Is it really just code for white people wishing to hold onto their way of life or to get “back to normal?”
The climate movement is ascendant, and it has become common to see climate change as a social justice issue. Climate change and its effects—pandemics, pollution, natural disasters—are not universally or uniformly felt: the people and communities suffering most are disproportionately Black, Indigenous and people of color. It is no surprise then that U.S. surveys show that these are the communities most concerned about climate change.
One year ago, I published a book called A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety. Since its publication, I have been struck by the fact that those responding to the concept of climate anxiety are overwhelmingly white. Indeed, these climate anxiety circles are even whiter than the environmental circles I’ve been in for decades. Today, a year into the pandemic, after the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed, and the attack on the U.S. Capitol, I am deeply concerned about the racial implications of climate anxiety. If people of color are more concerned about climate change than white people, why is the interest in climate anxiety so white? Is climate anxiety a form of white fragility or even racial anxiety? Put another way, is climate anxiety just code for white people wishing to hold onto their way of life or get “back to normal,” to the comforts of their privilege?
The white response to climate change is literally suffocating to people of color. Climate anxiety can operate like white fragility, sucking up all the oxygen in the room and devoting resources toward appeasing the dominant group. As climate refugees are framed as a climate security threat, will the climate-anxious recognize their role in displacing people from around the globe? Will they be able to see their own fates tied to the fates of the dispossessed? Or will they hoard resources, limit the rights of the most affected and seek to save only their own, deluded that this xenophobic strategy will save them? How can we make sure that climate anxiety is harnessed for climate justice?
My book has connected me to a growing community focused on the emotional dimensions of climate change. As writer Britt Wray puts it, emotions like mourning, anger, dread and anxiety are “merely a sign of our attachment to the world.” Paradoxically, though, anxiety about environmental crisis can create apathy, inaction and burnout. Anxiety may be a rational response to the world that climate models predict, but it is unsustainable.
And climate panic can be as dangerous as it is galvanizing. Dealing with feelings of climate anxiety will require the existential tools I provided in A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety, but it will also require careful attention to extremism and climate zealotry. We can’t fight climate change with more racism. Climate anxiety must be directed toward addressing the ways that racism manifests as environmental trauma and vice versa—how environmentalism manifests as racialized violence. We need to channel grief toward collective liberation.
The prospect of an unlivable future has always shaped the emotional terrain for Black and brown people, whether that terrain is racism or climate change. Climate change compounds existing structures of injustice, and those structures exacerbate climate change. Exhaustion, anger, hope—the effects of oppression and resistance are not unique to this climate moment. What is unique is that people who had been insulated from oppression are now waking up to the prospect of their own unlivable future.
It is a surprisingly short step from “chronic fear of environmental doom,” as the American Psychological Association defines ecoanxiety, to xenophobia and fascism. Racism is not an accidental byproduct of environmentalism; it has been a constant reference point. As I wrote about in my first book, The Ecological Other, early environmentalists in the U.S. were anti-immigrant eugenicists whose ideas were later adopted by Nazis to implement their “blood and soil” ideology. In a recent, dramatic example, the gunman of the 2019 El Paso shooting was motivated by despair about the ecological fate of the planet: “My whole life I have been preparing for a future that currently doesn’t exist.” Intense emotions mobilize people, but not always for the good of all life on this planet.
Today’s progressives espouse climate change as the “greatest existential threat of our time,” a claim that ignores people who have been experiencing existential threats for much longer. Slavery, colonialism, ongoing police brutality—we can’t neglect history to save the future.
RESILIENCE AND RELATION AS RESISTANCE
I recently gave a college lecture about climate anxiety. One of the students e-mailed me to say she was so distressed that she’d be willing to submit to a green dictator if they would address climate change. Young people know the stakes, but they are not learning how to cope with the intensity of their dread. It would be tragic and dangerous if this generation of climate advocates becomes willing to sacrifice democracy and human rights in the name of climate change.
Oppressed and marginalized people have developed traditions of resilience out of necessity. Black, feminist and Indigenous leaders have painstakingly cultivated resilience over the long arc of the fight for justice. They know that protecting joy and hope is the ultimate resistance to domination. Persistence is nonnegotiable when your mental, physical and reproductive health are on the line.
Instead of asking “What can I do to stop feeling so anxious?”, “What can I do to save the planet?” and “What hope is there?”, people with privilege can be asking “Who am I?” and “How am I connected to all of this?” The answers reveal that we are deeply interconnected with the well-being of others on this planet, and that there are traditions of environmental stewardship that can be guides for where we need to go from here.
Author’s Note: I want to thank Jade Sasser, Britt Wray, Janet Fiskio, and Jennifer Atkinson for rich discussions about this topic, which inform this piece.
This is an opinion and analysis article.
Sarah Jaquette Ray, Ph.D., is professor and chair in the Environmental Studies Department at Humboldt State University.
Sonia Guajajara, Coordenadora-executiva da Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil e ex-candidata do PSOL à Vice-Presidência da República (2018)
19 de abril de 2021
Nem sempre deixamos de sentir a dor do outro por falta de empatia; às vezes, isso acontece por puro desconhecimento. A história do Brasil sempre foi muito mal contada. Não desejamos o que passamos a ninguém, nem mesmo aos nossos algozes. São 520 anos de perseguição praticamente ininterrupta. Mas, neste Dia do Índio (19.abr), estamos enfrentando a maior ameaça de nossa existência. E agora não me refiro somente a nós, indígenas. O governo federal atual fez do coronavírus um aliado e põe em risco a vida da população em geral. Hoje, todos sentem como é ser acuado por uma doença que vem de fora, contra a qual não há defesa. Todos mesmo; agora, falo do mundo inteiro.
Nós, indígenas, somos perseguidos em nosso próprio país; neste momento, por causa da Covid-19. Todos nós, brasileiros, corremos o sério risco de sermos marginalizados globalmente. Ninguém em sã consciência nega a importância da Amazônia para a saúde do planeta —e hoje a ciência atesta que a destruição da natureza e as mudanças climáticas podem causar novas pandemias. Mas, além de abusar da caneta para atacar o meio ambiente e os nossos direitos, como de costume, o presidente Jair Bolsonaro vem tentado aliciar e constranger lideranças indígenas. Até Funai e Ibama estão jogando no time rival. Não é apenas um vírus.
A Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil (Apib) foi criada em 2005 no primeiro Acampamento Terra Livre (ATL), evento que reunia milhares de pessoas de todo o país em Brasília —por causa da pandemia, ele foi realizado virtualmente em 2020 e, neste ano, terá encontros online durante todo o o mês de abril. É fruto da união e auto-organização dos povos, que são as raízes que sustentam esse país e que durante a pandemia recebeu o reconhecimento do Supremo Tribunal Federal (STF) como entidade que pode entrar com ações diretas na principal corte do país.
Com organizações regionais, nossa rede está presente em todas as regiões do país: a Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Nordeste, Minas Gerais e Espírito Santo (Apoinme), o Conselho do Povo Terena, a Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Sudeste (Arpinsudeste), a Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Sul (Arpinsul), a Grande Assembleia do Povo Guarani (Aty Guasu), a Coordenação das Organizações Indígenas da Amazônia Brasileira (Coiab) e a Comissão Guarani Yvyrupa.
No ano passado, a Apib ganhou o Prêmio Internacional Letelier-Moffitt de Direitos Humanos, concedido pelo Instituto de Estudos Políticos de Washington. A organização tem sido chamada a falar em conferências da ONU. Há décadas tem voz ativa em conferências internacionais, junto a organismos como a ONU e a Comissão Interamericana de Direitos Humanos. Enquanto o governo negligencia criminosamente o atendimento aos povos tradicionais durante a pandemia, com seu projeto integracionista, estamos garantindo segurança alimentar, barreiras sanitárias e equipamentos de proteção por meio do Plano Emergência Indígena, construído de forma participativa com todas as organizações de base que compõem nossa grande articulação.
Estamos nas redes, aldeias, universidades, cidades, prefeituras, Câmaras Legislativas federal, estaduais e municipais e seguiremos lutando contra o racismo e a violência. Em um mundo doente e enfrentando um projeto de morte, nossa luta ainda é pela vida, contra todos os vírus que nos matam! Nosso maior objetivo é garantir a posse de nossas terras para preservá-las e manter nossas identidades culturais.
Terras indígenas são bens da União; ou seja, pertencem ao Brasil, a todos os brasileiros. Temos direito a seu usufruto, mas para manter nossos modos de vida tradicionais. Está tudo na Constituição. Conhecemos as mentiras, que agora são as famosas fake news, desde 1500, quando os portugueses chegaram aqui oferecendo amizade e, assim que dávamos as costas, nos apunhalavam. Não trocamos Pindorama por espelhos, conforme ensinavam erroneamente os livros de história de antigamente. Sabemos o real valor das coisas e das pessoas.
O abismo social se aprofunda; a quem isso interessa? Quem acredita que vai ver a cor do dinheiro que será arrancado das ruínas de nossas terras? “Decidimos não morrer”: esta resolução, tomada por nós há mais de cinco séculos, foi reafirmada no Acampamento Terra Livre. Nem todos sabem, mas zelar pelo meio ambiente é um dever constitucional de todo cidadão —é só consultar o artigo 225.
Convidamos todos os brasileiros a firmar esse acordo conosco.
O BBB 21 faz parte da tragédia e do aprendizado que atravessamos enquanto país e cultura (Foto: Reprodução/ TV Globo)
Os mil tons de brancos! Precisou um homem branco falar para que o outro brother branco ouvisse. Mas a fala do apresentador Tiago Leifert no programa exibido nesta terça (6), ao invés de explicitar um ato de racismo puro e simples, tratou de amenizar, contextualizar e lembrar que “não vejo maldade no que você fez”, reafirmando a hoje inaceitável expressão “não foi intencional” ou ainda “é só uma brincadeira”, “meu pai tem cabelo black power”, “sou do interior” etc.
São mil tons do racismo ou do machismo, são mil tons de desculpas cotidianas para não encarar a violência que é assujeitar o outro e desqualificá-lo, seja pelo que for. Quando nós, brancos, vamos parar de nos afagar, mesmo no racismo, assim como homens se protegem no machismo e em tantas outras confrarias nas quais se juntam para exercer seu poder?
Mas a fala do apresentador do Big Brother Brasil 21, Tiago Leifert, “de homem branco para homem branco” (sou só eu que tenho horror dessas expressões que apelam para a nossa razão de brancos ou de machos etc?) acaba, até por contraste, mostrando que esse Brasil cordial e conciliador deu errado, e que radicalizar, explicitar, expor, também pode ser pedagógico.
A fala dura e a emoção de João Luiz Pedrosa explicita o racismo que sofreu. A fala e a reação de catarse de Camilla de Lucas demonstra que não aguenta mais explicar o racismo cotidiano cometido “alegremente”, “sem intenção” para brancos que se defendem afirmando sua alienação: “eu não sabia”. A questão faz transbordar o choro contido e represado, a raiva de ter que suportar o racismo no corpo, no cabelo, na pele, na existência.
O que tem acontecido no BBB 21 não é “menor” e nem mimimi, nem pouco importante, mesmo no meio de uma pandemia com 300 mil mortos. Mesmo que seja sim um programa de entretenimento e que lucra com o sofrimento de negros, com tretas, com situações humilhantes, com a audiência que quer “ver sangue”.
O BBB 21 faz parte da tragédia e do aprendizado que atravessamos enquanto país e cultura. Precisamos de formação, educação, ativismo, mudanças nos padrões da cultura do entretenimento para dar um salto como sociedade, pois existem muitas maneiras de matar e elas estão no cotidiano.
Para concluir, temos uma fala do brother Rodolffo, o cantor sertanejo que fez o comentário racista sobre o cabelo de João, justificando-se: “eu sou chucro, eu sou do interior, essas modernidades [o combate ao racismo!] não chegaram em um Brasil profundo, puro e conservador, sem ‘maldade’”.
A questão é que não existe mais lugar para esse brasileiro “inocente, puro e besta” como o da letra da música. Se existe, ele foi abduzido por fake news massivas no Whatsapp, adotou valores de extrema-direita, reafirmou seu poder branco quando achou confortável e quando se viu representado por um presidente da República que deu voz ao que tínhamos de pior, que deu poder real e simbólico para um Brasil profundamente conservador que já existia, mas que foi chancelado e pôde exercer seu poder de morte em praça pública.
Muitos se identificam com Rodolffo, infelizmente! Temos um presidente “chucro” que, em nome da sua ignorância e “autenticidade”, em nome do seu racismo, misoginia, lgbtfobia “de raiz”, “de família”, defende tortura e mata de forma real e simbólica ao usar sua pretensa “ignorância” como base de políticas públicas e no comando de um país. Esse é o real tamanho do estrago dos Rodolffos – e não adianta dizer que “não é intencional”, pois é muito pior : é estrutural e destrói a vida de milhões.
Todos os tons de branco estão envolvidos nesse massacre e é pedagógico que a gente entre nesse debate não apenas “de brancos para brancos” em uma conversa condescendente entre pares, mas de brancos antirracistas que combatem o racismo dos brancos. O racismo não é um problema dos negros, mas nosso.
Ivana Bentes é pesquisadora do Programa de Pós Graduação da Escola de Comunicação da UFRJ
John McWhorter, contributing writer at The Atlantic and professor at Columbia University
March 31, 2021
The word racism, among others, has become maddeningly confusing in current usage.
Has American society ever been in less basic agreement on what so many important words actually mean? Terms we use daily mean such different things to different people that communication is often blunted considerably, and sometimes even thwarted entirely. The gap between how the initiated express their ideological beliefs and how everyone else does seems larger than ever.
The word racism has become almost maddeningly confusing in current usage. It tempts a linguist such as me to contravene the dictum that trying to influence the course of language change is futile.
Racism began as a reference to personal prejudice, but in the 1960s was extended via metaphor to society, the idea being that a society riven with disparities according to race was itself a racist one. This convention, implying that something as abstract as a society can be racist, has always felt tricky, best communicated in sociology classes or careful discussions.
To be sure, the idea that disparities between white and Black people are due to injustices against Black people—either racist sentiment or large-scale results of racist neglect—seems as plain as day to some, especially in academia. However, after 50 years, this usage of racism has yet to stop occasioning controversy; witness the outcry when Merriam-Webster recently altered its definition of the word to acknowledge the “systemic” aspect. This controversy endures for two reasons.
First, the idea that all racial disparities are due to injustice may imply that mere cultural differences do not exist. The rarity of the Black oboist may be due simply to Black Americans not having much interest in the oboe—hardly a character flaw or evidence of some inadequacy—as opposed to subtly racist attitudes among music teachers or even the thinness of musical education in public schools. Second, the concept of systemic racism elides or downplays that disparities can also persist because of racism in the past, no longer in operation and thus difficult to “address.”
Two real-world examples of strained usage come to mind. Opponents of the modern filibuster have taken to calling it “racist” because it has been used for racist ends. This implies a kind of contamination, a rather unsophisticated perspective given that this “racist” practice has been readily supported by noted non-racists such as Barack Obama (before he changed his mind on the matter). Similar is the idea that standardized tests are “racist” because Black kids often don’t do as well on them as white kids. If the tests’ content is biased toward knowledge that white kids are more likely to have, that complaint may be justified. Otherwise, factors beyond the tests themselves, such as literacy in the home, whether children are tested throughout childhood, how plugged in their parents are to test-prep opportunities, and subtle attitudes toward school and the printed page, likely explain why some groups might be less prepared to excel at them.
Dictionaries are correct to incorporate the societal usage of racism, because it is now common coin. The lexicographer describes rather than prescribes. However, its enshrinement in dictionaries leaves its unwieldiness intact, just as a pretty map can include a road full of potholes that suddenly becomes one-way at a dangerous curve. Nearly every designation of someone or something as “racist” in modern America raises legitimate questions, and leaves so many legions of people confused or irritated that no one can responsibly dismiss all of this confusion and irritation as mere, well, racism.
To speak English is to know the difference between pairs of words that might as well be the same one: entrance and entry. Awesome and awful are similar. However, one might easily feel less confident about the difference between equality and equity, in the way that today’s crusaders use the word in diversity, equity, and inclusion.
In this usage, equity is not a mere alternate word for equality, but harbors an assumption: that where the races are not represented roughly according to their presence in the population, the reason must be a manifestation of (societal) racism. A teachers’ conference in Washington State last year included a presentation underlining: “If you conclude that outcomes differences by demographic subgroup are a result of anything other than a broken system, that is, by definition, bigotry.” A DEI facilitator specifies that “equity is not an outcome”—in the way equality is—but “a process that begins by acknowledging [people’s] unequal starting place and makes a commitment to correct and address the imbalance.”
Equality is a state, an outcome—but equity, a word that sounds just like it and has a closely related meaning, is a commitment and effort, designed to create equality. That is a nuance of a kind usually encountered in graduate seminars about the precise definitions of concepts such as freedom. It will throw or even turn off those disinclined to attend that closely: Fondness for exegesis will forever be thinly distributed among humans.
Many will thus feel that the society around them has enough “equalness”—i.e., what equity sounds like—such that what they may see as attempts to force more of it via set-aside policies will seem draconian rather than just. The subtle difference between equality and equity will always require flagging, which will only ever be so effective.
The nature of how words change, compounded by the effects of our social-media bubbles, means that many vocal people on the left now use social justice as a stand-in for justice—in the same way we say advance planning instead of planning or 12 midnight instead of midnight—as if the social part were a mere redundant, rhetorical decoration upon the keystone notion of justice. An advocacy group for wellness and nutrition titled one of its messages “In the name of social justice, food security and human dignity,” but within the text refers simply to “justice” and “injustice,” without the social prefix, as if social justice is simply justice incarnate. The World Social Justice Day project includes more tersely named efforts such as “Task Force on Justice” and “Justice for All.” Baked into this is a tacit conflation of social justice with justice conceived more broadly.
However, this usage of the term social justice is typically based on a very particular set of commitments especially influential in this moment: that all white people must view society as founded upon racist discrimination, such that all white people are complicit in white supremacy, requiring the forcing through of equity in suspension of usual standards of qualification or sometimes even logic (math is racist). A view of justice this peculiar, specific, and even revolutionary is an implausible substitute for millennia of discussion about the nature of the good, much less its apotheosis.
