Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Denouncing Nazis is easy. Living together is hard.

Facebook reminded me that a year ago I posted a piece titled There Are No Enemies.

It's not the most popular piece I've ever published, not by a long shot. It did pretty well - a little over 200 hits - but nothing special.

Re-reading it today, I think it may be one of the most important and difficult things I've ever written. And it helped me codify something that's been bugging me ever since the violence in Charleston and the political fallout that ensued.

In the aftermath of the Charleston violence, nearly everybody took to the airwaves and social media to condemn the assortment of white supremacists, Nazis, and KKK types who instigated the violence. This was easy to do: their brandishing of hateful symbols, their chants against Jews, blacks, and others outside their tribe, their obvious anger and aggression - all these put them squarely against core American values.

President Trump, of course, took tremendous political flak for his response. He tried to lay blame for the violence on "many sides" and seemed to go out of his way to serve as an apologist for the white supremacy movement. They themselves clearly saw it that way, judging by their reactions, especially after his Tuesday press conference. For this, Trump was roundly criticized by pretty much everyone across the political spectrum. The few people in his own White House who didn't distance themselves from this view now no longer work there.

That's all a pretty pat and easy story: Nazis and white supremacists are bad, we're the good guys, etc. Trump aside, almost everyone else will jump on this bandwagon.

But then I come back to my piece from last year: there are no enemies. And I also recall a lesson learned from decades of studying conflicts: conflict only ends when the different sides learn to live with each other.

Yes, white supremacy is morally wrong, and yes, Nazism is a horrible set of ideas. But because we say these things, however forcefully we may say them and however many of us "stand up" to do so, we are stuck with two unavoidable realities:

1) Some people will continue to hold to these ideas, despite (or even because of) our efforts to shout them down.

2) Those people are still our fellow Americans. And, if you hold to the Gospel of Christ, they are still Children of God.

We sort of know these things, deep down, though we don't know what to do with them. These are the reason why so many supporters of Hillary Clinton cringed when she made her famous "basket of deplorables" gaffe. She said in public what we wanted emotionally to say but know is morally wrong: that there are groups of people who are bad people.

In the language of revivalist Christianity, we failed to separate the sin from the sinner.

The problem with that logic, of course, is the conclusion to which it leads. If there are people who are irreducibly bad, then they must be either eliminated from society, driven out, or contained. It is, in fact, exactly the same logic that white supremacists operate under. They're just more open about it.

Lots of political movements - from the Nazis to the Khmer Rouge to the Interahamwe to the founders of Republika Srpska - have taken this idea that those people need to be gotten rid of and tried to put it into action. Every single of one of them failed. Genocide, ethnic cleansing, "purifying" the nation - it never works. It creates a lot of pain and a lot of dead bodies, but in the end you still end up living in a diverse society, and you tend to end up poor and miserable to boot.

That's an easy argument to make when confronting Nazis. But we need to think beyond confrontation, because confrontation itself isn't going to resolve anything.

We thought we had gotten rid of Creationism, until we discovered in the 1990s that it never went away. Most of us read Inherit the Wind in high school and saw it as an historical tale about the last gasp of Young Earth Creationism. Creationists read it and saw it as inspiration. We didn't notice until they started to take over school boards again.

White supremacy isn't going to go away simply because we shout at it, and it isn't going to go away because it's wrong. People are quite capable of holding morally abhorrent beliefs for generations, as our own history with black slavery shows. That some of those beliefs are still in circulation should surprise no one.

So while I applaud people who stand up against Nazis, who show up in Boston to demonstrate that there are far more of us who believe in diversity than there are in them who don't, that's just a band-aid. If the rest of us are vociferous enough, or if we elect a President less inclined to say supportive things about white supremacy the next time around, they may go back into the shadows. But they'll still be there, living among us as fellow citizens.

If we really want to move beyond endless demonstrations - if we really want to seek peace - demonstrations and taking down statues won't get us there. At some point, we're going to have to talk to the people we think of as our enemies. That can't happen in large groups, it certainly can't happen while people are carrying torches and clubs and shields, and it probably can't happen in public with TV cameras rolling. But in the end, it's the only way.

