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Do Police Intentions Matter?

photograph of armed police officer

Imagine if it became widely-reported that police officers had been intentionally killing Black Americans for the expressed reason that they are Black. Public outrage would be essentially universal. But, while it is true that Black Americans are disproportionately the victims of police use of force, including lethal force, it seems unlikely that these rights violations are part of a conscious, intentional scheme on the part of those in power to oppress or terrorize Black citizens. At any rate, the official statements from law enforcement regarding these incidents invariably deny discriminatory motivations on the part of officers. Why, then, are we seeing calls to defund the police?

The slogan “Defund the Police” has been clarified by Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza on NBC’s Meet the Press: “When we talk about defunding the police, what we’re saying is, ‘Invest in the resources that our communities need.’” The underlying problem runs deep: it is rooted in an unrelenting devaluation of communities of color. Rights violations by police are part of a larger picture of racial inequality that includes economic, health, and educational disadvantages.

The sources of this inequality are mostly implicit and institutional: a product of the unconscious biases of individuals, including police officers, and prejudicial treatment “baked into” our institutions, like the justice system. That is, social inequality seems to be systemic and not an intentional program of overtly racist policies. In particular, most of us feel strongly that the all-to-frequent killing of unarmed Black citizens, though repellent, has been unintentional.

But does this distinction matter? A plausible argument could be made that the chronic, unintentional killing of unarmed Black men and women by police is morally on a par with the intentional killing of these citizens. Let me explain.

Let’s begin with the reasonable assumption that implicit racial bias, specifically an implicit devaluation of Black lives, impacts decisions made by all members of our society, including police officers. What is devaluation? Attitudes toward enemy lives in war throws some light on the concept: each side invariably comes to view enemy lives as less valuable than their own. Even unintended enemy civilian casualties, euphemistically termed “collateral damage,” become tolerable if the military objective is important enough. On the battlefield, tactical decisions must conform to a “tolerable” relation between the value of an objective and the anticipated extent of collateral damage. This relation is called “proportionality.”

By contrast, policing is intended to be a preventative exercise of authority in the interest of keeping the peace and protecting the rights of citizens, including suspected criminals. Still, police do violate rights on occasion, and police officials operate with their own concept of proportionality: use of force must be proportional to the threat or resistance the officer anticipates.

Ironically, rights violations usually occur in the name of the protection of rights; when, for example, an officer uses excessive force to subdue a thief. Often, these violations are regarded as regrettable, but unavoidable; they are justified as the price we pay for law and order. But, in reality, these violations frequently stem from implicit racial biases. What’s more, the policy of “qualified immunity” offers legal protections for police officers and this disproportionately deprives Black victims of justice in such cases. This combination of factors has led some to argue that police authority amounts to a form of State-sponsored violence. These rights violations resemble wartime collateral damage: they are unintended consequences deemed proportional to legitimate efforts to protect citizen’s rights.

Now consider the following question posed by philosopher Igor Primoratz regarding wartime collateral damage: is the foreseeable killing of civilians as a side-effect of a military operation any morally better than the intentional killing of civilians. Specifically he asks, “suppose you were bound to be killed, but could choose between being killed with intent and being killed without intent, but as a side-effect of the killer’s pursuit of his end. Would you have any reason for preferring the latter fate to the former?”

Imagine two police officers, each of whom has killed a Black suspect under identical circumstances. When asked whether the suspect’s race was relevant to the use of force, the first officer says, “No, and I regret that deadly force was proportional to the threat I encountered.” The second officer says, “Yes, race was a factor. Cultural stereotypes predispose me to view Black men as likely threats, and institutional practices in the justice system keep the stakes for the use of lethal force relatively low. Thus, I regret my use of deadly force that I considered proportional to my perception of the threat in the absence of serious legal consequences.”

The second officer’s response would be surprising, but honest. Depictions of Black men in particular as violent “superpredators” in the media, in movies, and by politicians, are ample. Furthermore, the doctrine of qualified immunity, which bars people from recovering damages when police violate their rights, offers protection to officers whose actions implicitly manifest bias.

