Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Color Blind Spot

On January 2, 2003, Allen Newsome, 17, attempted to rob what he thought was a pizza delivery man who had come to his apartment building in Harlem, New York City. He used what has been described in various reports as a “pellet gun,” a “BB gun,” or a “toy gun.” It looked, however, like a “real gun,” just as an undercover police officer apparently looked like a “real pizza delivery man.” Newsome was shot and killed.

The news reports on Newsome’s death were used by Brooklyn councilman Albert Vann, and Queens councilman David Weprin to garner support for a bill they had introduced to the NYC City Council to ban toy guns from the city. Obviously they weren’t prescient; they were basing their advocacy on previous cases, such as the August 1998 case of a 16-year-old New York boy bearing a submachine gun water pistol who was shot six times in the legs by polic or the 1994 case of another boy, this one 13, who was shot and killed by a police officer who mistook his toy gun for the real thing.

The Libertarian Party sprung into action. Sensing a threat to our constitutional rights to keep and bear toy guns, Jim Lesczynski, spokesman for the Manhattan Libertarian Party announced a “Guns for Tots” program, to collect and distribute toy guns to the kids of P.S. 72 in Harlem before the ban could take hold.

The Daily Show had a good chuckle. The “Guns for Tots” program itself was not very successful, given that the Principal of P.S. 72 told the students to keep away from those strange white men, and some parents came and denounced the Libertarians as racists.

I bought up the “Guns for Tots” matter to my Libertarian college buddy Jeff, as part of a conversation about the extent to which racism plays a part in Libertarian politics, and in the politics of “self-identified” libertarians. The latter group, to my certain knowledge and from direct observation, includes some outright bigots, and White Supremacists.

Jeff told me, “But I know Jim Lesczynski, and he’s not a racist. He was just making fun of some politicians that he thought were pushing a stupid idea.”

Let’s consider that proposition for a bit. Let’s pretend, for the sake of argument, that somehow Jim Lesczynski has managed to grow up in America without a shred of racism in his entire being, a true example of what another Comedy Central guru, Stephen Colbert says: “I don’t see race. People tell me that I’m white.” Let’s, for the purposes of analysis, grant the hypothetical.

Even granting that extreme unlikelihood, how clueless do you have to be to not understand that, in the context of a discussion about how the police are mistaking toy guns for real guns and killing the holders thereof, that handing out toy guns to young children in Harlem is going to result in the perception that you are in favor of having the police kill young children in Harlem? And Harlem children are the very emblem of “not white.” They may not be all “black” any more, given immigration and such, but there aren’t very many of them who are going to be put in the same racial group as Stephen Colbert.

Moreover, this was a PR stunt. There are about a million issues that are more important to the cause of liberty, however you want to define that term, than whether or not children in a particular city get to have super-soakers. This entire thing was a media event attracting media moths, and the Libertarians went for the flame. And if you are going to go after publicity, if you are trying to make points for your cause, whatever that cause might be, it is up to you to make sure that the right message gets across. Whining about how people “misunderstood” just means that you’ve screwed up.

When I was researching this, my favorite argument against the toy gun ban was that “there aren’t many cases” where children had been killed by police who thought the gun was real. Not “none,” you understand. Just “not many.”

There is absolutely no cannibalism in this navy, and when I say absolutely none I mean there is a certain amount. - Monty Python

Enough hypotheticals. Do I think that Jim Lesczynski and the Manhattan Libertarian Party was being racist? Damn right I do. They could have made their point by handing out toy guns to white kids (and maybe made the point that white kids aren’t so much at risk of being shot by the police for holding a toy gun). They could have kept their mouths shut on this one and kept issuing press releases about medical marijuana and other issues where they’re on the side of the angels. But instead, I’ll bet anything that some of them chuckled and grinned at how “daring” and “politically incorrect” they were being, and how they could really make “liberals” fume, and how cool that made them.

I am also absolutely sure that the idea that they were being racist never entered their minds, because, like so many people, they think that you have to be a Nazi or a segregationist, or some other sort of obvious bigot to be a racist. The idea that there can be unconscious racism, that it can affect the way you perceive others or even yourself and your own actions, never enters their minds.

Libertarians, I think, and I’m thinking here of the real-deal Libertarians, the ones who believe in reason, and individual action and responsibility, and the entire philosophical hook, line, and sinker, are particularly vulnerable to this failing. The problem with a blind spot is not just that you can’t see what’s in it, but also because you can’t see the blind spot either.

10 comments:

TStockmann said...

Racism is the new communism. To the new McCarthyites.

James Killus said...

