Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Being Very Afraid

Screencapped from https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/05/ahmaud-arbery/611539/
A question can be appropriate, even pressing, yet still, perhaps, be the wrong question. When Ibram Kendi asks "Who Gets to Be Afraid in America?" I think that it is the wrong question. In no small part because the answer is "everyone." After all, much of the point behind "Pandemic Shaming" is the attempt to get people who aren't behaving with sufficient fear of the current respiratory disease outbreak to fall into line with the people who are. So, if the SARS 2 COV virus is any indication, not only is everyone allowed to be afraid, but the people who aren't afraid are a deadly threat that everyone else should be afraid of.

So there's no real question of "Who gets to be afraid in America?" The question is, what are people allowed to be afraid of? I'm not a member of Black Lives Matter, and so I don't presume to speak for them, but, as I see it, the whole reason why the movement came into existence is the habit of meeting fear with deadly force, and the idea that the consequences of this lethal response are often overlooked, because it contributes to a reduction of the (immediate) fear. And, also as I see it, a lot of the pushback against Black Lives Matter is driven by the idea that Black Americans have no legitimate reason to be afraid of encounters with law enforcement, "if they don't have anything to hide." It may be because every Black person who appears to have been killed in some encounter or another was genuinely a violent threat, and so the tales of innocents being killed are fictions, or it may be that there are only a few "bad apples" to be looked out for. (A viewpoint that misunderstands the message of the saying concerning "bad apples" in the first place, it should be noted.) But in any event, it's a narrative that says that Middle America is allowed to be afraid of Black America, while Black America's fears of Middle America are considered somewhere between naïvely overwrought and deliberately fraudulent.

Back when Ta-Nehisi Coates was still writing regularly for The Atlantic, and back when the site still allowed comments, I encountered the phrase "The exculpatory power of fear." I wrote about it at the time, because it stood out for me. I find it interesting that the author of the comment, "bear report" effectively makes the same point as the headline: "Of course, the privilege of fear is not uniformly extended because of the political and legal power it grants." But the "privilege" of killing others in self-defense is not reserved for anyone in particular. Had Father and Son McMichael themselves been Black, it's unlikely that the police in Brunswick would have been any less likely to take their story at face value. And for many, the counterfactual that they compare the scene against is one of Ahmaud Arbery and his father gunning down Travis McMichael as a suspected burglar. The message isn't that Black people aren't allowed to be afraid. It's that they shouldn't be afraid of White people, history and the present day be damned.

This is not to say that American society never grants special rights to be afraid. One can imagine, say, a twenty-something White woman (let's call her Alexis, for the sake of this example) being in Ahmaud Arbery's place. She certainly would have been granted leave to be terrified that the McMichaels meant to abduct and/or sexually assault her. And it's possible that the same would be true had she been Black. The story that the McMichaels were defending themselves against a dangerous felon would likely have been viewed with much more skepticism. regardless of the color of Alexis' skin. (It is, of course, highly debatable how that well such skepticism would hold up if we assume a Black or Hispanic Alexis, as opposed to a White or Asian one.)

But the differences in people's fears make for a difficult situation, and always will. Because how does one set up a scenario in which trusting those that one is afraid of consistently leads to the best outcomes? I believe that it was Ta-Nehisi Coates who first put it this way, and I think that he was on to something: White America's history of injustice towards racial minorities has created a situation in which present injustice is seen as a shield against the justified anger of those same minorities. Vulnerability is seen as too high a price to pay for a just society, and so the injustices will continue until unconditional forgiveness can be guaranteed. Thomas Jefferson predicted that there would be "new provocations" as time went on. I wonder if he had come to the same conclusion.

A lot of the fears of modern Americans can be chalked up to what one might call a form of Affluenza; people have enough that they are afraid to lose it. I doubt that this is going to go away anytime soon; there is little sign that even the wealthiest people in the nation are sanguine about the idea of losing even relatively small portions of what they have. And when that fear suits people's purposes, it is stoked. It doesn't take much to conclude that many people fear elements of the world around them much more than they actually understand them. Even if the only thing that we have to fear is fear itself, that still means that there is plenty for many people to be afraid of.

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