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Wednesday, April 14, 2021

TRYING TO UNDERSTAND

As one black man after another is murdered by police, and impotent rage wells up in me, I ask myself what, if anything, I can contribute to the public response save my cries of anguish. A veteran of more than 20 years in the police force shoots and kills a 20-year-old man who has been pulled over for a routine traffic stop, and by way, I suppose, of exculpation she says that it was a mistake, she meant to use a Taser rather than her service revolver. Why in God’s name even think of using a Taser on someone who has been pulled over for an expired registration tag!

 

Long ago I learned the terrible meaning of the phrase “the conversation” as it is used in American black families. The number of black men killed by police each year is tiny in comparison to the total black population in America, but that says nothing about the experience of being black in this terrible country.

 

As I was walking this morning, I recalled a passage in my last and least read published book, Autobiography of an Ex White Man, in which I tried a thought experiment to communicate something of what it must have been like to be a slave on a pre-Civil War plantation. I was reacting to an important and widely read book by the Nobel laureate Robert Fogel and his younger colleague William Engerman, Time on the Cross. Here is what I wrote 16 years ago. Nothing has changed.

 

“Needless to say, any individual slave was not likely to be whipped very often.  Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman, in a widely discussed and much criticized book, report that on one plantation whose owner, Bennet Barrow, kept careful records of his two hundred slaves, about half the slaves were not whipped at all during a two year period, and overall there were 0.7 whippings per slave per year.  Since a number of readers have actually concluded from this bit of data that things weren’t so bad in the Old South, I tried a little thought experiment in an effort to imagine what effect whippings might have had on a slave.

 

Down the road from the University of Massachusetts is Amherst College, a famous private liberal arts institution that has on several occasions been ranked the best college in America.  It has a faculty of two hundred  --  just about as large as the slave population on Barrow’s plantation.  Suppose a whipping post were set up in front of the Robert Frost Library in the central college common.  And suppose that on an average of once every four or five days, an Amherst College professor were stripped to the waist, man or woman, and whipped at that post until the blood ran for some infraction of college rules or simply for failing to grade papers on time.  Now, as a member of the faculty, I would presumably be intelligent enough and educated enough to be able to calculate that my chances of being whipped were only 0.7 per year, and I would also have noticed that if I was extremely careful, and never talked back to the Dean or the President, I might never be whipped at all.  Nevertheless, I think it is reasonable to suppose that the steady progression of brutal public whippings would have, how shall we say, a chilling effect on me.

Such a fantasy seems absurd, of course, but that is just another way of saying that we White people don’t really think of the slaves as people like ourselves, regardless of the political correctness of our sentiments.  Whipping slaves is terrible, cruel, inhuman, but it is something that happens to other people, whereas whipping professors, bizarre though that may sound, is something that might happen to me.”

 

19 comments:

John Doe said...

RPW:

“As one black man after another is murdered by police, and impotent rage wells up in me, I ask myself what, if anything, I can contribute to the public response save my cries of anguish. A veteran of more than 20 years in the police force shoots and kills a 20-year-old man who has been pulled over for a routine traffic stop, and by way, I suppose, of exculpation she says that it was a mistake, she meant to use a Taser rather than her service revolver. Why in God’s name even think of using a Taser on someone who has been pulled over for an expired registration tag!” [RPW]

Yes, Daunte Wright was pulled over for a routine traffic stop: he had something hanging from his rearview mirror (which is illegal in Minnesota), and his vehicle registration tag had expired. HOWEVER, he had an open arrest warrant:

“The officers ran Wright's name through a police database and learned that he had an open arrest warrant stemming from pending charges for 1st-degree aggravated robbery with a gun; after posting $100,000 bail, Wright had allegedly violated the terms of his release by again possessing a firearm. Based on that information, the officers attempted to arrest him.” [Wikipedia]

So he allegedly had committed first-degree aggravated robbery with a gun and then he made the terrible decision to possess a firearm again, even though doing so violated the terms of his release and he lacked a firearm permit.

“Footage from a police body camera worn by [Officer] Potter showed one of the other officers opening the door of the car, and Wright stepping out and putting his hands behind his back as the officer attempted to handcuff him. When Potter approached them and stood behind Wright, Wright resisted arrest, broke free from the arresting officer's grasp, and sat back down in the car.” [Wikipedia]

Why did Wright resist arrest, especially when he had already stepped out and put his hands behind his back? If you’re a young, black male with an open arrest warrant, why the hell would you resist arrest and significantly increase your chances of being Tasered or shot? Regardless of your age, race, gender, or alleged crime, when the police are trying to arrest you (especially because you have an open arrest warrant), just be totally passive and allow them to arrest you. The more aggressive you are toward them, the more you resist, the more likely they will Taser or shoot you and the more likely you will incur further charges. And if the charges are truly BS, then a decent defender (public or private) should be able to refute the charges or at least get a less severe penalty.

