Toby Buckle has done an episode on dehumanisation on his Political Philosophy podcast which I strongly recommend. OK, it’s rather over an hour, but I think well worth a listen. It takes him some time to get there, but in the last third of the podcast he raises an issue which has been troubling me a lot.
An absolutely standard response from people with significantly more conservative political view than mine to the multiple examples which have come up of mainly black people being shockingly treated by police, mostly in the US but also in my own country, has been that “they’re a criminal”. Not that they have at some point in their lives done something which is against the law, but they ARE a criminal. Somehow, this seems to excuse treating them as not entirely human, not entitled to the same respect for life and limb as the rest of us – and I note that in both our countries, the principle of “innocent until found guilty” applies, and similarly previous conduct is not generally considered a sufficient reason to believe that a crime has been committed on this occasion (in the UK, it is something which is not allowed to be raised by the prosecution before a verdict except in special circumstances).
This even extends to suggesting that people are already excluded from being treated as citizens with all the normal rights of a citizen because they have “failed to comply with an order” of a law officer (which has sometimes included arguing that the order is not lawful), because they have crossed the street at the wrong point, because they have a defective tail light on their vehicle… Or, of course, because they are black, and therefore conform to a description in which the only salient point of similarity is “black man”, or on the somewhat spurious basis that they are more likely to have committed a crime because they are black (or, in this country, sometimes west asian) – which is, I suppose, statistically correct, but neglects the fact that they are still, at worst, only around 5% likely to have committed some provable crime. Indeed, sometimes, just standing in the street (or on their own property) or walking along the wrong street at the wrong time, or having no home seems sufficient. There is a clip from “Not the Nine O’Clock News” from 1979 which is satire – but these days, it has come to look so much like actuality as to be painful to watch.
Our theory, in both countries, is that if someone does commit a crime, the court sentences them to some punishment and when that is expired then “their debt to society is paid”. But neither country actually practises this; ex-offenders find it somewhere between difficult and impossible to get a job, for instance, (unless they lie on job applications and so commit an offence of fraud) which propels them straight back into crime. In the UK, despite the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, which is designed to underline this principle by making it legal for people not to mention a conviction after some years have passed (varying depending on the offence and sentence), insurers can ignore this (which means ex-offenders can’t get insurance – and sometimes not having insurance is an offence), employers sometimes find devious ways round the provision, and any position involving a position of care for others (particularly children) also circumvents the Act. In the USA, not infrequently, ex-offenders are denied the vote as well (it is notable that the European Court of Human Rights has determined that voting is a human right which should as a general rule be retained even by prisoners serving a sentence, something which the UK signally fails to implement). This is, of course, not to mention the forced labour in the US prison system, which is effectively a modern slavery.
So, it appears that in both countries, although far more so in the US than the UK, we are creating individuals with only partial human rights, only partial citizenship – and, if you are effectively allowed to shoot someone without being prosecuted and jailed merely because they are “a criminal”, that is effectively a form of outlawry, stripping away the most fundamental human right of all.
It’s worse than that, however, if you’re a Christian (and even these days, a majority of people in the UK self-describe that way, and a massive proportion in the US). I could rehearse the list of instances from the gospels where Jesus made it clear that no-one was outside the circle of humanity, the circle of his followers, and indeed “the last shall be first and the first shall be last”. Women, children, the disabled, members of foreign occupying forces, collaborators with the invaders, heretics, foreigners, even members of a hereditary enemy country were all to be included. However here, I want to concentrate on one instance, the thief on the cross. “Today you will be with me in paradise” is fairly unambiguous – the man was a condemned criminal and hadn’t even clearly repented his crime, but he was still included. It is not open to us as Christians to treat “criminals” as less than fully human, fully Children of God.
Just to underline this, St. Paul had some words to say in Romans 3:10-12 (inter alia) on the subject of criminality, borrowed from either Psalm 14 or Psalm 53: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” If there is any temptation in our minds to say “Ah well, I am not a criminal”, we should read that – and ask ourselves whether we have ever contravened a traffic regulation, fudged our taxes a little or employed someone for cash (conspiracy to commit tax fraud), overstated an insurance claim, puffed up our resume to get a job or overstated our achievements in order to get social approval, or, perhaps even been standing on or walking down the wrong street at the wrong time – and that’s only considering laws which we actually know about, given that almost no-one knows all the law – ignorance of which is no excuse (“ignorantia juris haud excusat”).
