Reflecting on Pride Philosophy and Movements in the #BlackLivesMatter Era

A little over two decades ago, some time after having taken some philosophy courses at Mt. Hood Community College, (from an instructor who referred to himself on handouts as Spade Cooley, for reasons which remain a mystery) I distilled some of what I’d learned from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics into this statement: “Don’t be proud of who you are; be proud of what you do.” A variant upon this theme turned up in pop culture when Christian Bale’s Batman said, in Batman Begins, “It’s not who I am on the inside, but what I do that defines me.”

In the early 2000’s I found myself in a deep conversation with a new (at the time) friend of mine who happens to be gay. I spoke about my previously mentioned philosophical distillation and asked him how it might relate to the gay pride movement. I can’t recall his exact words, (and wish I could) but he countered my assertion that pride in an inherent property (in this case, being gay) didn’t make sense by noting, rather brilliantly, that pride movements develop out of persecution.

What this seems to boil down to (if you’ll forgive a distillation metaphor) is that taking pride in an inherent property makes sense when the purpose of feeling that pride is to elevate one’s self and the group one is in to a state of parity, both in terms of self-esteem and esteem in the broader community, with the privileged majority.

It will come as no surprise then, that #BlackLivesMatter may be easily understood as a (profoundly necessary) pride movement.

In a much more recent conversation, a different friend of mine asserted that the statement, “Black lives matter,” is inherently racist. I didn’t argue the point out of a desire to avoid our conversation becoming heated, but the wrongness of what my friend said is plain to me. Hari Kondabolu puts it most succinctly:

Or there’s this longer, more metaphorical explanation of what “Black lives matter” does and doesn’t mean.

Of course, there are full-on racists out there who will assert nonsense like #BlueLivesMatter and #WhiteLivesMatter. I think a false sense of persecution must be at least partly a driver for such vile absurdity.

When I reflect once more upon my original statement concerning pride, it occurs to me I thought of it largely in a personal context. I’ve never felt any pride over being white, male, heterosexual, American, or for any other inherent or inherited property of my being. It always struck me as silly. (Almost as silly as that shitpile of a song by Lee Greenwood, which is apparently achieving renewed popularity.) I’ve come over the years to recognize that when others express pride over related sorts of things, like Blackness, homosexuality, alternative gender identity, ethnicity, religious affiliation, etc., it’s not silly at all. It’s vital in the struggle for survival and equality in a nation whose privileged majority has little to be proud of in its ongoing failure to live up to the ideals we claim to hold dear.

I thought I might dedicate this post to Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, but I don’t think this post is the right way to honor their memories (or those of Tamir, Sandra, Michael, and a host of others). I would rather dedicate this post and other, better future efforts, to all the names I don’t know and hope never to see in the form of a hashtag. We can best honor the dead by working to achieve justice for the living.

Feeling Like You Have a Choice: the 2016 Democratic Primary in South Carolina

BernieSC

I lean strongly Bernie, but I don’t #FeelTheBern as others do. There are reasons for this which don’t qualify as content for this post since I’m not going to talk about why I support Senator Sanders. Whatever my rationale may be for favoring Sanders, (in spite of some misgivings) the point of what I’m about to type isn’t to say that because the issues are some such way, you should vote this way or that. The point is to not say that, especially when I don’t know, and cannot know, the minds of people whose experiences differ from my own.

Hillary Clinton defeated Bernie Sanders in the South Carolina primary by a wide margin, and most of the credit for that margin goes to Black voters. The result was expected and Sanders’ concession speech was given not from a location in South Carolina, but in southeast Minnesota, where he’s warming up for Super Tuesday. According to the article linked above, Sanders said, “There’s no way we are going to lose Minnesota. I can see that. You are just too smart.”

While I have no reason to believe Sanders has any ill will toward voters in South Carolina, that statement reads poorly in its presumably unintended implication that voters in South Carolina are, shall we say, not smart.

As I read through my Twitter timeline I found Sana Saeed had asked a most pertinent question, (though not phrased as such) the source for this post.

I was able to respond to this tweet with something useful, having read moments before an editorial in the New York Times written by Charles M. Blow. Though the editorial predates last night’s primary by two-and-a-half weeks, it contains good insight into why Black voters might choose Clinton over Sanders. Blow makes a reference to condescension which, were such directed at me, I would want to resist too:

I cannot tell you the number of people who have commented to me on social media that they don’t understand this support. “Don’t black folks understand that Bernie best represents their interests?” the argument generally goes. But from there, it can lead to a comparison between Sanders and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; to an assertion that Sanders is the Barack Obama that we really wanted and needed; to an exasperated “black people are voting against their interests” stance.

If only black people knew more, understood better, where the candidates stood — now and over their lifetimes — they would make a better choice, the right choice. The level of condescension in these comments is staggering.

The remark by Sanders about how smart he thinks the voters in Minnesota are strikes me as a more positively spun version of the same condescension.

