Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Pride and Prejudice

Since I started writing about Black Lives Matter I’ve started to feel like I’m presenting myself as their  opposition. It’s a strange feeling because I truly do believe that greater oversight of the police would benefit public safety. I also agree that the black community is disproportionately  targeted by state violence, and only one of the reasons for that is economic. I even agree with BLM that those people who wave facts about black-on-black violence, or the greater number of whites shot, or that all lives matter aren’t really interested in the facts that they’re waving. Rather, those fact-wavers are using their facts as a way to deflect attention from the very real problem of police violence that BLM is trying to address. None the less, I do have a problem with BLM, and that problem is with the self-destructive nature of their tactics. As I’ve said before, I don’t believe they have a strategy, so I can only criticize at their tactics. I suppose that those problems, like the specious reasoning of BLM’s opposition, are a byproduct of one of the great fallacies of our culture – the fallacy of the logical mind.

Both BLM and their opposition are facing their particular situations like a platonic dialog, where the most reasoned argument wins. Both sides fail to realize that humanity is in no way logical, the majority of our decisions are in fact emotional and justified with logic after the fact. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: those emotions are our instincts and have helped us survive and thrive in very hostile environments. Thinking and acting emotionally only becomes a problem when you live in a society that believes all things are logical, and then tries to deal with an emotionally reasoned action with logic.

The human mind is ridiculously convoluted. We are a product of past experience, cultural standards, and both acknowledged and unacknowledged personal desire. Prejudice, as I discussed in an earlier article, is simply a prejudgment about a person, place, or thing. Those prejudgments are often based on past, limited, or no direct experience. We need to look at how our prejudices against people develop, and how they affect our behavior. As I pointed out in my previous article, the history of systemic racism in our country has been gradually corrected through civil war, civil disobedience, and reform. Where we once legislated the non-personhood of blacks, we have now given them legal equality. Of course legislating someone’s equality does not mean they are automatically treated as equal, and it is that separation where the mark of history is most keenly felt.

Our society has made great strides in abolishing many of the injustices that have oppressed the black community, but legislation cannot undo socialization. Every society has lessons and habits it passes on to its young by direct and indirect means. We are taught, or socialized, by our society to behave in specific ways. This process is called socialization and it can be very beneficial or very dangerous. When we are young we see our parents and other respected members of our community behave in specific ways toward others. For example. in the US we are taught to be deferential toward legal authorities such as the police. We are also taught to dehumanize those who are confronted or questioned by the law. The process of socialization is often subtle, such as when we joke about prison rape, or it can be quite direct, such as when we say, “people who haven’t done anything wrong do not need to fear the police.” Over time these statements, and a thousand other subtle and direct experiences, shape our subconscious minds to respond as our society deems appropriate. Not everyone reacts the same way, but we’re all affected by the process. We do not always know why we behave or react in the ways we do, but that’s just how the subconscious works. Events and words leave an emotional imprint and those imprints influence our thoughts and actions in the future. Prejudice of any kind is usually based on a generalized emotional experience. 

Governments and most organizations are excellent at using this process to their advantage. Constant streams of propaganda convince us to believe or support the standards of whatever organization is producing the propaganda. Several studies have demonstrated that when a person wears a uniform people only see the uniform, not the person wearing it. So whatever emotions that we’re taught to associate with the uniform are the emotions we will experience when we see someone wearing it. Personal experience can overcome propaganda, but only if the personal experience leaves a strong enough emotional imprint.

Strangely, even the absence or presence of people can alter our perspective of people. In the U.S., the absence of blacks in politics and businesses is noticeable, and this influences people to associate blacks with where they are visible - primarily in low income areas. A large part of public perception is based on media coverage, what news and other media sources choose to emphasize is often what shapes public prejudice. Here is where history matters, because past socialization efforts were about convincing the public that blacks were the other, and any attempt to change that perception runs up against deeply entrenched emotional perspective. Each positive public representation of blacks is a step forward, while each negative representation is two steps back. It is far easier to demonize someone than it is to lionize them.