OK, I’ve always thought that Paul was overstating with the entirely laudable aim of stopping people being complacent and lacking in self-awareness and self-criticism. I’ve met a very few people who I suspect have never, at least in adult life, broken any law. Not many, to the extent that I think they constitute maybe 0.01% of the population. I am definitely not one of them, and I deeply suspect anyone who claims they are (those in that category are not likely to boast of it, I’ve found). Thus I cannot subscribe to the Calvinists’ “total depravity” – but would argue that, when it comes to the law, the overwhelming likelihood is that each of us is guilty of some “criminal” act – and there need be no intention. George Floyd tried to pay with a forged note which he almost certainly didn’t know was forged, something which I once did (but obviously without the dire results he suffered). In the eyes of the “but he was a criminal” brigade (who I suspect of being closet Calvinists) that made me a criminal too.
And, apparently, being a criminal means that you don’t have the rights of citizens (in the US, definitely including life). You don’t have the rights of humans (under the European Convention on Human Rights definitely including life). You don’t have the right to be treated as a child of God. as all of humanity is. Or as Christ – missing from the categories in Matthew 25:31-46 is “When did we treat you as less than human?” and “When did we shoot you because you were a ‘criminal’?”, but they should possibly be there in a 21st century version.
Of course, eventually they crucified Christ because he was “a criminal”. Perhaps it’s time to stop crucifying Christ?
Let me be honest, I find “white privilege” somewhat difficult to accept for myself. I’m very happy to admit my privilege from being male and from being able to fit stereotypical roles of gender and sexuality. I’m extremely conscious of my privilege from having been born in the Britain of the immediate post-war period (my children, sadly, lack some of the privilege associated with being born in that time slot, though they share the privilege of being British and, until very recently, European). Likewise the privilege of being born to middle class parents who encouraged education and supported me through quite a lot of it.
But whiteness? That one is difficult, and I suspect it’s difficult to a significant extent because of where I live. I noticed a facebook post from a friend recently which asked “when did you have your first black teacher?” and, for me, the answer was “never”. I never had a black classmate either. One rather salient reason for this was that there were no black people living in my town in my youth. There are, I think, three living in town now, which makes them approximately 0.01% of the population. Equally, there are no black people in either of the churches I go to regularly, and it isn’t the result of any lack of welcome from the church, it’s just that the only person in town who is black and a Christian goes to a gospel church 30 miles away. I know this, because she used to be a client of mine before I retired.
I found it particularly interesting to go through the questions in this facebook post regarding “white fragility”. I had to answer “yes” to several of them – and, indeed, this whole post may just be a display of “white fragility”. Maybe – but I don’t know. Part of my unease about being called “white” is that it isn’t a label I would normally attach to myself (nor is “black” a label I would use as a generality; there is a huge difference between people who have a skin tone which would commonly be described as “black” and even that isn’t remotely conclusive, as very many people who are genetically at least somewhat “black” and thus lumped into that category are lighter-skinned than, say, the average southern European).
So I definitely fall into the category of using “not all white people”, and of feeling defensive when it’s raised as a category, and (unfortunately) rather sensitive to a range of things which are these days being labelled as “racist” which I don’t think are. I feel similarly defensive when, as is happening quite a lot in some circles, people talk disparagingly about “boomers” (and yes, I am, by birth date, a “boomer”, which is similarly a generic term which I have never associated with myself and which I don’t find useful as a categorisation). I suspect, however, that my feelings are amply reciprocated by a lot of people who are labelled “black” but who would just prefer to be identified as, for instance, “English” or “British” or “European”. Though any of those categories has its own downside when you think of historical treatment of non-English/British/European people; those I am, I think, rightly sensitive to being problematic (and “English” is more problematic than the others, given that English mistreatment of others began with the Welsh and the Scots, and then moved on to the Irish – and that last one is arguably not yet a purely historical issue…). But then, I’m sensitive to the fact that having the label “Christian” lands me with a share of collective guilt for past treatment of Jews, Cathars, other Christians, Muslims and – well, anyone not of the flavour of Christianity which someone adheres to as well.
In relation to the whiteness of my hometown, our first non-white family (Chinese) arrived in town when I was about 11, and opened a Chinese restaurant and then a takeaway. Half of that family became clients of mine, and the matriarch of the family was a neighbour until recently. Another family moved in rather later, and also became clients. We then got a crop of Indian restaurants and take-outs, but by and large they commuted from a couple of nearby cities which have a large Indian and Pakistani origin community. Nonetheless, I did some work for a couple of them.
So I should have known if there was any police or other official maltreatment of them, and barring the fact that I thought some planning problems I resolved for one of the Pakistani origin takeout owners were the result of prejudice (which was a card I had in mind but didn’t need to play), I don’t think there was much. There may well have been some subtle discrimination at play which they didn’t think to mention to me, though. Indeed, given the propensity of humans to make derogatory references to any perceived physical peculiarity, I’m sure there was.