Now, yes, Officer Potter totally fucked up by pulling out her pistol, instead of her Taser, and then shooting him. Once she had the pistol in her hand, she should have immediately recognized that it wasn’t a Taser. She even yelled “Taser!” thrice. However, when you’re a police officer in a very high-stress situation in which a suspect (who has an alleged history of robbery and illegal possession of a firearm) resists arrest, jumps into his car, and could possibly be reaching for a firearm, then you must react immediately. (When violent crime is happening, the vast majority of people, whether victims or witnesses, freeze like deer in the headlights and do nothing. But police cannot so freeze. They must act.) In this case, Potter reacted the wrong way, likely committed manslaughter, and will likely be convicted of manslaughter.

JPM said...

I hope to see a decent rebuttal from one of the regular commenters or professor Wolff himself on John Doe's comments. I find myself fairly persuded by him, despite such remarks appearing to be contrary to established morals on racial inequality in America.

Watching the bodycam footage of Wright's death it's hard not to find it darkly humourous. I don't understand why anyone would claim the shooting was not an accident on having seen the footage. It very clearly is. The situation is as farcical as it is tragic and the following civil unrest heightens the farce. Pearl clutching and impotent rage seem to be exactly what tv and print media want from their audience, so I'm skeptical of the merit of that response, even if it makes one feel secure in their capacity for empathy. Perhaps I sound terribly conservative, I don't know. I didn't think I was this time last year.

Jerry Brown said...

JPM- I doubt Mr. Wright or his family would consider this as 'farcical' in nature. So you might think about that for one thing.

'John Doe' reports- "To confirm this, look at the “US homicide offenders by race, 1980-2017” chart on this Wikipedia page. In 2017, there were roughly 18 black murderers per 100,000 blacks and roughly 3 white murderers per 100,000 whites."

So suppose his statistics are correct and there are 18 black murderers per 100,000 black people. Why should the other 99,982 per 100,000 get treated as suspects by police or anyone else in society? It is guilt by association at the very least. If the 99,997 non-murdering white people per 100,000 were treated as suspect by police we would fire the police.

Michael said...

John Doe's position seems to be that Black people's (A) being disproportionately killed by police while unarmed, is the predictable consequence of Black people's (B) being disproportionately involved in homicide.

John Doe had a lot of statistics ready at hand to defend the reality of (B), while also acknowledging the reality of (A). I can't say I'm quite so steeped in the data myself. Offhand, I've seen it shown that a large majority of Black people in the US believe that Black people face difficulties and disadvantages that white people don't, including in their dealings with the police; I'm "happy" just to presume that their reports are honest and accurate.

But I don't think I'd necessarily be guilty of inconsistency if I granted all of John's statistical claims. I think what's mainly missing in John's approach is an effort to address the question: Why would Black people be disproportionately involved in homicide?

I hope it seems very likely and obvious that skin-color in and of itself is worth hardly anything as a predictor (let alone explanation) of violent/homicidal/criminal behavior, in contrast to certain other factors, such as material living conditions and the social and psychological health-related consequences of these.

Anonymous said...

John Doe, why is it that whenever there is a "mistake" or "error" it's always a person of color who suffers? Police mistaken identity like Breonna Taylor, for example. The fact that you have all these stats at the ready underscores Prof. Wolff's "terrible country." --Dave F.

TheDudeDiogenes said...

I will repost here what I posted on "It Is Hard To Keep It Together" probably too recently for most readers of the blog's comments to have seen:

John McWhorter holds a similar view on police shootings of civilians [as Brian Leiter and Adolph Reed Jr] :

"The cops kill hundreds and hundreds of people every year. Of them, white people are the majority by a good margin. For every incident we hear of where cops kill a black person, there are multiple others where cops killed a white person and we did not hear about it.

Black people, however, are killed more than what our proportion of the population would predict in itself. Specifically, black people are killed at a rate two and a half times our representation in the population." (He goes on to explain why he thinks is the case; in short, higher rates of poverty, and thus higher rates of encounters with police.)

Michael Llenos said...

"--whereas whipping professors, bizarre though that may sound, is something that might happen to me."