Social standards have changed. That fact that a black man has served as our country’s leader for two terms is proof of that, but that change doesn’t mean that racism is dead. Societies can change their standards rapidly, but past social norms leave very long imprints on behavior. People change far slower than social standards. Currently there is a great deal of shame associated with racism, and any act or statement associated with racism can destroy one’s social standing. None of us desire to be seen as bigots by our peers, nor do we wish to see the worst in ourselves, so we must find some way to justify our actions. After all, if prejudice is subconscious, and the subconscious causes us to act instinctively, and those acts can risk our social standing, then it is inevitable that people will seek to justify those acts. That logic is especially true for the police, who could see their careers destroyed and face worse penalties for an instinctive act. Racism against blacks, especially black men, describes them as dangerous and criminal. The mind plays tricks when it is under stress, and will cause people to perceive danger where there might not be any. The mind will even invent reality to justify an action. No one should be surprised that putting poorly trained officers in stressful situations would result in violence against a group of people who are already technically an underclass.

However, organizations have mastered the skill of training people to control their instinctual reactions by indoctrinating us to conform to new behavioral norms. That would not be possible for our whole society, but it is very possible for the police force. Increasing training standards and accountability will rapidly reduce instances of fear and stress based reactions. The wider public can even be reached if citizens’ groups, like BLM, start to hold meet-and-greet events to allow neighbors to become familiar with each other. One gentlemen, a black man and blues musician, even managed to help KKK members leave behind their prejudices by befriending them. Emotions are the basis of prejudice, so it is absurd that BLM is trying to fight prejudice with logic. Compassion and goodwill are a far more viable tactic to overcome a history of prejudicial socialization than all the facts in every book in the world, yet we are stuck in a society that sees logic as the only useful kind of rationality.

BLM needs to realize that a clear understanding of the social situation in America is the only way to produce viable strategies to resolve the problems putting us all in danger. Make no mistake about it, the increasingly violent actions of the police is a result of a mentality of subservience from the public. We do not have the courage to face an overly militarized force that is supposed to protect public safety, but is treating the public like enemy combatants instead. The black community, since they are our country’s social underclass, serve as the canary in the coal mine. Unfortunately, BLM isn’t capable of providing us the unity needed the deal with this dire situation. Whether some other group will rise to deal with the problems we face remains to be seen.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Institutions of Inequality

Blacks Lives Matter is already starting to splinter. The core groups of the movement, the ones who control the website and fundraising, are repeating the same strategic and tactical mistakes that have destroyed other reform movements in the past. Two articles ago I noted that reform movements need clear strategy that allow them to set goals, and also need to adopt tactics that will allow them to reach those goals. BLM has the latter, but is still missing the former because of their inability to understand what they’re fighting against.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t groups marching under the BLM banner who are doing their best to end the victimizing of the black community, because there certainly are. Unfortunately, these groups are the minority and their actions are at best ignored, or at worst derided. All the core BLM groups, whom I can only assume are staffed by some of the most learnedly ignorant people academia could produce, are trying to plan a campaign around the abstract concept of systemic or institutional racism. The terms are interchangeable, but I’ll stick with institutional racism for the purposes of this article.

Don’t mistake my meaning, institutional racism is real, but it is insane for BLM to target because it is the product of a convoluted history and even messier characteristics of human psychology. In this sense it is an abstract; it is a thing that is literally drawn out of history and exists within the mind. Institutional racism can be challenged by breaking it down into its component parts, but in order to do that BLM and its supporters need to actually sit down and analyze its component parts.

Racism is a prejudice, which simply means it is a prejudgment about someone based on their ethnic heritage. Racism is the prejudgment that an entire, or even a majority, of an ethnic group are predisposed to specific behaviors because of biological differences. If you believe a majority of blacks are predisposed to specific behavior because blacks are simply born that way, then that’s a racial prejudice. Similarly, if you believe the majority of whites are predisposed to specific behavior because they are born that way, then that is also racial prejudice.

I’m sure many of you have heard the nonsensical phrase, “racism equals power plus prejudice,” and found yourself growing irritated. That phrase, often shouted by BLM and its supporters in an attempt to drown out their opposition, is the attempt by some critical theorist in academia to redefine the very clearly defined idea of racism. Renaming and redefining concepts is a veritable industry in our society, and careers can be made if a redefinition is widely accepted. Unfortunately, this redefinition actually does a disservice to ending the victimizing of the black community. Effectively, by saying that racism equals power plus prejudice, BLM and its supporters are saying that racism equals power plus racism. Racism is a form of prejudice, and it isn’t even the major prejudice of the American elite. That dubious honor goes to classicism. If BLM wants to deal with the consequences of power combining with racial prejudice, which is called institutional racism, then it needs to clearly define racism and institutionalism. Those two subjects are targets of substance that can be struck by individual effort and organized communities.

