racism is not cute

I took my time replying to some of Bob Krumm‘s posts, because I wanted to be sure what I said was measured and civil, and so that I could decide specifically what I wanted to say. Bob’s post here has appalled me. He tells the story of encountering two men of “obvious Middle Eastern descent”, which of course doesn’t really mean anything, so we’re left to assume what he means here is “brown”. They asked him where Al Gore’s house was. Bob, assuming they were terrorists, gave them wrong directions, and proceeded to run home and call the police to report their license plate. As justification, he provides:

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I’m biased against Middle Easterners. But I will admit to being skeptical of young Middle Eastern-looking men doing curious things with security implications.

Security implications. Bear in mind, we’re talking about two guys driving around in Belle Meade, here. I’m not going to hash out all the reasons that imagining that two guys driving around the richest, most touristy neighborhood in Nashville asking for directions are terrorists is silly and childish, as it’s fairly obvious. I can’t figure out if the tone of Bob’s post is supposed to be a confessional — as if we’re supposed to pat him on the back and commiserate with him and say, “it’s okay, Bob, you’re not racist — most middle easterners really are terrorists, so it was an easy mistake!” or if he really thinks he prevented something and is congratulating himself.

I’m not going to mince words here — I want my opinion on this to be very clear: Bob, you’re a racist. Sounds terrible when I say it like that, doesn’t it? Racism is a pretty terrible thing. I’ve noticed that I have bandied about words like “bigotry” and “xenophobia”, and to be sure, in many cases those words are appropriate as well, but the word that describes this story that Bob so proudly conveys is “racism”. The reason I avoided that word is because in civil discussion it’s a pretty serious accusation to make — calling someone racist. But bear in mind that I am of the opinion that everyone is racist to some degree or another, and that to ignore or deny that is foolish.

The really disturbing comment that got me was in the comments of that post, where a commenter mentions that the guys were “Couple of rich tourists, probably.” (uh, yeah?), to which Bob’s reply was:

“Winter, You were right, “probably”. But “probably” wasn’t a risk I thought worth taking.”

Not only is this racist, but it’s a little creepily authoritarian. It wasn’t a risk you “thought was worth taking”? No offense, but who the hell are you? Careful, folks, Big Brother Bob is watching. In earlier posts, Bob asserts that “If P&O had sold its American port operations to Maersk, a Danish shipping company, I’d have little objection”, because “hans and frans won’t have bombs”, and before that, “I’ll make a deal with the Arabs. If they can go until the year 2193 without another attack against Americans, I won’t object to them being in charge of our ports of entry.”

The Arabs. Let that sink in for a minute. These are racist statements, and I am not going to pull any punches in acknowledging them as such.

There are a lot of interesting dynamics to this debate about the UAE and the security ports. A lot of people, made aware of the situation, are now coming to the reasonable conclusion that maybe it’s not a good idea to have a foreign country, or worse, a giant corporation, administering any of our ports. This is a valid discussion to have, but it’s important to note that no one raised any objections when the ports were controlled by a British company. The outrage has xenophobic and racist roots, and to ignore this phenomenon is dangerous.

Bob’s digressions, however, are not reasonable objections — they are objections rooted in xenophobia and racism, and that’s a little messed up. I like Bob — I think he’s otherwise a civil and pleasant guy, and I hope he takes this criticism in stride. But I am utterly disgusted by this dark side we’ve recently been introduced to, and I wasn’t about to let it go without comment, particularly given Bob’s aspirations for public office.

  • http://www.BobKrumm.typepad.com Bob K

    Chris, There is no reason to object to a company from the Middle East managing our ports when a British company doing the same thing raises no objections. None other than distrust of Middle Easterners. If P&O had sold their operations to Maersk, no one would care. No one.

    Every objection to this deal is rooted in the ugly little subject I’ve squarely confronted. Damn me to hell if you want. But at least I admit why I’m troubled by this deal. If you’re troubled by it–as you admittely are, yet you can’t honestly admit why, then my bias is not your problem. You have the problem.

    One thing I am, is very honest. And I’m honest about why I’m bothered by the deal. And I’m honest also, in that it bothers me that I feel this way. But it doesn’t bother me enough to think that I did the wrong thing. I’d do it again. (Although, I can’t imagine that anyone now even cares where Al Gore lives.)

    If that makes me an ugly American, then so be it.

    But don’t make the over-reaching claim of “xenophobia” and “racism.” It cheapens your argument. Look up the words. It’s never what I said, and it’s never what I meant. Instead, I’ve use the words “Bias,” or if you prefer, “prejudice.” Very different things.

    And if you want to be technically correct, your objection to even a British company running our ports is more accurately “xenophobic” than my concern about the UAE managing them.

