Sally and I had a particularly good Earth Day this year visiting eastern North Carolina. The enormous wildlife refuges near the NC coast have large populations of black bears, and we were hoping to see some of their new cubs. We failed as to the cubs, but saw a group of six bears. We also found a lot of beautiful birds, including a large flock of glossy ibises, a new species for us. There were hardly any people, which was just fine.
The trial of Minneapolis police officer Eric Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd ended this week with a jury verdict of guilty on all counts. The evidence of guilt seemed overwhelming, but given our history, the outcome was far from certain. It is disturbingly common in the US for police to use extreme force on Black people, but extremely rare for a police officer to be charged and convicted for resulting injuries and deaths.
The Chauvin trial has inspired some useful discussion of why this is so, and what needs to change. Part of the story is the background rule of qualified immunity, a circular Supreme Court doctrine that usually protects police even in egregious cases. Another aspect is police union contracts that prevent firing of officers guilty of racist misconduct. There is the famous blue wall of silence, the unofficial rule that generally prevents officers from testifying against other officers. Less famous is the standard procedure among district attorneys of ignoring police crimes, with a view to maintaining good relations with them for reasons of DA career advancement.
Above all, there is our racist caste system. In our system, for a long time many of us were taught that Black men are more violent and dangerous than other people. Even now, after that lie has been thoroughly debunked, many ordinary potential jurors believe it. With such racist training still lodged in their minds, it isn’t hard to convince them that a police officer that killed a Black man had a reasonable fear for himself, no matter what the circumstances, other than that the man was Black.
My guess is that Chauvin and his lawyers were counting on there being at least one juror with this traditional mindset, since there normally is. For such a person, it would be possible to repeatedly watch the horrifying video and hear abundant supporting testimony without concluding that Chauvin committed murder. For a juror with a strong enough filter of racial bias, any police violence against Black people would seem reasonable and justified.
The good news is the Chauvin jurors managed to see past racial filters and look at the evidence. This suggests we’re making some progress in unwinding the caste system. But of course, there’s a lot more work to be done.
Here’s a new exhibit in that case: Black Lives Matter protests are now being targeted by Republican state legislators. According to the NY Times, this year there have been anti-protest bills in 34 states. Some proposed laws immunize drivers who drive into protestors, while others add prison terms and other harsh penalties for protesting. This is appalling, but also instructive.
The Times reported that almost all of the BLM protests were peaceful, with an estimate that only 4 percent involved some property damage or police injuries. Nevertheless, for many Republicans, influenced by right wing media, the false impression persists that the protests were instead mainly about violent Black people attacking the police.
Our long training in the caste system makes it possible for some of us to look at one thing (Black people systematically victimized by police violence) and see the exact opposite (police and white people being targeted by Black people). This fits into and reinforces a narrative of white victimhood, which works to conceal the much larger story of white privilege.
Wherever you look, you will likely find a strong remnant of this caste training that distorts reality. I doubt it will lose its hold in this generation, but it seems to be getting weaker.
Last week Sally and I have finally caught up with The Handmaid’s Tale, a television series that premiered in 2017, and which we began watching on Hulu a couple of months ago. When I first heard about THT, I thought it was probably not for us. We’re not especially keen on science fiction, particularly when it’s dark and violent. But so far (with the 4th season about to begin), we’ve found it absorbing, thought provoking, and even at times inspiring.
The set up for THT is this: in the near future, a fanatical religious group has seized power in the United States and imposed a police state they call Gilead which has a rigid caste system with women at the bottom. The permissible roles for women are limited (mostly cooking, cleaning, child-bearing), and they must wear uniforms that correspond to their roles.
Women married to higher caste men get to wear handsome teal capes, but like all women are not allowed to read or do work outside the home. Because of a fertility crisis, Gilead has created a ceremony to allow higher caste men to rape low caste women to impregnate them.
The idea sounds over the top, but it turns out that Gilead is a great laboratory for imaginative testing of some of our actual notions and values. Patriarchy, misogyny, and other expressions of hierarchy (such as racism) are so much a part of our own world that it’s easy to stop seeing them, or to assume that they’re natural and necessary. THT helps us to reconsider some of our underlying assumptions about gender roles, as well as other orthodoxies.
This experiment in imagination seems more urgent since the attack on the Capital of last January 6. According to recent polling, a majority of Republicans continue to believe the Disgraced Former President’s lies about his winning the last election, and very few have condemned his efforts to throw out the election results and take over the US government. Republicans in many states continue to work on changing their voting systems to increase their advantage by making it harder for people of color to vote. In addition, they’re now trying to throw out the Republican state election officials who helped save our democracy by following the law instead of the lying ex-pres.
It’s hard not to see a disturbingly large overlap between the traditionalist patriarchal authoritarian system of Gilead and the MAGA view of how America should be. At the same time, Gilead has one aspect of social justice that both the MAGA ideal and our actual present caste system does not: in Gilead, Black people are treated just like non-Black people. That is, there is no difference in the respect and opportunities people receive based on skin color. Gilead, along with horrifying systematic misogyny, also is a reminder that our racialized caste system is a cultural invention and can be reformed.
Gilead is a police state with armed soldiers watching at all times and preventing unapproved discussions by women. There are brutal public punishments, like mass hangings, stonings, and removal of limbs.
But interestingly, the Gilead surveillance methods are not nearly as advanced as those now being used in China, or even in the US. Gilead has few if any video cameras watching the streets, businesses, or living spaces, and apparently no supercomputers analyzing facial recognition and other data (as China and we do). A MAGA version of Gilead would almost certainly be more technologically adept at identifying and suppressing dissent.
So I’ve gone from thinking that the world of THT is an over-the-top fantasy to seeing it as something that almost just happened, and still could. Except the MAGA version might well be more efficient and cruel.
The good news is that even in Gilead, there is resistance by people with compassion and courage. It won’t spoil the story for me to say the women there turn out to be resourceful and strong. Their unflinching and mostly non-violent struggle against oppression is inspiring. Maybe it will inspire some of us to continue opposing our own moralizing oligarchs.