Years ago in graduate school, I wanted to start an article with what I thought was a clever observation: "everyone wants peace, they just want it on their own terms." My advisor stopped me and argued that I should get rid of that sentence. Not everyone wants peace, he pointed out. And he was right.

It's easy to look at those who march with Nazi flags and say, they don't want peace. But do we? We are comfortable in our knowledge that we're right and they're wrong and there are more of us anyway - just as they are comfortable in their understanding that they are right and we are wrong, even though there are fewer of them. Moral righteousness is addictive.

None of this means that we have to "meet them halfway" or adjust our beliefs in a racist direction. That's a red herring. But it does mean that we have to take the time to listen to our fellow human beings, and hope that they in turn will listen to us.

I don't know how to go about that, because all sides prefer the conflict we have to an uncertain peace in the future. But I know that, for myself, we are missing a piece of the moral puzzle: the piece that recognizes the common humanity of our "enemies" and seeks the seemingly impossible task of reconciliation. We have to live with "those people", like it or not. We might as well try to live together well.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Violence in Charlottesville: The Dangers of Painting with a Broad Brush

The national conversation is filled with discussion of the violence in Charlottesville over the weekend. The death of one woman is both a tragedy and a crime, as is the injury of nearly two dozen others. Our justice system has much to do to address these terrible acts, and I have faith that it will.

As is often the case, I am more interested in the broader conversation and the conflict that it represents. I have a couple of points I want to make; because of the raw nature of recent events, we'll see how well I can make them.

First, the supporters of White Supremacy often like to wrap their political activities in the flag of Free Speech. The right to peaceably assemble is sacred to all, whether we agree with their views or not. This much is true.

But it is debatable whether "peaceable assembly" includes showing up with shields, helmets, body armor, and sticks. That's not a "peaceful" demonstration, it's intimidation and preparation for combat. So I'm not buying the "peaceful assembly" line. There was never any intention for this to be "peaceful". This is not a movement much interested in peace.

Second, at some point - probably already happened by now - some apologist for the marching racists will argue that it's not fair that they all be blamed for James Alex Fields' actions. He acted alone, they will say. You can't all paint us with the same brush just because of one violent man in our midst.

Bullshit.

The entire White Supremacist movement relies on painting with broad brushes. All blacks, all Jews, all gays, all Muslims, all Latinos - "they" are all the same. This is the entirety of their "argument". They don't care about individuals, only about groups. All of "them" are always the same.

If you marched on Friday night, tiki torch in hand, and you don't think this describes you, get the heck out now. You have taken up with a violent movement. Perhaps the icons of knives and axes might give you a clue. Or the hardware your fellow marchers are carrying.

So fine. Your group - each and every one of you - is violent to the point of being murderous. And we, the rest of civilized society, are justified in rounding you up and prosecuting you under the law.

Finally, this is the really key thing that these White Supremacists, neo-Nazis, and various KKK hangers-on don't yet realize. They've already lost. The vast majority of American society - including whites - rejects them, rejects their ideas, and most especially rejects their murderous attachment to violence. To borrow Ronald Reagan's memorable phrase, they are already consigned to the Ash Heap of History.

They just aren't smart enough to know it yet.

Let us not forget that it was the forebears of these rampaging rage-monsters that slaughtered 168 Americans, including 19 preschool children, twenty-two years ago in Oklahoma City. The mix of rage, incoherent fear for their white identity, and rejection of government authority has killed before.

I hope that the death of Heather Heyer will serve the same purpose as the deaths of those many innocent victims in 1995: a wake-up call to the nation and the start of another effort to drive this kind of violent hatred back underground. Given the current occupant in the White House, I'm not holding my breath, but I hope at least that his fellow Republicans will see the Faustian bargain they have struck and repent.

Many people have been quoting MLK's "arc of history" line. In this case, he is absolutely correct. The men (and yes, they are mostly men) who have bought into this violent insanity have been brought out into the light. But they have already lost. The nation unites in horror against their dystopian rage. They cannot win, not even a little bit, anything that they hope to achieve. They can't even keep the statues they are so keen to protect standing in the public square. All they can do is shriek helplessly as the arc of history leaves them behind.