What to do? I suggest—albeit with little hope—that the terms social justice and equity be used, or at least heard, as the proposals that they are. Otherwise, Americans are in for decades of non-conversations based on greatly different visions of what justice and equ(al)ity are.
I suspect that the way the term racism is used is too entrenched to yield to anyone’s preferences. However, if I could wave a magic wand, Americans would go back to using racism to refer to personal sentiment, while we would phase out so hopelessly confusing a term as societal racism.
I would replace it with societal disparities, with a slot open afterward for according to race, or according to immigration status, or what have you. Inevitably, the sole term societal disparities would conventionalize as referring to race-related disparities. However, even this would avoid the endless distractions caused by using the same term—racism—for both prejudice and faceless, albeit pernicious, inequities.
My proposals qualify, indeed, as modest. I suspect that certain people will continue to use social justice as if they have figured out a concept that proved elusive from Plato through Kant through Rawls. Equity will continue to be refracted through that impression. Legions will still either struggle to process racism both harbored by persons and instantiated by a society, or just quietly accept the conflation to avoid making waves.
What all of this will mean is a debate about race in which our problem-solving is hindered by the fact that we too often lack a common language for discussing the topic.
Joaquin Quiñonero Candela, a director of AI at Facebook, was apologizing to his audience.
It was March 23, 2018, just days after the revelation that Cambridge Analytica, a consultancy that worked on Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election campaign, had surreptitiously siphoned the personal data of tens of millions of Americans from their Facebook accounts in an attempt to influence how they voted. It was the biggest privacy breach in Facebook’s history, and Quiñonero had been previously scheduled to speak at a conference on, among other things, “the intersection of AI, ethics, and privacy” at the company. He considered canceling, but after debating it with his communications director, he’d kept his allotted time.
As he stepped up to face the room, he began with an admission. “I’ve just had the hardest five days in my tenure at Facebook,” he remembers saying. “If there’s criticism, I’ll accept it.”
The Cambridge Analytica scandal would kick off Facebook’s largest publicity crisis ever. It compounded fears that the algorithms that determine what people see on the platform were amplifying fake news and hate speech, and that Russian hackers had weaponized them to try to sway the election in Trump’s favor. Millions began deleting the app; employees left in protest; the company’s market capitalization plunged by more than $100 billion after its July earnings call.
In the ensuing months, Mark Zuckerberg began his own apologizing. He apologized for not taking “a broad enough view” of Facebook’s responsibilities, and for his mistakes as a CEO. Internally, Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer, kicked off a two-year civil rights audit to recommend ways the company could prevent the use of its platform to undermine democracy.
Finally, Mike Schroepfer, Facebook’s chief technology officer, asked Quiñonero to start a team with a directive that was a little vague: to examine the societal impact of the company’s algorithms. The group named itself the Society and AI Lab (SAIL); last year it combined with another team working on issues of data privacy to form Responsible AI.
Quiñonero was a natural pick for the job. He, as much as anybody, was the one responsible for Facebook’s position as an AI powerhouse. In his six years at Facebook, he’d created some of the first algorithms for targeting users with content precisely tailored to their interests, and then he’d diffused those algorithms across the company. Now his mandate would be to make them less harmful.
Facebook has consistently pointed to the efforts by Quiñonero and others as it seeks to repair its reputation. It regularly trots out various leaders to speak to the media about the ongoing reforms. In May of 2019, it granted a series of interviews with Schroepfer to the New York Times, which rewarded the company with a humanizing profile of a sensitive, well-intentioned executive striving to overcome the technical challenges of filtering out misinformation and hate speech from a stream of content that amounted to billions of pieces a day. These challenges are so hard that it makes Schroepfer emotional, wrote the Times: “Sometimes that brings him to tears.”
In the spring of 2020, it was apparently my turn. Ari Entin, Facebook’s AI communications director, asked in an email if I wanted to take a deeper look at the company’s AI work. After talking to several of its AI leaders, I decided to focus on Quiñonero. Entin happily obliged. As not only the leader of the Responsible AI team but also the man who had made Facebook into an AI-driven company, Quiñonero was a solid choice to use as a poster boy.
He seemed a natural choice of subject to me, too. In the years since he’d formed his team following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, concerns about the spread of lies and hate speech on Facebook had only grown. In late 2018 the company admitted that this activity had helped fuel a genocidal anti-Muslim campaign in Myanmar for several years. In 2020 Facebook started belatedly taking action against Holocaust deniers, anti-vaxxers, and the conspiracy movement QAnon. All these dangerous falsehoods were metastasizing thanks to the AI capabilities Quiñonero had helped build. The algorithms that underpin Facebook’s business weren’t created to filter out what was false or inflammatory; they were designed to make people share and engage with as much content as possible by showing them things they were most likely to be outraged or titillated by. Fixing this problem, to me, seemed like core Responsible AI territory.
I began video-calling Quiñonero regularly. I also spoke to Facebook executives, current and former employees, industry peers, and external experts. Many spoke on condition of anonymity because they’d signed nondisclosure agreements or feared retaliation. I wanted to know: What was Quiñonero’s team doing to rein in the hate and lies on its platform?
But Entin and Quiñonero had a different agenda. Each time I tried to bring up these topics, my requests to speak about them were dropped or redirected. They only wanted to discuss the Responsible AI team’s plan to tackle one specific kind of problem: AI bias, in which algorithms discriminate against particular user groups. An example would be an ad-targeting algorithm that shows certain job or housing opportunities to white people but not to minorities.
By the time thousands of rioters stormed the US Capitol in January, organized in part on Facebook and fueled by the lies about a stolen election that had fanned out across the platform, it was clear from my conversations that the Responsible AI team had failed to make headway against misinformation and hate speech because it had never made those problems its main focus. More important, I realized, if it tried to, it would be set up for failure.
The reason is simple. Everything the company does and chooses not to do flows from a single motivation: Zuckerberg’s relentless desire for growth. Quiñonero’s AI expertise supercharged that growth. His team got pigeonholed into targeting AI bias, as I learned in my reporting, because preventing such bias helps the company avoid proposed regulation that might, if passed, hamper that growth. Facebook leadership has also repeatedly weakened or halted many initiatives meant to clean up misinformation on the platform because doing so would undermine that growth.
In other words, the Responsible AI team’s work—whatever its merits on the specific problem of tackling AI bias—is essentially irrelevant to fixing the bigger problems of misinformation, extremism, and political polarization. And it’s all of us who pay the price.
“When you’re in the business of maximizing engagement, you’re not interested in truth. You’re not interested in harm, divisiveness, conspiracy. In fact, those are your friends,” says Hany Farid, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley who collaborates with Facebook to understand image- and video-based misinformation on the platform.
“They always do just enough to be able to put the press release out. But with a few exceptions, I don’t think it’s actually translated into better policies. They’re never really dealing with the fundamental problems.”
In March of 2012, Quiñonero visited a friend in the Bay Area. At the time, he was a manager in Microsoft Research’s UK office, leading a team using machine learning to get more visitors to click on ads displayed by the company’s search engine, Bing. His expertise was rare, and the team was less than a year old. Machine learning, a subset of AI, had yet to prove itself as a solution to large-scale industry problems. Few tech giants had invested in the technology.
Quiñonero’s friend wanted to show off his new employer, one of the hottest startups in Silicon Valley: Facebook, then eight years old and already with close to a billion monthly active users (i.e., those who have logged in at least once in the past 30 days). As Quiñonero walked around its Menlo Park headquarters, he watched a lone engineer make a major update to the website, something that would have involved significant red tape at Microsoft. It was a memorable introduction to Zuckerberg’s “Move fast and break things” ethos. Quiñonero was awestruck by the possibilities. Within a week, he had been through interviews and signed an offer to join the company.
His arrival couldn’t have been better timed. Facebook’s ads service was in the middle of a rapid expansion as the company was preparing for its May IPO. The goal was to increase revenue and take on Google, which had the lion’s share of the online advertising market. Machine learning, which could predict which ads would resonate best with which users and thus make them more effective, could be the perfect tool. Shortly after starting, Quiñonero was promoted to managing a team similar to the one he’d led at Microsoft.
Unlike traditional algorithms, which are hard-coded by engineers, machine-learning algorithms “train” on input data to learn the correlations within it. The trained algorithm, known as a machine-learning model, can then automate future decisions. An algorithm trained on ad click data, for example, might learn that women click on ads for yoga leggings more often than men. The resultant model will then serve more of those ads to women. Today at an AI-based company like Facebook, engineers generate countless models with slight variations to see which one performs best on a given problem.
Facebook’s massive amounts of user data gave Quiñonero a big advantage. His team could develop models that learned to infer the existence not only of broad categories like “women” and “men,” but of very fine-grained categories like “women between 25 and 34 who liked Facebook pages related to yoga,” and targeted ads to them. The finer-grained the targeting, the better the chance of a click, which would give advertisers more bang for their buck.
Within a year his team had developed these models, as well as the tools for designing and deploying new ones faster. Before, it had taken Quiñonero’s engineers six to eight weeks to build, train, and test a new model. Now it took only one.
News of the success spread quickly. The team that worked on determining which posts individual Facebook users would see on their personal news feeds wanted to apply the same techniques. Just as algorithms could be trained to predict who would click what ad, they could also be trained to predict who would like or share what post, and then give those posts more prominence. If the model determined that a person really liked dogs, for instance, friends’ posts about dogs would appear higher up on that user’s news feed.
Quiñonero’s success with the news feed—coupled with impressive new AI research being conducted outside the company—caught the attention of Zuckerberg and Schroepfer. Facebook now had just over 1 billion users, making it more than eight times larger than any other social network, but they wanted to know how to continue that growth. The executives decided to invest heavily in AI, internet connectivity, and virtual reality.
They created two AI teams. One was FAIR, a fundamental research lab that would advance the technology’s state-of-the-art capabilities. The other, Applied Machine Learning (AML), would integrate those capabilities into Facebook’s products and services. In December 2013, after months of courting and persuasion, the executives recruited Yann LeCun, one of the biggest names in the field, to lead FAIR. Three months later, Quiñonero was promoted again, this time to lead AML. (It was later renamed FAIAR, pronounced “fire.”)
“That’s how you know what’s on his mind. I was always, for a couple of years, a few steps from Mark’s desk.”
Joaquin Quiñonero Candela
In his new role, Quiñonero built a new model-development platform for anyone at Facebook to access. Called FBLearner Flow, it allowed engineers with little AI experience to train and deploy machine-learning models within days. By mid-2016, it was in use by more than a quarter of Facebook’s engineering team and had already been used to train over a million models, including models for image recognition, ad targeting, and content moderation.
Zuckerberg’s obsession with getting the whole world to use Facebook had found a powerful new weapon. Teams had previously used design tactics, like experimenting with the content and frequency of notifications, to try to hook users more effectively. Their goal, among other things, was to increase a metric called L6/7, the fraction of people who logged in to Facebook six of the previous seven days. L6/7 is just one of myriad ways in which Facebook has measured “engagement”—the propensity of people to use its platform in any way, whether it’s by posting things, commenting on them, liking or sharing them, or just looking at them. Now every user interaction once analyzed by engineers was being analyzed by algorithms. Those algorithms were creating much faster, more personalized feedback loops for tweaking and tailoring each user’s news feed to keep nudging up engagement numbers.
Zuckerberg, who sat in the center of Building 20, the main office at the Menlo Park headquarters, placed the new FAIR and AML teams beside him. Many of the original AI hires were so close that his desk and theirs were practically touching. It was “the inner sanctum,” says a former leader in the AI org (the branch of Facebook that contains all its AI teams), who recalls the CEO shuffling people in and out of his vicinity as they gained or lost his favor. “That’s how you know what’s on his mind,” says Quiñonero. “I was always, for a couple of years, a few steps from Mark’s desk.”
With new machine-learning models coming online daily, the company created a new system to track their impact and maximize user engagement. The process is still the same today. Teams train up a new machine-learning model on FBLearner, whether to change the ranking order of posts or to better catch content that violates Facebook’s community standards (its rules on what is and isn’t allowed on the platform). Then they test the new model on a small subset of Facebook’s users to measure how it changes engagement metrics, such as the number of likes, comments, and shares, says Krishna Gade, who served as the engineering manager for news feed from 2016 to 2018.
If a model reduces engagement too much, it’s discarded. Otherwise, it’s deployed and continually monitored. On Twitter, Gade explained that his engineers would get notifications every few days when metrics such as likes or comments were down. Then they’d decipher what had caused the problem and whether any models needed retraining.
But this approach soon caused issues. The models that maximize engagement also favor controversy, misinformation, and extremism: put simply, people just like outrageous stuff. Sometimes this inflames existing political tensions. The most devastating example to date is the case of Myanmar, where viral fake news and hate speech about the Rohingya Muslim minority escalated the country’s religious conflict into a full-blown genocide. Facebook admitted in 2018, after years of downplaying its role, that it had not done enough “to help prevent our platform from being used to foment division and incite offline violence.”
While Facebook may have been oblivious to these consequences in the beginning, it was studying them by 2016. In an internal presentation from that year, reviewed by the Wall Street Journal, a company researcher, Monica Lee, found that Facebook was not only hosting a large number of extremist groups but also promoting them to its users: “64% of all extremist group joins are due to our recommendation tools,” the presentation said, predominantly thanks to the models behind the “Groups You Should Join” and “Discover” features.
“The question for leadership was: Should we be optimizing for engagement if you find that somebody is in a vulnerable state of mind?”
A former AI researcher who joined in 2018
In 2017, Chris Cox, Facebook’s longtime chief product officer, formed a new task force to understand whether maximizing user engagement on Facebook was contributing to political polarization. It found that there was indeed a correlation, and that reducing polarization would mean taking a hit on engagement. In a mid-2018 document reviewed by the Journal, the task force proposed several potential fixes, such as tweaking the recommendation algorithms to suggest a more diverse range of groups for people to join. But it acknowledged that some of the ideas were “antigrowth.” Most of the proposals didn’t move forward, and the task force disbanded.
Since then, other employees have corroborated these findings. A former Facebook AI researcher who joined in 2018 says he and his team conducted “study after study” confirming the same basic idea: models that maximize engagement increase polarization. They could easily track how strongly users agreed or disagreed on different issues, what content they liked to engage with, and how their stances changed as a result. Regardless of the issue, the models learned to feed users increasingly extreme viewpoints. “Over time they measurably become more polarized,” he says.
The researcher’s team also found that users with a tendency to post or engage with melancholy content—a possible sign of depression—could easily spiral into consuming increasingly negative material that risked further worsening their mental health. The team proposed tweaking the content-ranking models for these users to stop maximizing engagement alone, so they would be shown less of the depressing stuff. “The question for leadership was: Should we be optimizing for engagement if you find that somebody is in a vulnerable state of mind?” he remembers. (A Facebook spokesperson said she could not find documentation for this proposal.)
But anything that reduced engagement, even for reasons such as not exacerbating someone’s depression, led to a lot of hemming and hawing among leadership. With their performance reviews and salaries tied to the successful completion of projects, employees quickly learned to drop those that received pushback and continue working on those dictated from the top down.
One such project heavily pushed by company leaders involved predicting whether a user might be at risk for something several people had already done: livestreaming their own suicide on Facebook Live. The task involved building a model to analyze the comments that other users were posting on a video after it had gone live, and bringing at-risk users to the attention of trained Facebook community reviewers who could call local emergency responders to perform a wellness check. It didn’t require any changes to content-ranking models, had negligible impact on engagement, and effectively fended off negative press. It was also nearly impossible, says the researcher: “It’s more of a PR stunt. The efficacy of trying to determine if somebody is going to kill themselves in the next 30 seconds, based on the first 10 seconds of video analysis—you’re not going to be very effective.”
Facebook disputes this characterization, saying the team that worked on this effort has since successfully predicted which users were at risk and increased the number of wellness checks performed. But the company does not release data on the accuracy of its predictions or how many wellness checks turned out to be real emergencies.
That former employee, meanwhile, no longer lets his daughter use Facebook.
Quiñonero should have been perfectly placed to tackle these problems when he created the SAIL (later Responsible AI) team in April 2018. His time as the director of Applied Machine Learning had made him intimately familiar with the company’s algorithms, especially the ones used for recommending posts, ads, and other content to users.
It also seemed that Facebook was ready to take these problems seriously. Whereas previous efforts to work on them had been scattered across the company, Quiñonero was now being granted a centralized team with leeway in his mandate to work on whatever he saw fit at the intersection of AI and society.
At the time, Quiñonero was engaging in his own reeducation about how to be a responsible technologist. The field of AI research was paying growing attention to problems of AI bias and accountability in the wake of high-profile studies showing that, for example, an algorithm was scoring Black defendants as more likely to be rearrested than white defendants who’d been arrested for the same or a more serious offense. Quiñonero began studying the scientific literature on algorithmic fairness, reading books on ethical engineering and the history of technology, and speaking with civil rights experts and moral philosophers.
Over the many hours I spent with him, I could tell he took this seriously. He had joined Facebook amid the Arab Spring, a series of revolutions against oppressive Middle Eastern regimes. Experts had lauded social media for spreading the information that fueled the uprisings and giving people tools to organize. Born in Spain but raised in Morocco, where he’d seen the suppression of free speech firsthand, Quiñonero felt an intense connection to Facebook’s potential as a force for good.
Six years later, Cambridge Analytica had threatened to overturn this promise. The controversy forced him to confront his faith in the company and examine what staying would mean for his integrity. “I think what happens to most people who work at Facebook—and definitely has been my story—is that there’s no boundary between Facebook and me,” he says. “It’s extremely personal.” But he chose to stay, and to head SAIL, because he believed he could do more for the world by helping turn the company around than by leaving it behind.
“I think if you’re at a company like Facebook, especially over the last few years, you really realize the impact that your products have on people’s lives—on what they think, how they communicate, how they interact with each other,” says Quiñonero’s longtime friend Zoubin Ghahramani, who helps lead the Google Brain team. “I know Joaquin cares deeply about all aspects of this. As somebody who strives to achieve better and improve things, he sees the important role that he can have in shaping both the thinking and the policies around responsible AI.”
At first, SAIL had only five people, who came from different parts of the company but were all interested in the societal impact of algorithms. One founding member, Isabel Kloumann, a research scientist who’d come from the company’s core data science team, brought with her an initial version of a tool to measure the bias in AI models.
