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We Are Individuals, Not Victims

Seeing African Americans, or Muslims, or Jews, as part of victimized minority collectives is a toxic formulation that ensures that we are never treated fairly as individuals—and denies us the ability to exercise real power

Zaid Jilani
June 05, 2020
Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images
Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

On May 29, as many thousands of Americans took to the streets to protest the death of George Floyd in police custody and a much smaller group of people took advantage of the situation to engage in looting, arson, and rioting, left-of-center filmmaker Michael Moore fired out a tweet with a simple proposal that summarizes the woke worldview that has taken root among the elites of the Anglo-American world:

Moore suggested that the police headquarters in Minneapolis should be demolished as a show of contrition to “black America.” The police department should then be rebuilt with “decent kind ppl aka ppl of color.”

In days past, this would have been considered an odd statement among the political left. The left’s civil rights tradition was based on equal treatment and evaluating people based on their character rather than their skin color. The abusive treatment of Floyd by the four police officers who detained him—all of whom were fired by the department and charged—rightly shocks people’s consciences, but it wasn’t an assault on an entire racial group by an entire police department.

Instead of burning buildings as an act of contrition, as Moore called for, shouldn’t it be the police involved apologizing to George Floyd’s loved ones, first and foremost, and then to the entire Minneapolis community for betraying their trust by abusing their role as public servants?

I also wonder what exactly makes nonwhite people inherently “decent” or “kind.” Like anyone else, we are capable of both good and bad, of both peace and violence.

Even when it comes to police violence you cannot reliably predict someone’s behavior just by their skin color. A 2018 study from Rutgers University found that nonwhite police officers are no less likely to use lethal force against minorities.

Additionally, while acts of police brutality are horrible, the killing of unarmed suspects is actually very rare, and not exclusive to one racial group. In 2019, 41 unarmed people were shot and killed by police; nine of them were African American.

By presenting these facts, I am not denying the reality of racial discrimination in some of America’s policing. Just look at this recent study of police traffic stops by the Stanford School of Engineering. The researchers analyzed 95 million traffic stop records and found that fewer black drivers tend to be stopped at night because a “veil of darkness” prevents police from seeing their race. The color blindness that many progressive-minded people, including myself, pine for has not yet been achieved by all of America’s police; it should not take the sun setting to treat people fairly.

We tend to make snap judgements based on the information available to us—social psychologists call this the availability heuristic because we use stereotypes and limited information to try and make sense of the world.

In both the case of Moore’s patronizing tweet and the racial profiling that plagues too much of our policing, people are using limited information informed by stereotypes to reach unfair conclusions. The filmmaker probably has seen the familiar string of YouTube videos featuring white police officers abusing or killing black suspects unjustly, or read one of the many prominent articles in the media highlighting these incidents. From that limited information he may have constructed a worldview where whites embody a form of inherent sin; meanwhile, minorities are seen as virtuous victims, rather than what we really are: individuals who are capable of good or evil, violence or peace.

Meanwhile, the police who are engaged in racial profiling may be aware of data showing that African Americans are disproportionately represented in some crime statistics; they use this bit of information to unfairly stereotype the African Americans they encounter as potential criminals, leading to innocent people being stopped and questioned at least partly due to the color of their skin—every police interaction increasing the odds that one will end in tragedy.

One of the goals of 20th-century race liberalism was to chip away at distorted thinking created by the availability heuristic. We shouldn’t evaluate individuals by stereotypes about groups created by limited information, liberals correctly argued.

Psychology research tells us that seeing people as individuals, rather than as members of groups, helps reduce social prejudice. The psychologist Susan Fiske showed exactly how easy this is, if we put our minds to it. In a 2005 neuroscience study, she found that when white participants saw photos of black faces and had two seconds to judge whether the people in these photographs were over the age of 21, they showed activity in the area of the brain called the amygdala, which indicates a high level of alertness and emotional arousal. In other words, they saw a threat.

But she discovered a neat trick to defusing this automatic fear response. In some cases, her research team asked the white participants to judge what sort of vegetable the people in the photos would prefer to eat. In those cases, where they were prompted to see the people as individuals with their own personal tastes and preferences, the amygdala activity looked the same as when participants saw white faces, suggesting that they were able to individuate, that is see the faces as individuals, rather than group them into a category perceived as “other.”