I see your point. We have the House Unamerican Activities Committee demanding that people answer the question, "Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Racist Party?" They are demanding that people "name names." The country is hysterical about Racists getting nuclear weapons, and several of them have been executed for espionage. All it takes is a rumor that someone is Racist for them to lose their jobs. There's a blacklist against Racists in Hollywood and academia. We have a Senator waving a sheet of paper, claiming that Racists have infiltrated the State Department, and it is standard in political campaigns to hint that your opponent is "soft on Racism."

Truly, the parallels are chilling.

TStockmann said...

Are you always this superficial, or only insensitive to the going of oxes that don't have your yoke? Can't think of any recently who lost their job becuase of racism - or even a single fairly typical off-the-cuff remark? Don't think that lawsuits regarding "hostile work environments" don't cause a chilling effect on free speech? Don't think campus speech codes are a fairly good substitute for loyalty oaths - more pernicious, of course? Don't recall witchhunts in your own adopted hometown of Berkeley over, say, the meaning of "water buffalo?" Can't think of what the courts can and will do to racist landlords or employers proven or even accused?

But that's not even what I was saying. Don't see your eagerness to find racists under every bed (nice little phrase from that era there), speculating about "unconscious" motives when surface ideology (which may be stupid in itself) can explain it all? - as sort of Ann Coulter in drag - if that weren't already redundant - slanging your opponenets. Gosh, "racism" gets its own tag even in your blog, as you may be thinking even now - Stockmann, are you now or have you ever been a racist? Or do you even bother, since I must be.

James Killus said...

I used to know a guy who would, with some regularity, especially at parties after he'd had a few, rail against "feminists" and how they were always accusing men of rape, and how men were always being falsely accused of rape, and he personally didn't know any woman who'd ever been raped, etc. etc.

His steady girlfriend was a friend of mine; she once told me that she'd been raped by a relative when she was 13. She never told her boyfriend, and assured me that he was basically kind, gentle, etc. and that he'd never harmed her in any way. But he'd had a cousin who was once accused of date rape, so that was why the boyfriend was a bit buggy on the subject. And she didn't want to tell him for the usual reasons, that he wouldn't understand, he might begin treating her differently, and so forth.

The charges against the cousin had been dropped. But she'd met him and she thought he'd probably done it. She didn't say anything like that to her boyfriend either.

To drive the point home, one's publicly stated opinions can affect the information that one receives and the confidences that are given.

My purely personal experience and memory does not seem to include anyone who has lost their job because they were racists or because of "a single fairly typical off-the-cuff remark." I have, on the other hand, known some stone bigots, flat out white supremacists and Christian Identity Movement fellows (plus some females of the species), who have managed to find employment and even rise to managerial rank. I have also known blacks and Asians, who, to my certain knowledge were fired, laid off, or denied employment because of their race.

I also knew a fellow who was once told in a job interview "I could hire you in a second if you were black," when, in fact, the job had already been promised to a relative of one of the executives of the firm.

I have know exactly two cases, on in academia and one in the Federal Government, where someone was accused of racial bias and an administrative/legal case ensued. Neither man lost his job. In one case I susupect that the case had merit; in the other, I think it probably did not.

I have, of course, heard of prominent media circus cases about racial remarks supposedly leading to a firing, just as I have also heard about anti-gay remarks, and "anti-American" remarks (Ward Churchill, Bill Maher) having similar effects. I think the relevant factor here is "bad publicity," or, in something like the case of Juan Cole, having the Right Wing Attack Machine come after you, which is a subset of "bad publicity."

I think that campus "speech codes" about race are pretty similar to other sorts of speech codes, such as those banning profanity, rude sexual comments, and requiring politeness to one's elders. I personally am not in favor of such codes, but assault is a real crime that may be committed by speech alone, and it is often hard to tell when speech that is "merely abusive" crosses over into threats of violence. In any case, I do not think that speech codes or "political correctness" carry much of a "chilling effect" on college campuses, nor do I think that they are the most important obstacle to academic freedom to be found on the landscape.

Since you have virtually demanded my opinion about where you exist in the great scheme of it, I would say that you are a fairly typical American in that what really makes you uncomfortable is being reminded that racism exists. Wishing that it did not is perhaps laudible, and I have written about the satisfaction of that desire as being on of the positive things that science fiction has offered over the years. The vision of societies where race does not matter has sustained more than one person of my acquaintance, and I'm glad for that.

But the easiest way of dealing with the discomfort caused by racism is to simply avoid other races and stay within a nice homogenous racial group. Occasionally, a minority member may be allowed into the club, provided they know the rules, which include pretending that race doesn't matter, and racism is, at most, a minor problem. A fair number of minorities have learned to play this game, just at the woman I noted at the beginning played a slightly different game.