There was definitely considerable police maltreatment of homosexuals and later of the trangender people in town, which I tend to think go together with racism, and I did act for several of them in resolving complaints. I saw that reduce massively during the thirty years I was in practice here. Thus, I don’t think our police force were particularly paragons of virtue, but I am confident that they’ve got better than they once were. I’ve just no particular reason to think that they were systematically racist in the way that the Metropolitan Police were found to be in 1999, or the way I was instrumental in proving Cleveland Police were between 1997 and 2007 (yes, it took that long to bring home a result which convicted one policeman, had two disciplined internally, including an Assistant Chief Constable, and caused the resignations of two others); in that case they were racist against one of their own, manufacturing a criminal case against a Pakistani origin officer who complained of racially motivated harrassment, and even getting him convicted; it took 10 years before not only was he reinstated and the conviction overturned but he was also compensated. OK, I didn’t actually manage a finding of “institutional racism”, but I’m confident I proved it.
In areas where there is a significant black population (notably London – see the finding against the Met), I’m confident there is still a problem, as Akala says in this clip. I like the fact that he centers his argument on the existence of a caste system rather than purely on racism, though, as while I don’t see all that much overt racism locally (probably because there aren’t sufficient people of colour for it to be significant – as I remarked in a previous blog post, one primary problem I see fuelling racism is that people are scared, and it’s difficult to be scared of a very small minority). There is most definitely discrimination based on caste (or class) here; as I mentioned, I’m privileged to have been brought up in a middle class family compared with people from lower class families (and I have in mind a cutting video featuring some of the best comedians of recent years here), but I’m very conscious of the even greater privilege enjoyed by people who are upper class – and I really dislike the entitled, Eton and Harrow, Oxford and Cambridge educated rich people, who are considerably over-represented in our current government. Akala also refers to the “chavs” who used to occupy the slot now peopled by black people; that slot, where I live, is still almost exclusively occupied by white people. A significant number of them come from the last major wave of immigrants to settle locally before the middle of the 20th century; they have Irish surnames and tend to be Catholic… and, growing up, there was among my parents’ generation a low-level racism against the Irish which was compounded in the 60s when the “Troubles” started and Irish people were not infrequently blowing up English pubs…
It’s tempting to think that I may be privileged in that I live in an area where there aren’t significant communities of other races, and thus there isn’t the same opportunity for people generally and the police in particular to express racism. I’m not so sure about that – my general feeling is that I rather envy those who live in more racially and culturally diverse areas. I like cultural diversity, it’s stimulating and interesting.
That brings me back to never having had a black classmate (or, indeed, a classmate of any very different cast of countenance). At school, people were picked on for having much more subtle differences – and the one which springs immediately to mind was a couple of friends I had who had red hair. Not only the children but also the teachers seemed to have a conviction (totally unfounded) that red hair indicated a tendency to violence and an ungovernable temper, and both of them suffered as a result. Of course, neither of them was particularly violent, nor did they intrinsically have bad tempers, but they were still the first to be blamed for any fight they were close to, and I felt a keen sense of injustice on their behalf. I suppose I was enjoying “brown haired privilege”, though it’s just as difficult for me to think in that way as it is (based on my environment) as about having “white privilege”.
Me, I was picked on for having spectacles and for being rubbish at anything requiring running or connecting with a moving object, notably all ball sports, and also for being “a swot”. OK, I was pretty good at every academic subject and I read a lot; those were courtesy of my upbringing (see above) and of having a fairly keen intelligence and, in those days, a very good memory, near-eidetic (it isn’t nearly as good these days!) but the term “swot” indicated someone who worked unduly hard at academic stuff, and, in truth, I didn’t – I just found it easy (I didn’t start finding things academic difficult until my second year of university, at which point it would have been a good thing if I had developed “swot” tendencies…)
It came to seem to me that people will discriminate on the basis of physical (and other) differences irrespective of whether they are connected with “race”, and that that is a bad thing even if it isn’t “racist”. You might say that the bulk of people are racist even when there’s no-one to be racist towards. For myself, while I might notice someone’s hair colour in passing, I’m not going to regard them as “a red headed man or woman”; to me it’s an incidental. Likewise for someone’s skin colour – and in both cases, that’s unless someone appears to be regarding them unfavourably on the basis of their appearance. And, for my anti-racist friends, I’m afraid that I am at least somewhat colour-blind. I may not notice someone’s red hair, and equally I possibly won’t notice someone’s darker-than-the-average skin tone – indeed, I not infrequently haven’t noticed (for instance, in “City Homicide” it was a surprise to me to find after several episodes that the character Duncan Freeman played by Aaron Pedersen was “indigenous” and was called “black”, and in an episode of NCIS I remember noticing that an actor in an early scene was a marine, from his haircut and general bearing, but I hadn’t noticed that he was black until it became a part of the plot – though, in my defence, he was fairly light skinned). OK, Nyakim Gatwech’s skin colour I would notice… it’s an absolutely gorgeous shade (and she’s an absolutely gorgeous woman).
