how The Atlantic perpetuates racism and pats itself on the back

Conor Friedersdorf seems to be an asshole. This came to my attention after reading his article about the DEA turning Amtrak into some kind of Soviet-era nightmare, which is quite good. He probably did a good job because the victim of DEA harassment that he spoke to is a middle-aged white mathematician:

“It’s terrifying,” he said. “Especially with all the news stories, you know that they can kill you if they want to. I know that’s not likely for me but can’t help but think about it.” He now looks at law enforcement differently. “I’d always lived under the false impression that they don’t profile people like me,” he explained. “I never thought that was a good thing. But I had the impression that as a white, middle-aged professional, I’m not getting profiled. Now I’m a little bit more afraid of them. Maybe more white, middle-aged professionals should experience this if that’s what it takes to get this taken care of. I’m definitely not in a place where I appreciate them.”

This is the reason you can’t dismiss “it has to get worse before it gets better” out of hand. A previous post about the Dewolf family touched on this. If people are truly incapable of empathizing with others, the problem has to concern them personally before they’ll help do something about it. I think I understand the unseemly side of American culture better than a lot of people, and sometimes I wonder if it’s just because I’m German and English speakers had to borrow the word Schadenfreude from us. I’m white for the purposes of the previous sentence.

Whatever makes white people get it is good. I didn’t become unhappy with Mr. Friedersdorf until reading his commentary on an interview with the person who coined the term “white fragility“. Having been challenged to self-reflect by a nigger-loving white woman, he struck back from his perch at The Atlantic. He’s like the useful idiot footsoldier of keeping racist dickishness alive. This bears close reading, starting with the title:

Police Brutality and ‘The Role That Whiteness Plays’: A scholar’s analysis of American culture presumes too much.

Listen up, bros! Today we’re going to be resenting some uppity political correctness type.

What worries me is that the education system (and the rest of the culture) seem to be giving up on quaint, old-fashioned things like 10-page essays about the meaning of a novel. Conor Friedersdorf almost certainly received such an education. When someone has never had to learn about rhetoric or literary criticism, it’s easier to manipulate them. A lot of the time, even college-educated people haven’t had to do a lot of writing, because it would be too much work to thoughtfully grade that many long, complicated essays. When they arrive at college, I know from experience that many students struggle with concepts like plagiarism and stringing citations together to make a point. To understand what Friedersdorf has done here, you have to appreciate, essentially, semiotics. You have to infer what assumptions lie behind a seemingly-authoritative statement. Almost everything he’s written is insidious in some way.

Last week, Gawker interviewed Robin DiAngelo, a professor of multicultural education at Westfield State University. She discussed aspects of her thinking on whiteness, which are set forth at length in her book, What Does it Mean to be White? I’ve ordered the book.

I humored this yappy bitch, alright?

Meanwhile, her remarks on police brutality piqued my interest. Some of what Professor DiAngelo said is grounded in solid empirical evidence: blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately victimized by misbehaving police officers; there are neighborhoods where police help maintain racial and class boundaries. And if our culture, which she calls “the water we swim in,” contained fewer parts racism per million, I suspect that police brutality would be less common.

Damning by faint praise, casting vague doubts on the obvious. Plausible deniability.

But a core part of her analysis is very much at odds with conclusions that I’ve drawn after years of writing against police misconduct and pondering how to reduce it.

Bitch is clueless. I do Important Journalism Stuff. He doesn’t say anything about what her relevant personal and professional background might be. By implication, his pondering at a distance is more real and authentic. Unbelievably, he then quotes a passage about the tendency to ignore faceless Others. Then he says what this is really about:

the notion of would-be reformers focusing scarce energy on changing “the water that we all swim in” strikes me as a misguided approach.

You will never defeat us! We will never empathize or introspect!

While it would be fantastic to reduce racism in America, and while policing might then improve along with other aspects of life, no one knows how to achieve that goal. But we do know how to mandate body cameras that have been shown to reduce use-of-force; how to put disciplinary decisions in the hands of civilian review boards rather than police unions and the municipal officials that they bankroll; that proper rules for Taser use can lead to less loss of life; that arrestees with medical problems can be taken to the hospital instead of being refused care; and that whistleblowers can be protected, not persecuted. The urgent need is for civic pressure to enact concrete, specific reforms. Best practices, however defined, are so far from being in place in the typical police department that focusing on amorphous cultural change is dubious triage at best.

