Sunday, May 3, 2015

Appropriating Black Anger...Don't Do It!

Normally I'm a fan of Nicholas Kristoff. He tends to use his editorial column at the New York Times to highlight issues that many Americans would rather ignore. But the opening line in his op-ed today got under my skin a bit.
The eruptions in Baltimore have been tied, in complex ways, to frustrations at American inequality...
The rest of the column is not devoted to inequality in terms of law enforcement and our criminal justice system. It's all about income inequality. And while its true that income inequality disproportionately affects African Americans, that's also not what he addressed. He talked about the issue more broadly.

From his previous work, I know that Kristoff is aware of the role that racism plays in our country today. And yet he did what so many white people tend to do when black anger explodes...he appropriated their issues to make his own point.

It seems pretty clear to me that the "eruptions in Baltimore" had to do with the death of young black men at the hands of police officers and the lack of attention paid to that issue by our criminal justice system (until Marilyn Mosby came along). Perhaps Kristoff covered himself with that phrase "in complex ways," because the frustrations of black people in Baltimore have obviously been building for a long time due to a complex set of issues. But first things first. As long as police officers think it's OK to arrest young black men without probable cause and throw them in the back of a van where they meet an untimely death, I seriously doubt that income inequality is at the forefront of a black mother/father's mind.

I was actually hesitant to write this because I am a white person who doesn't live in Baltimore. So the truth is - I can't speak with any authority on what caused the eruptions. I hope that if I'm off base someone will come along and engage in the conversation to help enlighten me. But I think that talking about what happened in Baltimore without putting the question of racism in law enforcement/criminal justice front and center is an attempt to evade the very discussion we need to have.


  1. In the rural deep South, compliance with the new Civil Rights Act required the minimum of taking down the "White Only" signs. Nobody had to change their behavior or beliefs much at all. Private schools sprung up everywhere; black people still sat in the balcony (and didn't use the restrooms) in Aliceville, Alabama when I was the first Star Wars movie with my family in 1977. The long arm of Jim Crow law didn't change, either. THAT is the underlying issue here as I see it.

  2. I haven't read Kristoff's op-ed, and I trust your assessment of the broad point he chose to make using Baltimore as a springboard.

    But I don't think it does much good to focus so narrowly on the systemized racism in urban law enforcement that we take the light away from the -inherently and inalterably linked- issue of disproportionate income inequality facing black Americans.

    You'll never find a class of people who are simultaneously oppressed and wealthy. (Even the pogroms aimed at wealthy and educated groups under the 20th Century oppressive regimes began by negating the economic power of those groups by state fiat.)

    Until we do the hard work PBO talked about, of paying attention to these issues even when cities aren't rioting and even on the days when black youths aren't getting shot, until we begin to address the institutionalized power inequalities in our society that remain largely along racial lines, the symptom of disparate treatment of the oppressed class by law enforcement will remain.

    Yes, we need to deal with issues of unfair treatment directly and systematically, but unless we also deal with the issue of unequal opportunities, we'll forever be 'correcting' those disparate outcomes after the fact.

    1. First things first. Stop the killing.

      But beyond that, I agree. Kristoff did not once mention the disproportionality of income inequality. That's why appropriating Baltimore as the base of his discussion was a problem.

  3. Appalachia hillbillies are in just as much economic shit as poor black city folks.

    Cops don't hunt hillbillies.

    Moral: income inequality does not suffice to explain the phenomena we see.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Nancy, I think Kristof's last paragraph is a much greater problem. He writes: "The problem isn’t inequality; the problem is us. We’re paralyzed." It is not "us." Paralysis is caused by the party that has changed into a reactionary modern day John Birch Society, dedicated to repealing the New Deal. If the likes of Mike Lee, quoted favorably by Kristof, gain full control, they will achieve that goal and reduce us to 18th century France. He may express concern about inequality, but his record shows hostility to any attempt to deal with it.

    Kristof's problem is that he often falls into this kind of "both siderism." It is his responsibility to inform readers just how radical Republicans have become, rather than piously citing generalized "paralysis."