The team also brainstormed many other ideas for projects. The former leader in the AI org, who was present for some of the early meetings of SAIL, recalls one proposal for combating polarization. It involved using sentiment analysis, a form of machine learning that interprets opinion in bits of text, to better identify comments that expressed extreme points of view. These comments wouldn’t be deleted, but they would be hidden by default with an option to reveal them, thus limiting the number of people who saw them.
And there were discussions about what role SAIL could play within Facebook and how it should evolve over time. The sentiment was that the team would first produce responsible-AI guidelines to tell the product teams what they should or should not do. But the hope was that it would ultimately serve as the company’s central hub for evaluating AI projects and stopping those that didn’t follow the guidelines.
Former employees described, however, how hard it could be to get buy-in or financial support when the work didn’t directly improve Facebook’s growth. By its nature, the team was not thinking about growth, and in some cases it was proposing ideas antithetical to growth. As a result, it received few resources and languished. Many of its ideas stayed largely academic.
On August 29, 2018, that suddenly changed. In the ramp-up to the US midterm elections, President Donald Trump and other Republican leaders ratcheted up accusations that Facebook, Twitter, and Google had anti-conservative bias. They claimed that Facebook’s moderators in particular, in applying the community standards, were suppressing conservative voices more than liberal ones. This charge would later be debunked, but the hashtag #StopTheBias, fueled by a Trump tweet, was rapidly spreading on social media.
For Trump, it was the latest effort to sow distrust in the country’s mainstream information distribution channels. For Zuckerberg, it threatened to alienate Facebook’s conservative US users and make the company more vulnerable to regulation from a Republican-led government. In other words, it threatened the company’s growth.
Facebook did not grant me an interview with Zuckerberg, but previousreporting has shown how he increasingly pandered to Trump and the Republican leadership. After Trump was elected, Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s VP of global public policy and its highest-ranking Republican, advised Zuckerberg to tread carefully in the new political environment.
On September 20, 2018, three weeks after Trump’s #StopTheBias tweet, Zuckerberg held a meeting with Quiñonero for the first time since SAIL’s creation. He wanted to know everything Quiñonero had learned about AI bias and how to quash it in Facebook’s content-moderation models. By the end of the meeting, one thing was clear: AI bias was now Quiñonero’s top priority. “The leadership has been very, very pushy about making sure we scale this aggressively,” says Rachad Alao, the engineering director of Responsible AI who joined in April 2019.
It was a win for everybody in the room. Zuckerberg got a way to ward off charges of anti-conservative bias. And Quiñonero now had more money and a bigger team to make the overall Facebook experience better for users. They could build upon Kloumann’s existing tool in order to measure and correct the alleged anti-conservative bias in content-moderation models, as well as to correct other types of bias in the vast majority of models across the platform.
This could help prevent the platform from unintentionally discriminating against certain users. By then, Facebook already had thousands of models running concurrently, and almost none had been measured for bias. That would get it into legal trouble a few months later with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which alleged that the company’s algorithms were inferring “protected” attributes like race from users’ data and showing them ads for housing based on those attributes—an illegal form of discrimination. (The lawsuit is still pending.) Schroepfer also predicted that Congress would soon pass laws to regulate algorithmic discrimination, so Facebook needed to make headway on these efforts anyway.
(Facebook disputes the idea that it pursued its work on AI bias to protect growth or in anticipation of regulation. “We built the Responsible AI team because it was the right thing to do,” a spokesperson said.)
But narrowing SAIL’s focus to algorithmic fairness would sideline all Facebook’s other long-standing algorithmic problems. Its content-recommendation models would continue pushing posts, news, and groups to users in an effort to maximize engagement, rewarding extremist content and contributing to increasingly fractured political discourse.
Zuckerberg even admitted this. Two months after the meeting with Quiñonero, in a public note outlining Facebook’s plans for content moderation, he illustrated the harmful effects of the company’s engagement strategy with a simplified chart. It showed that the more likely a post is to violate Facebook’s community standards, the more user engagement it receives, because the algorithms that maximize engagement reward inflammatory content.
But then he showed another chart with the inverse relationship. Rather than rewarding content that came close to violating the community standards, Zuckerberg wrote, Facebook could choose to start “penalizing” it, giving it “less distribution and engagement” rather than more. How would this be done? With more AI. Facebook would develop better content-moderation models to detect this “borderline content” so it could be retroactively pushed lower in the news feed to snuff out its virality, he said.
The problem is that for all Zuckerberg’s promises, this strategy is tenuous at best.
Misinformation and hate speech constantly evolve. New falsehoods spring up; new people and groups become targets. To catch things before they go viral, content-moderation models must be able to identify new unwanted content with high accuracy. But machine-learning models do not work that way. An algorithm that has learned to recognize Holocaust denial can’t immediately spot, say, Rohingya genocide denial. It must be trained on thousands, often even millions, of examples of a new type of content before learning to filter it out. Even then, users can quickly learn to outwit the model by doing things like changing the wording of a post or replacing incendiary phrases with euphemisms, making their message illegible to the AI while still obvious to a human. This is why new conspiracy theories can rapidly spiral out of control, and partly why, even after such content is banned, forms of it canpersist on the platform.
In his New York Times profile, Schroepfer named these limitations of the company’s content-moderation strategy. “Every time Mr. Schroepfer and his more than 150 engineering specialists create A.I. solutions that flag and squelch noxious material, new and dubious posts that the A.I. systems have never seen before pop up—and are thus not caught,” wrote the Times. “It’s never going to go to zero,” Schroepfer told the publication.
Meanwhile, the algorithms that recommend this content still work to maximize engagement. This means every toxic post that escapes the content-moderation filters will continue to be pushed higher up the news feed and promoted to reach a larger audience. Indeed, a study from New York University recently found that among partisan publishers’ Facebook pages, those that regularly posted political misinformation received the most engagement in the lead-up to the 2020 US presidential election and the Capitol riots. “That just kind of got me,” says a former employee who worked on integrity issues from 2018 to 2019. “We fully acknowledged [this], and yet we’re still increasing engagement.”
But Quiñonero’s SAIL team wasn’t working on this problem. Because of Kaplan’s and Zuckerberg’s worries about alienating conservatives, the team stayed focused on bias. And even after it merged into the bigger Responsible AI team, it was never mandated to work on content-recommendation systems that might limit the spread of misinformation. Nor has any other team, as I confirmed after Entin and another spokesperson gave me a full list of all Facebook’s other initiatives on integrity issues—the company’s umbrella term for problems including misinformation, hate speech, and polarization.
A Facebook spokesperson said, “The work isn’t done by one specific team because that’s not how the company operates.” It is instead distributed among the teams that have the specific expertise to tackle how content ranking affects misinformation for their part of the platform, she said. But Schroepfer told me precisely the opposite in an earlier interview. I had asked him why he had created a centralized Responsible AI team instead of directing existing teams to make progress on the issue. He said it was “best practice” at the company.
“[If] it’s an important area, we need to move fast on it, it’s not well-defined, [we create] a dedicated team and get the right leadership,” he said. “As an area grows and matures, you’ll see the product teams take on more work, but the central team is still needed because you need to stay up with state-of-the-art work.”
When I described the Responsible AI team’s work to other experts on AI ethics and human rights, they noted the incongruity between the problems it was tackling and those, like misinformation, for which Facebook is most notorious. “This seems to be so oddly removed from Facebook as a product—the things Facebook builds and the questions about impact on the world that Facebook faces,” said Rumman Chowdhury, whose startup, Parity, advises firms on the responsible use of AI, and was acquired by Twitter after our interview. I had shown Chowdhury the Quiñonero team’s documentation detailing its work. “I find it surprising that we’re going to talk about inclusivity, fairness, equity, and not talk about the very real issues happening today,” she said.
“It seems like the ‘responsible AI’ framing is completely subjective to what a company decides it wants to care about. It’s like, ‘We’ll make up the terms and then we’ll follow them,’” says Ellery Roberts Biddle, the editorial director of Ranking Digital Rights, a nonprofit that studies the impact of tech companies on human rights. “I don’t even understand what they mean when they talk about fairness. Do they think it’s fair to recommend that people join extremist groups, like the ones that stormed the Capitol? If everyone gets the recommendation, does that mean it was fair?”
“We’re at a place where there’s one genocide [Myanmar] that the UN has, with a lot of evidence, been able to specifically point to Facebook and to the way that the platform promotes content,” Biddle adds. “How much higher can the stakes get?”
Over the last two years, Quiñonero’s team has built out Kloumann’s original tool, called Fairness Flow. It allows engineers to measure the accuracy of machine-learning models for different user groups. They can compare a face-detection model’s accuracy across different ages, genders, and skin tones, or a speech-recognition algorithm’s accuracy across different languages, dialects, and accents.
Fairness Flow also comes with a set of guidelines to help engineers understand what it means to train a “fair” model. One of the thornier problems with making algorithms fair is that there are different definitions of fairness, which can be mutually incompatible. Fairness Flow lists four definitions that engineers can use according to which suits their purpose best, such as whether a speech-recognition model recognizes all accents with equal accuracy or with a minimum threshold of accuracy.
But testing algorithms for fairness is still largely optional at Facebook. None of the teams that work directly on Facebook’s news feed, ad service, or other products are required to do it. Pay incentives are still tied to engagement and growth metrics. And while there are guidelines about which fairness definition to use in any given situation, they aren’t enforced.
This last problem came to the fore when the company had to deal with allegations of anti-conservative bias.
In 2014, Kaplan was promoted from US policy head to global vice president for policy, and he began playing a more heavy-handed role in content moderation and decisions about how to rank posts in users’ news feeds. After Republicans started voicing claims of anti-conservative bias in 2016, his team began manually reviewing the impact of misinformation-detection models on users to ensure—among other things—that they didn’t disproportionately penalize conservatives.
All Facebook users have some 200 “traits” attached to their profile. These include various dimensions submitted by users or estimated by machine-learning models, such as race, political and religious leanings, socioeconomic class, and level of education. Kaplan’s team began using the traits to assemble custom user segments that reflected largely conservative interests: users who engaged with conservative content, groups, and pages, for example. Then they’d run special analyses to see how content-moderation decisions would affect posts from those segments, according to a former researcher whose work was subject to those reviews.
The Fairness Flow documentation, which the Responsible AI team wrote later, includes a case study on how to use the tool in such a situation. When deciding whether a misinformation model is fair with respect to political ideology, the team wrote, “fairness” does not mean the model should affect conservative and liberal users equally. If conservatives are posting a greater fraction of misinformation, as judged by public consensus, then the model should flag a greater fraction of conservative content. If liberals are posting more misinformation, it should flag their content more often too.
But members of Kaplan’s team followed exactly the opposite approach: they took “fairness” to mean that these models should not affect conservatives more than liberals. When a model did so, they would stop its deployment and demand a change. Once, they blocked a medical-misinformation detector that had noticeably reduced the reach of anti-vaccine campaigns, the former researcher told me. They told the researchers that the model could not be deployed until the team fixed this discrepancy. But that effectively made the model meaningless. “There’s no point, then,” the researcher says. A model modified in that way “would have literally no impact on the actual problem” of misinformation.
“I don’t even understand what they mean when they talk about fairness. Do they think it’s fair to recommend that people join extremist groups, like the ones that stormed the Capitol? If everyone gets the recommendation, does that mean it was fair?”
Ellery Roberts Biddle, editorial director of Ranking Digital Rights
This happened countless other times—and not just for content moderation. In 2020, the Washington Post reported that Kaplan’s team had undermined efforts to mitigate election interference and polarization within Facebook, saying they could contribute to anti-conservative bias. In 2018, it used the same argument to shelve a project to edit Facebook’s recommendation models even though researchers believed it would reduce divisiveness on the platform, according to the Wall Street Journal. His claims about political bias also weakened a proposal to edit the ranking models for the news feed that Facebook’s data scientists believed would strengthen the platform against the manipulation tactics Russia had used during the 2016 US election.
And ahead of the 2020 election, Facebook policy executives used this excuse, according to the New York Times, to veto or weaken several proposals that would have reduced the spread of hateful and damaging content.
Facebook disputed the Wall Street Journal’s reporting in a follow-up blog post, and challenged the New York Times’s characterization in an interview with the publication. A spokesperson for Kaplan’s team also denied to me that this was a pattern of behavior, saying the cases reported by the Post, the Journal, and the Times were “all individual instances that we believe are then mischaracterized.” He declined to comment about the retraining of misinformation models on the record.
Many of these incidents happened before Fairness Flow was adopted. But they show how Facebook’s pursuit of fairness in the service of growth had already come at a steep cost to progress on the platform’s other challenges. And if engineers used the definition of fairness that Kaplan’s team had adopted, Fairness Flow could simply systematize behavior that rewarded misinformation instead of helping to combat it.
Often “the whole fairness thing” came into play only as a convenient way to maintain the status quo, the former researcher says: “It seems to fly in the face of the things that Mark was saying publicly in terms of being fair and equitable.”
The last time I spoke with Quiñonero was a month after the US Capitol riots. I wanted to know how the storming of Congress had affected his thinking and the direction of his work.
In the video call, it was as it always was: Quiñonero dialing in from his home office in one window and Entin, his PR handler, in another. I asked Quiñonero what role he felt Facebook had played in the riots and whether it changed the task he saw for Responsible AI. After a long pause, he sidestepped the question, launching into a description of recent work he’d done to promote greater diversity and inclusion among the AI teams.
I asked him the question again. His Facebook Portal camera, which uses computer-vision algorithms to track the speaker, began to slowly zoom in on his face as he grew still. “I don’t know that I have an easy answer to that question, Karen,” he said. “It’s an extremely difficult question to ask me.”
Entin, who’d been rapidly pacing with a stoic poker face, grabbed a red stress ball.
I asked Quiñonero why his team hadn’t previously looked at ways to edit Facebook’s content-ranking models to tamp down misinformation and extremism. He told me it was the job of other teams (though none, as I confirmed, have been mandated to work on that task). “It’s not feasible for the Responsible AI team to study all those things ourselves,” he said. When I asked whether he would consider having his team tackle those issues in the future, he vaguely admitted, “I would agree with you that that is going to be the scope of these types of conversations.”
Near the end of our hour-long interview, he began to emphasize that AI was often unfairly painted as “the culprit.” Regardless of whether Facebook used AI or not, he said, people would still spew lies and hate speech, and that content would still spread across the platform.
I pressed him one more time. Certainly he couldn’t believe that algorithms had done absolutely nothing to change the nature of these issues, I said.
“I don’t know,” he said with a halting stutter. Then he repeated, with more conviction: “That’s my honest answer. Honest to God. I don’t know.”
Corrections:We amended a line that suggested that Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s vice president of global policy, had used Fairness Flow. He has not. But members of his team have used the notion of fairness to request the retraining of misinformation models in ways that directly contradict Responsible AI’s guidelines. We also clarified when Rachad Alao, the engineering director of Responsible AI, joined the company.
In order to make sense of the natural and human-induced disaster that has struck Texas, the nation will first need an accurate picture of who lives here. Yes, Texas has its oil barons, fossil-fuel lobbyists, and opportunistic political “leaders” who have extracted wealth from the state at the expense of the environment and human needs. But the real figure that should stand out is 17 million people.
That’s roughly the Latinx, Black, Indigenous, and Asian population of Texas, which comprises nearly 60 percent of the state. Only 3 states and 69 countries have a larger total population. Denmark, Finland, and Norway combined do not total 17 million residents. Of the 13 cities in the U.S. with populations above 900,000 today, five are in Texas (Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Austin, and Fort Worth) and only 25 to 48 percent “non-Hispanic whites.” Thus, any story of Texans freezing, dying or hospitalized from carbon monoxide poisoning, losing power for vital medical equipment, or suffering without water or pipes bursting is more than likely occurring among the states BIPOC majority.
Outrage has erupted in Texas and throughout the nation, perhaps building on the momentum of the 2020 uprisings against white supremacy and police-perpetrated violence. Coming on the heels of the Trump-fueled mob attack on the Capitol and GOP refusal to hold the former president accountable, the catastrophe in Texas may be similar to the many “100-year” or “500-year” events that have now become commonplace. Floods, wildfires, freezes and heatwaves wreak havoc today but provide a preview of much worse effects to come from the compounded effects of industrial pollution and capitalist consumption.
As a result, three long overshadowed problems are now being widely discussed.
First, after the popular revolts of the 1960s, global powers responded with neoliberal restructuring designed to heighten the free reign of capital while weakening the collective power of workers and unions. This is what the Zapatistas called the Empire of Money, and it’s the mentality behind the deregulation and privatization of energy markets and utilities that leaves people literally in the cold when rapidly changing realities overwhelm systems designed to cut corners for immediate profiteering.
Second, Gov. Greg Abbott’s spurious scapegoating of renewable energy for the power outages—a perfect exposition of what Naomi Klein has called “disaster capitalism”—has escalated demands for a Green New Deal. More broadly, it has exposed the need for an immediate and transformative response to the climate crisis rooted in principles of climate justice that empower and uplift peoples in the global South and the most oppressed sectors of the global North bearing the brunt of the crisis.
Third, Ted Cruz’s “let them eat cake” vacation to Cancun was a visible reminder of the cruelty of our political system — a system that rewards politicians propped up by corporate money, right-wing lies, and racist ideologies for blaming others and evading responsibility. The elites most responsible for the disastrous effects of climate change, racism, ableism, and poverty would have us believe that it is always others who must suffer instead of their own families.
The policies that have caused death and suffering have not “failed”; they have worked exactly as intended. The exponential growth of the billionaire class has been a direct product of five decades of neoliberalism, but the gains for the working and middle classes have been deliberately illusory. Yet, there can be no innocent return to the era of liberalism and the New Deal. We need to appreciate from history how the problems illuminated now in Texas are interconnected with the decline of the white majority and the liberal order.
Herrenvolk Democracy and the New Deal Order
Prior to the policy reforms of the first half of the 20th century, there was little assumption that the government had a responsibility to intervene to redress even the most grotesque economic injustices, such as exploitation of child labor, starvation wages, deadly working conditions, or food contamination. FDR’s New Deal galvanized a new and unprecedented coalition in support of social and economic reform, creating both employment and relief programs in response to the Great Depression and safety net measures like Social Security and Unemployment Insurance that have continued to the present.
