Trying to Write After Charlottesville

(The beginning of this post has been edited, twice, because I accidentally posted, and then sloppily edited the first time, the wrong draft.)

I’ve been trying to write something in response to Charlottesville for the past two weeks, but I’ve had a hard time finding the words. It’s not that I’ve been unclear about what happened there or who was to blame for the violence of that day or for Heather Heyer’s death, or about not-only-Trump’s moral cowardice in equating those who committed violence against the white supremacists and neo-Nazis—whether that violence was in self-defense or not—of equating those people with the neo-Nazis and white supremacists themselves. It’s that so many people with platforms much, much larger than mine have already said most of what I would have said, and it has been difficult to keep up. Better to amplify those voices in the small ways that I can, it has seemed to me, than to engage in the clamoring for attention that putting my own voice out there would have been. So that’s mostly what I’ve been doing, sharing/forwarding/talking about/planning to teach what have seemed to me the necessary and worthwhile things that other people have said.

I was able to pour some of my outrage into the statement about Charlottesville that I wrote for my faculty union, but that statement is by definition not a personal one, and so, while writing it helped me feel I’d done something worthwhile, it didn’t actually do much to help me figure out what I wanted to say. I’d thought a lot about the intersection of racism and antisemitism in my own life as a white Jew during the summer of 2016, when I wrote a series of letters that Jonathan Penton published as “The Lines That Antisemitism and Racism Draw1 in December of that year in his online journal, Unlikely Stories. (I posted one of those letters to my blog earlier this month.) Again, however—here, here, here and here, for example—others were already writing about being white and Jewish movingly and persuasively, and they were doing so in more or less precisely the terms I would have chosen. What they weren’t writing about, however, was where I ended up in the letters that I wrote last year, and that is perhaps something I can add to the conversation.

“The Lines That Antisemitism and Racism Draw” constitutes my response to a Facebook message Jonathan sent me while he was reading through submissions to a special issue of Unlikely Stories called #BlackArtMatters. Conceived in harmony with the Black Lives Matter movement, #BlackArtMatters was to be, “a celebration of the incredible continuing contributions of Black artists to the global dialogue.” Black artists were welcome to submit their own work. People who were not Black were invited to submit critical articles about or appreciations of Black artists. I had hoped to write an appreciation of June Jordan, my first poetry teacher, but my schedule did not permit it, and so I told Jonathan I would have to pass. Then, in early August of last year, as I was sitting in the airport waiting with my family for our flight to Scotland, where we’d be spending the first of three weeks in Europe, I received a message from Jonathan that said, in part, this:

So [Rosalyn Spencer, the woman who edited #BlackArtMatters, is] going through the [pool of] submissions[.] Lots of fine stuff from black folk, lots of fine stuff from non-black folk. There is, however, only one submission from a Jewish academic, who [in a critical article about James Baldwin] starts talking about how, since he’s Jewish, he knows how black people really feel, except only partially, but totally blackly.

Jonathan’s irony notwithstanding, I trusted his description of that academic’s racist paternalism because it is very familiar to me from when I was younger and finding my way more and more deeply into both the Orthodox and Conservative Jewish youth movements. However, when Jonathan asked me, “one Jewish writer to another,” to submit something, anything, so that academic’s work would not be the only piece in the submissions pool to represent us—Jonathan did not publish it—I had to say no. Still, I couldn’t get what that academic said out of my head, and so, early in the morning of our first day in Edinburgh, while my wife and son were still sleeping, I started what became a series of six letters that I wrote from three different countries—four, if you include the last one, which I wrote after we returned to the US. It’s this last one that I want to share with you now. Not because I think it says anything definitive about racism and antisemitism, but because where it ends, when I wrote it, surprised and even frightened me a little, feelings I have learned to trust as a sign I’ve hit on an idea that needs to be explored further. And because I think the desire for that exploration is something that what happened in Charlottesville, and that everything packed into what happened in Charlottesville—past, present, and future—should compel in us. The letter, slightly edited, is below the fold.

 

Wednesday, August 24

Dear Jonathan,

We’ve been home for a couple of days now, and we’re finally settled back in enough that I can take this time to write without feeling guilty that I should be doing something else. Tomorrow, I need to begin prepping for the new semester, which starts in about a week, so this will have to be the last letter I send you.

Not too long after Michael Brown was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, someone started the hashtag #CrimingWhileWhite. It seemed at first like a marvelous idea: white people tweeting stories about times they’d been stopped by the police and been treated politely, kindly, even indulgently—the precise opposite of the kind of treatment all-too-many Black people have come to expect from law enforcement. The more I read the #CrimingWhileWhite tweets, however, the more skeptical I became. Yes, there were plenty of 140-character-long stories that fit the hashtag’s purpose perfectly, and, yes, the effect of telling those stories one after the other was to highlight the fundamental unfairness of how cops all too often treat Black people. Highlighting that unfairness, however, seemed to be about as deep as the hashtag could go. Don’t get me wrong. Fairness is important, but, as a framework for dealing with white privilege, it has definite limitations.

This default focus on fairness was why I didn’t post my own #CrimingWhileWhite story, despite the fact that it matched the hashtag’s intended message. Basically, a cop pulled me over because my rear license plate was missing, and then he let me go with just a warning that I should replace it as soon as possible. He didn’t even write me a ticket. The full narrative of that encounter, however, is far more complex than this brief summary suggests, and Twitter’s 140-character format would have meant the loss of that complexity. So I tried instead to write the story as an essay in itself, but nothing I wrote did justice to what I thought I was trying to say, so I put it aside. I want to tell you the story now because I think it’s relevant to what I’ve been writing in these letters.

About thirty years ago, I was driving my girlfriend home late one night along an otherwise deserted stretch of the Northern State Parkway. From behind us, a patrol car’s all-of-a-sudden flashing lights illuminated the dark. At first, I didn’t think the lights were for me, so I moved over into the right lane to let the car pass. It, however, moved into the right lane behind me, and a voice came over its loudspeaker telling me to pull over, which—confused about why I needed to; I knew I wasn’t speeding—I of course did.

As I watched the officer approach my car in the rear view mirror, I was frantically buttoning the inner placket of the shirt I was wearing, which my girlfriend had playfully undone while I was driving. The design of the shirt—with two sets of plackets, one inner and one outer—made it look like I was wearing two shirts, and I was just starting to button the outer placket when the officer’s knock on the driver’s side window interrupted me. I rolled the window down. “Please step out of the car,” he said. I could see he was white. “Bring your license and registration with you, and come around to the passenger side.”

He watched me take the registration out of the glove compartment, then walked over to where he wanted me to stand.

“Who’s in the car with you?” he asked when I got there, taking my license and registration from me.

“My girlfriend,” I answered.

“What was all that commotion I saw in the front seat after you pulled over?”

“I was buttoning my shirt,” I told him, and I reached to open the outer placket so he could see what I was talking about.

“Stop!” the cop said very forcefully. “Do that slowly.”

“What?” I asked, a bit of a challenge in my voice, since I didn’t at first understand why he’d so suddenly changed his tone.

“Open both sides at the same time,” he instructed, “one with each hand, and lift the shirt up.”

Now I understood. “I don’t–” have a gun, I wanted to say, but he interrupted me. “Just do what I told you!”

I glanced quickly around and noticed that his partner, whom I could not see clearly, had stepped out of their vehicle. I don’t remember if they had their guns drawn, or if their hands were at their holsters, or if maybe one had his gun out while the other was poised to draw if he had to. Or maybe their hands were nowhere near their guns. I really can’t recall. What I do know is how suddenly afraid and even more confused I was that they were now treating me as if I might be armed.

I held the front of my shirt open and up, while the officer shined his flashlight on me. “Keep the shirt up,” he said, “and turn around.” I did as I was told.

