Thursday, April 30, 2015

On Racism and White Privilege

[Johnathan Clayborn]

I will preface this by saying that this one is going to be rather long, because I'm pretty worked up about this issue, but it should be worth the read.

Just yesterday I was discussing the recent bouts of protests in Baltimore, Maryland that were sparked by the tragic death of young Freddie Gray while he was in police custody. Some ignorant, narrow minded racist actually had the nerve to sit there and call me racist, which was met with applause by his group-think companions. Even though this person did not know me, and was clearly incapable of grasping any of my comments with any ounce of understanding or comprehension, this still bothered me, so much so that I swore off even commenting about politics or religion or equality on Facebook.

To any of my friends who know me personally, they recognize that there's not a racist bone in my body. I may be a great many things; I may be naive at times, I may be idealistic, I may be a hopeful dreamer of a Utopian future that will likely never come, and I am definitely overly analytical and highly logical in my thoughts, but I'm not racist.

So why was I called a racist? Because I actually proposed that people be treated equally and fairly and that the color of your skin should not, under any circumstances, play a factor in deciding who is awarded benefits or opportunities. I stated that the fact the job applications and college admission applications even have a race field seems like a sad, sad commentary on how far we still have yet to progress. You are either qualified for the job, or you are not. You are either capable of academic success, or you are not. The color of your skin plays absolutely no bearing on how you perform either of these functions. But to suggest that people be judged as individuals based on their own personal merits and abilities rather than skin tone is, apparently, racist.

A lot of people are upset, rightfully so, about the excessive use of force by police and the shootings of unarmed civilians. The media and society is generally far more upset when the suspect who was shot is black. Curious about this, I actually went a looked this up. According to the CDC WISQARS database on injury mortality reports there are some interesting values to be considered. When pulling the data from the database I examined "legal intervention" as the cause of death. This is their way of saying "police caused". I also looked at data for both genders for ages between 15 and 50. The breakdown of the results of that search are below:
It might not be noticeable right away, but the table tells an interesting story. If you look at it strictly in terms of number of total deaths, numerically, then it shows that police kill  white people more than twice as often as blacks. Some people would argue, where's the bias there? However, if you evaluate the number of deaths as compared to their percentage of the total population (the total number of available victims possible), then the data tells the opposite story; blacks are killed at twice the rates of whites. All of this will inevitably, invariably turn into an argument between two sides; blacks are killed more because they commit more crime, which will be counter-argued with blacks commit more crime because the police target them and profile them and racially discriminate. Which group is right? I don't know, I honestly have no idea Realistically, it's probably somewhere in the middle. But, it's completely irrelevant. How can I say that? I'm a racist asshole, remember? No, really I'm not. The point of the protesting is that police brutality and unnecessary use of police force is an epidemic problem. As the data on this chart shows, it's a problem that affects everyone. I had suggested that they stop using the hashtag #Blacklivesmatter and instead use the hashtag #Allivesmatter. That's also, apparently, racist thinking. 

When one considers the main crux of the argument, and the points of the riots, it's that police treat people unfairly. Ancient wisdom tells us that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. By using hashtags that turn the issue of police brutality into a racial issue, then it tears apart and divides any real traction that the movement might have before it even begins. Ancient Chinese wisdoms taught by Sun Tsu in the Art of War explain strength and unity. If you pick up sticks one by one you can break them easily. If you pick up a bunch of sticks and bundle them together, they cannot easily be broken in half. This same logic applies to social change and social reform. One unified voice all demanding the same change will get results. Divided voices are easily swatted down, broken, and quickly lose focus on exactly what it is that they want in the first place. Do they want Justice for Freddie Gray? Do they want an end to police brutality? Or do they want to change the paradigm of thought process? The answer is probably "all of the above", but prioritization must take place. 

All of these conversations brought up another point, one that I've argued against for some time; the idea of White Privilege. As a white male, I have not, at any point in my life received any sort of privilege simply for being white. My family doesn't have "connections". We don't have "family money". We don't own land. For generations we were poor farmers. I am moderately successful by most interpretations of that word, but I only got there through hard work and determination. I got there through working a full-time job and going to school at more than a full time rate. One person argued with me saying that where she was from in the south, all of her white friends were just handed jobs and that's how they succeeded, and that her family directly benefited from her being white. That's fine, for you, but it never benefited me in any way.