First of all, the book that he “ordered” is all about the importance of early socialization and the education system in solving the problem over the long term. DiAngelo’s writings in general basically say that white people need therapy to deal with issues of guilt, self-esteem, identity, defensiveness, etc. That’s a claim to knowing how to achieve the goal, except that DiAngelo is “no one.” There’s something very sneering and dismissive about saying that ending racism would be “fantastic.” What he’s doing is telling the reader that addressing racism is super-erogatory and not a moral imperative. That is, it’s a luxury, which fits with the stereotype of the effeminate academic liberal elitist. In contrast, the next sentence is a very masculine “yes we can!”, filled with words like mandate, force, disciplinary, Taser, rules, arrestees, protected, concrete. Worship the Father. Enjoy sadism. He’s interested in having “civilian review boards,” that is, us, making and enforcing rules on them, the police.

If you understand that there are deeper structural things behind our cultural patterns, it’s obvious that what he’s proposing are instances of “dubious triage.” Projection at work again. He still has the mentality that there needs to be a set of rigid rules backed by aggressive violence. It’s merely that the whole apparatus would reflect his superior personal qualities if you granted his omnipotence fantasy. Fantastic. He can’t imagine genuinely respectful human relations, because he spends so much effort warding off empathy to avoid pain.

Next is the familiar “cops hurt white people, too, but let’s not make quantitative comparisons.” Then comes another major distortion of reality:

And while black police officers are not always immune to anti-black prejudice, one need only study a place like Tijuana, where Mexican cops routinely brutalize Mexican people, to see that police brutality is often driven by something other than America’s racial atmosphere.

It’s certainly true that something as complicated as police brutality has many interacting causes. This is taking advantage of the general public’s lack of exposure to statistics. If an event has multiple causes, it’s easy to make the assumption that the causes contribute equally. If there are two causes, they must each be half of the cause. That’s not actually true. Different causes can have different effect sizes. The problem is that racism explains a large amount of the variation in people are treated by the police, larger than a lot of other factors. If racism is the largest factor, and Friedersdorf is trying to highlight lesser contributing factors, what does that tell you? He wishes to diffuse the attention being given to the largest cause of the problem.

We don’t need mathematical models to tell us that racism has a lot to do with cop behavior. We just don’t. That’s stupid.

The cleverness of this move is that he’s appealing to the reader’s desire to feel sophisticated, objective, cautious. Let’s slow down, be thorough, examine all the possibilities. Those people are emphasizing racism over everything else, so they must be biased (rather than aligning their priorities with reality). He doesn’t have to explicitly write that hostile, belligerent minorities have a racist grudge against besieged white males. He assumes that he should never feel bad, so any ideas about race that make him feel bad must be attacks. To defend against. Defensively.

Policies like Stop and Frisk or the War on Drugs are going to victimize people in the neighborhoods where they are focused even if policymakers have no racist intent and police officers on the ground are angels. And repealing those policies is a far more realistic project than “changing the water we all swim in” in the hopes that the attendant enlightenment would lead to…repealing those policies.

He’s missing the point that those policies are already repealed, or were never implemented, in white neighborhoods. “Fuck with the black people especially hard” is the policy.

This is part of DiAngelo’s article that he quoted at the top of his own article:

I think our everyday coded language around “good neighborhoods” and “bad neighborhoods” is what allows for tremendous violence to happen… When you label a neighborhood “bad” and avoid it, then you don’t know and don’t see what goes on there. And there’s no human face to interrupt that narrative. So, we see outrage around figures like Michael Brown because suddenly there’s a face. But, for the most part, we don’t know and we don’t care as long as the police keep “them” from “us,” so our schools can be better and we can feel safe at the top of the hierarchy. I think we use the police to maintain those boundaries.