“Where are you driving this late at night?” he asked, his voice considerably more relaxed now that he knew I didn’t have a gun tucked into my pants.

“I’m taking my girlfriend home,” I said as I straightened my shirt.

“Where does she live?”

“She goes to Adelphi University.”

“Where do you live?”

“In Stony Brook. I’m in graduate school.”

“Whose car is this?”

“Mine.”

“How long have you had it?”

“A couple of years. I got it from my grandfather.”

He examined my license and registration very closely, shining his flashlight once or twice so he could see my face as he did so. Then he asked, “Did you know your rear license plate was missing?”

“No, I didn’t,” I said, and he took me to the back of the car to show me.

Car thieves, he explained, take the rear plates off the vehicles they steal so the cars can’t be identified from behind. “That’s why we stopped you,” he said, returning my license and registration. “There’s a ring of car thieves operating around here. We thought you might be one of them.” Then his voce grew a little stern, “Just make sure you get that license plate taken care of as soon as possible.”

“I will, officer,” I said. “Thanks!”

That was the end of it. I got back into my car; he walked back to his vehicle; and he and his partner drove away. As I said before, he didn’t even write me a ticket.

As soon as I buckled my seat belt and put the key in the ignition, my girl friend, who was also white, started teasing me. “You should have seen yourself,” she smiled. “You were so scared. You should’ve stood up to them more.”

“You do realize they thought I might have a gun on me, right?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “You didn’t have a gun. They weren’t going to shoot you.”

“I don’t know what they would or would not have done,” I said. “What I know is that they could have, and I’m glad nothing I did made them think they had to.” I turned the key, the engine turned over, I pulled back out onto the parkway, and I drove her home.

Not once—and if this is not a sign of white privilege, I don’t know what is—not once in all the years since that incident took place did I think about it in racial terms. Indeed, I always thought about it in terms of gender, what would have happened if I’d tried to be more of a man, like my girlfriend suggested I should have, and what it meant that she would make that kind of suggestion in the first place. Then I saw the #CrimingWhileWhite hashtag, and I understood that this was a story I could contribute to that effort, but that’s not what made me want to tell you the story now. Rather, I am telling you this because of how I felt when I heard on NPR—I was driving home from work a few weeks before my family and I left for Europe—the audio of Philando Castile’s girlfriend talking to Castile, and to the cop who shot him, as Castile sat in the seat next to her, and she couldn’t do anything to stop him from dying.

The similarities between my story and his started to haunt me almost immediately. I was driving with my girlfriend; so was he—and their daughter was in his car was well. He was pulled over for a broken taillight; I was pulled over because my rear license plate was missing. In each case, the cop believed a routine traffic stop might turn into something violent and deadly. Jeronimo Yanez, the cop who stopped Castile, said that Castile resembled a suspect in an armed robbery; the cops who stopped me thought I might be a car thief. Castile told Yanez that he had a licensed gun in the car; the cop in my situation wanted to make sure I did not have a gun tucked into the waistband of my pants. Philando Castile died because Yanez thought Castile was reaching for his gun, not his wallet; the cop who stopped me gave me the chance to prove I didn’t have a gun, and I walked away with my life. Castile was Black, I sat in my car thinking after I’d parked and turned off the radio. I am white. Is that fact the only reason I’m alive today? Do I literally owe my life to the color of my skin?

The question may seem melodramatic at first. After all, my being white might have had nothing to do with the fact that those officers did not shoot me; it’s entirely possible that they would have treated a Black version of me in the same way. What makes the question a valid one, however, is that there’s no way to know for sure. To take it from another, less dramatic perspective, ask yourself why the cop who spoke with me didn’t write me a ticket. My guess is that your first impulse would be to say because he and I were both white. Again, to be fair to him, there’s no way to know for sure. He might have chosen not to write the ticket because I was young and he wanted to cut me a break, and it is certainly within the realm of possibility that he would have made the same choice for a young Black man. I’ve always wondered, however, if he didn’t write me the ticket because he didn’t know I was Jewish. Because, in other words, he didn’t know he had before him a chance to give a “cheap Jew” at least some small measure of what all cheap Jews “deserve,” i.e., to be made to pay.

I have no doubt that most people who aren’t Jewish will say that I am being melodramatic, and maybe even some Jews will too, at least at first. I’d be willing to bet, however, that if you asked those Jews a second time, most of them would say something like, “There’s no way to know for sure, of course, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Richard is right.” Because Jews know about antisemitism what Black people, and all people of color of course, know about racism, that it is not merely an unhappy accident which some white people escape and some don’t. Rather, it is a meaningful and functional part of our culture that lives in everyone who calls our culture home. Everyone. The only real question is where you position yourself in relation to the lines that racism and antisemitism draw.

When that Jewish academic claimed to know what Black people feel, I think it’s clear he was trying to declare his own disloyalty to white privilege. However, by asserting his Jewishness as that which gave him access to Black people’s feelings, he was also asserting that a line exists within him beyond which, because he is Jewish, and despite the fact that he was born into a white body, he ceases to be white. To put it another way, he was claiming that, because he is oppressed as a Jew, he does not experience—the full implication is that he has never experienced—what white privilege feels like, i.e., that physical sense of being at home in and with the color of your own skin, while at the same time doubting that anyone who isn’t white can ever have that same experience

To give whiteness a body in this way—and for my purposes here, I don’t think it matters whether you believe whiteness to be constructed or to signify a genetic race into which people are born—to make it not just about ideas, but about feelings, is to give it also a metaphysics, an ontology, and an epistemology. It is to propose, in other words, that whiteness both asks and offers answers to the question of what it means for white people to be in the world; of what white people can know about that world; and of how we are able to know it. In a book called White, Richard Dyer argues that whiteness roots the answers to these questions in the medieval Christian idea that a body’s value is defined by the quality of the spirit that inhabits it. The souls of men, for example, were understood by the Church to be superior to the souls of women, and so men’s bodies were valued much more highly than women’s. Similarly, the souls of Christians were understood to be far superior to those of the Jews, and so Christian bodies had more value than Jewish bodies.

Dyer asserts that this ability to imagine different bodies as being different in essence, not just in form, is a prerequisite of the racist imagination, and he lists some of the ways Christianity has imagined such differences in racial terms:

the persistence of the Manichean dualism of black:white that could be mapped on to skin colour difference; the role of the Crusades in racialising the idea of Christendom (making national/geographic others into enemies of Christ); the gentilising and whitening of the image of Christ and the Virgin in painting; the ready appeal to the God of Christianity in the prosecution of doctrines of racial superiority and imperialism.

Dyer does not argue that Christianity is itself racially white, pointing to the Black church in the United States and the growth of Christianity in Africa and Latin America as obvious evidence to the contrary. Rather, he insists that Christianity “has…been thought and felt in distinctly white ways for most of its history.” This notion, that whiteness, and therefore racism, cannot be understood apart from its roots in the same Christianity from which antisemitism emerged suggests to me a new avenue for understanding the relationship between these two forms of hatred. Unfortunately, though, I do not have the time right now to walk down that avenue even just a little bit, As I said, the new semester starts very soon, and I need to prep my classes.

I know, Jonathan, that these letters were not the kind of response you were asking me for when you messaged me about that Jewish academic’s submission. Nonetheless, I am happy and grateful that your message to me about him moved me to write. The letters have forced me to push my thinking about race and antisemitism further than I have pushed it in the past, and I have learned some things about myself in the process. I hope you have found the letters thought provoking and useful as well.

Best,

Richard

  1. If the white-on-black text of Unlikely Stories is hard on your eyes, I have posted the letters as a single document on Academia.edu. []
This entry posted in anti-racism, Anti-Semitism, Bigotry & Prejudice, Race, racism and related issues. Bookmark the permalink. 

