An apparently moderately well-known (but not all that well-known, it seems) “character actor” is stopped and frisked by a sales clerk in a deli on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The store clerk thought he saw a little hocus-pocus with the merchandise. It turns out the clerk was wrong. No dialogue of the encounter is given.
The actor in question is black. The ethnic data on the clerk is not given. According to a commenter here, at the deli in question, a venue rejoicing in the name of Milano’s, all the help is Hispanic, African, or “Muslim” (by which I take it he means of apparently Middle Eastern extraction. Per this commenter, there is no “white” (in the stereotypical sense) help in those little markets in that part of town. It’s been seventeen years since I last lived in that neck of the woods, and so my memories are blurred. I do recall that I couldn’t afford to patronize the snazzier joints up and down Broadway, where this particular place is located; a bagel from Hamilton’s on Amsterdam right across from campus was about my speed, and that had to last from mid-morning until supper, usually.
According to Our Author, the whole thing is obviously a case study in racism.
Let’s let Our Author set the stage: “The deli where Whitaker was harassed happens to be in my neighborhood. Columbia University is up the street. Broadway, the main drag, is dotted with nice restaurants and classy bars that cater to beautiful people. I like my neighborhood.” Get that? “Nice restaurants” and “classy bars” that cater to “beautiful people”; not to people like them . . . you know . . . them. But to “beautiful people,” people who read The New York Times. People like us. Our kind. Good people.
In the aftermath of The Incident, Our Author has “read and listened to interviews with the owner of the establishment. He is apologetic to a fault and is sincerely mortified. He says that it was a ‘sincere mistake’ made by a ‘decent man’ who was “just doing his job.’ I believe him.” That is, however, according to Our Author, not quite good enough.
“The idea that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals, as opposed to the heart of a democratic society, is reinforcing to anyone who might, from time to time, find their tongue sprinting ahead of their discretion. We can forgive Whitaker’s assailant. [huh? ed.] Much harder to forgive is all that makes Whitaker stand out in the first place. New York is a city, like most in America, that bears the scars of redlining, blockbusting and urban renewal. The ghost of those policies haunts us in a wealth gap between blacks and whites that has actually gotten worse over the past 20 years.”
I do remember this much about the neighborhood Our Author is describing – you know, the neighborhood where they “cater to beautiful people.” No person of any color, of any nationality, of any physical attribute, or even of any observable behavior at all, stands out there. No one. I used to delight in wearing my Liberty bib overalls (we call ‘em “overhauls” around here, but then around here we don’t cater to beautiful people) about the place and with my . . . errrmmmm . . . unmistakable accent, I came as close to “standing out” as anything I saw during three years. And I still didn’t stand out. So the suggestion that this actor somehow “stood out” because of the color of his skin in a place that is swarming with people who, except that their mugs haven’t graced either large or small screens, are utterly indistinguishable in that respect at least from Veteran Character Actor is just risible.
Secondly, that part of Manhattan doesn’t “bear the scars of redlining, blockbusting, and urban renewal.” It bears the “scars” of a gargantuan tax-exempt hegemon that as of the mid-1990s owned all but one single building in that entire part of town. When you don’t have to pay taxes on what you rake in or on what you own, and when the folks who want to give you tons of money so you’ll paste their names on a wall somewhere can also claim a deduction against their ordinary income taxes up to 50% of their A.G.I. during any year for what they fork over, with unlimited carry-forwards of the excess, it’s hard to find a prospective purchaser to compete against you. If any part of New York City can be considered a protected little bubble of smug endowed socialist outrage, its own biosphere of wealth-despising trust fund babies, the area around Columbia University is it.
