I remember the first time I was ever called a N*gg*r. My father was stationed on Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama. I was between 13 and 15 years of age (it was before I had a car, but when I was officially a teenager), so everywhere I wanted to go, I had to bike it. Which was no problem for me. I loved being on my bicycle. One particular summer day, I decided to do something that, looking back, was pretty uncharacteristic of me. I was just starting to collect comic books (I wouldn’t start seriously doing so until I was 16, when I had a job and a vehicle) and I’d been to one of the local comic book stores a handful of times with my mother. The shop was a good 8-10 miles from the military base, so I thought to ride on up there and use my allowance to buy some comics. At that age, walking into a comic book store was, for me, like a kid who loves candy walking into a candy shop: paradise.
For the most part, I took side streets to get there, staying off the main roads bc traffic and well, I didn’t wear a helmet (i know, I know). At that age, I didn’t give much thought to the type of people I might encounter on my ride. Today, I know better. As I rode through one residential area, I passed a few kids playing outside in their front yard. There would have been no reason to take note of that, except for something I heard as I rode by. One of the kids, a young girl, said to her father “look dad, a n*gg*r”, as if I were some peculiar creature that she’d only read about in books or saw at the local zoo (by that point in the 20th century, Blacks and other Non-Black PoC were no longer dehumanizingly and humiliatingly put on display in human zoos, which really were a thing for hundreds of years).
Back then, I knew very little about racism and how pervasive it was. Nor did I know the history of that slur or how much power it had. Even still, I knew that the word was an insult directed at me and those like me. Given the casual way she uttered the word, I suspect she grew up around it, with family and friends using it regularly. Strangely enough, for all that I’ve lived in the Southern United States for most of my life, that instance was one of the few times I’ve heard the slur spoken by a living human (I qualify that bc I’ve heard the word on television and movies before).
I knew enough, however that I hated the word and never used it or any word derivative of it. In fact, for a very long time, I was opposed to anyone using it. Not just myself or any white person (that’s a given), but any Black or Non Black PoC.. To me, the continued use of a word so strongly tied to the subjugation and dehumanization of African-Americans could never not be a reminder of the inferior status many accord us bc of our skin color. I was also frequently befuddled when I heard a Black person use the word (or, more accurately ‘nigga’). I couldn’t understand why any Black person would use a term that was so obviously a degrading term. Perhaps if I’d had many Black friends, I could have asked them. That was one of the unfortunate aspects of growing up for me–I didn’t grow up steeped in African-American culture. So I didn’t have many Black friends. I suspect things might be different if my parents hadn’t chosen to leave Harlem when I was six months old (though I do understand why they made that choice).
In any case, my strong aversion to the word held fast for many years. That is, until my interest in social justice began to develop; when I first learned about reclaiming slurs. I heard how the LGBTQIA+ community had worked to reclaim ‘queer’ (which I think is one of the more successful efforts to remake a slur) and that ‘b*tch’ was the chosen self-descriptor for many women. Learning about reclaiming slurs made me soften my feelings toward the N-word. I still don’t like it, and hearing its use (in any form) brings a slight chill down my spine. But I’m no longer thoroughly opposed to hearing other Black folks use it (it is not, nor will it ever be ok for wyte folks to use it, and even though other PoC have been oppressed in our wyte supremacist society, it’s not cool for them to use either, bc it was never a term used to disempower them).
For all that I can understand the power in reclaiming slurs, I realize there are some who don’t “get” it, so maybe this will help:
This post discusses ableism and ableist terms. For the purposes of this post, the ableist terms are spelled out.
Ableism is NOT allowed on my wall.
It saddens me that over the years, I’ve had to repeat this several times. Worse still, I’ve lost friends (both in and out of the social justice community) bc it is more important for some folks to be able to use ableist language than it is for them to simply edit their comment (to be fair, that list of people is very small–less than 5; when asked, everyone else who has used such language has been willing to edit their comment). This, despite my friends list being comprised largely (though not exclusively) of many progressive minded individuals who are advocates of social justice. But then I remember that those of us who are social justice advocates and/or progressives were raised in the same bigoted, ableist society everyone else was. That makes us (yes, “us”, bc while I am a SJ advocate and progressive, I grew up in the same bigoted society as pretty much everyone else in the United States) prone to the same in-group thinking, the same human foibles, the same cognitive shortcuts, and the same resistance to modifying our language in recognition of splash damage as any other group. And certainly, many people long ago began the task of ridding themselves of bigoted language. I know a great many people who don’t used racial slurs (including anti-Black, anti-Hispanic, and anti-Asian ones, as well as others). I also know many people who don’t use gendered slurs. I think that’s commendable, bc it takes work to overcome years upon years of cultural indoctrination.