54 Responses to Trying to Write After Charlottesville

  1. 1
    Ortvin Sarapuu says:

    Please tell us more about how Charlottesville affected you as a straight white man

  2. Tell me, Ortvin, did you even read the post?

  3. 3
    Pret says:

    I’m certainly going to read the whole thing.

    I fell asleep for a very brief second after the part about having dinner with your wife in a very nice restaurant in upstate New York, talking about the communications award you would be receiving the next day on behalf of your faculty union, but now I’m awake and determined as ever to wade through it.

  4. Pret,

    I suppose that’s a fair enough critique of the beginning of the draft I initially and mistakenly posted, and I get that you might not like how the post begins, but I do hope you will indeed “wade through it.” I’d be curious to know what you think.

  5. 5
    Mandolin says:

    I don’t know why people feel like it’s chill to be randomly aggressive toward Richard when he posts here, but please don’t. Just move on to he next post.

    (Criticize ideas of course but leave the personal jabs aside, neh?)

  6. 6
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    To take it from another, less dramatic perspective, ask yourself why the cop who spoke with me didn’t write me a ticket. My guess is that your first impulse would be to say because he and I were both white.

    No, not at all.

    My first thought would be that a) they quickly figured out that the car wasn’t stolen, which was the whole reason they pulled you over; b) you had a plate in front; c) you were a victim of having your plate stolen; and d) that particular cop wasn’t inclined to be a random asshole by writing you a ticket.

    If you ask “do you think there’s a chance RJN’s whiteness had an effect?” I’d say sure, it’s likely it had some effect. Cops range in racism and the more racist the cop the more that it would have mattered; we don’t know how much those cops were racist, of course.

    But I don’t see this as some sort of shocking white privilege story. Yeah, you got pulled over and you didn’t get shot. Neither do the extreme supermajority of people who got pulled over. Many more black people get shot, which is a big problem caused by racism, but the absolute rate is still low.
    Not to mention that Jersey in 1987 seems very nonanalogous to Minnesota in 2016.

    So although I often like your posts, this comparison sort of falls flat, at least for me. I don’t think this level of melodrama is effective.

  7. Just a factual correction, G&W: It’s Suffolk County, Long Island, not Jersey.

  8. 8
    Charles S says:

    Ortvin,

    Why do you think it is okay to attack a Jewish writer for responding publicly to an event where Nazis marched in the streets, chanting “Jews will not replace us?” Do you think that because the statue the Nazis were nominally protecting was about anti-black white supremacy that we should all just ignore that they were Nazis, and ignore the blatant antisemitism of their demonstration? Do you think that by calling Jews white you can make them shut up about antisemitism? Why would you even want to do that?

    You’ve been commenting on Alas for a long time, and I generally find you relatively reasonable and comprehensible, but your comment here just seems appallingly far off base.

  9. 9
    Pret says:

    “Many more black people get shot, which is a big problem caused by racism …”
    __________

    I don’t think that’s correct. More white people than black people are shot by police.

    There is quite a bit of information on this in the Internet, here’s one source:

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/national/police-shootings-2017/

  10. Interesting tale Mr Newman, and even more interesting is the attempt at pushback or the complete negation of its significance to you or to the world at large.

    There were a couple of points when I was cringing a bit remembering a couple of times having interactions with the police myself which is always a bit uncomfortable at the very least.
    Without supporing evidence, Gin and Whiskey states:

    “Many more black people get shot”

    And in rejoinder, admittedly pulling an assertion out of his assersion hole, Mr Pret states:

    “I don’t think that’s correct. More white people than black people are shot by police.”

    And off to the races we are both points staked out and both lacking any evidence other than feeling to back them up now on the one hand if G&W was talking about a per capita basis, he most likely would have given Pret anything to argue with, but since he did not Pret is able to turn the game into one of numbers and figuring that statistically speaking white folk outnumber black ones by a better than 5 or 7 to one margin population wise in this country can guess that the totals might favor his argument but again with a lack of supporting evidence we are left to feel our way around the subject and set up strawmen riding strawponieds and tilting at windmills, and continuing the rondelet around the ballroom never reaching a pont…

    Though I did walk a dog and go shopping in the interim since I started this comment so maybe the issue has been settled to everyones satisfaction, and if that is the case, I apologize for sticking my head in it.

  11. Provider:

    First, thanks for the kind words.

    Also, I approved your comment because I think you are trying to comment seriously on this discussion, but please, if you choose to comment in the future, avoid attacking people personally with statements like “admittedly pulling an assertion out of his assersion hole, Mr Pret states.” It’s enough to say that you think a person has not provided sufficient evidence to back up an assertion, as you did with your comment about G&W.

  12. 12
    Ortvin Sarapuu says:

    “I generally find you relatively reasonable and comprehensible”

    It’s nice to know that I’m -relatively- reasonable. Maybe if I work very hard one day you’ll find me actually reasonable. Or maybe not.

  13. Ortvin,

    I took your initial comment on this post to be snark directed at the introduction that I originally posted, and my assumption was that you didn’t read further than that. Which is why, in return, I asked you the (admittedly snarky) question I did. I’ve been waiting to see if you would answer me and was starting to think that perhaps you’d taken Mandolin’s suggestion and moved on to the next thread.

    This response to Charles, however, and your very pointed non-response to the points he raised with you, suggests that perhaps there is something else going on. Either come clean and state your position or please leave this thread. (I will leave to Charles if he wants to go further than that regarding your response to him.)

  14. 14
    Mandolin says:

    Ortvin, you need to defend your proposition (that Jews have no reason to be affected by Charlottesville), apologize in some way, or biff off this thread.

  15. Thanks for the feedback, RJN.

    But to your point, this is exactly the bit to which I referred, and I think that my desciption was apt, the language that I used to make the point may have been a bit florid, but I would assert that it was an accurate assessment..

    “I don’t think that’s correct. More white people than black people are shot by police.”

    If any of this had been backed up by a link to statistics supporting the assertion, it would not have required the veneer of any holes to speak of…nonetheless if one has to explain a gag one has failed…Thanks for publishing my attempt, and I think I will return to lurking…

  16. 16
    Jeffrey Gandee says:

    Ortvin, why come here and comment for the purpose of telling a post’s author that you have no interest in his perspective? I honestly don’t understand. Most of us visit this blog because we enjoy the perspectives of the authors and commenters here. No one is forcing you to read RJN’s writing so I can only assume you’d rather live in a world where other people can’t or won’t read RJN’s post. Do I have it wrong?

  17. 17
    Ortvin Sarapuu says:

    “I can only assume you’d rather live in a world where other people can’t or won’t read RJN’s post”

    I’ve been asked to leave this thread by mods, so I won’t be responding.

    Although I can’t stop you guys from asking me questions mods won’t allow me to answer – let alone from drawing assumptions based on my mod-ordered silence – it doesn’t do you much credit.

  18. 18
    Grace Annam says:

    Ortvin Sarapuu:

    I’ve been asked to leave this thread by mods…

    No, you haven’t. You’ve been told that your behavior in the thread is not acceptable and been given ways to make it acceptable.

    Here’s Richard:

    Either come clean and state your position or please leave this thread.

    …and here’s Mandolin:

    Ortvin, you need to defend your proposition (that Jews have no reason to be affected by Charlottesville), apologize in some way, or biff off this thread.

    And then comes Jeffrey, who politely says that he does not understand your contributions and asks for an explanation of why you would post what you have posted. A response to him could easily also meet the moderator requirements imposed by Richard and Mandolin.

    So, if you can’t post in this thread, then the only reason is your refusal to participate by stating your position. If your next post does not contain a response to Richard and Mandolin, then, yes, consider yourself banned from this thread. The other threads are still available to you, including the open threads.

