A casually racist Friday

This is a guest blog post by Dan Hartman, edited by me. Full disclosure: he is my son.

Last Friday, thanks to my white privilege, I witnessed two acts of casual racism on the same day. Acts that, had a person of colour been there, probably would not have occurred.

A group of white men celebrating their good fortune

I had breakfast with two friends who brought an acquaintance, L, whom I had heard them mention but had never met. When I ordered a shakshuka, one of my friends asked what it was, to which L responded, “It’s sand monkey food”. When I said, “uh… I don’t think you should say that”, and another friend asked what “sand monkey” meant, L said, “Oh, it means Arab food. I can say it, because I’m half Lebanese, but that’s actually the toned-down version. Normally you’d say sand n — food.” I voiced my disapproval again, but I had just met the guy and wasn’t prepared to make a big scene or take the conversation any further, so we left it there and changed the subject.

That evening, I had drinks at a friend’s house, with eight others who all knew each other. I’d met most of them for the first time that night. My friend was at a BLM protest that week and we’d all had a brief conversation about it earlier in the night. His friends supported the protest. Later, one of his friends was telling a story about buying drugs from a (black) bouncer in Prague. He said that the bouncer had told him to wait in the back alley and to take note of his face and make sure he buy from him and nobody else. The storyteller said that because the bouncer was a “black c — t¹ and, you know, they all look the same in the dark”, it was hard to be sure he was buying from the same guy. I was pretty uncomfortable, but didn’t say anything in this room full of people I’d just met, and nor did anyone else.

From what I know of these two people, I’d be surprised if either of them didn’t agree they wanted to see an end to racism and racial disparity — as most people seem to. Some readers may be horrified by the events that I’ve described, others might see what was said as harmless jokes.

I’m 28 years old, and I can’t remember any time in my life when public conversation has been more polarised and conflict-laden. As we come out of lockdown in Australia and our Fridays are filled with cafe breakfasts and evening drinks, it’s easy to forget that in the US the pandemic has created a much more macabre background for the current discussion of race sparked by George Floyd’s murder. The video and the subsequent protests, riots and self-perpetuating violence, and the continuing protests and public conversation on the topic, are taking place around the world — and especially on social media.

And it’s clear that private conversation, at least as I’m experiencing it as a middle-class white person with mostly left-wing, university-educated friends, has issues of a different kind, where people make comments that, to many, seem fairly benign.

So how do private and public conversation link up? In the public conversation right now, some people are presenting evidence — statistics, or anecdotes like police brutality videos — for the degree to which this brutality is racialised.

I started writing a different post yesterday which looked at some of the evidence on both sides of the argument, but it rapidly changed from a quick post into the makings of a book (which I’m deeply unqualified to write), as well as something that I think was (perhaps rightly²) likely to spark outrage on both sides, to no gain. So I will avoid talking about those statistics at all.

One thing I will look at, though, is a conversation about the video of Floyd’s murder. I’d managed to avoid watching it until yesterday. Having now done so, I am now even more disturbed by it than I had imagined, despite being mentally prepared, being fully aware of the content, and knowing how others have reacted to seeing it. The video clearly shows a police officer with no regard for the life of the man whose neck he is crushing, and a complete lack of regard for the prolonged suffering of another human being.

Almost everyone in the world has condemned this murder — even Donald Trump — but their reasons differ.

The reaction from the BLM movement and black community makes complete sense to me. Let’s imagine that you’re an average black person in an average part of America in late May of this year. If you’re right in the middle of the bell curve of personal economics, your household net worth is $17,150: just over one tenth of the 50th percentile white household, at $171,000. You may have just lost your job, which may well have been only paying $7.25 per hour to begin with. If you’re one of those who didn’t lodge a tax return last year, or if you are in debt to your bank, you may struggle to get your full $1,200 stimulus cheque, if you get one at all. Then, in late May, a video surfaces of yet another black person having their life unconscionably wasted at the hands of the very people who are supposedly there to “serve and protect” them.

Why would you not break social distancing laws to join the protests in the face of these circumstances? Why would you not join in rioting and destruction against a system that has totally and utterly failed you, your family, many of your friends, and your ancestors, who were likely enslaved? What incentive is there not to attempt to destroy society, when playing by the rules of the society has left you in such a dire position?