The age of FDR represented a dramatic shift from the laissez-faire Hoover administration and a form of dominance that has been largely unparalleled in U.S. politics since. At its core, however, the New Deal coalition embodied the central contradiction in American democracy. Going back to at least Jefferson and Jackson, the push to expand the franchise and economic opportunity was tied to white supremacy. Thus, in the words of the late sociologist Pierre van den Berghe, it promoted herrenvolk (master race) democracy, or the concept that only the dominant group was entitled to such rights and capable of using them responsibly. White small farmers, settlers and workers routinely internalized a belief that they earned their freedom and citizenship rights as Americans through wars of genocide, campaigns of dispossession and reactionary social movements to uphold white supremacy.
The New Deal, though never coming close to achieving full equality, provided a new opening for labor unionization, civil rights, and Native sovereignty, thereby raising the prospects for multiracial democracy. Yet, the New Deal also continued to reinforce the contradictory unity of democracy and white supremacy. For example, it established public housing on a limited and racially segregated basis. However, the greater and longer-term impact of federal intervention was to subsidize white homeowners to buy homes with government-backed mortgages in neighborhoods restricted to whites by racist developers, realtors, and covenants.
Particularly in the South, FDR and national party leaders embraced white supremacist Democrats who prevented most African Americans and Mexican Americans from voting. So long as Black and Brown voters were shut out of the system, whites could perceive their votes as being for liberal economic policies like infrastructure development that served their self-interest, rather than simply voting against what they feared.
In Texas — part of the “Solid South” backing the Democrats almost exclusively for over 100 years — FDR won his first three elections with over 80 percent of the vote. Even when prominent conservative and white supremacist Democrats defected in 1944, he prevailed with 71 percent. During this time, the population of Texas was on average 70 percent or greater “non-Hispanic whites.”
The End of Liberal Hegemony
The Civil Rights Movement was born of a refusal to allow the white supremacist rule of herrenvolk democracy to continue. The right-wing currents that emerged in response were thus distinctly grounded in white supremacy. Though the new right was led by the corporate class — eventually finding a firm home in the GOP of Nixon and Reagan — it came to power with the fracture of the liberal order by winning middle and working-class whites away from the Democrats. This was a national phenomenon not limited to a “southern” strategy. In my 2017 book The Fifty-Year Rebellion: How the U.S. Political Crisis Began in Detroit, I argue that Detroit, once the model of progress for capitalists and socialists, alike, became a model for the new right strategy of Black disenfranchisement and neoliberal dispossession.
During Detroit’s 2013 bankruptcy engineered through a state takeover, the autocratic “emergency manager” worked with moneyed interests to take away or gut union jobs, homes, water, pensions, and health care benefits in order to impose austerity on the people and pave the way for billionaire developers and investors. This was an extreme form of a national trend to dismantle social programs and impose a Social Darwinist neglect of human needs by writing oppressed communities out of the social contract. The racist, classist and ableist response to COVID-19 has made this all too tragically clear.
As in Detroit, right-wing revanchism and race-baiting generally arose wherever demographic growth heralded a nonwhite majority. California was a pioneer of the dog-whistle racism that Republicans used to win over suburban whites from the 1960s to 1990s until the new majority came of age. Texas, whose once-commanding “non-Hispanic white” demographic majority disappeared between 1970 and 2010, has perfected much of the voter suppression, gerrymandering, and racist/heteropatriarchal scapegoating at the heart of the neo-Confederate playbook for minority rule by the current GOP.
The wealthy, privileged whites served by the Texas’s dominant political class are a small minority of the population. That’s the ongoing legacy of conquest, colonialism and proletarianization. Seen in this light, the unnecessary human suffering and death during the current catastrophe — whose full effects may not be known for some time — connect Texas to New Orleans and Flint, where short-term economic and political expediency have combined with racist, classist and ableist dehumanization to render mass populations disposable before, during, and after natural and human-induced disasters.
Contesting Minority Rule
This is how the bifurcation of herrenvolk democracy is now playing out: We are simultaneously moving toward a new social order that fulfills real democracy and a worse system driven by “master race” ideology. In Texas, where new and sustainable infrastructure is desperately needed, the New Deal has been supplanted by conspiracy theories and political Ponzi schemes. Like deregulated energy rates, these schemes promise cost savings at the expense of long-term stability and security, ultimately drowning households and local governments in debt while the Dow reaches record highs.
What is conceivable with the empowerment of a new majority in Texas and everywhere? We need structural change in politics to sweep away the politicians controlled by big money and dependent on lies, climate denial and scapegoating to remain in power. We all saw what Trump was able to get away with, and his legacy continues through the likes of Cruz and Abbott. But we also know that these crises are not limited to red states, and that Democratic policies have generally been inadequate, even as bolder and more promising proposals and leaders linked to activist movements have begun to arise and challenge the party’s establishment.
As Grace Lee Boggs recognized the growing illegitimacy of dominant institutions, she taught us that “the only way to survive is by taking care of one another.” That does not mean we should let those in power off the hook. What it implies is that we must do more than protest. We must to look to grassroots organizers, Indigenous peoples, and women of color feminists for models of solidarity in this transitional era of systemic collapse. In recent years, movements at Standing Rock and Mauna Kea have responded to colonial desecration by projecting a future centered on Earth, water and life.
During this catastrophe, Mutual Aid Houston has reported an “overwhelming wave of support” to provide food, blankets and money to people in need. The self-described BIPOC abolitionist collective formed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and police brutality. It demonstrates scholar-activist Dean Spade’s point that mutual aid is not charity: “It’s a form of coming together to meet survival needs in a political context.” These local acts are putting into practice the values and concepts of community-based care that can establish relations for a more humane social order.
It’s the antidote to nativism, the enemy of hate—a vaccine of understanding, tolerance and compassion that can counter the rhetoric of demagogues
Wade Davis, February 1, 2021
In 2012, both Kiplinger and Forbes ranked anthropology as the least valuable undergraduate major, unleashing a small wave of indignation as many outside the field rushed to defend the study of culture as ideal preparation for any life or career in an interconnected and globalized world. The response from professional anthropologists, confronted by both an existential challenge and public humiliation, was earnest but largely ineffective, for the voice of the discipline had been muted by a generation of self-absorption, tempered by a disregard for popular engagement that borders on contempt.
Ruth Benedict, acolyte of the great Franz Boas and in 1947 president of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), reputedly said that the very purpose of anthropology was to make the world safe for human differences.
Today, such activism seems as passé as a pith helmet. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the AAA met in Washington, D.C. Four thousand anthropologists were in the nation’s capital in the wake of the biggest story of culture they or the country would ever encounter. The entire gathering earned but a mention in The Washington Post, a few lines in the gossip section essentially noting that the nutcases were back in town. It was hard to know who was more remiss, the government for failing to listen to the one profession that could have answered the question on everyone’s lips—Why do they hate us?—or the profession itself for failing to reach outside itself to bring its considerable insights to the attention of the nation.
Perhaps fittingly it took an outsider to remind anthropologists why anthropology matters. Charles King, professor of international affairs at Georgetown University, begins his remarkable book The Reinvention of Humanityby asking us to envision the world as it existed in the minds of our grandparents, perhaps your great-grandparents. Race, he notes, was accepted as a given, a biological fact, with lineages dividing white from Black reaching back through primordial time. Differences in customs and beliefs reflected differences in intelligence and destiny, with every culture finding its rung on an evolutionary ladder rising from the savage to the barbarian to the civilized of the Strand in London, with technological wizardry, the great achievement of the West, being the sole measure of progress and success.
Sexual and behavioral characteristics were presumed fixed. Whites were smart and industrious, Blacks physically strong but lazy, and some people were barely distinguishable from animals; as late as 1902 it was debated in parliament in Australia whether aborigines were human beings. Politics was the domain of men, charity work and the home the realm of women. Women’s suffrage only came in 1919. Immigrants were seen as a threat, even by those who had themselves only just managed to claw their way ashore. The poor were responsible for their own miseries, even as the British army reported that the height of officers recruited in 1914 was on average six inches taller than that of enlisted men, simply because of nutrition. As for the blind, deaf and dumb, the cripples, morons, Mongoloids, and the mad, they were best locked away, lobotomized and even killed to remove them from the gene pool.
The superiority of the white man was accepted with such assurance that the Oxford English Dictionary in 1911 had no entries for racism or colonialism. As recently as 1965, Carleton Coon completed a set of two books, The Origin of Races and The Living Races of Man, in which he advanced the theory that the political and technological dominance of Europeans was a natural consequence of their evolved genetic superiority. He even asserted that “racial intermixture can upset the genetic as well as the social equilibrium of a group.” Coon at the time of his retirement in 1963 was a respected professor and curator at the University of Pennsylvania. Interracial marriage remained illegal across much of the United States until 1967.
Today, not two generations on, it goes without saying that no educated person would share any of these bankrupt certitudes. By the same token, what we take for granted would be unimaginable to those who fiercely defended convictions that appear to the modern eye both transparently wrong and morally reprehensible. All of which raises a question. What was it that allowed our culture to go from zero to 60 in a generation, as women moved from the kitchen to the boardroom, people of color from the woodshed to the White House, gay men and women from the closet to the altar?
Political movements are built upon the possibility of change, possibilities brought into being by new ways of thinking. Before any of these struggles could flourish, something fundamental, some flash of insight, had to challenge and, in time, shatter the intellectual foundations that supported archaic beliefs as irrelevant to our lives today as the notions of 19th-century clergymen, certain that the earth was but 6,000 years old.
The catalyst, as Charles King reminds us, was the wisdom and scientific genius of Franz Boas and a small band of courageous scholars—Margaret Mead, Alfred Kroeber, Elsie Clews Parsons, Melville Herskovits, Edward Sapir, Robert Lowie, Ruth Benedict, Zora Neale Hurston and many others— contrarians all, who came into his orbit, destined to change the world. We live today in the social landscape of their dreams. If you find it normal, for example, that an Irish boy would have an Asian girlfriend, or that a Jewish friend might find solace in the Buddhist dharma, or that a person born into a male body could self-identify as a woman, then you are a child of anthropology.
If you recognize that marriage need not exclusively imply a man and a woman, that single mothers can be good mothers, and that two men or two women can raise good families as long as there is love in the home, it’s because you’ve embraced values and intuitions inconceivable to your great-grandparents. And if you believe that wisdom may be found in all spiritual traditions, that people in all places are always dancing with new possibilities for life, that one preserves jam but not culture, then you share a vision of compassion and inclusion that represents perhaps the most sublime revelation of our species, the scientific realization that all of humanity is one interconnected and undivided whole.
Widely acknowledged as the father of American cultural anthropology, Franz Boas was the first scholar to explore in a truly open and neutral manner how human social perceptions are formed, and how members of distinct societies become conditioned to see and interpret the world. What, he asked, was the nature of knowing? Who decided what was to be known? How do seemingly random beliefs and convictions converge into this thing called culture, a term that he was the first to promote as an organizing principle, a useful point of intellectual departure.
Far ahead of his time, Boas recognized that every distinct social community, every cluster of people distinguished by language or adaptive inclination, was a unique facet of the human legacy and its promise. Each was a product of its own history. None existed in an absolute sense; every culture was but a model of reality. We create our social realms, Boas would say, determine what we then define as being common sense, universal truths, the appropriate rules and codes of behavior. Beauty really does lie in the eye of the beholder. Manners don’t make the man; men and women invent the manners. Race and gender are cultural constructs, derived not from biology but born in the realm of ideas.
Critically, none of this implied an extreme relativism, as if every human behavior must be accepted simply because it exists. Boas never called for the elimination of judgment, only its suspension so that the very judgments we are ethically and morally obliged to make as human beings may be informed ones. Even as he graced the cover of Time magazine in 1936, a German Jew in exile from a homeland already dripping in blood, Boas railed against the cruel conceits and stupidity of scientific racism. Inspired by his time among the Inuit on Baffin Island, and later the Kwakwaka’wakw in the salmon forests of the Pacific Northwest, he informed all who would listen that the other peoples of the world were not failed attempts to be them, failed attempts to be modern. Every culture was a unique expression of the human imagination and heart. Each was a unique answer to a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human and alive? When asked that question, humanity responds in 7,000 different languages, voices that collectively comprise our repertoire for dealing with all the challenges that will confront us as a species.
Boas would not live to see his insights and intuitions confirmed by hard science, let alone define the zeitgeist of a new global culture. But, 80 years on, studies of the human genome have indeed revealed the genetic endowment of humanity to be a single continuum. Race truly is a fiction. We are all cut from the same genetic cloth, all descendants of common ancestors, including those who walked out of Africa some 65,000 years ago, embarking on a journey that over 40,000 years, a mere 2500 generations, carried the human spirit to every corner of the habitable world.
But here is the important idea. If we are all cut from the same fabric of life, then by definition we all share the same mental acuity, the same raw genius. Whether this intellectual potential is exercised through technological innovation, as has been the great achievement of the West, or through the untangling of complex threads of memory inherent in a myth, a priority of many other peoples in the world, is simply a matter of choice and orientation, adaptive insights and cultural emphasis. There is no hierarchy of progress in the history of culture, no evolutionary ladder to success. Boas and his students were right. The brilliance of scientific research, the revelations of modern genetics, has affirmed in an astonishing way both the unity of humanity and the essential wisdom of cultural relativism. Every culture really does have something to say; each deserves to be heard, just as none has a monopoly on the route to the divine.
As a scholar, Boas ranks with Einstein, Darwin and Freud as one of the four intellectual pillars of modernity. His core idea, distilled in the notion of cultural relativism, was a radical departure, as unique in its way as was Einstein’s theory of relativity in the discipline of physics. Everything Boas proposed ran against orthodoxy. It was a shattering of the European mind, the sociological equivalent of the splitting of the atom. And though his research took him to esoteric realms of myth and shamanism, symbolism and the spirit, he remained grounded in the politics of racial and economic justice, the promise and potential of social change. A tireless campaigner for human rights, Boas maintained always that anthropology as a science only made sense if it was practiced in the service of a higher tolerance. “It is possible,” wrote Thomas Gossett in his 1963 book Race: The History of an Idea in America, that “Boas did more to combat race prejudice than any other person in history.”
Though remembered today as the giants of the discipline, Boas and his students in their time were dismissed from jobs because of their activism; denied promotion because of their beliefs; harassed by the FBI as the subversives they truly were; and attacked in the press simply for being different. And yet they stood their ground, and because they did, as Charles King writes, “anthropology came into its own on the front lines of the great moral battle of our time… [as it] anticipated and in good measure built the intellectual foundations for the seismic social changes of the last hundred years from women’s suffrage and civil rights to sexual revolution and marriage equality.”
Were Boas to be with us today, his voice would surely resound in the public square, the media, in all the halls of power. He would never sit back in silence as fully half the languages of the world hover on the brink of extinction, implying the loss within a single generation of half of humanity’s intellectual, ecological and spiritual legacy. To those who suggest that indigenous cultures are destined to fade away, he would reply that change and technology pose no threat to culture, but power does. Cultures under threat are neither fragile nor vestigial; in every instance, they are living dynamic peoples being driven out of existence by identifiable forces. If human beings are the agents of cultural loss, he would note, we can surely be facilitators of cultural survival.
Anthropology matters because it allows us to look beneath the surface of things. The very existence of other ways of being, other ways of thinking, other visions of life itself, puts the lie to those in our own culture who say that we cannot change, as we know we must, the fundamental way in which we inhabit this planet. Anthropology is the antidote to nativism, the enemy of hate, a vaccine of understanding, tolerance and compassion that silences the rhetoric of demagogues, inoculating the world from the likes of the Proud Boys and Donald Trump. As the events of the last months have shown, the struggle long ago championed by Franz Boas is ongoing. Never has the voice of anthropology been more important.
But it must be spoken to be heard. With a million Uighurs in Chinese prison camps, the forests of the Penan in Sarawak laid waste, and the very homeland of the Inuit melting from beneath their lives, contemporary anthropologists must surely do better than indulging doctrinal grievance studies, seminars on intersectionality, the use of pronouns and other multiple expressions of woke orthodoxy if the discipline is to avoid the indictment of actually being the most worthless of undergraduate degrees.
Wade Davis is a professor of anthropology and holds the B.C. Leadership Chair in Cultures and Ecosystems at Risk at the University of British Columbia. His latest book is Magdalena: River of Dreams (Knopf 2020).
Machine learning algorithms serve us the news we read, the ads we see, and in some cases even drive our cars. But there’s an insidious layer to these algorithms: They rely on data collected by and about humans, and they spit our worst biases right back out at us. For example, job candidate screening algorithms may automatically reject names that sound like they belong to nonwhite people, while facial recognition software is often much worse at recognizing women or nonwhite faces than it is at recognizing white male faces. An increasing number of scientists and institutions are waking up to these issues, and speaking out about the potential for AI to cause harm.
Brian Nord is one such researcher weighing his own work against the potential to cause harm with AI algorithms. Nord is a cosmologist at Fermilab and the University of Chicago, where he uses artificial intelligence to study the cosmos, and he’s been researching a concept for a “self-driving telescope” that can write and test hypotheses with the help of a machine learning algorithm. At the same time, he’s struggling with the idea that the algorithms he’s writing may one day be biased against him—and even used against him—and is working to build a coalition of physicists and computer scientists to fight for more oversight in AI algorithm development.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Gizmodo: How did you become a physicist interested in AI and its pitfalls?
Brian Nord: My Ph.d is in cosmology, and when I moved to Fermilab in 2012, I moved into the subfield of strong gravitational lensing. [Editor’s note: Gravitational lenses are places in the night sky where light from distant objects has been bent by the gravitational field of heavy objects in the foreground, making the background objects appear warped and larger.] I spent a few years doing strong lensing science in the traditional way, where we would visually search through terabytes of images, through thousands of candidates of these strong gravitational lenses, because they’re so weird, and no one had figured out a more conventional algorithm to identify them. Around 2015, I got kind of sad at the prospect of only finding these things with my eyes, so I started looking around and found deep learning.