Or, they can repent and join the rest of us. I, for one, would be happy to have them back if they can find a way to set aside their rage, fear, anger, and hatred. We need people working together to build a more perfect union for all of us.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Missing the Key Issue on Affirmative Action

I wrote last week about the Department of Justice memo regarding a new effort to "crack down" on "reverse discrimination" against whites (and Asians) in college admissions. As I explained in that piece, this effort is entirely about symbolic politics, with little to no practical impact on either college admissions or on most people's lives. I urged my colleagues in higher education, most of whom are dedicated to the ideal of diversity, not to panic, because most of our universities aren't going to be affected no matter what DOJ does.

Since most people don't read my blog, however, the ongoing conversation has continued as one might expect. People of color and their allies are understandably concerned about any effort to "target" affirmative action, which they see as a step towards turning back the clock towards a more openly racist past. Given all of the other openly racist things that have happened in the last six months, this is a reasonable concern even if this particular effort is of no consequence.

I have a number of friends in this group, and it is to those friends that this post is addressed. My argument is simple: we're missing the boat. This DOJ initiative on "reverse discrimination" is distracting us from something much more important.

Affirmative action in higher education is a big deal for those who want to advance the cause of underrepresented minorities, because higher education has tremendous potential as a social equalizer. For folks who have been permanently stuck in the economic and social underclass, getting a college degree can be a ticket to a better job, a better neighborhood, a better life. It can break the cycle of poverty and put families on a completely different trajectory for generations to come.

I'm a big believer in the transformative power of higher education, which is why I've devoted my career to it. I've watched single mothers with little support system go on to become Vice Presidents at Fortune 500 companies. I've seen how exposure to educated African Americans and Latinos changes white attitudes about who belongs and who doesn't. Access to higher education is one of the most important tools we have to help people help themselves, and to lift our entire society in the process.

But here's the reality: the kind of "who gets in and who doesn't" arguments about affirmative action and college that the Right wants to fight about don't have an impact on the broader societal problems we want to solve. If you want to lift families of color out of the cycle of poverty, having a different set of rules about who gets into Harvard or Michigan isn't the way to do it.

What's the real barrier? Money.

The vast majority of college students in the United States attend public regional universities. These aren't the schools that the New York Times writes about, but they are where people actually go. In particular, they are the primary recipients of first-generation students who are the key to altering family trajectories.

These universities don't have an affirmative action issue. Most of them accept 90%-95% of their applicants, and those they don't accept aren't decided by race but by basic capability factors (generally, high school GPA and ACT or SAT score). The Wright States and Millersvilles and SW Missouri States and Wisconsin-Green Bays of the world will take any and all students they can get who qualify. They are truly race-blind in admissions.

(As an aside, this is also true of a lot of private schools, who struggle to get the number of students they need to keep themselves going. Even the University of Dayton, a very good Catholic research institution, admitted as much recently - if they get two applicants, one white, one black, both equally qualified, they'll take them both.)

What keeps minority students from attending regional public universities isn't that they can't get in. It's that they can't afford it. And while there are lots of arguments about what is driving the cost of higher education, for regional publics the primary barrier to affordability has been the long, slow, inexorable march by most state legislatures to defund their higher education systems.

Case in point: 25 or so years ago, Wright State (a very typical regional public institution) got $2 of subsidy from the state for every $1 they collected in tuition from their students. Students had "skin in the game", but the amount they had to pony up was significantly decreased by state investment. Today, that ratio has flipped: WSU now gets less than 50 cents from the state for every dollar they get in tuition.

If you believe in higher education as a pathway to success for families of color, this is the battle you need to be fighting. Forget about admissions rules and arguments about whether race can or can't be included in deciding who gets in to college. If you want to really move the needle on societal equality, and lift millions of disadvantaged people out of the poverty trap, get more public money put into higher education.

