Colorblindness and Individualism

Americans celebrate individualism. We love feeling that we are special, and we love feeling that we have value based on our accomplishments and achievements. We even love when we have support from those around us to give us nudges toward our goals and help us with both the small and the large daunting steps along our journey. What we don’t love, however, is acknowledging how much we truly rely on others and on luck for our success. We are often quick to find excuses for mistakes and failures, pushing the negative off to someone else, but when it comes to the good things, we have no problem claiming personal responsibility and demonstrating our individual achievement.

 

This spirit of individualism that hypes up our personal responsibility for success and downplays our role in our failures is dangerous. it stems from and further builds an ego inflation that puts us at the center of the universe, and denies our true relationships to society and those around us. This individualism and ego inflation shifts the way we see the world, as Ryan Holiday put it in his book Ego is the Enemy, “It’s the sense of superiority and certainty that exceeds the bounds of confidence and talent. Its when the notion of ourselves and the world grows so inflated that it begins to distort the reality that surrounds us.”

 

When we talk about personal responsibility in society we must be careful, because our individualism places incredible value on who we areas a single person and misses our role within the collective society. We begin to forget how much we need other people for our success, how much other people depend on us to maintain their lifestyle, and how connected all of us are.

 

An area where we see individualism as particularly damaging within society is criminal justice. Colorblindness is the overwhelming doctrine of criminal justice and race in the United States, but the problem is that colorblindness is an individual approach to the society, and it is subject to the dangers of ego that Ryan Holiday explained above. Our sense of ourselves is inaccurate, and our unrealistically positive view of who we are changes the way we interpret and understand the world and our place in it. When we begin to focus purely on individuals in criminal justice policy, we don’t recognize the structural realities that shape the world for so many, and we act purely in our own self interest.

 

Michelle Alexander describes what happens when we allow colorblindness to take over and are guided by a sense of individualism and ego in her book The New Jim Crow, “For conservatives, the ideal of colorblindness is linked to a commitment to individualism. In their view, society should be concerned with individuals, not groups. Gross racial disparities in health, wealth, education, and opportunity should be of no interest to our government, and racial identity should be a private matter, something best kept to ourselves.” This view of race and individual responsibility is distorted. It is consistent with a view that places the individual at the center of the universe, but it is inconsistent with the reality that we depend on each other and need to engage with others to succeed. Individualism is easily hijacked by ego, and colorblindness is a defense mechanism to prop up our ego and highlight our individual advantages.

What Moves us to Action

Economic decisions drive human decision making more than we like to admit. We are not often driven and motivated by causes that are larger than ourselves, and at the end of the day, we fall back on economic decisions and can’t seem to escape questions about money, about possessions, and about whether we as individuals get more or less from a decision. Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow looks at how economic decisions are shaping the criminal justice system and finds that concerns about fairness and justice fall short of the impact of economic outcomes when we think about how the system should change. As an American, I want to believe that things such as a concern for individuals and families should drive our considerations of how the criminal justice system operates, but nevertheless, these factors do not seem to be able to influence the system the way that economic arguments are able to. Alexander writes,

“Many of the states that have reconsidered their harsh sentencing schemes have done so not out of concern for the lives and families that have been destroyed by these laws or the racial dimensions of the drug war, but out of concern for bursting state budgets in a time of economic recession. In other words, the racial ideology that gave rise to these laws remains largely undisturbed.”

I think that Alexander’s quote ties in nicely with a lesson from John Biewen’s podcast, Scene on Radio, and his series, Seeing White. Biewen looked at the history of slavery, especially American slavery, and explains the ways in which slavery and racism followed from the desire for economic exploitation. People had the ability and opportunity to subjugate others and to exploit people for economic purposes. From that exploitation followed excuses to rationalize those exploitative behaviors. Racism, in other words, followed from a desire to subjugate other people and to hold them down for economic benefit.

The war on drugs and our system of policing has disproportionately affected communities of color. We have incarcerated black and brown men to a much greater degree than we have arrested white men, but crime and drug use rates between white men and black men are almost identical. Alexander explains that we see changes in the criminal justice system in states where maintaining massive prison populations is becoming economically unsustainable. We are not changing our behavior out of moral principles, but out of economic hardships.

