Saturday, May 12, 2007

Err...Good Luck

Andrew Sullivan: "The Republican party needs root and branch reform. Maybe a Paul candidacy is the best way to express this sentiment."

Umm...sure. You have fun with that.

Friday, May 11, 2007

A Clarification of Standpoint Theory

Thinking Girl has a neat post up explaining Standpoint Theory from a socialist feminist lens. She quotes an excerpt from Alison Jagger, too long to put here, that explains why the viewpoint of the oppressed in society is "epistomologicall advantageous" compared to that of the dominant class.
In a society where the production of knowledge is controlled by a certain class, the knowledge produced will reflect the interests and values of that class. In other words, in class societies the prevailing knowledge and science interpret reality from the standpoint of the ruling class. Because the ruling class has an interest in concealing the way in which it dominates and exploits the rest of the population, the interpretation of reality that it presents will be distorted in characteristic ways. In particular, the suffering of the subordinate classes will be ignored, redescribed as enjoyment or justified as freely chosen, deserved, or inevitable.

I don't really disagree with this, but I want to quibble a little bit to clarify what I think is an important point. I'm not sure that Thinking Girl will disagree with any of the following points, but I don't think they get the airtime they should (as usual, I'll be operating under the lens of race, because that's where I'm most comfortable, but the points I think cross-apply).

I agree that different classes or groups in society hold different perspectives from each other, and that these perspectives are independently valuable. I want to emphasize that I think this includes the perspective of the majority or dominant groups, so long as it is recognized as a mere perspective and not the Truth. A significant part of my future scholarly ambition is to see what happens to the dominant perspective if it is exposed as a mere perspective--both in terms of how the substance of the views would change, and in terms of what value we might derive from the now-subjectified perspective itself. Knowledge is being suppressed on both sides, albeit more so for the oppressed, and that distributional skew has substantive outcomes which reify privilege.

In this context, I do not disagree that the perspective of the oppressed is valuable in a way the majority's is not. However, I prefer the language of "uniqueness" to the language of "superior/inferior" to describe why this is--because minority perspectives are not included in the "default" worldview, the sights they are more likely to see are also more likely to provide novel insights on the world that are missing from the status quo. The White male perspective is already generally incorporated, so it is less likely to provide new ways of looking at difficult social problems. The flip side of that is that because the dominant caste can shield its mistakes from criticism by subordinated narratives, it is more likely to contain surviving errors in judgment that have yet to be exposed. Subordinated voices, by contrast, because they are constantly "in the fire," so to speak, are more likely to have purged seriously mistaken views. Hence, it isn't anything essential to the biologies of men and women or Blacks and Whites that give the subordinated party the epistemological advantage. It isn't even necessarily a question of biases: Although I think that minority perspectives are more likely to be aware of the majority view simply because of its pervasiveness, as a matter of interests there is no real reason to presume that the minority is any less biased or constrained by its perspective than the majority. Rather, the way society structures the knowledge each produces simply makes it more likely the subordinated class has more untapped veins to draw upon, because they haven't made it out into the open yet. We would be fools not to exploit those veins.

These are all tendancies, of course, they are not true in every case. As Jeremy Waldrom reminds us, majorities can be right about the rights due to minorities, minorities can be wrong about what they're owed. Uncritically choosing to adapt the subordinated perspective is mistaken as well. Nonetheless, I agree that subordinated voices, especially on issues relevant to the oppressed party, deserve implicit weight by virtue of their standpoint. And we need to bring out their stories, for all the reasons Jagger and Thinking Girl identify. Doing so will undoubtedly give us a clearer picture of the world we live in.

So why the nitpicking? Because I want to emphasize that I do not agree that simply replacing the masculine voice with the feminine one, or the White voice with the Black voice is the proper way to go. When it comes to race issues, White voices do have unique and valuable contributions to add to the discourse. Many of them, I suspect, are also structurally suppressed, in that they haven't come out because they don't make sense within a knowledge paradigm that says the White perspective is the universal perspective. Conditioned to believe that their experiences are universal, Whites haven't developed the language to talk about their experience as particularized events, and (speaking as a White) this cripples attempts to genuinely engage in racial dialogue in a very frustrating manner. But that doesn't mean that if such language came to be, the revealed thoughts might not provide clues at achieving a progressive racial vision.

