MoDo and The Moustache of Wisdom are off today. In “The Retreat to Identity” The Pasty Little Putz says that after Ferguson, it’s harder to make a case for optimism about race and politics in America. In the comments “Karen Garcia” from New Paltz, NY had this to say: “In pretending to diss identity politics, Ross perpetuates them. This dog-whistle of a screed immediately signals its intent with the specious claim that “racial cleavages are still less dramatic” than in days of yore. What a shame that the reality had to impinge upon his lollipops-and-roses world. So he has to do a quick propaganda reset, in which liberals still have the chutzpah to talk about a fair economy! And the GOP, for some reason unfathomable to Ross, just can’t get its family values message to resonate with “those people” even as its plutocrat-friendly policies absolutely guarantee their continued misery and oppression.” Putzy obviously didn’t read Mr. Kristof’s column, “When Whites Just Don’t Get It, Part 5,” in which he asks a question: How can we address the racial biases embedded in our society? In “Just Plane Ugly” Mr. Bruni says Look! Up in the sky! It’s the very worst of us. Here, FSM help us, is the Putz:
Last summer, around the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, I wrote a column making — gingerly — a case for optimism about race and politics in America.
My argument was basically this: As much as racial controversy has marked the presidency of Barack Obama, our race-related policy cleavages are still less dramatic than at any previous point in America’s history. It isn’t just that there’s no contemporary equivalent of the conflict over Jim Crow, in which one side had to be defeated utterly for racial progress to be possible. It’s that on many racially entangled issues, from education to criminal justice to various socioeconomic challenges, the key policy debates are less polarized than in the 1970s and 1980s, and the impact of potential reforms on whites and blacks seems much less zero sum.
But after watching as Ferguson, Mo., seethed and smoldered, it’s worth offering a case for greater pessimism. Not because the optimistic arguments are no longer credible, but because we’ve just had an object lesson in why they might be proved wrong.
This lesson isn’t exactly new; indeed, it’s been offered by both parties throughout this presidency. Ultimately, being optimistic about race requires being optimistic about the ability of our political coalitions to offer colorblind visions of the American dream — the left’s vision stressing economics more heavily, the right leaning more on family and community, but both promising gains and goods and benefits that can be shared by Americans of every racial background.
In the Obama era, though, neither coalition has done a very good job selling such a vision, because neither knows how to deliver on it. (The left doesn’t know how to get wages rising again; the right doesn’t know how to shore up the two-parent family, etc.) Which has left both parties increasingly dependent on identity-politics appeals, with the left mobilizing along lines of race, ethnicity and gender and the right mobilizing around white-Christian-heartland cultural anxieties.
For a while the media has assumed that this kind of identity-based politics inevitably favors the left, because 21st-century America is getting less white every day.
But that’s too simplistic, in part because the definitions of “white” and “minority” are historically elastic. If a “white party” seems sufficiently clueless and reactionary, it will lose ground to a multicultural coalition. But as African-Americans know from bitter experience, “whiteness” has sustained itself by the inclusion of immigrants as well as by the exclusion and oppression of blacks. That history suggests that a “multicultural party” may always be at risk of being redefined as a grievance-based “party of minorities” that many minorities would prefer to leave behind. (And leadership matters, too: A protean figure like Barack Obama can put together a genuine rainbow coalition, but it’s not clear how many other politicians can do the same.)
The key point here, though, is that whichever coalition is ascendant in this scenario, a politics divided primarily by identity is likely to be more poisonous than one in which both parties are offering more-color-blind appeals.
Unfortunately, identity is also the most primal, reliable form of political division. And Ferguson has provided a case study in exactly how powerfully it works.
There was a moment, early in the debate over the death of Michael Brown, when it felt as if this story might vindicate the case for optimism about racial politics — that the original tragedy might be sufficiently transparent, the subsequent police misconduct in quelling protests sufficiently clear-cut, for Ferguson to become a more powerful exhibit in the increasingly bipartisan case for various criminal justice reforms.
But then it became clear that the situation was murkier — that the cop had witnesses and physical evidence supporting his side of the story, that police had to deal with looters as well as peaceful protesters. As John McWhorter wrote in Time magazine, by the time the grand jury handed down its non-indictment the original narrative about Ferguson could only survive with “a degree of elision” and “adjustment.” Which meant, predictably, that the potential for consensus receded, and how people felt about the story became primarily a matter of identification instead.
Do you identify more with a black teenager or with a cop? With protesters menaced by playing-soldier cops or with business owners menaced by the protest’s violent fringe? With various government spokesmen or with, say, Al Sharpton?
Again, this is not unusual; this is how political division and racial division often interact.
