Whose Order? What’s Orderly?

Rod Dreher inadvertently makes a point for me when he cites a Washington Post piece by Radley Balko on the plight of African American small businessman Antonio Morgan in St. Louis:

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.

3 thoughts on “Whose Order? What’s Orderly?

  1. Allow me to complicate things a little – always fun if seldom helpful. I think you are lumping together two kinds of white supremacy. There is the troglodyte Aryan Nation craziness (and I do mean crazy – a friend of ours knew a guy who, when he had to work a night shift, would give his handgun to his 5-year-old son with instructions to shoot any black man to tried to break into the house). Then there is the politically correct, affirmative action, corporate-bureaucratic-academic White Supremacy, in which the latter term can be taken to mean a neo-bourgeois standard of behavior with elaborate taboos, such that anyone who defies said taboos, black or white, is speedily and quietly shipped off to the outer darkness. Maybe we should call it Suits Supremacy. There is a third category, which is simply the instinct to mistrust anything unfamiliar, but that is a multi-edged sword which cuts in all directions.

    I hate bourgeois standards, old or new. I hate wearing a tie. I was hugely relieved when, at the age of 40, I moved from a job in an electronics manufacturing environment to a physics research environment. I could then be as grungy as I wanted. The pay was much lower, but the atmosphere was relaxed – probably added a decade to my life.

    I’m sure my perspective is skewed, living in a big-college town, in a semi-rural region where the “criminal element” is overwhelmingly white. But it shows me that things could be much different in this society with just a moderate mind-shift. Antonio Morgan doesn’t look ‘G’ at all to me. He looks like a smart ambitious guy who could be dating my niece (she should be so lucky). He could be teaching yoga or customizing bikes. So what is really wrong? Why aren’t other places more like this “utopia” [ha!] I live in? I don’t know.

  2. Since Order & Power & their victims have been an up topic, I felt the need to bring in one other perspective – the victims of disorder. How much suffering is there in Syria from the state of civil war? The Assad regime has been one of the more vicious dictatorships in the world, and you might think thereby that its weakening must be a good thing. But it’s not. Not that alone. Horrors have increased from the usual tyrannical oppression and frightful dungeons, to random slaughter and large-scale cruelties everywhere out in the open. Disorder is spreading. The long-warned-of ‘regional conflict in the Middle East’ has happened. It’s not quite what people expected, because Israel is not even involved tangentially so far, except for a few border incidents. That could change any time. (No one can say what Israel might do, because, as the recent election has shown, the Jewish population of Israel is rent into many factions who can barely contain their disgust for each other; the Netanyahu-Lieberman split was the biggest shock to me, but there are many others – Jewish Home about to take over the justice ministry has Labor re-enacting ‘The Scream’.) It may be somewhat moot, because Israeli involvement (short of nuclear) would be a drop in the bucket compared to a general proxy-war between Iran and the Saudis – something on the scale of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, which saw the largest tank battles since WWII, but what we are getting now is much larger in geographic scope, and more subtle and secretive in its conduct. Actually the Saudi regime is looking awfully weak, and the IS, rather than fading away under pressure, is expanding its reach. The Turks, and even Pakistan could become involved.

    Another perspective not mentioned so far, I think, is that sometimes the forces of repression (including whatever varied Forces for the Maintenance of the Cultural Establishment may exist in the US) come up short – turn out to be incompetent or indecisive. That is not inconsistent with the maintenance of repression, but in the long run it is. The old North-Eastern Ivy League establishment of 1870-1960 is long gone. There are new ‘establishment’ forces, perhaps chiefly the large banks, among big organizations in general. Then there is the general public’s habits of mind, though those often run in the opposite direction from the official policies of the bureaucracies. They also differ greatly from place to place. Inertia clashes with inertia. And nobody is driving the train, or even seems to realize that it’s moving.

    Those are things that trouble me.

  3. I realized that in the above comment, professing to be troubled, inter alia, by chaos in the Middle East, I might have been horribly misunderstood. No matter how bad things become there, I would never recommend further US involvement in the region, except where we can reasonably provide humanitarian assistance to refugees and others. We can’t help. We can only make things worse. I’m including military assistance to Israel on the not-to-do list. Israel decided years ago not to rely on US help anyway, and has been making nice with Russia & China. Now it is possible that China might eventually intervene, since they depend on ME oil exports far more than we do, but that is still very unlikely. Probably they would prefer to employ, say, Israel as a proxy (as even the Saudis would against Iran). But Israel is far too small.

    Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven…. Sometimes as disheartening as daily bread.

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