Hence, I support efforts to articulate White perspectives on racial issues, too, and I think these perspectives have independent value. This is so for two reason. Ideologically, I'm uncomfortable with exiling any voice from the polity, even under the mantra of inverting hierarchies. There are plenty of democratic problems with such a move, and I have a strong pluralist commitment towards exposing and airing as many voices as possible. I don't think this has to be zero-sum. But also, from a pragmatic angle, I think that the progressive anti-racist community could score significant gains in the White community by affirming that, yes, their voice and their stories are valuable, and we want to hear them. As Kenji Yoshino has written, viewing majority members "only as impediments, as people who prevent others from expressing themselves" is a major factor in these people "respond[ing] to civil rights advocates with hostility." I don't actually think that the community is opposed to such a move, but the issue is rarely pressed and without it all this talk of "epistimological advantage" is understandably frightening to people who don't have a clue what this "post-modernism" thing is. As feminist and race theorists smarter than me have talked about, there is very little more frustrating than being stifled by linguistic inadequacy. White people, being part of our racial ecology, have stories to tell, and not only do they have no words by which to speak them, they aren't even sure they're supposed to be allowed to contribute. No wonder they default back to universalist paradigms which articulate (but do not replicate) a vision of reality that is familiar and comfortable to them. Breaking out of that paradigm necessitates a clear statements from standpoint theorists that we are interested in all standpoints, and that to the extent we are more interested in those of the minority, its a case of distributions rather than exclusion.

"Crude Comments"

Two radio shock jocks have apologized for airing what CNN called "crude comments that he'd like to have sex with Condoleezza Rice, Laura Bush and Queen Elizabeth."

And those "crude comments"? From Shakesville:
One of their guests, a man called Homeless Charlie, says, “I’ll tell you what—what’s that George Bush bitch, um, Rice…? Condoleezza Rice? … I’d love to fuck that bitch dead, man,” at which point the rest of the studio erupts into laughter. Homeless Charlie says again, “I’ll fuck that bitch to death,” to which Opie/Anthony reply, “I just imagine the horror in Condoleezza Rice’s face—” [uproarious laughter and interjection “When she realizes what’s going on!”] “—as you’re just like holding her down and fucking her.” More uproarious laughter, prompting Homeless Charlie to continue: “Punch her all in the fucking face—shut up, bitch!” Says Opie/Anthony: “That’s exactly what I meant!” [raucous laughter]

Umm...note to CNN. That wouldn't be "having sex" with Condi Rice. That would be rape. These men were laughing about rape. It astounds me that the article never once uses the word "rape" to describe what these men were laughing about.

And I hope nobody uses this defense, but to preempt it I go to Feministing:
Now all you anti-woman folks please write that down and repeat. It doesn't matter to whom they are addressed, regardless of a woman's politics or her position in society, rape threats are never OK....I may not agree with Condoleeza Rice's or Laura Bush's politics, at all, but under no circumstances would I think it is OK to threaten them with sexual violence.

This should go without saying.

And as for the "apology"? Well, here's the text:
“We apologize to the public officials for comments that we made on our XM show on May 9th. We take very seriously the responsibility that comes with our creative freedom and regret any offense that this segment has caused."

Does that seem good enough? Back to Shakes:
Uh-huh. Well, I certainly hope “the public officials” accept their apology. As for me, I’m still waiting for an apology on behalf of all the women who have been and will be raped in no small part because of the festering shithole of misogyny known as American Media in which rape-glorification thrives and “the responsibility that comes with…creative freedom” never seems to include any accountability for making “jokes” that celebrate the sexual abuse of women.

Shakes, who herself is a rape survivor, continues to quote from XM Radio, saying that they had not decided whether or not to discipline the shock jocks. Translation: we won't do anything unless the press gets really bad.

Sounds like a plan. Make it happen.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

American Gladiators

Whatever programming genius put American Gladiators reruns back on ESPN Classic deserves his or her name shouted across the plains and mountains of America for a massive contribution to our society. I'm humming the theme song right now!

We missed you, American Gladiators. We missed you.

The Arrival of "Peace" in The Congo

This is truly depressing:
Eastern Congo is no stranger to violence, but ironically the latest surge in killing started with a deal designed to bring peace to this corner of the vast country nearly four years after a nationwide accord officially ended a 1998-2003 war.

