It’s bad enough when self-appointed – and then government- and/or business- and university-endorsed – experts on racism spread the claim that intentions don’t matter at all when it comes to identifying the forms of bigotry that have harmed various American minorities throughout the country’s history, and that continue holding them back today.
It’s that much worse when they and the nation’s leaders casually throw around terms like “white privilege” – which insist, inter alia, that the very denial of bigoted beliefs is proof of their existence – and even turn them into firing offenses. And it’s worse still when the President and Vice President explicitly agree that actions should be treated as proof of racism in the absent any evidence of racial motivation.
That’s why the weekend comments on the recent Atlanta spa killings by President Biden and Vice President Harris are so dangerously divisive for a country that isn’t exactly short of dangerous divisions these days. I’m talking about the former’s statement that
“Whatever the motivation [for the Atlanta killings], we know this: Too many Asian Americans have been walking up and down the streets worrying. They’ve been attacked, blamed, scapegoated and harassed”;
and the latter’s more detailed declaration that
“Whatever the killer’s motive, these facts are clear. Six out of the eight people killed on Tuesday night were of Asian descent. Seven were women. The shootings took place in business owned by Asian-Americans. The shootings took place as violent hate crimes and discrimination against Asian-Americans has risen dramatically over the last year or more.”
The only possible silver lining could be their prompting of some serious national attention to the real relationship between intentions and events before the situation gets completely out of hand. So here’s an initial effort.
Let’s start off with what’s presumably still common ground. I trust that every thinking person understands that good intentions alone don’t guarantee results that would widely be recognized as positive, either in terms of public policy or private behavior. Well-meaning words or deeds can easily overreach or backfire in all sorts of ways, especially if not well-informed or carefully thought through. They can also easily – and often rightly – be deemed offensive, especially when the well-intentioned hold more power than the the objects of their supposed largesse. And let’s not forget that good intentions per se can be difficult to distinguish from cynical, narcissistic, or simply hollow virtue-signalling.
Every thinking person surely also agrees on condemning well-meaning words that clash with deeds – that is, hypocrisy. When public officials are guilty, that’s legitimate news and they should pay a price. In both the public and private sectors, the same goes for deeds that violate the law, whether they’re inconsistent with any words spoken or written by the perpetrator or not. And when public and influential private sector individuals may be involved, certainly journalistic or other investigation and presentation of any relevant information is warranted.
Nor should it be overly difficult to recognize what’s right and wrong in more complicated circumstances – like those involving insistence that significant and/or official racism has vanished in America because segregation laws have been eliminated, or because affirmative action programs have been in place for decades, or because an African-American has been elected President, and that ignore the lingering effects of government-produced or government-tolerated discrimination. (Basing public school funding heavily on property taxes is a glaring example of the former; housing red-lining is an example of the former turning into the latter.)
Whether such ignorance is willful or genuine, it’s certainly never admirable. At the same time, should such holding beliefs result in careers being damaged, or personal reputations being trashed in public – with innocent family members being victimized in the process? That strikes me as opening the door to the totalitarian practice of prosecuting thought crimes – which all too easily lead to conviction because by definition no tangible or visible evidence would be required to establish guilt. And who actually wants America to turn into a society that would, therefore, inevitably be dominated and psychologically paralyzed or worse by fear of indictment? And who actually wants to hand unscrupulous individuals such extraordinary power to intimidate and injure, an outcome that also seems entirely plausible. Unless you believe that all men and women are angels?
The Biden and Harris Atlanta comments go even further toward severing the link between words and thoughts on the one hand, and deeds and results on the other. And don’t underestimate the impact of presidential versions of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. In particular, they threaten to boost the likelihood that evidence-free claims will suffice to produce actionable findings of racism or other forms of bigotry, to make the sensibilities of even the most fragile personality or prejudice-mongering individual the determinant of guilt, and to trigger all the aforementioned consequences and increased fear and self-censorship.
If you’re skeptical, check out what happened to a veteran New York Times reporter who was forced to leave his job because students that he led on a Times-organized educational tour of Peru complained that he used both the N-word and other racially insensitive language in their presence. The reporter, Donald McNeil, claimed that the context of these comments revealed no bigoted tendencies whatever, and according to his detailed account of the episode – which hasn’t been challenged – he has the facts on his side.
But what’s most important is that when the paper announced McNeil’s departure to the staff, it specificied that these facts – including the context – didn’t matter. “We do not,” the Times said, “tolerate racist language regardless of intent.” (See here for the full story.)
Such troubling disregard for the facts themselves – as opposed to how they bear on issues of intent – is also clear from the Biden and Harris remarks. In the first place, despite all the press coverage they’ve received, it’s far from clear that any surge in hate crimes against Asian-Americans has even taken place. As pointed out by – Asian-American writer – Jay Caspian Kang, an at-large contributor to the magazine section of that same New York Times, these claims
“largely rely on self-reported data from organizations like Stop AAPI Hate that popped up after the start of the pandemic. These resources are valuable, but they also use as their comparison point spotty and famously unreliable official hate crime statistics from law enforcement. If we cannot really tell how many hate crimes took place before, can we really argue that there has been a surge?
“There have also been reports that suggest that these attacks be placed within the context of rising crime nationwide, especially in large cities. What initially appears to be a crime wave targeting Asians might just be a few data points in a more raceless story.”
So it’s entirely reasonable to worry that the slighting of intent issues by the nation’s two top elected leaders could also encourage the rapid proliferation of all encompassing and never-ending searches for racial or other bigotry-related dimensions of any events involving different categories of people – even normal, every day life interactions.
I can’t imagine a more effective formula for encouraging much of the nation to walk on eggshells in understandable fear of retaliation from all manner of racial justice vigilantes armed with the unprecedented naming and shaming power of social media – and for stoking countervailing variants similar to those that reared their own ugly head on January 6.