He’s illustrating exactly what she’s talking about. Policymakers deal with the specifics of police budgets. For him, it’s possible for a police officer to participate in a violent racist system while being an “angel.” Remember that Michael Brown was described as a “demon.” It really isn’t subtle whatsoever.

On one level, articles like this mean what they say. On another level, their purpose is to create emotional associations in the reader. Cops are angels. Niggers are devils. It doesn’t matter what the article says. It could explicitly advocate for something beneficial to black people, literally, while still reinforcing all kinds of racist assumptions. How ungrateful are the niggers if we’re STILL complaining? Don’t they know how heavy white man’s burden is? It’s a really insidious form of gaslighting, and it’s quite psychologically sophisticated. We live in a society where people consciously don’t want to be racist. That’s merely an inconvenience for the actual decisionmakers. It’s a public relations problem. Pacify them while making them fundamentally feel the way that we do about the world.

Even if broad cultural change was a manageable project, is the water that “we all swim in” the relevant ecosystem? I inhabit a bunch of different subcultures. But nothing I do in any of them seems to have much influence on the subculture of police officers in cities that have a police brutality problem. Policing reforms are needed precisely because we don’t know how to change that subculture. That is partly because most would-be reformers don’t swim in it.

Again, he questions the obvious. Again, he denies that we know anything about how to address racism, as if nothing has been said on the subject for hundreds of years.  Why is everything a project that needs managing?

He’s also grossly denying responsibility. He, himself, published an article in The Atlantic that implicitly says it’s alright to Taser people. Police officers reading The Atlantic are thereby encouraged to think of themselves as angels, even reasonable people who might submit to a civilian review board, because whatever, it’s politics.

I wonder if there is an even deeper flaw in the “change the water” approach: to attempt it would seem to require a large coalition that agrees on hotly contested questions about the nature of race in America and how it intersects with policing. I do not think as diverse a country as ours will ever come to agreement on those subjects. Even the small subset of people eager to reform policing don’t agree on them.

All that’s really being asked for is the same empathy and sense of fairness that’s already applied to white people. Minorities would like to shed their racial cares and worry about other things, like white people. They’d like to join in normalcy. All he’s doing here is obscuring that basic fact. In practice, basic recognition that “black lives matter” is difficult to accomplish. It’s not presently true that all lives are equal before the law, contrary to the written promises of the law.

Take the assertion that “the water we all swim in” is “unexamined whiteness.” There are many Americans who’ve spent very little time thinking about whiteness. On the other hand, nearly everyone in my age and educational cohort attended colleges where whiteness was explicitly interrogated by multiple professors and administrators; read all sorts of journalism that examines whiteness (for starters, you’re presently reading a magazine that chose The End of White America as a cover story [“I have a black friend.”]); grew up listening to Jay-Z, Eminem and Prairie Home Companion; helped make stars of Chris Rock and Louis C.K.; and watch popular TV shows including The Wire, The Sopranos, and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Our concepts of whiteness are so varied that some of us must be wrong about parts of it. Even so, whiteness is far from unexamined in our subculture.

Wherever Conor Friedersdorf went to college, I sympathize with his TAs. Here, too, he’s acting like an entitled jerk. He thinks it’s sufficient to have suffered through a class where professors lectured about racism while he texted his friends. Literally all of his examples involve passively listening to something that’s part of mainstream culture. The depictions of black people in the mainstream media, themselves, are what ethnic studies professors are complaining about. He doesn’t understand that real emotional work is being asked of him. He’s being called upon to act like a human. It’s scary, and his avoidance of it is actually cowardly and shameful. It infuriates him that we might infer this “hidden secret” of his. All the posturing is a defense against that. It’s doubly important to reassert his masculinity. He understands that liberal pussies, since they piss off authority a lot more than he does, are putting themselves at risk against a terrifying opponent. He knows that they’re ultimately right, by universally-accepted values. He needs self-righteous justifications for cowardice. He postures like he’s staking out brave contrarian positions, when those positions amount to “ignore the experts when they’re women who make me feel bad.”

