Victimology

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I've finished going over the elements of more liberal views on race that I think are correct, particularly focusing on Patricia Williams' views and arguments in Seeing a Color-Blind Future, not her most scholarly work but perhaps the best readable introduction to her views (see this post for links to other posts in this series and for more information on my long-term project). The problems she identifies are largely on the side of those traditionally associated with and descended from the oppressors, particularly with the white majority in the U.S. case of black-whites relations (though I think it's no longer the case that whites are a majority and are simply a plurality).

In the next series of posts on race I'd like to look at three problems that John McWhorter sees within the black community (that are specific examples of traits that can be found in any group with even the perception of being made victims, though McWhorter thinks the African-American community, his own community, is more addicted to this tendency than any other group in the history of the planet). The basic idea is pretty straightforward, and I think anyone who denies that it exists is just ignoring the evidence. He's not talking about legitimate complaints about serious offences. He's talking about calling attention to any perceived slight or indignity, sometimes when it barely exists if at all (though I think sometimes just exaggerating how serious it is) not to proceed forward toward a solution "but to foster and nurture an unfocused brand of resentment and a sense of alienation from the mainstream" (Losing the Race, p.2).

McWhorter gives example after example to demonstrate that this is second nature for many African-Americans today. He even gives one time when he did this and (I believe) another when he was tempted to do it. Al Sharpton and most other black comedians are good examples of this phenomenon. Watch the BET live comics show (I don't remember the name, but Sam has it on now and then). Probably half the jokes are talking about "the Man" deliberately having it out for black people, as an explanation for the kind of troubles everyone has regardless of race.

Any rude insult is racism. The fact that two law students who were acquaintances of McWhorter's when he was working on his Ph.D. didn't get jobs was due to racism, never mind the fact that they were visibly uncomfortable around white people in his presence, later giving him the explanation that they didn't trust white people simply because they were white. Yet somehow it's racism that prevented them from getting the job and not whatever negative vibes they most definitely would have sent to the interviewers, which would probably lead them to consider other candidates as more favoable, regardless of race. Martin Lawrence's character in National Security was a great example of the victimology mindset, though he, as usual, took it a little over the top.

A primary focal point for victimology is the minority student groups on college campuses. According to my wife, who has attended their meetings, all they do is rant about the perceived harm of blatant racism, often with no specific instances to cite, sometimes with specific cases that they really have no evidence to think of as racism, and sometimes with real cases of minor insults that may have been related to race but certainly don't justify the emphasis placed on it as if it has somehow caused them to be unable to live their lives. It's an insult to great black achievers of the past, during times of really severe racism, to say that minor insults like being followed in a store by a sales clerk or being pulled over for fitting a profile making it more likely that you're a criminal (which involves more than just being black, although that's part of it).

One of McWhorter's main points is to emphasize how much better things are. Most black families are middle class, and yet there's a continuing racial narrative within the black community and among liberal whites that black people are poor. In 1995 the median black income for two-parent families was less than $6000 from the median income in general in the United States ($47,000), and some of that is explained by the fact that a larger percentage of black people live in areas with a lower standard of living independent of race. Some of the cities in the 1995 survey even had a higher median income for black two-parent families than for white two-parent families. President Bush's cabinet is the most ethnically diverse cabinet yet and really is ethnically representative of Americans today, yet the people he picked are some of the best in their area of specialty. This shows not just that people in power are willing to put minorities into positions of influence but that there are people available who are among the best people available. This is a huge difference from even 20 years ago.

People assume there's real injustice in the justice system because black people are put to death at a higher rate than the percentage of black people in the U.S. The problem with this is that black people commit capital crimes at that higher rate, so the fact that the number of capital punishment cases is proportional to the number of arrests shows that the justice system is in fact quite equitous. The problems lie elsewhere.

There are certainly still problems, and single-parent families and poor families are the locus of most of them. There are significant obstacles to the kinds of goals Patricia Williams has set forth (see my last post on race). Yet most of those problems have little to do with the kind of equality issues that are constantly being put on the table, many of which are so much better now that complaining is not the solution. Yet the complaining isn't just about equality issues that in some ways have a ways to go but have come a long way. Much of the complaining is about things that are at best unproved and more likely just plain false. Black leaders in real positions of influence (I don't just mean unelected people like Al Sharpton but even people in the United States Congress) have spent time and effort talking about the CIA deliberately feeding crack cocaine in South Central Los Angeles or the U.S. government deliberately injecting HIV into black people.

