Thursday, July 26, 2007

It Doesn't Wash Off

UNC Law Professor Eric Muller reposts a message sent to the Brown alumni listserv by a Black alum of the college. It's entitled "How Many Gun Barrels Have You Looked Down"? It shows how even wealthy, otherwise privileged Black people still face devastating racial harassment. This guy is by no means economically disadvantaged. He went to Brown. He has no criminal record. He has DOD clearance. And yet, he estimates he's faced a gun barrel aimed by a police officer around a dozen times. I'm in a roughly similar economic strata. My tally? Zero.

It is important to hear stories like this, and I've posted similar ones before. But by and large, these tales do not penetrate into mainstream (White) discourse. And that's problematic. It really plays into why I so strongly support diversifying social institutions. When writing on Barack Obama's judicial criteria including empathy with marginalized groups, I quoted Jack Balkin on the need to situate our view of the world within the confines of our particular social position:
If we do not investigate the relationship between our social situation and our perspectives, we may confuse our conception of what is reasonable with Reason itself. If we do not see how our reason is both enabled and limited by our position, we may think our judgments positionless and universal. We may find the perspectives of those differently situated unreasonable, bizarre, and even dangerous, or we may not even recognize the possibility of another way of looking at things.

I've discovered that the best check against the opinions of other groups appearing to be "unreasonable, bizarre, and even dangerous" is simply rote repetition. I recently chatted with a friend about this, and she said she'd had similar experiences as a woman talking about jogging in certain places at night. Some of her male friends dismissed her concerns as paranoia. As it happens, I have many female friends who have relayed similar concerns, so when she told me that there were certain paths she wouldn't run in the evening, I didn't find it odd or strange. But had I not talked to many women about this, I can certainly see how it might seem foreign. After all, I never feel any hesitation about walking or running where I want, when I want. Certainly, there are some high crime areas I might avoid. But there is no place at Carleton that I wouldn't feel comfortable at alone in the evening.

Similarly, reading just this piece, I may be able to dismiss the author's recollection as biased, or just aberrational. It rings so foreign to my own experiences. But I'll tell you--whenever I talk to my Black friends--of whatever social class, they tell the same stories. I went to a summer program at Yale University, and two Black girls in my unit were livid at being basically run out of a store in downtown New Haven. I shopped in New Haven all the time when I was there, never had anything remotely resembling a problem. A friend of mine at Carleton was pulled over by the cops outside of Northfield, on some random traffic thing, and they held her up for hours. Pretty much stranded her in a cornfield. She was in tears. This is a girl who grew up in Apple Valley, interned for a US Senator, and oh yeah, attended Carleton College. The only time I've seen the Northfield police is breaking up loud parties. What more should she be doing to insulate herself from police harassment? When I hear the same stories over and over again, from people I know and trust, verifies these happenings in a way that hearing a set of statistics, or even complaints from a civil rights leader, doesn't. There is no linking factor, no explanatory event, that connects these oh-so-similar stories other than race. Because, as the Brown alum explains, no matter how rich you get, what car you drive, what job you have, or what zip code you live in, being Black doesn't wash off.

And this emphasizes why it is important to have these diverse social connections. If every person I converse with about jogging is male, then of course talk of women feeling unsafe on certain jogging paths will feel odd. It doesn't cohere to our experience--we all jog and none of us have any problem. If I have no Black friends, then stories about police brutality or harassment will feel overstated or aberrational. You've faced a police gun twelve times? You must be doing something wrong--all of my friends are good, law-abiding men and women, and they've never faced anything like that. Jerome McCristal Culp has lamented the tendency of Whites to perceive the experiences of people of color as a kind of "shrill craziness," and this, I feel, help explains why. Remembering that our perspective may be constrained by our position is important, for it indicates that a monolithic social circle is also an incomplete one--that we cannot know it all by ourselves, and that we have to make sure our views and policies are informed by the experiences of a representative cross-sample of the community.

1 comment:

PG said...

Make sure you emphasize not just the social connection, but a relationship in which each party feels comfortable talking about experiences that she knows the other person hasn't had. Commenting on your Obama judge post, I mentioned Potter Stewart's stupidity in Bowers v. Hardwick, but didn't note that even as he was going around saying, "I don't know any gay people," he had a gay clerk. (And had had gay clerks prior to him.) Clerks and their judges tend to form strong connections -- it's part of why interviewing for a clerkship is not pro forma, as it is for many jobs -- and Stewart probably thought he knew the clerk. The clerk, later being attacked by other gays as "in the closet," claimed that he'd brought his boyfriend to social events and he simply assumed that Stewart knew he was gay. Still, they clearly did not have a connection where the clerk felt it was OK to tell Stewart anything about what it was like to be gay.

Similarly, Roberts, Scalia and Alito all have social connections with women, people of color, etc. But I wonder whether the women who know them feel comfortable saying, "Sometimes it's hard to tell whether a work situation is due to sexism or my own over-sensitivity."

And it works on the other side. One of the benefits of joining the Federalist Society as a liberal is getting insight to the conservative mind.