  • http://chris.quietlife.net Chris

    Every objection to this deal is rooted in the ugly little subject I’ve squarely confronted. Damn me to hell if you want. But at least I admit why I’m troubled by this deal. If you’re troubled by it–as you admittely are, yet you can’t honestly admit why, then my bias is not your problem. You have the problem.

    I’ve admitted the only reason it troubles me — here, briefly, and elsewhere: namely that the deal involves a deal with a state that is little more than a corporate conglomerate.

    The fact that they are in the middle east, or that “Arab” is in the name of the country is not a reasonable concern.

    But don’t make the over-reaching claim of “xenophobia” and “racism.” It cheapens your argument.

    Merriam-Webster’s definition of “racism”:

    racism

    2: discriminatory or abusive behavior towards members of another race [syn: racialism, racial discrimination]

    (One of) your quotes:

    … I will admit to being skeptical of young Middle Eastern-looking men doing curious things with security implications.

    “curious things with security implications”, as it happens, in this case, means “driving around, asking for directions to a tourist stop”. I believe it is consistent with the definition of “racism”.

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  • http://www.BobKrumm.typepad.com Bob K

    Chris, I want to thank you. As a Republican candidate it was only a matter of time until I was labeled a racist. Thanks for putting that hurdle behind me.

    Although, I still have accusations of “nazi,” “fascist,” “religious right wing extremist,” and “taliban” to look forward to.

  • http://www.knoxviews.com R. Neal

    That’s funny. I was driving around in Belle Meade with a Kerry sticker, when some big-haired, way-too-much-makeup “lady” driving an SUV sporting “W” stickers and yellow “Support The Troops” ribbon magnets rolled down her window and yelled “Yeah, go ahead and vote for the Taliban.”

  • http://www.mtannoyances.com Tim W.

    Hi Chris. The OED defines the noun Arab as “one of the Semitic race inhabiting Saudi Arabia and neighbouring countries.”

    That said, I find the word grossly insensitive to use to describe a couple of dudes driving around Belle Meade. For heaven’s sake, those guys could be American citizens living on Belle Meade Boulevard! :)

    Yours,
    Timmy

  • http://chris.quietlife.net Chris

    Exactly, which is my point. The OED definition of Arab is not something that means anything in the context of identifying someone visually in a Mercedes. Unless, you know, they had a “I [heart] (and am from) Saudi Arabia” bumper sticker or something.

  • Carol

    If referring to someone who is of middle-eastern appearance as “Arab” (even in Belle Meade) is racist, then what of referring to someone with a different shade of brown skin as “African American?” How in the world do you know that someone’s ancestors came from Africa, rather than Jamaica or any one of several other places? For that matter, how do you know their citizenship, even if you’re reasonably certain of their heritage?

    You’ve gone off the deep end on this one.

  • http://chris.quietlife.net Chris

    Carol,

    You seem to have misconstrued the point of this post, or perhaps didn’t read the entire thing. Arab, “middle-eastern”, or Arab-American, or African-American are not racist as used in application towards demographic taxonomy. Bob used the phrase “of obvious middle eastern descent” and accented english as justification for discriminatory treatment (in this case, assuming they were .. terrorists.)

    This thinking is belied by the fact that “middle eastern descent” is not something you can tell visually, or even genetically (yet), much less have it be “obvious”. So when Bob made a discriminatory analysis of the two men, it was presumably based on skin color and accent.

    As for his use of “the Arabs”: if you re-read the post, you’ll perhaps note that when Bob used this phrase he was not talking about the two men in Belle Meade, he was asserting that “the Arabs” (as a whole, I guess) attacked America.

  • http://www.enclave-nashville.blogspot.com S-townMike

    This is really a distasteful attempt on your part, Bob, to innoculate yourself from criticism by playing the martyr-of-the-moment and slinging mud by assuming that Chris simply stereotypes any and all Republicans. It can’t be Bob’s problem because, Lord knows, Republicans are wrongly impugned in general, right? Really, Bob. You should return to the “at-least-I’m-being-honest” argument. It’s a lot less petty and infinitely less political.

  • http://www.BobKrumm.typepad.com Bob K

    This “debate” has just gotten silly. Apparently because in your mind you’ve concluded that I’m racist, bigoted, xenophobic, and whatever derogatory label you want to apply to me, I must be one of those rubish white men who thinks that all people who don’t look like me, look alike. If you’ve read my bio you’d know that with 15 years in the Army, and the last three years in construction, that I’ve probably had enough experience with the Middle East and with Hispanics, that I can see and hear someone and determine if they’re more likely to be from Guatemala or from Saudi Arabia.

