09 March 2015

Noblesse Oblige, or don't be an asshat...

In America, if you want to reap the as many benefits from the society as possible it helps to be male, white, straight and rich. If that's the section of society you inhabit, this conversation is for you. It's the privilege you were bestowed with. But here's the thing- you're not the only one that happens to have it. In some space, we all possess some form of privilege. However, we are, as a society, almost engrained to not recognize it when it stares us in the face. There are a variety of reasons why, and I'm going to make an attempt to handle some of them, as it's been heavy on the mind recently...

...we live in a society where we're taught to recognize the plight of others- we realize that there are disadvantages to being poor, black, a woman, etc. However, what we're almost trained to not do is to do the obvious....in physics, Newton's Third Law is that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction- for every positive there has to be a corresponding negative. But, by that same logic (as well as mathematical principle), for every negative action, there has to have an equal and positive reaction. This only makes sense. If there are two people in an interaction, and it's a zero sum game, then if someone is hurt, then someone else has to benefit. The difference, in this instance, is that the reaction (the positive benefit gained at the expense of the oppressed individual) is never stated, and in most instances, isn't even recognized...only a small example of this...

...we all know of the almost countless deadly experiences that African Americans have with the police. In just the last 2 years, we've had Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Akai Gurley, Charley Keunang, etc- all instances where the police felt the need to use deadly force to resolve problems. In many instances, the police has defaulted to the excuse of needing to use force to defend themselves- the police were being attacked and they needed to use force. We'll talk about why cops feel the need to use force against the people above in just a second, but first, a base of comparison....I was reading a story online about a woman from Pennsylvania, who, while texting while driving (which is illegal, really, everywhere at this time) as well as being intoxicated while driving (which is CLEARLY illegal), drove her car through an antique store, pinning a customer against the wall (which means yes- she was drunk enough to run into a building, and it was early enough for there to be people in the store when it happened). When the cops tried to arrest her, she gave one a swift boot to the testicles. When i read this story, and at the end I found out that she had been arrested, I knew one thing about this woman to be true: she was white. I only know that because I'm allowed to juxtapose it against the story of Charley Keunang, a homeless man who, despite already being tased and there being four officers on the scene, it was apparently necessary to use deadly force, as he was shot and killed...on video.

[Ranting Aside: I can't tell you how frustrating it is to read, after the police have killed a (almost always black) person, when the legitimacy of the murder is called into question, it becomes part of the racist playbook to roll out the claim that the person who was killed was no angel. Michael Brown- accused of stealing Swishers and then that was used as the pretense for being stopped- later proven that Darren Wilson had NO IDEA of the "possible theft" which means it's only function was to muddy the waters, Eric Garner apparently was selling loose cigarettes "loosies" when he was confronted by the police, Charley Keunang was apparently wanted by the US Marshals (for using a false name when he committed a crime, for which he spent 14 years in prison for). Now I can spot that all of these are actionable offenses (petty as hell, but actionable nonetheless). Here's what none of these actions should have resulted in:

An. Unofficial. Death. Penalty. Aside done.]

And as I write this, the stories of Calvon Reed, who somehow dies in police custody, and Anthony Robinson come across my news feed...Robinson was killed in Madison, WI, by police in an instance where an officer was assaulted by the police but the man was unarmed [remember, above we talk about the drunk woman who assaulted a cop and miraculously lived to tell about it]. Now do I think it's a good idea to get into a physical altercation with the police? Absolutely not. But. It. Happens. All. The. Time. with whites as well as blacks. The only real difference is that if you're black when it happens, you'll probably get killed- and historically it's true- more unarmed blacks killed by cops that all other races...combined. I guess you could just chalk this up to the concept of anti-blackness...

...which brings me back around to my original rant- about privilege. We're all taught of the plight of the oppressed in this country- don't get me wrong, not as honestly or as intensely as we should, but that's for another day- but we're only taught to frame it insofar as the disadvantages the marginalized have. But, as a culture and a people, are never taught to look at the other side of that same coin- the societal playing out of Newton's Third Law of Motion- an equal and positive reaction to every action...This would mean that for every action of oppressive actions with regard to privilege (someone who doesn't have it), there has to be someone that HAS the privilege.

I'm not even gonna front: when they were passing out privilege at the beginning, my family loaded up for me, which had made my life experience, all things considered, not that bad. Because of my families class privilege, I got to go to some of the best schools, in some of the best areas, and even the public schools i chose to go to were good schools in good areas, which was possible because my parents made some cheddar (that being said: most families that made the money my parents did would (probably) have lived up on the hill, where the people with money lived and where cops had an actual interest in protecting your shit- the evidence is pretty damning- blacks who make $100,000 a year live in the same neighborhoods that whites that make $30,000 a year). My parents had the kind of jobs that allowed them to come to school and challenge the fact that i was put in classes vastly inferior to the school I'd just transferred from (was taking Algebra 2, placed in Business Math, that kind of stuff). I was granted the kind of education that allowed me to get the kind of job I have now and I have the kind of money now that affords me to do things that most people that look like me don't have access to. That being said, despite all of that: 

