O.P. Recommends: Like the Oscars, #PhilosophySoWhite

School of Athens by Raphael [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (cropped)Eric Schwitzgebel, who authors the The Splintered Mind blog (a favorite of mine), recently co-wrote this excellent opinion piece about philosophy’s lack of diversity.

Like Hollywood, Schwitzgebel and Myisha Cherry find that there’s a set of preconceptions which underlie the way work is chosen and promoted which, in turn, virtually guarantees philosophy will remain non-diverse. Hollywood has its own set; for academic philosophy, the glorification of obscurantism is a primary factor. Schwitzgebel and Cherry write: ‘We admire philosophers whose central arguments are nearly impossible to understand, or who speak in paradoxes, who accept seemingly bizarre views, or who display dazzling skill with formal logical structures of no practical significance. Kant and Hegel are better loved than understood.’ Seeming smart, the authors explain, has long been confused by too many academics with being smart.

The piece goes on to show how this obscurantism has become the traditional province of white male academics, and is integral to keeping the field of philosophy so exclusionary, and to most people, so irrelevant.

This, of course, would be sad news for Ordinary Philosophy, dedicated as it is to philosophy in the public square, if it were news. But it’s not news, and that’s one of the main reasons O.P. exists. Philosophy should be, like good government, of, by, and for the people. While specialization is key to the development and exploration of complex ideas, obscurantism and jargon, despite assumptions to the contrary, are not necessary to that project. In fact, they accomplish little except ensuring that philosophy is tedious and unpleasant to read, that philosophers end up talking to nearly no-one but each other, and that the field as a whole ends up remaining oh-so-white, oh-so-male, and to most, oh-so-irrelevant.

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Jefferson and Slavery

Throughout my history of ideas travel series following Thomas Jefferson, slavery was on my mind a lot: the institution as a whole, and Jefferson’s relationship to it. I was reminded of it constantly: by an original book from his own collection titled ‘The Horrors of Slavery’ now in the Library of Congress, which also displays a slave sale contract between himself and James Madison from 1809; the slave quarters and artifacts at Monticello; museum displays and plaques in D.C., Williamsburg, and Philly; and signs telling the story of his brief but telling correspondence with Benjamin Banneker.

As every student of American history learns early on, Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence and his stated beliefs contrast sharply with his life as a slaveowner. And nearly every place I find something written about Jefferson, this contradiction is addressed but never really resolved.

Jefferson was in favor of the abolition of slavery early in his career as a lawyer and member of Virginia’s House of Burgesses. Having made little headway in the antislavery cause as a younger statesman, he rather abruptly gave up the fight in the 1790’s, proclaiming it unwinnable in his generation. While he continued to argue now and again that slavery was a moral and political evil, he chose to continue the expensive lifestyle of traveling, entertaining, building, and collecting fine wine, books, and art that he loved. This kept him in debt, so he funded it all the the familiar way: he remained a slaveowner for the rest of his life.

When I was in Philadelphia’s Old City, I visited the site of the President’s House and read the posted stories of the enslaved people who lived and worked there during George Washington’s tenure. As I read, I thought of how often I’d heard and read excuses made for Jefferson, Washington, and their fellow slaveowners, another common theme I encountered throughout my trip. Some sought to minimize their moral responsibility for slaveowning on the grounds they were ‘stuck’ in the institution already so they just had to ‘make the best of it’; others claimed that many were actually working on the problem in their own way but had to go slowly because of how entrenched the institution was, and so on. The most common excuse I encountered was that they weren’t really all that bad as slaveowners; in fact, they were benevolent because ‘they treated their slaves so well’, and their slaves were really better off than many free people of the laboring classes.

These ring hollow to me: they all sound like pretty lame attempts to make sense to ourselves of our history as self-professed champions of liberty who have simultaneously oppressed racial, ethnic, and ideological minorities throughout our history. I had read accounts before of Jefferson’s, Washington’s, and others’ so-called benevolent brands of slaveowning, but when I look around at these artifacts and displays, I really can’t see how true benevolence can ever coincide with that institution. As Jefferson himself wrote in his Notes on Virginia, The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it.’

The real answer to that conundrum is: it never made sense, and it never will. Jefferson knew it, evident not only in his embarrassed response to Benjamin Banneker, he said so over and over again, explicitly in some cases, between the lines in others. George Washington knew it too, as evidenced by his changing attitudes on slavery; indeed, all of our nation’s founding generation knew it.