Our society is rife with far more than race or gender based bigoted thinking. Such bigotry neither begins nor ends with racist or gendered thinking. We live in a classist society that regularly discriminates against and oppresses poor people. We live in a body-shaming society that looooooooooves to hold fat people up as objects of contempt. And we love to shame others based on our perception of their intelligence.
People of Color (Black and non-Black) in the United States can (and many do) hold prejudicial or bigoted beliefs about white people. Whether it is right or wrong to do so (IMO, a strong argument could be made that it is reasonable for PoC, based on their treatment by white people, to hold anti-white prejudices), anyone with an understanding of history can see and fully empathize with why they might. Those prejudicial and bigoted beliefs only affect white people on an individual level. They do not have an impact on the rights possessed by white people. They do not have a collective effect on their economic, employment, or educational status.
In short, People of Color can be anti-white, but they cannot be racist against white people bc they lack the collective power to impose their prejudices on white folks as a racial category. Access to social, political, economic, and religious power is a fundamental component to the system of oppression known as racism (in the same way that access to such power is essential to sexism, which is why men do not experience sexism). Without that access to power, there can be no domination, oppression, or subjugation of white people by PoC.
But what if PoC could be racist? Imagine how different United States history would be if People of Color could be racist. We might see examples like the following:
On Monday, the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery added two new, history making pieces. Against the backdrop of Black History Month, the Gallery unveiled the official portraits of the forty-fourth President of the United States, Barack Obama, and his wife, Michelle Obama. Commissioned by the Portrait Gallery, New York-based artist Kehinde Wiley and Baltimore-based portrait artist Amy Sherald were chosen by the former POTUS and FLOTUS to portray them. Wiley , well known for his large-scale portraits of African-Americans, was selected by President Obama, while Sherald, an artist who takes a conceptual approach to her work (rather than a photorealistic one), was selected by Michelle Obama.
A murderer is in the news again (one I’ll not mention the name of–he’ll be ‘murderous racist’ for this post). The white supremacist piece of shit who shot up the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015 wants to replace his two court appointed attorneys. Why? MR apparently cannot trust them bc they are his “political and biological enemies“. It’s no surprise that said scumbag doesn’t want Alexandra Yates and Sapna Mirchandani (who are Jewish and Indian, respectively) to represent him. Hell, I’m going to hazard a guess that some part of both attorneys loathes the idea of representing him. Absent legal requirements, it’s difficult for me to believe that anyone–aside from people who share in MR’s bigoted beliefs (a list that includes the likes of the right-wing extremists speaking at the upcoming horribly misnamed “Free Speech Week” at Berkeley)–would want to work with, for, or in the defense of the man who killed Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Rev. Daniel L. Simmons, Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor, and Susie Jackson.
Hs plea for new representation was denied by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals:
“The court denies the motion for substitution of counsel on appeal.”
I found I was surprised by two things after reading his request:
1. I thought “did this asswipe on death row really just make a request for new lawyers? Seriously? Dude is lucky to have any representation at this point!” But as I thought about it, “white guy riding the conveyor belt to death row makes request” in a society that routinely and unfairly grants advantages and privileges to people based on their whiteness really isn’t that surprising. Since the dawn of our country, white folks (even before whiteness was created) have been catered to and coddled, with their hopes, dreams, and desires prioritized above all others.
2. For similar reasons, I was also surprised that the judges didn’t grant his request. We live in a country where a drunk driving, “affluenza” suffering kid can kill four people and get no jail time, where a judge can rule in favor of re-segregating a town in Alabama (even with the caveat, that shit is rage-inducing), and where a rapist who was caught in the middle of sexually assaulting a woman gets a six-month sentence in jail (which was reduced to three months bc he was on “good behavior”) bc the judge “weighed both sides” and decided rehabilitation was the best option (Rehab? In jail? In a country whose prison system is about punishment, not rehabilitation?.
Affluenza kid? That Alabama town? The rapist (and the judge presiding over the case)? Guess what race they all are. So yeah, i was a little surprised that MR’s request was denied.