And there’s still nothing inevitable about this interaction. Rand Paul, the Republican who’s pushed hardest to change the old paradigm on race and crime, is still talking about criminal justice reform in the wake of Ferguson. The path to a less identity-driven kind of politics is still open.
But it’s clearer today how easy, how human, it will be to leave that path untaken.
Now here’s Mr. Kristof. Maybe somebody will sit Putzy down and read this to him:
We Americans are a nation divided.
We feud about the fires in Ferguson, Mo., and we can agree only that racial divisions remain raw. So let’s borrow a page from South Africa and impanel a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to examine race in America.
The model should be the 9/11 commission or the Warren Commission on President Kennedy’s assassination, and it should hold televised hearings and issue a report to help us understand ourselves. Perhaps it could be led by the likes of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and Oprah Winfrey.
We as a nation need to grapple with race because the evidence is overwhelming that racial bias remains deeply embedded in American life. Two economists, Joseph Price and Justin Wolfers, found that white N.B.A. referees disproportionally call fouls on black players, while black refs call more fouls on white players. “These biases are sufficiently large that they affect the outcome of an appreciable number of games,” Price and Wolfers wrote.
If such racial bias exists among professional referees monitored by huge television audiences, imagine what unfolds when an employer privately weighs whom to hire, or a principal decides whether to expel a disruptive student, or a policeman considers whether to pull over a driver.
This “When Whites Just Don’t Get It” series is a call for soul-searching. It’s very easy for whites to miss problems that aren’t our own; that’s a function not of being white but of being human. Three-quarters of whites have only white friends, according to one study, so we are often clueless.
What we whites notice is blacks who have “made it” — including President Obama — so we focus on progress and are oblivious to the daily humiliations that African-Americans endure when treated as second-class citizens.
“In the jewelry store, they lock the case when I walk in,” a 23-year-old black man wrote in May 1992. “In the shoe store, they help the white man who walks in after me. In the shopping mall, they follow me.”
He described an incident when he was stopped by six police officers who detained him, with guns at the ready, and treated him for 30 minutes as a dangerous suspect.
That young man was future Senator Cory Booker, who had been a senior class president at Stanford University and was a newly selected Rhodes Scholar. Yet our law enforcement system reduced him to a stereotype — so young Booker sat trembling and praying that he wouldn’t be shot by the police.
My sense is that part of the problem is well-meaning Americans who disapprove of racism yet inadvertently help perpetuate it. We aren’t racists, yet we buttress a system that acts in racist ways. It’s “racism without racists,” in the words of Eduardo Bonillo-Silva, a Duke University sociologist.
This occurs partly because of deeply embedded stereotypes that trick us, even when we want to be fair. Researchers once showed people sketches of a white man with a knife confronting an unarmed black man in the subway. In one version of the experiment, 59 percent of research subjects later reported that it had been the black man who held the knife.
I don’t know what unfolded in Ferguson between Michael Brown, a black teenager, and Darren Wilson, a white police officer. But there is a pattern: a ProPublica investigation found that young black men are shot dead by police at 21 times the rate of young white men.
If you’re white, your interactions with police are more likely to have been professional and respectful, leaving you trustful. If you’re black, your encounters with cops may leave you dubious and distrustful. That’s why a Huffington Post/YouGov poll found that 64 percent of African-Americans believe that Officer Wilson should be punished, while only 22 percent of whites think so.
That’s the gulf that an American Truth and Reconciliation Commission might help bridge just a little. In 1922, a Chicago Commission on Race Relations (composed of six whites and six blacks) examined the Chicago race riots of 1919. More recently, President Clinton used an executive order to impanel an advisory board on race that focused on how to nurture “one America.”
A new commission could jump-start an overdue national conversation and also recommend evidence-based solutions to boost educational outcomes, improve family cohesion and connect people to jobs.
White Americans may protest that our racial problems are not like South Africa’s. No, but the United States incarcerates a higher proportion of blacks than apartheid South Africa did. In America, the black-white wealth gap today is greater than it was in South Africa in 1970 at the peak of apartheid.
Most troubling, America’s racial wealth gap, pay gap and college education gap have all widened in the last few decades.
There are no easy solutions. But let’s talk.
And now we get to Mr. Bruni:
The woman in 27E doesn’t have only one carry-on plus a small bag for a laptop or personal items. She has one carry-on plus a purse the size of a bassinet plus some canvas vessel for all of her electronics plus two different plastic totes for various pillows, blankets and possibly an ottoman and a coffee table. Shuffling down the aisle, she looks more like a Peruvian llama than anything human. She grunts and buckles.
She must have heard the announcement that the flight was full and the plea that everyone not bring too much aboard, because those words blared every 45 seconds. But there’s no selective hearing loss like that of the airline passenger. She reaches her row, predictably discovers that there’s insufficient space under the seat in front of hers and proceeds to colonize the space under the seat in front of yours. You arrive to find that what little legroom you’d counted on is gone. She pretends not to see that you’re glaring at her.