That’s why they fought over the words of the Declaration of Independence, especially the original draft which more plainly revealed the stark contradiction between the colonies’ demand for liberty for themselves while they remained enslavers of others. That’s why they fought over slavery again during the Constitutional Convention and how that weird three-fifths clause got in, because they couldn’t solve the problem of how slaves could be persons deserving representation while neither free nor citizens. That’s why debates over how to treat black Revolutionary war veterans were never satisfactorily resolved, why the John Brown plot happened, why the Missouri Compromise and the Dred Scott decision and the Civil War and the Plessy vs Ferguson decision and the 1963 firehosing of the Baltimore Children’s Crusade and the Baptist Church bombing and the riots in Baltimore in 1968 and again this spring happened, and so on and so on.

The only excuse I’ve heard in defense of slaveowners like Jefferson and Washington that makes a particle of sense on the face of it is that freed slaves would likely have a worse time of it on their own than they might have under their protection. Free black people often did suffer terrible mistreatment, including terrible wages, racist criminal codes, segregation, kidnapping, and re-enslavement; freed slaves often had to choose between living where they had few prospects and leaving their still enslaved loved ones behind. Therefore, the argument goes, the attempts of some conscience-stricken slaveowners to keep their slaves while treating them more humanely were really quite benevolent. 

While there’s evidence indicating some good intentions on the part of some slaveowners, this argument just doesn’t hold up that well either when examined in the full light of history. To his credit, Washington kept more slaves on his plantation than was financially healthy for him so that families would not have to be split up, and tried to work out a way to eventually emancipate all of them with some financial provisions. Jefferson was squeamish about allowing slaves to be beaten in front of him and rarely allowed it, and paid many of them bonuses for good work. It seems on the whole, Washington has a far better record when it comes to gentler treatment and concern for the slaves’ own interests, and he freed all of them in his will though he couldn’t bring himself to do it during own his lifetime. It turns out there’s plenty of evidence Jefferson often had others whip his slaves when he wasn’t there to see it, especially when the profits from his nail business dropped off. And Jefferson’s habit of accruing large debts by his habit of living far beyond his means caused almost all of his slaves to all be sold at his death, and many slave families to be broken up, parents, children, brothers and sisters, wives and husbands torn away from one another. 

And many freed slaves actually did do quite well for themselves, or at least as well as they might have otherwise. Plenty of other plantation owners freed their slaves, and many free black people did very well for themselves in the North, West, and even in some areas of the South. Jefferson and Washington could also have allowed their slaves to make the choice for themselves whether or not they wanted to remain under their protection. They had both (Jefferson earlier in life, Washington later) come to the firm conclusion that slavery was morally wrong. They just couldn’t bring themselves to make the hard choices and personal sacrifice to fully act on their convictions.

So it’s not that, as the cliche goes, that we’re judging Jefferson, Washington, and other slaveowners by the standards of our own time, not theirs. Here’s what makes it all the more painful and injurious to our American self-image as bearers of the standard of liberty: we’re judging these Founding Fathers by their own standards, and by the standards of others in their own time, those principled lovers of freedom who did free their slaves, who decided to do the difficult but the right thing, according to the principles of the Declaration and those Washington professed later in life.

As to the issue of ‘treating their slaves so well’: consider what really went into keeping people enslaved besides whippings.

Slaves were denied the chance to make their own decisions and to enjoy the full range of human relationships that free and happy people need. The marriages of slaves were not held sacred by their masters and they could not enjoy the security of family bonds and affection. At any time, wife, husband, sister, brother, parent, and worst of all, children could be taken and sold elsewhere, never to be seen again. This happened all the time, since there was no plantation large enough to hold exponentially increasing slave families. They were provided no incentive to enjoy fulfilling occupations, since they are denied the fruits of their labor, they had a narrow field of roles to choose from or none at all (surely noone chose to be a field hand!) and there was not much personal reward for a job well done. They could be and very often were whipped, denied food and other necessities, and otherwise punished for any infraction, despite wishful hypotheses that slaves were too financially valuable to be treated badly. (Sorry, Pollyannas, history’s not on your side). They often were treated harshly even if the plantation owner didn’t desire or order it because slaveowners relied on their overseers, which they couldn’t watch most of the time, to get results.

And worst of all, because it left slaves most vulnerable to every sort of oppression and robbed them of great solace, slaves were denied education, especially higher education. Enforced ignorance was one of the surest ways to keep slaves from plotting escapes and revolts, to keep them from learning about the wider world they could wish to be a part of, from learning moral and religious arguments against slavery, and from the prospect of a good job if they ran away.