Here's the real root of the bigger issue though; Saying that White Privilege even exists is a racist ideology. I know, I know, I keep making outlandish "racist" claims, but here me out. The problem with thinking that there is even such a thing as White Privilege assumes that all white people are the same. Would it be fair to say that Native Americans are the same, or do they have unique and distinct cultural differences between their tribes? Would it be fair to assume that all Latinos are the same and that people from Puerto Rico had no differences when compared to people from Brazil and Chile? Would it be fair to assume that all Black people are the same and that people from Nigeria and Kenya are the same as people from Somalia? If the answer to these questions is no, which it is, why then is it okay to assume that all White people are the same?

The whole concept of White Privilege is that white people have a better socioeconomic disposition than Black people because they aren't discriminated against when looking for work or applying for school because they're white and society caters to whites. Within the broad spectrum of White cultures that make up the total overall White demographic, my particular culture that I identify with is Irish. Irish are probably, aside from the English, the epitome of "white". Then you have French, and Germans, and Italians, Russians, Polish, etc. I want you to consider these images here for a moment: 

Consider for a moment that Irish and Italian immigrants to the US were discriminated against. They were denied work. They were denied education. They were denied other benefits and opportunities in exactly the same way that people of color were denied to them. So what then, pray tell, would these people claim was the reason that they weren't successful? Are they going to claim White Privilege held them back also? That's crazy and it doesn't work because, oh wait, they are white. 

The whole point of this particular illustration is that just trying to say that people of color are underprivileged and it's due to White Privilege not only grossly oversimplifies the situation, but it actually completely detracts the conversation and shifts the focus away from the actual mechanisms that cause social injustice and inequality in the first place. Clearly not every black person is destitute, underprivileged nor a criminal. Clearly not every white person has doors and opportunities available to them simply because of the color of their skin. If you honestly believe that, then either you are totally ignorant of actual history within the United States, or you're harboring racist thoughts yourself. 

So what is racism anyway? Really, racism is the discrimination, mistreatment or abuse of another person or group of people due to the color of their skin or their ethnic origin. To combat racism there's another word that's thrown around a lot lately; equality. We talk about gender equality, we talk about racial equality, we talk about religious equality and social equality. But there's a problem with this: 

Everyone keeps talking about equality, but no one actually wants to be equal. I am very egalitarian in my worldviews and beliefs. I think that all things; rewards, opportunities, benefits, punishments, everything, should be decided equally, unilaterally, and fairly to every person without regard to race, religion, or socioeconomic status. Is that a realistic thought? Maybe not, but it's still how I think that the world should be run. 

As I had said to some of my friends discussing this issue; "you cannot create a racial construct as a response to a socially or institutionally racial issue and expect the underlying racism to be resolved". Case in point, consider this for a moment: If there was a scholarship for one group of people, but another group of people could not apply because of the color of their skin, would that be racist? Of course it would, right? So if there is a scholarship that was available only to white people and no people of color could apply, that would be racist, right? Of course. Well, what if it was a basketball scholarship because there aren't enough white basketball players? Still racist, right? So, why then is it okay to have scholarships for black people and other people of color where white people are not permitted to apply, but that's not racist? I'll tell you why, because it actually is racist. But, wait, Affirmative Action! That's nothing more than a bullshit excuse to exercise more racism because of racism. To those people of color who were discriminated against it might feel like vindication, but it's still racism at it's very core. 

The whole argument for Affirmative Action scholarships and programs in the first place is that people of color have been historically underprivileged socioeconomically and therefore had less access to money for healthcare and education. (We'll pretend that the Irish and Italians that were also discriminated against just got money from magic leprechauns for a moment). Going back to the logical, egalitarian way of thinking, financial aid should be awarded on the basis of need as the sole criteria. Race should never play a role in these kinds of decisions. So, if that is the case, and assuming that people of color are underprivileged, then by default they would also have the most need (because they make the least amount of money). And, because they had the most need, they would also, therefore, be pushed to the front of the line as an intrinsic result of their low socioeconomic status. The people who have the most need for the money are the ones who get it, period. Race need not be an issue. Creating special categories whereby certain races are excluded or prohibited from applying at all because of the color of their skin is the very definition of racism. If you can't see that, then you are a part of the problem. 