Now let’s imagine someone in a different age and educational cohort. He’s a decade younger than me. At 25, he recently started patrolling Harlem as an NYPD officer. Before that, he was in the NYPD academy; before that he was in the U.S. army sitting in meetings with Pashtun elders and patrolling Afghan towns; he attended a Los Angeles high school that was 30 percent white, 33 percent Asian, 25 percent Hispanic, and ten percent black. He played football and tennis there. So the water through which he has swum isn’t accurately described by “the unexamined whiteness, the everyday whiteness.” His world has never been predominantly white, and while his views on race might be enlightened, bigoted or neither, his whiteness is very likely to have been examined regularly.

The NYPD academy no doubt trained him to be even more racist about Arabic-speaking people than he already was. Whatever tolerance he’d gained talking to the village elders about their real lives had to be unlearned. For all we know, the meetings with elders consisted of telling the village elders that we dictate what happens in their villages, and the patrols consisted of random violent home invasions. Are we supposed to assume that football is black and tennis is white? I watched a lot of the Williams sisters growing up, because they were black Jehovah’s Witnesses. The first black anything meant a lot to my dad. This hypothetical cop might not have shared classes with the black and hispanic kids, for the most part. Nothing about this hypothetical life story requires self-examination. Again, there’s a curiously passive attitude. Mere exposure should automatically fix everything. It’s a procedural checkbox, like a pre-announced inspection, something that nags you.

He surely understands many things better than Professor DiAngelo, or me, or anyone older than 30, or people who’ve never seen identity operate outside the United States.

This is the opposite of true. A military tour of Afghanistan is about as enlightening as a Party-sponsored tour of North Korea. The bureaucratic arrangements of our secret service minders is different, “embedded reporting,” but it’s the same thing.  Who can afford international travel except rich people and people there for military reasons?

Perhaps he doesn’t understand some nuance of race in America that reflection in an academic setting would reveal. Maybe his parents were able to co-sign on the mortgage for his first condo with home-equity they earned from a house that appreciated during the boom years in a neighborhood where their black peers weren’t able to move in the 1970s. Like Professor DiAngelo, I think there is value in knowledge like that. It isn’t clear to me how or why that knowledge would make him a better policeman or why it would make a different person reconsider their views on policing.

Again, it dismisses the university professor who coined a phrase that’s become part of a contemporary debate in society. She’s possibly more influential than he is. He has a know-nothing attitude.

This kind of statement is staggering to black people. Ironically, DiAngelo’s insight is that white people just might actually be that stupid, and they need someone to hold their hand and give them a hug. This entire controversy is about neighborhoods, property values, home equity, and where the police physically spend their time. If you don’t understand the history he cited himself, you see a poor black person and think “stupid ape who can’t crawl out of the mud.” If you see them as a human being, you think “I’m so sad I want to cry; I can’t believe we treat each other like this.” Friedersdorf is saying that, while racist self-justifications might be factually incorrect, understanding the reality of the situation is irrelevant to how cops treat people. If behavior isn’t guided by a correct understanding of history, what is it guided by?

For what does the degree to which one has examined whiteness really tell us anyway? Calls to interrogate or examine race often seem to presume that this will produce views on race more closely aligned with those of the person advocating the reflection. But some of the most virulent racism in America comes from people who are deeply obsessed with their whiteness. It’s their favorite thing to examine. They spend their days trying to prove the genetic superiority of the white race or persuading themselves that whites are better than whatever immigrant group they’re intent on excluding. They examined themselves and found others wanting.

This is a terribly hurtful thing to say. Suffering black people are begging white America to deal with its bullshit and treat everyone with human decency, producing a less hostile world in which everyone is actually happier and less fearful. Yes, it involves painful changes in identification. You have to really think of yourself on a deep level as less “American” and more “human,” which is an all-inclusive category. One positive legacy of the Jehovah’s Witness upbringing is the idea that there is something higher than the United States. Such a thing is possible.

His response is that if we actually listened to the suffering people and took them seriously, we’d all just join the Klan and start the race war for real. How could that be true? Are we so repulsive that to know us is to hate us? He’s actually proud to shit on people who’ve endured his deepest fears. His forum is a nationally distributed magazine read by Serious People. It’s grotesque, but we have to watch him basically get away with it.

