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From Blackface to Homophobic Tweets: Prioritizing Deontology over Consequentialism?

Governor Ralph Northam delivers a speech

Though 2019 has only just begun, several politicians and celebrities have already become embroiled in scandals concerning their past conduct, with proof of racism, homophobia, and sexism coming to light online through social media. The most recent debate has centered newly elected Virginia governor Ralph Northam, who appears in a racist photo circulated online from his 1984 medical school yearbook on February 1. The picture, which features Northam, shows two people standing side-by side, one in blackface and one in a Klu Klux Klan outfit. It is unclear which person is Northam, but he has admitted that one of the people in the photo is him. Democrats and Republicans alike over the past weekend have called for Northam to resign over the photo, as well as the NAACP. It seems as though everyone is in agreement that Northam’s actions were unacceptable and call for a resignation. However, in an opinion article in The Guardian, Shanita Hubbard points out the clear disconnect that many have between racist actions and racist policies. Hubbard does not intend to undermine the seriousness of blackface, but rather contends that “Policies that harm black bodies deserve the same outrage as blackface.” Is Hubbard right that actions that lead to racist ends deserve the same moral weight as those that treat people as a means for entertainment? Is one worse than the other? And how can we interpret the societal reaction, or lack thereof, in response to racism through the lens of moral philosophy?

Blackface is undoubtedly racist, both in its origins and in its function as in act in the modern day. Blackface in the United States was used as a way to mock, denigrate, and perpetuate racial stereotypes about black people throughout and following the history of slavery, with white actors and “comedians” impersonating black people during minstrel shows throughout the mid-19th century into the 20th. Though many caught wearing blackface in the modern day claim ignorance to its racist history, the essential function of blackface is to use black bodies as a means to an end — usually comedy, the perpetuation of stereotypes or the reinforcement of white supremacy.

The use of a person or group of people and their skin color as a means to an end can be interpreted most clearly as morally abhorrent under a deontological moral philosophy. In deontological ethics, actions are good or bad “because of some characteristic of the action itself” rather than the outcome of the action. Immanuel Kant is one of the most renowned deontological ethical philosophers. He believed in a supreme principle of morality which could be used to justify all other moral obligations. Kant’s Categorical Imperative includes the idea that it is immoral to use someone merely as a means to an end, and that all people regardless of the circumstances must be treated as an end in themselves. The action of blackface clearly violates this principle, and it might in part be that for this reason people across many political and philosophical ideologies react strongly in condemnation, while failing to assign the same condemnation to other racist actions which lead to racist outcomes.

Hubbard addresses this problem in her article, arguing that “If the litmus test for accountability is transparent racism, then this same vigor must be applied to policies and practices and the politicians who impose them.” Why is it that many are willing to condemn an action which uses a person or group as a means, but aren’t as eager to condemn actions that harm people based on these same identities?

One stark example that Hubbard gives is the issue of voter suppression, which often impacts people of color, specifically African-Americans, more than any other group. Politicians such as Brian Kemp, who have been responsible for the widespread implementation of voter suppression, have not been met with the call to resign as strongly as politicians such as Northam. Hubbard chalks up the difference in reaction to racist actions and racist policies to a difference in the blatancy, and the ability of politicians to hide behind the supposed amorality of their policies. However, Hubbard’s frustration can also be directly linked to a moral system which condemns on the basis of the consequences of one’s actions. This type of moral philosophy is known as consequentialism, and it gives no bearing to the intention of an actor, but rather the harm caused by their actions. While Hubbard is not calling for such a moral philosophy to take precedent, she is pointing out the clear lack of support for using this doctrine as a standard when it comes to racism.

One might also interpret this problem to arise from the moral doctrines society believes to be fundamental in combination with which groups are included within these moral philosophies. Another example of outrage over the use of a group as a means to an end is the controversy which surrounded Kevin Hart in December concerning tweets and comments from his past which were blatantly homophobic. Hart used homophobia for comedy and also social status, which was met with public outrage strong enough to have him removed from hosting the 2019 Oscars. However, similar backlash and condemnation is not always met with politicians or celebrities who implement or donate to causes which perpetuate the marginalization of LGBTQ+ folks. In this situation, which mirrors that of Northam, it seems that it is more mainstream to condemn a person for using a person or group as a means but not to condemn a person for causing substantial harm to a person or a group.

