Perspectives: A Review of 2014
(Swans - December 31, 2014) I call the year 2014 a year of transition, not only from a national standpoint but from a personal one. I left the coldness and smog of self-importance that characterized the Washington, D.C. ethos for the familiar, sunnier, yet brain-dead, body-image-obsessed climes of south Florida. (1) Now don't get me wrong: I like warm winters and to be able to walk barefoot on the beaches in south Florida during the winter. However, as an African American, I have to proceed cautiously since these days -- in Florida and elsewhere -- just being outside and being black is open season for a renegade police force that targets us. In addition to that, as I have from time to time visited the restaurants along Miami Beach's Ocean Drive, I often do have to wait longer than lighter skinned clientele, which is strange because the hosts are practically begging people who are walking by their establishments to dine with them. No such luck for me when I walk down the sidewalks in those parts. I usually have a wait of about ten to fifteen minutes: even on a slow day.
Of course the contrary of this narrative is told by the media -- our president seeks to latch on to that narrative himself -- that America has become a post-racial society. In fact, pundits point to the very fact of the Obama presidency as proof that we are living in a post-racial society. I don't think I have ever encountered a more porous, malleable term. Does living in a post-racial society mean that we are living in a society that no longer makes distinctions based upon racial categories? I don't think so. For one, most people, media and non-media people alike, still refer to the being of a "black" or "African American" community: as if this were a social entity uniquely defined by certain empirical characteristics, such as skin color, hair texture, particular vocal inflections, a love of hip hop and gospel, and so forth, while failing to admit to variances or divergences within that very community (yeah, that black guy from Portland, Oregon, who has a nasal, brisk vocal inflection and who listens to Nirvana really isn't black according to this false essentialist logic).
Does living a post-racial society mean or is equivalent to the idea that we are living in a post-racist society? This I think is generally the import of such a question, and considering what has happened in recent months with African American male encounters with white law enforcement officers, I believe that the answer to that question is a resounding no. Racial profiling is a racist frame of mind that many people of the support-the-police-without-question crowd have no problem with allowing our police officers to use in their work, and they would say that statistics are on their side in terms of how many black males commit crimes versus non-black males (the rates of incarceration would also support that crowd's thinking). Yet have people like this stopped to consider that police profiling is fallacious in itself? It would be -- especially if we think of ourselves as good capitalists -- imprudent to dump the entire apple cart because of the discovery of some bad apples. Yet in a criticism that appeals to our own sense of fairness, our own sense of justice, in our capitalist society, we believe that skin color should not matter in terms of what the individual has to offer to an employer or, from a community standpoint, we do not believe that skin color should be a barrier to the good that an individual can offer to his/her community.
Yet racial profiling -- what America is familiar with and what America has condoned since the days of Reconstruction -- undercuts those things. Those who are profiled and have/are not doing anything wrong feel resentment and feel that their society, a society which condones this behavior among its law enforcement, does not value them or the contributions that they can make to it or already do make to it: that they are second-class citizens who are criminal by nature. In that regard I think may black males -- including myself -- would agree that the very practice of racial profiling is a significant fact of life in America: a fact that would seem to reject the idea that we are living in a post-racial society, if that is to mean that we are living in a post-racist society.
The transitional nature of this year has forced me to return to the teaching of an old discipline, philosophy, which I haven't taught in well over a decade (I've taught history off and on for the past five years). However in coming back to that discipline, the events that I have been talking about above allowed for teaching moments in my classes. While traditional ethical philosophers and ethics courses still try to treat ethics as an exercise in the application of abstract principles or abstract theories, eventually I wanted my students to consider racial profiling and police brutality from an ethical standpoint. When we tried to grasp these events from the standpoint of abstract moral theories, students felt constrained by the theories and in some case thought that the theories had no credible applications to the scenarios that have I have discussed. For example, one can say that in terms of a social contract theory that Eric Garner broke the social contract that forbids the selling of loose cigarettes but something is utterly wrong with the social contract if it warrants his death as just punishment for breaking that contact. Such ethical theories suck the air out of the room and out of the conversation. Yes, we all can't breathe!
