Abuse of Trust: Anatomy of a Breakdown

From this blogpost’s title, you’re probably assuming this is about the BP oil spill, or the SEC’s settlement with Goldman Sachs, the recent financial legislation, or a new perspective on Bernie Madoff.

Instead, I want to shine a flashlight on l’affaire Sherrod. From a trust perspective.

For those of you outside the US, the bare narrative is this: Fox News played a videotape of a speech by a federal government employee, which appeared to be racist, and called for her resignation. In very short order, the government did indeed fire her, without checking on the facts.

The Shirley Sherrod Case

Those of you in the US, I’m not going to link here to any more background. The newspapers are full of it.

What I do want to suggest is to offer a case example of how trust breaks down, in the only terms that matter: yours.

Here is a link to the original Fox video; the first 45 seconds are about this story.

Here is the coverage of the video, on July 20—a quick read.

Now: most of you know what came next. But you almost certainly know it from secondary sources. Rarely, these days, do we actually get to make up our own minds from primary material.

We have an opportunity here to contrast punditry with original source material. Ask yourself what you know of the Army-McCarthy hearings in the 1950s. Google it a bit if you want. Then compare it with the actual video, here.

In the same vein, may I strongly suggest that all of you seize this opportunity to view Ms. Sherrod’s original video in its entirety. It’s not a light request: the entire video lasts 43 minutes, and the ‘hot stuff’ is scattered throughout the middle section. 

I still suggest you look at it. This is a teachable moment. But don’t be taught by what you hear from the Wall Street Journal, or the New York Times, or the NAACP, or pundits of the right or of the left–the signal-to-noise ratio is huge. Instead, seize this opportunity to teach yourself.

I won’t say anymore just now; I’ll add my own comments in a few days. 

There is a ton of learning to be had by each of us watching the original source material—at roughly the same time the opinion makers are all ossifying the official learnings. 

There is to be had here learning about how we come to trust, who we trust, how much power we grant to those we trust, and the benefits and risks of trusting others.

So–if you can find time to watch the original, please share with us what you learned from it.

Sotomayor Was Right the First Time: A Wise Latina Does Know More

Supreme court nominee Sonia Sotomayor now-famously said, in 2001, that she would hope a “wise Latina would make better decisions because of her life experiences than a white male.” 

As she noted, those have become her most-quoted words, overwhelmed by a firestorm of opinion characterizing her as racist or worse.  Before long, she was forced to eat her own words (as in a Boston Globe headline, “Sotomayor Repudiates ‘Wise Latina’ Comment.")

She was right the first time.  A Wise Latina woman does know more. 

Notice your own reaction in this instant, after reading this blogpost title and that last sentence.

Most of you had a quick emotional reaction—negative for most, positive for some.  You interpret it as a political statement, and you probably made an inference about my own political views.

Let me try to find the rarified air wherein that statement has nothing to do with racism or politics, and should not provoke any emotions at all.  It is simply a statement about the dynamics of human beings when they are cast in roles of minority and majority.  It should provoke no more adrenaline than an observation about the feeding habits of penguins.

The Dance of Majority and Minority

People observe and believe very different things based on whether they are members of a minority, or of a majority.  One group, I suggest, notices more, and knows more, than the other.

This isn’t about race per se: it’s about a mixture of numbers and power.  Suppose Group A constitutes 70% of a culture’s population, and 85% of its economic and political wealth.  Groups B and C each represent 10% of the population, and 5% of its economic and political wealth.

All groups—A,B and C—will view Group A as the dominant culture.  The habits, opinions, styles, language, likes and dislikes, family patterns and ideologies of Group A will dominate in institutions, advertising, government, etc.

If you’re a young A person, you conclude that your culture is the norm.  Mathematically, you are absolutely right.  Emotionally, you conclude that you are also “right,” and that other cultures, being in the minority, are odd, unusual, out of the ordinary.

If you’re a young B or C person, you see the same facts.  You also know that A people are the norm–you can do the math too.  Unfortunately, you likely also internalize the majority view that B-ness or C-ness is somehow odd, unusual, out of the ordinary.

It is but the tiniest of steps from the above for an A person to judge a B or C person as “weird,” wrong, or inferior–and to simply not notice many differences. More insidiously, it’s also a tiny step for Bs and Cs to think the same of themselves.  (Being a minority is a helluva psychic challenge).

Each group understands the As.  But the As impute mainstream characteristics—which happen to be their own–to everyone.  Hence they literally do not notice many characteristics of Bs and Cs, assuming them to be identical to mainstream (and their own) ways of life.  The most “normal” Bs and Cs, to an A, are those who most resemble As.  (“But you don’t look Jewish…”)

An example: look at the photo on the top right of this page (go to the URL if you’re getting this by text).  In this picture, those are the feet of a white person.