In the absence of damning outside testimony, the first officer will be held blameless. The second officer will be said to have acted on conscious biases and his honesty puts him at risk of discipline or discharge. Although the disciplinary actions each officer faces will differ, the same result was obtained, under identical circumstances. The only difference is that the second officer made the implicit explicit, and the first officer simply denied that his own implicit bias was a factor in his decision.

Where, then, does the moral difference lie between, on one hand, the foreseeable violation of the rights of Black lives in a society that systemically devalues those lives, and, on the other hand, the intentional violation of the rights of Black lives? If the well-documented effect of racial bias in law enforcement leads us to foresee the same pattern of disproportionate rights-violations in the future, and we do nothing about it, our acceptance of those violations is no more morally justified than the acceptance of intentional right-violations.

That is, if we can’t say why the intentional violations of Black rights is morally worse than giving police a monopoly on sanctioned violence under social conditions that harbor implicit racial biases, then sanctioning police violence looks morally unjustifiable in principle. That is enough to validate the call to divert funding from police departments into better economic, health, and educational resources for communities of color.

White Skins, Black Masks: Voice Acting and Representation

photograph of Mike Henry beside poster of Cleveland character he voices

On June 26, 2020, the creators of The Simpsons announced that from now on, white actors will no longer voice the show’s non-white characters. This came a few days after Kristen Bell, Jenny Slate, and Mike Henry said that they would no longer voice characters of color on their respective shows. “Missy [a character voiced by Slate on the Netflix animated comedy Big Mouth] is Black,” Slate wrote on Instagram. “[A]nd Black characters on an animated show should be played by Black people.” Thus, there appears to be a growing belief in the ethical principle that only people of color are permitted to voice animated characters of color. Call this the Exclusive Principle.

The argument most frequently advanced for the Exclusive Principle concerns the underrepresentation of actors of color in the entertainment industry. Thus, NPR’s Eric Deggans writes that casting white actors as non-white characters “has the practical effect of reinforcing Hollywood’s damaging tendency to elevate…white performers over people of color.” There is no question that this is a serious problem: for example, while people of color make up 40% of the U.S. population, they comprise only 14% of directors, 13.9% of writers, and 32.7% of actors. But the argument for the Exclusive Principle is that following it is either sufficient or necessary to increase the representation of actors of color, and this may be doubted. To see this more clearly, consider an animated television show in which there are twenty characters, nineteen of whom are white while one is a person of color. All nineteen white characters are voiced by actors of color, while the sole person of color is voiced by a white actor. While this television show violates the Exclusive Principle, it appears to do well with respect to employing actors of color. By contrast, another television show that employs a person of color to voice its sole character of color but white actors for every other role satisfies the Exclusive Principle, but does not do well with respect to representation. Thus, following the Exclusive Principle is neither necessary nor sufficient for significantly increasing representation.

A reasonable reply is that following the Exclusive Principle would still typically have the effect of increasing representation. That may well be true. But it is also possible that only allowing people of color to voice animated characters of color is not the most effective way of employing more actors of color in animation. A better way may be to simply cast more actors of color to voice both characters of color and white characters. On the other hand, while this might theoretically be a better way of increasing representation, it might also be the case that following the Exclusive Principle is easier in practice than fulfilling this more demanding policy of casting more actors of color to voice both white and non-white characters. Since there are fewer characters of color in animated series overall, following the Exclusive Principle as a means to increase representation would require fewer ‘affirmative’ casting choices. And if showrunners are more likely to follow a policy entailing fewer such choices, then it may turn out that following the Exclusive Principle will increase representation more effectively than the more demanding policy.