Unfortunately, the process of individuating has come under furious assault in recent years. More and more, elites in media and politics are encouraging us to think about ourselves as archetypes of groups rather than as individuals. Stereotyping about white people in particular is now not only accepted, but encouraged and seen as a political good. Every white person is expected to acknowledge that they have white privilege at all times, regardless of their class or personal background, and to affirm that it is impossible for there to be any situation in which nonwhites ever enjoy any advantages over whites. As I have written elsewhere, this is a problematic belief structure—not because it will usher in some kind of reverse Jim Crow that subjugates whites, but because it leads to a flattened image, effectively stigmatizing even the suggestion that whites might be disadvantaged or suffering. This blinkered view of race and privilege can be particularly harmful to whites in situations where many are underprivileged (for instance, the white suicide rate is many times higher than the Asian, black, or Latino suicide rate).

But equally problematic is the way some on the left talk about members of ethnic minority groups as if we are simply virtuous victims, cast adrift on a plank in an ocean of white supremacy over which we have no control. Basically everything in our lives is determined by the Leviathan of structural racism, a term that is both increasingly vague and ever more expansively used to explain every feature of the social conditions of America.

To those who adopt this worldview, it may come as a surprise, then, that some of the worst racial disparities in marijuana arrests, for instance, can be found in locales where elected officials and those in power are overwhelmingly African American Democrats, like Atlanta, where 90% of arrests for marijuana offenses in 2016 were of African Americans.

It’s hard to chalk this up only to racial profiling. One reason you see these disparities in low-level drug arrests is because there tends to be heavier policing overall in areas with more violent crime; across the United States, many of these areas tend to be heavily African American and Latino. Police may be more heavily patrolling a certain neighborhood due to gun violence, but that doesn’t mean they won’t arrest you for something as simple as a nonviolent drug crime.

The leadership of Atlanta did not need to wait for a woke white savior to rescue them from “400 years of racism,” a reductive phrase commonly employed by Democratic elites to explain basically every social phenomenon where ethnic minorities are involved. In 2018, Atlanta moved to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana; after all, you don’t have to worry about the disparity in a social malady between two groups if you simply eliminate the malady.

It’s hardly a surprise that African American mayors like Atlanta’s Keisha Lance Bottoms and Birmingham’s Randall Woodfin were among the most unequivocal in condemning the looting and rioting committed by a small minority who exploited the chaos created by the George Floyd protests for their own ends. This is not because race has any essential characteristic—it obviously doesn’t. But in the modern Democratic Party, liberal whites are increasingly encouraged to coddle ethnic minorities and deprive them of the humanity that comes with taking responsibility for our own actions. So it’s also not a surprise that Seattle’s Jenny Durkan, for instance, made pains to emphasize the number of “white men” engaging in violence in her city. In normal times, it would be wildly inappropriate to single out a racial group as especially violent.

But in the time of woke politics, white men are basically the only group that is granted the blessing of both power and responsibility for using it. If you want to stop violence, you have to, as the leadership in Minnesota attempted, blame it on “white supremacists.” Clearly, there have been some racists who, like looters, have tried to exploit the chaos caused by the protests to destroy property in black communities and egg on violent confrontations with police. But there is no proof at all that white supremacists have been anything more than marginal players in this drama. The disproportionate focus on outside “white supremacists” from both politicians and media figures is just another way of awarding white men agency—they are the ones who caused all the things we don’t like to happen—and denying it to ethnic minorities who remain perpetual victims.

I would be lying if I said I’ve never faced bigotry or discrimination as a result of being a Pakistani American Muslim. But it never really occurred to me to think about the entire United States as antagonistic to my existence. Now I’m starting to wonder if the coddling promoted by some of its elites will prevent liberals from seeing me as a fully human person.

The far right often dehumanizes Muslims by portraying us as inherently violent. That’s what the website Jihad Watch does—it’s just a running hit list of some of my worst co-religionists.

But when I learned that British police were wary of investigating Pakistani child grooming gangs in the United Kingdom because they were fearful of angering the British Pakistani community and being labeled racist, I saw that as another form of dehumanization—this time from the left.

The left always tells us not to blame the victim. But victims by definition do not have social or political power. I want to have power, and you cannot have power unless it is paired with responsibility.

Update, June 8, 2020: The Washington Post updated their database of police shootings, increasing the number of unarmed African Americans listed as shot and killed by the police in 2019 from 9 to 15. This article has been amended accordingly.

Zaid Jilani is a freelance journalist who has previously worked for UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, The Intercept, and the Center for American Progress. He also writes a newsletter at inquire.substack.com. He is a graduate of the University of Georgia and received his master’s from Syracuse University. He is originally from the Atlanta area.

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