The application of these moral principles to both these situations is not to imply that the unified condemnation comes out of a place of genuine concern from all those doing the condemning. In fact, the concern about the racist actions of Governor Northam from the right may very well be, as Chauncey Devega argues “an opportunity to score political points by distracting public attention” from the wrongs committed by the Republican party when it comes to issues of racial justice. Without giving credit to those making the argument as being ‘moral’ ones, we can still assess the basic function of the argument in its appeal to the public’s ethos. Further still, incidences of blackface may not represent just one morally wrong action, but be a symptom of a larger moral problem within society. It is also important to note that while these philosophies may be used as guiding principles for how one assesses moral blame, they do not always necessarily, or have historically, extended to all people in society. However, it is important for us to truly assess why we believe an action or a person is immoral so that we understand the moral values present or lacking in our society.

“This Crazy Anxious World”: Racism or Political Correctness?

Photograph of tennis athlete Serena Williams with a crowd behind her

Last week a cartoon of Serena Williams appeared in the Herald Sun, a tabloid newspaper published in Melbourne, Australia. The subject was Williams’ dispute with the referee during the women’s US Open tennis championship final. The way cartoonist Mark Knight drew Williams has been compared to caricatures and illustrations of African Americans from the US during the Jim Crow era. The cartoon was picked up and shared widely on Twitter in the US where it dominated the media and was resoundingly criticised as racist, and it provoked widespread anger and condemnation internationally. In the wake of the response to his cartoon, Knight was subject to a torrent of vitriol and abuse on Twitter, and his account was suspended after threats were made against him and his family.

Knight is a Walkley Award winning, highly respected cartoonist and he reacted with surprise and trepidation to the response. Defending the cartoon he claimed that it was about Williams’ actions on the court and not about race or gender. He said: “The cartoon about Serena is about her poor behaviour on the day, not about race. The world has gone crazy.”

Meanwhile, in response to the controversy, the Herald Sun doubled down, republishing the drawing of Williams on its front page accompanied by other of Knight’s satirical depictions of public figures, with the ‘headline’ “Welcome to PC World.” In several editorials the paper defended Knight’s claim that his cartoon merely depicts Williams ‘having a tantrum’ (in Knight’s words). Many a pundit complained bitterly that political correctness is effectively censoring satire, and that there is a general overzealousness for finding grave offence where it is not intended. The outrage provoked by Knight’s cartoon was dismissed ass hypersensitivity. Cartoonist Paul Zanetti wrote: “that’s a default position of a lot of people to be triggered into being offended… it’s PC madness.”

Michael Leunig, another Australian veteran award-winning cartoonist wrote, in Knight’s defense:

It’s getting harder to be a cartoonist in this crazy anxious world – in this fragile angry humourless environment where leniency and understanding are in dangerous decline, and where psychic infections spread chaotically on social media with terrible consequences.

If a bit overwrought, nevertheless he strikes a chord. Knight’s defenders take him at his word that his drawing contains no allusions to the racist caricatures to which it is likened. We will return to the question of whether this defense can stand. Leaving aside Knight’s cartoon for a moment, whatever else it may be, this argument is a flashpoint for the political correctness versus free speech dispute that is becoming increasingly vexed in contemporary political and social discourse.

A certain disaffection with political correctness is breaking out on many sides of the political spectrum. From the left Slavoj Žižek complains, “there is something… fake about political correctness.” He thinks that “without a tiny exchange of friendly obscenities you don’t have real contact with another, it remains cold respect… we need this to establish real contact. This is what is lacking, for me, in political correctness.” He has in mind the kind of humorous exchange where people can make fun of each other – something that might be thought of as respectful disrespect. And he implies that such exchanges add colour and depth to our interactions with others.

On the other hand, from the point of view of the conservative right, political correctness is construed as a danger to freedom of speech – because it acts as an injunction on certain sorts of opinions being aired in public. This view was epitomised by George Brandis, erstwhile Attorney General of Australia, who famously proclaimed that “people have a right to be bigots”, reflecting a growing sense in some quarters that political correctness is a form of censorship threatening other rights.

Free speech isn’t absolutely free because it doesn’t licence hate-speech or speech inciting violence. Yet free speech inevitably leaves some possibility for giving offense. (The reason for this is rather more practical than ethical – in a pluralistic society people have different beliefs and values and also different customs of expression and idiom.) The question is where and how the line ought to be drawn. That is why, in terms of the importance of free speech for a free and open democratic society, the distinction between free speech and hate speech is so important.

Cartoons of the ilk of Mark Knight’s can be penetrating and revealing, and are almost always barbed. Knight has depicted Pauline Hansen, a populist Australian politician as a cane toad, Harvey Weinstein as Jabba the Hut and Donald Trump as a white-cat-stroking super villain with ‘stupid hair’. None of which is pretty. Satire as a medium walks the line between humour and ridicule, and it is usually offensive in some sense.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines political correctness as: “conforming to a body of liberal or radical opinion, esp. on social matters, usually characterized by the advocacy of approved causes or views, and often by the rejection of language… considered discriminatory or offensive.”