In any case, my hunch is that many of those who subscribe to the Exclusive Principle would still object to the television show in which actors of color are well-represented but the sole character of color is voiced by a white actor. But this means they must have some reason for supporting the Exclusive Principle that is distinct from the representation argument. At first sight, the notion that white actors should not voice animated characters of color is a logical extension of the prohibition on black-, brown-, or yellow-face: if white actors ought not play live action characters of color, then they ought not play animated characters of color. But the validity of this extension depends upon the reasons behind the prohibition on blackface and its ilk. One reason why these practices are wrongful seems to be because of their resemblance to degrading and pejorative representations of people of color in the past, which leads to emotional harm in many who see the resemblance. We ought to avoid causing this kind of harm if there is no good moral reason to cause it; and in this case, there does not seem to be such a reason. If many are similarly harmed by the perceived resemblance between white actors voicing non-white animated characters and degrading and pejorative representations of people of color in the past, then this would be a reason to follow the Exclusive Principle. It would also explain objections to the television show in which actors of color are well-represented but the sole character of color is voiced by a white actor. There may very well be degrading or pejorative representations of people of color that the voicing of a character of color by a white actor resembles. Thus, I leave this argument open for consideration.

However, one might worry that this argument is in danger of proving too much. For instance, if no physical impersonation of a character of color by a white actor is permissible — either via the actor’s whole body or her voice alone — then it might be argued that it is impermissible for white screenwriters or novelists to write non-white characters. But following that principle may very well lead to perverse consequences, in that it might reduce the overall number of characters of color in novels, books, and TV shows. One way to block the slippery slope is to argue that impersonations of characters of color are impermissible only if they are either pejorative and degrading in themselves, or resemble some historical representation that is pejorative and degrading. It might then be argued that some impersonations of persons of color by white writers do not satisfy this condition. But if this is true, then it becomes harder to see why all vocal impersonations of persons of color by white actors satisfy this condition. And if not all of them do, then this line of argument does not strongly support the Exclusive Principle.

In her statement, Bell wrote that “[c]asting a mixed race character with a white actress undermines the specificity of the mixed race and Black American experience.” One way to interpret this claim is that white actors are unable to impersonate people of color well, precisely because they lack the requisite experience. This is an aesthetic argument; it concerns not the morality of voicing a character of color, but its goodness as art. And this might be the right way of thinking about the Exclusive Principle — not as a moral principle, but as an aesthetic one. Of course, there will probably be significant disagreement about this aesthetic claim, and I am not in a particularly good position to judge such matters. However, one wonders why a 21st-century actor could effectively give voice to, say, a 19th-century person, but not a modern-day character of color, particularly if the latter’s lines are written by a person of color. Furthermore, the political implications of the claim that even white people who are trained to use their imaginations to inhabit the mental space of people very different from themselves cannot empathize with people of color enough to impersonate them well also seem unduly pessimistic.

Society seems to be undergoing rapid change in its moral attitudes surrounding race. Many of these changes are unequivocally for the good. Even so, it is worth pausing to reflect on what exactly we wish to accomplish with these changes. As we have seen, with respect to the Exclusive Principle the key questions are whether it is the best policy to further the worthy end of promoting people of color in the entertainment industry, whether there are reasons beyond underrepresentation that are motivating its adoption, and if so, whether those reasons are ultimately valid.

Racial Health Disparities and Social Predispositions

photograph of Surgeon General Adams at podium during coronavirus briefing

Remarks made by U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams at last week’s coronavirus press briefing have sparked a heated debate. Most of the commentary surrounding those remarks has focused on accusations of patronizing language or, alternatively, the ever-expanding grip of PC culture. But the real controversy lies elsewhere. The true significance of the Surgeon General’s words rests in parsing ambiguous language; we need to know what is meant by the observation that people of color are “socially predisposed” to COVID-19 exposure, infection, and death.

The Surgeon General’s comments were aimed at addressing a troubling trend. Statistics continue to pour in underscoring racial health disparities: The population of Chicago is 30% Black, but Black people make up 70% of the city’s coronavirus deaths. Similarly, in Wisconsin’s Milwaukee County, African Americans make up 25 percent of the population, but 75 percent of the confirmed deaths. In Louisiana, Black people make up 33 percent of the population, but account for 70 percent of deaths.