Thirdly, and this is something you don’t necessarily pick up on unless you’ve lived there for some while, but there isn’t really “a” New York City. You can go fifteen blocks in almost any direction and find yourself in a socio-economic atmosphere that bears scant resemblance to where you were thirty minutes ago. The “wealth gap between blacks and whites” that so exercises Our Author is not a wealth gap between “blacks and whites,” but between a very narrow slice of whites and Every Damned Body Else. As noted in one of the most self-absorbed bits of navel-gazing to be published in recent memory, New York is becoming a city of a small number of extraordinarily wealthy people, who are waited on, preyed on, and served by a large number of people who are increasingly drawn from the bottom ranges of the wealth-and-income continuum. It’s not so much that the blacks (or any other group) have got measurably poorer as that the ever-increasing cost of living in New York is running off ever greater swathes of the middle ranges, a goodly number of whom are, of course, themselves black. It’s the poorer who can’t afford to move (they can’t pack up their government housing, for one thing). Our Author neither notes the demographic catastrophe playing out in New York, nor does he note that the root causes of the eternal ratcheting up of the cost of living are in large measure policy preferences adopted to soothe the sensibilities of the sorts of “beautiful people” catered to in the “classy bars” which make Our Author’s neighborhood so pleasant for him. Irony, like subtlety, is a lost art.
Fourthly, and this is a point that escapes Our Author, as it does most “beautiful people”: Shoplifting is a non-insurable risk. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that well over 1,000 people a day come through even one of those tiny little shop-front establishments in that part of town (if you’re open from 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. that’s eleven hours and it’s not at all a stretch to run 90 people per hour through, especially if not all of them actually buy). If only 3% of those people – 30, total – are shoplifters, and if they steal only something worth $2.50 each, that’s $75.00 per day the store has lost. At $9.00 per hour for a store clerk (yeah: I know, that’s a lot of money for a clerk but then again prevailing wages in Manhattan perforce have to be higher) the shoplifters have just about added an entire employee to the store’s overhead. In fact, you might say that shoplifters at one single store are keeping one person out of a job that might tide him over after unemployment runs out. Now multiply that by the thirty or so stores which might be in the one-seventh of a mile along an avenue between numbered cross-streets in Manhattan. So the prudent store owner’s staff is going to err, if anything, on the side of over-vigilance, because unlike “beautiful people,” us regular trash lose our jobs when the boss man hits hard times.
Our Author is a columnist whose regular gig is The Atlantic. I don’t think it a stretch to suppose that he counts himself among the “beautiful people” catered to by the “classy” places he describes. He’s black, too. So, apparently, is his wife. What Ed Driscoll calls the “bombshell” comes at the end of the piece. When Our Author’s wife was six, some white person addressed her cousin with a particular racial epithet. Since then she’s been more or less “at war” with white people in general. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to label her a “racist,” as some have who have weighed in on the story. I will observe, though, that there is no logical stopping point for her way of thinking. It could be used to justify unthinking animosity towards the general members of any identifiable group based upon the vicarious (or even personal; I’m sure Our Author’s wife has been herself addressed with the same expression during the course of her life since then) outrage committed by one member of that group.
Does Our Author’s wife concede the same right of personal “warfare” to all Americans of Korean extraction, based upon the undeniable outrages committed during the Los Angeles riots against the persons and property of such persons by people who . . . uummmm . . . superficially look a great deal like Our Author, his wife, and their son for whom she feels such understandable solicitude? I know, not well or very personally, but certainly enough to maintain a polite conversation, someone whose mother and step-father were struck head-on by a drunk driver who happened to be an illegal immigrant from Mexico, and who had a string of felony arrests (including drunk driving, by the way). Under no set of circumstances ought this person to have been in the United States at all and certainly not at large and behind the wheel of a car. They both died at the scene. Is this person’s tragedy a justification for her, me, or anyone else to nurture a hatred of all immigrants from Mexico and their descendants?
Our Author, who by the way appears to enjoy a rather comfortable standard of living, or at least comfortable enough to patronize, several times a day, the sort of place where “beautiful people” go to be catered to, sadly finds that “racism” lives not, or even principally, in the “hearts of particularly evil individuals, but in the heart of a democratic society[.]” Apart from the subtle anthropomorphism of attributing human motivation to an impersonal agglomeration of individuals who have bugger all to do with each other, Our Author could use a bit of a history lesson. Particular forms of political organization have nothing at all to do with whether or how any one group may stand on the necks of other groups. Ancient Athens, the paragon of direct participatory democracy – gave us the word itself, they did – was a slave society. Its sister and deadly foe Sparta, certainly among the most egalitarian of societies, even though a monarchy, ritually declared war each year on its helots, so that they might be plundered and even killed with impunity by a Spartan. The Greeks even gave us the notion of the “barbarian” as The Other incarnate, the repository of everyone who was Not Greek; if that isn’t bigotry then nothing is.