Institutions are those things that are created to stand with an intention or purpose. A religion is an institution, as is a government, business, bureaucracy, law, or a tradition. All these institutions were set up to accomplish specific ends. Prejudices are customs and are thus institutions, because they are set up to distinguish one part of society from another. Political and economic power are also institutions because they are systems established to give groups or individuals the ability to create laws, levy and distribute taxes, commit acts of violence, secure land and other forms of wealth, or set up more institutions. Now, say that group or individual also happens to subscribe to the idea that other groups or individuals are inferior to themselves. That is to say they have prejudices, in the case of the US that would be the white community’s prejudices against the black community. Then you have a situation where institutions are built to deny the weaker community privileges that the powerful enjoy.

Historically, the most blatant form of institutional racism was slavery, which turned blacks into livestock that could be owned. When southern slave owners were defending slavery they would often refer to it as “our venerable institution,” because that’s exactly what it was - a series of laws designed to deny personhood to blacks, and a great deal of organized violence to hold them in bondage. The abolition of slavery only slightly improved conditions, because the laws of non-personhood were replaced by laws such as Jim Crow, which turned blacks into second-class persons. The violence never went away, it just became unofficial. Jim Crow and other similar laws were abolished only in the 1960s, but by that time the effects of the laws were imitated by the private sector. As a matter of official policy many businesses across the US would deny banking, realty, and other vital services to blacks. Redlining wasn’t banned until the late 1970s, but by that time the cumulative damage to the black community’s prosperity had already been done. This pattern is institutional racism, the creation of systems designed to prevent one community from achieving equality with another. 

A community's prosperity is accumulated generationally, each generation building on the hard work and success of the previous. The process is quite simple: individuals work hard and contribute to the prosperity of their families. The family belongs to wider communities and contribute to the institutions of the community, such as education and health care. These institutions allow other members of the community to prosper and then make their own contributions, and so on. Any community that is denied access to wealth for a prolonged period of time will find it difficult, if not impossible to create the institutions that make the prosperity of the next generation possible. Institutional prejudice places barriers of law and violence between a community and the ability to accumulate wealth or power. The elite of our country who held political and economic power literally denied the black community access to equality for generations, and many of those injustices were only abolished a mere forty years ago. It should come as no surprise that blacks are still mired in poverty because it takes generations for communities to develop institutions of ascension, and even that can only occur if the national economy is sound, which it clearly isn’t.

The strategy to overcome the economic consequences of institutional racism is straightforward: help build the prosperity of the black community. Tactics such as creating communal education programs, financing small businesses, providing health, and other welfare services were successfully used by the Black Panthers before they were violently suppressed by the US government. It is staggering that BLM’s core groups no longer even have the reflective capacity to study their own predecessors. The strategy to overcome the political consequences of institutional racism grow from overcoming the economic consequences, because one cannot gain power in this country without access to wealth. Understandably these strategies and tactics are easier said than done, but no one should expect change to be easy. History tells us society changes when people change, but to understand how people let go of old prejudices we must first understand how the human mind deals with change. To understand that we must delve into the mess of human psychology, and overturn the myth of rationality that dominates our conception about the human mind, but that is a discussion for next week.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Those Without a Voice

The ongoing debate between All Lives Matter (ALM) and Black Lives Matter (BLM) is currently one of the more aggravating spectacles in the American political arena. It is another clear example of how easy it is to trap reform movements with rhetorical subterfuge, and how quickly they trap themselves with stubbornness.
I want to state clearly that I understand and agree with BLM's position about the use of their particular mantra. There is nothing particularly wrong with their assertion that black citizens ought to have the right to live unmolested by the police, just like white citizens. BLM is also probably correct when they say that ALM is just a reactionary group that doesn't actually believe its own mantra, after all I haven't seen any ALM protests against police violence. I may be wrong, but the only time I see ALM appear is as a counter demonstration to BLM protests.

Where I agree with ALM, and disagree with BLM, is on one very important point. The strategic value of the mantra “All Lives Matter” far outweighs that of “Black Lives Matter,” and instead of co-opting this gift like smart revolutionaries, BLM chose to dig in their heels and expend energy bickering about the mantra. The claim that one mantra has greater strategic value than the other does need to be justified, and the justification can be found in the dusty corridors of our country’s countries history.

