The Casual Blog

Tag: Ezra Klein

I got vaccinated! Also, why racial privilege is not good for white people

This week it was rainy and cold for several days, and then sunny and cold, and I’ve been on the comeback trail from my neck surgery.  Dr. K directed me not to drive or work out until he gives the OK, but he approved walking.  I’ve been taking some good walks through Raleigh along Hillsborough Street next to N.C. State, through Cameron Village, around Oakwood, and along West Street through the up-and-coming warehouse district.  Walking helps you see things you wouldn’t otherwise. Several businesses had closed, but I spotted some new little ethnic restaurants that looked promising.

After waiting several weeks, today I finally made it to the top of the waiting list for a Covid-19 vaccine, and got my first dose today.  I can’t remember ever being more excited about getting a shot!  I got the Pfizer vaccine, though I would happily have taken any of the well tested options.  It didn’t hurt at all! I encourage all to roll up sleeves as soon as manageable.

On another timely subject, I discovered Ezra Klein’s podcast, and listened to Klein interview Heather McGhee about her new book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together.  The transcript is here.

McGhee and Klein led with a discussion of thousands of municipal swimming pools that American towns built and enjoyed in the last century.  Most allowed whites only, and when the anti-discrimination laws of the Civil Rights era arrived, the local leaders closed the pools en masse.  McGhee explained that white people, indoctrinated with the false narrative of the supposed inferiority and dangerousness of Black people, chose to stop all that fun and healthy swimming, rather than allow Black people to use the pools.  

McGhee found that this kind of nose cutting self-inflicted wound in response to racial fears explains a lot of our otherwise hard-to-explain sub par public policies.  A drain-the-pool impulse led people of the higher castes to oppose public services that would have greatly benefitted themselves in order to avoid benefitting people of the lower castes.  This helps account for Americans’ lack of affordable health care, lack of child care, poor public transportation, poor public education, rising student debt, lack of affordable housing, increasing inequality, and environmental degradation.  

McGhee and Klein discussed how white Americans have been taught over generations to view groups in a hierarchical and zero sum way, so that any advancement of Black people threatened lower status for them.  This view is nonsense, but deeply ingrained, and the fear of loss of status is real.  That’s not the only problem.  The zero sum mindset (that is, thinking that even when there’s plenty for everyone, there isn’t, so when someone else gets something that means there may not be enough for me) also divides lower status white people from even poorer white people.  Thus we have the Hillbilly Elegy situation of white people barely able to pay their bills adamantly opposing government help for those whites who can’t make ends meet.  

Our racial caste system is built on and perpetuates the myths of rugged individualism, racial inferiority, and fear of the Other.  As the pool draining example shows, this mindset has been tremendously destructive, not just for Black people, but for everyone except the plutocratic elites.  

But, as McGhee pointed out that, because our racial caste system gives a privileged position to white people, they are generally not strongly motivated to change it.  With her book, she’s trying to show that white racial privilege carries with it enormous economic and social costs for white people, like the drained swimming pools. It’s possible that, even without calling on compassion, if more white people realized how the system hurts them, they’d support change.

Michelle Goldberg discusses McGhee’s book in her latest column in the New York Times.  There’s also a new interview with McGhee on the Fresh Air podcast.  

Speaking of hope, this week we saw three Netflix or Prime movies that were a bit off the beaten track and offered a welcome bit of calm and optimism. First, Paterson was about a city bus driver in Paterson, N.J. (played by Adam Driver, named Paterson in the movie) who writes poetry when he can.  The movie seemed to be about  the small joys of life (useful work, domesticity, love, waterfalls, artistic creation), and the inherent value that has nothing to do with fame or fortune.  

We also liked Loving, a biopic about Richard and Mildred Loving, whose marriage violated Virginia’s laws against interracial relations, and whose 1967 case in the Supreme Court resulted in such laws becoming unconstitutional.  The movie makes its large points about discrimination and the possibility of racial harmony very simply, without hectoring.  It was quietly powerful, and touching.  

Finally, the new documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution is about an upstate New York summer camp for disabled teenagers that seeded the modern disability rights struggle.  Camp Jened brought together kids with all kinds of physical and mental problems, including limited mobility and coordination, severe speech impediments, deafness, blindness, and developmental issues. At the camp, these kids did ordinary summer camp things, like making campfires, boating, singing, and making out.  It was a profound experience in normalcy for the campers.  It led some of them to become activists whose protests helped achieve the Americans with Disabilities Act.  The film was really cheering and inspiring.

Herons, virtual cocktails, and depolarizing

I got in a couple of trips  to Jordan Lake dam before the big shutdown.  There were quite a few great blue herons standing together and periodically flying into the river to catch fish.  I saw a few squabbles over food and fishing spots. The birds were surprisingly comfortable with me, with one flying in to stand for a while just 20 feet away.  I was looking forward to getting to know them better. But with the park closed, that likely won’t be happening this spring.  

In the Raleigh area, we’re now under orders to stay home if possible.  I’m fortunate not to be in danger of starvation or homelessness, but there are other challenges and disappointments.  In addition to missing the birds and the spring flowers, I’m missing my exercise routine. I usually get to the gym or a yoga class six days a week, and have come to think of that as an important element of my mental health, as well as my physical well being. I’ve been trying to do more running, but I have concerns that too much will hurt my knees.  Anyway, I did five miles yesterday.

We’ve heard that gun shops are doing a booming business.  Apparently, the self-defense crowd is worried that desperate hordes will be attacking their homes, and they will need extra guns and ammo to shoot them.  I think we’re a long way from a Mad Max dystopia, but it’s telling that those fears are here.  

In the spirit of making the best of things, we had our first virtual cocktail hour on Friday.  We scheduled a half hour starting at 5:30 for video chatting and drinking with Jocelyn and Kyle in New York.  We used Google Hangouts, which cut out a couple of times, but mostly worked. We commiserated about the pandemic, compared notes on streaming movies and series, and had some good laughs.  We agreed we would all be in deep trouble psychologically if the internet stopped working.

This week I finished reading Why We’re Polarized by Ezra Klein.  I recommend it to all who are interested in understanding why American politics seems to be working so badly.  Klein contends that political parties have become markers of identity rather than matters of ideology. That is, whichever group we’re in, the group’s policies aren’t as important to us as our being part of the group.  Those who aren’t part of our group are seen as enemies.  

Klein sees race as a central factor in our politics.  During the civil rights movement, Republican politicians used coded racial appeals to pull in working class white people. It seemed like that couldn’t work for long, but it’s still with us.  This isn’t a new revelation, but Klein does a good job putting it in context.  

Recently I discovered a good podcast called Scene on Radio that discusses American history and culture with a focus on issues of race and gender.  It’s now in its fourth season, which reexamines the place of slavery in the formation of the American political system. The founding fathers had strong disagreements about slavery, so there’s not a single, simple narrative.  But the wealthiest of the founders were wealthy because of slavery, and they made sure to protect their wealth, through the design of the Constitution and otherwise. Good podcast.   

It was heartening that faced with a real emergency, last week Congress managed to pass a stimulus bill on a bipartisan basis.  Perhaps it will mark the start of less polarization. But it appears that some at Fox News and extremist evangelicals are still taking the view that the pandemic is a liberal hoax designed to undermine President Trump.  Apparently some reverends are summoning the faithful  to attend their services on the grounds that there is no coronavirus.  We all know that human powers of denial and self deception are great, but even so, with tens of thousands of people already dead, this is amazing.  It’s a long way back from there to unpolarized reality.