    Grace

  19. 19
    Mandolin says:

    As Grace mentions, the open thread is generally where one takes conversations that can’t happen in a specific thread.

    Ortvin, I’m finding your responses here really creepy. I mean, either you don’t think Jewishness is salient and just don’t want to have to admit it outright, or …? Have we all just super misread you somehow? Why wouldn’t you just say that? You’re not obligated to answer me, here (in accordance with the mod stuff) or elsewhere (not), but I dunno, I guess I just wanted to indicate that this is unsettling for me as a Jew in case that’s… I dunno, either what you wanted (congrats?) or something you don’t want but don’t object to, or something you didn’t realize was happening.

    If your position is actually geniunely that Jews should not react to chartlotesville as Jews, then… this goes from creepy to yet another little stab that people are feeling more and more free to express they don’t think Jews are really people exactly. So, you know, that’s a possible consequence of this interaction, too.

  20. 20
    Mandolin says:

    I guess I’m saying, partially–

    I’m a disabled, queer, atheistic, intellectual and artist with a history of liberal politics, and a woman. These are all categories of people threatened by fascist violence. And yet I am most concerned because I am also a Jew.

    It would be nice if people positioning themselves as intervening on behalf of the oppressed (the not straight, not white, not male) would take those voices intersectionally into account.

  21. 21
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    an event where Nazis marched in the streets, chanting “Jews will not replace us?”

    We live in a country where that viewpoint is routinely and despised, and in which “Nazi” remains one of the worst pejoratives, suffering perhaps only from overuse.

    We live in a country where those one-in-a-million folks are able to march at all only because we take pride in freedom of expression, and because we take pride in using our power to preserve that expression and to protect them.

    We live in a country where the folks who appear to be most likely to enlist in the military; and who would almost certainly march to battle and risk their lives for us (were any Nazis to show up); are also tarred for having voted for Trump in a 2:1 ratio, and are thereby often accused of having “supported” Nazis.

    Those Nazis don’t scare me. They don’t scare my mom. They wouldn’t have scared my grandmother(*). They shouldn’t scare anyone. And the rhetoric around them, now that is scary.

    (*)A bad-ass and very Jewish woman, she hated all Germans and Nazis most of all, but supported their march in Skokie. She was able to distinguish the process and the people.

  22. Ortvin:

    I am just seeing Grace’s response to you now, and Mandolin’s follow up—thanks, both!—so I won’t repeat what either of them said, but just in case any misunderstanding on your part remains, I want to say explicitly, as the person whose thread this is, I did not ask you to leave the thread. I asked you to respond to Charles’ questions and to explain the position you took in your initial comment. If you insist on letting that comment speak for itself, in its all encompassing denial of both my own Jewish identity—which is central to the post I wrote—and the Jewish stake in what happened in Charlottesville, then I will have to assume that you are indeed an antisemite. I don’t yet assume that because I am, for a little longer at least, going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume your silence is because you are away from a computer or other device from which you can comment. At some point, though, if we don’t hear from you at all, then I will take your silence as your response, and I will ban you from this thread.

    I would also hate, however, for discussion here to devolve into concerns about what Ortvin does or does not think/believe. I’m far more interested in discussing something like G&W’s comment @21, which takes what Charles wrote out of context, but to which I will nonetheless offer this response: One difference between the current climate and the climate around the time of the Skokie march: To my knowledge, we did not have a president, or any significant government official, who prevaricated in the way that Trump has and whose prevarication has been seen by neo-Nazis, etc. as both legitimization and encouragement. That difference, I think, made it easier to focus on the free speech issue in Skokie and to dismiss the Nazis themselves as non-threatening in the way that you have talked about the Nazis in Charlottesville. I am loathe to reduce everything to comparisons to Nazi Germany because I think there are significant differences between us now and them then. (Those differences would perhaps have been less pronounced if we were talking about the US in the 1930s.) Nonetheless, if we are back to there being an overt institutional support for white supremacist/Nazi thinking or ideology or what-have-you—and there is evidence of it in Trump’s administration—that is very disconcerting. Not because I see apparitions of the concentration camps in our future, but because there is no world I can imagine in which white supremacists/Nazis being part of the mainstream is a good thing.

  23. 23
    Kate says:

    The Nazis marching in Skokie didn’t drive a car into a crowd of counter protesters. They didn’t shoot off a gun in a crowd while police stood by and did nothing.
    Trump just pardoned Joe Arpaio, who set up a tent prision, where he denied people adequate food and water in blistering heat while making them do hard labor. That would be bad enough if these were criminals, but some of the people held there had not been conviced of anything. Many of them were U.S. citizens who were guilty of nothing but existing while Latino without proof of citizenship on their person.
    Trump just praised the book of another sherrif known for abusing prisoners, David Clark:

    Clarke has faced two federal lawsuits since December, in the wake of four deaths that occurred last year in the Milwaukee County Jail. In mid-March, the family of a man who died of dehydration in April 2016 sued Clarke and the county, alleging that jail staff subjected the man to “torture” by denying him water as he pleaded for it over 10 days. County prosecutors are considering bringing felony charges against jail staff for neglect. Another lawsuit, filed last December, seeks damages for the death of a newborn in the jail last July, after jail staff ignored the infant’s mother as she went into labor and for more than six hours thereafter, according to the suit.

    http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2017/05/david-clarke-dhs/
    Our Immigration and Customs Enforcement service, which already had a record of human rights abuses under Obama, is being given free reign under Trump, and petitioning to be allowed to destroy records of sexual assaults and deaths in custody.
    The fact that 2/3 of our military support this president is chilling.
    It is clear that at this point people in prison for crimes, and Latinos suspected of immigration violations are in the most danger of these human rights abuses. But if this gets out of control, that list could expand quite quickly.

  24. 24
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    Nonetheless, if we are back to there being an overt institutional support for white supremacist/Nazi thinking or ideology or what-have-you—and there is evidence of it in Trump’s administration—that is very disconcerting. Not because I see apparitions of the concentration camps in our future, but because there is no world I can imagine in which white supremacists/Nazis being part of the mainstream is a good thing.

    This is sort of what I am discussing.

    First we all agree (easily) that real live “kill-all-dissidents” Nazis are really bad. I focus on taking over the government and using it to harm people because that seems to be the trigger point.

    Then it’s white supremacists. By and large those aren’t people who are in any way taking over the government and killing/expelling/punishing dissidents but sure, they’re bad.

    Then it’s “people who agree with white supremacists”, which, depending on the viewpoint, includes folks like Charles Murray and those who want to hear him speak, and also those who argue in favor of him speaking, and so on. I’ve personally been accused of supporting white supremacy for arguing that Nazis should be allowed to protest.

    Then it’s “people who enable them,” which apparently includes the roughly 50% of the country who voted for Trump;

    and so on. In these two posts alone it changed from a fear of Nazis to a fear of overt support for some sort of thinking which aligns somehow with Nazi thinking.

    there is no world I can imagine in which white supremacists/Nazis being part of the mainstream is a good thing.

    Compared to what?

    Our world is pretty good now; it’s been largely improving since the Nazis first showed up; it has always included a few white supremacists/Nazis in the mainstream.

    I would absolutely prefer a world which contains a small minority of unpleasant Nazis, over a world where a bunch of self-righteous folks are empowered to take over the government and use it to harm people. I hate Nazis, I oppose Nazis, but I am WAY more concerned about people like Kate coming into power and controlling speech, than I am about the few hundred Nazis who marched in Charlottesville. There are many more of them, after all. I am much more opposed to the idea of police arresting people for offensive social media posts than I am offended by the social media posts. Etc.