Laurent Nkunda, a dissident Congolese army general, led his two brigades into the bush in 2004, vowing to protect his fellow ethnic Tutsis. He is under an international arrest warrant for alleged war crimes after his men occupied Bukavu, South Kivu.

After last year's historic polls saw President Joseph Kabila become Congo's first democratically elected leader in more than four decades, the army and Rwandan mediators began negotiations to bring Nkunda and his soldiers into existing army brigades stationed in North Kivu. That process began in January.

But instead of ending the violence, the five new mixed brigades began hunting down Nkunda's enemies in the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Hutu-dominated Rwandan rebel movement based in eastern Congo.

Congo and Uganda are two of top places in the world whose residents, more than anybody else, deserve peace and stability. Congo is a particularly tragic tale on a variety of counts. It's colonial days under Belgian rule were considered the most brutal of any state in Africa--an impressive anti-title to hold. Furthermore, unlike many places Congo actually has a dazzling amount of natural resources, including some very rare materials which are going to become more and more necessary in the electronic age. If it ever was able to coalesce into a stable democracy, it could become a regional superpower.

Unfortunately, the country then known as Zaire spent most of its post-colonial days being systematically plundered by its tyrannical dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko (who, by and large, enjoyed warm relations from the US government as he pillaged hs country). A long-running civil war eventually lead to his ouster by Laurent Kabila, who was assassinated four years into his presidency by a member of his staff. Kabila's son, Joseph, took over upon his father's and lead the state to its first relatively free elections, which he won.

Joseph Kabila is quite young (he came to power at age 29), but I've been cautiously optimistic towards him. He appears to take the human rights violations occurring in his country quite seriously, and has worked very hard to integrate his government among the various warring factions to hold the country's shaky peace agreement together. Maybe I'm just desparate for good news from the region, but I do believe that Kabila is committed to getting his country on the right track. The question is whether it remains possible.

Nkunda, for his part, did fight alongside Kabila at one point during the civil war, but rather quickly turned on him and was still affiliated with the rebellion at the time of Kabila's election. It seems Kabila was trying to integrate Nkunda's forces into the national army as part of the peace plan, something which clearly backfired. But what else was Kabila supposed to do? Brutally purge Nkunda's people from his government? Can you think of a faster way to restart the fighting?

Of course, if Nkunda's soldiers are raping and killing the people they are supposed to protect, then Kabila must remove him from command--forcefully, if necessary. But let's not delude ourselves--such an action just brings us back to square one.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The False Hero

"You don't need many heroes if you choose wisely." So reads John Hart Ely's dedication of his masterpiece, Democracy and Distrust, possibly the most important work of constitutional law in the 20th century, by perhaps the greatest constitutional law theorist of the 20th century.

The man Ely was referring to in his dedication was former Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren. Hero of American liberals, Warren is most famous for authoring the pathbreaking and unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the decision which barred racial segregation in public schools. Though it did not explicitly say so, Brown is widely understood today to have overturned the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld the notorious concept of "Separate but Equal."

Plessy was an 7-1 decision, and the lone dissenter was a Kentucky jurist from a former slave-holding family by the name of John Marshall Harlan. The first Justice Harlan, as he is known (his grandson, also named John Marshall Harlan, would serve on the Supreme Court as well during the Warren Court years), also has emerged as somewhat of a hero, especially on the right, for his role in Plessy. The apex of his dissent, and his most quoted passage, represented the birth of the ideal of "color-blind" equality in America:

"Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens."

Striking words, and ones that have stirred not a few hearts, including my own. I do not deny their poetry. And the surrounding text only adds to their power:
But in view of the constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man, and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guarantied by the supreme law of the land are involved.

And these words have passed into our lore and legend. Harlan's dissent is the keystone of the conservative argument in favor of color-blindness as race equality, against "color-conscious" remedies like Affirmative Action. Harlan's heroism gives this position a moral legitimacy in American discourse, as the rallying cry of his solo dissent against one of America's darkest chapter.

But there is a problem. Harlan was not arguing for racial equality. I admit that I cheated you earlier, for I omitted the opening sentences of Harlan's climatic paragraph:
The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country. And so it is, in prestige, in achievements, in education, in wealth, and in power. So, I doubt not, it will continue to be for all time, if it remains true to its great heritage, and holds fast to the principles of constitutional liberty. But in view of the constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man, and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guarantied by the supreme law of the land are involved.

