Out on a Limb: Sexual Harassment, Race, and the Unsinkable Mr. Trump

Mixed feelings on sexual harassment in the news stories of the day. It’s good to see those who routinely harass getting caught and going down in greater numbers. But I do worry about a loss of perspective. If there are 50 million married couples in the US, and you asked how many started with (a) venturing a kiss in the hopes that it would be reciprocal, or (b) asking permission for a kiss, I’m guessing that at least 49 million would say (a). By today’s standards, that means 49 million marriages started with an act of sexual harrassment. Similarly, by the standards of California’s “yes means yes” law, I believe every sex act I’ve ever had would be a rape, since I never explicitly asked or received a verbal permission. In fact, since I align with 1960s feminists (who proclaim for women equal strength and agency with men) more than with current feminists (who more often risk infantilizing women for political gain), I’d have to say every sex act was a mutual rape, since I also did not explicitly say “yes, it’s OK” before the act. This is what I mean by a loss of perspective. I am not sure of my position because tides and definitions change so quickly on the topic, so I’m open to feedback. It’s been too long, anyway, since we’ve allowed each other to air out unfinished thoughts openly in the public sphere without triggering the hegemonic machinery of shame and condemnation. So for all those who would like to see a little more tolerance and openness, maybe even a little more play and freewheeling chaos, in the greater communal idea exchange, I’ll go out on that limb.

Now to turn from sexual harassment to “rape culture,” here too it’s good to see rapists nailed as often as we can nail them, and forcible rape should be “one strike you’re out” with no hope of parole. But blaming it on “rape culture” gives me pause. I didn’t grow up thinking rape was OK until someone taught me otherwise. I think most men are horrified by the thought of rape without having to be “taught” that it is wrong. Those who need to be “taught” that harming innocent people is wrong may already be hopeless. This doesn’t mean I’m against educating people – and boys in particular – about where the line is or how certain behaviors make women feel – but keep it in perspective. Blaming “rape culture” or Western culture in general is like blaming black culture when a black man commits a crime or Islamic culture when an Islamic terrorist strikes. Broadening the blame so widely takes the focus off of the criminal, and elides all laws and social forces aligned to punish rapists and other criminals without broad-brushing the rest of the group with guilt by association. And there’s also the problem of blurring categories. It seems in the media that “rape culture” is a vague umbrella under which crude jokers and clumsy suitors are more or less lumped in with brutal rapists, which may not be the best way to focus the efforts of a wide range of people.  I sympathize with the goal of calling attention to and clamping down on sexual assault, but I’m not yet convinced that the broad brush of “rape culture” is the right tool.

While I’m out on that precarious limb, I fear a similar loss of perspective on race. Per the Black Lives Matter focus on cops and black suspects, I am glad there’s a watchdog to insure an investigation when a suspect is killed. Given our history, it makes sense to have a watchdog group with a particular eye on black suspects who are killed. A demand that an investigation take place, and evidence be gathered and presented in court, is totally fair. A demand for a guilty verdict before a trial takes place seems a bridge too far, but it seems a bridge many routinely cross nowadays.  I’m reluctant to use an individual criminal case as a venue to redress social problems. I have friends both liberal and conservative who seem more eager than I am to take sides up front based on preconceived notions about race relations. But even if those preconceived notions are correct, not every white cop is a racist and not every young black man is a thug. With individual lives at stake, specific cases should not be prejudged on political grounds. At least that seems a good general rule. As political currents shift, grand juries and juries of peers seem a safer long-term bet than guilt assigned and convictions demanded before investigations take place.

Tiptoeing still further out on my limb, I will say that I think in the wake of Trump’s election, some of my liberal brothers and sisters have generally taken their eye off the ball on how to address persistent racial inequality. I think this stems from a misreading of Trump’s supporters. Sure, the hard-core racists who never vote Democrat voted Trump, but my theory (coming from a conservative part of the country where probably 40% of my friends and family voted Trump) is that most people who voted for Trump did so because (a) they always vote Republican regardless of the name of the ballot, or (b) they were sick of Democrats and Republicans and political correctness, and Trump seemed to them an outsider who would cut through the crap. In the case of the white working class, they were sick of being told by liberals that they were racist, sexist dolts who were overloaded with unearned privileges. I think voting for Trump was a mistake, but one that is explicable without appeal to racist, sexist xenophobia.