  25. 25
    Jeffrey Gandee says:

    “I hate Nazis, I oppose Nazis, but I am WAY more concerned about people like Kate coming into power and controlling speech, than I am about the few hundred Nazis who marched in Charlottesville. There are many more of them, after all. I am much more opposed to the idea of police arresting people for offensive social media posts than I am offended by the social media posts. Etc.”

    I came here to try and write something, failed, left, and then returned to find a pretty good summary of my own thoughts on this.

    I think that everyone who opposes fascism (and this is nearly every person in the USA) needs to think hard about what their winning conditions are. If we demand that anti-fascism requires us to eliminate all fascist demonstrations, we set ourselves up to fail or live under authoritarianism. If we demand that anti-fascism requires us to eliminate all right-wing terrorism, we set ourselves up to fail or live under authoritarianism. What I’d like to see in my ingroup is less “How do we destroy/hurt the enemy?” and more “What tactics actually work to keep the overton window from shifting to the far right?” and “What tactics help change minds, and truly move people away from right wing-populism and right-wing authoritarianism?”

  26. 26
    Jake Squid says:

    That’s all well and good but what is the correct course of action when the nazis, KKK & white supremacists hold positions of power in your government? I’m not claiming to have the answer – I’m really conflicted over what the most effective strategies and tactics are – but this is relevant and I don’t see that being addressed by either g&w or Jeffrey Gandee. I think the reason that decent human beings are so much more upset about nazi/KKK/white supremacist demonstrations in 2017 than they were in 2015 has everything to do with those folks coming into power in the executive and, by extension, judiciary.

  27. 27
    Kate says:

    but I am WAY more concerned about people like Kate coming into power and controlling speech,

    Wow. Could you link to some explanation for why you think that I want to control people’s speech? Because I don’t.

  28. 28
    Kate says:

    To clarify, @23 I am defending the postions that we should be alarmed by the fact that Nazis are marching, not that they should not have the right to march. I do think that protesters should be required to leave their guns at home. This applies to ALL protesters, whether I agree with them or not – alt-right, antifa, BLM, operation rescue.

  29. 29
    Kate says:

    I t

    hink that everyone who opposes fascism (and this is nearly every person in the USA) needs to think hard about what their winning conditions are.

    O.K. lets go.

    If we demand that anti-fascism requires us to eliminate all fascist demonstrations, we set ourselves up to fail or live under authoritarianism.

    I don’t think anyone here is demanding that.

    If we demand that anti-fascism requires us to eliminate all right-wing terrorism, we set ourselves up to fail or live under authoritarianism.

    I don’t think anyone here is demanding that either.

    What I’d like to see in my ingroup is less “How do we destroy/hurt the enemy?” and more “What tactics actually work to keep the overton window from shifting to the far right?” and “What tactics help change minds, and truly move people away from right wing-populism and right-wing authoritarianism?”

    Lets start by not opening converstations with a bunch of strawmen. If you had started here, I’d have believed that you were arguing in good faith. As it is, I’m not sure.

  30. 30
    Jeffrey Gandee says:

    @Kate, I also don’t think anyone here is demanding exactly those things, this place is exceptionally reasonable. I’m worried about the huge number of slightly less reasonable people who will react to marching Nazis marching without considering the degree to which we can all agree to tolerate a few thousand Nazis (just look at the online discussions about who did and didn’t have a speech permit from both sides… I mean, c’mon people). On my social media feeds, I see really vague rhetoric about fighting fascism, but very little discussion about what that means and what it looks like if we win. It should trouble everyone when the NYT posts 3 anti-free-speech op-eds. Personally, I think there’s almost no Fascism to fight, but there is a very real tendency for people opposed to fascism to accept another kind of authoritarianism, in much the same way that people opposed to terrorism gave us the Patriot Act after 9-11. People are so eager to define their outgroups by their very worst members and this is a discouraging trend. I worry that the only thing people will be able to agree on is the necessity of violence and/or authoritarianism.

  31. 31
    Kate says:

    @Kate, I also don’t think anyone here is demanding exactly those things

    You realize that I was just accused of wanting those things by G&W @24?

  32. 32
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    Jake Squid says:
    August 30, 2017 at 12:34 pm
    That’s all well and good but what is the correct course of action when the nazis, KKK & white supremacists hold positions of power in your government?

    I put this sort of question in the category of “why we have Trump as president.”

    There are no known Nazis in any positions of power in the government.

    I don’t know if anyone with a current KKK membership is currently in power. I doubt it, since these days there is a widespread dislike of the KKK.

    If you think that someone like Trump is a Nazi, or even that he is vaguely comparable to a Nazi, then I don’t think you really know what the Nazis were like. Feel free to defend it. Or alternatively you’re deliberately making the implication using “Nazi” as a catch-all for people who hold conservative views you dislike–and that prevents you from being an intelligent conversation partner. The same holds for KKK membership.

    There may be people who are (in your terms) white supremacists in power. That fact, and how much I care, entirely depends on how you define white supremacy. It also depends on how selectively you apply the hot irons of inquiry: if you want to discuss “how people feel about folks of other races”, you may have trouble limiting that which I’ve heard it applied to folks who argue against continued illegal immigration; who think Charles Murray should be allowed on campus if folks want to hear him; or who oppose AA. The term has lost most of its relevance as a result.

    But as for “what you should do:” Well, I propose that you should act the same way you think other people should act if we elected a hidden Communist who was intent on destroying our way of life; intent of removing federalism by bypassing the Constitution; intent on spying on all of us; and intent on removing many of the advantages that make America superior to other countries. (In their view that would probably cover Bernie, Hillary, and/or Obama.) Which is to say: take a chill pill; stop throwing around Nazi accusations like candy at a parade; realize that the Claims of Imminent Disaster are largely ridiculous; realize that this is just what it feels like to lose an election; go start working to elect someone else who you like better.

    Most obviously, there is nobody lining up to even suggest that we won’t have a very nice transfer of power in 2018 and 2020. This is the #1 difference of Nazism. No matter what the margins of voting and no matter how you complain about voter suppression there are tens or hundreds of times more nonvoters who can give you all the results you want… if you can convince them.

    I think the reason that decent human beings are so much more upset about nazi/KKK/white supremacist demonstrations in 2017 than they were in 2015 has everything to do with those folks coming into power in the executive and, by extension, judiciary.

    So the other half of the country who fails to agree with you are not only functionally Nazi supporters, KKK supporters, and white supremacists, but they are also not “decent human beings”? I’m not offended by that, but I think it’s an atrocious argument. Personally I would like Trump to LOSE in 2020; maybe you could avoid being too public with that sorta stuff?

  33. 33
    Jeffrey Gandee says:

    Yeah, that was probably unfair of him. It would be best if he were to clarify what he means by it. Is he worrying about authoritarian people who share your concerns? Or is he worried about authoritarians like you who share your concerns. I can’t tell. I have no reason to believe anyone here is in favor of authoritarian tactics to advance their politics, but it would be interesting to take an informal poll.

    You have to admit that the free speech debate is starting to get out-of-hand though. I’m afraid to post free speech endorsing messages on social media because I know some of my peers will assume I’m conservative, how did we get here? Before Charlottesville, I posted about the “rioters veto” and I got attacked for being “the embodiment of white privilege” by an extended family member. I’m staying silent about Berkeley, but I’m starting to despair.

  34. 34
    Ben Lehman says:

    Jeff:

    I hear you, about what you’re talking about but, also, if you want to have a productive discussion about your relationships with your relatives, you will probably have a better time if you lead with that (i.e. if you tell us what is actually bothering you) rather than just launch directly into high-level discourse. The obvious (and completely reasonable) assumption if you launch directly into high-level discourse is that you’re discussing, well, the people in conversation you’re in right now, and not some other people that none of us (outside of you) have ever met or conversed with.

  35. 35
    RonF says:

    Jeffrey Gandee:

    Personally, I think there’s almost no Fascism to fight, ….

