Friday, July 10, 2020

Only Three Words

If you are a child of God, you are my brother and sister. I have family of every race, creed and ideology. We must ensure #blacklivesmatter doesn’t morph into #blacklivesbetter
Terry Crews. Twitter.
In the same way that much of the debate over "Black Lives Matter" appears to be over whether it means "Black Lives Matter (as much as anyone's)," or "Black Lives Matter (more than other lives)," one can note that "Black Lives Better (than they are now)" is not the same as "Black Lives Better (than everyone else's)." A call for improvement is different than a call for superiority. It's worthwhile to keep in mind that slogans are sound bites, not substantive policy proposals. After all, each of these are only three words.

American society has, for much of its history, operated on a policy of cost-shifting; the mainstream (or, if you prefer, the power élite) has enjoyed the benefits of a growth in access to resources and wealth in part by shifting the costs of those gains to others. Whether that was the practice of slavery, denying property rights to the native population or open discrimination against immigrants, leaving others to hold the bag was commonplace. (Although it is worth noting that "commonplace" is not the same as "widely acknowledged" or even "generally understood.") One can imagine that a side effect of this understanding, especially coupled with an unwillingness to see the people who benefited from (and perhaps even drove) such policies as deliberately Evil, is the idea that this is simply part of Human Nature; "Power oppresses," as it were, "and absolute power oppresses absolutely."

It's recently become trendy to say: "When one is accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression." And the general intent is to paint the formerly privileged as seeing others manage to reach the same level as a form of injury. But if it's understood that "privilege" is the byproduct of oppression, and "equality" means that the shoe is now on the other foot, the comparison may seem to be more apt. In other words, it's one thing if the pie becomes bigger so that the people who had small slices now have larger ones. But if the larger slices are divided up and handed out to those with less, that may feel more legitimately like a wrong.

I recall this quote from a voter in New York in the run-up to the 2008 Presidential Election:
I don't want to sound racist, and I'm not racist. But I feel if we put Obama in the White House, there will be chaos. I feel a lot of black people are going to feel it's payback time. And I made the statement, I said, "You know, at one time the black man had to step off the sidewalk when a white person came down the sidewalk." And I feel it's going to be somewhat reversed. I really feel it's going to get somewhat nasty. Like I said, I feel it's going to be - they're going to feel it's payback time.
The idea that a society moves from a state where different groups prey upon one another to a state where they cooperate with each other depends on a sense that humanity is capable of making noticeable (and somewhat even) moral progress. People need to be able to both forgive and accept responsibility for past wrongs. If, instead, people believe that humanity simply moves through cycles of different groups ascending and declining, ascendancy is something to be celebrated, but decline is something to be feared, because it means that the bills for all of the abuses of that prior ascendancy are going to come due, and only remaining on top allow the pain (justified or not) to be avoided.

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