Morgan is no one’s definition of a “thug.” He’s a guy who breaks his back to keep up the business that supports his family, despite obstacles that, frankly, most white business owners don’t have to endure. For all he’s been through, he is remarkably composed. He deals with the daily harassment in a remarkably manner-of-fact way. He takes photos of his business and the cars outside it. He records all of his phone conversations and most in-person conversations he has with public officials. He has a laptop filled with nothing but photos, documents, and recordings should he ever need them as evidence. Engaging in such defensive preparations on a daily basis would drive a lot of people insane — or perhaps be an indication that they’re already there. He does it because he has to. As he put it, “You have to struggle just to catch up.”
I wonder how many people who rioted in Ferguson and Baltimore were carrying the same load Morgan was, but simply lacked his will to withstand it all. I also wonder what would have been said about Morgan if during one of his many arrests he had somehow died in the back of a police van as Freddie Gray did. Certainly we’d hear about all of those arrests. We’d probably hear about how he once abandoned his children in a parking lot. We’d definitely hear that police once had to Tase him, threatened to do so on another occasion, and that he had once been arrested for assaulting a cop.
People like Morgan put the lie to blaming all of this on “black culture.” Morgan isn’t a drug pusher. He isn’t an absentee father. He isn’t in a gang. He’s a guy trying to do right by his family. Yet people like Morgan also show how the system feeds into the lie. Despite his biography, it would be very easy to portray Morgan as the very stereotype of “black culture” that law-and-order types rail against.
To which Dreher responds:
This stuff is hard. It’s hard for all of us, because it’s complicated, and tangled, and we all react out of emotion. I’m not responsible for the emotions and biases and logical errors of liberals. I’m responsible for my own, and trying to see past them, to see more clearly. The Antonio Morgan story helps me do this. Thank you, Radley Balko. This is not the only story we need to know to understand the Baltimores all over the country, but it’s a story that people who come from my own perspective especially need to understand.
“This stuff is hard.” Really? It is? Because I’ve never found this hard.
The problem Dreher has here — and the one I think many conservatives (and frankly, many progressives), is that order is not so much a matter of behavior as it is identity. Not what you do but who you are. Take a look at Morgan…
I suspect for a great many bourgeois white folks in America, Morgan looks disreputable and disorderly. Possibly even dangerous. He doesn’t look like a family man and struggling small business owner. And the way order works in our society, looking like a respectable bourgeois and being able to act the part (blacks can do that, it just requires more work and provides fewer guarantees; Morgan is clearly not bourgeois in this photo) is what it means to be orderly. And when you can do these things, the order will more or less work in your favor. You will at least be given the benefit of the doubt when facing those who administer or enforce the order.
But if you don’t look the part, can’t act the part, or do not possess bourgeois aspirations, then the order will not work in your favor. It will not give you the benefit of the doubt. Or it will be less likely to do so. It’s harder for African Americans because foundational to the construction of American order is the criminalization of black maleness. (White supremacy arises out of this.)
Order is never objective. It is subjective, in that it reflects not abstract ideals considered thoughtfully but a ruling community’s sense of the good and its sense of collective identity arrived at through that community’s life and history, including how it relates to neighbors and those in its midst. Real history, with its violence and plunder and destruction. Some people can never be orderly, or be seen as orderly, and therefore, the order of society will rarely if ever work in their favor. (The best
they we can expect is live just outside notice of those with power, since nothing good comes of it whenever we come to their attention.)
While race is significant, class also matters here too, since the order in question is a bourgeois order. It targets the poor regardless of race. But American bourgeois order first and foremost focuses on skin color. It is harder for black people to “be bourgeois,” even when they are, or aspire to be, because the order assumes they aren’t and cannot be.
Now, some will argue (as this piece on the origins of neoconservativism describes) that once the legal restrictions of Jim Crow were lifted, Black Americans should have become just another group of “good immigrants” and adopted and assimilated quickly to bourgeois American norms. Much of the cultural fight over black neighborhoods, black poverty, policing, and racism, and order itself, is actually about this, I think. I suspect many conservatives fault Black Americans for their failure to assimilate, to become good, bourgeois Americans. After all, the law no longer stands in their way.
I don’t have an answer to this. On the one hand, many African Americans have successfully assimilated and become very bourgeois. On the other hand, many have not. (My sympathies are with the secessionists of the Nation of Islam, largely because I’m concerned about those who cannot or are simply not allowed to assimilate to the bourgeois order — I see myself as just such a person — but the Nation doesn’t matter in the scheme of things.) Regardless, however, blackness itself is a seen by those who enforce order as a sign in and of itself as disorder, as a threat to good order. I don’t know what, if anything, can be done to address that. I think it takes some deep soul searching on the part of thoughtful people, so I should not be so hard on Dreher. He’s at least trying.