    Personally I think there’s an increasing amount of Fascism to fight. They’re easy to identify, though. They dress all alike in black, they wear masks, many of them carry weapons and shields and they beat people whose speech and/or politics they disagree with or who dare to try to record what they’re doing.

    As far as who was responsible for the violence in Charlottesville – or for that matter Berkeley or anywhere else – I say it’s the people who committed it, and ONLY the people who committed it. People have agency. Any moral equivalency regarding the attitudes towards racism between the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who marched there vs. those who peacefully protested against them is absurd. OTOH, any equivalency among people of any of those persuasions regarding the morality of committing violence is reasonable.

  36. 36
    Jake Squid says:

    I, for one, believe that Miller is a nazi. And Bannon is certainly a sympathizer at minimum. And, of course, there’s Gorka who is a bonafide nazi who quit last week because he is so personally dislikable that he was shut out by others in the admin. So there’s your nazis with positions of power in your government – though Bannon left that position recently.

    I don’t think any of the nazis in Trump’s camp are exactly hidden. Bannon denies but his record shows otherwise. Miller is well known for his sympathies and Gorka is actually a member of a Hungarian nazi organization.

    When Bush the Yunger was elected I didn’t call anybody a nazi. I just said that it was an incompetent and disastrous administration. But I was young and had no idea what an incompetent and disastrous administration looked like. So you can drop the “throwing the term around like candy” bullshit.

    So the other half of the country who fails to agree with you are not only functionally Nazi supporters, KKK supporters, and white supremacists, but they are also not “decent human beings”? I’m not offended by that, but I think it’s an atrocious argument.

    Then it’s a good thing that I didn’t make that argument.

    On a side note: I have never called people nazis as a general pejorative. I don’t believe I’ve ever called anybody a nazi in my decades online until 2016 when we got Bannon & Miller – and later Gorka – in prominent positions with the Trump campaign and administration. If you want to dismiss me as somebody who cries, “Nazis, nazis everywhere!” I think you must be confusing me with somebody else. I wouldn’t call Trump a nazi. He’s merely a sympathizer and collaborator as his elevation of Bannon, Miller and Gorka shows.

  37. 37
    RonF says:

    Jake, you’ve made pretty specific accusations against those three. What do you have to back them up?

  38. 38
    RonF says:

    Kate:

    I do think that protesters should be required to leave their guns at home. This applies to ALL protesters, whether I agree with them or not – alt-right, antifa, BLM, operation rescue.

    As I’m sure you’re well aware the 2nd Amendment generally prevents this from being done. My point is not to debate that with you, though. I note that the level and nature of violence being committed by Black Bloc (the name that the Mayor of Berkeley has using for them and that I find preferable to “anti-fa”) is escalating. It seems to me that since such a thing cannot be done, unless municipal executives and the law enforcement officers under their supervision start doing their jobs we’re going to end up with one or more of the Black Bloc folks shot dead. I put the over/under at 3 months.

  39. 39
    Jake Squid says:

    I have Bannon’s work at Breitbart promoting white nationalism and anti-semitism.
    I have Gorka’s membership in Vitezi Rend.
    I have Miller’s entire history of white nationalist writings and associations.

    None of these people nor their histories are obscure. They’re easily found at pretty much every credible media site.

  40. 40
    Charles S says:

    RonF,

    As usual, almost everything you’ve written here is baseless and wrong.

    When has the 2nd amendment been demonstrated to cover carrying guns at public protests? We’ve just seen protests at which all weapons, including guns were explicitly forbidden and police set up check points to search people for weapons. I haven’t seen anyone other than you claim that was unconstitutional, and we certainly didn’t see anyone successfully sue to prevent those rules from being imposed.

    There is no evidence that antifa violence is escalating in level or nature. You haven’t presented any. I haven’t seen any. The recent Berkeley protest was substantially less violent than the protests in February and April (in part because there was less violence initiated by far-right protesters, I’ve only seen video of one attack by a far-right protester on anti-fascist protesters). Black block violence against the police in Boston was not noticeably different than black block violence against the police in any other major protest with a black block. Police violence against peaceful protesters in Arizona was pretty impressive, but not much worse than police violence against peaceful protesters often is.

    Anti-right protesters have already been shot by far-right wingers claiming to be threatened, so predicting that it will happen is unimpressive. Antifa get shot with less lethal weapons by the police not infrequently as well.

    Going back to your early claim that antifa are the real Fascists, you apparently have no idea what the actual definition of fascism is. It doesn’t actually mean people you don’t like. It doesn’t mean people who engage in violence against people they disagree with, either.

    Also, your description of black block antifa reads pretty well as a description of the police at the Arizona anti-Trump rally or at the May Day rally in Portland.

    It’s funny that you ask Jake for support for his (well supported) strong claims (good old Google search, a skill you will never ever deign to use), but you never provide any support for your own (wild-ass wrong) claims. I don’t know if funny is really the right word, probably I mean tiresome.

  41. 41
    Charles S says:

    The Onion is on the case of RonF’s real fascists!

  42. 42
    Ampersand says:

    Charles, I largely agree with your substantive points, but please dial the snark down a couple of notches. Thank you.

  43. Two things:

    First, Ortvin Sarapuu has chosen not to respond to any of the responses to his initial comment on this post. So, Ortvin, if you’re still reading, as I wrote up in comment 22, you are now officially banned from this thread. If you have anything you’d like to say about that, please take it to an open thread.

    Second, I note that this conversation has devolved into one about free speech and fascism/totalitarianism, a very important topic obviously, but it has little to do with what the original post was about. G&W offered one response to the substance of the post up in comment 6, but then we got onto the discussion of Ortvin, etc. I am going to paste that comment in below in its entirety because I’m wondering what, if anything, other people think about it:

    [Quoting me:] “To take it from another, less dramatic perspective, ask yourself why the cop who spoke with me didn’t write me a ticket. My guess is that your first impulse would be to say because he and I were both white.”

    No, not at all.

    My first thought would be that a) they quickly figured out that the car wasn’t stolen, which was the whole reason they pulled you over; b) you had a plate in front; c) you were a victim of having your plate stolen; and d) that particular cop wasn’t inclined to be a random asshole by writing you a ticket.

    If you ask “do you think there’s a chance RJN’s whiteness had an effect?” I’d say sure, it’s likely it had some effect. Cops range in racism and the more racist the cop the more that it would have mattered; we don’t know how much those cops were racist, of course.

    But I don’t see this as some sort of shocking white privilege story. Yeah, you got pulled over and you didn’t get shot. Neither do the extreme supermajority of people who got pulled over. Many more black people get shot, which is a big problem caused by racism, but the absolute rate is still low.
    Not to mention that Jersey in 1987 seems very nonanalogous to Minnesota in 2016.

    So although I often like your posts, this comparison sort of falls flat, at least for me. I don’t think this level of melodrama is effective.

  44. 44
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    In case it is unclear to anyone, by my “more black people” assertion w/r/t police violence I am referring to a rate, not an absolute number.

  45. 45
    Grace Annam says:

    Richard:

    To take it from another, less dramatic perspective, ask yourself why the cop who spoke with me didn’t write me a ticket. My guess is that your first impulse would be to say because he and I were both white.

    Since you asked specifically what people think, Richard, here were some of my thoughts on reading your account of being pulled over. I’m not trying to tell you anything you don’t already know, in this; these are just some of my thoughts.

    1: your initial reaction to the lights behind you was not to do the thing drivers are legally required to do. We are required to promptly pull all the way to the right and stop. Sometimes it seems like I could fund my kid’s college education if I had a dollar for every time someone pulled over, reluctantly, eventually, after finally deciding, oh, maybe I meant them! When I approached the car, more alert than baseline, they would say, “But officer, I didn’t think you meant me!” And I would explain politely for the umpteenth time in my career that maybe I need to get by them, or maybe they don’t know that their muffler is dragging so there’s a safety issue, or maybe they have a tail light out, and so the thing to do is pull over as promptly as is safely possible, and if I’m not interested in them, I will drive by and they will continue on their way.

