SATURDAY, JULY 10, 2021
Do we believe what the slaveholders said?: We've never met Paul Butler.
That said, we've seen him on TV a million times. (He's a legal analyst for MSNBC.)
We probably haven't always agreed with his analyses. Also, as we've mentioned a time or two in the past, he has often struck us as a person who seems to be very sad, for which he may have good reason.
That said, Butler has always struck us as a person who's fully and completely sincere. In part for that reason, we found ourselves thinking all day yesterday about that last thing Butler said in yesterday's column in the Washington Post.
We aren't inclined to agree with most of the things Butler said in his column. But the last thing he said involved his personal experiences and his personal feelings, and because he strikes us as a good, decent person who's fully sincere, we were struck by the last thing he said.
Butler was discussing Nikole Hannah-Jones, who has taken a hike from UNC and decided to touch down at Howard. Good for her, Butler said. But then too, he also said this:
BUTLER (7/9/21): I have no beef with Hannah-Jones for declining a job at a journalism school that is literally named after the White man who, as he so delicately put it, "expressed my concerns" about her hiring. But, for now, I am okay with working at a university that in its early years was financed by the sale of enslaved people. I love my students and respect my colleagues, and have been part of the community’s efforts, still incomplete, to make reparations for that travesty. Sometimes, helping majority-White spaces be less racist and more inclusive feels transformative. Other times, it feels like an intellectual version of my great-grandfather’s job; he cleaned outhouses—i.e., shoveling White people’s excrement.
Sometimes, Butler—he's a professor at Georgetown Law—feels like he's "shoveling White people’s excrement."
That seems like a remarkable thing to say. Why did Butler say it?
When does Butler feel like he's "shoveling White people's excrement?" He set the stage for that possibly surprising statement in this earlier passage:
BUTLER: Most professors of color work at majority-White schools...
People of color in majority-White spaces often find themselves having to do “diversity” work that is not part of their job description. This can be draining and frustrating, making it difficult to refute the wisdom of Hannah-Jones’s observation that “for too long, powerful people have expected the people they have mistreated and marginalized to sacrifice themselves to make things whole.”
Nevertheless, some of us persist, based on another lesson from critical race theory: that those Hannah-Jones described as the “powerful people who maintain” racial injustice are unlikely to seek change, because the status quo provides them with too many benefits. Unfair as it is, that work remains up to people of color and our allies.
Butler is a professor at a high-ranking law school. He's a columnist at one of the world's most important newspapers. He's a frequent commentator at one of our "cable news" channels.
Still, he often finds himself "having to do 'diversity' work that is not part of [his] job description." Apparently, this makes him feel that he is "shoveling White people’s excrement."
In one mood, an observer could react like this:
Dr. King surrendered his life at the age of 39. (39!) Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner surrendered their lives at an earlier date, at even earlier ages.
Long before she became well known, Rosa Parks routinely risked her life in her own civil rights work. By possible way of contrast:
In this later generation, highly privileged, highly-paid people sometimes feel that they're shoveling ("white") people's sh*t when they have to work on diversity issues, perhaps even taking time away from one of their other well-paid, high-profile positions.
In one mood, this can seem like one of the recurrent stories of human experience. In this recurrent story, one generations sacrifices itself so the next generation can acquire and complain.
(We thought of Stella Dallas yesterday, but also of Mildred Pierce. With the direction of implied moral judgment flipped, we also thought of Fences, in which the earlier generation won't let the new one move on.)
In one mood, such thoughts can appear. In another mood, Butler has always struck us as a person who is decent and good, and also who's wholly sincere.
What sorts of experiences at Georgetown Law make Butler feel the way he (somewhat indelicately) described? This is his story to tell (or not), but we wondered about that all day.
Along the way, Butler also said what's shown below. This strikes us as a very important note about the current drift of the national culture, to the extent that a nation exists:
BUTLER: Critical race theorists advanced concepts such as structural racism and intersectionality. Some were skeptical of civil rights strategies that relied on integration, notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that “separate but equal” schools were inherently unequal and, therefore, unconstitutional.