The Bible was often used to justify slavery: there are many instances of slavery in the Old Testament that Yahweh seems perfectly comfortable with, and Paul advises slaves to be obedient to their masters and to return to them if they ran away. Paul does say you should be nice to your slaves, but that’s the farthest his morals go in the matter. Like the myth of the Garden of Eden, Paul tries to instill in his readers a particular moral virtue. But if Jefferson, Washington, and their fellow slaveowners had read their Genesis a little more carefully, they might have discovered that there’s more there than a simple morality tale about obedience.A closer reading of the Garden of Eden story reveals a much deeper insight: human beings of spirit and will, of wit and intelligence, of curiosity and integrity always have, and always will, long for knowledge and self-determination. And they must and will have it, even if danger, privation, suffering, or destruction be the price.


Sources and Inspiration:

‘Benjamin Banneker’, Africans in America, PBS.org
Letter to Jefferson: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part2/2h71t.html
and Jefferson’s response: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part2/2h72t.html

Gordon-Reed, Annette. Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy.
Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1997. https://books.google.com/books/about/Thomas

Meacham, Jon. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. New York: Random House, 2012.

Thompson, Mary V. “The Private Life of George Washington’s Slaves”, Frontline, PBS.org

Wiencek, Henry. ‘The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson’, Smithsonian Magazine, Oct 2012.

Stop Pretending ‘The Law’ is Not Racist!

Victims of convict leasing, from an earlier era of selective law enforcement

Everybody’s talking these days about the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. And the protests following the shooting. And the host of other recent killings and use of force against black people by police officers.

I’ve also heard many pundits, commentators, and counter-protesters (in support of the officer who shot Brown) say that all this controversy is pointless, unfounded, just plain wrong. The laws are not racist, they say. Neither are officers expressly told (most of the time) to target minorities. They also say that they themselves never have trouble with police officers as long as they cooperate and just do what the officer says, as they’re supposed to, which just goes to show that as long as you behave yourself, you have nothing to worry about.

As a generally ‘well-behaved’ (mostly so, but then again, I rarely got caught when I wasn’t) white woman who has never felt unfairly targeted by law enforcement, I say to this second group of people, if you are an adult yet you think the law is ‘color-blind’, either you systematically let your biases filter out too much of the available information out there, you live under a rock, or you’re lying. Or something like one of these.

Because I had never been unfairly targeted by police, I was mostly, blissfully unaware, until my very early adulthood, that such things were still going on. I thought this sort of behavior on the part of the police largely a relic of the past, of the Jim Crow and Civil Rights era that I became so fascinated by in my schoolgirl years (and remain so to this day). We all love hero stories, and I thought of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King (and my favorite fictional hero, Atticus Finch) as among the greatest, ordinary people who stood up for the oppressed and the outcast, who triumphed against the tyrannical and the cruel, and most of all, the unjust: I always have been rather obsessed with issues of justice. I thought police had mostly changed their racist ways like most of us, and now usually did the right thing, especially because, of course, they make it their mission to stop those who don’t do the right thing.

My rather childish ignorance was first revealed to me when I witnessed my then boyfriend, a young Mexican man, pulled over by a police officer for no good reason at all.  Usually, if we were driving, we were driving together unmolested, but that day, I was following his car in mine because we had met up after work. A police car passed me after a stoplight and to my surprise, I found that his flashing lights and siren were intended for my boyfriend! We were not speeding, and it was daytime so car lights were not an issue… I could not think of a reason he would be pulled over. After the questioning ended and the cop had left, I asked my boyfriend what had happened. He admitted, embarrassed, that this happened to him all the time, it was just a regular part of his life. A young Mexican man in an old car must, necessarily, be up to no good, or if he wasn’t now, he must recently have been or was about to.

I was angry and shocked at the injustice of it all, and tried to imagine what it would feel like, and the effect it would have on my character, if I were regularly treated as a criminal, or a potential criminal, based entirely on what I look like, from the time I was young. I don’t think I could imagine, fully, what it would truly be like, but it seems a reasonable expectation that many people’s moral characters could be damaged from an early age, if many of the adults around them, especially those who set themselves up as authorities and moral leaders, act so unjustly. These young people are taught that ‘the law’ is used to protect others but punish them, that the police are not there to protect them, and that justice has a different meaning depending on what color you are, or worse, that it doesn’t really exist.