One thing I wasn’t surprised about though?
Some of the comments I read from people reacting to the denial of MR’s plea. As happens so often in stories that involve extreme violence or behavior that is beyond the social norm, many people were quick to assert that mental illness was to blame for MR’s repugnant actions and beliefs.
I wish people would stop doing this. To get there, I invite people to consider what these words mean and what message they convey to others.
He’s mental” is the same as saying “there is something wrong with his cognitive abilities and that’s why he is a murderous racist”. Once you’ve intimated that mental illness or impairment is behind the actions and beliefs of a racist killer, you’ve opened the door to the notion that cognitive impairment is the root cause of racism and murder. Leaving aside the fact that playing armchair psychiatrist over the Internet is most definitely NOT the way a mental health diagnosis is determined, claiming that cognitive impairments cause racism (or lead to murderous acts) is deeply, massively fucked up.
It’s also factually incorrect.
First of all, there’s the splash damage done to people who suffer from cognitive impairments or whose cognitive abilities differ from the perceived societal norm. Drawing a direct link between cognitive ability and racism signals to others that “racism is caused by mental illness”. Likewise, drawing a direct link between cognitive ability and acts of murder tells others that cognitive impairment is the reason people murder others. We live in a society in which people with mental illness or disabilities face a high degree of social stigma and pervasive discrimination. The last thing that they need is for armchair psychiatrists to pile on prejudice by perpetuating harmful ideas. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happens not only in discussions of MR, but in the comment section of every article I’ve read about mass shootings (curiously though, I’ve yet to see anyone claim that those who kill others in self-defense, in a time of war, or as a military combatant are mentally ill), and most pieces on racism that I’ve read.
Secondly, there are plenty of people who have cognitive impairments or mental illnesses who are not racists and not only have not committed a murder, but have had no desire to. Conversely, many people who are neither mentally impaired or ill have been racist (imagine someone trying to make a defense of the Confederate army with the claim “they couldn’t help but be white supremacist supporters of slavery. They were mentally ill.”) Some non-mentally ill, non-mentally impaired people have had murder in their heart and blood on their hands. Despite evidence that shows:
Most people with mental illness are not violent and only 3%-5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness
the belief that people with mental illnesses are violent is widespread.
As for racism…racism at the individual level (not structural or systemic racism) is learned. Murderous Racist not only grew up in the United States, a country that is driven by white supremacist ideology, he grew up in an area where that ideology was openly discussed. Celebrated, even. He was radicalized by spending time in areas that white supremacist rhetoric abounded. He soaked that shit up like a sponge. The harmful (and biologically incorrect) beliefs he holds about Blacks and Non-Black PoC are the result of him acquiring and retaining the wrong information. Not the result of something “wrong with his brain”.
Another way to think of it–you can unlearn racism. You cannot unlearn a cognitive impairment or deficiency.
I hope those making such comments can understand how incredibly wrong they are. Not just from a factual standpoint, but also in terms of the splash damage done to people who suffer from cognitive impairments or whose cognitive abilities differ from the perceived societal norm. Ableism is one of the many forms of bigotry that permeates society. It also cuts across political lines. It has become almost reflexive to associate the Right with every form of bigotry under the sun. It’s expected of social regressives to defend and uphold harmful beliefs about gender, race, sexuality, et al. Unfortunately, where left-leaning or progressive people can (in general) be counted upon to resist racism, sexism, or homophobia, far too many on the left side of the aisle are comfortable with ableism. We’re the side that is supposed to be more enlightened, more concerned with social issues, and focused on reducing inequities in society, so come on people, get with it: having a mental illness does not lead someone to commit murder and bigotry is not caused by cognitive impairment.
It’s 2014. After 23 years serving on the Latta, South Carolina Police Department, Crystal Moore found herself fired from her job. She had managed to work her way up to police chief and was the first woman police chief of Latta. During her time as Chief of Latta Police, she received numerous compliments and by all indications, performed her duties quite well. None of that mattered in the eyes of the CIty Council. Nope. She was fired for being a lesbian.
Earlier this year, Jameka Evans was forced to leave her job as a security guard at Georgia Regional Hospital bc, in addition to her refusal to dress in manner that conformed with stereotypical gender roles, she is a lesbian. She tried to sue her former employer. Both a lower court and the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against her.