I'm more than sure Professor Wolff also knows that these things were probably not bizarre during the nefarious time of American Slavery--to both Caucasian American and African American professors trying to educate African Americans. Here is a quote from a most eloquent source for those who never read about American Slavery...

'You degrade us--and then ask why we are degraded--you shut our mouths, and then ask why we don't speak--you close our colleges and seminaries against us--and then ask why we don't know more.' --Frederick Douglass (1841)

Anonymous said...

As previous comments have pointed out, the facts of this particular incident don't actually match what is described in the post, but a better account can be found here, towards the second half of the article: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/apr/14/daunte-wright-kimberly-potter-officer-charge-arrest

The female officer has now been charged with manslaughter, which seems fitting given what seems to have happened.

Anonymous said...

"A veteran of more than 20 years in the police force shoots and kills a 20-year-old man who has been pulled over for a routine traffic stop, and by way, I suppose, of exculpation she says that it was a mistake, she meant to use a Taser rather than her service revolver. Why in God’s name even think of using a Taser on someone who has been pulled over for an expired registration tag!"

Um, no. This is knee-jerk, cherry-picked, paper-thin nonsense. Read. Research. Think. Then write.

John Doe said...

Professor Wolff:

I am not Samuel Chase. I have a different writing style, and unlike Samuel Chase, I have avoided using ad hominem in my recent comments.

Why did you delete my second, third, and fourth comments on this post? Because you thought I was Samuel Chase? Well, I am not.

Am I allowed to repost my deleted comments, the ones that include important statistics (e.g. the number of unarmed black people and unarmed white people killed by police, the percentage of homicides that black people commit and white people commit, etc.)?

If I am not allowed, then why exactly?

Finally, I do not think you should publicly reveal the name of one of your former students when he wishes to remain (quasi-)anonymous. You could have written everything else but left out his name.

John Doe said...

Dave F:

“John Doe, why is it that whenever there is a "mistake" or "error" it's always a person of color who suffers? Police mistaken identity like Breonna Taylor, for example. The fact that you have all these stats at the ready underscores Prof. Wolff's "terrible country."”

It is FALSE to say that whenever the police make a mistake or error, it is always a person of color who suffers. As I stated in a previous comment (which was deleted), from 2015 to 2020, on average, police killed 22 unarmed black people per year and 27.2 unarmed white people per year. So, in absolute numbers, the police are killing more unarmed white people than unarmed black people. In general, killing unarmed people is a police mistake or error (possible exception: if the person is unarmed but is using aggressive, hand-to-hand fighting tactics), and that sort of police mistake or error happens to whites, blacks, Hispanics, etc.

And I have all these statistics ready because I have actually done research on the numbers, and they are relevant to what Professor Wolff, Black Lives Matter, etc. are saying.

However, I should emphasize that these statistics regarding police killings, murders, violent crime, etc. are all TRAGIC and extremely serious. They are not “darkly humorous” as JPM said. Obviously, black people are human beings and all human beings, regardless of race, gender, religion, etc., should be treated with fairness, respect, and dignity. And, yes, black lives do matter.

That said, however, I disagree with numerous elements of the Black Lives Matter agenda, including rioting, looting, burning stuff down, upholding and enforcing cancel culture, applying the term “white supremacy” to all white people and all white culture, turning college campuses into left-wing totalitarian indoctrination centers, etc.

Anonymous said...

"Finally, I do not think you should publicly reveal the name of one of your former students when he wishes to remain (quasi-)anonymous. You could have written everything else but left out his name."

As a longtime reader who usually enjoys this blog, I nevertheless have to agree with this comment. Revealing his name was vindictive and gratuitous. You should not have done it.

jeffrey g kessen said...

When someone Comments relentlessly and vociferously on another's blog, the blogger has every right to call him or her out by name, former student or not. M.S., clearly has a great deal to say and is ever eager to say it. Why, then, hasn't he started his own blog, as Prof. Wolff appositely suggests he should? Answer: he suspects that his blog would have far less readership.

LFC said...

I am not aware that the Black Lives Matter agenda includes "rioting, looting [and] burning stuff down." I'm pretty sure it doesn't. Such behavior has occurred, but not, afaik, with the Black Lives Matter endorsement.

Btw, some of my neighbors display, or have displayed, Black Lives Matter signs in their windows or elsewhere on their properties. And given the general character of the neighborhood, I can't really imagine these people looting and burning, any more than I can imagine myself as, say, an astronaut, an electrical engineer or a top-tier professional tennis player.