Once Trump votes were marked as a simple indicator of widespread racism and misogyny, the damage was done to the liberal mindset. In facing persistent racial inequities, focus on schools and economic opportunity in specific areas seems to have shifted to a focus on a vast conspiracy of white supremacists. In a word, liberals went back to fighting the battle of the 1960s. As unpopular as it sounds, white people’s hatred and prejudice against black people is not the biggest inhibitor to racial equity today. Although there is some of that, and it has perhaps been hardened in recent years by an unfortunate backlash against a relentlessly race-conscious identity politics, there are still few actual white supremacists. The big national call for a white supremacist gathering in Tennessee a few weeks ago brought in a total of 300 people from around the country. These knuckleheads have been increasingly marginalized since the 60s. As Charles Barkley said, if ignored, these 300 idiots gathered from around the country could talk stupid to each other for a couple of hours and then go home with no one ever noticing. Our new crop of liberals raised on identity politics, though, have vastly enhanced the prestige of those 300 idiots, telling them that America in general is a white supremacist nation that has their back. I fear that today’s liberals are rapidly reversing the gains in consciousness we made in the wake of the 1960s Civil Rights and hippie movements. By the end of the 70s, I’d say very few white people I knew really thought whites were genetically superior to blacks, and even those few would not admit it in public. Yes, there are still inequities that need to be addressed, yes there are still pockets of racial prejudice, but overall we’d gone a very long way toward marginalizing KKK thinking. (As Professor Cornel West once said on a talk show appearance while seated next to some klan members, “The KKK doesn’t represent white people; they represent morons.”) Sadly, the new liberal idea that everyone is a white supremacist moves in the other direction, giving those few KKK idiots an enormous microphone. The unpopular truth is that most corporate entities are eager to recruit women and minorities, if for no other reason than the edge it gives them when seeking big government contracts and major clients. The major obstacle for these corporate entities is finding enough women or minorities who have been well-prepared for board seats or top-level positions. We need to work on getting women and minorities well-educated from the ground level, well-prepared professionally – schools, mentoring, and economic conditions on the streets – this will serve better than marching against the till recently quite marginalized idiots of the KKK.

So let’s take the spotlight off the idiots, and off of the supposedly entrenched demographic differences that falsely present us as enemies, and see each other anew. Obama, in 2008, probably gave the best speech since Martin Luther King on the issue of race:

“I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together – unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction – towards a better future for of children and our grandchildren. This belief comes from my unyielding faith in the decency and generosity of the American people.”

It’s hard to tell whether Obama is schooling prospective Trump voters or identity politics liberals in this appeal, but let’s hope it’s a little of both. We need to stop the nonsense, see the good in each other, and get to work. Forget about all the theoretical divisiveness and do what it takes to make this school or that neighborhood better with an eye not on the past but on the immediate future.

White Privilege and a Third Way on Race

Like many, I was amused by the recent Samuel L. Jackson interview flap, in which the interviewer asked Jackson about his super bowl ad. The problem was that it was Laurence Fishburne and not Jackson in that ad. As this opened the door to much twittering about racism that predictably generated more heat than light, I thought I’d carry my blog into the minefield of race. I say “minefield” because one false move in any direction and one is subjected to the vilest of condemnations, comparisons to Hitler, etc. – which is a true pity because it would help us all enormously if we could talk about it openly and freely, without being shamed into silence or charged as an unredeemable racist for every misstep or every deviation from the party line of the listener. And when it comes to stifling discussion on this topic, I find my liberal allies and my conservative friends “across the aisle,” as it were, equally culpable. My own views, I think will cause equal discomfort to both sides, and hence with luck might push dialectically toward a third way. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

It’s tempting to shame Jackson’s interviewer, Sam Rubin, for being a racist, but this would be a mistake on at least two levels.

First, we have no reason to believe that race was an operative factor in his faux pas. I often get actors mixed up, white and black, including Fishburne and Jackson in some of their shots. Of course, unlike me, Rubin is an entertainment reporter, and such a glaring mistake, whether the actors confused were white or black, is a serious faux pas. Even there, I sympathize, having made incredibly stupid mistakes myself from time to time, but if this proves part of a larger pattern, Rubin may need a new line of work.

Second, even if race were an operative factor – i.e., Rubin blurs black actors together more easily than white actors – shaming is not the best response. It is safe to assume that if Rubin’s stumble was race-related, this isn’t because blacks really look alike but rather that if one grows up day in and day out from infancy surrounded by white faces, one becomes better at picking up distinguishing cues of white faces.  Awkward, yes; racist, no. This is actually an iteration of a quite common scenario in our culture – and one that I believe my fellow progressives consistently mishandle. The scenario is this: Someone inadvertently expresses a racist structure, or what can function as a racist structure, with no bad intent. Certainly, Rubin did not intend to confuse the two black men, nor did he intend to suggest that black men all look alike. No one intends to jeopardize his career by presenting himself foolishly on public TV (Jerry Springer guests and reality TV stars excepted). To those who would promote racial harmony and equality, Sam Rubin is still a potential ally. Yes, he slipped (as we all do from time to time), but as far as we know his heart is in the right place. He is certainly not a lost cause, certainly not in the same camp as the white supremacist on Jerry Springer who speaks of blacks with bad intent.