Given that, as the definition indicates, PC has usually stemmed from a socially progressive agenda, it has often been a source of irritation, sometimes outrage, for social conservatives.

Yet the core value of political correctness is about rejecting discriminatory and offensive language. Though the term has become somewhat pejorative of late, it is, at its core, about not causing others hurt and offense by not using words, idioms, images, etc. with intrinsically pernicious meanings – meanings that are often tied to historical iterations of racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of oppression. Political correctness is concerned with rooting out casually degrading language from everyday discourse and in this it has been important to the social progress made in raising awareness of forms of degradation embedded in our social and cultural milieu.   

So, back to the Serena Williams cartoon: Knight claims that he was not drawing on the kinds of racist depictions of black Americans his cartoon has been criticised for resembling; he says that they were not on his mind as he satirised William’s ‘tantrum’.  But should they have been? It seems genuinely true that the cartoon was not drawn with malicious intent, yet looking at the drawing it is difficult to miss its likeness to those racist images, and difficult to escape the conclusion that Knight’s depiction of Williams is indeed connected with that imagery – consciously or not.

The salient point is that the images of black Americans from the Jim Crow era were produced and used as a way to humiliate and dehumanize an already deeply wronged people. They were used to enculturate and justify enforced racial segregation by perpetrating hateful stereotypes and so were part of the apparatus of oppression. Contemporary depictions of African Americans that resemble them are culturally loaded because of that history in a way that Knight was insensitive to.

Even if Knight doesn’t know it, his depiction of Williams is recalls the portrayals of black people that participated in their oppression. His cartoon is not divorced from that history. That is to say, racism is not only an actively pursued ideology; racism isn’t always manifested from a fully formed prejudice or conscious hatred (though, of course, in some quarters it is). It can also be manifest in a passive acceptance of a status quo which harbors stereotypes that are harmful. Part of the legacy of racism that we are still dealing with is the ways in which it is so embedded that sometimes it is simply not seen.

Roseanne Barr and Samantha Bee: Political Comedy’s Unwritten Rules

Photo of television static

At the end of May, Rosanne Barr, star of a hit TV sitcom, tweeted that Valerie Jarrett, a black advisor to President Obama, was (somehow) the offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood and The Planet of the Apes. ABC cancelled her show and apologized to Jarrett. Then, a few days after the Barr incident, Samantha Bee, star of a political comedy show, called Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and advisor, a “feckless c***” for insensitively posting a picture of herself holding her young son in the midst of growing attention to the way children are being separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border. She apologized, as did her network, TBS, but she wasn’t fired.

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Should the NFL’s Players Have to Pay to Protest?

Photo of San Francisco 49ers players kneeling during the National Anthem.

This May, the NFL announced a new policy—any team with a member who kneels during the National Anthem will have to pay a fine. The policy was decided by a vote of the team owners.  Union representatives for the players were not aware of the decision until it was announced. This new policy is a change in tone from the attitudes the league expressed last year and is a further development in an ongoing controversy sparked by players’ decision to protest by taking a knee during the National Anthem.  In August 2016, Colin Kaepernick made headlines for kneeling during the anthem in protest of violence perpetrated by police officers against people of color. Kaepernick no longer plays for the 49ers or any NFL team.  Amnesty International recently honored him with the 2017 Ambassador of Conscience Award.

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From Minstrel Shows to The Simpsons: Racism in American Comedy

Image of plastic figures of Simpsons characters sitting on a couch

For nearly 30 years, The Simpsons has been making tongue-in-cheek jokes and chronicling, albeit satirically, the American way of life. As the longest-running cartoon in American television history, the show has had generational range in its influence, which is a rare feat in a modern, Netflix-binging society. In many ways, The Simpsons set the precedent for satirical cartoons and sitcoms to come, with its exaggerated depictions of the stereotypical American family. But it is not only the American family that The Simpsons has stereotyped in the last 29 years; they have also targeted characters ranging from CEOs to clowns. Continue reading “From Minstrel Shows to The Simpsons: Racism in American Comedy”

DePauw in The Trump Era: Has Trump Influenced Racist Incidents on Campus?

