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August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13

Courage, the invisible, and the law
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Ta-Nehisi Coates has been my favorite writer to read on this Rand Paul mess. (Short version – Ron Paul’s son won the Republican primary for a Senate seat in Kentucky, after which his candidacy kind of fell apart after some really clumsy and embarassing interviews where he tried to say that he was against the Civil Rights Act banning segregation, but that he wasn’t a racist, would have marched with MLK, and thinks a free society means people/businesses are free to do despicable things.) Here are the key bullet points:

  • Why can the media only focus on how bad this looks for Paul politically, rather than try to engage with his opinion as a serious position? “[W]hile I expect politicians and their handlers to think in terms of messaging, I also expect–perhaps foolishly–for media to be in the business of pushing past that messaging to actual ideas. What we get instead is a faux-objectivity, that avoids the substance of issues and instead focuses on how that substance is pitched. In that sense, much like the relationship between entertainment and many entertainment journalists, it’s really hard to see media as more than quasi-independent extension of campaign apparatus.”
  • Why can’t Paul and his conservative/libertarian supporters actually engage with this stuff more seriously? “What I’m driving at is raising the question about methods is never wrong, to the contrary it’s essential. That process is undermined by people who raise those questions, without having thought about them, without being able to speak to their nuances, and are mostly concerned with tribal signaling. People were dragged from their homes, raped and murdered over civil rights. Talk about it, by all means. But talk about it with the intellectual seriousness it deserves.This is not a third grade science fair project.”
  • This post, “Towards an abstract courage,” is my favorite, because it addresses the idea that certainly, Paul and every other decent person would have been allies with King and other desegregationists to bring segregated businesses down, without the federal government stepping in. “Now, after the police dogs, night-sticks and fire-hoses have been beaten back, Rand Paul wants to reopen the question, while, to be sure, claiming that he would have had the ‘courage to march with Martin Luther King.’ This is a common strain of courage. It chiefly shines through in men born 50 years too late. Presently among the crowd, they are distinguished at that decisive moment when queried about wars they won’t have to fight, in times they will never live. These men populate our history books. They are all on the wrong side.”
  • To that end, “Towards a manifested courage” tells the story of Joan Trumpauer, one of the white freedom riders arrested in Jackson, MS for integrating a lunch counter.

Coates links to Charles Lane in the Washington Post, who writes:

Suppose an African American customer sits down at a “whites only” restaurant and asks for dinner. The owner tells him to leave. The customer refuses and stays put. What are the owner’s options at that point? He can forcibly remove the customer himself, but, as Paul concedes, that could expose the restaurateur to criminal or civil liability. So he’ll have to call the cops. When they arrive, he’ll have to explain his whites-only policy and ask them to remove the unwanted black man because he’s violating it. But they can only do that on the basis of some law, presumably trespassing. In other words, the business owner’s discriminatory edict is meaningless unless some public authority enforces it.

Conversely, it is precisely because of this nexus between private discrimination and public enforcement that the larger community, through the political and judicial process, acquires a valid interest in legislating against discrimination. The public is entitled to say whether their tax money should pay for arresting black trespassers on whites-only property.

This, for me, is a huge point, since it establishes that segregation and desegregation aren’t at substance purely a matter of freedom of association or the content of characters/hearts, but a matter of recognition under the law. What we see are the people, those angry faces — but what makes the invisible infrastructure for all of that anger is the law.

To see how important — and how slippery — this point can be, read this NYT editorial excoriating Paul, then Chris Bray at History News Network, who justly slams the NYT:

[T]he American history of racial oppression and brutality is a history of government. The founding document of the republic privileged slavery as a lawful institution, and government served that institution for another seventy-eight years after that. The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free all American slaves; it freed slaves in states engaged in rebellion…

After the abandonment of Reconstruction, “redeemed” southern governments rebuilt structures of oppression through law and the institutions of government. Jim Crow laws were laws; the regime of racial segregation was not simply a set of social choices. That guy standing in the schoolhouse door? He was a governor. Why is that so hard to figure out?

I think it’s because we’ve seen the pictures of the dogs and the firehoses and the angry men and women behind them, and we’ve assumed that that’s what discrimination looks like, to the point that we can’t understand anyone or anything as racist unless it looks like that.

But I don’t think that’s it at all. It’s a secret history of the invisible that we’re tracing. And the thing about being invisible is that it’s pretty easy to be everywhere.

4 comments

Kenneth says…

Really well done post.

“Tracing a history of the invisible” – I like. And it seems to capture well the difficulty of talking about power or discrimination in a supposedly post-racial or post-prejudice era. At times, it feels as if one is grabbing at air – you’re pretty sure it’s there, but there’s nothing to hold on to.

The issue, to me anyway, is that more and more, there are two broad worldviews that increasingly cannot speak to each other. There is no mid-ground in most political discourse because systems of understanding the structures of society don’t translate well. If one believes in the self-constituting, self-generating subject, then all talk of ‘soft’ or ‘systemic’ discrimination is simply a sign of a weak-will or a kind of apology or guilt. Similarly, most leftists seem unwilling to acknowledge something like ‘the moral hazard of the welfare state’ or of the need of some kind of structural incentive for personal responsibility.

But this is all complicated by this idea that ‘the fine meshes of power’ aren’t readily visible. And 40% of all people know that statistics don’t prove anything (Simpsons quote!).

We live in a strange time. Just the other day, the editor of a right-wing newspaper was on TV during a panel discussion on racism. He trotted out the kind of arguments you hear on the street: single-parenthood is a bad choice, these people don’t try hard enough in school, etc. And all the anti-racist activists could say in response was “well that doesn’t explain the disparity in social standing”. And that was it. The show ended.

Two groups, miles apart, and unable to even converse.

Tim Carmody says…

Yes. And I’d say that inability to converse starts with a big difference in what those two groups see — and more, what they really can see, which winds up implicating most liberal activists in a kind of blindness too.

To go back to the example of Rand Paul, he’s willing to ban discrimination in federal employment, because it’s the government footing the bill, but thinks private businesses, etc. should be off the hook. He doesn’t see the government expenditure and power that makes private discrimination possible. And I’d say this is because he can’t see the government expenditure and power that make race/class privilege possible either.

The average suburbanite doesn’t think about the highway and water and safety and transportation and other infrastructural spending that makes their lives possible as spending that benefits them. They only see welfare checks and government jobs as spending, because it’s easier to see and understand. And even liberal anti-racists will usually see discrimination in ways that are pretty easy to see and understand; “disparity in social standing” is one of these.

You see criminals but not the victims of crime. You see what ostentatiously suffers but not who invisibly benefits, through corruption or exploitation or simply by standing on a mountain of accidental wealth and power.

It’s hard. This stuff is built to last.

Glad I clicked through to the comments. Excellent discussion, even though, in some ways, I kind of can’t believe we’re even still having it. I wish I had something intelligent to contribute, but I’m going to need to go for a long bike ride on a nice, taxpayer-funded bike path and think about this some more… 😉

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