This is a very revealing preface. At the very heart of his argument, Harlan reveals that he believes his position will strike no blow to White supremacy or superiority. White people will continue to be "the dominant race in this country...for all time." Given this context, Harlan's argument takes on a significantly darker tone. Harlan's passage simultaneously subverts the case for color-blindness at the precise moment it creates it, for it ratifies the principle critique of color-blindness by racial progressives: it won't work. If our goal is to live in a society where White supremacy will not last "for all time," a color-blind ideology won't take us there.

Many race theorists have noted that much racial reform in America, including Brown v. Board itself, occurs only when White people deem it to be in their interests, or at least not threatening to them. There is plenty of empirical evidence to back this claim (the "interest-convergence" theory) up. And this appears to be the vein in which Harlan is arguing: Don't worry. Allowing Black men on trains with Whites won't undermine the hierarchy of racism. Be confident in White supremacy. We can throw Blacks a bone here. There is no genuine threat to our interests; we can afford to be magnanimous. Derrick Bell, the principle architect of the interest-convergence theory, has written further of so-called "contradiction closing" cases. These cases show that "the system is not so bad after all," that in fact minorities can depend on Courts for protection. When minorities claim that the deck is stacked, it is these cases that defenders of the status quo point to, proclaiming its fairness while ignoring that the other 51 cards are marked. Because CCCs are outliers, they usually have very little impact on the overall structure of racism, which simply shifts course slightly and then continues unabated. The argument between the majority and the dissent in Plessy ought to be understood as a debate as to whether Plessy was a good candidate for a "contradition closing" case.

Do you think I am reading Harlan too harshly? Consider, then, his lesser-known but more notorious opinion in Cumming v. Board of Education of Richmond County, written three years after Plessy was decided. If Harlan's commitment to color-blindness was ever meant to signify a push towards true racial equality, this was the moment of its ultimate betrayal. Harlan's opinion, written for a unanimous court, held that the 14th Amendment, including the "equal" part of "separate but equal", was not breached when a Georgia county closed down its only Black high school, but continued to operate programs for White students, citing budgetary concerns. A more flagrant breach of the 14th amendment could scarcely be envisioned, as Black students were left with neither equal nor separate schools. Harlan did not just sign on to this position, he wrote it.

Does this mean that Harlan ought to be condemned, his Plessy opinion thrown in the trash heap as but dolled-up racist garbage? Perhaps, but I think not. Jack Balkin has written of a concept he calls ideological drift, where a principle or ideology changes in meaning and affiliation over time due to changing circumstances. In a world where virtually every relevant governmental institution and structure was officially tasked with anti-Black suppression, where the laws themselves where the vanguard of White supremacy, color-blindness was indeed quite a liberal notion, even if it did nothing to offer Blacks true social equality. But, as society progresses and our concerns shift from eliminating laws designed to maintain White supremacy, to achieving the social equality and standing that Harlan proudly declared would not come from color-blindness, the meaning of the principle changes. It shifts from progressive to regressive, from left to right. Words which stir our hearts because they were uttered in 1896, when few Whites even had the vision to demand formal equality, become bitter and foul when used by Whites to block social equality. The liberal remembrance of Harlan can make this distinction, and can preserve Harlan's poetry without being eternally bound to it.

You don't need many heroes if you choose wisely, and Justice Harlan, while no hero, is certainly a revealing figure. His words offered hope to a generation of Black civil rights leaders who knew that there was an alternative to Jim Crow waiting to be redeemed. And his preface to those words similarly reveals the limitations to that alternative. Faced with Harlan's world or Jim Crow, Blacks would choose Harlan's in a moment. But those are no longer our choices, and the cost of Harlan's preface weighs heavier on us then it did in years past. It is time to transcend the first Justice Harlan. We can cast down the burden of White supremacy "for all time." Every future becomes a past, every story carries within it both the seeds of its own destruction and the materials to craft new tales. Harlan's world is not ours. And we make a mistake if we cling to a past that is slowly devouring our chance for a brighter future.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Diverse White Men

Corporations are increasingly turning to White men to head up the diversity divisions of the company. Richard Bales seems skeptical, and it's possible that this is a case of White men colonizing one of the few top-level jobs dominated by women and minorities. But I hope not, and the corporations' reason for the trend is intriguing:
It's part of an effort to get diversity programs off the sidelines and into the mainstream of the business. Having a white man champion diversity efforts -- particularly one who works in operations rather than human resources -- can help bring other white males on board, the theory goes.