The issue of why certain populations are underprivileged is a complex issue that does not have a simple answer. Trying to summarize it as a race issue is not only ignorant of historical context or understanding of race, but it also does the entire conversation a disservice. How can you truly understand a problem and get to the real root of the situation if you enter into the conversation with an outlook that you already understand the problem and are closed off to hearing the viewpoints of others? I recently removed some people from my Facebook feed because I was tired of their racist dribble while they spouted that those people who didn't agree with them are racists. 

By continuing racist lines of thinking, such as white privilege, it further undermines their efforts to bring about meaningful social change. For example, by making this a racial issue, instead of simply a social issue, then it serves to alienate all of the other white people, like myself, who might be otherwise sympathetic to the plight of the underprivileged because they are or were underprivileged themselves. It's not a white vs black issue, it's much more complex than that. 

Some of the arguments that were thrown around were that the "power structure" of the country was skewed and that white privilege exists because white people have the power. Again, this is racist thinking and oversimplifies the issue. We've already established that it's racist to think of all Natives the same way, and that it's racist to think of all black people the same way. So which white people is it that have the power, exactly? It certainly isn't me. It's certainly not anyone that I personally know, either. This kind of thinking, that all white people are the same, creates additional problems that weren't there before in addition to everything else. 

I ask you all, if you truly want to understand the people around you, start looking past the end of your noses. Stop this racial nonsense and actually listen instead of pretending to know all of the answers. You've been discriminated against by those in power. That sucks. I would know because I have been too. But, rather than seeing myself and people like me as an ally, as a brother in the same boat of suffering, most people will instead downplay my personal successes and undermine me and lump me in with the same group of people that discriminated against me in the first place, all while calling me racist for thinking logically and rationally. 

The whole point of this rant is this; if you want to protest, that's your right, protest. If you want to speak out against the abuse of power and the social injustice that exists, that's great, I'm right there with you screaming for exactly those same things. I don't want to be abused by those in power. I don't want to be unfairly punished or rewarded for things I don't deserve or didn't do. But as soon as you start making it about the color of my skin or the color of your skin, then our common ground and our common goals dissolve away and become divided. So I ask you, if you are upset about Baltimore, if you are upset about unjust police brutality and unnecessary use of force, then what is it that you want? Do you want actual, meaningful social change, or do you just want to be right? 

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

On Religious Freedom

[Johnathan Clayborn]

The internet, and the media in general, is buzzing with talk of Indiana and their passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, formally known as SB 568 (not to be confused with the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993). As with many pieces of legislation this bill comes with very heated controversy from both sides of the fence. The reality is that this is very muddy water.

One of the first things that becomes clear is that proponents of the bill, and several media outlets, have suggested that Indiana's RFRA is similar to the federal act passed in 1993 and similar to those in 19 other states. In truth, this is not the case. While other states and the federal government do also have RFRA laws on the books, they are not the same. The biggest difference between the laws is that Indiana's law is much broader and would allow for blatant and widespread discrimination.

Under the provisions of the federal laws, and the laws in many other states, the RFRA could only be used as a defense against a lawsuit by specific people and organizations and within very specific contexts and applications. Under Indiana's version of the bills, those restrictions are removed and anyone is allowed to claim "religious freedom" under any context. Indiana's bill expressly allows for-profit businesses "the free exercise of religion", which is directly contrary to most other states RFRA bills which expressly exclude for-profit businesses from being permitted to exercise this defense.

Most other RFRA bills include verbiage that restricts the defense to actions brought about against an organization by the government. If the government files a lawsuit that says that you can't wear purple shirts to church on Sunday, then the organization can respond with an RFRA defense and argue that such a suit would violate their right to practice their religion. It's very specific in the context of when and how it can be used, and by whom. Indiana's bill opens this defense up for businesses to use in response to lawsuits filed by private citizens.

Let's recap; all other RFRA laws to date expressly forbid for-profit businesses from exercising RFRA as a defense against a lawsuit and confines it to churches and non-profit organizations, but Indiana's bill allows for anyone to use it. All other RFRA bills also limit the use of this defense to litigation brought to bear by the government, but Indiana's bill opens this up to allow for this defense to be used against everyone. These are major differences with far-reaching repercussions.