I don't for a minute believe that this is an easy task. But as folks are marshaling political resources for a mostly symbolic battle of little practical significance, I ask them to consider focusing those resources instead on the battle that has the greatest impact on people's lives. Don't fall for the bait of arguing about Harvard's admissions practices. Harvard isn't going to solve our problems. But more money in public higher education just might.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Affirmative Action in Universities: Don't Panic

There has been a lot of buzz in the last couple of days about an internal Justice Department memo seeking lawyers for a new initiative to go after universities for "reverse discrimination" in admissions. This is an old conservative argument that claims, to whit, that white students (they now add Asians to this group) are denied admission to universities in favor of less-qualified black or Latino applicants.

In a country with thousands of universities and millions of university students, I'm sure that there are a few cases where this can be credibly argued to have happened. It is hardly an epidemic, or even a problem of any significant size, judging by the racial profiles of pretty much every university (outside the HBCUs) in the nation. On its face, this is a non-problem.

The political utility of the argument, however, is easy to see. It feeds a broader narrative of tribal white resentment. It also plays well to the more conservative philosophical point of view that everything is about the individual, that the individual is sovereign, and that when the rights of a single individual are trampled that's a terrible thing (though that argument seldom gets extended to individuals of color...)

Setting aside whether this sort of initiative within the DoJ is a good or a bad thing - people can form their own opinions on that subject - I can say from inside higher education that this effort, if it ever gets off the ground, will be far less significant than it might appear. There are relatively few institutions vulnerable to this kind of investigation. Most universities will be ignored, because admissions works very differently in different kinds of places.

The wealthy private elite institutions - the kinds of places that the NY Times writes about whenever it talks about "higher education" - have long ago insulated themselves from this charge by adopting very complex wholistic admissions practices. Race is but one consideration among many, and so much of their process is subjective that being able to credibly argue that any given student was turned away primarily because she is white will be impossible. Yale, Harvard, Amherst and Williams turn away thousands of students every year who are just as qualified as the ones they admit - that's the nature of the game. No investigating lawyer is going to wade into that world, because there is no victory to be had there.

Over in the public university area, the vast majority of public institutions are regional and desperate for students. Two that I have worked for, Wright State and the University of Toledo, will take any and all qualified applicants. They and a host of similar schools - Youngstown State, SE Missouri State, Millersville University, most of the SUNY campuses, Central Florida, and a thousand more - are enrollment and tuition-driven. The notion of having to select some students over others on the basis of race - or anything else - is irrelevant to these schools. When you're admitting all qualified applicants (and often, many who are marginally so), there's no danger that you're discriminating against anyone. Keep in mind, too, that these schools are where the vast majority of university students in the United States go.

That leaves only two classes of schools - small second and third tier private schools, and public flagships. The former are unlikely to be targeted in part because they, too, tend to be enrollment and tuition driven and are therefore less selective than their elite counterparts, and in part because nobody outside of their immediate area has heard of them. Regardless of the merits or demerits of affirmative action processes, any investigative effort is going to want to go after universities or colleges with national name recognition, because they're trying to make a political point. No investigator is going to focus on Lebanon Valley College (sorry, LVC!) They and several hundred of their brethren can rest easy.

The for-profit sector, of course, is immune to this kind of charge for the same reason regional publics are - they'll take anybody who qualifies to get in and is willing to pay (or borrow). Phoenix doesn't have an affirmative action problem.

That leaves only the flagship public universities like Michigan and UT-Austin. It's no coincidence that the major affirmative action cases in the last two decades came from those two schools. These schools, and a handful of others around the country (Ohio State, Missouri, Alabama, Georgia, Florida or Florida State, Ole Miss, Penn State, Minnesota, UW-Madison, etc.) have enough cache and status that they get a lot more applicants than they can accept. They do care about diversity (which, according to the Supreme Court, they are allowed to do), and they do take race into account. Because of the Fisher case and others, all of them have long ago adopted admissions procedures that stay well within the boundaries of what the court says is Constitutionally permissible.

So we're really talking about a small handful of universities here - maybe 30 in all - that are potential targets of any kind of DoJ effort. And all of them have spent years making sure that their admissions processes can withstand legal challenges. They don't get caught up in the kind of accusation leveled against UT-Austin so many years ago.