More recently, Hollis Bulleit, daughter of Tom Bulleit–founder of Bulleit Bourbon–opened up about the circumstances that led to her departure from Diageo, one of the largest alcoholic beverage producers in the world, and owner of Bulleit Bourbon. In a series of Facebook posts, Hollis Bulleit, who is far from a stranger in the alcoholic beverage industry, revealed that she was pushed out of her job bc, drumroll…she’s gay (that’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the homophobia she experienced over the 10 years since she came out to her family).
If you’re queer and you live in the United States, your job is not as secure as you think (here are 5 more people fired for their sexuality). Hell, not just your job–your home is not as secure as you think. Neither is your ability to partake of public services like restaurants or hotels. As of 2017, only 21 states (and D.C.) have statewide non-discrimination protections in place for LGB people (of that number, only 19 offer protections based on sexuality and gender identity). Discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is very real and collectively, queer people suffer bc of that.
The discrimination we face begins at a young age. The social stigma faced by queer youth is enormous. Familial rejection. Rejection by religious organizations. Bullying in schools. Homelessness. Alone, any one of those challenges can be damn near insurmountable for many queer youth, but to have to face more than one? It can seem virtually impossible. And the stress such discrimination places upon queer youth can adversely affect their mental and physical health.
To my surprise (and probably many readers), we are not alone in our struggles. The stress we face. The oppression we endure. The discrimination dealt with. It’s not just we who have problems. There’s one group that seems to think they suffer as much as we do…that they face discrimination on par with the shit we have to put up with. Watch the following video, Not Alone (if you can stomach it without throwing anything at your computer or wailing so loudly that you shatter your screen and torment your pets), and see for yourself just how rough these people have it:
I’ve never been to the Pacific Northwest area, but I’ve heard a great deal of praise for the region, especially Seattle. Aside from the weather (I’ve been told it’s quite a rainy region), it is apparently a great place to live. At least if you lean left. The city is viewed by many as a bastion of liberal progressivism where forward thinking people from all walks of life are welcome. Seattle is a ‘Welcoming City‘, where immigrants, refugees, and Muslims are accepted and embraced. It was voted one of the top 5 liberal cities in the country in 2014 and given that recreational marijuana is legal there, it’s not hard to understand why. Unlike the Southern U.S. where I dwell (and most of the country, for that matter), Seattle also has extensive public transit and [Hot Damn!] they were one of the first cities in the US to approve a $15/hour minimum wage. Anecdotally, I’ve been told the city is very friendly to transgender people, and with 9 top-rated HRC employers in Seattle, I can see why.
$15/hour, queer friendly businesses, and legal weed? Sounds good to me. There’s just one problem (well, there’s probably more, but for the purposes of this post, I’m focusing on just one). A problem that has existed in the Pacific Northwest dating back to its beginning. It’s a 500-lb. elephant in the room and is a blight on the liberal reputation of Seattle (as well as the greater Pacific Northwest). If you guessed racism, you are correct. To make matters worse, it appears as if many white liberals were tired of conservatives hogging the “I’m a racist asshole” Spotlight, and wanted their turn. It may surprise some to hear accusations of racism lobbed at liberals, but racial biases and prejudices are not limited solely to those on one end of the political spectrum. And while overt examples of individual race-based public or political* discrimination has diminished significantly** over the last half century or so, more subtle forms of racism, such as racial biases and prejudices, continue to thrive.
Such biases turned out to be quite at home among many of Seattle’s white liberals in the wake of a Black Lives Matter event last year. Conceived of by teachers across Seattle, the event–which was little more than teachers wearing Black Lives Matter t-shirts to school–hurt the fragile sensibilities of many liberal parents leading to a White Whine backlash.
Across the United States, more than 800,000 people serve as local and state law enforcement officials (LEO). These LEOs are charged with upholding and enforcing the law, maintaining order, and providing general services. To carry out these duties, police officers possess certain powers, granted by the state. If the situation calls for it, police officers can frisk, detain, and arrest civilians, as well as seize property. In addition, depending upon the situation, police officers are empowered to use force to defend themselves or civilians (the amount of force extends along a spectrum from police presence through deadly force). Given the powers that police officers have, it is incumbent upon them to maintain a level of professionalism in the course of their duties and to wield their powers responsibly and ethically. Unfortunately, there are countless examples of cops engaging in a range of irresponsible, unethical, immoral, and/or illegal activities from bribery and unjustified arrests to illegal search and seizure and the use of excessive force. Here are five such examples:
Once upon a time, Bill Maher was cool in my book. I vaguely remember watching a couple of episodes of his old show Politically Incorrect and while my memories are fuzzy, I remember being quite entertained. Once he made the move to cable television, I started watching him more often. Hell, I used to dvr his show and watched it near religiously. I used to appreciate the frankness with which he’d talk about religion, his support for legal marijuana, and his vocal opposition to all things conservative and Republican. At that time, I knew of no one who was an unabashed critic of religion, so listening to Maher mock and criticize religious beliefs was refreshing, as was his no-holds-barred criticisms of Republicans.