One particularly muddy consequence of this that will undoubtedly happen, is that this state's law violated federal laws that protect against hate crimes. Even if a person or a business in Indiana uses the RFRA as a defense in a lawsuit, they may still be found guilty of federal crimes for discrimination. This inevitability will almost certainly lead to renewed debates about how much power the federal government should be allowed to exercise over the states and private individuals. The US Supreme Court has not yet made a final ruling on the federal status of same-sex marriages nationally. The general expectation by most legal experts is that this conclusion is inevitable and only a matter of time before it happens. When that happens, if Indiana's bill remains in effect as-written, things will get very complicated.

Legal issues aside, depending on where one stands on the issue, this bill is viewed as either a sword or a shield that will either be used to attack a person's civil liberties, or protect them from unholy sinners. Already one pizzeria has used the RFRA as an excuse to refuse service to a same-sex couple who were trying to hire them to cater their wedding reception. As gay allies began lashing out at the pizzeria online, conservatives in support of the bill rallied to the pizzeria's defense by donating more than $300,000 to it for use in legal defense.

The major proponents of the bill, including some of the lawmakers who tweeted about it during it's passage through the system, are hard-line conservative Christians. They generally believe that the moral fiber of America is becoming degraded by sinners, such as gay couples, and that the homosexual population has a secret agenda to "make everyone okay" with their lifestyle.

Within the United States, the vast majority of people are Christian, according to self-reported studies by the US Census Bureau and Pew Reports. 16.1% of people are unaffiliated with any church (which includes 1.6% who are atheists and 2.4% who are agnostic, and 12.1% who are "spiritual"). 4.7% of the population is "other religions" (which includes 1.7% Jewish, 0.7% Buddhist, and 0.6% Muslim). The remaining 78% are Christian.

This is where is starts to get weird for me. 51.3% of the population are Protestant. 23.9% are Catholic. 1.7% are Mormon. The rest of Jehovah's Witness, Orthodox, or "other".  Although I identify as atheist in my adult life, I grew up in the Christian church. My family has been Protestant for about 10 generations or so that I know of.

Christians oppose this bill because they don't want to be associated with "gay sinners". My question is, which Christians? The United Methodist churches that I grew up in were very tolerant of basically everyone. The Ecumenical Catholic church accepts gays. As does the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church, the Lutheran Church, and the Presbyterian Church, to name a few. The Baptists stoutly refute homosexuality in any way. And the Roman Catholic Church also views it as a "moral evil" and "contrary to the laws of nature"... unless it's a Catholic Priest who is partaking of homosexual behaviors with young boy. Yes, I know, I'm citing a stereotype and not all Catholic Priests are like that. I know that. But it's happened enough that it seems highly hypocritical for a Church to take a stance against homosexuality when that many of it's ordained leaders are in trouble for it. Is that unfair? Perhaps. But I'm sure the young children who were molested or forced into child prostitution by their priests felt that their fate was unfair.

As someone who grew up in the Christian church the one thing that I find ridiculous about this law is that I know that the Bible says "let he who is without sin cast the first stone" (John 8:7) (a concept also recognized in the Jewish and Muslim faiths as well). That being the case, by what right do any of these "Christians" have to judge anyone else? Isn't the nature and frequency of a person's sins between them and God directly? We all sin, we just sin differently. Where in the Bible does it say, "love thy neighbor, unless he sins differently than you do, in which case shun and reject him". I don't recall ever seeing that.

Even more importantly, if the laws like this are going to be brought into play to protect religious freedoms, my resounding question is which religion? Which specific flavor of Christianity is being catered to with the passage of this law when Christianity as a whole is, itself, divided on the issue of whether or not being homosexual is a sin? And what makes that specific church more important than another?