Here we are a few years later—myself and a few other people popularized this idea of using deep learning—and now it’s the standard way to find these objects. People are unlikely to go back to using methods that aren’t deep learning to do galaxy recognition. We got to this point where we saw that deep learning is the thing, and really quickly saw the potential impact of it across astronomy and the sciences. It’s hitting every science now. That is a testament to the promise and peril of this technology, with such a relatively simple tool. Once you have the pieces put together right, you can do a lot of different things easily, without necessarily thinking through the implications.
Gizmodo: So what is deep learning? Why is it good and why is it bad?
BN: Traditional mathematical models (like the F=ma of Newton’s laws) are built by humans to describe patterns in data: We use our current understanding of nature, also known as intuition, to choose the pieces, the shape of these models. This means that they are often limited by what we know or can imagine about a dataset. These models are also typically smaller and are less generally applicable for many problems.
On the other hand, artificial intelligence models can be very large, with many, many degrees of freedom, so they can be made very general and able to describe lots of different data sets. Also, very importantly, they are primarily sculpted by the data that they are exposed to—AI models are shaped by the data with which they are trained. Humans decide what goes into the training set, which is then limited again by what we know or can imagine about that data. It’s not a big jump to see that if you don’t have the right training data, you can fall off the cliff really quickly.
The promise and peril are highly related. In the case of AI, the promise is in the ability to describe data that humans don’t yet know how to describe with our ‘intuitive’ models. But, perilously, the data sets used to train them incorporate our own biases. When it comes to AI recognizing galaxies, we’re risking biased measurements of the universe. When it comes to AI recognizing human faces, when our data sets are biased against Black and Brown faces for example, we risk discrimination that prevents people from using services, that intensifies surveillance apparatus, that jeopardizes human freedoms. It’s critical that we weigh and address these consequences before we imperil people’s lives with our research.
Gizmodo: When did the light bulb go off in your head that AI could be harmful?
BN: I gotta say that it was with the Machine Bias article from ProPublica in 2016, where they discuss recidivism and sentencing procedure in courts. At the time of that article, there was a closed-source algorithm used to make recommendations for sentencing, and judges were allowed to use it. There was no public oversight of this algorithm, which ProPublica found was biased against Black people; people could use algorithms like this willy nilly without accountability. I realized that as a Black man, I had spent the last few years getting excited about neural networks, then saw it quite clearly that these applications that could harm me were already out there, already being used, and we’re already starting to become embedded in our social structure through the criminal justice system. Then I started paying attention more and more. I realized countries across the world were using surveillance technology, incorporating machine learning algorithms, for widespread oppressive uses.
Gizmodo: How did you react? What did you do?
BN: I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel; I wanted to build a coalition. I started looking into groups like Fairness, Accountability and Transparency in Machine Learning, plus Black in AI, who is focused on building communities of Black researchers in the AI field, but who also has the unique awareness of the problem because we are the people who are affected. I started paying attention to the news and saw that Meredith Whittaker had started a think tank to combat these things, and Joy Buolamwini had helped found the Algorithmic Justice League. I brushed up on what computer scientists were doing and started to look at what physicists were doing, because that’s my principal community.
It became clear to folks like me and Savannah Thais that physicists needed to realize that they have a stake in this game. We get government funding, and we tend to take a fundamental approach to research. If we bring that approach to AI, then we have the potential to affect the foundations of how these algorithms work and impact a broader set of applications. I asked myself and my colleagues what our responsibility in developing these algorithms was and in having some say in how they’re being used down the line.
Gizmodo: How is it going so far?
BN: Currently, we’re going to write a white paper for SNOWMASS, this high-energy physics event. The SNOWMASS process determines the vision that guides the community for about a decade. I started to identify individuals to work with, fellow physicists, and experts who care about the issues, and develop a set of arguments for why physicists from institutions, individuals, and funding agencies should care deeply about these algorithms they’re building and implementing so quickly. It’s a piece that’s asking people to think about how much they are considering the ethical implications of what they’re doing.
We’ve already held a workshop at the University of Chicago where we’ve begun discussing these issues, and at Fermilab we’ve had some initial discussions. But we don’t yet have the critical mass across the field to develop policy. We can’t do it ourselves as physicists; we don’t have backgrounds in social science or technology studies. The right way to do this is to bring physicists together from Fermilab and other institutions with social scientists and ethicists and science and technology studies folks and professionals, and build something from there. The key is going to be through partnership with these other disciplines.
Gizmodo: Why haven’t we reached that critical mass yet?
BN: I think we need to show people, as Angela Davis has said, that our struggle is also their struggle. That’s why I’m talking about coalition building. The thing that affects us also affects them. One way to do this is to clearly lay out the potential harm beyond just race and ethnicity. Recently, there was this discussion of a paper that used neural networks to try and speed up the selection of candidates for Ph.D programs. They trained the algorithm on historical data. So let me be clear, they said here’s a neural network, here’s data on applicants who were denied and accepted to universities. Those applicants were chosen by faculty and people with biases. It should be obvious to anyone developing that algorithm that you’re going to bake in the biases in that context. I hope people will see these things as problems and help build our coalition.
Gizmodo: What is your vision for a future of ethical AI?
BN: What if there were an agency or agencies for algorithmic accountability? I could see these existing at the local level, the national level, and the institutional level. We can’t predict all of the future uses of technology, but we need to be asking questions at the beginning of the processes, not as an afterthought. An agency would help ask these questions and still allow the science to get done, but without endangering people’s lives. Alongside agencies, we need policies at various levels that make a clear decision about how safe the algorithms have to be before they are used on humans or other living things. If I had my druthers, these agencies and policies would be built by an incredibly diverse group of people. We’ve seen instances where a homogeneous group develops an app or technology and didn’t see the things that another group who’s not there would have seen. We need people across the spectrum of experience to participate in designing policies for ethical AI.
Gizmodo: What are your biggest fears about all of this?
BN: My biggest fear is that people who already have access to technology resources will continue to use them to subjugate people who are already oppressed; Pratyusha Kalluri has also advanced this idea of power dynamics. That’s what we’re seeing across the globe. Sure, there are cities that are trying to ban facial recognition, but unless we have a broader coalition, unless we have more cities and institutions willing to take on this thing directly, we’re not going to be able to keep this tool from exacerbating white supremacy, racism, and misogyny that that already exists inside structures today. If we don’t push policy that puts the lives of marginalized people first, then they’re going to continue being oppressed, and it’s going to accelerate.
Gizmodo: How has thinking about AI ethics affected your own research?
BN: I have to question whether I want to do AI work and how I’m going to do it; whether or not it’s the right thing to do to build a certain algorithm. That’s something I have to keep asking myself… Before, it was like, how fast can I discover new things and build technology that can help the world learn something? Now there’s a significant piece of nuance to that. Even the best things for humanity could be used in some of the worst ways. It’s a fundamental rethinking of the order of operations when it comes to my research.
I don’t think it’s weird to think about safety first. We have OSHA and safety groups at institutions who write down lists of things you have to check off before you’re allowed to take out a ladder, for example. Why are we not doing the same thing in AI? A part of the answer is obvious: Not all of us are people who experience the negative effects of these algorithms. But as one of the few Black people at the institutions I work in, I’m aware of it, I’m worried about it, and the scientific community needs to appreciate that my safety matters too, and that my safety concerns don’t end when I walk out of work.
Gizmodo: Anything else?
BN: I’d like to re-emphasize that when you look at some of the research that has come out, like vetting candidates for graduate school, or when you look at the biases of the algorithms used in criminal justice, these are problems being repeated over and over again, with the same biases. It doesn’t take a lot of investigation to see that bias enters these algorithms very quickly. The people developing them should really know better. Maybe there needs to be more educational requirements for algorithm developers to think about these issues before they have the opportunity to unleash them on the world.
This conversation needs to be raised to the level where individuals and institutions consider these issues a priority. Once you’re there, you need people to see that this is an opportunity for leadership. If we can get a grassroots community to help an institution to take the lead on this, it incentivizes a lot of people to start to take action.
And finally, people who have expertise in these areas need to be allowed to speak their minds. We can’t allow our institutions to quiet us so we can’t talk about the issues we’re bringing up. The fact that I have experience as a Black man doing science in America, and the fact that I do AI—that should be appreciated by institutions. It gives them an opportunity to have a unique perspective and take a unique leadership position. I would be worried if individuals felt like they couldn’t speak their mind. If we can’t get these issues out into the sunlight, how will we be able to build out of the darkness?
Ryan F. Mandelbaum – Former Gizmodo physics writer and founder of Birdmodo, now a science communicator specializing in quantum computing and birds
Academia Uruguaia de Letras defende Cavani em caso de suposto racismo e lamenta ‘falta de conhecimento’ de federação inglesa (O Globo)
O Globo, com Reuters – 02 de janeiro de 2021
Jogador foi punido por ter usado termo ‘negrito’ em sua rede social, ao agradecer a um amigo que lhe deu os parabéns depois da vitória contra Southampton
02/01/2021 – 10:33 / Atualizado em 02/01/2021 – 11:12
A Academia de Letras do Uruguai classificou nesta sexta-feira como “ignorante” e uma “grave injustiça”a punição de três jogos recebida pelo atacante Edinson Cavani, do Manchester United, aplicada pela Football Association (FA), entidade máxima do futebol inglês, por uso do termo “negrito” para se referir a um seguidor em uma postagem numa rede social.
O uruguaio de 33 anos usou a palavra “negrito” em um post no Instagram após a vitória do clube sobre o Southampton em 29 de novembro, antes de retirá-lo do ar e se desculpar. Ele disse que era uma expressão de afeto a um amigo.
Na quinta-feira, a FA disse que o comentário era “impróprio e trouxe descrédito ao jogo” e multou Cavani em 100 mil.
A academia, uma associação dedicada a proteger e promover o espanhol usado no Uruguai, disse que “rejeitou energicamente a sanção”.
“A Federação Inglesa de Futebol cometeu uma grave injustiça com o desportista uruguaio … e mostrou a sua ignorância e erro ao regulamentar o uso da língua, em particular o espanhol, sem dar atenção a todas as suas complexidades e contextos”, afirmou a academia, por meio de seu presidente, Wilfredo Penco. “No contexto em que foi escrito, o único valor que se pode dar ao negrito (e principalmente pelo uso diminutivo) é afetuoso”.
Segundo a Academia, palavras que se referem à cor da pele, peso e outras características físicas são freqüentemente usadas entre amigos e parentes na América Latina, especialmente no diminutivo. A entidade acrescenta que até pessoas alvo destas expressões muitas vezes nem tem as características citadas.
“O uso que Cavani fez para se dirigir ao amigo ‘pablofer2222’ (nome da conta) tem este tipo de teor carinhoso — dado o contexto em que foi escrito, a pessoa a quem foi dirigido e a variedade do espanhol usado, o único valor que “negrito” pode ter é o carinhoso. Para insultar em espanhol, inglês ou outra língua, é preciso ter a capacidade para ofender o outro e aí o próprio ‘pablofer2222’ teria expressado o seu incómodo”, encerra a Academia.
Cavani: “Meu coração está em paz”
Cavani usou a rede social para comentar o episódio e assumiu “desconforto” com a situação. Garantiu que nunca foi sua intenção ofender o amigo e que a expressão usada foi de afeto.
“Não quero me alongar muito neste momento desconfortável. Quero dizer que aceito a sanção disciplinar, sabendo que sou estrangeiro para os costumes da língua inglesa, mas que não partilho do mesmo ponto de vista. Peço desculpa se ofendi alguém com uma expressão de afeto para com um amigo, não era essa a minha intenção. Aqueles que me conhecem sabem que os meus esforços são sempre procurar a simples alegria e amizade”, escreveu o jogador.
“Agradeço as inúmeras mensagens de apoio e afeto. O meu coração está em paz porque sei que sempre me expressei com afeto de acordo com a minha cultura e estilo de vida. Um sincero abraço”.
Cavani: Federação uruguaia e jogadores da seleção defendem atacante e pedem revisão de pena por racismo (O Globo)
Jogador foi suspenso por três partidas e multado pela Football Association por escrever ‘Negrito’ em suas redes sociais
04/01/2021 – 12:46 / Atualizado em 04/01/2021 – 13:45
A punição imposta a Edinson Cavani pela Football Association (FA, entidade que gere o futebol na Inglaterra) pela reprodução do termo “Negrito” (diminutivo de negro, em espanhol) em suas redes sociais segue no centro de uma intensa discussão no Uruguai. Depois da Academia Uruguaia de Letras prestar solidariedade e chamar a pena de desconhecimento cultural, os jogadores da seleção e a própria Associação Uruguaia de Futebol (AUF) se manifestaram em favor do atacante.
Nesta segunda, a Associação de Futebolistas do Uruguai publicou uma carta na qual manifestou seu repúdio à decisão da FA. O documento classifica a punição como uma arbitrariedade e diz que a entidade teve uma visão distorcida, dogmática e etnocentrista do tema.
“Longe de realizar uma defesa contra o racismo, o que a FA cometeu foi um ato discriminatório contra a cultura e a forma de vida dos uruguaios”, acusa o órgão que representa a classe de jogadores do país sul-americano.
O documento foi compartilhado nas redes sociais por jogadores da seleção. Entre eles, o atacante Luis Suárez, do Atlético de Madri; e o capitão Diego Godín, zagueiro do Cagliari-ITA.
Logo em seguida, a própria federação uruguaia se juntou à rede de apoio ao atacante e ídolo da Celeste. Em comunicado divulgado em suas redes sociais, a entidade pede que a FA retire a pena imposta a Cavani e reitera a argumentação utilizada pela Academia Uruguaia de Letras ao tentar desassociar o termo “negrito” de qualquer conotação racista.
“No nosso espanhol, que difere muito do castelhano falado em outras regiões do mundo, os apelidos negro/a e negrito/a são utilizados assiduamente como expressão de amizade, afeto, proximidade e confiança e de forma alguma se referem de forma depreciativa ou discriminatória à raça ou cor da pele de quem se faz alusão”, defende o órgão.
Cavani já cumpriu o primeiro dos três jogos que recebeu de suspensão. Ele não foi relacionado para a partida do Manchester United contra o Aston Villa, no último sábado, pelo Campeonato Inglês. Além deste gancho, o jogador foi condenado a pagar uma multa de 100 mil libras (cerca de R$ 700 mil). A punição foi dada após ele escrever “Obrigado, negrito” a um elogio feito por um seguidor do Instagram.
“Um comentário postado na página Instagram do jogador do Manchester United foi insultuoso e/ou abusivo e/ou impróprio e/ou trouxe descrédito ao jogo”, posicionou-se a FA ao aplicar a pena.
Embora o episódio tenha gerado muita indignação no Uruguai, país de maioria branca, o próprio Cavani não levou o caso adiante. Ao se manifestar, o atacante se disse incomodado com a situação, não concordou com a punição, mas enfatizou que a aceitava.
Episódios diários de racismo, desde ser alvo de preconceito até assistir a casos de violência sofridos por outras pessoas da mesma raça, têm um efeito às vezes “invisível”, mas duradouro e cruel sobre a saúde, o corpo e o cérebro de crianças.
A conclusão é do Centro de Desenvolvimento Infantil da Universidade de Harvard, que compilou estudos documentando como a vivência cotidiana do racismo estrutural, de suas formas mais escancaradas às mais sutis ou ao acesso pior a serviços públicos, impacta “o aprendizado, o comportamento, a saúde física e mental” infantil.
No longo prazo, isso resulta em custos bilionários adicionais em saúde, na perpetuação das disparidades raciais e em mais dificuldades para grande parcela da população em atingir seu pleno potencial humano e capacidade produtiva.
Embora os estudos sejam dos EUA, dados estatísticos — além do fato de o Brasil também ter histórico de escravidão e desigualdade — permitem traçar paralelos entre os dois cenários.
Aqui, casos recentes de violência contra pessoas negras incluem o de Beto Freitas, espancado até a morte dentro de um supermercado Carrefour em Porto Alegre em 20 de novembro, e o das primas Emilly, 4, e Rebeca, 7, mortas por disparos de balas enquanto brincavam na porta de casa, em Duque de Caxias em 4 de dezembro.
No Brasil, 54% da população é negra, percentual que é de 13% na população dos EUA.
A seguir, quatro impactos do ciclo vicioso do racismo, segundo o documento de Harvard. Para discutir as particularidades disso no Brasil, a reportagem entrevistou a psicóloga Cristiane Ribeiro, autora de um estudo recente sobre como a população negra lida com o sofrimento físico e mental, que foi tema de sua dissertação de mestrado pelo Programa de Pós-graduação em Promoção da Saúde e Prevenção da Violência da UFMG.
1. Corpo em estado de alerta constante
O racismo e a violência dentro da comunidade (e a ausência de apoio para lidar com isso) estão entre o que Harvard chama de “experiências adversas na infância”. Passar constantemente por essas experiências faz com que o cérebro se mantenha em estado constante de alerta, provocando o chamado “estresse tóxico”.
“Anos de estudos científicos mostram que, quando os sistemas de estresse das crianças ficam ativados em alto nível por longo período de tempo, há um desgaste significativo nos seus cérebros em desenvolvimento e outros sistemas biológicos”, diz o Centro de Desenvolvimento Infantil da universidade.
Na prática, áreas do cérebro dedicadas à resposta ao medo, à ansiedade e a reações impulsivas podem produzir um excesso de conexões neurais, ao mesmo tempo em que áreas cerebrais dedicadas à racionalização, ao planejamento e ao controle de comportamento vão produzir menos conexões neurais.
“Isso pode ter efeito de longo prazo no aprendizado, comportamento, saúde física e mental”, prossegue o centro. “Um crescente corpo de evidências das ciências biológicas e sociais conecta esse conceito de desgaste (do cérebro) ao racismo. Essas pesquisas sugerem que ter de lidar constantemente com o racismo sistêmico e a discriminação cotidiana é um ativador potente da resposta de estresse.”
“Embora possam ser invisíveis para quem não passa por isso, não há dúvidas de que o racismo sistêmico e a discriminação interpessoal podem levar à ativação crônica do estresse, impondo adversidades significativas nas famílias que cuidam de crianças pequenas”, conclui o documento de Harvard.
2. Mais chance de doenças crônicas ao longo da vida
Essa exposição ao estresse tóxico é um dos fatores que ajudam a explicar diferenças raciais na incidência de doenças crônicas, prossegue o centro de Harvard:
“As evidências são enormes: pessoas negras, indígenas e de outras raças nos EUA têm, em média, mais problemas crônicos de saúde e vidas mais curtas do que as pessoas brancas, em todos os níveis de renda.”