But there was a side–several of them in fact–that I didn’t know about and/or weren’t woke enough to recognize. In 2017, however, I can see them plain as day. In fact, they’re so apparent that I’m not sure why he hasn’t written a ‘How to be a Human Trashfire’ guide. Such a guide would include examples from Maher’s various displays of bigotry over the years and include advice like:
Learn to be a Pro. An ableism pro. One of the beginner steps to mastering ableism is to treat disabled kids with contempt like the time Maher equated developmentally disabled kids with dogs. More advanced human trashfires know how to engage in multiple forms of bigotry simultaneously, as Maher did last year when he blew up at BLM activist Ashley Williams for crashing a HIllary Clinton fundraiser. And don’t forget–no self-respecting ableist bigot can claim that title if they don’t point to cognitive ability and say “POTUS45 is an asshole bc there is something wrong with his brain”.
With boundless pride, you’ve got to share your sexism and misogyny with the world. Fly your “I hold women in contempt and think anything feminine is inferior to me” flag high. This can be done through an ancient male ritual called “I’m not sexist, but…” or through the not-so-subtle derision of femininity, or the use of gendered slurs (for someone who isn’t sexist, Maher has a long history of the word b*tch falling–I guess uncontrollably, since he says he’s not sexist–from his mouth when talking about women) or by “joking” about killing women for it doesn’t matter what the reason is or if you combine your misogyny with ableism or…(yeah, the list goes on)
Another trait often found in the modern Trashfire Bigot is transphobia. An excellent way to show the transgender community that you are the opposite of an ally–an enemy, for those uncertain–is to grant a platform to a White Supremacist Piece of Shit and not only let him speak his mind unchallenged, but indulge in a bit of transantagonism yourself (yes, I’m talking about that time Bill and Milo the douchebag bonded over their disgust of trans people).
Of all the forms of bigotry he has displayed, one of Bill Maher’s favorites, one he can’t seem to go for too long without gushing over (as if his newborn child) is his anti-Muslim bigotry. From his completely unproven claim that millions of Muslims supported the attacks against Charlie Hebdo to his smells-like-he-pulled-this-from-his-ass commentary about Muslim men, Maher loves him some Islamophobia. Of course, he doesn’t call it that, bc to him, he’s merely criticizing the religion when he condemns millions of Muslims for the actions of a relative few extremists**.
As with so many other bigots with racist beliefs, Bill Maher’s racism is not focused solely on Muslims. He also has room in his evaporated husk of a heart for some anti-black racism. Unlike his anti-Muslim bigotry, however, Maher’s anti-black racism has traditionally been more restrained. For example, on the face of it, his 2012 comment to Wayne Brady about the latter being a “non-threatening black man”, doesn’t appear racist. It is though, bc it betrayed a view of black men as violent and dangerous. Such a view, which is ridiculously absurd*, is commonly held today and is one of the main biases at play when police officers shoot and injure/kill black people. His supportive comments to Bill O’Reilly after the latter engaged in some casual racism regarding Representative Maxine Waters’ hair went a step further. There’s also his comments about wanting President Obama to act like a “real Black man” by pulling up his shirt to reveal a gun tucked in his pants (the image of a black man with a gun hidden under his shirt and tucked into his pants is shorthand for criminal or thug). It’s one thing to have subconscious racial biases and prejudices. We all do (especially white people). It’s quite another to defend the racism of a virulently racist dirtbag like O’Reilly.And it’s something else to playfully allude to black people as criminals Now, as if he were tired of hiding, Bill Maher has fully embraced his anti-black racismby doing the thing virtually every white person in this country knows is racist:
I woke up yesterday to distressing, though not completely unsurprising news: author, intellectual heavyweight, and [supposed] skeptic Sam Harris had interviewed Charles Murray. Yes, that Charles Murray who, along with Richard J Herrnstein, co-authored The Bell Curve, a controversial-because-it-is-a-racist-pile-of-trash 1994 book. The Bell Curve reintroduced the concept of scientific (or intellectual) racism into modern USAmerican discourse and stayed on the New York Times’ bestseller’ list for 15 weeks, selling roughly 300,000 copies. It clearly struck a familiar and racist chord with people–especially its likely target audience: white people (many of whom felt they finally had a scientific basis for their racist beliefs). Of course, for all that it has a history reaching back to at least the 1800s, scientific racism is little more than repurposed white supremacist ideology with a touch of “science” (air quotes because it’s really that cheap knock-off of the real thing, pseudoscience). Murray’s book, which was an attempt to fuse alternative scientific facts with racist ideology, has been thoroughly debunked multiple times (such as here, here, and here), and criticized for its questionable science and its faulty logic, as well as its sources. Additionally, there’s one other liiiiiiiiiiiitle thing the book has been criticized for: its financial backers, the Pioneer Group. A far-right organization of so-called “race realists”, the Pioneer Group is a white supremacist organization with Neo-Nazi ties that backs studies on race, intelligence, and eugenics with the ultimate aim of racial betterment of white folks (which, unfortunately doesn’t mean ‘seeking to redeem white folks in the eyes of PoC after centuries of genocide, slavery, rape, forced assimilation, and imperialism’ and likely means something more like ‘making the country great for white people again by getting rid of all them colored folks forcibly or through…well, there is no “or” ‘).
So we’ve got a white supremacist organization with Nazi ties (wonder if they know Nazi punching bag Richard Spencer) that provided the financial backing for Murray and Herrnstein to write a piece of racist trashfire material that sought to provide a scientific foundation for the belief that white people are the best, smartest, coolest kids on the block and all the rest of us suck bc we have too much melanin. Although widely discredited by the scientific community (including the notion that the full spectrum of human cognitive abilities can be measured by one’s intelligence quotient), the idea of scientific racism still managed to seep into the public consciousness. Furor over the book died down in time, but the central theme of the book never disappeared and unfortunately, intellectual racism is once again seeing a resurgence. Nicole Hemmer of U.S. News & World Report writes:
Intellectual racism, in its cultural and pseudoscientific guises, is having a bit of a renaissance of late. At least, it’s receiving more attention than at any time since the debut of “The Bell Curve,” the 1994 book by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray about race and IQ. Murray himself is back in the news, triggering protests as he tours college campuses. Andrew Sullivan, who published excerpts of Murray’s work as editor of The New Republic, recently went out of his way to make a case against the persistence of racism and for black pathology at the end of a much-read piece about Hillary Clinton. Within the last year, white nationalist sites like VDARE, American Renaissance and Radix have become part of the political landscape.
I’ve written elsewhere about the trap of intellectualized racism, which cuts against the common assumption that racism is rooted in ignorance and provincialism, that it can only be crude and passe. Thus when Richard Spencer, the face of the alt-right, shows up in a natty suit, he is treated as an unusual curiosity. When Charles Murray shows up brandishing a Ph.D. and some regression tables, he is treated as a sober-minded scholar.
Yes to all of this. Bigots like Spencer and Murray–in an effort to be seen (and thus treated) as respectable–have rejected the pointy white sheets and the jackboots worn by their racist predecessors. Similarly, instead of spending their free time lynching PoC or using them as gator bait (all with the ultimate purpose of instilling terror in communities of color), many of today’s white supremacists put forth an air of respectability by repackaging their beliefs (and themselves) in an attempt to make them more palatable for the masses (doesn’t “peaceful ethnic cleansing”, oxymoron though it may sound, seem so much kinder, than mass murder?). I suspect this is one reason why the odious ideas presented by these ethically challenged, morally bankrupt, evil human beings are gaining traction in the mainstream. As before, with the release of The Bell Curve, the dead and beaten horse that is intellectual racism allows people to justify their racist beliefs as scientific (nevermind the lack of science behind them). And in the current political climate–one which saw the rise to the presidency of a morally repellent, authoritarian leaning, hater of the US Constitution, Mein Kamf loving misogynistic bully–there seems to be a great deal of interest in listening to and coddling the views of people who would like to see those like me six feet under or cast out from the place of my birth simply bc they think this country belongs only to white people. I’m talking about people like Richard Spencer, Ann Coulter, Milo Yiannopolous, Raymond Wolters, and yes, Charles Murray.