LFC said...

I think we might step back from the current issue here re MS and take a minute to be grateful that there are still at least a few blogs left that have active comments sections.

I've contributed pieces occasionally, under my full name, to the blog run by the Society for U.S. Intellectual History (S-USIH). That blog used to have discussions in the comments sections. Now there are very few comments there, and post after post goes by with no comments at all. Kind of sad.

John Doe said...

Since RPW has not explained why he deleted my previous comments and since I’ve affirmed that I am not Samuel Chase and that I will not engage in ad hominem, I am going to re-post my comments, which have been revised somewhat. These comments initially followed my first comment at the top of this comment section, for those who want to understand the flow of my argument and the subsequent responses.

Before yesterday, RPW never deleted my comments, including my satirical ones. He has not deleted my most recent comments. So I hope he allows the following comments to stand.

---------------

“As one black man after another is murdered by police” [RPW, original post]

“The number of black men killed by police each year is tiny in comparison to the total black population in America” [RPW, original post; this is true]

In 2020, nationwide, police killed 18 unarmed black people (17 male) and 24 unarmed white people (23 male). [Washington Post Police Shootings Database]

In 2019, police killed 12 unarmed black people (11 male) and 26 unarmed white people (23 male).

In 2018, police killed 23 unarmed black people (22 male) and 25 unarmed white people (24 male).

In 2017, police killed 22 unarmed black people (21 male) and 31 unarmed white people (25 male).

In 2016, police killed 19 unarmed black people (18 male) and 25 unarmed white people (23 male).

In 2015, police killed 38 unarmed black people (36 male) and 32 unarmed white people (31 male).

From 2015 to 2020, on average, police killed 22 unarmed black people per year and 27.2 unarmed white people per year.

So, in absolute numbers, the police are killing more unarmed white people than unarmed black people. But one does not hear about it. In general, the media (especially the NY Times, Washington Post, Vox, MSNBC) do not report on police killing unarmed white people. And when police kill unarmed white people, generally white people do not start rioting, looting, and burning stuff down in major cities.

Now, you might object as follows: Those are absolute numbers. Look at the proportions, since blacks comprise 13% (40.6 million) of the US population and whites comprise 62% (197 million) of the US population [Wikipedia]. Consider the 2015-2020 averages stated above.

Proportion of unarmed blacks killed by the police = 22 / 40,600,000 = 0.000000542

Proportion of unarmed whites killed by the police = 27.2 / 197,000,000 = 0.000000138

Proportion of unarmed blacks killed by the police / proportion of unarmed whites killed by the police = 0.000000542 / 0.000000138 = 3.92

So if you’re an unarmed black person, you are 3.92 times more likely to be killed by the police than if you’re an unarmed white person. So the numbers are disproportionately high for unarmed black people. Thus systemic racism.

John Doe said...

RPW has now deleted my comments twice, probably because I cite certain facts that deviate from his leftist ideology or agenda.

In particular, he deleted my very last comment, which was a strong, factually based response to the objection starting with, “Those are absolute numbers. Look at the proportions…” and ending with, “Thus systemic racism.”

So he has made it seem that, in my last comment, I ended up concluding that there is indeed systemic racism and there’s nothing more to say about it. This is wrong and highly misleading, and this is yet another example of cancel culture and left-wing totalitarianism.

If you want to get an idea of how I responded to the objection ending with, “Thus systemic racism,” just read this Wikipedia page.

Thus far, NO ONE in this comment section has provided a strong rebuttal of my uncensored argument, even though JPM requested such a rebuttal earlier. This is very telling.

And here are more articles on Anti-Racism indoctrination, Critical Race Theory, wokeness, cancel culture, and left-wing totalitarianism:

“I Refuse to Stand By While My Students Are Indoctrinated”

“You Have to Read This Letter”

“The Narrative Is, ‘You Can’t Get Ahead’”

Here is a quotation from the first article:

“A few days later, the head of school ordered all high school advisors to read a public reprimand of my conduct out loud to every student in the school. It was a surreal experience, walking the halls alone and hearing the words emitting from each classroom: “Events from last week compel us to underscore some aspects of our mission and share some thoughts about our community,” the statement began. “At independent schools, with their history of predominantly white populations, racism colludes with other forms of bias (sexism, classism, ableism and so much more) to undermine our stated ideals, and we must work hard to undo this history.” ”

Overall, these articles just reinforce my comment about so many students walking around carrying their Maoist Little Red Books of Wokeness (Anti-Racism).

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