Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Seeing Black

Meet the new chief White House domestic policy adviser. In an article for the American Enterprise Institute, Karl Zinsmeister argues against color-blindness--but only as it relates to Black-on-White crime. Now, I'm not color-blindness defender either, but not because the color-blind principle is unfair to White people. What does Zinsmeister have to say?
In my private and internal life I am, and must always remain, colorblind....But hard experience has taught me that colorblindness is an ineffective and even dangerous ruling principle. This is not something that I, or the vast majority of other Americans who share my view, learned from public policy conferences or books published by right-leaning theorists. It springs starkly from practical life....
The penalty for the person who, ignoring race, turns down the wrong street today can literally be death. It is unfair and unrealistic to demand that people "ignore race" so long as race has direct connections to troubles and dangers of this magnitude....

I have five immediate responses. The first relates to the public/private distinction. Though Zinsmeister says that we should be scrupulously color-blind in our private lives, he later references private decisions as the epitome of when race matters (turning down the wrong street is rarely something forced by the government). So if I'm to take him at his word, he thinks that we should be provisionally color-conscious both as a "ruling principle" and as a private concern, but only to the detriment of Blacks. What he's advocating, then, is frighteningly close to a race-based apartheid system. I use apartheid deliberately, because Zinsmeister's analysis appears to both advise socially exclusionary measures (avoid interacting with "dangerous" Blacks and their neighborhoods) backed up by governmental force (when such actions brush up against areas within the legal sphere, the law should approve the White actions).

Second, there is no parity. What about Blacks who have legitimate fear of Whites? If Black people think that Whites are more likely to discriminate against them in hiring decisions (and have the statistical evidence to back it up), how do we respond to their claim? Where are they present in Zinsmeister's analysis? If one is going to be color-conscious in remedying persistent social problems (and I agree we should), the very least one has to do if we aren't to collapse into naked racism is to not restrict the inquiry only to when Whites feel threatened.

Third, there is almost no critical analysis of the statistics which purport to show how much Whites have to fear from Black criminality (presumably Blacks have it even worse, but who cares about what happens to them--they're Black). It is intellectually sloppy, to say the least, to take such statistics at face value. As Angela J. Davis has noted, the issue of prosecutorial discretion and the disparate treatment of alleged Black and White offenders can severely impact who goes to prison and who stays free [Angela J. Davis, Prosecution and Race: The Power and Privilege of Discretion, 67 Fordham L. Rev. 13 (1998)]. How much of this is race, and how much is poverty, and how much of this is Blacks being arrested more often than Whites because of their race (disproportionate to the relative rates of criminal activity)?

Fourth, the parameterization slants the issue dramatically. If one looks at certain types of crimes and actions, then Blacks will look worse than Whites. Change the parameters, and Whites look worse than Blacks. As Richard Delgado has noted, if one compares the costs of "street crime" (what Zinsmeister is talking about and associated with Blacks) versus "White-collar crime" (associated with Whites), the monetary cost of White collar crimes dwarfs that of street crime, the former ranging from an annual cost of $328-519 billion, the latter costing only around $9 million a year. And in lives, the disparity is similar. In 1991, 24,703 people were killed in murders and non-negligent manslaughters. Deaths caused by corporate actions in that same year was approximately 1,486,000 [Richard Delgado, The Rodrigo Chronicles (New York: NYU Press, 1995): 272-75]. Who really poses the danger here?

Fifth, even granting the legitimacy of White fears, there is not even a hint of weighing out the harms Zinsmeister's policies would have on Blacks. Jody Armour, in his book "Negrophobia and Reasonable Racism: The Hidden Costs of Being Black in America", gives solid analysis of how to deal with so-called "reasonable racists" (who are essentially embodiments of what Zinsmeister advocates--those who base their anti-Black actions on statistics and "reasonable" beliefs that they pose higher risk of criminal activity), and how such beliefs can result in real and acute violations of the rights of law-abiding, innocent Black citizens. Professor Armour ultimately concludes that these harms outweigh the "reasonable racist" argument, but regardless of whether one agrees with him, we at least have to recognize that such an analysis is necessary in discussing these issues.

This lack of analysis is the crucial and revealing shortcoming. It's not that White people who exhibit a fear of Black criminality are completely irrational nutcases who need to be locked away. It's that Zinsmeister, probably without realizing it, only examines the White perspective. The logical counterpoise of how such anti-Black policies would impact real Black bodies is not just dismissed, it is never brought up in the first place. That lack of concern, from a man who will be crafting domestic policies which effect millions of Americans, should trouble us all.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm dying to know what he said right after the end of the quote you gave. I think there is a reasonable non-racist argument to made about the distinction between public and private color-blindness, but I got to that last sentence and was like--what!!?