In comparison to them, we would surely prefer white Americans who’ve spent little if any time reflecting on their racial identity, but who nevertheless abhor police misconduct, speak up against racism when they encounter it, raise their children to abhor racial prejudice, and vote for candidates in part based on the policing reforms that they promise. Those people are improving society, not adding to its problems. If a person like that asked me whether they should spend a spare 5 hours in their weekly routine volunteering at a community center for disadvantaged youth, canvassing their neighborhood for a ballot measure to reform drug sentencing, or examining their whiteness with as much intellectual rigor as possible, I would advise them that the last option would do the least to improve the world.

Everyone should be like him, obviously. Once more, he’s fundamentally disingenuous. He recognizes that the solution to the problem involves helping disadvantaged youth, and he recognizes that it involves changing public opinion. Obviously, undeniably, changing schools themselves would do more to achieve both of those objectives than what he’s advocating. Changing schools is exactly what DiAngelo is advocating. The entire article is about how nobody should listen to her.

Zooming out, it seems to me that there is no one correct theory of race in the United States, at least not one that even the most brilliant individual could comprehend. And if someone wants to be the best human being that they can be, there is no one answer about how much time and intensity they should dedicate to reflecting on their racial identity. That might depend on the racial makeup of their community and their vocation and how much empathy for others they get intuitively and whether racial prejudice was socialized into them during their upbringing and whether they learn better via facts or experiences and a million other factors.

This is also bizarre, a sort of intellectualization. He’s managed to believe that the issue at hand is how much time is devoted to thinking about these issues, in minutes. “However much it takes to make people treat others how they want to be treated” is the right number. Why are we even talking about this?

Many of Professor DiAngelo’s thoughts are engaging and valuable, whether or not one agrees with them. But let’s not pretend that any highly contested humanities theory on race in America is a plausible foundation for policing reform, no matter how insightful it seems to a slice of the ideological spectrum, which is free to pursue it in parallel but should not attempt to put it at the center of this issue. A successful reform coalition must encompass people with wildly different views on race in America, joining to stop behavior that they agree is bad by urging specific reforms.

Is his commentary on an interview not a humanities thing? Is “humanities” derogatory? Who, exactly, is contesting the “theory” that white people are fucking over black people and not owning up to it?

He literally ends by putting the bitch in her place, which is definitely the margins and definitely not the center. All reforms need his approval, and he’s a racist, sexist self-deluding jackass.

For someone without the literacy, all of the above is vague, imaginary voodoo. I’m over-interpreting, reading my own biases into it just like he is. Yes, in fact. A tenet of Lacanian psychoanalysis is that there is no “outside” the imaginary. It’s not enough to simply state the obvious. In life, we’re not absolved of the responsibility for making judgments about why people say things. That’s why we evolved large brains in the first place. Gossip, transitive inference about hierarchy, etc. For both predator and prey animals, larger social groups predict larger brains.

Any kind of psychological thinking that ascribes less-than-admirable motives to public figures is taken to be a “conspiracy theory.” We’re trained to doubt our own sense of reality, which is a sign of an abusive relationship. It’s not some kind of secret that “psy-ops” is a military specialty. It’s an implicit recognition that academic cultural studies types are talking about something serious. Symbols and violence are related. The exercise of power involves symbols. Information warfare is a thing. Public opinion is part of the military’s operational environment.

These are exactly the kinds of considerations that go into “messaging,” and the government is all too willing to make journalists’ jobs easier by handing them press releases that set the tone of how we talk about things. The insights of media studies, critical race theory, etc. are a kind of self-defense against insidious indoctrination. Having a crappy humanities education, assured by the widespread bias against the humanities, leaves a person without a technical understanding of writing. They don’t have the training to “see what you did there,” because it’s a learned skill. They’ve had less opportunities to learn. That makes them more susceptible to propaganda. These are real, serious problems, that Friedersdorf would tell you are some kind of liberal elitist luxury.

It’s not generally appreciated that the humanities teach you Jedi mind tricks. Even if his education didn’t give him a soul, it did give him the ability to engage in sophistry.