The media have been reporting with a new regularity episodes of being disrespected for what we might call Existing While Black. The black men in Philadelphia arrested for sitting at a Starbucks waiting for a friend without ordering coffee seems to have started the trend. More recently we have heard of whites calling the cops on black people for barbecuing by a lake, wearing socks at a pool, spending a good amount while having a meal at a restaurant, and so on.
The regularity with which these grievous incidents have been reported is, in larger view, a component within a larger narrative. Today’s educated American consensus seeks with an almost furious diligence to demonstrate that racism pervades American lives even if no one is burning crosses on lawns anymore. We are to smoke out and revile all evidence useful to this observation, disdaining those “out there” who think racism is “over.” Black psychologist Price Cobbs just passed away; with William Grier in the late 1960s he pioneered a conception of whites as harboring inner racism they are unaware of and must be made aware of with often uncomfortable exchanges and sessions. A neat sign of the times is the recent publication of a book urging the exact same kind of practice—except written by a white woman.
In this light, the phenomenon one might refer to generically as “Starbucks and the Swimming Pool” can be taken as precious evidence that “It ain’t over.” And it ain’t—anyone who really thinks racism was slavery, Jim Crow, and Archie Bunker but that modern blacks claiming to experience it are just fibbing ought to heed these incidents.
However, I worry that the bearers of the orthodoxy read “Starbucks and the Swimming Pool” as something more than that. One might suppose—and find it resoundingly confirmed on Twitter—that many read each one of these episodes as a refutation of anyone who bucks the MSNBC/collegetown consensus on race. We are to see these incidents as evidence that to be a black American in 2018 is to suffer this kind of degradation on a regular basis, and to filter our sense of sociopolitical issues relating to black people through that lens. Many black people support that approach: Social media is full of black Americans claiming that they suffer racism “EVERY DAY. EVERY DAY.”
Well, if that’s what being black is like, then certainly it will shape our position on racial preferences (“Naturally all that abuse makes it hard to be a tippy-top student”), reparations (“They’re experiencing a variation on what their grandparents went through and somebody needs to pay for it”), white privilege (“White people don’t have to go through that kind of thing while black people go through it all the time and so…”), and cultural appropriation (“They get chased away from pools and cafes—we can’t deny their humanity in yet another way!”).
I disagree. Starbucks and the Swimming Pool is real. But it does not deep-six the views of black conservatives, or black “contrarians” in general (of which I am apparently one), questioning the orthodoxy that insists that black people can only truly succeed under perfect conditions.
Every day? In my experience certainly not. But maybe twice a year. I have not been asked to leave stores or pools, but I have been discriminated against because of my color twice in the past year. At a doctor’s office, I was in line in front of the white female receptionist’s desk. She handled two white men ahead of me with dispatch. Then when it was my turn she looked at me and then quietly looked down to riffle through some papers. This continued for about 30 seconds. Finally, I said “Miss?” and she looked back up, still paused, upon which I said “I’m here for an appointment,” upon which she realized her mistake—“Oh …!”—and took care of me. But why did I need to summon her that way? Because she made a spot, subconscious assumption, based on my skin color and likely the fact that I wasn’t wearing business clothes, that I was the help of some kind. Or, at least, not a patient. Classic microaggression.
The latest one was when I actually was wearing business casual, having entered a corporate office one evening to teach a night class on philosophy to some Columbia alumni. The receptionist—again a white woman about 32—smilingly asked me if I was “tech.” In other words, she assumed I was there to get the projector set up and so on, as opposed to my being there to, well, teach the class. Golly, I wonder what made her think that?
So, no, I don’t deny that racism exists. Nor do any of the black people (or most of the white ones) who question the modern orthodoxy on “white privilege,” racial preferences, and reparations. What we question is what that kind of racism—subconscious, residual, and passing—affects. For example, I can say quite honestly that neither of those incidents affected me in the least. What I retain most from the first incident is that I went in and got a marvelously effective cortisone shot; what I retain most from the second one is that I taught a fun class to some smart people (and frankly, that I got to do that rather than be a receptionist!). Life is never perfect, and there are much grosser imperfections in mine than petty misinterpretations by people I’ll never see again.
The question, again, is what effect these things have, and the answer to that question extends far beyond my own personal perspectives. We hear much about how Implicit Association Tests reveal racist biases one didn’t know one had—but less about findings that these tests do not correlate with how whites actually behave. Black American public school students at Dunbar High in Washington, DC in Gaslight Era America, in the wake of Plessy v. Ferguson, in a country in which lynching was legal, were regularly trouncing white students on standardized tests—and we know what would have happened to any of them if they had even ventured near a white café or pool. Or—if racist encounters so conclusively stanch black initiative and mental acuity that we cannot be expected to do well on tests, then why does no one expect us not to do well as, say, musicians? Coltrane and Questlove have known their microaggressions quite well, thank you very much.