This year has seen me transition more and more into an advocate of adjunct faculty rights. As most people know (or should know), colleges and universities are relying more upon adjunct labor to provide instruction and most counts show that adjuncts constitute 60-70% of the college teaching force but average from $2-3K per course, which is not enough to pay rent, pay student loans, and have a decent standard of living. The term "wage theft" has cropped up in adjunct organizing circles, rightly so because colleges and universities are stealing our labor in paying us at piss poor levels: the adjunct movement is as far as I can see becoming more and more aligned with the Occupy movement. Wage theft is a universal problem and, returning to my time this year teaching ethical theory, is itself a moral issue. I am quite amazed about the fact that in the textbooks that I am required to use in the ethics courses, none of them has any of Marx's writings in them, but I think this is perhaps the consequence of the triumphalism that still exists in the West since the "fall" of communism in the late 1980s. Yes, so communist governments bankrupted themselves or fell because of people rebelling against it or fell because the likes of Gorbachev or Havel ushered in reforms. Capitalism, the way of the West, won, say the Reaganites or supply-siders (we could even just call them "neoliberals" these days). Yet how does an economic system "win" when it is prone to market manipulation -- or in a word, unethical practices among financiers and money "experts" -- that inevitably crashes the economy and puts people out of work? Not to beat a dead horse again but it seems as if "too big to fail" means that Western governments will continue to subsidize bank risks, that will not only create wage theft (i.e., taxpayers being forced to bail out these industries) but job theft.
This is an interesting predicament, at least in the States, where in the next year the American Congress (the House and the Senate), with Republican majorities, will continue to push this dangerous agenda -- the same agenda that, by the way, was the same economic agenda of the Bush administration, which the American people supposedly endorsed through election and re-election and then repudiated with the Obama presidency. What I find fascinating is the very inconsistent or rather contradictory nature of the voting public in America: the fact that most people, even Republican voters, distance themselves from the Bush presidency yet vote for people who nevertheless advocate his economic policies. No wonder my profession, education, is constantly under attack, constantly facing corporatization efforts, to keep us from reminding people of the mistakes of history and mistakes in thinking perpetrated by both the populace and politicians it elects. If this was a transitional year, the only constant that seems to persist year after year after year is that Americans continue to be uninformed about the candidates they elect as well as allow racial profiling and police brutality to remain valid as methods for fighting crime, which would seem to go hand in hand with a country that endorses torture. In this transitional year I think America has lost all claim to being a moral ideal and has succumbed to the very national vice: the outright abandonment of equality and human rights that we once vigorously sought to protect.1. There are many stories to tell about Washington but the height of self-importance occurred when I was in a Capitol Hill restaurant when a barmaid apparently gave a young customer the wrong drink. The customer not only told her that much but then he also proceeded to tell her how he was an intern to a congressional staffer who worked for a particular Congressman, and that not only would he not return to the establishment again if she didn't get his order corrected but that he would also inform the Congressman not to eat at said establishment. This customer was at the bottom of a government totem pole but yet he thought that he was close enough to the levers of power that he could force the barmaid to do something that naturally falls within her job duties. But that's D.C. in a nutshell; although the smog of self-importance does dissipate somewhat the further out from D.C. you travel.
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About the Author
Harvey E. Whitney, Jr. is a doctoral candidate in history at Florida State University and teached medieval and modern global history at Howard Community College in Maryland. Curently, he teaches philosophy courses at Miami Dade College. To learn more, please visit his Web site at http://hewhitney.com/. (back)
1. There are many stories to tell about Washington but the height of self-importance occurred when I was in a Capitol Hill restaurant when a barmaid apparently gave a young customer the wrong drink. The customer not only told her that much but then he also proceeded to tell her how he was an intern to a congressional staffer who worked for a particular Congressman, and that not only would he not return to the establishment again if she didn't get his order corrected but that he would also inform the Congressman not to eat at the said establishment. This customer was at the bottom of a government totem pole but yet he thought that he was close enough to the levers of power that he could force the barmaid to do something that naturally falls within her job duties. But that's DC in a nutshell; although the smog of self-importance does dissipate somewhat the further out from DC you travel. (back)