In other words, this "effort" is unlikely to affect 99% of America's universities, and it is unlikely to actually change much even in the few that might be targeted. This is pure symbolic politics - sound and fury signifying nothing, to borrow from the Bard. To my colleagues in higher education: don't panic. This, too, shall pass.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Can We Ignore North Korea?

A good friend of mine posted this question to FB today. Since a decent answer requires more than should be put into a FB comment section, I'm writing out my thoughts here.

OK, honest question for the many people in my feed who are smarter about international stuff than I am. 
Hypothetically, what if the US were to just ignore North Korea? No threatening, no assisting, no engaging, nothing? Just maintain our relationship with South Korea and nothing else?
Would that still create an unacceptable risk for South Korea? Would it destabilize our relationship with China?
There are obvious humanitarian reasons not to follow this course, so I'm not advocating anything -- I just want to better understand how the cogs fit together. Smart people, please educate me.


Like all questions of foreign policy, answering this one depends very much on what your goals are. The Trump administration hasn't been very clear in articulating its goals towards North Korea, but my sense is that they haven't shifted very much from where past administrations have been. Those goals reasonably include, or could include, the following:

1) Avoid war in the Korean peninsula (which would be horrendously catastrophic for everybody, and would result in millions of deaths).

2) Prevent North Korea from attacking the United States with a nuclear weapon.

3) Prevent North Korea from developing a deployable nuclear weapon. Barring this, prevent it from developing such a weapon that can be delivered to the United States.

4) Bring about regime change in North Korea, with a possible eye towards reunifying the peninsula.

#4 is, for all intents and purposes, out of bounds. The Kim regime in Pyongyang desires its survival in power above all else, and it has had a credible conventional deterrent against Seoul and South Korea for decades. We may say we don't like their government very much, but no US administration has openly flirted with actively trying to change it - as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reinforced just yesterday.

#3 is also essentially off the table. We have tried under the past three presidential administrations (both Democrat and Republican) to use various carrots and sticks to get the North Koreans to forgo their quest for nukes. None of this has worked, largely because there are no sanctions or offers of aid big enough to eclipse the value the Kim regime sees in having a working nuclear deterrent to the United States. Anything more aggressive than what we have tried threatens to run afoul of #1, which nobody wants. So while nobody in the US government can admit it out loud, we're essentially stuck with a nuclear-armed North Korea with a limited strike capability against the United States.

That leaves us with Goals 1 and 2. These are indeed achievable using the same tool we've been using in Korea and elsewhere for the past three generations: deterrence. A basic deterrence posture does, in a sense, look a little like what my friend suggested: "ignoring" North Korea. They have weapons, we have weapons, we each make it clear to the other under what circumstances we will use them, and then we settle down and watch nothing happen. The Kim regime wants to deter an attack on its regime; we want to deter an attack on South Korea, Japan, and ourselves (the Chinese can take care of themselves). With both sides possessing a devastating strike capability, neither is likely to attack the other.

Of course, completely ignoring North Korea by  having essentially no relationship isn't really an option. There is always a need for contact to avoid misunderstandings, to facilitate basic interactions, to jointly govern the DMZ, and so on. Most of the time this kind of contact takes place well below the public's radar screen. Banning Americans from traveling to NK will probably help keep it there.

The longer-term danger which we, Seoul, and Beijing all recognize is: what happens if the North Korean system collapses economically? An internal crisis would likely spark a mass exodus of refugees, some of whom would be shot while fleeing but many of whom would wash up on South Korean and Chinese shores. A serious crisis could also lead to internal unrest, especially if the North Korean military begins to doubt the wisdom of backing Kim's rule or, worse, factionalizes. There is no viable political infrastructure or civil society in North Korea, so any crisis could lead to chaos for a long time before order is restored. And given the level of weaponry in the hands of the North Korean military, that chaos could lead to a lot of damage, both inside the country and in its neighbors.

Unfortunately, neither engagement nor disengagement can have much effect on the North's internal dynamics. If we see a food crisis coming, we can flood the country with food aid, which staves off the crisis at the expense of propping up the Kim regime. We should certainly maintain enough engagement to be able to see what's happening - any warning at all that a crisis is brewing is better than none.