In a classic article published in 1976, Harvard professor Derrick Bell argued that during the Jim Crow era, Black students might have been better off if they had sought more resources for segregated schools rather than access to White schools. Bell’s premise was that actual integration would never happen, even if it were legally mandated, because of “massive white hostility.”
Critical race theorists described the heavy toll of desegregation efforts, including placing Blacks in hostile environments, in a way that resonates with Hannah-Jones’s explanation for her decision: “At some point when you have proven yourself and fought your way into institutions that were not built for you . . . you have to decide that you are done forcing yourself in.”
As best we can tell, Hannah-Jones has been invited into quite a few high-end institutions.
More specifically, one thinks of the Little Rock Nine (and of so many others), children and teens who sometimes accepted a very heavy toll in desegregation efforts.
That said, is integration the god which has failed? Would black kids (and possibly everyone else) possibly have been better off if the nation had instead decided to create schools which were separate but truly equal—presumably, equal in terms of facilities and funding?
In the Brown decision, the Supreme Court ruled, perhaps somewhat flimsily, that legally segregated schools could, in fact, never be "equal."
Such schools could never be equal, the Court held, because of the harmful psychological effects this system of legal separation perpetrated on the "hearts and minds" of black kids.
(Legal segregation's bad effects on the hearts and minds of white kids went unmentioned.)
In the passage posted above, Butler has begun to wonder if black kids would have been better off had the nation taken a different approach back in the 1950s—if the nation had chosen to stick with legally-mandated separation of the "races."
There is, of course, no ultimate way to answer that perilous question. That said, current forces are pushing in a certain direction. In this emerging framework, we Americans actually aren't one people, and we should just go ahead and say so.
For ourselves, if we were devising a new curriculum on "race" for the public schools, we would start, in the earliest grades, with these basic concepts:
1) Everyone's skin is good. The only reason you have skin is to keep your bones from falling out. If your bones aren't falling out, that means that your skin is good. Let's hear it for everyone's skin!
2) We're all good kids and friends in this room. Everyone here is your friend. We're all good kids in this room.
3) Everybody's skin is good, and everybody's skin is alike. Your skin is your very good friend. Your skin keeps you healthy and happy!
4) Children around the world are good, just like the kids in our classroom. Children like you around the world are pretty much all alike.
(The notion that kids are the same all over the world has long been a basic public education social studies concept.)
Are some kids "white" and some kids "black?" Long before this nation was founded, that was the decree which went out from "the world the slaveholders made."
Do we believe the things we were told by those earlier people? Especially over here in Our Town, we increasingly seem determined to say that we do.
That said, has integration failed? Was integration perhaps a mistake?
There's no ultimate way to answer that question. But Butler's feelings seem very real, and Butler is a good, decent person who has always struck us as completely sincere.
Why does Butler feel as he does? Needless to say, it's his story to tell or to withhold.
But do we need to understand other people's experiences? Other people's assessments? Putting that another way, do we plan to continue trying to be a nation? Or are we deciding to move ahead as a string of groups and tribes?
Butler sometimes feels that he's shoveling "white" people's sh*t! We are in no position to say that he shouldn't feel that way.
That said, does he feel like he's shoveling every white person's sh*t? Are all "white people" involved in this labor, or is it just the "white" people with whom he's fated to work at Georgetown? Whose excrement is he forced to shovel in the times he describes?
Also, was that perhaps an odd thing to say on a journalistic basis? Absent attempts at explanation, is it wise when newspapers like the Post keep putting such statements in print?
Does everybody belong to a race? Granted, people will be viewed, and will often be treated, as if they belong to a race. But in the end, is that perception accurate?
Do we affirm the world the slaveholders made? Here in Our Town, in the end, do we believe what the slaveholders said?