Image of students with banner that reads "We are not safe"

Race. It’s an unavoidable topic in today’s social and political climate. After centuries of racial tension in the United States, it’s a subject that still persists, leaving many hurt or enraged. It seems almost ironic that amidst the swirl of racial tension, the President of the United States promotes racial tension through his actions. Now, racist occurrences have been happening across the country long before Trump took office. But, it seems as if racists have been more open about conveying their distaste for people of color, and it makes one wonder if Donald Trump’s’ presidency is the source of this open racism, or at least contributes to it. With that said, DePauw has experienced a plethora of racist occurrences on campus. Could it be that Trump’s condoning of– and even facilitation of– racism encourages individuals at DePauw to be racist towards people of color?
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Who is Welcome at Starbucks?

Image of the Starbucks logo

Most Starbucks customers have spent a good number of non-paying hours in Starbucks stores—waiting for a friend, writing a paper or grading one, staying warm, or just chilling. And most regular customers will admit to an occasional purchase-free visit to the store just for the purpose of using the bathroom. But when two black men in Philadelphia went to a store in Rittenhouse Square for a business meeting and asked for the bathroom key, having ordered nothing first, it was only two minutes before an employee called 911. The police showed up minutes later, handcuffed the two and put them in a squad car. Only after nine hours at police headquarters, with Starbucks declining to press trespassing charges, were they released.

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Does Implicit Bias Explain Gender Discrimination?

Photo of men's and women's bathroom stall signs

Implicit bias is a concept that’s been enormously useful to feminists grappling with the way progress for women has stalled in some areas. Women are still under 5 percent of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. They still make considerably less per hour than men for doing the same work. Women are still just 20 percent of PhD engineers and around the same percentage of philosophers. They still haven’t made it into the pantheon of US presidents, and only 23 out of the current members of the US Senate are women.

It’s all difficult to explain, especially if you don’t believe that women as a group have distinctive interests or aptitudes. But then, what’s going on? Outright sexism and misogyny aren’t exactly rare in the US, but neither are they common. Thus, if you suspect bias is at the root of the underrepresentation problem, implicit bias is a welcome concept.

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Is the Media to Blame for Police Brutality?

Photograph of protest with boy in foreground, a sign in the background saying "end police brutality"

Police brutality is a painful and all-too-familiar concept when the plight of black people is brought up. Although police abuse of African Americans has been prevalent in the United States for decades, the years 2012 and 2013 are especially significant. It was in 2012 that Trayvon Martin was murdered by George Zimmerman. The following year, Zimmerman was found not guilty of second degree murder and was acquitted of manslaughter. Since then, there’s been a trend of police killing unarmed black people. Since Martin’s death, African American males such as Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, and most recently, Stephon Clark have lost their lives because of police brutality. After so many lives lost, one might wonder why there is no solution to prevent the police from killing unarmed African American men. Police departments have tried retraining their officers with the hopes of them making the right decision when dealing with suspects– particularly suspects of color. Yet black men still lose their lives. Perhaps, in order to solve the issue of police brutality, we need to truly understand it. Although police brutality stems from bigotry and carelessness, especially the former, the key to why police officers kill black males might be rooted in how they developed their racist conventions. Could it be that the contemporary media landscape is contributing to the death of black males by police officers? Continue reading “Is the Media to Blame for Police Brutality?”

An Experiment in Inequality at the Street Food Stall

An image of a street food vendor preparing a sandwich

During February, Saartj, a New Orleans food stall serving Nigerian lunches, has been conducting a social experiment. In response to a rapidly growing wage gap between white people and people of color in New Orleans, they are offering lunches for $12 and suggesting that customers who identify as white pay $30 instead: the adjusted price that represents the disparity in income between African Americans and whites. Chef Tunde Way set up his pop-up food stall in order to stimulate discussion of the wage gap and to spread awareness of the statistics of the incomes in New Orleans. The social experiment has been collecting data, asking customers to complete surveys through February 28. Preliminary results suggest that 80 percent of white customers select to pay the $30 rate for their meals. The extra money collected is to be redistributed to minorities who frequent the stall (though not many have signed up for the money).

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The Complex, Yet Remarkably Straightforward, Ethics of the N-Word

A photo of Ta-Nehisi Coates speaking at a lecture

The United States is rife with cultural taboos. Some common taboos native to the United States include topics such as religion, abortion, and polygamy. But perhaps the most infamous of taboos in the United States is race, specifically pertaining to African Americans. Since individuals of African descent were seen as profitable due to their forced labor, the “n-word” has become part of the English vernacular. The n-word has persisted through history, not only as a racial slur but as a reminder of the history of black people. The n-word has even morphed into a more modern form, changing from the hard -er to a more common -a. Although the historical implications of the n-word and its variants are widely known, it still seems as if there is confusion as to why the n-word shouldn’t be used by those who are not of African descent, raising the question of why some non-black people think that use of the n-word is acceptable.