But, on the other hand, what or whom does this rioting really serve?³ Destroying the property, workplaces and businesses of complete strangers who have been equally damaged by the pandemic seems totally counterintuitive. And for the not-insignificant number of genuine racists in America and around the world, what better propaganda can you imagine than mountains of footage and imagery of black people stealing and destroying property? If you wanted to increase police violence against black people, what better way than to create violent confrontations between them and police?

And without wanting to go off on a tangent about coronavirus, what do these massive protests do to the credibility of demands for strict social distancing? We are going to be facing the coronavirus for many months or even years to come, and when we consider that the death toll from coronavirus in the US is 118,000 in four months versus 1,000 police killings of people of any ethnicity in all of 2019, we have to wonder which movement is going to save more innocent lives, as unpalatable as it is to think of the trade-off in these terms. But the protestors who burnt down Mineappolis’s 3rd precinct police station are not likely thinking about their actions in those terms. They have seen the social contract ripped up in front of their eyes. This is a last-ditch attempt to have their message heard.

I have seen arguments that the video of Floyd’s murder is not necessarily evidence that the police officer, Derek Chauvin, is racist. He has had 18 complaints made against him, and the only one I can identify comes from a white woman named Melissa Borton. He has been involved in shooting multiple suspects, one of whom was Native American, although investigations apparently showed that Chauvin “responded appropriately”. It’s been suggested that, especially given that Floyd’s murder took place in front of a crowd and was obviously being filmed, this was a murder of extreme negligence, but that Chauvin didn’t intend to kill Floyd.

In following this part of the conversation, I also watched footage of the murders of Daniel Shaver and Tony Timpa, both of whom are white. The videos, like the one of Floyd’s murder, are chilling, but for different reasons. Shaver is bewildered by confusing and seemingly unnecessary commands from his killer, then is shot after begging the police not to kill him and clearly trying to comply with their confusing commands. Timpa is slowly crushed to death by police kneeling on his back for 13 minutes, after he said, “you’re going to kill me”. The officers make jokes as they do so. These videos certainly show a disregard for human life similar in many ways to that shown for Floyd’s, and I’m not sure if we can tell how race motivates them.

But what I wonder is, if educated, middle-class, presumably anti-racist people are casually referring to “sand n — — ”s and “black c — t”s over brunches and drinks in conversation with their left-wing friends, what is happening in the minds of the police officers who, with adrenaline pumping, are restraining the likes of George Floyd or Eric Garner, and hear their cries that they can’t breathe? To what degree do our small conversations enable big inequalities?

While the percentage of people who are overtly racist is not insignificant, I think there may be a lot of damage done in the little moments of negligence in conversations like the ones I have witnessed. Most Black and Indigenous people the world over are massively disadvantaged, and have the odds absolutely stacked against them from birth. If there are any indisputable facts about race, this is one. As anti-BLM proponents will point out, there are plenty of people who manage to ascend from disadvantaged circumstances, regardless of their race. But it’s very hard. It takes a concerted effort on the part of both the society and the individual. If either side doesn’t make that effort, it’s unlikely to happen.

People are marching because they believe society is failing in its side of that bargain. Let’s do what we can to stamp out racism, casual or overt. Be more courageous than I was on Friday; call people out when they do things that perpetuate this cycle. Small conversations can be powerful.

¹Cultural note for international readers: Australians regularly use the word c**t, often affectionately, to refer to acquaintances, and surely to drug dealers. In context, this term may not be as bad as it looks to a foreign reader.

²On one hand, statistics can be dangerous if they unfairly paint the wrong picture: for example, almost all of the data on race and crime come from the very law enforcement agencies we’re talking about. On the other hand, the fact that I can’t even in good faith share evidence on both sides of the debate without expecting backlash from bothsides worries me. How can we begin to have an honest conversation on this topic if nobody is even considering the evidence or arguments of the other side?

³There is talk that the protests were hijacked by far left groups, far right groups, and even the police. This is another important discussion, but leaves the scope of this post (and I don’t know much about it).

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