Posted by: HAT | December 4, 2014

What “Complicated” Means

Drawing of a bishop leading catechism class, maybe ca. 19th century

Is this a misprint? Because it says all have sinnned …

Hi, Gang!

I have realized that I don’t always say what I mean.

In particular, lately, I have said “it’s complicated” a lot, in conversations with some of my white friends and associates – as in “well, race in the United States is complicated …” or “well, these conversations are complicated.”

What I mean by that, in context, is usually something like “I disagree. I disagree with what you just said, and I think it proceeds from your fundamental ignorance of the meaning of racism, the nature of institutional racism, and how institutional racism operates to allow people with white privilege to feel good about themselves while continuing to hold views and advocate policies that perpetuate race-based inequality on level after level, and to impede efforts to lessen that inequality. I think you are ignoring the way the legacy of racism in the United States has played a role in the social structures that condition our lives – for instance, how poverty and race intersect, how that conditions residential patterns, and how residential patterns, race, and class condition interactions with the police and the criminal justice system in the United States, leading to differential rates of criminal behavior and incarceration for white and black people, even at similar levels of income. And notice, I say “condition” and not “determine,” because yes, I know that “individuals have choices,” but I also happen to think that there is something wrong with expecting some people, like poor black young men, to make heroic choices and sacrifices in order to accomplish things that other people, like affluent white young men, get to take for granted without having done anything special, or even when having done many many things wrong.* I think you are ignoring how all of that conditioning and the differential life experience that it gives rise to informs people’s assumptions about the police and the criminal justice system, and their expectations, and how that explains and frankly, justifies, the differences in perception of and trust in “the system” by black and white Americans. But I do not want to have that whole tiresome conversation with you, because it would take a long time and I would have to work hard not to get mad at you and because you will probably not listen to me anyway having already decided you are right and I am wrong, and because I don’t want to have to catch you up on my first two years of college right now.”

In other words, I don’t tell the truth, and I’m condescending on top of it.

I doubt that helps.

* Here’s a report from the Washington Post with some data about this “heroic choices” business. I got the link from Bromleigh McCleneghan’s reflection on the meaning of “we” in the Christian Century, which I appreciated.


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