Posts for Tag : Race in America

Thinking About “Race” Pt.1

The Rational & the Reasonable

This is the first of a series of posts on “race”. These posts are a personal exercise because I feel a need to clearly articulate some of my own thoughts on this topic and I need to understand how “race” figures into my own thinking. My views are not original. I am primarily indebted to the following books:

“Race” is part of our thinking about how the world “is”. I want to begin by thinking about thinking.

In this hi-tech world, how much does any one of us really “know”? It is clearly within our ken to use cell phones but how many of us truly understand the technical workings of our phones? or the geo-synchronous satellites that give us our GPS bearings? How many of us truly understand how Einstein’s theories make TV’s, computers and lasers possible? How many of us understand modern genomics and how it has changed the treatment of cancer?

There is a cognitive division of labor in our specialized world that is bizarrely skewed. Tiny, tiny populations of experts sit atop manifold pyramids of specialized knowledge that are the source of technological magic. The rest of us (in our billions) know enough about some socially useful activity to stay alive and in so doing we use the magic devices we are provided. They are magic devices because we believe that someone somewhere knows how all this shit works. We don’t think stuff works because Valdemort is casting spells, but any other technical explanation we could muster would not be much more accurate.

While us-billions have little in-depth knowledge of anything, we have the Wiki-Library of Alexandria at our fingertips. We can skim the surface of a million topics. This Library comes to us courtesy of the same technological economy that inundates our kilobyte brains with terabytes of information. When we skim, the chances are that we simplify. The simpler a mental model we have of a particular complexity, the more likely we are to be confident in our “knowledge”. Psychologists label this cognitive bias as the “Dunning-Krueger Effect”. Simply stated, the ignorant don’t know they are ignorant and proceed with confidence. The truly knowledgable are more likely to be plagued by uncertainty.

So our challenge, awash as we are with information, is to make reasonable decisions about how to act or what to believe we know. Billions of us get through our days making reasonable decisions

Here, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah makes a distinction between a rational decision and a reasonable decision. If you are told by your crazy Uncle Frank that your cell phone has given you pancreatic cancer, it is reasonable to ignore him. If your doctor tells you that you have cancer, it is rational to take her seriously and it is rational to seek and take the advice of oncologists.

Rationality, in a critical sense, isn’t an individual attribute. Here I’ve sometimes found it convenient to distinguish between rationality and the individual trait of reasonableness. The distinction I have in mind is between cognitive and practical procedures that are likely to be successful, given the way the world is (which I’ve called “rational”); and procedures that a normal human being in a society has …(little) reason to doubt will be effective, whether or not, in fact, they are (which I’ve called “reasonable”).

Appiah, The Dialectics of Enlightenment

Appiah goes on to describe how his father like all Asante of his generation thought the world was populated by invisible spirits. Given a medical problem, his father’s generation would have consulted a fetish priest about which witch was at work. A reasonable decision then. Today, a blood sample would be sent to a lab.

On an individual level, my Asante ancestors, acting on the basis of trusted authority, weren’t less reasonable than we are. But the analysis of rationality must expand beyond the individual level. Where traditional belief practices and natural science differ is as institutions: the social organization of inquiry makes all the difference.

Appiah, The Dialectics of Enlightenment

If it takes a (scientific) village to create rationality, participation in that rational, socially organized inquiry is beyond most of us. Instead, our daily, socially reasonable inquiry is “organized” by the algorithms of profit seekers who present “knowledge” as bits and memes designed to trigger our consumer choice reflex. In our consumerist society it is “reasonable” to believe anything you choose to pick off the shelf… until you learn that your own pancreas is trying to kill you: suddenly, “rational” ideas and rational choices will have a new allure.

We all have a lot of “reasonable” ideas about the world. Most of the time these notions pose no immediate problems for us as we navigate our social worlds. Unfortunately, some of these “reasonable” ideas are not only not “rational”, they are pernicious and persistent.

The new motto of this blog is: Don’t believe everything you think.

Do you think you know what “race” is?

Stay tuned.

Where Hope Lies

Ta Nahesi Coate’s long essay “Between the World and Me” is a work of profound humanism. Toni Morrison’s jacket blurb says the book:

“is visceral, eloquent and beautifully redemptive. And its examination of the hazards and hopes of black male life is as profound as it is revelatory. This is required reading.’

Morrison is merely being accurate; this being the rare case where the jacket blurb has to undersell to remain credible.

Coates is an anthropologist in his own land; the structural Outsider observing the American “Dream” as it is beamed into his redlined neighborhood. This essay to his 15 year old son limns his personal journey as he has tried to come to terms with the disjunctions between how the world of “the Dream” is supposed to be and how it is actually lived by those it purposefully excludes.

Raised outside the African-American religious tradition, he is instead taught by his grandmother as a grade schooler to write and to use his writing to “ruthlessly interrogate” himself. He learns early that there are disjunctions between his own feelings and actions; he learns early about self-deception and mixed motives. He grows up in the physical peril of North Baltimore. Though he leaves Baltimore, goes to Howard University and becomes a senior editor at the Atlantic Monthly, he cannot escape physical peril because he is a black male in the America of Ferguson, Missouri. This is the America that has been built upon 250 years of plunder beginning with slavery, through sharecropping and Jim Crow, to redlining, “school choice” and the carceral state. Coates is explaining to his son that America has nurtured the idea of “race” in order to ensure that a ready supply of the “other” is available for plunder. The abiding American chestnut that social inequality can be cured by a little more will power on the part of the victims allows Americans to ignore economic realities* and thereby cling fast to their moral exceptionalism.

This is not an essay about politics or the voluntarism of political strategy. Coates is not telling his readers how to respond. He is using the tools of the Enlightenment; empirical observation, a respect for history and his own self-aware critical faculties to identify the institutions (cultural, political and economic) that are arrayed against his son. Even positive reviews of the book have not been able to repress the urge to suggest that the vision Coates paints for his son is too bleak, too fatalistic and that he does not credit “the progress that has been made”. Such observations fail to grasp why Toni Morrison calls this book “redemptive”.

Coates takes an unflinching look at America. He is disappointed by the enduring gap between who we say we are and how we behave. Though he is not optimistic, he urges his son to struggle:

Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom…Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather, for your name. But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion.

Can you struggle without Hope? For Coates, Hope resides in the act of wrestling with himself in the world. Hope is a creature of reason. Only by thinking critically can you imagine a different world. The question “What’s wrong with this picture?” leads to imagining other ways “this picture” can look. Like Abraham who, with trembling limbs, wielded his reason and sense of justice against God himself; Coates stands before the omnivorous power of “the Dream”, calls it out, and redeems his freedom.

*Also known back in the day as “property relations”