So when I hear that a prominent, well-respected (why?) member of the atheist community has conducted an interview with a man who is, and has long been known to be, a white supremacist*, my spider-sense goes off. From what I know of Sam Harris, he is something of an intellectual. I know he has a few degrees (one in philosophy and another in neuroscience, I believe). I know he’s written a few books that had a positive effect on some and a lackluster “meh” effect on others. Basically, I know he has some degree of higher education and knows how do research on a subject or person. And it’s that knowledge that rules out the first theory I have about why he conducted this interview: that he did not know who he [Murray] was or was not familiar with his views. I have a hard time accepting the idea that Sam Harris knew very little about Charles Murray and The Bell Curve, and thought “I need to clear some things up, so I can better understand his position. I should interview him.” No. When you can easily search for Murray and find his Wikipedia page, his entry at AEI, his well deserved page on the Southern Poverty Law Center‘s site, and more, there is no need to talk to the man to find out his beliefs.
Perhaps then, he decided to interview the racist woo peddler in order to give said beliefs a proper thrashing and demonstrate to a new audience what Dr. Stephen Gould demonstrated back in the 90s? This is certainly a valid approach, but unfortunately, it’s not one that he took, as evidenced by the apology Harris offers to Murray at the start of the podcast. Apparently, in the world according to the great Sam Harris (he who peels back the layers and reveals the truths *they* don’t want you to hear), this poor, poor fellow was viciously maligned by politically correct critics (I gotta say–great job completely ignoring the work of all the people who have rebutted Murray’s work over they years, including Dr. Gould). It’s pretty much downhill from there as you can see from the blog AngryWhiteMen where the author criticizes pretty much everything about Harris’ podcast, from Harris’ refusal to critically examine Murray’s beliefs to his failure to acknowledge the effect of scientific racism on social policy:
And then there’s the effect The Bell Curve has had, and will continue to have, on social policy. As Claudia S. Fischer et al pointed out in their 1996 rebuttal Inequality By Design: Cracking the Bell Curve Myth, the upshot of Murray and Herrnstein’s book was that “intelligence largely determined how well people did in life.” “The rich were rich mostly because they were smart, the poor were poor mostly because they were dumb, and middle Americans were middling mostly because they were of middling intelligence.” And, as we have already seen, their view on race and IQ is that blacks and Latinos “were by nature not as intelligent as whites; that is why they did less well economically, and that is why little can or should be done about racial inequality.”
In other words, no amount of affirmative action can raise the standard of living for black and Latino Americans, since they are mainly being held back by genetics. In addition, with lower than average IQs come other social consequences: violent crime, petty theft, out-of-wedlock births, and so on.
Is Harris aware of the impact applied scientific racism could have on the lives of those who are not white males? Does he care? If he is aware and does care, it is not apparent because he fails to offer a substantial rebuttal to Murray’s views. Thus, listeners are left with the impression that there is nothing unreasonable about them. The piece concludes by listing Harris’ failings as a host, a skeptic, and in my eyes, a decent human being:
And all of these points — unwillingness to engage with critics, connections to white supremacists, consequences for poor and non-white Americans — would have been worth bringing up in Harris’ conversation with Murray. As an interviewer, he should have done more than toss softballs and whitewash Murray’s record. As a skeptic, he should have been more willing to examine Murray’s beliefs. His unwillingness to do so will only bolster racist pseudoscience and toss more red meat to Murray’s white nationalist fans.
I think it’s safe to say at this point that Sam Harris did not conduct this interview with noted White Supremacist Piece of Shit Charles Murray to debunk his pseudoscientific beliefs. No, as it turns out, the interview was conducted because…well, I don’t want to try my hand at mindreading. I’ll leave the attempts at alt-science to people like Murray. I can’t speak to what Harris’ intent was with this piece. But I can talk about the impact of the piece, and its implications. That impact? Those implications? They say nothing good, and everything bad about Sam Harris. Consider the following:
Harris chose to conduct this interview–an interview which sees the resurrection of the beaten horse that is scientific racism–at a time when our country is simmering in a toxic social and political stew. A stew in which racism is bubbling right on the surface, ready to explode. In several cases, that racism has bubbled above the surface and boiled over, as in the various clashes between alt-righters white supremacists like Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopolous or the numerous incidents of law enforcement officers executing African-Americans leading to protest marches by Black Lives Matter activists. What message is sent when a leading figure in the secular/atheist movement plays host to a white supremacist without criticizing said views? Among other things, it legitimizes Murray’s views.