Of all the feet on all the dashboards of all the cars in the US, what percentage of the time are those feet likely to be the feet of a black person?

a.    0%
b.    5%
c.    10%
d.    25%

If you’re a white person, you’re likely to guess a number in line with the black percentage of the US population.

But if you’re a black person, you know the answer is a, or just about 0%.  In the black community, putting one’s bare feet up on a car’s dashboard, or a table, is considered just plain rude. 

The reason white people don’t know this is that black people know what happens if they try to explain it.  Picture yourself as an African American, trying to explain to a white senator  that his kids are rude because they see nothing wrong with putting their feet on the dashboard.  Will the Senator hear it as anthropological information?  Or as insulting racist talk?  Take a wild guess. 

So we have:

1. Minority people (black, in this case) know what to expect from everyone on the foot test. 

2. Majority people (white in this case) do not know what to expect from everyone on the foot test. 

3. QED: minority people know more than majority people.  Sotomayor was dead right.

Then why did she repudiate herself?  Because majorities tend to hear statements of minority knowledge as insults to the majority.

And, since majorities can’t see what minorities can, it’s a losing battle to protest.  Easier to repudiate yourself.

If you’re white, and think that blacks overstate racism, then ask yourself: how emotionally disturbed was I by this headline?  If the answer was, ‘a lot,’ but you also see the point of this blog, then that tells you how deeply embedded majoritism (racism, sexism, etc.) is in this society.  Your gut instinct was to hear the truth as an insult.  Just like a Senator who heard "a double minority person knows more then a white male."

Very sad, perhaps.  Yet also, simply very true.

When Well-Intended Mistrust Masks Oppression

Item 1. I went to my 40th high school reunion this weekend. We took a tour of the old gymnasium and the (new) pool. The women in the group were visibly touched. “Remember those stupid blue bloomers we had to wear?” “Look at all those trophies—we never got to play those sports.” “Thank god for Title IX, my daughters had these opportunities.”

Item 2. Some of you will know the name Kathrine Switzer. She was the first woman to officially enter the Boston Marathon; Jock Semple, who organized the event, tried to eject her, but some male friends body-checked him and she finished. She went on to run 35 more marathons, ranking as high as 3rd in the world.

Item 3. A black woman I know, now in her 50s, remembers the first paper she wrote for an advanced English class in her freshman year at college. She was talented, and worked hard on it. But the paper was graded an F. Upset, she went to the teacher to find out how she could have misjudged herself so badly.

“You obviously plagiarized,” the prof said. “No way you could have written this.” Dumbfounded, she was speechless, finally finding the words to deny it. “Don’t lie to me,” he said. “Affirmative action doesn’t mean you can plagiarize.” It took her days to convince him she had written it herself. (It shouldn’t be relevant, but she was not an affirmative action admission either). She became a successful IT consultant and telecoms exec later in life.

What these vignettes have in common is that they’re examples of excuses given to not trust people.

Most people—not all, but most—now believe that young women benefit from organized athletics as much as do young men. But that’s recent. The excuse given back then was that women were too delicate, and had to be protected. By the majority, of course—in this case, men.

Which meant my female classmates appeared in the yearbook in the Future Homemakers Club and the Home Economics Club; not in athletics. And my black woman friend could never avoid being reminded—usually in more polite, subtle ways—that she couldn’t be trusted to achieve at a level to which the majority (in this case, white) people were held.

We know to condemn sexism and racism. But when they’re served up as good intentions, we can get confused. Poor Xs; we can’t expect as much of Xs as we can of Ys. In fact, to even allow them the chance is just setting them up for failure and hurt; we can’t trust them to know their own limitations. We’ll just have to manage that for them.

Years ago Herbert Marcuse wrote about “repressive tolerance,” the idea that majority tolerance of a minority was an effective form of repression. This is something akin. To distrust a minority—using the language of altruism—is a form of repression.

Girls’ athletic programs have made progress (though are constantly threatened by demands for lower taxes). Progress against racism has been made (though the majority culture is always in a big hurry to over-state just how much).

But what are the new frontiers of repressive mistrust? Here are a few starters. What do you think?

  • Doctors and corporate lawyers who mistrust paraprofessionals “for the sake of” the paraprofessionals and the customers.
  • Ditto for teachers and teachers’ aides, and for those involved in real estate closings.
  • Consumer protection laws that substitute reams of language for common sense.
  • National trade laws that decry “shoddy foreign goods” as a cover for protectionism.
  • Politicians and media who rationalize least-common-denominator sound-bites by appeal to market demand rather than taking responsibility for talking up, not down.

What do you think? From the standpoint of 40 years from now, what will appear in the rear view mirror to have been aother case of repressive mistrust?