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Saturday, June 20, 2015

Confronted by race

First we had a sad spectacle, Rachel Dolezal. Then we had tragedy in Charleston. In different ways both events raise the question of race and racism in America.

I apply "sad" to Dolezal because in my non-professional eye she exhibited persistent behavioral difficulties long before Spokane. People are free to style themselves as they wish, but I draw the line at misrepresentation. (I became a manager of engineers at the age of 25 and almost immediately learned that one of my employees, a chronic low performer, had falsified a key credential on his employment application. My first managerial act was to fire him.) Beside misleading the Spokane NAACP, Dolezal also fouled by failing to heed the natural, understandable sensitivities to black impersonation that the NAACP itself had actively opposed.

But in the aftermath of Dolezal, I read interesting essays about transracial identity with many points of view. Race is a sociological construct, not a biological one. For that matter, although gender arises from biology, we now know that gender is neither absolute nor permanent (e.g. Caitlyn Jenner) — and we know that sexual preference is orthogonal, complex, and time-variant. Many people find these revelations deeply disturbing. That's why it's important for our society to keep discussing them.

Charleston has so many tragic dimensions. Without discounting those, Charleston also appears to have become a Rorschach test. There are idiots who say that if everyone in the church had packed a pistol, Charleston wouldn't have happened. There are sane people who observed that if racial identities had been reversed, we would see photos of Dylann Roof being forcefully wrestled to the ground by police officers brandishing weapons — or simply executing Roof on the spot. And this morning I saw a conservative retort to the effect that similar mass violence has happened in many other countries recently. Factually, that's true but the observation misses (or conveniently ignores) the point. Active racial hatred is indeed not unique to the United States; it's endemic throughout our world. What differentiates the United States from European nations is the legacy of slavery, the KKK, and hundreds of years of violence by white people against black people. When there is a Charleston-like event in the United States, it must be assumed to be part of the horrific American milieu unless clearly established otherwise. If the court finds Roof competent to stand trial and he does not plead guilty, the case will go to jury trial — and we shall see whether his acts were part of that American milieu. Bet you a beer they were.