Thursday, August 20, 2009

Race, Race, Race 24 x 7

I guess this might come as a surprise to Black people, but in my experience white men spend essentially zero time thinking about race and race relations. It's just a total non-issue.

A reasonable response to this fact might be something like, "It's easy to say you don't think about something when it isn't a big problem in your life."

Such a response makes a lot of sense. For example, few people spend a lot of time thinking about getting a particular illness until it directly affects them. But, to a person with cancer, illness literally becomes an immediate life-and-death issue.

On the other hand, living in a place like Oakland forces every one of us to subconsciously deal with race every day.

Like many cities, Oakland is virtually color-coded. It's a largely segregated city, with Black regions in the West and East of the city,  Hispanic areas on down International Blvd, etc.

Anyone who looks at the statistics knows the risk of being victimized by crime is also a color-coded situation. I remember reading somewhere that, if a Black and non-Black man pass each other on the street, the Black man has 1/500 the probability of being assaulted by the non-Black as vice-versa.

Knowing facts like these, it would be irrational for a white man to ignore race when walking around Oakland.

Still, there is a big difference between a cognizance of race in potentially dangerous situations and having a worldview that says your race is the key defining characteristic in your life. The former is an ongoing background process akin to avoiding being burned by a stove. The latter seems much more omnipresent in people's minds.

And, it''s this latter view, combined with extreme racial sensitivity among guilt-ridden non-minorities, which makes the East Bay such a strange place to live.

In the 10 years that I've lived in Oakland, I actually think this state of affairs has served only to move my gut instincts in a more racist, not less racist direction.

So many people here are so quick to find the racial explanation for everything they see that I no longer have any patience for such arguments. And, being constantly confronted by this "us-versus-them" mentality makes it hard not to view yourself as part of your own racial "team" -- an attitude that pushes one inexorably away from viewing people as fundamentally equal.

The thing that brought this topic to mind today was J Douglas Allen-Taylor's latest article in the Berkeley Daily Planet.

Incidentally, Allen-Taylor's article appeared above a house advertisement for how the Daily Planet embraces free speech and all different viewpoints. This is very funny to me, since it's so obviously that they censor conservative viewpoints. The East Bay does have conservatives. Maybe the Daily Planet would do better if they asked a couple of us to write for their paper.

But I digress. Allen-Taylor's article discusses the "African-American/progressive coalition" which drafted Ron Dellums into running for mayor of Oakland. He talks about Councilmember Jean Quan as having an "Asian American" base of financial contributors.

Just for fun, I started using Google to do image searches for the list of people Allen-Taylor discussed in his article. Pretty much every single person he said clearly good things about is Black -- Ron Dellums, Barbara Lee, Sandré Swanson, Keith Carson and new police chief Anthony Batts. Allen-Taylor seems more skeptical of Quan, and he doesn't seem to like Phil Tagami (who doesn't look Black to me), Gilda Gonzales and Ignacio De La Fuente.

Now, to be fair, Allen-Taylor is largely reporting the views of others in this piece, so this tendency probably has less to do with him and more to do with the "African-American/progressive coalition" he's describing.

But, I've called him on this question of race bias in the past, and he has more or less admitted it when it comes to his support of Dellums. My recollection is that he argued that there's nothing wrong with one Black guy supporting another. Of course, I'm sure Allen-Taylor would write a pretty unflattering column about me if I said my plan in 2010 was to vote for "the white guy."

Some people might make an argument of the sort that says, "when you're a hammer, everything you see looks like a nail." So, if you're Al Sharpton, you're going to frame everything in racial terms, because that's what you do every day.

I guess that makes sense, but then it makes me wonder why people feel like it's beneficial to them to view life through this lens. It's not like nuclear physicists feel the need to analogize all their social interactions to neutron collisions or some such silliness.

No, I think it's more likely that people frame their thinking this way because they get something out of it. For leaders, I think it gives them access to a set of unwavering, bordering on unthinking, supporters. Such was the case last November when Blacks voted 95%+ for Obama. In Political Science, a 55%-45% victory is considered a landslide. To my knowledge, they don't have a word for a 95%-5% victory. Such results are usually only seen in banana republics.

The rank and file must get something out of it too. Perhaps it's some sense of belonging, or maybe the concept of racial identification is seductive because of its simplicity.