He titled the episode ‘Forbidden Knowledge’. With a title like that, shouldn’t the listeners have knowledge imparted to them by the end of the episode? And not just knowledge, but useful, evidence based knowledge? I would think so. But the interview was with a man for whom evidence appears to be his personal Kryptonite.* His work has already been discredited several times over and the faux science behind it laid bare. The impact here is ironic, given the title of the podcast. Rather than knowledge being imparted and peoples’ awareness raised, thanks to Harris’ softballing of Murray, misinformation, distortion, and outright lies are treated as legitimate and scientific in nature.
the financial backers of The Bell Curve, as well as some of the sources have strong Neo-Nazi ties. It should go without saying that if your backers or the source of your information are Nazi, you really ought to reexamine your work. From top down. Failure to do so allows Nazism one more foothold out of the sewer it belongs in. And we all know what happens when Nazism gains too much of a foothold.
Remember the connection between Murray and eugenics? Murray’s idea, that white people are genetically superior to People of Color paired with “race betterment” sounds uncomfortably close to a “Master Race”.
The impact of scientific racism on political issues such as immigration and government assistance programs would be huge. If our lot in life is determined (largely or in whole) by genetics, then nothing can be done to improve our quality of life. So why should government assistance programs exist? And why worry about racial inequality if our genes determine our place in the US caste system?
Sam Harris is advocate of racial profiling at airports to root out terrorists (though he’s yet to give a non-appearance based reliable method for rooting out terrorists)
Sam Harris’ denigration of identity politics. Given that he considers himself an intellectual (he may even consider himself a Bright person), I can’t imagine he’d reject or denigrate an idea without first learning what the idea is (it’s not controversial to assume a leading figure is intellectually honest, is it?). So surely he is aware that identity politics is a form of political activism focused on uplifiting and liberating the various identity groups that are oppressed in society (groups like women, queer people, PoC, disabled people, etc). Further to that, surely he knows that identity politics is key to marginalized groups achieving liberation and equality. That can only be done by focusing on each group and finding out what they need to improve their quality of life.
When you take into account those considerations, as well as Harris’ whitewashing of The Bell Curve, his refusal to critically examine Murray’s beliefs, and his lack of acknowledgment of the social costs of intellectually racist beliefs used in support of legislation, a very unflattering image of Sam Harris begins to emerge.
I wish that image had been of a man who–recognizing the social power he has, the platform he possesses, and how far his influence reaches–had acted in a responsible manner to eviscerate racism. Publicly. Loudly. Without hesitation. I wish Harris understood that racism benefits all white people, bc in oppressing People of Color, it grants unfair advantages (privileges) to white people. Those unfair advantages enable white people to make their way through life with fewer obstacles than if they had higher levels of melanin. Racism continues to exist because–collectively–white people have done next to nothing to tear down that system of oppression.
No, the image of Sam Harris is not a good one. What he did here was irresponsible. More to the point, it was also immoral, bc not only did he not work to tear down racism, he actively worked to shore up its foundations by lending credence to Murrays woo-filled beliefs, failing (or refusing) to critically examine Murray’s views, and raising the profile of a white supremacist and presenting his ideas to people who–already primed to trust and respect their host–might well be sympathetic to the views of a racist extremist whom the host treats cordially. By giving Murray a platform and challenging him in no substantial way, Harris may as well have told his listeners “treat what this man says as the truth”.
That’s a reinforcement of white supremacy.
And that is racism.
Which makes Sam Harris a racist.
*I’m not quibbling over the difference between white supremacist and white nationalist, bc both believe in the innate superiority of white people. White nationalists claim they just want a nation-state all to themselves and don’t have a problem with PoC, they just don’t want them in “their country”. I don’t believe that claim. But more to the point, they believe they are genetically and intellectually superior to PoC, which is the same belief held by white supremacists. At the end of the day, maybe white nationalists don’t want to re-enslave African-Americans or continue the genocide of Indigenous people, but they are only a few steps removed from those who do. And they all play on team evil.
Oh, would you look at that, another prominent figure in the atheist movement wants to throw his lot in with Murray.