“The Epistemology of Race Talk”

The title of this post comes from a column in the latest Nation.  The material relates to a recent discussion we have had.  It does not form some argument for one side over another.  At most it illustrates that a worry some of us have had is a shared worry.  Since the worry is important, it is worth illustrating how it can arise in another context.

The columnist is  Melissa Harris-Perry , a professor at Tulane and an MSNBC contribution, in addition to a writer for the Nation.  I’m quoting about a third of her column:

I logged onto Twitter on Sunday night and discovered that my recent article for The Nation was causing a bit of a stir. Some members of the white liberal political community are appalled and angry that I suggested racial bias maybe responsible for the President’s declining support among white Americans. … if I defended every piece I wrote against critics I would find little time to sleep. But the responses to this recent article have been revealing in ways that I find typical of our contemporary epistemology of race. Often, those of us who attempt to talk about historical and continuing racial bias in America encounter a few common discursive strategies that are meant to discredit our perspectives. Some of them are in play here.

1. Prove it!

The first is a common strategy of asking any person of color who identifies a racist practice or pattern to “prove” that racism is indeed the causal factor. This is typically demanded by those who are certain of their own purity of racial motivation. The implication is if one cannot produce irrefutable evidence of clear, blatant and intentional bias, then racism must be banned as a possibility. But this is both silly as an intellectual claim and dangerous as a policy standard. 

In a nation with the racial history of the United States I am baffled by the idea that non-racism would be the presumption and that it is racial bias which must be proved beyond reasonable doubt. More than 100 years of philosophical, psychological and sociological research that begins, at least, with the work of W.E.B. Du Bois has mapped the deeply entrenched realities of racial bias on the American consciousness. If anything, racial bias, not racial innocence is the better presumption when approaching American political decision-making. Just fifty years ago, nearly all white Democrats in the US South shifted parties rather than continuing to affiliate with the party of civil rights. No one can prove that this decision was made on the basis of racial bias, but the historical trend is so clear as to require mental gymnastics to imagine this was a choice not motivated by race.

She goes on to argue that we should focus not on intentions, but on effects.

political protests then and now

Then there were the protests at the Democratic National Convention in 1968. If you look past the pundits you can see, among other things, tear gass and beatings.

Or the recent student riots in London with police charging on horseback:

These pictures make the police reactions to the Wall Street protestors seem certainly more moderate, if in some instances incredibly painful.  But those very painful incidents do not seem to provide enough contrast to  justify the Nation’s recent explanation of the low turn out for the protests:

The teargas aside starts to tap into something important: how the police state and its domestic weaponry and bureaucratic assist with the needs for permits to do anything in protests have successfully crippled the activism community. Activists are afraid. You can smell it in their midst. They talk about the constant presence of agent provocateurs and undercovers at every protest. They share battle stories of being abused by the police … And these are the brave ones that still show up to the protests.

It’s not mere paranoia. We know for a fact that the FBI monitors activism groups, and this practice reached a frenzied level during the Bush administration years. These intimidation practices continue under President Obama in the form of raids.

Now, imagine you have a job you can’t get time off from, or kids. Are you going to risk that precious job security, or the safety of your children, to go protest in an event that may—if you’re really lucky—get some dismissive coverage in the New York Times?

There was a time when individuals cast aside those fears because they had union-protected jobs, and unions organized events with tens of thousands of confidence-inspiring fellow members in attendance. While those events do still occur, they’re a rarity these days as union membership dwindles, the privatization of the country continues and the establishment media still don’t grant them fair coverage when they do occur. Not one of the young people I spoke to at the Occupy Wall Street protest said they were union members. 

I don’t know what the difference between the 1960”s and protectors today in the US is, but police brutality does not seem to be it.  Nor, for those who remember the initial reporting of student protects, is it the sort of  belittling journalism that the NY Times indulged in, and the Nation is criticizing; there was plenty of that then.