Should anyone be arrested for insisting on their right to wait for someone without buying coffee? No. Nor should a man at a pool find the shadow of cops looming over him just because he is a Black Wearing Socks. These things must be reported and reviled. However, we fail our responsibility as a society if we let our aggrievement over these incidents morph into a denial of black people’s basic dignity as human beings, equivalent to the one already suffered by being insulted by cops for nothing. A key part of dignity is resilience; another part is the ability to distinguish the passing from the fundamental.
An episode of All in the Family from 1971 strikingly demonstrates how peculiar our orthodoxy on race has become, despite how familiar—and even scripturally unassailable—it seems now to so many. Remember, 1971 felt just as modern to enlightened sorts as 2018 now feels to their equivalents. The long, hot summers, the assassinations of King, Malcolm X and Robert Kennedy, Jimi Hendrix, “Black Power,” afros, dashikis, and the Panthers were all very much on people’s minds. Selma was recent.
And yet—two black burglars break into the Bunkers’ house (played, for the record, by Cleavon Little and Demond Wilson, later of Sanford and Son). Archie inevitably says some racially ignorant things, and “woke” lefty son-in-law Mike intervenes, telling the burglars that they need to understand that Archie doesn’t understand the “underlying social causes” that are making them do what they do. In a moment that now qualifies as almost bizarre, Little responds “Oh, you must be a liberal! And an honest-to-God bigot!”
What? Mike is reciting “root causes” liturgy and gets called a racist? In a script written by educated, racially aware people? The nut is that the black guys feel condescended to by that explanation. They go on to indulge in a mock dialogue nakedly exaggerating the deprivations they’ve suffered in almost minstrel fashion. What they mean is that Mike’s idea that they have so little ability to cope with the disadvantages they’ve suffered dehumanizes them, makes them cartoon characters, and stupid ones at that. The limitations of the sitcom form—especially 50 years ago—leave unanswered what their justification for their criminality is. However, what they certainly know—and what Norman Lear and his writers wanted us to know—is that black people are not poster children. Or at the very least, the idea was that no black person wants to be treated as one.
Things have changed. Today we are to recite faithfully and repetitively the kinds of things Little and Wilson’s characters found condescending, on the pain of being tarred as ignorant and insensitive. I have even heard one prominent black writer telling of fans on the street praising him for doing this, calling it “telling the story” (i.e. the parable, the gospel). Many consider this new way of thinking, under which obstacles and disadvantage are to be limned as fundamental to our essence and coloring all that is thought about us and any judgment of us that may become necessary, as an advance. Apparently there was something those dashiki people were missing.
I don’t think so—it’s today’s zeitgeist that is missing something, or has lost sight of it. I think it infantilizes black people to be taught that microaggressions, and even ones a tad more macro, hold us back, permanently damage our psychology, or render us exempt from genuine competition. I refer, of course, not to being shot or physically abused, but to these Starbucks and the Swimming Pool incidents—sad, unpardonable stains in our national fabric that must be expunged but nevertheless quite plausibly leave black dignity intact.
Many won’t like me saying that. They will feel that I am invalidating their feelings. Some, based on my experience, will agree with me privately—it’s not exactly a complicated point that there is no strength in claiming weakness—but dislike that I am airing such a view publicly, out of a sense that whites must be kept “on the hook.” Well, on that, I can only offer this: When people offer the orthodox view, I feel my own perspectives are being invalidated, and am just as uncomfortable seeing whites reading such arguments as if they are truth sacrosanct. To wit, my feeling has always been that to allow “microaggression” to ravage me, stick with me, in any way is to let ignorance win. Unless it is absolutely necessary, unless I am utterly disempowered, I will not—I could, would never—let stupid win. And if you call that “self-hating” we have a major disagreement about definitions.
Nor do I accept that my views are somehow indisputably naïve or uninformed, or the corollary notion that my views may “‘make you think’ but still…”, given that the orthodoxy leaves no room for this “thinking” to lead anywhere except back to the usual plangent platitudes. The modern media, beyond conservative or “eccentric” sources, give the illusion that all black people with any sense think like, well, you can fill in the names. But this is because of a benign kind of bias: an Ibram Kendi is much more likely to get a National Book Award for a book like Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America than a Coleman Hughes would for a book just as carefully reasoned. Yes, Shelby Steele got that award for the “conservative” The Content of Our Character, but that was almost 30 years ago now and the editorial climate has transformed. Today’s mainstream editorial pages, for example, dread black heterodoxy to an extent that they did not until about eight years ago. What Salon thinks is less in step with what lots and lots of black people think than is always obvious.
In short, Starbucks and the Swimming Pool incidents are indefensible and must be aired. I am not claiming that they are over-covered. However, anyone who thinks these incidents refute Shelby Steele, Thomas Sowell, my friend Glenn Loury, or me is operating under an assumption that Black Power cherishes claiming Black Weakness. We “contrarians” are quite proud in our failure to understand that assumption.