Alguns dados apontam para situação semelhante no Brasil. Homens e mulheres negros têm, historicamente, incidência maior de diabetes — 9% mais prevalente em negros do que em brancos; 50% mais prevalente em negras do que em brancas, segundo o Ministério da Saúde — e pressão alta, por exemplo.
Os números mais marcantes, porém, são os de violência armada, como a que vitimou as meninas Emilly e Rebeca. O Atlas da Violência aponta que negros foram 75,7% das vítimas de homicídio no Brasil em 2018.
A taxa de homicídios de brasileiros negros é de 37,8 para cada 100 mil habitantes, contra 13,9 de não negros.
Há, ainda, uma incidência possivelmente maior de problemas de saúde mental: de cada dez suicídios em adolescentes em 2016, seis foram de jovens negros e quatro de brancos, segundo pesquisa do Ministério da Saúde publicada no ano passado.
“O adoecimento (pela vivência do racismo) é constante, e vemos nos dados escancarados, como os da violência, mas também na depressão, no adoecimento psíquico e nos altos números de suicídio”, afirma a psicóloga Cristiane Ribeiro.
“E por que essa é violência é tão marcante entre pessoas negras? Porque aprendemos que nosso semelhante é o pior possível e o quanto mais longe estivermos dele, melhor. A criança materializa isso de alguma forma. Temos estatísticas de que crianças negras são menos abraçadas na educação infantil, recebem menos afeto dos professores. (Algumas) ouvem desde cedo ‘esse menino não aprende mesmo, é burro’ ou ‘nasceu pra ser bandido'”, prossegue Ribeiro.
Embora muitos conseguem superar essa narrativa, outros têm sua vida marcada por ela, diz Ribeiro. “Trabalhei durante muito tempo no sistema socioeducativo (com jovens infratores), e essas sentenças são muito recorrentes: o menino que escuta desde pequeno que ‘não vai ser nada na vida’. São trajetórias sentenciadas.”
3. Disparidades na saúde e na educação
Os problemas descritos acima são potencializados pelo menor acesso aos serviços públicos de saúde, aponta Harvard.
“Pessoas de cor recebem tratamento desigual quando interagem em sistemas como o de saúde e educação, além de terem menos acesso a educação e serviços de saúde de alta qualidade, a oportunidades econômicas e a caminhos para o acúmulo de riqueza”, diz o documento do Centro de Desenvolvimento infantil.
“Tudo isso reflete formas como o legado do racismo estrutural nos EUA desproporcionalmente enfraquece a saúde e o desenvolvimento de crianças de cor.”
Mais uma vez, os números brasileiros apontam para um quadro parecido. Segundo levantamento do Ministério da Saúde, 67% do público do SUS (Sistema Único de Saúde) é negro. No entanto, a população negra realiza proporcionalmente menos consultas médicas e atendimentos de pré-natal.
E, entre os 10% de pessoas com menor renda no Brasil, 75% delas são pretas ou pardas.
Na educação, as disparidades persistem. Crianças negras de 0 a 3 anos têm percentual menor de matrículas em creches. Na outra ponta do ensino, 53,9% dos jovens declarados negros concluíram o ensino médio até os 19 anos — 20 pontos percentuais a menos que a taxa de jovens brancos, apontam dados de 2018 do movimento Todos Pela Educação.
4. Cuidadores mais fragilizados e ‘racismo indireto’
Os efeitos do estresse não se limitam às crianças: se estendem também aos pais e responsáveis por elas — e, como em um efeito bumerangue, voltam a afetar as crianças indiretamente.
“Múltiplos estudos documentaram como os estresses da discriminação no dia a dia em pais e outros cuidadores, como ser associado a estereótipos negativos, têm efeitos nocivos no comportamento desses adultos e em sua saúde mental”, prossegue o Centro de Desenvolvimento Infantil.
Um dos estudos usados para embasar essa conclusão é uma revisão de dezenas de pesquisas clínicas feita em 2018, que aborda o que os pesquisadores chamam de “exposição indireta ao racismo”: mesmo quando as crianças não são alvo direto de ofensas ou violência racista, podem ficar traumatizadas ao testemunhar ou escutar sobre eventos que tenham afetado pessoas próximas a elas.
“Especialmente para crianças de minorias (raciais), a exposição frequente ao racismo indireto pode forçá-las a dar sentido cognitivamente a um mundo que sistematicamente as desvaloriza e marginaliza”, concluem os pesquisadores.
O estudo identificou, como efeito desse “racismo indireto”, impactos tanto em cuidadores (que tinham autoestima mais fragilizada) como nas crianças, que nasciam de mais partos prematuros, com menor peso ao nascer e mais chances de adoecer ao longo da vida ou de desenvolver depressão.
Na infância, diz a psicóloga Cristiane Ribeiro, é quando começamos a construir nossa capacidade de acreditar no próprio potencial para viver no mundo. No caso da população negra, essa construção é afetada negativamente pelos estereótipos racistas, sejam características físicas ou sociais — como o “cabelo pixaim” ou “serviço de preto”.
“A gente precisa ter referências mais positivas da população negra como aquela que também é responsável pela constituição social do Brasil. A única representação que a gente tem no livro didático de história é de uma pessoa (escravizada) acorrentada, em uma situação de extrema vulnerabilidade e que está ali porque ‘não se esforçou para não estar'”, diz a pesquisadora.
Mesmo atos “sutis” — como pessoas negras sendo seguidas por seguranças em shopping centers ou recebendo atendimento pior em uma loja qualquer —, que muitas vezes passam despercebidos para observadores brancos, podem ter efeitos devastadores sobre a autoestima, prossegue Ribeiro.
“Isso que a gente costuma chamar de sutileza do racismo não tem nada de sutil na minha perspectiva. Quando alguém grita ‘macaco’ no meio da rua, as pessoas compartilham a indignação. É diferente do olhar (preconceituoso), que só o sujeito viu e só ele percebeu. Mesmo para a militante mais empoderada e ciente de seus direitos — porque é uma luta sem descanso —, tem dias que não tem jeito, esse olhar te destroça. A gente fala muito da força da mulher negra, mas e o direito à fragilidade? será que ser frágil também é um privilégio?”
Como romper o ciclo
“Avanços na ciência apresentam um retrato cada vez mais claro de como a adversidade forte na vida de crianças pequenas pode afetar o desenvolvimento do cérebro e outros sistemas biológicos. Essas perturbações iniciais podem enfraquecer as oportunidades dessas crianças em alcançar seu pleno potencial”, diz o documento de Harvard.
Mas é possível romper esse ciclo, embora lembrando que as formas de combatê-lo são complexas e múltiplas.
“Precisamos criar novas estratégias para lidar com essas desigualdades que sistematicamente ameaçam a saúde e o bem-estar das crianças pequenas de cor e os adultos que cuidam delas. Isso inclui buscar ativamente e reduzir os preconceitos em nós e nas políticas socioeconômicas, por meio de iniciativas como contratações justas, oferta de crédito, programas de habitação, treinamento antipreconceito e iniciativas de policiamento comunitário”, diz o Centro de Desenvolvimento Infantil de Harvard.
Para Cristiane Ribeiro, passos fundamentais nessa direção envolvem mais representatividade negra e mais discussões sobre o tema dentro das escolas.
“Se tenho uma escola repleta de negros ou pessoas de diferentes orientações sexuais, mas isso não é dito, não é tratado, você tem a mesma segregação que nos outros espaços”, opina.
“Precisamos extinguir a ideia do ‘lápis cor de pele’. Tem tanta cor de pele, porque um lápis rosa a representa? Tem também a criança com cabelo crespo em uma escola onde só são penteados os cabelos lisos. Se a professora der conta de tratar aquele cabelo de uma forma tão afetiva quanto ela trata o cabelo lisinho, ela mudará o mundo daquela criança, inclusive incluindo nessa criança defesa para que ela responda quando seu cabelo for chamado de duro, de feio. E daí ela se olha no espelho e vê beleza, que é um direito que está sendo conquistado muito aos poucos. A chance é de que faça diferença pra família inteira. A criança negra que fala ‘não, mãe, meu cabelo não é feio’ desloca aquele ciclo naquela família, de todas as mulheres alisarem o cabelo. (…) Um olhar afetivo nessa história quebra o ciclo.”
O afeto e a construção de redes de apoio também são apontados por Harvard como formas de aliviar o peso do estresse tóxico e construir resiliência em crianças e famílias.
“É claro que a ciência não consegue lidar com esses desafios sozinha, mas o pensamento informado pela ciência combinado com o conhecimento em mudar sistemas entrincheirados e as experiências vividas pelas famílias que criam seus filhos sob diferentes condições podem ser poderosos catalisadores de estratégias eficientes,” defende o Centro para o Desenvolvimento Infantil.
He talks and talks, you are on the verge of falling asleep, until suddenly, out of the blue, a word or a concept slaps you in the face. You listen again. He adds another violent metaphor to his argument and there you are, disarmed by a truth he just unveiled. I presume part of Cameroonian historian and philosopher Achille Mbembe’s brilliance stems from his ability to coin ideas that were as yet framed. Not that they didn’t exist before, but they were lacking the proper notes to be heard. For instance, his book De la Postcolonie, published in 2000, contributed to a massive rise of interest in post-colonial studies by revealing how colonial forms of domination continue to operate on and within the African continent. His Critique de la raison nègre, published in 2013, shed light on the function of the “Black” figure in the construction of Western identity. He later developed the concept of necropolitics, widely used today in academia, to illustrate the production of superfluous and unwanted populations. More recently, he introduced the notion of brutalism, which describes capitalism’s constant process of extraction and waste production. A process that generates growth: walls, clean streets, prescribed drugs, cars, banks – and trash. A trash made of human and non-human residues that we bury, send abroad, or incarcerate. Combustion, islands of plastic, or “migrants” who have no value in our economic system are examples of this exponential “trashisation” of the world. This side effect of brutalism is also defined by Mbembe as the tendential universalization of the Black condition: “The way we used to treat exclusively black people, is now extended to people with a different skin color,” he told me recently. ” The black person is by definition the one who can be humiliated, whose dignity is not recognized, whose rights can be violated with impunity, including his right to breath. He or she therefore represents the accomplished figure of the superfluous person. And nowadays, the number of superfluous people is constantly growing.” What annoys me with Achille Mbembe is the way he managed to pollute the innocence of my Western privileges. I was so much better off before, flying for no reason around the world, while popping stimulants and tranquilizers to cope with my jet-lag. I’d see bankers as virtuous men I’d be desperate to marry and was secretly irritated by all these foreigners trying to flood our trash-free countries and schools. I’d worry for the future of my children and how all this precarity and danger might contaminate the clean side-walks of their own adulthood. I knew without “knowing” that racism and destruction of the environment are the two sides of the same coin, that we cannot fight one without fighting the other; that if we hadn’t and weren’t continuously destroying the African soil, it’s inhabitants for sure wouldn’t try to flee, that my privileges are not merely a question of luck, but the result of a continuous exploitation in which I am, whether I like it or not, complicit. All this I knew without being too disturbed by it. I hat found a comfortable way to exclude my responsibility from these tragedies that occur most of the time in remote parts of the world, far away from my home view in Switzerland. I guess no one enjoys to be reminded that under their innocence lies a pile of shit which has been produced not by “the other” but by one’s own self. Long story short: I sometimes wish I hadn’t come across Achille Mbembe’s slaps of truth. For, as he remarks in his last book, Brutalism, “Ignorance too, is a form of power.”
We met end of the summer 2020. I was in Bretagne, France; he waiting for winter to end in his house in Johannesburg.
You refuse to be defined as a post-colonial thinker, how come?
I have nothing against postcolonial or decolonial theory, but I am neither a postcolonial, nor a decolonial theorist. My story has been one of constant motion. I was born in Cameroun, I spent my twenties in Paris, my early and mid-thirties in New York, Philadelphia and Washington. I later moved to Dakar, Senegal and I’m now in Johannesburg, South Africa. Likewise, I was trained as an historian, then I studied political science. At the same time, I read a lot of philosophy and anthropology, immersed myself in literature, in psychoanalysis. As we speak, I am familiarizing myself with life sciences, climate and earth sciences, astrobiology. This perpetual crossing of borders is what characterizes my life and my work.
So how should one define you?
I’d rather define myself as a penseur de la traversée. One for whom critique is a form of care, healing and reparation. The idea of a common world, how to bring it into being, how to compose it, how to repair it and how to share it – this has ultimately been my main concern.
In your last book, Brutalism (Editions La Decouverte, 2020) you plead for a politics of the en-commun (in-common) as a means to re-enchant the world and re-infuse solidarity among the elements which constitute and belong to this one world we all share together. Does your concept of the en-commun have any affinities with communist ideas?
No, it has nothing to do with communism as a political ideology. It is related to my preoccupation with life futures, and as I have just said, with theories of care, healing and reparation, the reality of historical harms and debates on planetary habitability. Ultimately Eurocentrism has fostered colonialism, racism and white supremacy. Postcolonialism has been preoccupied with difference, identity and otherness. As a result of my deep interest in ancient African systems of thought, I am intrigued by the motifs of commonality and multiplicity, by the entanglement of all human and non-human forms of life and the community of substance they form. This commonality, I should add, must be constantly composed and recomposed. It must be pieced together, through endless struggles, and very often, defeats and new beginnings.
Isn’t difference the basis of identity?
During the 19th and 20th centuries, we have not stopped talking about difference and identity. About self and the Other. About who is like us and who is not. About who belongs and who doesn’t. As the seas keep rising, as the Earth keeps burning and radiation levels keep increasing and we are less and less shielded against the plasma flow from the sun and surrounded by viruses, this is a discourse we can now ill afford.
Does this imply hierarchies should be more horizontal?
By definition, all hierarchies should be exposed to contestation. I am in favor of radical equality. Formal equality is meaningless as long as certain bodies, almost always the same, remain trapped in the jaws of premature death. Once equality is secured, we need to work on the best mechanisms of representation. But those who represent us can never be taken to be hierarchically superior to us. Instead they are called upon to perform a service for the care of all. Representation can only be the result of consent and for such consent to be granted, those who represent us must be accountable. Nobody should make decisions on behalf of those who haven’t mandated him or her. The great difficulty these days and for the years to come is that decisions are increasingly made by technological devices. They are determined by algorithmic artefacts which have not been mandated, except possibly by their manufactures.
Do you have a mission?
I wouldn’t want to make things uglier than they already are. I’m here on earth like everyone else for a limited timeframe. A tiny particle in a universe governed by ungraspable forces. My goal is therefore to remain as open as possible to what is still to come. To welcome and embrace the manifold resonances of the forces of the universe. On my last day, at the dusk of my life, I want to be able to say that I have smelled the infinite flesh of the world and that I have fully breathed its breath.
Writing is your medium. How did this practice come to you?
I used to be shy. It was easier for me to write than to speak in public or even in a group. When I was 12, I was part of a poetry club at my boarding school. In parallel I kept a personal diary in which I would relate my daily experiences. But it was only when I turned 18 or 19 that I started writing, that is, speaking in public.
What does writing mean to you?
It enables me to find my own center. One could almost say “I write therefore I am.” It’s a space of inner peace, though it can also at times be one of self-division. Whatever the case, what I write is mine and can never be taken away from me.
Do you have any writing routines?
In order to write, I need silence. I need to be left alone for long hours, if not days. Silence for me is a prelude to a state of psychic condensation. When I was younger, I’d mostly write in the pitch dark, after midnight. Writing after midnight, I could reconnect with Africa’s deepest pulsations, its tragedies as well as its metamorphic potential, the promise it represents for the world. That is how I wrote On the Postcolony, in the midst of Congolese sounds and rhythms.
How do you reach this bubble of isolation and silence while living with your spouse, children and dog?
My wife is a writer of her own account. The dog is a very unobtrusive companion. It also happens that I can be talking to you now without really being present. Being physically present doesn’t prevent my mind from being totally elsewhere.
Where does your writing start?
Most of the time in my head. Sometimes from what I see, what I hear, what I read. It can start in the shower, when I am cooking or while I lie on the bed waiting to fall asleep. I can spend long months without writing anything. Things first need to boil. I need to find myself in a position where I can no longer bracket the interpellation addressed to me by reality, an event or an encounter.
Do you take notes?
Not really, or not all the time. I may have notebooks, but I keep misplacing them and hardly ever return to them in any structured way. My writing generally begins with a word, a concept, a sound, a landscape or an event which suddenly resonates in me. I do have a very lively mental scape. As a result, writing is like translating an image into words. In fact my books are full of images of the mind, non-visual images. But I never know in advance where these images will lead me to or whether at the end of the process I will be able to adequately translate them into words without losing their allure. It’s a rather intuitive process. That’s also why I write my introductions at the end, as I’ll only be able to tell you what the book is about once it’s written, when all the images have been curated.
Do you spend lots of time rewriting your sentences?
I’m extremely attentive to each word, each phrase, the way it’s formulated, its rhythm and musicality, the punctuation. For a text to be powerful, that is to heal, it must viscerally speak to both the reader’s reason and senses. It must therefore be methodically composed, arranged, and curated. Once it’s done with the appropriate amount of care, I no longer go back to it. I actually never reread my books.
Why ? Because I’m always afraid to realize that the translation of images into words could have been done differently, and that now it’s too late. It’s already published and now belongs somewhat to the public. I have a rather strange understanding of writing. Writing is like a trial with too many judges If one doesn’t wish to be condemned, one shouldn’t write. Because once you’ve written and published something, that’s it.. The door is locked and the key is taken away. Writing is like pronouncing a sentence on oneself.
Student in Paris in the 1980
You spend a significant amount of your time playing and watching soccer. What is it that you enjoy so much in this sport?
It’s all about contingency and creation, creating in the midst of contingency. It’s about a certain relationship between a body in motion and a mind in a state of alert. That’s what fascinates me the most about football, the way in which 22 people attempt to inhabit a space they keep configuring and reconfiguring, erecting and erasing, and the explosions of primal joy when one’s team scores, or the primal screams when one’s team loses. And indeed, if I could go back in time, I would unquestionably pursue a professional soccer career. I’d retire in my early thirties and then do something else.