Perhaps one difference is that the  protects before were coming from universities, and students were well versed in getting into groups and planning things.  Here’s an interesting clip about the planning before the Chicago riots:

In Defence of Public Higher Education

Hundreds of academics have signed a document, published today, that warns of dire consequences should the [UK] government’s white paper on higher education become law. The document, In Defence of Public Higher Education, endorsed by a wide range of prominent academics, including Stefan Collini, of Cambridge University, and Howard Hotson, of Oxford, offers an alternative to the government’s vision for the sector in the form of nine propositions about higher education’s value to society. Drawing on recent research, it also argues that the changes proposed are based on ideology rather than financial necessity, and will make no lasting savings…

The document’s nine propositions are that higher education has public as well as private benefits and these public benefits require financial support; that public universities are necessary to build and maintain confidence in public debate; that public universities have a social mission and help to ameliorate social inequality; that public higher education is part of a generational contract in which an older generation invests in the wellbeing of future generations; that public institutions providing similar programmes of study should be funded at a similar level; that education cannot be treated as a simple consumer good; that training in skills is not the same as university education – something the title of a university should recognise; that a university is a community made up of different disciplines and of different activities of teaching, research and external collaboration; and finally that universities are not only global institutions, but also serve their local and regional communities.

A separate appendix makes the case that switching the costs of tuition from grants to loan-backed fees may reduce the deficit in the short term, but is an accounting trick. In the long term, debt could increase as students default or write off loan repayments, and tax revenues from those who reject higher education as too expensive are lost.

It also accuses the government of wanting eventually to introduce a pricing mechanism based on how much of the loans made to students studying specific degrees at specific institutions are repaid.

For the Guardian article quoted above, go here. For the document, go here.

40th Anniversary of Our Bodies, Ourselves

October 1, 2011 • Tsai Performance Center at Boston University • Boston, Massachusetts

This year, we are celebrating the 40th Anniversary of Our Bodies, Ourselves, the landmark book about women’s health, reproduction and sexuality.  On October 1, 2011, Boston University and Our Bodies Ourselves are co-hosting a day-long symposium—Our Bodies, Our Future: Advancing Health and Human Rights for Women and Girls—that will bring together our global partners that are adapting Our Bodies, Ourselves to their unique cultural needs and bringing evidence based, culturally reliable health resources to their communities in different print, digital and social interactive formats.

This free event at the Tsai Performance Center in Boston is open to the public (though registration is required) and will also be webcast live for remote attendance.  We have been overwhelmed by the enthusiastic response to the symposium and reached capacity in mid-August.  We have since been forced to close registration.   Currently, we have more than 100 people on a steadily growing waitlist.

In a world where women and girls are routinely denied their human rights and are unable to access unbiased, high quality information about reproductive health and sexuality, the work of our global partners is more important than ever.  On October 1, we will also launch the new 9th U.S. edition of our groundbreaking publication Our Bodies, Ourselves.  Thus far, more than 4.5 million copies of Our Bodies, Ourselves have been distributed around the world, with an estimated readership of 20 million people.  Over the decades, we have been contacted for technical and financial assistance—as well as other ongoing support for their projects—by women in more than 25 countries.

We are also collecting “stories” about Our Bodies, Ourselves at a special 40th anniversary website.  They will be preserved as part of the remarkable 40-year history of this book.

Possible job for a feminist philosopher

The Gender, Race, Identity (GRI) program at The University of Nevado, Reno, is seeking candidates for a joint appointment in Women’s Studies and in a humanities department in the College of Liberal Arts (such as Philosophy). The appointment will be as a tenure-track assistant professor. To see the job description, please visit the following link: https://www.unrsearch.com/postings/9714. The closing date is October 28, 2011

Reader Query: Department Activity Suggestions

A reader writes:

Several students at my program (myself included) have remarked that the department social life seems to be a very beer-and-football type environment, with all the sponsored social activities revolving around traditional masculine activities and locations. There’s nothing inherently wrong with said activities, but the overall effect is not welcoming for female students. What kinds of more gender-neutral social activities could you recommend?