Other avoidance methods include rationalization, projection, and attacking the messenger. I think you're pretty good at those. You're not as good at intellectualization as I am, but so few are.

Also, although you are engaging in personal insults, you're not very good at those either, which probably speaks well of your upbringing.

TStockmann said...

I see my basic point stands - if something doesn't bother you, it's not important; if it does bother you, it's a crime against humanity. Are you sure you want to claim the mantle of perspectivism? Lacking principle beyond personal preference and an attachment to your own anecdotes is hardly sufficent qualification.

Anyway, you're wrong about my take on racism; I believe you'd find my perspectivism on it even less admirable, even after we spent all night tranching up the loose term into anything useful.

I went back and read about Allen Newsome, and had one economic thought - the libertarians distributing realistic toy guns may have been acting out of a notion of freedom, but what an utterly rational act on other selfish grounds - the last thing anyone would want is for would-be robbers to need to acquire real guns in order to be convincing.

James Killus said...

I went back and read about Allen Newsome, and had one economic thought - the libertarians distributing realistic toy guns may have been acting out of a notion of freedom, but what an utterly rational act on other selfish grounds - the last thing anyone would want is for would-be robbers to need to acquire real guns in order to be convincing.

I've already heard that argument from another friend of mine. The fallacy lies in the assumption that the alternative is for someone to go and acquire a real gun. This is essentially a false dilemma. Another alternative is for a "would be robber" to not become a robber.

Moreover, your logic undercuts the original argument that was being made by the Libertarians: that toy guns are harmless, and their use in robberies is too rare to be of concern. You are basically accusing the Libertarians of hypocrisy, and, it should be mentioned, validating the interpretation that they are trying to get black kids killed.

I merely said that they were clueless, inept, and unconsciously racist, which is to say that I'm actually less harsh on them than you are.

As for the "crime against humanity" remarks, you should look into getting an hyperbolectomy.

TStockmann said...

validating the interpretation that they are trying to get black kids killed


I am so embarrassed - I had thought you meant the libertarians were unconsciously racist, but what you meant - perhaps ironixally - is that you were being unconsciously racist -like an idiot, I overlooked the very title of your blog. So underaged blacks are unaccountably apt to rob people, and therefore should not be allowed realistic toy guns permitted to white children? I'm shocked, shocked by such an assertion and do not want to hear any racist statistics.

So, let's assume for the sake of argument that a toy gun could be pointed with intent by a hand of nay pigment. I'm not unaware of the possibility that absent easy access, there might not be any weapon pointing at all. But this is a very standard moral dilemma - if having access to toy weapons would lead to the death of x number (or x probability of such an occurance) of would-be robbers, whereas the presence of fake weapons would lower the number (or probability) of robbees (innocent in this encounter, if not others) being killed by y would your moral geometry graph this? Aside from the pointlessly provocative, the usual starting point would be the lives are equal, but obviously there are many of us on the far end of the scale who would be willing to trade an unlimited amount of x for y, most of us being emphatically non-x.

Let me be also clear that this is my personal moral calculus. I think the libertarians in this case entirely innocent of game-theoryish ethics - and I think that was clear in my phrasing. They're more akin to the Second Amendment fundies who think Virgina Tech happened because the university did not permit all the students to pack. At least this vaguely insane notion (projecting from my college days) isn't racist, unless it's targetted against Asians statistically - oops - overrepresented at colleges.

James Killus said...

but what an utterly rational act on other selfish grounds - the last thing anyone would want is for would-be robbers to need to acquire real guns in order to be convincing.

I am so embarrassed - I had thought you meant the libertarians were unconsciously racist, but what you meant - perhaps ironixally - is that you were being unconsciously racist -like an idiot, I overlooked the very title of your blog. So underaged blacks are unaccountably apt to rob people, and therefore should not be allowed realistic toy guns permitted to white children?

Well, you lost me with that last jaunt into Bizzaro logic. If the first quote above was not meant to mean that you were advancing the hypothesis that Libertarians were giving toy guns to black kids in order for them to use the toy guns in robberies instead of using real guns, then I have no idea what it meant. But if it makes you feel better to call me racist, feel free. I'll even help you out: in my opinion it is more dangerous for a black child to carry a realistic looking toy gun than it is for a white child to do so. Lordy, I am such a bigot.

On the other hand, hyperbolectomy is a very cool word. Sadly, Google informs me that I do not have priority of coinage; it has been used earlier by John Perry Barlow, and that reduces the coolness quotient by about a factor of 4.

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