My blackness trumps the other forms of privilege I have in most real instances. The fact that I know the law means very little when I get pulled over on a country road in Western Kentucky. My innocence didn't stop the Ogden Police from arresting and detaining me for 13 hours to find a guy who was, by their own description, 6'1" 210 pounds and light skinned black [for those that know me, you see why this is odd, for those that don't, the person described looks more like Ben Affleck than me]. My income will allow for me to get a lawyer that's not gonna fuck me (and my academic privilege means I have like 50 lawyers whose numbers I carried around when we were way more nefarious than they are now), but none of that matters if they decide to put a bullet in my head for being an "uppity nigger" and "not knowing my place"- the reason these words are in quotes are because THEY'VE BEEN SAID TO ME BY COPS BEFORE. Needless to say (because I'm here to write this), I instead of what I would call "Being myself" went into what we black people call "survival mode"- where the only goal is for the interaction to end and for you to walk away in one piece, unharmed. All that these other privileges mean to me, at the end of the crossroads, means that all my friends would be hurt and outspoken and that some of my lawyer friends might take up suit so my widow could live, but that would all not overcome the fact that i was dead- killed because, well, let's not pretend like there would need to be a reason. They'd find a picture of me on some laptop with me mean-mugging the camera while flipping someone off in a vile t-shirt, would find someone to say that i smoked some weed once and then i'd just be some druggie the cops killed, probably because I reached for a cops gun [man there are a lot of black guys reaching for cops guns in physical conflicts these days- like Chappelle's "sprinkle some crack on them" kind of madness....

...i go on this rant about privilege and the recognition of my privilege to say that saying you have privilege is not an insult. Let me repeat that:

Saying. You. Have. Privilege. Is. Not. An. Insult.

Saying you have privilege does not say that the things in your life you've accomplished have not been struggles. This is not to say that all you have is not from your hard work. It IS to say that, despite all of those things, there are people that, despite their best intentions, didn't have access to some of the things you did have access to, and so their path to the same location was harder, and that you should acknowledge that. I teach at a private high school, one attended by a lot of wealthy kids, some of whom have never even thought about some of these things. They're great kids, and in all honesty, almost all of them get it, when explained. And they get it at a way higher rate than a lot of the adults I explain the same concepts to (one of the kids when I told them that said it's probably like learning a language, which is way easier when you're young than when you're old). Them getting it makes me feel a little better about our future every day. But in the process of explaining, I use the SAT/ACT as an example- usually one or two kids in the class are having some struggles with it. And we start explaining that when there are struggles they can take an SAT prep course and take practice tests from SAT books you buy and you have the kind of parents that might give up a weekend trip to stay home and help you on the analogies section, etc. I explain that each step of this is a step of privilege they have. But then I ask them to take it back further: How did you know you weren't doing well on the SAT? Did you take it already or have you taken practice tests? Now imagine a world where your high school counselor never mentions college or the SAT at all? What if your classes have the kinds of teachers that will quit mid-class, or that will hit a student?

But in the process of recognizing you have privilege, you have an obligation upon that. As much as I hate the French (sorry Bedard, you're family so you don't count), they have a term that seems applicable: noblesse oblige- people of higher social standings have an obligation to those of lower rank or status. In a biblical sense, the concept of "there but by the grace of God go I" would indicate that we have an obligation to those that fill marginalized spaces. We have an obligation to help those who didn't have our luck/fortune/family lines/etc. for things to have worked out better for them. Every once in awhile, when I start looking not at the homeless, but through the homeless, I just have to be reminded to the homeless family I met on the streets on night, and the plight of that family is one that I could imagine happening to many of my family and friends today: his wife got sick, lost her job (and her insurance), he added her to his but her pre-condition (cancer) meant that she wasn't covered, and they spent their savings and lost their home trying, in vain, to save his wife and their mother. and now they live in a car because he can't make enough to get a deposit for a 2 bedroom (for himself and 3 kids) making the money from the job he had to take to be with his wife...

In our society, there are many ways he could not be in the plight he's in, but they all involve having some degree of wealth that doesn't exist in most people of colors homes and backgrounds. This is a family that had a home that they borrowed against (which is what you're told to do, across the board, if you're in financial troubles). But if both are working when you're paying one mortgage, it's going to be hard hard hard to pay two mortgages with only one salary (which is how most people go bankrupt in medical emergencies/situations). If your parents have money, you can ask them. If you went to school with the right kind of people, you can ask them. If you have the right kind of collateral, you can go to a bank and ask them. But all of these things, ALL of them, are things you'd be less likely to have if you're black. Your parents, if you're old enough to own a home, are likely on the back end of their lives, and chances are they need your help to really survive and thrive, which means you probably can't ask them. They're not likely to own a home, as during their time, they were for all practical purposes shut out of the housing markets (FDA loans not applicable for blacks, no access to the GI Bill for blacks). In all honesty, they're likely to be dead. If you went to the right school and have the right friends, you can ask them. A friend of mine who is a Harvard grad decided to be a hege fund manager, because he had "a bunch of rich friends from my house that want me to invest their money."

Yeah. That shit happens. 

Maybe you can go to a bank and ask them, but I don't think I need to produce results to indicate to you that loans are much, much harder to get when you have more melanin in that skin. And it would require collateral that isn't the home I live in: now even most of the really well to do blacks I know (and this is true for all but the richest people i know) will have another major item for collateral beyond their home. Most people have none. The ones that do, for 95% it's their home/land. The other 5% it's something else- usually on top of land. Almost nobody has what they need to do this, which means that's not really an option. So where does that lead him? On the streets, living out of his car with his kids. They told me this over dinner that I bought him when he asked for some change, and then he brought his kids. This is an experience that grounded me, changed the way I think about the homeless, gave empathy and a face to a problem in our society that without it won't ever really solve the problem of homelessness (or in this instance- health care- under the ACA, he previous condition doesn't leave her uncovered, and maybe i never meet them). But this is an example how the interblending of privilege, or lack of those privileges, lead to a situation that should never happen. 

Some call it noblesse oblige. I call it not being an asshat.

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