As I’ve gone through life, as I’ve had friends, co-workers, and fellow students of many races and ethnicities, as I have followed the news, and have done some study and research on matters of criminal justice, I’ve encountered countless instances of minorities unfairly and systematically targeted by law enforcement. I have a dear friend who used to travel though Colorado and Utah to go visit her family, who had to allow time for the inevitable police stop or two on each trip, no matter how carefully she drove. Yes, as you may have guessed, my friend is black. (My brother regularly travels a route in more or less the same geographical region, and has never had that problem).

These related issues, of racial profiling and selective law enforcement, has bothered me so long that when I had the opportunity a few years ago to take a criminal justice class, I jumped at the chance. I chose this subject  as the topic of my final paper, and my research uncovered a wealth of information on the subject. Study after study, public record after public record, revealed that minorities are pulled over, stopped and frisked, or arrested even for incredibly minor infractions that I had no idea that were ever enforced, at disproportionately high rates, commonly double or more than the rate of white people, in jurisdiction after jurisdiction, all over the United States. And even when minorities and whites are charged with the same or similar crimes, they get very different treatment: whites are shown leniency far, far more often than anyone else: they are, on average, sentenced to fewer years in prison or are routed to treatment instead; they are sent to state courts instead of federal courts. Minorities generally get the book thrown at them.

And in case you’re one of those who think that the law is color-blind, no, the objection you might make, that minorities commit more of the crimes so of course they’re targeted and go to jail more, is not valid. This vast accumulation of evidence that minorities are disproportionately targeted holds true for all kinds of crimes, the ones that whites commit at the same or higher rates, as well as ones that different minority groups commit at higher rates. Especially drug crimes: while whites commit most drug crimes at the same or higher rates than other groups, they are arrested far less, and if caught, don’t tend to be punished nearly as often.

Much of this information, many of these stories, have been featured in news story after news story over the years. This includes the seemingly ever-increasing recent stories in which black people are shot and/or killed for trying to get into their own house they locked themselves out of, or for being mentally ill and having a breakdown in public, or for selling single cigarettes on a street corner, or for having a fight with a bullying wannabe self-appointed ‘lawman’ on his way home. Have these pundits and ‘color-blind’ pollyannas been sticking their fingers in their ears and shouting ‘nah-nah-nah-nah-nah, it’s not happening!’ as black and brown people are being shot, beaten, and arrested, by the score, for the kinds of mistakes and indiscretions that most of us have engaged in at one time or another without permanent repercussion, while minorities are being caged at a rate that puts those old Jim Crow regions to shame?

I would say to these people, especially parents: imagine what would have happened to you, and what the life chances would be for your kids, if you and they were stopped and frisked, pulled over and your car searched, constantly throughout your life. If all those times you were a little naughty and had a drink while underage or too soon before you drove, or you or your friends had a little weed or coke in your car or pocket, or had sassed a cop when you were immature and raging with hormones and gleeful with youthful irresponsibility, or committed a petty theft…. Imagine that instead of getting away with it at the time, as most of us have, you would almost surely be caught and suffer permanent consequences (jail time, a criminal record, or worse) because everywhere you go, you are likely to be followed around by someone who assumes you probably belong in jail because of what you look like, has the power to throw you in there, and in extreme cases, even beat, choke, or shoot you, with impunity.

I and most of the white people that I, and I expect that you, know would all have been arrested or jailed at least once if the laws were enforced equally for everyone. But those of us lucky enough to go through life untargeted probably have forgotten most of the stupid things we’ve done because we haven’t had to suffer permanent harm for it; instead, we grew up, and had the chance to live a decent life, get an education and good housing, and get a decent job because we don’t have a criminal record. I fear for my nephew when I remember that he has to grow up as a young black man in this society, that he has far less wiggle room to make the mistakes that most of us make as we grow up and struggle through life. I got away, and still do, with my indiscretions and mistakes, easily, because I’m not targeted. That is not likely to be the case for my nephew.

Give that a ponder, put yourself in other’s shoes. If you are honest, I think you’ll admit that we still live in a racist, unjust, and all to much un-free society, especially for those of us with darker skin. Stop pretending now, if you are doing so, that racism is over just because the letter of the law is no longer racist. As long as law enforcement is racist, the reforms of the Civil Rights era have very limited practical meaning, and the struggles of our great social reformers continue to be, largely, in vain.

Our Kids Don’t Want Our Legacy of Bigotry, Thank You Very Much

Atticus Finch defends Tom Robinson from false rape charges in To Kill a Mockingbird

I just finished reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. It made me good and mad all over again.