    Furthermore, you’re misreading everything I’ve written if you think I’ve said or implied that Arabs, as a whole, are terrorists. I’ve only said that a disproportionate number of terrorist attacks directed against the United States have been carried out by Middle Easterners. Do you want to refute that point?

    Finally, I’m glad to see that I’ve risen to the level of where I now have my own tag. I guess I can expect to see more discussion here of how I’m a horrible racist. I invite that. Just be advised that you cheapen the word when you misuse it so. Not to mention that if you call everyone a racist who thinks that the UAE port deal deserves an extra layer of scrutiny, you’ve just insulted at least two-thirds of the country. That’s not smart politics.

  • http://chris.quietlife.net Chris

    Furthermore, you’re misreading everything I’ve written if you think I’ve said or implied that Arabs, as a whole, are terrorists.

    I don’t really know what else I can do here but just quote what you said. You said this:

    I’ll make a deal with the Arabs. If they can go until the year 2193 without another attack against Americans

    You said “the Arabs” attacked America.

    I’ve only said that a disproportionate number of terrorist attacks directed against the United States have been carried out by Middle Easterners. Do you want to refute that point?

    That depends. “terrorist” as a qualifier is subjective, naturally (for example: I can’t imagine anything these two men you thought were terrorists could do anything to Al Gore’s home that is vastly different from the criteria for a “criminal” act, but I digress). Looking over briefly the FBI’s “Terrorism 2000/2001″ report, I notice straightaway a preponderance of right-wing hate organizations responsible for most of the incidents — though it is difficult, because the FBI considers the Earth Liberation Front a terrorist organization, and they dominate the list of attacks, but because they at least try not to actually kill anyone, I think they don’t fit the bill for the purposes of our discussion. Do you have any numbers that serve as the basis for your assertion? Are we talking about domestic terrorism? International? (in that case, it’s tough to imagine how two guys driving around in Belle Meade fit the bill).

    Finally, I’m glad to see that I’ve risen to the level of where I now have my own tag. I guess I can expect to see more discussion here of how I’m a horrible racist.

    Relax, I’m just tag-happy since I installed the plugin. You’ll only see further discussion here of how you’re a horrible racist if you say horribly racist things, and I bother to point it out.

    Just be advised that you cheapen the word when you misuse it so.

    You have said this a few times now, and I want to address this — I disagree strenuously with the idea that racism is a word that can be “cheapened”. On the contrary, I believe that racism is something that exists in every person to varying degrees, and to treat it as an adjective that is verboten in civil discussion is what truly cheapens the word. Racism is all around us — we can either acknowledge it and talk about it or ignore it.

    One story I meant to tell in the original post was from Amanda, when she was taking a class with a guess lecturer at Belmont. The lecturer asked everyone who thought they were racist to raise their hands. Amanda said she was the only one that raised her hand. This is the sort of denial our society subjects itself to on a daily basis.

    So, you’ve taken the road of playing the martyr on the assumption that by calling you a racist I have launched a vitriolic personal attack on you merely because you’re a Republican. You couldn’t be further from the truth. I called you a racist because you said things that, yes, I thought were horribly racist. But don’t feel bad. I consider myself a racist, too. The difference is that I make an effort not to be — to observe the various category errors and prejudicial decisions I may make and avoid or correct them when appropriate.

    Not to mention that if you call everyone a racist who thinks that the UAE port deal deserves an extra layer of scrutiny, you’ve just insulted at least two-thirds of the country.

    That would be silly, indeed, but I haven’t done that. There are many things that deserve to be scrutinized about the port deal — and indeed, there were many things that deserved to be scrutinized even when P&O was in control. My observations thus far have been two-fold: 1) that there is a racist undercurrent to the outrage over DPW but the lack over P&0, 2) that the things you said specifically, and the story you relayed, were racist.

  • http://st_rev.livejournal.com/ t. rev

    The lecturer asked everyone who thought they were a sinner racist to raise their hands.

  • http://st_rev.livejournal.com/ t. rev

    I don’t think you’re being entirely fair here. There are some complicated statistical and cognitive problems that show up a lot in discussions of the WOT, and this is a good example of some of them playing out. Let me try to explain.

    Suppose there are a very small number of Al-Qaeda operatives in Tennessee. Suppose half of them are Maybe Middle Eastern Or Somethin’ (MME for short) and half of them are not MME. Suppose further that only 1% of all people in Tennessee are MME.”

    Now, the probability that someone picked at random from the population of Tennessee is an AQ operative is vanishingly small.

    The probability that a MME person picked at random from the population of Tennessee is an AQ operative is 100 times greater than the previous probability. It is still vanishingly small.

