor whites are made to "prove" their worth while poor blacks are NEVER made to prove their worth but instead the opposite because criminals (Brown, etc.) are celebrated as heroes. And this is why poor whites will never vote as a block with poor blacks--because whites such as Clinton celebrate the same criminals who, if they were white, would simply be shot by police and never spoken of again.

RevWik said...

I'm glad you responded, Anonymous. I really am. While I (probably pretty obviously) don't agree with your assertion that "White wealthy and middle class whites are hypocrites," you give voice to something that we (because I fall into that category) often don't look at, don't want to look at, or don't give credence to -- the legitimate anger and grievances of poor white people. It's easy to simply write it -- and them -- off as ignorant racists, but the truth is much more complex than that. (As truth so often is.)

A congregant recently left on my desk a copy of an article by Hua Hsu from The New Yorker magazine of July, 25, 2016. [] Hsu considers several recent books looking at our current racial and class divides from the point of view of poor whites, demonstrating the real displacement, pain, and suffering they have experienced throughout U.S. history. It is true, in one sense, that regardless of economic status people with white skin have access to more "privilege" than people of color. Yet it is equally true that as you travel down the economic ladder that privilege becomes moot.

One of the things I found fascinating in Michelle Alexander's book The New Jim Crow: mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness -- -- is the clear use of racial animous as a way of keeping poor whites and poor blacks from uniting against upper class elites who did not want their way of life threatened. While this is not explicitly mentioned in Hsu's piece, it is hard not to see the argument's presence in what he does write.

"Make Intersectionality" is a term that refers to the ways seemingly dispirit systems of domination and oppression actually overlap, intersect, in ways that make efforts to untangle them difficult. I think you demonstrate this, Anonymous, in your comment -- my writing about the very real oppression experienced by people of color in our country sparks in you a response lifting up the very real oppression experienced by poor whites. To imagine that these two are somehow contradictory is to fail to see the ways they are linked. And failing to see how they are linked ultimately condemns efforts to address either one to failure.