If you were a philanthropic billionaire, in which cause would you invest?
I’ve always considered money as a means to hinder one’s freedom.
I don’t want to be the slave of anything or of anybody. Not even the slave of my own passions.
Doesn’t money enable a certain freedom too?
If I had billions, I’d go back to Cameroun and revive my father’s farm. That’s where I spent part of my youth. I’d go back and turn this farm into a cooperative, into a laboratory for new ways of producing and living. The farm would become a living alternative of how to use local resources to live a clean life, starting with air, water, plants, food and so on. The farm would also be a vibrant place for artistic innovation. It would offer writing residencies for authors eager to commune with the vast expanses of our universe.
If you could reincarnate, choose an era, country, profession, legend, what or whom would you choose?
I’d come back as Ibn Khaldun, an Arab intellectual who is often presented as one of the very first sociologists. He visited the empire of Mali in the 14th century. I would be curious to discover this era. To be a sort of intellectual who travels the world, discovering Africa before the Triangular trade and sounding out what we could have become.
Terrence McCoy and Heloísa Traiano, November 15, 2020 at 5:23 p.m. GMT-3
RIO DE JANEIRO — For most of his 57 years, to the extent that he thought about his race, José Antônio Gomes used the language he was raised with. He was “pardo” — biracial — which was how his parents identified themselves. Or maybe “moreno,” as people back in his hometown called him. Perhaps “mestiço,” a blend of ethnicities.
It wasn’t until this year, when protests for racial justice erupted across the United States after George Floyd’s killing in police custody, that Gomes’s own uncertainty settled. Watching television, he saw himself in the thousands of people of color protesting amid the racially diverse crowds. He saw himself in Floyd.
Gomes realized he wasn’t mixed. He was Black.
So in September, when he announced his candidacy for city council in the southeastern city of Turmalina, Gomes officially identified himself that way. “In reality, I’ve always been Black,” he said. “But I didn’t think I was Black. But now we have more courage to see ourselves that way.”
Brazil is home to more people of African heritage than any country outside Africa. But it is rarely identified as a Black nation, or as closely identifying with any race, really. It has seen itself as simply Brazilian — a tapestry of European, African and Indigenous backgrounds that has defied the more rigid racial categories used elsewhere. Some were darker, others lighter. But almost everyone was a mix.
Now, however, as affirmative action policies diversify Brazilian institutions and the struggle for racial equality in the United States inspires a similar movement here, a growing number of people are redefining themselves. Brazilians who long considered themselves to be White are reexamining their family histories and concluding that they’re pardo. Others who thought of themselves as pardo now say they’re Black.
In Brazil, which still carries the imprint of colonization and slavery, where class and privilege are strongly associated with race, the racial reconfiguration has been striking. Over the past decade, the percentage of Brazilians who consider themselves White has dropped from 48 percent to 43 percent, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, while the number of people who identify as Black or mixed has risen from 51 percent to 56 percent.
“We are clearly seeing more Black people publicly declare themselves as Black, as they would in other countries,” said Kleber Antonio de Oliveira Amancio, a social historian at the Federal University of Recôncavo da Bahia. “Racial change is much more fluid here than it is in the United States.”
One of the clearest illustrations of that fluidity — and the growing movement to identify as Black — was the registration process for the 5,500 or so municipal elections held here Sunday. Candidates were required to identify as White, Black, mixed, Indigenous or Asian. And that routine bureaucratic step yielded fairly stunning results.
More than a quarter of the 168,000 candidates who also ran in 2016 have changed their race, according to a Washington Post analysis of election registration data. Nearly 17,000 who said they were White in 2016 are now mixed. Around 6,000 who said they were mixed are now Black. And more than 14,000 who said they were mixed now identify as White.
For some candidates, the jump was even further. Nearly 900 went from White to Black, and nearly 600 went from Black to White.
How to explain it?
Some say they’re simply correcting bureaucratic error: A party official charged with registering candidates saw their picture and recorded their race inaccurately. One woman joked that she’d gotten a lot less sun this year while quarantined and decided to declare herself White. Another candidate told the Brazilian newspaper O Globo that he was Black but was a “fan” of the Indigenous, and so has now joined them. Some believed candidates were taking advantage of a recent court decision that requires parties to dispense campaign funds evenly among racial categories.
And others said they didn’t see what all of the fuss was about.
“Race couldn’t exist,” reasoned Carlos Lacerda, a city council candidate in the southeastern city of Araçatuba, who described himself as White in 2016 and Black this year. “It’s nationalism, and that’s it. Race is something I’d never speak about.”
“We have way more important things to talk about than my race,” said Ribamar Antônio da Silva, a city council member seeking reelection in the southeastern city of Osasco.
But others looked at the racial registration as a chance to fulfill a long-denied identity.
Cristovam Andrade, 36, a city council candidate in the northeastern city of São Felipe, was raised on a farm in rural Bahia, where the influence of West Africa never felt far away. With limited access to information outside his community — let alone Brazil — he grew up believing he was White. That was how his parents had always described him.
“I didn’t have any idea about race in North America or in Europe,” he said. “But I knew a lot of people who were darker than me, so I saw myself as White.”
As he began to see himself as Black, Brazil did, too. For much of its history, Brazil’s intellectual elite described Latin America’s largest country as a “racial democracy,” saying its history of intermixing had spared it the racism that plagues other countries. Around 5 million enslaved Africans were shipped to Brazil — more than 10 times the number that ended up in North America — and the country was the last in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery, in 1888. Its history since has been one of profound racial inequality: White people earn nearly twice as much as Black people on average, and more than 75 percent of the 5,800 people killed by police last year were Black.
But Brazil never adopted prohibitions on intermarrying or draconian racial distinctions. Race became malleable.
The Brazilian soccer player Neymar famously said he wasn’t Black. Former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso famously said he was, at least in part. The 20th-century Brazilian sociologist Gilberto de Mello Freyre wrote in the 1930s that all Brazilians — “even the light-skinned fair-haired one” — carried Indigenous or African lineage.
“The self-declaration as Black is a very complex question in Brazilian society,” said Wlamyra Albuquerque, a historian at the Federal University of Bahia. “And one of the reasons for this is that the myth of a racial democracy is still in political culture in Brazil. The notion that we’re all mixed, and because of this, racism couldn’t exist in the country, is still dominant.”
Given the choice, many Afro-Brazilians, historians and sociologists argue, have historically chosen not to identify as Black — whether consciously or not — to distance themselves from the enduring legacy of slavery and societal inequality. Wealth and privilege allowed some to separate even further from their skin color.
“In Brazilian schools, we didn’t learn who was an African person, who was an Indigenous person,” said Bartolina Ramalho Catanante, a historian at the Federal University of Mato Grosso do Sul. “We only learned who was a European person and how they came here. To be Black wasn’t valued.”
But over the past two decades, as diversity efforts elevated previously marginalized voices into newscasts, telenovelas and politics, people such as Andrade have begun to think of themselves differently. To Andrade’s mother, he was White. But he wasn’t so sure. His late father had been Black. His grandparents had been Black. Just because his skin color was lighter, did that make his African roots, and his family’s experience of slavery, any less a part of his history?
In 2016, when Andrade ran for office, an official with the leftist Workers’ Party asked him what race he would like to declare. He had a decision to make.
“I am going to mark Black as a way to recognize my ancestry and origin,” he thought. “Outside of Brazil, we would never be considered White. We live in a bubble in this country.”
But this year, when he ran again, no one asked him which race he preferred. Someone saw his picture and made the decision for him. He was put down as White. For Andrade, it felt like an erasure.
“It’s easy for some to say they’re Black or mixed or White, but for me it’s not easy,” he said. “And I’m not going to be someone who isn’t White all over the world but is White only in Brazil. If I’m not White elsewhere in the world, I’m not White.”
He’s Black. And if he seeks public office again in 2024, he said, he’ll make sure that’s how he will be known.
Ranier Bragon, Guilherme Garcia e Flávia Faria – 27 de setembro de 2020
Os 526 mil pedidos de registro de candidatura computados até o momento para as eleições municipais de novembro já representam um recorde no número total de candidatos, de postulantes do sexo feminino e, pela primeira vez na história, uma maioria autodeclarada negra (preta ou parda) em relação aos que se identificam como brancos.
O crescimentos de negros e mulheres na disputa às prefeituras e Câmaras Municipais tem como pano de fundo o estabelecimento das cotas de gênero a partir dos anos 90 e as mais recentes cotas de distribuição da verba de campanha e da propaganda eleitoral, decisões essas tomadas pelos tribunais superiores em 2018, no caso das mulheres, e em 2020, no caso dos negros.
A cota eleitoral racial ainda depende de confirmação pelo plenário do STF (Supremo Tribunal Federal), o que deve ocorrer nesta semana.
Em relação à maior presença de negros, especialistas falam também no impacto do aumento de pessoas que se reconhecem como pretas e pardas após ações de combate ao racismo.
Apesar de o prazo de registro de candidatos ter se encerrado neste sábado (26), o Tribunal Superior eleitoral informou que um residual de registros feitos de forma presencial ainda levará alguns dias para ser absorvido pelo sistema.
Além disso, candidatos que não tiveram seu nome inscrito pelos partidos têm até quinta-feira (1º) para fazê-lo, mas isso normalmente diz respeito a um percentual ínfimo de concorrentes.
Os 526 mil pedidos computados até agora já representam 47 mil a mais do total de 2016 e 82% do que o tribunal espera receber este ano, com base nas convenções partidárias —cerca de 645 mil postulantes.
Até a noite deste domingo (27), o percentual de candidatas mulheres era de 34%, 177 mil concorrentes. Nas últimas três eleições, esse índice não passou de 32%. Pelas regras atuais, os partidos devem reservar ao menos 30% das vagas de candidatos e da verba pública de campanha para elas.
Em 2018, a Folharevelou em diversas reportagens que partidos, entre eles o PSL, lançaram candidatas laranjas com o intuito de simular o cumprimento da exigência, mas acabaram desviando os recursos para candidatos homens.
O ministro Ricardo Lewandowski, do Supremo Tribunal Federal, porém, determinou a aplicação imediata da medida. Sua decisão, que é liminar, está sendo analisada pelo plenário da corte, com tendência de confirmação.
Até noite deste domingo, os autodeclarados pretos e pardos somavam 51% dos candidatos (264 mil) contra 48% dos brancos (249 mil). Entre os negros, 208 mil se declaravam pardos e 56 mil, pretos.
O TSE passou a perguntar a cor dos candidatos a partir de 2014. Nas três eleições ocorridas até agora, os brancos sempre foram superiores aos negros, ocupando mais de 50% das vagas de candidatos, apesar de pretos e pardos serem maioria na população brasileira (56%). Em 2016, brancos eram 51%.
Embora o TSE não tenha registrado cor ou raça dos candidatos nos pleitos anteriores, é muitíssimo improvável ter havido eleição anterior com maioria de candidatos negros.
Assim como no recenseamento da população feita pelo IBGE, os candidatos devem declarar a cor ou raça com base em cinco identificações: preta, parda (que formam a população negra do país), branca, amarela ou indígena.
Mais de 42 mil candidatos de todo o país que disputarão as eleições deste ano mudaram a declaração de cor e raça que deram em 2016.
O número equivale a 27% dos cerca de 154 mil que concorreram no último pleito e disputam novamente em 2020. Pouco mais de um terço (36%) alterou a cor de branca para parda. Outros 30% se declaravam pardos e agora se dizem brancos.
Apesar da possibilidade de fraude, especialistas falam no impacto do aumento de pessoas que se reconhecem como pretas e pardas após ações de combate ao racismo.
A decisão de adoção imediata das cotas raciais colocou em posições opostas os núcleos afros dos partidos políticos, favoráveis à decisão, e os dirigentes das siglas, majoritariamente brancos, que em reunião nesta semana com o presidente do TSE (Tribunal Superior Eleitoral), Luís Roberto Barroso, chegaram a dizer ser inexequível o cumprimento da medida ainda neste ano.
Também há receio de fraudes em relação às candidaturas negras. E há de se ressaltar que, assim como a cota feminina não resultou até agora em uma presença nos postos de comando de Executivo e Legislativo de mulheres na proporção que elas representam da população, a cota racial também não é garantia, por si só, de que haverá expressivo aumento da participação de negros na política, hoje relegados a pequenas fatias de poder, principalmente nos cargos mais importantes.
Pouco discutido nos livros, os escravos ficavam entristecidos, paravam de falar e, acima de tudo, deixavam de se alimentar
“Apareceu ontem enforcado com um baraço [corda de fios de linho], dentro de um alçapão, na casa da rua da Alfândega, nº 376, sobrado, o preto Dionysio, escravo de D. Olimpya Theodora de Souza, moradora na mesma casa. O infeliz preto, querendo sem dúvida apressar a morte, fizera com uma thesoura pequenos ferimentos no braço…”
Essa nota, chocante, publicada no Jornal do Commercio, no Rio de Janeiro, em 22 de junho de 1872, revela uma faceta pouco conhecida da escravidão: os escravos se suicidavam. E com o índice de “mortes voluntárias” entre eles, quando comparado ao de homens livres, era duas ou três vezes mais elevado.
Os suicídios de escravos também se diferenciavam em outros aspectos. O mais notável deles era o fato de atribuir-se o gesto ao banzo. Ainda hoje se discute o significado dessa palavra. O mais aceito tem uma remota origem africana, equivalendo a “pensar” ou “meditar”. O termo também, há tempos, designou uma doença.
Em 1799, por exemplo, Luiz António de Oliveira Mendes apresentou, na Academia Real de Ciências de Lisboa, um estudo sobre “as doenças agudas e crônicas que mais frequentemente acometem os pretos recém-tirados da África”. O banzo constava entre elas.
Os sintomas? Os escravos ficavam entristecidos, paravam de falar e, acima de tudo, deixavam de se alimentar, mesmo “oferecendo-se-lhes” – afirma o médico – “as melhores comidas, assim do nosso trato e costume, como as do seu país…”, falecendo pouco tempo depois.
No século 19, com o desenvolvimento das primeiras teorias psicológicas, o comportamento dos escravos banzeiros foi reconhecido como distúrbio mental. Em 1844, Joaquim Manoel de Macedo, na tese médica intitulada Considerações Sobre a Nostalgia, afirma o seguinte: “[…] estamos convencidos de que a espantosa mortandade que entre nós se observa nos africanos, principalmente nos recém-chegados, bem como de que o número de suicídios que entre eles se conta, tem seu tanto de dívida a nostalgia […]”
Aos poucos, a associação entre nostalgia e banzo se tornou popular. No Dicionário Brasileiro da Língua Portuguesa, de 1875, de Joaquim de Macedo Soares, é possível ler a seguinte definição: “banzar: estar pensativo sobre qualquer caso; triste sem saber de quê; sofrer do spleen dos ingleses; tristeza e apatia simultânea; sofrer de nostalgia, como os negros da Costa quando vinham para cá, e ainda depois de cá estarem”.
Hoje, a palavra “nostalgia”, difundida na literatura, é sinônimo de “saudade”, um sentimento. Situação bem diferente é pensá-la como doença. Tal rótulo – assim como o de banzo – provavelmente encobria uma vasta gama de problemas psicológicos ou psiquiátricos, que iam da depressão à esquizofrenia; ou eram provocados pela desnutrição, por doenças contagiosas.
Não faltam exemplos de aproximações entre suicídio e doença mental. O citado Jornal do Commercio registra ocorrências de mortes voluntárias associadas a delírios: “Valentim, escravo de Faria & Miranda, estabelecidos na rua dos Lázaros nº 26, sofria há dias violenta febre, e era tratado pelo Dr. Antonio Rodrigues de Oliveira. Anteontem [20 de maio de 1872], às 9 horas da noite, ao que parece, em um acesso mais forte, Valentim feriu-se com um golpe no pescoço”.
Outras vezes se reconhecia explicitamente a loucura: “Suicidouse ontem [8 de março de 1872] à 1 hora da tarde, enforcando-se, a preta africana Justina, de 50 anos, escrava de Narciso da Silva Galharno. O Sr. 2º Delegado tomou conhecimento do fato e procedeu a corpo delito. Consta que a preta sofria de alienação mental”.
Como todos os testemunhos do passado, os textos acima devem ser lidos com olhos críticos: o registro de suicídio pode encobrir assassinatos praticados por senhores. Tal fato não implica em diminuir o banzo como uma das expressões trágicas da loucura comum a milhões de pessoas vítimas do tráfico de escravos.
Por outro lado, a divulgação desse sofrimento nos jornais deve ter contribuído para a formação da sensibilidade abolicionista na sociedade imperial. Por isso, o banzo pode ser entendido como uma forma não intencional de protesto político, um exemplo primário de luta pela não-violência.
**Professor de História e co-autor do livro Ancestrais: Uma Introdução Á História da África Atlântica, 2003.
++ A seção Coluna não representa, necessariamente, a opinião do site Aventuras na História.
I’ve been a fly on the wall when white people didn’t know anyone of color was looking or listening.
I am a Black woman who for most of my life has often been mistaken for white. And I’m here to tell you that for four decades white people have openly, even sometimes proudly, expressed their racism to me, usually with a wink and a smile, all while thinking I’m white too.
The incidents pile up, year after year — at a friend’s wedding, when I met a new roommate, at the grocery store, while riding in a taxi, and during innumerable other events from daily life.
As the nation begins, finally, to focus on the social injustice that takes place across this country — from the South where I grew up to the North where I’ve lived for the past 22 years ― I feel the collective pain. Even as a very fair-skinned Black woman with green eyes and light brown hair, I, too, have experienced racism. But I’ve also been a fly on the wall when white people didn’t know anyone of color was looking or listening.
Imagine taking a car service to Newark airport for a business trip, and the driver, a retired white police officer, tells you and your white boss that were he still a cop, he would pull over the Black driver stopped next to us, just because he is Black. Or the white taxi driver who, during a business trip in the South, freely shares broad generalizations about groups of people, looking to either find a kindred soul or spark a debate with a Northerner — one who he thought was white.
Put yourself in my shoes when you move to Reston, Virginia, temporarily while you wait for your apartment to become available in Alexandria, and your new roommate, a young, white male, one who you thought was kind and warm, warns you to be careful of venturing into Washington, D.C., because every time he goes there he gets “robbed by Black people.”
