Smoke and Mirrors: the odd question of a civil rights leader’s race

Questioning the race of Shaun King is an ad hominem attack based on flawed assumptions that distracts from the real issues.

Shaun King has been one of the most visible and vocal leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement over the past year. He’s done a great deal to raise awareness in particular of police misconduct and brutality, with a particular emphasis on the disproportionate targeting of black Americans. (Though it is worth noting that he and others have noted when people of other races have been killed by police, even while the supposed #AllLivesMatter folks seemed oddly silent.)

An unsurprising development as regards to Black Lives Matter is that its leaders are coming under character attacks. There is a long tradition of privileged segments of society and even the government doing this, including to the now revered and respected Martin Luther King. And now, Shaun King has recently come under a very odd sort of attack from the conservative media: they are now saying he is not truly black and are accusing him of being duplicitous, like Rachel Dolezal.

This issue has a particular resonance for me because my family is a tangible example of the complexities of the concept of race. I’m white and my wife is black. We have two sons, both our biological children. The picture on the right is of our four hands. family_handsOur older son has darker skin and dark curly hair. He’s absolutely beautiful. Most people see him and think of him as “black”. Our younger son has light skin and blonde hair with just a hint of curl. He’s absolutely beautiful. Most people see him and think of him as “white”. In fact, when my wife is in public with our younger son (and without me), most people assume she’s his nanny. (And white people monitor her to make sure she’s treating him well, but that’s another story.)

So, we have these two children who are perceived very differently by others. Are you to tell me that the younger one isn’t “black” or is less “black” than his older brother? Just like Shaun King isn’t black because his skin is too light? What if both of my sons strongly identify with their black heritage and become leaders of some future “black” movement that seeks to reduce racial disparities? Would my younger son be attacked for not being “black” enough? With his older brother standing right by his side and no one questioning his blackness? One gets to speak for the black community because the genetic dice gave him the darker skin and hair, while the other is unsuitable? That would be pure and utter bullshit.

Let’s step back for a moment. It’s important to consider what “race” means and how any given individual might define it differently from others. And that one’s own notion of racial categories might shift over time, as applied to others or even to oneself. Can we even operationalize racial categories? It’s rather tricky. I wrote about this in the context of machine learning, and there’s good recent academic work on figuring out what the notion of race fundamentally encompasses. As Sen and Wasow argue in their article “Race as a bundle of sticks“, we should look at race as a multi-faceted group of properties, some of which are immutable (like genes) and many of which are mutable (such as location, religion, diet, etc). The very notion of racial categorization shifts over time—for example, there was a time not long ago when southern Europeans were not considered “white”. All this is not to say that race isn’t a thing, but that it is very very complicated. In fact, it is far more complicated than most people have ever stopped to really consider.

Returning to the attacks on Shaun King, here’s the thing: I personally don’t care if he is “black” or not, or is somewhat “black” or not. He could be Asian or white and it wouldn’t matter. I think he is doing what he’s doing because he is a caring human being who believes it is right and necessary. He wants to raise awareness of and reduce police violence and reduce racial disparities. That’s a laudable goal no matter who you are, no matter what race you identify with, no matter what. Period.

To me, this is clearly an ad hominem attack based on the flawed premise that race is a concept that we can clearly and objectively delineate. It has nothing to do with the facts and arguments that surround questions of racism in the USA, police conduct and related issues. There is plenty to debate there and, for what it’s worth, I don’t agree with Shaun King on many things. We all must do our best to learn, consider and reflect on the information we have. Ideally, we also seek new perspectives and keep an open mind while doing so. As it is, this attack is a distraction designed to deflect attention away from the real issues. It’s just smoke and mirrors.

And if you think there aren’t real issues here… Ask yourself if you think our country should support a truly Kafka-esque institution like Ryker’s Island. Ask yourself if you are comfortable with the Sandra Bland traffic stop (even FOX news and Donald Trump aren’t, as Larry Wilmore noted). Ask yourself if people should be threatened by the police when they are in their own driveway, hooking up their own boat to their own car. Ask whether the police should be outfitted with military-grade vehicles and weapons (see also John Oliver’s serious/humorous take on this). These are just a few (important) examples, and there are unfortunately many more. They do not reflect the United States of America that I believe in—a great country based on a civil society that protects the rights of individuals without prejudice for their race, religion, political affiliation, etc. You are ignoring much evidence if you think there isn’t a problem. Pay attention, please.

Author: jasonbaldridge

Co-founder of People Pattern and Associate Professor in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin. My primary specialization is computational linguistics and my core research interests are formal and computational models of syntax, probabilistic models of both syntax and discourse structure, and machine learning for natural language tasks in general.

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