So on to “shaming” as a form of corrective action. An unintentional slip may warrant a confidential follow-up, a little nudging combined with a willingness to hear the other side, but in general it doesn’t warrant shaming because shaming, in general, doesn’t work. Self-loathing among black men becomes a subject of academic scrutiny from time to time, and the consensus is always that self-loathing does not help their lot. Self-loathing, which Freud might call the introjected form of shaming, does not build character.  I hold racial harmony and equality a dear goal, but I cringe when I see my progressive colleagues shaming white people who slip in the manner of Rubin, with no ill intent. There are enough people out there with racist intentions who deserve to be shamed. Why alienate potential allies because of an unintentional slip that exposes some racist tic of the culture or that is politically incorrect enough to be construed as racist? The bottom line is that shaming, the reinforcement of self-loathing, doesn’t build character for blacks and doesn’t build character for whites. Save it for the select few malicious racists who deserve it.  Lumping Rubin in with such freaks places the “us versus them” boundary line at a spot that gives far too much to the other side. (Although Gandhi and Mandela were famous for not writing off even avowed racists, I do not rule out “shaming” as a mechanism for dealing with those who spew racist views with expressly bad intent. But where there is no bad intention, shaming does more harm than good.)

So how do we break the ossified “us versus them” line? I’ll try to point a way out through a concept that has gotten quite a bit of traction recently in the public sphere: “white privilege.” “White privilege,” I could argue, is the breaking point of the current age of race relations. It is equally misused on both sides. To the standard conservative, “white privilege” is the crowning concept in a long line of liberal misconceptions about race. “What white privilege?” they ask. When policy issues addressing racial inequity appear, the standard conservative line argues that slavery ended 150 years ago, that blacks have the same opportunity as whites to work hard and climb the ladder – indeed blacks have greater opportunity, since they have all “our” freedoms plus affirmative action and set-asides and minority-owned business preferences, etc.

There is a certain logic to this, but upon a closer look that logic proves spurious and historically naïve. Africans were taken in chains, separated from all who spoke their own language, subjected to a multi-generational, cradle-to-grave, systematic attack on all human values, had spouses and children sold away in the middle of night, were forbidden education, literacy, or any other form of self-determined skill-building. Their condition was not “like the Irish immigrants,” as Bill O’Reilly idiotically likes to say.  You can’t one day say, “You’re free now,” and conclude that everyone, black and white, is suddenly at the same starting line. Since slavery, economic and educational conditions for blacks have never, in the aggregate, reached par with whites, this is a problem that public policy can and should address.

The standard liberal line on “white privilege” at first seems more innocuous. Whites have certain advantages in our society. No sane person can deny that whites, on average, have greater economic and educational resources at their disposal than blacks. Whites are more likely to be born into middle and upper classes than their black counterparts. This comes with certain privileges or advantages. People born into those classes have a level of access to education, jobs, contacts, visible role models, family safety nets, etc., that tend to keep them in those classes, not in every case, but in the aggregate.  The problem is that for liberals, “white privilege” has become a shaming device, a catalyst for self-loathing. The message all too often seems to be that whites (like me) should feel embarrassment and guilt for the advantages we and not others are born with. But self-loathing does not and never will build character. Not for blacks. Not for whites.

So the problem with “white privilege” is that both sides use it in a way that fetishizes the current, unproductive “us versus them” lines in the sand. We need to push off of both sides to a new position. Progressives have a point in the sense that blacks and whites are not and never since slavery have been at the same starting line. Conservatives have a point in that the introjection of racial guilt and shame about the history of slavery is not going to solve the problem. We become what we visualize. We need to visualize not guilt, not self-loathing in ourselves or others. We need to visualize a way out of the “us versus them” dilemma, a third way. The “third way,” when it appears on the horizon line, will involve all of us opening up, being more cognizant of the fact that we and our white and black interlocutors are all flawed, all make mistakes, but we are all in this together. We will put the self-loathing on both sides behind us. The third way will have us visualize harmony in our daily actions, to visualize it as if there is no other way, to envision ourselves and others as happy, fulfilled beings.  We need to acknowledge the historical basis of racial disparities and work out policy changes without inducing any collective shame and self-loathing. We can build something together but it involves getting on the same side in the tug of war … and cutting ourselves, our black and white neighbors, and Sam Rubin a little slack.