What could explain these figures? Adams highlighted several of the underlying factors placing Black Americans at greater risk: they are more likely to have complicating conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease, as well as being more likely to lack access to health care. All of these factors mean that Black Americans are “less resilient to the ravages of COVID-19.”

What is more, people of color, generally, are also more likely to be exposed to infection in the first place. They are more likely to live in multi-generational homes, reside in high-density housing, and make up “a disproportionate share of the front-line workers still going to their jobs.” As Jamelle Bouie explains,

“Race […] still answers the question of ‘who.’ Who will live in crowded, segregated neighborhoods? Who will be exposed to lead-poisoned pipes and toxic waste? Who will live with polluted air and suffer disproportionately from maladies like asthma and heart disease? And when disease comes, who will be the first to succumb in large numbers?”

Skeptics continue to contend that it is reductionist to blame racism for these inequities, and offer in its stead the familiar trope of private behavior and individual choice. But casting the problem as one of personal responsibility not only overlooks the history of systemic racism and structural socioeconomic oppression — that define things like one’s housing and job opportunities which in turn determine one’s relation to this disease — it perpetuates the false narrative that the sufferer is responsible for her suffering.

And that is the problem of the language of “social predisposition,” and the subtle claim that word choice makes in regards to responsibility for racial health disparities. (If you were biologically or genetically predisposed to infection how much responsibility would you bear for contracting it? How much responsibility do you bear by being “socially predisposed”?)

One the one hand, “social predisposition” can be read as vaguely acknowledging the history of institutional racism and the consequences it has wrought (and continues to work). Structural forces have conspired (consciously and unconsciously) to disadvantage minorities and enshrine differential access to goods and opportunities on the basis of skin color. On the other hand, “social predisposition” can just as easily be understood as gesturing at social habits, predilections, and weaknesses.

Does such fine analysis of the Surgeon General’s comments make a mountain of a molehill? John McWhorter of The Atlantic, for example, describes this type of criticism of Adams’ remarks as overblown. It is inappropriate and impractical, McWhorter argues, to insist that every talking head reference the prescribed origin story whenever a racial disparity arises. “Members of a certain highly educated cohort,” McWhorter writes, “consider it sacrosanct that those speaking for or to black people always and eternally stress structural flaws in America’s sociopolitical fabric past and present as the cause of black ills.” What’s worse, “writers and thinkers give an impression that their take is simple truth, when it has actually devolved into a reflexive, menacing brand of language policing.”

But the Surgeon General’s remarks cannot themselves be regarded as neutral. The message behind “social predisposition” is ambiguous without context. But when it gets coupled with a plea aimed directly at people of color to change their habits concerning drugs and alcohol because “we need you to step up,” it starts to sound a lot less ambiguous. It threatens to transform the claim about “social predisposition” from a statement about constraining factors to a question of volition. It moves from the language of preexisting conditions to elective tendencies. It reduces structural injustice to a matter of choice.

It also changes our conversation about the link between race and health outcomes from one of correlation to one of causation. Thus, it seems only fair that other potential “causes” should get a hearing. It may not be within the Surgeon General’s purview as a public servant for national health to comment on the root cause of social injustices, but then it can’t be within his purview to subvert that project either. Even if his intention was merely to offer “wise counsel in hard times,” it matters how that advice gets heard and who all hears it.

Should POC Forgive Kanye?

Drawing of Kanye West in profile

Kanye West is arguably one of the most polarizing figures in the 21st century. The “Ultralight Beam” rapper has made headlines for the better part of two decades and continues to impact the entertainment industry. Whether that impact is positive or negative is up for debate. In the past few years, West has been amid both political and entertainment controversy, drawing support and criticism alike. In the wake of a series of disputes with fellow rappers Jay-Z and Drake, Yeezy pledged his support to controversial President Donald Trump, and in an interview with TMZ, he said that slavery was a choice. West’s words were a gut-wrenching blow to fans, especially to his black and brown fanbase. How could someone, who for so long rapped about black life say something that ludicrously diminished an institution whose implications still impact the country today went against it? The “All Falls Down” rapper had gone from saying former President Bush didn’t care about black people, to rapping about “the white man” getting paid from black consumerism, to aligning himself with a president who has been accused and found guilty of racist and misogynistic commentary. But lately, Yeezy seems to have found himself paving a road for redemption. If redemption is indeed the case, the question that lingers is: should people of color forgive Kanye?