Apparently, though, it is now not permissable to not notice someone’s skin colour, to be “colour-blind” in this way. My own feeling is, frankly, that unless it’s obviously an issue in a particular situation, it’s more correct to be colour-blind than hugely colour-sensitive – after all, I don’t want people labelling me “white”, and I tend to assume that others probably don’t want people labelling them “black”. But there are, clearly, many circumstances still where colour IS an issue, and there I’ll pay at least some attention to it – particularly if the issue is that someone is discriminating on that basis, stereotyping or making derogatory remarks.
I suppose, at the end of the day, I find it difficult to use the word “privilege” when, to me, that word indicates that I benefit from some characteristic of upbringing or genetics which are not shared by the general population. There are plenty of those I’ve benefited from (as I’ve indicated above), but not being picked on because I’m from a minority which is considered different in some way is not, to me, a privilege – it’s an issue of rights which are being denied to others, but which I enjoy. To steal wording from the US Declaration of Independence, everyone should have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and unless you agree with an old friend of mine who claims there is only one fundamental human right, the right to be given privileges, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness aren’t privileges, they’re rights. In the case of black people – and those of a variety of other skin colours and other markers of difference – those rights are being denied. Life in the case of George Floyd and many others, liberty in the disproportionate number of black people jailed in both the US and the UK and the pursuit of happiness in the significantly reduced chances of personal fulfilment and the incessant belittling – well, everywhere where there are minorities.
That is clearly wrong. It is also clear to me that Jesus particularly singled out all of those whom society did not treat equally as being “the first”, those to be preferred, so it is my Christian duty to try as best I can to ensure that their right to life, liberty and happiness are at least as well-protected as my own. But when someone says “white people should renounce their privilege”, I read that as saying that white people should not have the right to life, liberty and happiness either. That would also be wrong.
Now, a tailpiece.
The current level of interest in this subject stems from the murder of George Floyd (and I have no hesitation in calling it murder – in the very thin possibility that it wasn’t murder, I think the onus is on the defence to prove that, given that the action of the police was clearly calculated to cause harm).
In 2019, police in the United States killed 1004 people. In the same year, police in England and Wales killed 3 people, police in Japan killed 2 people, and police in Denmark killed none. Much of the blame can, I think, be laid squarely at the feet of the level of gun ownership in the States, but not all. I am substantially convinced that, in the Floyd case, racism was a major player in the treatment he received. In the UK, it equally seems the case that, if you are arrested by the police, you are significantly more likely to be physically mistreated than if you are white (just as you are ten times more likely to be subject to a “stop and search” without there being any actual suspicion). I am not, therefore, convinced that our police are significantly less racist than the US police seem to be; it’s just that our mistreatment doesn’t tend to end up with deaths.
As I outlined in my previous post linked above, one factor seems to be that the US police are frequently terrified – of people in general, it seems, but of black people in particular. It seems that they are frequently trained that way. US police dramas don’t seem to me to paint a very different picture – the urge to present the most dramatic events, there, seems to involve gun battles in a very large proportion of instances (something which many UK crime dramas manage to avoid completely). I am appalled by this; my observation has always been that scared people make bad decisions – and I am extremely conscious of the fact that there’s a huge asymmetry between US police who are excused shooting on the basis, effectively, that they are scared and US citizens, particularly black citizens, who are expected to be particularly compliant in the face of gun-waving officers and not, under any circumstances, display any behaviour which might possibly make an officer more nervous.
I suffer from a General Anxiety Disorder, and the likelihood that I would panic in the face of armed policemen shouting at me is fairly high (in other words, I fall within another group of people, those with mental health conditions, who fare particularly badly at the hands of police, both in the USA and in the UK), but I would anticipate that even without a GAD, the likelihood of panic when faced with that kind of stress is significant. I have largely trained myself not to go down either of the “fight” or “flight” routes in stressful circumstances, but to adopt the “freeze” reaction, but even that would, it seems, not be safe in the US, as I might not be “complying with police orders”. It seems obvious that in the US, both “fight” and “flight” options would be much worse than “freeze”, but “freeze” is still not safe.
The thing is, you can be trained to operate rationally in very stressful circumstances (at least, most of us, absent a GAD or any of a number of other mental health conditions), and it seems that US police in particular are not being trained that way and/or not being selected on the basis of successful learning from such training (in the UK, those officers who are permitted to use firearms are specifically trained that way, and fail the course if they don’t show sufficient stability under stress, though officers more generally are not trained and selected that way, which has led to some horrible miscalculations with people in custody).
And, it seems to me, you can particularly be trained to reject any use of deadly force where there is no proximate threat of harm to anyone. Such as when someone “fails to comply with a legitimate order” or is running away.