Rome, which gave us the republican form of government which we in the United States presently enjoy (Our Author might examine the relevant passages from the U.S. Constitution, which guarantee to each state a “republican form of government,” not a democracy), was likewise a slave society, and it was chattel slavery, too. If you were a Greek or Syrian or German or British slave your children and their children after them were likewise slaves.
Bigotry is not something that lives in societies. It is something that dwells within each and every last one of us. Our Author, for whom the world seems to have begun with his own birth, does not pause to reflect that the ability to recognize and react against The Other is not just some social construct wrought by the descendants of one group of settlers upon the backs of another group of involuntary settlers. It is a biological defense mechanism. In primitive, tribal life, the man who is an outcast is dead. The Mark of Cain was a protective mark placed by God on Cain, in response to Cain’s plea that every man’s hand would be raised against him. Cain was right. In a world of hunter-gatherers (and folks, that’s all of human history bar the last 10,000 or so years; “classy bars” catering to “beautiful people” are decidedly a recent feature of human existence), if you strip that branch of berries before I get to it, I, my mate, and my children go hungry. It’s as simple as that. So if I fail to recognize and engage The Other, my own genetic material gets intercepted.
As with any hard-wired human defense mechanism, such as the fight-or-flight response, it takes a great deal of psychic energy to overcome the inclination to recognize and bar The Other. How we define The Other is of course partly voluntary (show up in a group of school teachers and let drop that you were at the most recent Tea Party organizing session and see, Sesame Street-fashion, which One of These Things Does Not Belong), but it’s also involuntary. It’s conditioned by what we know of particular groups at very gross-level generalizations. Jesse Jackson (Sr.) once famously observed how humiliating he found it to hear footsteps behind him, turn around, and be relieved to find it was a white man as opposed to a black one. Surely Our Author will absolve St. Jackson from the imputation of racism? I mean, let’s say that you’re in line at a bank. There’s some guy in the next line over. White guy. He’s got a calf-length dark coat on, buttoned loosely. He’s got a full beard and a hat pulled down straight on his head. He’s not looking to the right or the left. He’s got his hands buried in the pockets. Are you comforted by his appearance, or not? Now add the side locks of a Hasidic Jew to the picture and ask yourself that same question again. Are you a bigot? Or is it just that you find the notion of an Orthodox bank robber silly because no one’s ever heard of such? Or let’s suppose a group of eight or ten young males walking down the street in a group. Longish hair, unshaven, all of them in clothing of the same style and colors. Big heavy boots on their feet. They’re speaking among themselves in a language that sounds a lot like English, but it sure isn’t any kind of English you’re used to hearing. Gang members, maybe? Now let’s put them in the blue trousers, white shirts, black braces, and straw hats of the Amish. Think you’re a bigot?
You’ll notice in both my examples above that the stereotype that comes to mind is of a group about whom the objectionable behavior you might viscerally sense is known to be a behavior not widely — or even at all all — engaged in by members of that group. Now, other than the fact that he’s presumptively one of the “beautiful people,” what precisely about Veteran Character Actor’s appearance alone was supposed to exclude in the store clerk’s mind the possibility of his being a shoplifter?
I could go on. But why?
The whole point, if you can call it that, of Our Author’s column is that he must confront the discovery of racism even in “the good people,” the people who cater to “beautiful people” such as himself. The people who read The New York Times, who’ve never set foot in fly-over country, who don’t even know anyone who voted for Nixon. So, world-weary (and utterly unreflective), he turns his back on the good people. He’s had all of good people he can take. Let’s not disturb his moment of cognitive dissonance, in which even people so self-evidently “good” as to live and work in a part of the country that voted 90%+ for Dear Leader, who believe to the point of ecstasy in anthropogenic Global Warming, who religiously recycle their trash and buy only certified “organic” fruit and whatnot, can be so “racist” as to mistakenly suppose that a patron obviously so discerning as to go where they know how to cater to the “beautiful people” might be a shoplifter. And certainly let’s not belch in his chapel and question whether this whole story actually does have anything at all to do with Veteran Character Actor’s skin color.
Poor man. It’s hard to be gob-smacked, even if only metaphorically and vicariously, by one of the canaille, the Pöbel, the plebs.