McWhorter gives some reasons victimology is a bad thing (if the fact that it's dishonest isn't enough). Besides the insult it brings to black heroes of old who faced real racism, it condones weakness and failure (by using racism as an excuse for doing things that are wrong), keeps people from achieving (by allowing them to think their lack of success is from racism, thus not leading to harder work to do better), prevents real solutions (by focusing on the wrong areas as problems), and provokes real racism (by insisting on pointing out non-existent racism, which just offends the white people who know full well that they weren't being racists and thus leads to the real kinds of racism still around not being addressed due to white people not wanting to hear it because of too much wolf-crying).

What I've now realized by putting McWhorter and Williams up against each other as two opposite voices within the black community is that most of what they say doesn't have any bearing on what the other says. As far as I can tell, McWhorter's vision of what a future ideal world (on race issues anyway) would look like is no different from the one Williams envisions. (See the link above to my last race post that discusses exactly this topic.) Even worse for Williams is the fact that the general principles I've pulled from her book give me some nice categories to put McWhorter's three tendencies within the black community. I'll get to the other two when I post on them, but victimology fits right within her category of racial narratives. This isn't her term, but she talks about myths, stereotypes, and bromides, meaning pretty much the continuing stories told by culture as a whole or smaller groups within culture that affect how we think of what goes on around us, the people we interact with, and ourselves.

These racial narratives that inform the way we think about all these things are sometimes based in things that aren't quite true, and often they cause negative consequences. What Williams doesn't address is that some of these narratives are within the black community, affecting how black people tend to see themselves and their relations with white people. McWhorter's first observation about negative tendencies within the black community, furthering racial problems rather than helping them, fits right within the theoretical framework Williams provides (and then she has the nerve to talk derisively about those who complain about victimology but without giving any argument why it's bad to do so).

Victimology is a real problem, and it does make racial problems worse. McWhorter has my full agreement on that. It doesn't do just to talk about problems within white America without addressing the problems within black America. That's where Williams and others who agree with her go wrong and McWhorter and others like him prove a valuable supplement. He emphasizes that this tendency toward victimology is fairly natural and more of a disease than a moral problem people should be blamed for. He says Al Sharpton can't really help himself. He's been trained to think the way he does. This kind of narrative that shapes how people view themselves and others will infect everything they do and believe.

To show how easy it is to fall into this, I like to present three examples that have nothing to do with race. Daniel Dennett's insistence that Brights (his term for educated atheists) are persecuted is clear, unadulterated victimology. This is especially uncalled for among professional philosophers, among whom atheists predominate probably at a level of something like 90%. The outrage from certain Jewish people about Mel Gibson's new film is not too different. Most of the venom against the movie is based on its sticking to the gospels, which I've taken great care to argue elsewhere are not anti-Semitic in the least. Any balanced look will not justify the kind of ire I've seen. Compare this film to the anti-Semitism of the past, or even in Europe now, and you can't reasonably come away saying The Passion of the Christ is anti-Semitic.

Then, just to be fair, I'll give a Christian example. David Limbaugh's book Persecution: How Liberals Are Waging War Against Christianity is certainly an example of this. I haven't read the book, and I don't intend to read it, but I doubt I'd disagree with any of his evidence. I just think his conclusion is unwarranted, given the nature of true persecution. It doesn't take looking far to see the real persecution going on around the world and throughout church history. It's an insult to the saints of old and of Saudi Arabia (to pick one place at random) who get killed for converting to Christianity to say that the minor annoyances like trying to remove a couple words from a secular pledge to a flag Christians shouldn't pledge loyalty to anyway or like removing a statue from a building yet not restricting anyone's practice of Christianity in any way. Victimology is far more widespread than racial victimology, and it's reprehensible in any of its forms.


Update: I suppose I should add one thing. Sam's sister once said "The only Man keeping the black man down is the black man." While that's a little oversimplifying it, it's an apt way to describe the harm that comes from victimology. The sad thing is that this harm is always going to be read as another symptom of racism, because that's how the narrative encodes it.