A tiff has erupted in Row 18. The man in Seat C has used the overhead for his jacket, which is lovingly folded there, and is protesting any and all attempts to move it. He has miles. He has status. That’s why he was invited to board the aircraft earlier than almost everybody else, and he’s hellbent on milking that privilege for all that it’s worth.
I’m not describing a flight that I just took. Among my Thanksgiving blessings was an avoidance of the unfriendly skies. I’m describing every other flight that I’ve taken over the last year. I’m describing a flight that many Americans surely suffered through this weekend.
And I’m doing it not simply to rue the horrors of air travel these days, which have been rued aplenty. I’m doing it because there are few better showcases of Americans’ worst impulses, circa 2014, than a 757 bound from New York to Los Angeles or from Sacramento to St. Louis. It’s a mile-high mirror of our talent for pettiness, our tendency toward selfishness, our disconnection from one another and our increasing demarcation of castes. It’s a microcosm at 30,000 to 45,000 feet.
Most of the passengers start out in a bad mood, because there’s no good way to get to the airport. The thrifty, efficient rail links that exist in many Asian and European cities remain uncommon in the United States, a reflection of our arrogant and damnable inattention to infrastructure. Even in recent years, during an economic downturn that cried out for the kinds of big projects that create jobs, we made only meager investments. Our airports and the roads and nonexistent tracks around them show it.
“Our infrastructure is on life support right now,” Ray LaHood, the former transportation secretary, told Steve Kroft in a segment of “60 Minutes” from one week ago. It was titled, fittingly, “Falling Apart.”
Kroft noted that there was “still no consensus on how to solve the problem,” which had grown more severe because of “political paralysis in Washington.”
One of the impediments to consensus is manifest on a plane: There’s little sense of a common good, no rules that everybody follows so that nobody gets a raw deal. Instead there’s an ethic of every passenger for himself or herself. The existence of, and market for, the Knee Defender, that device that prohibits the person in front of you from reclining, says it all.
On second thought, no, this does: Immediately following news coverage of a flight that had to be diverted when two passengers scuffled over a Knee Defender’s use, sales of the device reportedly increased.
Courtesy is dead. The plane is its graveyard. There’s a scrum at the gate and then another scrum in the aisle that defy any of the airline’s attempts at an orderly boarding process. There’s no restraint in the person who keeps smacking the back of your chair; no apology from the parent whose child keeps kicking it; no awareness that certain foods, unwrapped in a tight space, turn one traveler’s lunch into every traveler’s olfactory reality.
And nobody really communicates. Conversation between strangers becomes rarer as gadgets get better, enabling everyone to hunker down with his or her own music and own movies and own video games, to shrink the world to the dimensions of a smartphone’s or tablet’s screen, to disappear into a personalized bubble of ceaseless entertainment and scant enlightenment.
On the plane, as in the economy, most people are feeling squeezed. Financially, every flight is a death by a dozen cuts. There’s the baggage fee, the meal fee, the wireless fee. All the base price gets you is a perch that’s tighter than ever and getting tighter still. In The Daily Beast two days before Thanksgiving, Clive Irving described airlines’ sophisticated, inch-by-inch stratagems to “engineer you out of room,” and they sounded like experiments in orthopedic torture. What the rack was to medieval times, Seat 39B is to modern ones.
But Seat 2A? That’s a different story. A different world. The gap between first class and everyone else is writ vivid on a plane, and crossing from one side of the divide to the other seems to be growing more difficult. Frequent-flier programs are being tweaked to reward dollars spent on tickets instead of miles flown, and to give more bonus miles to people who are already at a high status than to people who aspire to be.
“United Continental’s Miles Program to Penalize Average Fliers,” said a headline in The Wall Street Journal earlier this year. The article went on to explain that the airline was “becoming the latest carrier to shift its loyalty program to favor bigger spenders.”
A recent story in The Journal explored this further, noted that Delta was making similar adjustments, and explained, “People who fly on expensive business-class and first-class tickets and have top-tier status in frequent-flier programs will see their accounts flooded with miles.”
In the clouds as on land, the rich get richer, social mobility wanes and people are funneled ever more ruthlessly into gradations of privilege: those in sections with names like “economy comfort”; those eligible for the exit row; those who get to board in the first, second or third waves; those consigned to later stages and middle seats.
Some blot out all of this sorting with Candy Crush. Some seethe. Too many of us lose sight of more than the earth. We forget that simply being up in the air is an experience that others seldom if ever get. If there’s one thing in even shorter supply than legroom, it’s empathy.