I had been reading it a week or so ago when I came across a Facebook post of a young man (I’d guess about 15 years old) who started making videos, on his cell phone, of salespeople following him around in stores. You can make a pretty good guess what color his skin is. In a temper, I made a comment on that post, perhaps an incautious one, in that it could have been interpreted as too broadly accusatory. I called out anyone who was reading it, who might be engaged in that sort of behavior, to just stop it!

The thing is, I could be a target of my own comments. Even though I don’t remember ever following anyone around a store because of their skin color, I know my thoughts and actions are sometimes influenced by unjustly negative biases too, and I’ve caught myself, from time to time, automatically having low expectations of people, based on their appearance, before I’ve spoken with them or had a chance even to observe how they actually behave.

But that makes me mad too. I remember when I was very small, when I first became aware of (often subtly) bigoted comments and attitudes, in some of the grown-ups around me, be it towards people of another race, religion, sex, or sexuality. There was a black family next door, for example, and we played and chatted with those kids blissfully unaware of race issues. Over time, I realized that there was some sort of divide, some awkwardness, between ‘my’ people and ‘their’ people. I won’t say who, but I have quite a few relatives and family friends who are quite bigoted, and many more who are but less so. It made me uncomfortable, and the way the adults answered my questions often sounded dishonest, and were unsatisfying. That may be why, when I was in sixth and seventh grade especially, I was obsessed with the civil rights movement and the whole issues of American racism. I’m sure I checked out every single book in our school library on the subject, and I remember when I was assigned to read ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ a few years later, I had already read it several times. It’s still one of my favorite books.

So why am I mad at other people when I, too, catch myself in biased thinking? I’m mad on behalf of myself and every single other young person who inherited that unwanted baggage from each previous generation. And I’m willing to bet that, all things being equal, those adults who passed on those bigoted attitudes wouldn’t have chosen to inherit them either, since they are good in other ways.

Although I’m so conscious of that bias that creeps in, I’ll often adopt an exaggeratedly non-bigoted attitude (even if a person of color is behaving suspiciously or badly, I’ll sometimes pretend they’re not, for example), and for all of us who feel a little bigoted against our own wills and fight against it, young people pick up on subtle cues with astonishing insight. They pick up on those awkwardnesses, those little changes in the way you hold yourself, in the way you think and speak, in the presence of different people, and they all too often internalize it, adopting those attitudes themselves over time, even becoming more racist themselves in an attempt to justify those adopted instincts.

I feel that for every one of these kids who inherit racism, their innocence has been violated: not the kind of innocence that, I think, is often just idealized ignorance (like that regarding sex), but the good kind, where people are just people and they’re all equal candidates for companions and playmates. Little kids treat each other more or less the same when it comes to color, once they’ve asked those funny getting-to-know-you questions that, to adult ears, sound racist, though they reflect only honest curiosity (hence the lack of self-consciousness). The racial divide happen later, when the awkwardness creeps in, as you grow and realize that your very thoughts have become tainted with the quality of injustice that is bigotry. In these subtle little ways, people pass on those old nasty habits of thought and behavior, robbing the next generation of that kind of inner peace that justice brings, and of so many opportunities to have a wider circle of friends, companions, and allies.

That’s how I remember it happening.

Going back to the teen and his cell phone videos: while I felt defensive on his behalf, I was also disturbed that he called one of the women following him around ‘bitch’. Then I felt doubly sorry about how this kid is being betrayed: not only are adults around him behaving badly in treating him preemptively, and therefore unjustly, as a criminal, but he’s been inculcated with at least some degree of sexism already, in that he’s comfortable with calling women ‘bitch’. An epithet on his part would be warranted, I grant, but ‘bitch’? That’s as sexist as those women following him are racist.

In every way, as with the one before, and those before that, the older generation is letting this kid down, as we do all other kids we’re subjecting to our bad example.

But I’m hopeful. I think the internet, even as it’s making our kids more sophisticated and worldly-wise than we might be comfortable with, are also bringing kids in constant contact with others of all races and cultural backgrounds, and they’re communicating freely with them clear of adult interference. They’re learning that others, whose bodily appearance may be different, have the same sort of thoughts and emotions that they do, just as we did on the playground. Now, however, the adults are not present to infuse those interactions with their racism, purposefully or not. Mr. Barack Obama was right, when he observed of his daughters and their friends ‘…when I talk to Malia and Sasha and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they’re better than we are. They’re better than we were on those issues.’

Kids these days: they’re becoming cosmopolitan, in spite of all of those adults around them who justify their own bigotry by trying, unconsciously or not, to pass it on to their kids. Fortunately for the kids, I don’t think that’ll work this time around.