Too many diversity initiatives make white men feel defensive, says Frank McCloskey, a white male operations veteran named Georgia Power's first head of diversity in 2000 after the company was sued for allegedly discriminating against blacks in hiring and promotion. He believes firms must engage white men to change the company culture.

When Mr. McCloskey was appointed, 63% of Georgia Power's employees were white men. "How can we ever create sustainability if you don't have 63% of your work force feeling that there's something in it for them?" he asks.

Provisionally, I support this. A long standing theory and goal of mine is to try and enlist White men into the pro-diversity cause, and I think many of the lessons of Critical Race Theory and storytelling scholarship implies that having White voices dedicated to those goals will be critical for the success. I realize that there is a bit of counter-intuitiveness towards putting White men in charge of diversity divisions, and many of the employees are questioning their qualifications. That's their right, and I think the onus is on the White guys to show that they are truly committed to creating a diverse workforce--that their efforts to incorporate the White male employee population do not come at the expense of sacrificing the larger agenda. That's the provisional part--whether or not this will work is an empirical question, and while I think it's worth a shot, it's possible it will not be as effective as I hoped. In that case, like in all things, we'd need to re-evaluate.

Quote of the Evening

"'Do you trust white people?' You do not and you know that you do not, much as you want to; yet you rise and lie and say you do; you must say it for her salvation and the world's; you repeat that she must trust them, that most white folks are honest, and all the while you are lying and every level, silent eye there knows you are lying, and miserably you sit and lie on, to the greater glory of God."

W.E.B. Du Bois, Darkwater (Amherst, NY: Humanity, 2003) (1920), 102.

If the only thing you've read of Du Bois is Souls of Black Folks, then you haven't read Du Bois. Arguably the greatest thinker and intellectual in American history (not African-American, but American), Du Bois' writings and narratives remain powerful and poignant today. Du Bois' personal journey--from democratic idealist to socialist to communist, culminating in his self-imposed exile to Ghana ("I am departing America and have not set a date for return") represents one of the greatest live tragedies in the modern era. He died August 27, 1963--one day before Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Good Thing They're Colorblind

The conservative view of race, we're told, is color-blind. They don't look at race. They don't examine race. And this, we are told, is the way by which to foster in a new era of racial equality--a world where race doesn't matter.

Interesting, then, that as this conservative administration has (color-blindedly, of course) restaffed the Criminal Section of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, they've failed to hire a single Black attorney since 2003. Not one. And because of that, there are but 2 African-American attorneys in this part of the DOJ out of 50--the same number as in 1978, when the department was half its current size.

Now, you might say that this was the tragic result of Republicans merely looking to hire the "most qualified." African-Americans, I'm to believe, simply are inferior attorneys compared to their White peers (but this does not in any way implicate a racist mentality among the evaluators--no sir). Whatever--when the skew is this blatant, the meritocracy objection is facially ridiculous. But regardless, the department actually seems relatively unconcerned with merit: filling its spaces with partisan hacks is the top concern.

I've written previously about how political considerations create a particular cognitive dissonance for conservative adherents to the color-blind philosophy. Aside from the empirical observation that "color-blind" policies miraculously seem to replicate the same distributional outcomes as their white supremacist ancestors, the big problem is that conservatives are willing to jettison merit--and even color-blindness itself--upon the altar of the political interests of a largely White male party. I have no doubt that if Bush's DOJ saw a Black applicant who was willing to carry water for their racially regressive policies in the Civil Rights Division, they'd jump at the opportunity, because he would be the ultimate in political and racial expediency. That's color-consciousness too, but of a perverted and twisted kind--it recognizes identity politics only to the extent they can exploit them.

It's wrong, and hopefully a new, Democratic DOJ will be able to restore and rebuild the department from the decimation it is receiving at the hands of Bush and his lackeys.

Lock and Load, Brides of Christ!

Wal-Mart has put a group of Texas nuns on its "security threat" list. The nuns have been protesting Wal-Mart's human rights violation for some time, but they insist they are a strictly non-violent sect of nuns.

Color me skeptical. They may look innocent in their habits and bulky clothes, but nuns are notorious, vicious, soullessful killing machines when riled. Clearly, Wal-Mart is erring on the side of caution here.