But, in truth, when a set of people spends so much time talking about race, they themselves are the ones who lose out. There are more compelling and interesting things in life to be dealt with. Skin color is not one of them. It just isn't.


  1. I am a white man who grew up in Oakland and has lived here his whole life. The problem with your article is that from the get-go it is framed as though whiteness is some kind of innocent, vulnerable quality.

    I don't know where you found that 1/500 statistic, but even if it true, do you know how miniscule the chances of you getting killed by a black man are? Sure, you might get your wallet stolen if you're in the wrong place, but the chances of you getting murdered are tiny. Want some evidence? Take a look at this map:

    How many white people are on this list? Exactly two, out of 114. Seeing as how there are more white people in Oakland than there are Blacks (34% versus 30%), that might allow us to recognize that it is much more dangerous to be Black in Oakland than to be white.

    Here is a quote from the US Bureau of Justice Statistics:
    "Blacks accounted for 13% of the U.S. population in 2005, but were victims in 15% of all nonfatal violent crimes and nearly half of all homicides."

    I'm not saying this to solicit your guilt. I hope, rather, that this will alleviate some of your attachment to the thought that we can and should move "beyond race." Clearly, this is not going to happen anytime soon. A good example of this is the fact that, living in Oakland, white people are pretty much safe from murder. Yes, there are exceptions, and the possessions of white people, which are many and valuable, are certainly not safe. But you need to realize that the reason race is an issue is because it actually brings with it enormous life-and-death consequences, and not just for the white man.

  2. You're sort of proving my point.

  3. Boss,

    Would you like to elaborate? My point is that race matters. Yours seems to be that it doesn't, except that scary blacks might rob you.

  4. My point is that it matters in a simplistic negative context like the subconscious decision as to whether a place is dangerous or not.

    But as to an interesting subject for higher-level discussion, I find it lacking. And, people use it as a basis for forming "teams" rather than some other, more meaningful, commonality.

    Your statistics serve only to highlight this decision for the Black community. Why go to such great lengths to associate oneself with such numbers?

  5. 13% of the population & 1/2 of all the homicides. 13% of the population & 1/2 of all the homicides. Nothing wrong with that, I guess. DOJ statistics can teach us quite a bit about race & crime. I found the rape stats very eye opening.

  6. 13% of the population & 1/2 of all the homicides. Nothing wrong with that, I guess. DOJ statistics can teach us quite a bit about race & crime. I found the rape stats very eye opening.

  7. Oh, I see. So your argument is that Black people should not be proud to be Black? That's the center of a solidly racist argument.

    I know the rebuttal here: should white people be proud to be white? The answer is no, they shouldn't. That doesn't mean that white people shouldn't be proud of their heritage. It means that 'white' is not a heritage--it is a political/economic/moral category under the banner of which slavery and the genocide of the American Indians, among many other things, were instituted.

    White people are Jews, Italians, Irish, Germans, Croatians, English, and many combinations thereof. Those are all cultures, and they all have histories. They have achievements and miseries, like any culture. They are histories that people are proud of. They are races just as much as "Black" or "Asian," because race is not a genetic but a cultural category.

  8. Forty years ago, when I was taking Physical Anthropology in college, we were taught that there was NO workable theory of race that can be applied to the human population. This was before DNA analysis... so blood type grouping was used instead. Africa had the greatest diversity of blood type groups... probably due to the lack of migration within the continent (local populations stayed to themselves). Race being an artificial distinction... it is used today to herd us into political gangs. Obvious physical differences made this job all the more easy. In today's America "mixed race" is the fastest growing classification... perhaps to ultimately and seriously inhibit this herding ability. Promoting the culture of poverty and victimhood is a mainstay of inner city demagogues. Lawlessness is its byproduct.

  9. SJ -

    I basically expected that kind of a response, as it was pretty obvious you were just trying to pick a fight.

    To answer your question, first I'd say that people can be proud of anything they want. Largely it does not affect me.

    But, from my perspective it's a little childish for people to be "proud" of their race. It's not like they did anything to attain it. I'm not "proud" of being white, so I guess I would find it kind of weird to find out that a bunch of people are "proud" to be Black.

    I think it makes much more sense to be proud of one's accomplishments -- learning to play the piano, for example, or maybe being a good parent.