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All Hail the King

image of photographers and fans with actors of the Black Panther film

In 1966, comic creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced a new character in issue #52 of the Fantastic Four. It all started when Reed Richards, Mr. Fantastic, (the guy who stretches, for those who don’t know) was gifted with a high-tech space craft from a mysterious “African chieftan” and was invited to meet him. Mr. Fantastic and the rest of the Fantastic Four obliged and visited this mysterious African chieftan, only to discover that his true identity was T’Challa, king of an advanced country called Wakanda and possessor of the mantle of the Black Panther.
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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and the Ethics of Black Humor

a panorama of a rural Missouri landscape

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (directed by Martin McDonagh and starring Frances McDormand) has been showered with praise since it came out in November. It’s been nominated for seven Oscars and received the Golden Globe for Best Picture of 2017. The critics love it and audiences love it, but there’s a contingent that thinks the movie is marred by racism. It makes a dark joke out of a police officer’s history of harassing black prisoners, and that’s allegedly unacceptable. Consider, though, what these critics apparently see as acceptable forms of black humor—considering that they only complain about the racism. (Spoiler alert: I’ll be holding back nothing.)

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Was Obama Truly a Post-Racial President?

A photo of Barack Obama speaking behind a podium.

“There is not a liberal America and a conservative America—there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America… there’s the United States of America.” These words were pronounced by Barack Obama in the 2004 Democratic Convention. A relatively obscure politician at the time, this speech proved to be momentous, as it struck a chord with American voters, and four years later, Obama was the first African American president elected in U.S. history.

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Should DePauw be Concerned about First-Year Students of Color?

A photo of DePauw's music school.

DePauw’s student of color community is incredibly unique, in the sense that each and every individual hails from a myriad of backgrounds. However, their diversity can call for major adaptation when coming to DePauw, a predominantly white institution (PWI). The process of adaptation can be made even more difficult if a student of color’s identity is tested through negative interactions with their white counterparts, as well as negative forces that push into DePauw’s campus.

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The Ethics Behind the Kanye West-Taylor Swift Feud

A photo of Taylor Swift at a press conference

The Kanye West and Taylor Swift feud has recently reignited with the release of Swift’s music video for her song, titled “Look What You Made Me Do.” And with this renewal of their feud, it is important to understand the basic issues with both parties; indeed, the intersecting forms of of oppression both artists face must be taken into account when picking a side in the ongoing Swift-Kanye feud.

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Please Don’t Punch the Nazis

Neo-Nazis at the Charlottesville rally

I’m not sure what to call the August 11 fascist cosplay in Charlotte VA. Ridicule and mockery seem out of place when discussing an event where organizers called for, and followed through with, the execution of other human beings. Whatever that display of vileness is called, the leaders are afraid to show their faces in public.  Richard Spencer, the punched-face of Neo-Nazism is reportedly afraid to leave his home for fear of, well, being punched. He whinges, “I have never felt like the government or police were against me. There has never been a situation in my life when I’ve felt this way.” He has not found common ground with Black Lives Matter, The Anti-Defamation League or any other group he wants to eradicate from the earth.  He feels oppressed because the police are not sufficiently protecting and assisting his efforts to foment genocide.

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Was the Civil War a “War of Northern Aggression?”

A photo of a confederate flag flying over Columbia, South Carolina

Make no mistake: racism is a big problem in the US, and the far right hate groups that recently assembled in Charlotesville, Virgina, killing one anti-racism activist, deserve full blown condemnation, as opposed to President Trump’s lukewarm response. Let’s also be absolutely clear about something: Robert E. Lee (whose statue in Charlotesville was taken down, which sparked the hate groups’ manifestations) was a slave owner and the General of an army that fought for the right to preserve slavery, and there is no rational way that slavery could ever be justified.

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A Question of Responsibility for Biased 911 Callers

The caller said the student had a gun. Placed on the night of May 1 to Colgate University’s campus safety department, the call provoked a full-scale lockdown of the upstate New York college. For four hours, students waited in their dorms as police combed the campus for the shooter. Soon, though, it became clear that the caller had been wrong. There was no active shooter. Instead, the caller had seen a black student walking into an academic building holding a glue gun.

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The Implicit Bias of Zero Tolerance Policies

The promise of free and compulsory public education in the United States is the basis for an equal and educated citizenry and the foundation of our democracy. According to most, equal access to education levels the playing field and is the ultimate provider of social mobility and economic opportunity; therefore, we have the duty to inspect what threatens this access.

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