    It seems to be difficult cognitively to keep pairs of facts like this in mind at the same time; people tend to forget or ignore the latter (if right-wing) or the former (if left-wing), but they’re both simultaneously true.

    If you accuse a random person of being an AQ operative with no evidence, you’re insane. If you accuse a random MME person of being an AQ operative with no evidence, you’re insane AND a racist shithead.

    This is where things start to get complicated, though: we aren’t talking about random sampling. If someone comes up to you and asks where a former vice-president lives, that’s not a random sample, that’s an unusual event. Could be a tourist, could be an AQ guy. Almost certainly the former. But it’s peculiar. Say the chances are one in a thousand that it’s an AQ guy. Quick! What’s the conditional probability that it’s an AQ guy given that it’s a MME person? Got a calculator? Does it even occur to you on the spot to try to run the numbers? I have a PhD in mathematics, and I’d have to get pencil and paper first.

    Finally, there’s the issue of severely imbalanced penalties for a wrong answer. If the guy isn’t AQ, and you call the cops, someone could get harassed unjustly, maybe even get locked up by the evil jackbooted thugs of our government. If the guy is AQ, and you don’t call the cops, many people could die.

    Okay, now having set all that out, here’s my actual point.

    Humans are not very good at weighing and combining event likelihoods, especially when the probabilities are very small. This is why people keep playing the lottery. Here you have a situation where someone’s trying to combine two unusual pieces of information to make a decision with imbalanced outcomes. This is cognitively very difficult.

    Did he make the wrong call? Yes, I think so. Was racism involved? Not necessarily.

    His cracks about the port ownership issue are closer to racism, although that read more like xenophobic nationalism to me. Racism, xenophobia and nationalism overlap, but they’re not identical.

  • http://st_rev.livejournal.com/ t. rev

    Suppose there are a very small number of Al-Qaeda operatives in Tennessee. Suppose half of them are Maybe Middle Eastern Or Somethin’ (MME for short) and half of them are not MME. Suppose further that only 1% of all people in Tennessee are MME.

    I left out the justification for this part. Al-Qaeda is ideologically Islamist, and it primarily recruits from the Arab world. There’s evidence that AQ is working hard to change its recruitment base, and is recruiting from southeast Asia and Europe for operations in the US. Still, AQ is predominantly Arab, so I went half and half there.

    The 1% I pulled out of my hat, since I don’t live in Tennessee. Maybe Chris can give a better estimate. The specific numbers aren’t important; you’ll see this kind of phenomenon as long as the makeup of the AQ population in Tennessee is identifiably different from the makeup of the general population in Tennessee.

  • http://cupofjoepowell.blogspot.com/ Joe P.

    If memory serves, Nashville is home to the largest number of Kurdish refugees in the U.S., so should is be that surprising to see folk of “middle-eastern” appearance?
    When the two Iraqi elections were held, Nashville was one of the five (or more perhaps) centralized voting locations in the nation for expatriates.

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  • http://www.invisiwill.com Will Bridges

    Racism is ignorance… calling them ‘Arabs’ because they have a brown skin tone is ignorant… Now if they were carrying AKs and asking you where Al Gore’s house was or held you a gun point and asked you where a tourist attraction was maybe you would be within legit suspicion, Bob.

    Hey, how dumb are these ‘terrorists’ to ask directions to their target? Saying you are ignorant and racist. But I’m sure some of the people you play your posts to think you are the savior of Al Gore. What’s worse for your image? Being the savior of Al Gore or NOT being called a racist?

    Don’t pull that “Some of my best friends are…” shit. That’s just funny. Suck it up and say “Oh, maybe my assumptions were a little off and I jumped the gun.”

  • john hutcheson

    I suspect the majority of terrorists in this town are a generation or two from their white-sheeted forefathers (and mothers). I’ll give props to Bob for admitting openly to this story, but I can’t see anywhere in Chris’s post about lumping all Republicans in the ‘racist column’.

    There are literally thousands of Kurds living in mostly the Woodbine, Crieve Hall, Paragon Mills area. I’m assuming that some of them actually cross over Franklin Road to get to stores and movies and sight-seeing. Some of them may actually be terrorists, but the best bet is that they are here to earn a living. My wife teaches at Paragon Mills elementary. Her only broadly based statement is that the Kurdish kids are more polite as a whole than most of the other students. I’m hoping that when those children grow up they are able to freely ask questions in the Greater Green Hills part of town.

    I’m pretty sure if you didn’t know they were Kurdish they would be hard to pick out from their semitic brethren. But Bob, if anyone asks me directions to your house, I promise I’ll give you a heads up!