Looking at Alexander’s and Biewen’s work together reveals a common theme. Racial exploitation and subjugation follow economic incentives, and racial parity and justice is only possible in our country today if it is obviously economically beneficial. Our attitudes about others, about fairness, about justice, and about race take a back seat to our attitudes about our personal economic situation, allowing us to maintain mass incarceration systems today, and allowing our nation’s founders to exploit slaves two hundred years ago.

Racial Discrimination Today

“We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it,” Michelle Alexander writes in her book The New Jim Crow. Alexander focuses on our nation’s criminal justice system, its shortfalls, and how racial disparities exist within a system that is supposed to be colorblind. Early on in the book she writes about discrimination against criminals and compares todays discrimination against criminals to historical discrimination against black people. She writes,

“In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices e supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans.”

Alexander’s quote shows the challenges we face today in a time with less explicit racism and fewer individually racist people. People themselves may make racist jokes in the company of friends, but outward displays of racism are rare. This gives us all the sense that racism is no longer a major factor in our lives and it allows us to feel that we have overcome a great challenge in treating people more equally in this country. What we miss when we focus only on explicit racism and individual level actions are the factors that comprise larger parts of our institutions and norms.

Our criminal justice system disproportionally impacts the lives of hispanic and black people. We arrest minorities at a far greater level than we arrest white people, even though levels of drug use and crime are similar among white, black, and latino people. The result of disproportionate arresting is that white people are allowed to move beyond their mistakes and crimes and can build wealth, while people of color are haunted by their crimes and face discrimination in areas like employment, housing, and financial investing. Pretending that the system is equal because we don’t outwardly express racism hides the fact that our system is entrenched in racism and hides the structural and institutional ways in which racism has shaped our society and created disparate outcomes for people based on race. Because these issues go beyond individuals, we must work to change entire systems and policies to move beyond the current outputs of the system. Changing who we arrest is one step, but we must also shift housing and development policies, and changing housing and development requires that we take a new look at those we label as criminals. Ultimately, it requires that we look at those around us as human beings first, and look at criminal history in a new light. Moving to a point where outward displays of racism are not acceptable is good start, but we need to move forward to a point where we acknowledge the disparate impacts our society has accepted.

Policing

“The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country’s criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority.” Author Ta-Nehisi Coats wrote this in his book Between the World and Me to describe the relationship of our nation’s police force to the citizens of our country. The quote is brutal, honest, and hard to talk about, especially in today’s environment.What Coats argues is that our police behave in a way that society encourages or at the very least accepts as normal.

 

Much of the debate surrounding police shootings of African American men focus on the idea that a single bad officer made a bad decision. We understand that not all police officers are bad or act with racist motives,  but have trouble addressing crime, disparities in our criminal justice system, and trends among law enforcement and lawbreakers. We have trouble fitting personal responsibility (on both the officer’s and the criminal’s side) with societal expectations and observations. Coats encourages us to look beyond the actions of the police, and understand the climate in which the police operate. A society that truly did not accept police violence against racial minorities or against the population as a whole would not structure itself in a way that put police officers in difficult situations where they had the option to use deadly force or act in ways that allowed implicit bias to affect the lives of other people. There are choices we make as a society, and Coats argues that our society has chosen to allow a system to be in place where officers through no fault of their own intention, find themselves in situations where the use of deadly force (particularly against African American men) is justifiable in the moment, even if it does not seem justifiable in hindsight.

 

Coats argues that we cannot pin all the blame on a minority of police officers with poor attitudes. We equip our officers with weapons, send them to be the first point of contact when dealing with everyone from known criminals and gang members to psychologically traumatized but otherwise typical citizens. By organizing a society where minorities lived in tightly concentrated (and easy to police) neighborhoods, we built a system where policing and enforcing our laws lands disproportionately on certain individuals. There may not be easy solutions to these problems, but these problems did arise at least to some extent as a result of societal decisions. These decisions were made with tribal instincts operating under the surface, and often with fear driving the emotional state of individuals and communities.

 

By understanding that policing and crime does not take place in a vacuum we can understand the meaning of the quote at the start of this post. It is not just a few bad officers or individuals who have created a system that is racially charged and has lead to disparities in arrest rates or disparities in the use of deadly force. It is the will of a society that accepts violence against the poor, against racial minorities, and against those who seem dangerous that has created the explosively charged environment of our society today. Unless we acknowledge society’s role, we will never make the changes and address the issues that allow the situation to continue.