Everyone says they “miss the old Kanye.” They miss the rapper who would rock pink polos, have a starry-eyed teddy bear on the cover of all of his early discography, and heavily incorporate gospel music and themes in his music. The self proclaimed “Christian in Christian Dior,” West’s gospel/hip-hop smashup hit “Jesus Walks” is believed to be one of the many that changed his career. But since then, people would say they miss the old Kanye so much so that he even made a song about it.

Now, such sentiment might not have as much agency as it once had. During October of 2018, after a long stretch of supporting Trump, West vowed that he was done with politics. The statement was surely a sigh of relief to POC hip-hop fans who couldn’t completely condemn West but didn’t agree with his comments on slavery and support of Trump.

Then, in early 2019, Yeezy gathered fellow A-list celebrities in an undisclosed location for what has been dubbed “Sunday Service.” In videos covering the event, Ye is shown standing with a choir dressed in all white, performing old hits such as “Jesus Walks,” and even what appears to be new music. The response to Sunday Service has been overwhelmingly positive, so much so that West brought the performance to Coachella.

Only a few months later, Yeezy brought a rendition of Sunday Service to comedian Dave Chapelle’s Gem City Shine benefit for the lives lost after a mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio.

Shortly afterward, Ye brought the performance to his hometown of Chicago, performing with fellow South Side native Chance the Rapper. Tickets for the free event were put up and all of them were claimed. In a video that has now gone viral, Yeezy is shown telling a security guard “Watch this. This is my city.” Ye then makes his way through the crowd, parting starstruck attendees in a way that unintentionally but understandably has drawn biblical references. It just so happens, too, that many people in the crowd, awestruck by Kanye, were black and brown.

It seems as if Kanye is doing what everyone has wanted–make music and gear it towards something that is positive that everyone can enjoy. With that said, one might think that the information presented answers the question of whether POC should forgive Kanye or not. But the question is should Kanye be forgiven, not do they. If the question was framed as the latter, there would be no point in evaluating Ye’s actions. The buzz and support surrounding Sunday Service indicates that many people have willingly overlooked Kanye’s past comments and allegiances. But if you look online, you can still find photos of him in a MAGA hat cocked to the side. You can still find photos and videos of him standing with Donald Trump and screenshots of the tweets supporting the President. Is this something that POC should overlook? To some, the MAGA hat is a symbol of bigotry and misogyny. Some wearers of the hat are often seen condemning diverse religions such as Islam and berating diverse sexualities such as homosexuality. While these actions affect all U.S citizens, many POC identify with these groups. Kanye has stopped talking politics, but does that mean he’s changed his beliefs as well? Does he still have that hat in his closet?  Who’s to say Ye doesn’t still secretly meet with Donald Trump and talk shop? Or he makes outlandish comments about the current state of society that would infuriate the public? If that was the case, should POC still accept what Ye has been doing?

On Instagram, Yeezy’s wife Kim Kardashian teased the tracklist for his new album “Jesus is King.” With Sunday Service in full effect and the public in Ye’s favor, the album seems as if it will be reminiscent of his past work but with something new–not quite the backpack rapper with the pink polo, and not quite the controversial artist that people both love and hate, but something in between. And maybe that’s the best way to answer whether or not Kanye should be forgiven. Some will say his past actions should be overlooked and others will say he should still be condemned. All that can be done now is to watch and see how the rest of his legacy unfolds.

Whiteness, Accessibility and the Art Museum

It is easy to think of the art museum as a clinical space. Seemingly divorced from the outside world at times, these pristine spaces and the artworks that inhabit them often could not feel farther from real-life political struggles. Yet these sanitized, white gallery walls and climate-controlled rooms play host to a number of political debates that are intimately connected to the world beyond the museum gates.

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