    Why was I alert more than baseline? Because during that long pull-over, the driver could be doing any number of things, including considering gunning it, or playing for time while they vented the car and stashed the drugs, or groping for the weapon they keep under the seat. I had multiple pursuits which never went above 35 mph and lasted several miles because the driver couldn’t conceive that I might be trying to pull them over.

    And here’s an interesting thing: in over twenty years of police work, when I approached a car which took a long time to pull over, I don’t recall that that driver was ever black. Black drivers seem to either pull over promptly (the vast, vast majority) or make a run for it outright. All the drivers who spent time trying to figure out if I was pulling them over were white. I could speculate as to why, but I don’t know. My speculation would boil down to this: most black people have a lot more experience getting pulled over than most white people, and so they know what to do.

    I also can’t recall a time I approached a car and found a black person rummaging for their license, or bent across the seat reaching for something. Almost universally, they rolled the window down and keep their hands on the steering wheel. Some of them put their hands on the dashboard or on the top of the door, over the rolled-down window, or out the window entirely, with their fingers spread. White people sometimes had their hands in view on the steering wheel, but they never put them on the dash, on the ceiling, on the door, or out the window. People who put their hands on the dash, steering wheel, ceiling, or out — when I asked them about it sometimes, they had either been in a high-risk stop before, with guns pointed at them, or they had been carefully taught by people who had.

    So, your initial reaction reveals a certain amount of privilege in a way you may not have seen, not in the officer’s reaction to you, but in your lack of prior experience in interacting with officers. As you know, you’re not to blame for this; privilege is unearned and accrues without you doing anything. But what our society had given you was that you had little experience being pulled over, and the people who raised you and/or hung out with you had little experience being pulled over. Heck, the second time in my life I got pulled over, roughly age 18, I popped out of the car and walked back toward the officer. I got ordered back into the car. It was an ignorant thing to do, but I was ignorant; no one had ever thought it necessary to teach me what to do. I’m white.

    So, in your case, the officer was already on edge twice over before you even rolled to a stop. First, he was looking for car thieves who had been operating in the area he was responsible for, and there was an indicator that you might be one. Second, he had to get on the PA and tell you to pull over in order to get you to stop.

    2: your first thought was modesty, rather than presenting the officer with the least threatening scenario possible. The officer knows that you pretty much can’t hurt them without using your hands, so that’s what they watch. But you don’t think that way, so it doesn’t occur to you that an armed person can’t hurt the officer without getting the hands to a place where a weapon could be concealed.

    3: you didn’t know better than to move your hands toward the opening of your shirt. I’ve given quick orders to people who were doing something ambiguous. Basically no one likes receiving a barked order, even if, a few moments later, they come to understand why they received one, and often (not always) agree that it was appropriate. People react differently. Some visibly contain their anger. Some are resigned. Some are fearful. Some are wary. And some are affronted, incredulous at the very idea that an officer might suspect them of being armed, or a threat. That last group? Pretty much always white. You figured it out during the interaction, but you were still processing it emotionally until the incident ended. And your girlfriend simply couldn’t credit it.

    4: when you said, “No, I didn’t”, the officer gauged your reaction, and that’s probably when he decided not to write you a ticket. He had dealt with the most important thing: were you an immediate threat? Now he dealt with the next most important thing: were you a car thief, or the victim of a plate theft (probably by a car thief, by the way)? Once he decided that you were a victim, why would he issue you a ticket? A ticket, or a custodial arrest, is part of a legal structure which seeks to incentivize compliance with the law. People who don’t know they are breaking the law (and can be reasonably excused for not knowing) don’t need a ticket; they need notice.

    This is how a lot of law enforcement is done, in this country. I seldom wrote tickets for equipment violations like headlights. Sometimes I did. When I pulled someone over two weeks after the last time they were pulled over for the same thing, and they didn’t have it fixed, they were probably getting a ticket. When someone said something had been broken for a month and when I asked why it wasn’t fixed yet they said, “I’m just lazy, I guess”, they were almost certain to get a ticket. But in general, when someone said, “Oh, I didn’t know. I’ll get that fixed,” they got a verbal warning. But during that interaction I got to check for a host of other things, things more important to public safety. Could I smell alcohol? Did they seem impaired? Did they have a suspended license? If their license require corrective lenses, were they wearing them while they drove? Many times, I arrested people for DWI after stopping them for a tail light, or a plate light, or a slow roll through a stop sign, or a failure to signal. Unless they had been previously warned for the same thing, none of them were likely to get a ticket. But I couldn’t know that until after I stopped them and found out who was driving.

    Now, is it POSSIBLE that the officer would have given you a ticket anyway if you had been black, or if he had known that you were Jewish? Or drawn down on you, or actually shot you? Sure. Obviously it’s possible, because it has happened. Statistically is it more LIKELY if you’re black. We have data on that, and clearly it is.

    But a single, specific instance of an officer deciding, after a few minutes of interaction, that the driver is a callow youth who needs no more censure than was inherent in the stop? It seems to me more likely that the officer thought you didn’t need a ticket.

    And that’s the problem inherent in racial bias in policing: statistically, there is clearly bias. The evidence is irrefutable. But there’s no way to do police work without exercising discretion on limited data, and that including hiring decisions. And so officers with biases (which, to some extent, is all officers, because no one is completely free of implicit bias) will continue to make decisions, sometimes split-second decisions.

    And at some point we have to make decisions about those decisions, and we won’t have anything close to complete information, and so we’ll have to estimate probabilities, and those estimates will be guided by our past experience, which means that officers will generally fall on the side of “no bias” and people in populations which get police an awful lot, like black people and trans people, will be more inclined than the officers to fall on the side of “bias”. This is a HUGE problem, because it is at the root of how groups in our society talk past each other.

    I once had a driver file a complaint against me that I pulled him over because he was black. I can assure you that I did not pull him over because he was black, but so will every other officer. In this case, I have evidence: because of the lighting, I could not see him until I approached the car after pulling him over. (Lesser evidence: he had committed three minor offenses, and I wrote him one ticket for the least expensive one and warned him for the other two, which doesn’t seem like the act of someone looking to get a boot in.)

    And I didn’t like the accusation, but I had to live with it, and after a lot of thought I realized that he probably had a lot of experience being pulled over, and being from Massachusetts, probably thought that being pulled over for following to closely was clearly a pretext (because right this moment, roughly 98% of drivers in Massachusetts are following too closely). So, on the information he had available, his belief is reasonable. And when he received notice that his complaint was non sustained by the investigation into it, he probably concluded that the fix was in.

    Which brings me back to what seems like possibly the most important point in your post, Richard: structures of discrimination like racism and antisemitism make it more likely that members of the power-down groups will think to ask, “Waitaminute. Was that because I’m ______?” That uncertainty is corrosive individually for the people involved, and to general faith in our shared society. And it’s reasonable. It’s pattern recognition, which humans are hardwired to do. And that uncertainty is another HUGE problem, and another root of the “How Groups in our Society Talk Past Each Other” tree. White people think to their own experience of getting pulled over every few years and maybe not getting a ticket, and black people think to their own experience of getting pulled over every few months and often getting a ticket, and white people are more likely to conclude that black people are paranoid and cynical while black people are more likely to conclude that white people are privileged and naive.