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As I'm sure you know, I read "Losing The Race" and I also think very highly of it. Growing up hearing the "narratives" P. Williams speaks of made the Victimology section difficult to read, but I got through it. Now, I find myself looking through that lens more often than not. I think I like "Authentically Black" even better because it highlights police brutality as the last feature of our sociopolitical landscape that provides any legitimacy to victimologists' beliefs. One can argue that there are fewer Black men being killed by police than there were in times past, but the fact that it still happens at all (the fact that it's relatively not-infrequent only exacerbates the problem) is unacceptable. If someone was already inclined to believe that "the system" is rigged, that would just about seal the deal.

Also regarding McWhorter's use of crime statistics, while I accept the proportionality argument, I'm not sure that I fully agree. I admit that I have not really analyzed the data myself, so I can't be totally sure that this is not just some over-dramatization of the facts by the reporting agencies, but even controlling for age and type of crime, sentencing is still not equal. Black criminals are more likely to get longer and harsher sentences than white criminals. I would like to have seen McWhorter at least acknowledge the discrepancy in sentencing and not just the validity of the percentage of incerceration.

I think he's largely right about the rate of sentencing for capital punishment. The rate of capital punishment sentences among black convictions roughly parallels the rate of capital crimes committed by black people. McWhorter says that severity of the crime, use of weapons, and prior records explain the remaining differences that do appear.

I know there are questions about gender among black people convicted for capital crimes, though I don't remember the specifics. He doesn't deny that there are individual cases of racism, either. He spends a bit of time giving a couple cases.

It also may be different for non-capital sentences and the length of the sentence. Those are not the issues people often raise, though. The myth he's challenging is that black people are more likely to be sentenced to death than white people for the same crimes, and that seems to be false.

He also points out that one difference in sentencing comes from laws that we don't need anymore but were originally put on the books at the urging of the Black Congressional Causus. Those are the laws designed to break the crack trade that destroyed the inner city communities, and those laws have largely succeeded. People using crack as opposed to powdered cocaine still have greater sentences due to these laws, and that's part of why black people have worse sentences for that similar crime. He does say those laws need to be changed, which undermines your point at least somewhat, but some of the people arrested under those laws when they were necessary are still in the system because of those laws, and that seems to be something the Black Congressional Caucus should welcome even though it explains some of why the sentencing is worse for black criminals.

I did see some ways that McWhorter had shaped his statistics simply to make small points (such that black 2-parent families have close incomes to white 2-parent families) when the difference among 1-parent families is huge, but he acknowledges in that case that he's doing it. I wonder if there are other cases where he doesn't.

As he's said over and over in the book, he doesn't think racism is dead. He does think most racism today is unconscious and residual, being passed on in racial narratives that function much like the victimologist, separatist, and anti-intellectualist narratives he's talking about in the black community. That doesn't mean all of it is that way, but most of the disparities and inequities that still occur can be explained by these things.

I still haven't read Authentically Black because I haven't actually finished Losing the Race, though I've read large sections of the latter and am now working my way through it more systematically. I'm looking forward to the second book, because my sense is that he really comes forward with his own independent thought more in that one rather than just beefing up arguments other people (e.g. John Ogbu, Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele) had already made.

I don't know if you're using Losing The Race in your classes, but I definitely think there's a chapter in Authentically Black that would serve as a good complement in discussing the idea of racial narratives. I don't have the book by me so I don't remember the title of the chapter, but it's a critique of Donald Bogle's work on Blacks in television and film. In that chapter, McWhorter looks at Bogle's analysis of stereotypes in popular culture. It might work well to look at the idea of the stereotype as a type of narrative. A good jumping off point might be the basic stereotypes of Black characters that Bogle describes, but then it might serve you well to expand the circle a bit to look at stereotypes of all characters, e.g. the nerd, the jock, the absent-minded professor, etc. Using the examples above might work well as a transition into the more general forms of anti-intellectualism.

I've already got my readings set for this issue this semester, but I may see about including that in a future course, especially if I do a whole class on race. This semester it's only a third of the semester, and they had $100 of books to buy (for only five books, all paperbacks, which amazed me), so I was trying to keep it to a bare minimum.

I have talked about stereotypes as narratives, and TV and movies came up, but it was only a segment of one class session on racial narratives. The jock issue is definitely going to come up when we look at affirmative action. Similar enough things happen there. I hadn't thought to include it in the anti-intellectualism discussion, which I started this morning (but really just focusing on The Bell Curve and the two main responses to it). I haven't really looked at other aspects of anti-intellectualism yet, so it may be a good idea to talk about those things before I do affirmative action or come back to it afterward.

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