In the absence of a serious internal crisis, North Korea is a significant priority for US foreign policy but probably not a very active one. Beyond deterrence and some level of engagement (in which we may want to follow the lead of our South Korean allies, since they bear the immediate consequences), there's really not a lot to be done. Even the Trump administration seems to have figured out that, while it's easy to criticize your predecessors for "not doing enough" on North Korea, the reality is that we don't have any other options and we do what we do because there is nothing else to be done.

Interestingly, China more or less shares our goals with regard to North Korea. They don't want war, they don't want an attack on the US (which would cause a war), and they would probably prefer that North Korea not have nukes. To the extent that we want to find areas to cooperate with China, North Korea is a promising field. But we should not suffer from the illusion that China can force the Kim regime to do things that we can't. If China squeezes North Korea by cutting off trade, that could well precipitate the kind of internal crisis that no one wants. In essence, the Kim regime has at least two forms of deterrence: it can cause unacceptable damage with its military, and it can also cause unacceptable damage by its own untimely death. It's a modern state version of a dead man's switch.

The best we can hope for, therefore, is a North Korea that is stable (if poor and a human rights disaster) and contained. There is actually a fifth goal, which we and China also share: preventing North Korea from sharing its nuclear or missile technology with other actors elsewhere in the world. That's an area where we can fruitfully cooperate. Export proliferation is also not a big priority for the Kim government, which cares for its own survival and not at all for anyone else in the world.

So the answer to the question of whether we can ignore North Korea is "yes, sort of". Energetic and engaged diplomacy is unlikely to change the Kim regime's behavior. Starving it (beyond the current levels of sanctions) could trigger a disaster. And so we sit, and wait, and hope to contain the damage when change eventually comes.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Expertise: The Knowledge of Things Unseen

I've written before about the value and importance of expertise. We used to believe, especially in the realm of science, that experts really did know more than the rest of us. Now, in a world of echo-chamber social media and fake news and "alternative facts", a lot of us (meaning here Americans) have chucked this notion out the window. Many of us now believe that we and our friends know the real truth, and that everybody else is either a dupe or a liar.

One reason why it's easy to fall into this trap is that we feel good about our echo chambers - they make us feel powerful and affirmed, a sort of antidote to the fear we've been taught is the proper response to the modern world. That part of the psychology that leads people to reject expertise and accept otherwise wacky ideas is pretty clear.

But there's another aspect to expertise that actually contributes to its widespread rejection. The nature of expertise is that people who are experts see things that non-experts can't see. They perceive things in the universe that are, quite literally, invisible to the rest of us.

This phenomenon has been well-documented in all sorts of arenas. Elite athletes, for example, have been studied extensively. It turns out that, while they tend to be in excellent health and have certain physical gifts, they're not especially more physically gifted in general than the rest of us. It's that the tens of thousands of hours of practice they put in have rewired their brains so they can perceive things other's can't. That's why the best hitters in professional baseball actually stand a good chance of hitting a baseball thrown by a professional pitcher, traveling at more than 95 miles per hour. He can see things about that ball that are invisible to the rest of us.

The same is true in medicine. An experienced doctor will see in a list of symptoms, or the way a patient answers a question, possible diagnoses that we know nothing about. Nor can we understand the connections between those little bits of information and the much larger issue. Doctors carry around a whole world of knowledge in their heads that is inaccessible to non-experts.

So it goes for nearly every field of human endeavor. Architects see things in buildings that the rest of us miss. Musicians hear things in music we can't hear. Engineers, lawyers, designers, auto mechanics - in almost any human endeavor involving expertise, experts are privy to a world out of reach of the rest of us.

Unfortunately, this makes it easy to dismiss expertise. It's easy to assume that everything you see is everything there is to see. We're pretty good at accounting for the data coming into our senses, but generally terrible about accounting for what's not there. Arthur Conan Doyle immortalized this in his story "Silver Blaze", in which Sherlock Holmes solves the otherwise unsolvable case by observing that a dog didn't bark.