The divisions that are currently tearing our country apart have their source in decisions made by the elite of our country in the distant past. In the early days there was one major social schism in the country, between those who were wealthy landowners and those who were not. Indentured servants and slaves, both black and white, lived and worked side by side. There were legal differences between the two, but in practice they were more or less the same. Over time the commonality between poor blacks and whites caused the two communities to grow close to each other. Interracial relationships began to form, leading to marriages, and child-birth. This development didn't go unnoticed by the elite of the era, and they quickly realized that a united wage class could compromise the elite's power. The solution they devised was to simply grant privileges to the poor whites, effectively separating them from poor blacks. The goal was to create a cultural and economic division between blacks and whites, which could be exploited to the benefit of the elite. The psychological impact of having someone lower than oneself in a social hierarchy is profound, because no matter how bad your social condition you would always know there was someone who had a worse lot. Describing blacks as inferior only made the process easier to sell, for their condition became a matter of nature rather than oppression. Poor whites became the defacto warrior class that helped control the slaves.

Even the end of slavery did not help alleviate the subjugation of blacks and, by one measure, made conditions worse. Where previously the black community could point to the institution of slavery as cause for their poverty, it was far more difficult to point to laws and institutions of discrimination. The elite took full advantage of this difficulty and reinforced prejudices that poor whites held against poor blacks.

As we walk from the remote corners of our country's history to the recent past, and then on the present, a clear trend emerges. Each time the black community made gains by hammering away at one layer of institutional injustice, a new more subtle layer was added which made it harder for the black community to achieve full equality. When people speak about institutional racism they are referring, in part, to this pattern, but that is a subject for future exploration.

The strategy of divide and conquer was easy to see, and many scholars did see it. One such scholar, a civil rights leader by the name of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., not only saw the division but also understood how it supported the elite's power. He also noticed a failure in the elite's strategy, even though granting privileges to the white wage class created an economic division, it did not create a cultural division. The economic differences were easy to maintain, all the elite had to do was favor whites for education and employment, but ultimately American wage earners watched the same sports, ate the same foods, dressed the same, and structured their families much the same way. That is to say that the differences between the black and white wage class communities were only skin deep.

King worked and his associates started the Poor People's Campaign to bring poor whites and blacks together to fight for economic justice. Senator Robert Francis Kennedy supported the campaign, since he was running for President by wooing wage class Blacks, Hispanics, and Catholics (whites). The campaign kicked off in the spring of 1968 by establishing a 3000 person tent city on the Washington Mall. On 2nd April, 1968 MLK was assassinated, and three months later on 6th June, 1968 RFK was also assassinated. The campaign, demoralized and afraid from having lost its two most powerful leaders, dissolved. I'm not one to advocate conspiracy theories, but it is suspicious that assassination of two prominent public figures occurred within months of launching a campaign to undermine the power base of the elite. 

From 1968 to the present day, the elites have governed unchallenged doing everything in their power to maintain the wedge between the wage class communities. They are secure in their power because the white and black wage class are at each other’s throats, class issues remain largely forgotten. However, during the same time period the elites made two mistakes that have opened the door to their defeat. The first, oddly enough, was hiding the language of racial prejudice behind the language of economic prejudice. Blacks stopped being classified as poor because they were naturally inferior, and began to be classified as poor because they were lazy, irresponsible, or any number of other reasons. The language, once it became detached from racial baggage, stopped being a barrier between poor whites and poor blacks. Classist slurs that can be used with equal effect toward poor whites, who are the elite's power base, and poor blacks are a thin barrier between the two communities. After all, how long will it take two groups to realize their commonality when powerful oligarchs address them with the same derisive words? The second mistake was that the elites began shipping high wage jobs overseas. Off-shoring eroded the economic divide between the two wage class communities, and as the economic advantage of wage class whites disappears so too is their loyalty to the elite.

The new level field should be obvious to anyone who notices that the majority of those shot by the police are poor. That blacks are disproportionately shot comes as no surprise either, since they have historically been trapped in poverty by the writ of the elite, and are the underclass which draws attention away from the elite. The power of the elite comes from the divisions they create in society, and enforcing these divisions violently. Anyone who can find a way to bridge the divisions in the wage class will weaken the elite's power, as MLK realized. BLM was handed a perfect opportunity by ALM to finish the work King started, handed an opportunity to become a voice for the voiceless, an opportunity to bridge the divide by challenging the violence. Instead of taking the opportunity they doubled down on their rhetorical choice, expended precious time and energy defending the choice, and played into the divisions that strengthen the elite. Is it that difficult to hold two signs, one that says ALM and one that says BLM?