  10. I question people who say that race does not exist, ot race is an artificial construct's ability to think properly.

  11. "Like many cities, Oakland is virtually color-coded. It’s a largely segregated city, with Black regions in the West and East of the city, Hispanic areas on down International Blvd, etc."

    This is only half true. Many streets in the flatlands are home to a mix of Black, white, Latino, and Asian.

  12. "...but in my experience white men spend essentially zero time thinking about race and race relations."

    Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh aren't white? I'll also assume you are not white, otherwise your opening statement renders your post (and blog) as one long drip of irony. That is, unless you aren't really "thinking" when you talk about race.

  13. My wife & I are the only whites on our block. I can count nine different nationalities on our block just off the top of my head.

  14. Race does exist... but not among humans. It is a biological difference one rung below sub-species. In humans, there is not enough biological difference for races to exist. There are physical distinctions between different groups of people, that are really of little genetic significance. The differences that we use to make race an issue are CULTURAL. They are manifest in behavior... which can be changed... unlike ancestry. People go to jail because of bad behavior. The nicer parts of Oakland are inhabited by people of all different appearances... but they are all middle class.

  15. Boss,

    Mel makes an excellent point. For someone who doesn't think about race, you sure seem to think about race a lot. Or think about how others think about race a lot. An important distinction to you, I'm sure.

    I'm not here to pick a fight, but I do disagree with you. I agree with you that it is stupid to be proud of one's whiteness. But the same is not true for one's Italianness, or Jewishness, or Irishness, etc. Nor for one's Blackness or Asianness.

    My point about whiteness was that it's not admirable to be proud of it because it is a fictitious category, thrown together by Southern aristocrats in order to prevent slave rebellions.

    There is no white cuisine, no large tragedies in which white people were killed for being white (save, perhaps, 9/11, unless you count all the non-white people in those buildings), no white "accent" (it is coextensive with "normal" or proper English). These are all clues that point us in one direction: there is no such thing as "white culture." So it really doesn't mean anything to be proud of your whiteness, although it means a lot to be proud of your culture(s).

  16. Ok, so your claim is that "White" is a fictitious category created by Southern aristocrats. I'd like to see some proof of that.

    What I think is clear is that "Black" is a category created by these same people.

    For starters, "Black" in America is often defined as anyone with a single African ancestor, which is plainly absurd since we all have African ancestors.

    Moreover, just as "White" subsumes a whole set of European and Middle Eastern ethnicities, "Black" is composed of all sorts of different peoples from Africa and Australia.

    I hope now you can see the absurdity of your argument. You accuse me of being a racist, when in fact I'm putting "White" and "Black" on the same footing.

    You, sir, are the racist. You are racist against those you label "White." Every single argument you make against me is directly applicable to you. All you need to do is replace the word "Black" with "White."

    Two more points:

    1. Being proud of one's "culture" is a vague notion. If by this you mean pride about some capability or accomplishment one has, which one terms "culture," then I couldn't agree more. If by "culture" you mean skin color, than I disagree. One's heritage does not determine one's "culture." And, being proud of one's skin color is ignorant.

    2. You criticize me for discussing race when I say it's not a major issue in my life. That's fine, but you should consider that I am making a particular effort to educate you and others on my thinking about this. I do not think about race much, but obviously I must do so to some extent to even have a conversation about it. To this extent, you've got me -- I do think about it sometimes. But, my larger point prevails.

  17. I'd like to specifially address Douglas Allen-Taylor since that's where the post bounced off of. I have often wondered where is the outcry from this so-obviously racist "journalist. I have been stunned by his constant ripping of everyone EXCEPT African-American electeds and public figures. He's still standing up for Dellums, claiming he's done many great things for Oakland! His latest is to rip on Don Perata - a white guy! - because he's supposedly done nothing for Oakland. Which is crap because I voted for bonds that gave housing help and transportation projects to the Bay Are in general and including Oakland, Perata wrote those measurs. He's also showed up at charity & community events I'm involved in that Dellums was invited to and his office never even had the decency to respond,let alone show up. Allen-Taylor is a bitter black man afforded every opportunity to help Oakland by virtue of his public forum. Yet all he does is perpetuate the victim mentality by refusing to hold accountable the black non-leaders that are abusing their positions by letting the community down and accusing all non-blacks of being liars, crooks and users. I've never met Allen-Taylor so for all I know, he IS Ron Dellums.

  18. Chariot -

    Quite right. Allen-Taylor is a joke.