The rest of the editorial by Blow is excellent, but I found in another respondent to Saeed’s tweet a more direct and concise explanation (paralleling Blow’s) for why Black voters in South Carolina were so overwhelmingly pro-Clinton. From Glen Ford and the Black Agenda Report:

Blacks are drawn into the jaws of the Democratic Party, not by ideological affinity, but in search of protection from the Republicans. This is an entirely different dynamic than an alignment based on thoughtful examination of political platforms. It’s not about picking a candidate or party that sees the world as most Black people do, from the left side of the spectrum, on matters of social justice and peace. Rather, the overarching objective is to choose a candidate from the Democratic wing of the Rich Man’s duopoly who is best equipped to defeat his or her Republican counterpart. Under these stilted circumstances, the Democratic candidate’s actual political positions become near-irrelevant to the Black primary voter, compared to the candidate’s perceived ability to win a national election. The question becomes, is the Democrat strong enough to beat back the latest offensive from the GOP? – which Black people perceive as an existential threat. In the grip of that mindset, the contestant that is richer, better connected to the party apparatus and more acceptable to masses of white voters is the better Black choice.

I have it easy. I’m a white guy with a decent job living in the Pacific Northwest. Who the next President is will have very little effect on me as a personal matter. My life will go on much as it has, and the fact I can have some confidence in that speaks to a characteristic of privilege I suspect may not be well understood. I’m not going to vote for Clinton in the Democratic primary when it happens in Oregon. I’m damn sure not going to vote for any Republican Presidential nominee when the general election finally arrives. But the fact I can choose among a variety of candidates—in either of the two major parties or from other parties—without much sense of having been backed into a corner where only one possibility may be conceived of, is surely a luxury which, if Blow and Ford are to be believed, many feel they cannot afford.

There’s an ideal world existing only in my head where people vote their conscience and principles. We don’t live in that world, but if we did it might look, from the perspective of a Sanders supporter, like this.

When Justice Prevails the Victory Is Always Pyrrhic

Yesterday evening a jury found Daniel Holtzclaw guilty of 18 out of 36 counts of rape, sexual battery and other charges. I got the news via Twitter, as I know many did given the lack of coverage by the mainstream media. In the wake of the verdict there was a lot of celebrating: happy emojis in high concentration and tweets full of schadenfreude. And yeah, the thought of Holtzclaw rotting in prison for the rest of his life doesn’t come without some pleasure. He needs to be locked away from society, if only to prevent him from raping more black women. The punishment aspect of his imprisonment, and the fact the verdict was handed down by an all-white jury, are bonuses.

But after reading a lot of enthusiasm regarding the verdict, my thoughts started to sober a bit. Of course, Deray Mckesson beat me to the punch:

What he typed in a tweet I’m going to type at somewhat greater length. (If brevity is the soul of wit, Deray has already pwned me.)

Our desire to see justice done when someone commits a wrong is a desire worth having. Seeing that desire brought to fruition, it’s only natural we would celebrate it. It is also good, I think, for us to temper our celebration with the knowledge that the justice we sought could only be sought after the fact of crimes having occurred. It’s why a victory for the prosecution in the Holtzclaw trial is Pyrrhic. I live in world where Daniel Holtzclaw raped and sexually assaulted many black women, and was held to account for it. I can’t help but think I would rather be living in a world where Holtzclaw was merely a mediocre cop who never raped anyone, and the women who suffered his depredations didn’t.

In a world where justice has truly, fully prevailed, there will be no need enact justice on anyone. Justice will be an inherent property of our lives and not something to gather around, whether in courts or on the streets of places like Ferguson, Baltimore, or Oklahoma City.

But that world is a utopia. The best we can do in our world is to strive for that unreachable ideal. The Holtzclaw verdict was a step in the right direction.

Addendum 21 January 2016: Daniel Holtzclaw has been sentenced to 263 years in prison, specific sentences to be served consecutively.

An Adventure In Twitter Debate: Totally Biased Edition Featuring W. Kamau Bell

Earlier today W. Kamau Bell posted the following to his Facebook page, sharing it on Twitter as a screenshot soon after.

Donald Trump isn’t a Republican issue or a rich people issue or a human issue. Donald Trump is a white people issue. Whenever Ben Carson says batshit crazy nonsense, Black people rise up, and let him know that he needs to STFU. Whenever Raven-Symone pops off, we put her cap back on. We even handled Rachel Dolezal for you. Yes, we also make jokes and come up with clever memes and hashtags, but at the core of all that is that we are letting these people know that they are embarrassing us as Black people. It is time, white people, for you to finally step up and recognize that you also (even more so) have a responsibility to your race. It is up to you to silence Donald Trump. Don’t just insult him and make fun of him. You have to connect it to your race, Recognize that he is embarrassing you as a white person. Simple snark won’t win here. You have to feel it. You have to use words like “as a white person” and “he is an embarrassment to my race.” Stop acting like Trump isn’t the pinnacle and the result of America’s history and tradition of white supremacy. And again, I don’t care if you had no plans to vote for Trump or anybody, if you are white, he is your problem above all else. Simply put, white people, come get your boy.

I wanted very badly to agree with all of the above because I do think Donald Trump is a problem, and a symptom (and symbol) of a much larger and ultimately more dangerous problem. I cannot, however, fully agree with Kamau on this, and when I tweeted my disagreement, hijinks ensued.

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Race Is a Social Construct, and It’s Built With Language

Every time I read the statement, “Race is a social construct,” in a blog post or editorial, I can’t help but think the unwritten assumption being made by the author is that race and racism are highly malleable, subject to easy disassembly. We might be led to believe race is merely a social construct and if we talk about it enough we can undo its very existence. I don’t think this is true. I think talking about race instead reinforces its existence and, by extension, strengthens racism. Our only language to talk about race is a language filled with words which only have meaning in relation to the construct of race itself. That we have no choice but to talk about race in this way seems only to make matters worse.

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