I encounter this all the time in my own area of expertise - politics - because, as John Stewart Mill put it over 100 years ago, politics "is a subject which no one, however ignorant, thinks himself incompetent to discuss". In the political realm, we all think that we can see everything there is to see. And when "experts" come along and try to point out what we can't see, we often dismiss them because, well, we can't see what they're pointing at. We think they're just making it up.

There are two conclusions here. First, humility is not only a moral virtue, it's an intellectual necessity. We all need to know what we don't know (the height of Aristotle's wisdom). Second, we need to make an effort to determine where real expertise lies - not in who shouts the loudest or in who says things we want to believe, but in who has really put in the time and effort to establish a track record. Anybody can claim they're an expert - evaluate those claims carefully, especially when the supposed expert is simply confirming your own biases.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Why "Fear for your Life" Isn't a Reasonable Standard

There's a lot of reaction this week to the verdict in the case of Philando Castile's shooting last year. Naturally, a lot of it has centered on race and the officer's defense that he was "afraid for his life".

As part of this conversation, a friend of mine posted a video to Facebook along with a request for thoughts. The video showed a white man resisting arrest by two police officers (both also white). The man, who is a pretty big guy, puts up quite a struggle, at one point seeming to reach for one of the officer's guns (though he does not obtain it). Eventually the police wrestle him to the ground and pin him. At no time did either officer reach for any of the weapons on his belt. While he was on the ground, they did not continue to strike him in punishment; they simply held him still.

Commentary attached to the video by the original poster suggested that this was evidence of white privilege, if not white dominance: that whites who struggle against police don't need to fear for their lives, while blacks who are compliant with police do. It was this contrast which my friend was seeking comment on.

In response, I wrote the following, more less as a stream of consciousness:

"Fear for your life" is a subjective state of mind. My fear is mine - it is based on the judgments and expectations I have in my own head about is going on around me. 

Juridical standards of "reasonable fear" assume that we can take an average of what
 "most people" would fear given a certain set of circumstances. In some cases, this is in fact "reasonable" - most people will fear if suddenly confronted with a rattlesnake, for example. Most people will also experience fear if a gun is pointed at them.

To believe that we can do this kind of "reasonable averaging" without taking race into account is folly. If I get pulled over, it would not be reasonable for me to fear that the police officer is going to shoot me. Were I black, it would be very reasonable to fear that outcome.

This isn't "White Supremacy", at least not in the sense that there is a conscious, guiding ideology that drives these differences. Rather, there are unconscious and semi-conscious biases that exist in people's heads. We tried to call these biases "racism", but that falters because most people think racism is a conscious thing, a set of beliefs I consciously hold.

We all make judgments in the face of ambiguous evidence. Those judgments are driven by our beliefs, our expectations, and our emotional responses to things around us. This is why negative media portrayals of black men, for example, are so problematic. TV shows don't turn people into conscious racists. But they build up in our mind unexamined expectations about how other people are likely to behave.

Our laws and judicial procedures were developed with an underlying assumption that all people are equal. And so we wish ourselves to be. But in our minds, we are NOT all equal to each other. To pretend otherwise is to deny reality.

The simple answer to this particular problem is rigorous, continuous, serious police training. You can train officers to respond the same to everyone, regardless of color. But you have to recognize that such training has to overcome the differences already existing in their own heads. It takes a lot of work, and a lot of practice, to overcome those mental differences. Some - I suspect many - police officers already have, and many have probably never been seriously tested on the street. I am surprised, in the light of these continuing tragedies, that no one is talking about how we support, train, and discipline our police forces, and what expectations we have for the way they do their jobs.


It seems to me that the legal question we keep asking in these cases - would a "reasonable person" be afraid for their life under a certain set of circumstances - is the wrong question, because there is no singular "reasonable" viewpoint. Our experiences, especially around race, are so vastly disparate that most of us cannot understand what "reasonable" looks like to someone who has a different race, a different background, a different set of experiences than we do.

We will never make progress in our national conversations until we recognize this basic truth: that "reasonable" is not an objective standard, and that fear is based on many things including prejudices. Just because someone is sincerely afraid does not make their actions in response to that fear reasonable.