    The only fix for this is for our society to select and train police officers in such a way that their actions are as unbiased as possible. Since that would mean being highly selective and also demanding that officers be trained to be highly self-conscious and introspective, it will require money. In a nation where taxpayers and administrators routinely refuse to fund basic firearms training beyond woefully inadequate statutory minimum, there will be very little money spent on teaching officers about implicit bias. It’s being done in some places, but it’s rare, and where it happens it’s insufficient, and usually happening in the departments where it’s needed least (because in the departments where it’s needed most, they don’t believe that it’s needed at all).

    We have a long road ahead of us.

    Grace

  46. 46
    Ampersand says:

    Great comment, Grace.

  47. Grace,

    Thanks for this. I especially appreciate your detailed explanation of what was probably going through the officers’ heads during our interaction—and of the privilege inherent in my responses—which I would never have been able to articulate, but which is part of what I was trying to account for when I said I have no way of knowing if the officers would have treated me differently had I been Black or if they’d known I was Jewish. I’ve known enough cops in my life to understand how important that training is, even though I’ve never heard it explained as fully as you have in this comment, and how it can make the difference between life and death for them and for the people they interact with.

    That said, given how deeply (and sometimes openly) racist and antisemitic many parts of Long Island were back then (and still are), it would not surprise me to learn that my race and the fact that those officers didn’t know I was Jewish played a role in how they treated me. As you point out, this I-would-not-be-surprised is less about them, in terms of who they really were—in fact, it’s not really about them at all, since we do not know them and cannot know what was in their heads. It’s about how I read my interaction with them, both at the time and in hindsight, given my experience as a white Jewish man and what I know about the statistical likelihood of that interaction having ended differently had I been Black; and how I read my interaction with them, past and present, is part of what it means, as I said in the post, “to give whiteness a body.” The letter, of course, only begins to ask that question, but it’s a question I’m really interested in exploring further.

  48. 48
    Jake Squid says:

    Thanks for the comment, Grace. It is both informative to those of us who don’t have much knowledge of actual police work and training and raises quite a few important points about the disconnect between the public and police, and vice versa.

  49. 49
    Grace Annam says:

    Amp, thanks. Richard, you’re welcome.

    A few more thoughts occur to me.

    One of the barriers to building trust in our society is something which all living humans experience: confirmation bias. For instance, in the case I mentioned of the driver who complained about me, the driver could reasonably conclude, based on his past experience, that I probably pulled him over on a pretext because he was black, and that my department exonerated me because they’re biased, too. That would be a reasonable conclusion, although erroneous in this case. And, having drawn that conclusion, it would be added to a perceived pattern of bias in his mind.

    For a few years I had a small hobby of playing with Bayesian classification of incoming email. A Bayesian filter can be set to “learn” from email which it classifies and which the user never corrects AND from email which the user reclassifies, or to “learn” ONLY from email which the user reclassifies. It’s rather like having a confirmation bias, in the former case, or not having one, in the latter case. People have trained Bayesian filter systems on each type, and it turns out that turning the confirmation bias ON makes your filter a bit less accurate.

    Sadly, we cannot toggle that setting in our brains. Once two people have enough different experiences, when they have new experiences which are edge cases, they will continue to have different experiences. And when there are a lot of unknown or unknowable variables, you can have situations where the bulk of the cases are “edge cases”.

    One way to work against talking past each other from positions derived from different experiences is to seek and consider the people in the best position to see the differences we’re trying to understand, and ask them.

    For instance, in speaking with officers about racial bias, I often cite the experience of an LAPD officer who is black, and trans, which I read about, years ago. He started his job presenting as female, and then transitioned and continued to work presenting as himself. Before transition, when he was off-duty, he got pulled over maybe once a year. After transition, he got pulled over more than once a month. This example is powerful for officers because we’re talking about a sworn officer; he’s got no axe to grind against officers, and he’s not committing crimes, and he was even driving the same car. He just knows what changed when he started being perceived as a black man.

    An old and hoary, but still powerful, example is the book Black Like Me, which I’m sure you’re familiar with.

    A very fresh experience is the recent post by a mother of several children, some of whom are white and some of whom are black, and her observations of the difference in how they are treated. Guess which ones get watched by store security, among other things.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/experiencing-racism-as-a-white-mom-who-adopted-black_us_5782449ce4b0f06648f517de

    Trans people can often speak to gender bias in the workplace. There are hundreds of stories, but one of the iconic ones is told by Stanford scientist Ben Barres, who noted that after he transitioned, people started to pay more attention to him, and to give his opinion more weight. One commenter, not knowing that Barres had transitioned and thinking that pre- and post-transition Barres were two different people, praised Barres to one of their colleagues and commented that “[Barres’] work is so much better than his sister’s.” Statistically comparing income before and after transition, women who are trans experience a drastic pay cut, while men who are trans experience a slight pay raise.
    
And, online, no one has to know your gender. This one came across my news feed yesterday, and I was not shocked by it:

    https://www.fastcompany.com/40456604/these-women-entrepreneurs-created-a-fake-male-cofounder-to-dodge-startup-sexism

    See also this one:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/what-happened-when-a-man-signed-work-emails-using-a-female-name-for-a-week_us_58c2ce53e4b054a0ea6a4066

    These aren’t hard to find. But you do have to be open to the idea that they are, more probably than not, evidence of a wider truth. Note that in the case of Martin Schneider and Nicole Hallberg’s story, Schneider presented the evidence to his boss, and his boss still didn’t “buy” it.

    I wasn’t shocked by that, either.

    So, there are ways to do this work. However, note the word “work”. When learning requires hard work and introspection, it’s generally a lot easier to declare that there’s no problem and go about your life. Which is what most people do.

    Grace

  50. 50
    Kate says:

    Thank-you for those comments Grace. I appreciate the effort that must have gone into crafting them.

  51. 51
    desipis says:

    Grace,

    Thanks for your insightful comment.

    Almost universally, they rolled the window down and keep their hands on the steering wheel. Some of them put their hands on the dashboard or on the top of the door, over the rolled-down window, or out the window entirely, with their fingers spread. White people sometimes had their hands in view on the steering wheel, but they never put them on the dash, on the ceiling, on the door, or out the window.

    The keep-your-hands-in-view thing was something that was discussed before my trip to the US last year. Here in Australia, the general advice is pull over when/where it’s safe, be polite and follow any instructions they give. The idea that the police officer would consider you a potential lethal threat is quite foreign. There are circumstances where they might have that concern, and they will certainly be alert to potential indicators of risk, but they don’t treat people in average traffic stops as if they are potential killers. People who had previously travelled to the US felt the difference significant enough to mention.

    The difference isn’t without reason though. A quick look at the stats indicates that police in the US are 10 times more likely to be feloniously killed on duty than those in Australia. It makes me glad I live in a more civilised country.

  52. 52
    Chris says:

    For what it’s worth, Jake, Politifact doesn’t quite buy your characterization of Gorka et al. as “Nazis.” (Though I do think they are racists.)

    http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2017/aug/15/are-there-white-nationalists-white-house/

  53. 53
    Elusis says:

    Police are keeping it classy, I see.

  54. 54
    Grace Annam says:

    From the article Elusis linked to:

    Chelan County Sheriff Brian Burnett apologized for the post on Monday, saying the non-commissioned employee intended to share it only on a personal account.

    “Staff at Chelan County Emergency Management feel terrible that this inappropriate and hurtful post made it onto the Facebook page,” Burnett wrote in the news release. “Changes have already been made in procedure to assure nothing like this will ever occur in the future.”

    So, yes, an absolutely awful comment posted. But, not posted by a sworn officer, and apparently dealt with quickly the the poster’s chain of command (though I’d like to know more details before I concluded that was enough). So, “the police are keeping it classy” is probably not a fair summary in this case.

    This is how a system involving human beings is supposed to work. One of the humans screws up and says or does something reprehensible, and the humans higher in the chain of command deal with it.

    Grace

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