I am very egalitarian in my worldview. I think everyone should be treated equally and fairly and justly as often as is possible. It's unrealistic for me to think that everything will always be equal and fair, but that is my hope and vision for the human race. I could get into all of that for hours and hours, but I digress. I personally think that this bill is a mistake, a huge step backwards in civil liberties. However, if it is the will of the people that this law be passed, so be it. But, this law must be upheld unilaterally and uniformly across the board without question. If a "Christian" pizzeria wants to refuse service to a gay person because it's against their religion (and somehow they are personally in a position where God made them responsible for passing judgement on others), then a Muslim Grocery should also be able to refuse service to a Christian because he doesn't pray to the East. A Jewish Accountant should be able to refuse service to a Christian because he doesn't wear a Kipah. An Atheist should be able to refuse service to a Christian because they believe in God in the first place. If this doesn't happen, then it's immediately clear that this bill is just a clearly veiled excuse to exercise hatred and bigotry.

No one is saying that you have to be accepting of "homos". Their sexuality is not your concern. Their sins are not your concern, that's between them and God, it's not for you to judge. What proponents of this bill fail to see is that this bill, if applied equally and justly across the board, becomes a double-edged sword that serves no purpose other than to leave everyone bleeding and once unsheathed, it's difficult to put back without causing injury to each other. I'm pretty sure that God, however you may believe in him, would not want his followers to go around deliberately hurting other human beings. As an atheist, I certainly don't want to hurt anyone, especially not deliberately. And if your God demands that you discriminate and hate and hurt others on purpose, then that just reinforces my decision that I don't want anything to do with your God.


Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Just Google It...

[Johnathan Clayborn]

This particular post is part rant, part plea with people who have half a brain. I have seen a growing trend on the internet....or perhaps I'm experience Baader-Meinhoff phenomenon and I'm just noticing it more. In either case, the behavior perplexes me and I don't understand it.

If you've ever read my my blog before you will know that I enjoy having intelligent discussions with people who disagree with me because I am always secretly hoping that people can provide me with new information that I had not considered before.

The infuriating trend that I'm noticing of late goes something like this. I engage in a conversation about a topic. Someone else makes a general claim opposing my position about said topic. I am genuinely interested in how they arrived at their conclusion, so I ask them what information they read to arrive at their conclusion and they reply with "just Google it".  This is infuriatingly maddening.

Any Google search that I do would have presented me with information that I would have already considered when taking my original position. But, we don't all use Google the same way. For example; I might have searched "photo-voltaic architectural constructs whose primary purpose is the dissemination and distribution of vehicular traffic", but someone else might have searched for "Solar Roadways". Because the information that I get from Google is limited exclusively to my worldview, lived experiences, and vocabulary, it's always a possibility that I missed something when I looked in the first place. Hence the reason I enjoy engaging in discussions with people who do disagree with me. They have different experiences and knowledge and their Google searches would, probably, yield some different results based on their search criteria.

One of the claims made by the people who use this defense is "I don't feel like doing the research for you". This is a bullshit cop out. For one thing posting a link to a resource in a comment is not even remotely close doing the research. The article still has to be read, validating, synthesized, etc. If you are one of the people doing this, stop. You might think that it makes you seem smart, but it doesn't. In fact, it has the opposite effect; it makes you look lazy and stupid. It makes you look like you are afraid to cite your sources because you are afraid of being called out on bullshit.

If we are going to ever have a serious conversation about anything online you must at least be able to cite your sources. If you are confident in your beliefs, then back them up. If you generally want to actually try learn something, cite your sources. Telling people something and then not providing any examples or references to cite your sources makes you an intellectual coward. The person that I was engaged in conversion with today responded by essentially telling me to go to hell because I asserted that he was not capable of doing research due to his inability to provide a source. The funniest part of all of it is that at the beginning of our conversation I thought Solar Roadways might be a feasible idea in the long-term and he asserted his opinion that it was not feasible. I now actually believe that it is not feasible or possible, but only because other friends in my circles stepped up and shared their sources and provided information that I had not seen before. I am not afraid to change my position based on new evidence that comes to light. I am not afraid of making a mistake in my initial analysis because I approach things logically and consider new facts as they are presented. Those who have the intellectual prowess to analyze things cognitively and rationally generally don't have this issue. People who lack the wherewithal to engage in cognitive analysis, in my experience, generally tend to cop out and make excuses. They make wild claims and then refuse to back them up. They don't come across as intelligent, they come across as ignorant, and sometimes a touch crazy. Don't be that person. Seriously, share your sources. Learn something from each other.