“Really, every time?” I questioned.
Think how upsetting it would be to join your boyfriend at the time (who also looks all white but is biracial) at his friend’s wedding and one of the guests states he doesn’t want his daughter going to a particular concert because there will “be way too many Black people.”
How do you respond to something like this? How do you respond while at a social gathering where etiquette suggests politely smiling, or at least pretending not to have heard?
There’s the executive who asks, “Is this the ethnic Cheryl?” when I wear my hair curly rather than straight. What about the random stranger in the grocery store who can’t understand the texture of my son’s hair and repeatedly asks questions about my background while putting her hands all over my son’s head.
Imagine the district retail manager who balks at hiring a Black model for a fashion show I’m in charge of planning, despite the store having a diverse customer base. “She is just not right for this crowd, if you know what I mean.” I knew. But she didn’t know — that maybe I’m not right for her crowd, either.
Then there are the many women who, once they realize I’m Black, want me to help them “understand Black people” because they really haven’t had any exposure; as if we are some type of rare species and I’m their spokesmodel.
Some instances I hope are not coming from a place of hate, but rather incorrect assumptions based on too little information and a too-fast glimpse at my face. The medical records that say white instead of Black. The doctor who doesn’t understand why I’m asking questions related to genetic conditions that are more common to particular ethnic groups. The employee file that doesn’t count me as one of their diverse hires. The committee that doesn’t realize they have a person of color represented. The performer who asks why don’t we have any Black people in the audience tonight — while looking directly at me, seated right in front.
And yet, it still hurts.
Whether in my personal or professional life — rather ironic, since I work in the field of philanthropy, diversity, equity and inclusion — this is the type of fear, ignorance and lack of self-awareness that I have witnessed and experienced for over 40 years. I’m 51, and I’m exhausted.
I’m tired of weighing, each time, whether I am going to say something in response to these hateful statements—because I must continue to advocate for what is right — or if I am going to walk away because I’m just too damn tired. Or stay silent, while gaining more insight into what really is on the minds of some when they don’t think a Black person is listening?
But do I really need any more insight? Any more proof of what some will say or do if they think no one’s watching? Does it really matter if I’m living in the South or now in the North? In a city or suburbs? At work or running errands around town? At a social event or on public transportation? When it’s clear from my own experiences and the indifferent attitude toward the suffering of others —spotlighted these last months, but enacted for years, decades, centuries before — that some of those same people don’t even care when the eyes of the world are on them.
Yes, I’m exhausted. But I must act.
When I hear racist comments clearly meant for white ears only, I have to stay, I have to stand, I have to speak up, challenge, identify myself, educate. I must walk with my fair-minded brothers and sisters of every color to call out racism whenever I see it and do my part to make this a more just world.
And I must say, “I’m Black, too.”
Cheryl Green Rosario is working on a memoir about her experiences as a light-skinned Black woman often mistaken for white.
Prakash Kashwan Co-Director, Research Program on Economic and Social Rights, Human Rights Institute, and Associate Professor, Department of Political Science., University of Connecticut
The United States is having a long-overdue national reckoning with racism. From criminal justice to pro sports to pop culture, Americans increasingly are recognizing how racist ideas have influenced virtually every sphere of life in this country.
This includes the environmental movement. Recently the Sierra Club – one of the oldest and largest U.S. conservation organizations – acknowledged racist views held by its founder, author and conservationist John Muir. In some of his writing, Muir described Native Americans and Black people as dirty, lazy and uncivilized. In an essay collection published in 1901 to promote national parks, he assured prospective tourists that “As to Indians, most of them are dead or civilized into useless innocence.”
Acknowledging this record, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune wrote in July 2020: “As defenders of Black life pull down Confederate monuments across the country, we must…reexamine our past and our substantial role in perpetuating white supremacy.”
This is a salutary gesture. However, I know from my research on conservation policy in places like India, Tanzania and Mexico that the problem isn’t just the Sierra Club.
American environmentalism’s racist roots have influenced global conservation practices. Most notably, they are embedded in longstanding prejudices against local communities and a focus on protecting pristine wildernesses. This dominant narrative pays little thought to indigenous and other poor people who rely on these lands – even when they are its most effective stewards.
Racist legacies of nature conservation
Muir was not the first or last American conservationist to hold racist views. Decades before Muir set foot in California’s Sierra Nevada. John James Audubon published his “Birds of America” engravings between 1827 and 1838. Audubon was a skilled naturalist and illustrator – and a slaveholder.
Audubon’s research benefited from information and specimens collected by enslaved Black men and Indigenous people. Instead of recognizing their contributions, Audubon referred to them as “hands” traveling along with white men. The National Audubon Society has removed Audubon’s biography from its site, referring to Audubon’s involvement in the slave trade as “the challenging parts of his identity and actions.” The group also condemned “the role John James Audubon played in enslaving Black people and perpetuating white supremacist culture.”
Contemporary advocates of wildlife conservation, such as Britain’s Prince William, continue to rely on the trope that “Africa’s rapidly growing human population” threatens the continent’s wildlife. Famed primatologist Jane Goodall also blamed our current environmental challenges in part on overpopulation.
Local communities are often written out of popular narratives on nature conservation. Many documentaries, such as the 2020 film “Wild Karnataka,” narrated by David Attenborough, entirely ignore local Indigenous people, who have nurtured the natural heritages of the places where they live. Some of the most celebrated footage in wildlife documentaries made by filmmakers like Attenborough is not even shot in the wild. By relying on fictional visuals, they reproduce racialized structures that render local people invisible.
The wilderness movement founded by Anglo-American conservationists is institutionalized in the form of national parks. Writer and historian Wallace Stegner famously called national parks “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”
Similar injustices continued to unfold even after independence in other parts of the world. When I analyzed a data set of 137 countries, I found that the largest areas of national parks were set aside in countries with high levels of economic inequality and poor or nonexistent democratic institutions. The poorest countries – including the Republic of the Congo, Namibia, Tanzania and Zambia – had each set aside more than 30% of national territories exclusively for wildlife and biodiversity conservation.
Correcting this legacy can happen only by radically transforming its exclusionary approach. Better and scientifically robust strategies recognize that low-intensity human interventions in nature practiced by Indigenous peoples can conserve landscapes more effectively than walling them off from use.
Ecologists have shown that natural landscapes interspersed with low-intensity subsistence agriculture can be most effective for biodiversity conservation. These multiple-use landscapes provide social, economic and cultural support for Indigenous and rural communities.
Nonetheless, conservation institutions and policies continue to exclude and discriminate against Indigenous and rural communities. In the long run, it is clear to me that conservation will succeed only if it can support the goal of a dignified life for all humans and nonhuman species.
“De igual modo, em virtude dos descobrimentos, movimentaram-se povos para outros continentes (sobretudo europeus e escravos africanos).”
É dessa forma – “como se os negros tivessem optado por emigrar em vez de terem sido levados à força” – que o colonialismo ainda é ensinado em Portugal.
Quem critica é a portuguesa Marta Araújo, pesquisadora principal do Centro de Estudos Sociais (CES) da Universidade de Coimbra.
De setembro de 2008 a fevereiro de 2012, ela coordenou uma minuciosa pesquisa ao fim da qual concluiu que os livros didáticos do país “escondem o racismo no colonialismo português e naturalizam a escravatura”.
Além disso, segundo Araújo, “persiste até hoje a visão romântica de que cumprimos uma missão civilizatória, ou seja, de que fomos bons colonizadores, mais benevolentes do que outros povos europeus”.
“A escravatura não ocupa mais de duas ou três páginas nesses livros, sendo tratada de forma vaga e superficial. Também propagam ideias tortuosas. Por exemplo, quando falam sobre as consequências da escravatura, o único país a ganhar maior destaque é o Brasil e mesmo assim para falar sobre a miscigenação”, explica.
“Por trás disso, está o propósito de destacar a suposta multirracialidade da nossa maior colônia que, neste sentido, seria um exemplo do sucesso das políticas de miscigenação. Na prática, porém, sabemos que isso não ocorreu da forma como é tratada”, questiona.
Araújo diz que “nada mudou” desde 2012 e argumenta que a falta de compreensão sobre o assunto traz prejuízos.
“Essa narrativa gera uma série de consequências, desde a menor coleta de dados sobre a discriminação étnico-racial até a própria não admissão de que temos um problema de racismo”, afirma.
Para realizar a pesquisa, Araújo contou com a ajuda de outros pesquisadores. O foco principal foi a análise dos cinco livros didáticos de História mais vendidos no país para alunos do chamado 3º Ciclo do Ensino Básico (12 a 14 anos), que compreende do 7º ao 9º ano.
Além disso, a equipe também examinou políticas públicas, entrevistou historiadores e educadores, assistiu a aulas e conduziu workshops com estudantes.
Em um deles, as pesquisadoras presenciaram uma cena que chamou a atenção, lembra Araújo.
Na ocasião, os alunos ficaram surpresos ao saber de revoltas das próprias populações escravizadas. E também sobre o verdadeiro significado dos quilombos ─ destino dos escravos que fugiam, normalmente locais escondidos e fortificados no meio das matas.
“Em outros países, há uma abertura muito maior para discutir como essas populações lutavam contra a opressão. Mas, no caso português, os alunos nem sequer poderiam imaginar que eles se libertavam sozinhos e continuavam a acreditar que todos eram vítimas passivas da situação. É uma ideia muito resignada”, diz.
Araújo destaca que nos livros analisados “não há nenhuma alusão à Revolução do Haiti (conflito sangrento que culminou na abolição da escravidão e na independência do país, que passou a ser a primeira república governada por pessoas de ascendência africana)”.
Já os quilombos são representados, acrescenta a pesquisadora, como “locais onde os negros dançavam em um dia de festa”.
“Como resultado, essas versões acabam sendo consensualizadas e não levantam as polêmicas necessárias para problematizarmos o ensino da História da África.”
Araújo diz que, diferentemente de outros países, os livros didáticos portugueses continuam a apregoar uma visão “romântica” sobre o colonialismo português.
“Perdura a narrativa de que nosso colonialismo foi um colonialismo amigável, do qual resultaram sociedades multiculturais e multirraciais – e o Brasil seria um exemplo”, diz.
Ironicamente, contudo, outras potências colonizadoras daquele tempo não são retratadas de igual forma, observa ela.
“Quando falamos da descoberta das Américas, os espanhóis são descritos como extremamente violentos sempre em contraste com a suposta benevolência do colonialismo português. Já os impérios francês, britânico e belga são tachados de racistas”, assinala.
“Por outro lado, nunca se fala da questão racial em relação ao colonialismo português. Há despolitização crescente. Os livros didáticos holandeses, por exemplo, atribuem a escravatura aos portugueses”, acrescenta.
Segundo ela, essa ideia da “benevolência do colonizador português” acabou encontrando eco no luso-tropicalismo, tese desenvolvida pelo cientista social brasileiro Gilberto Freire sobre a relação de Portugal com os trópicos.
Em linhas gerais, Freire defendia que a capacidade do português de se relacionar com os trópicos ─ não por interesse político ou econômico, mas por suposta empatia inata ─ resultaria de sua própria origem ética híbrida, da sua bicontinentalidade e do longo contato com mouros e judeus na Península Ibérica.
Apesar de rejeitado pelo Estado Novo de Getúlio Vargas (1930-1945), por causa da importância que conferia à miscigenação e à interpenetração de culturas, o luso-tropicalismo ganhou força como peça de propaganda durante a ditadura do português António de Oliveira Salazar (1932-1968). Uma versão simplificada e nacionalista da tese acabou guiando a política externa do regime.
“Ocorre que a questão racial nunca foi debatida em Portugal”, ressalta Araújo. Direito de imagem Marta Araújo Image caption Livro didático português diz que escravos africanos “movimentaram-se para outros continentes”
A pesquisadora alega que enviou os resultados da pesquisa ao Ministério da Educação português, mas nunca obteve resposta.
“Nossa percepção é que os responsáveis acreditam que tudo está bem assim e que medidas paliativas, como festivais culturais sazonais, podem substituir a problematização de um assunto tão importante”, critica.
Nesse sentido, Araújo elogia a iniciativa brasileira de 2003 que tornou obrigatório o ensino da história e cultura afro-brasileira e indígena em todas as escolas, públicas e particulares, do ensino fundamental até o ensino médio.
“Precisamos combater o racismo, mas isso não será possível se não mudarmos a forma como ensinamos nossa História”, conclui.
Procurado pela BBC Brasil, o Ministério da Educação português não havia respondido até a publicação desta reportagem.
A dispute between a small group of scholars and the authors of TheNew York Times Magazine’s issue on slavery represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society.
This article was updated at 7:35 p.m. ET on December 23, 2019
When The New York Times Magazinepublished its 1619 Project in August, people lined up on the street in New York City to get copies. Since then, the project—a historical analysis of how slavery shaped American political, social, and economic institutions—has spawned a podcast, a high-school curriculum, and an upcoming book. For Nikole Hannah-Jones, the reporter who conceived of the project, the response has been deeply gratifying.
“They had not seen this type of demand for a print product of TheNew York Times, they said, since 2008, when people wanted copies of Obama’s historic presidency edition,” Hannah-Jones told me. “I know when I talk to people, they have said that they feel like they are understanding the architecture of their country in a way that they had not.”
U.S. history is often taught and popularly understood through the eyes of its great men, who are seen as either heroic or tragic figures in a global struggle for human freedom. The 1619 Project, named for the date of the first arrival of Africans on American soil, sought to place “the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” Viewed from the perspective of those historically denied the rights enumerated in America’s founding documents, the story of the country’s great men necessarily looks very different.
The reaction to the project was not universally enthusiastic. Several weeks ago, the Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, who had criticized the 1619 Project’s “cynicism” in a lecture in November, began quietly circulating a letter objecting to the project, and some of Hannah-Jones’s work in particular. The letter acquired four signatories—James McPherson, Gordon Wood, Victoria Bynum, and James Oakes, all leading scholars in their field. They sent their letter to three top Times editors and the publisher, A. G. Sulzberger, on December 4. A version of that letter was published on Friday, along with a detailed rebuttal from Jake Silverstein, the editor of the Times Magazine.
The letter sent to the Times says, “We applaud all efforts to address the foundational centrality of slavery and racism to our history,” but then veers into harsh criticism of the 1619 Project. The letter refers to “matters of verifiable fact” that “cannot be described as interpretation or ‘framing’” and says the project reflected “a displacement of historical understanding by ideology.” Wilentz and his fellow signatories didn’t just dispute the Times Magazine’s interpretation of past events, but demanded corrections.
In the age of social-media invective, a strongly worded letter might not seem particularly significant. But given the stature of the historians involved, the letter is a serious challenge to the credibility of the 1619 Project, which has drawn its share not just of admirers but also critics.
Nevertheless, some historians who declined to sign the letter wondered whether the letter was intended less to resolve factual disputes than to discredit laymen who had challenged an interpretation of American national identity that is cherished by liberals and conservatives alike.
“I think had any of the scholars who signed the letter contacted me or contacted the Times with concerns [before sending the letter], we would’ve taken those concerns very seriously,” Hannah-Jones said. “And instead there was kind of a campaign to kind of get people to sign on to a letter that was attempting really to discredit the entire project without having had a conversation.”
Underlying each of the disagreements in the letter is not just a matter of historical fact but a conflict about whether Americans, from the Founders to the present day, are committed to the ideals they claim to revere. And while some of the critiques can be answered with historical fact, others are questions of interpretation grounded in perspective and experience.
In fact, the harshness of the Wilentz letter may obscure the extent to which its authors and the creators of the 1619 Project share a broad historical vision. Both sides agree, as many of the project’s right-wing critics do not, that slavery’s legacy still shapes American life—an argument that is less radical than it may appear at first glance. If you think anti-black racism still shapes American society, then you are in agreement with the thrust of the 1619 Project, though not necessarily with all of its individual arguments.
The clash between the Times authors and their historian critics represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society. Was America founded as a slavocracy, and are current racial inequities the natural outgrowth of that? Or was America conceived in liberty, a nation haltingly redeeming itself through its founding principles? These are not simple questions to answer, because the nation’s pro-slavery and anti-slavery tendencies are so closely intertwined.
The letter is rooted in a vision of American history as a slow, uncertain march toward a more perfect union. The 1619 Project, and Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay in particular, offer a darker vision of the nation, in which Americans have made less progress than they think, and in which black people continue to struggle indefinitely for rights they may never fully realize. Inherent in that vision is a kind of pessimism, not about black struggle but about the sincerity and viability of white anti-racism. It is a harsh verdict, and one of the reasons the 1619 Project has provoked pointed criticism alongside praise.
Americans need to believe that, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, the arc of history bends toward justice. And they are rarely kind to those who question whether it does.
Most Americans still learn very little about the lives of the enslaved, or how the struggle over slavery shaped a young nation. Last year, the Southern Poverty Law Center found that few American high-school students know that slavery was the cause of the Civil War, that the Constitution protected slavery without explicitly mentioning it, or that ending slavery required a constitutional amendment.
“The biggest obstacle to teaching slavery effectively in America is the deep, abiding American need to conceive of and understand our history as ‘progress,’ as the story of a people and a nation that always sought the improvement of mankind, the advancement of liberty and justice, the broadening of pursuits of happiness for all,” the Yale historian David Blight wrote in the introduction to the report. “While there are many real threads to this story—about immigration, about our creeds and ideologies, and about race and emancipation and civil rights, there is also the broad, untidy underside.”
In conjunction with the Pulitzer Center, the Times has produced educational materials based on the 1619 Project for students—one of the reasons Wilentz told me he and his colleagues wrote the letter. But the materials are intended to enhance traditional curricula, not replace them. “I think that there is a misunderstanding that this curriculum is meant to replace all of U.S. history,” Silverstein told me. “It’s being used as supplementary material for teaching American history.” Given the state of American education on slavery, some kind of adjustment is sorely needed.
Published 400 years after the first Africans were brought to in Virginia, the project asked readers to consider “what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year.” The special issue of the Times Magazine included essays from the Princeton historian Kevin Kruse, who argued that sprawl in Atlanta is a consequence of segregation and white flight; the Times columnist Jamelle Bouie, who posited that American countermajoritarianism was shaped by pro-slavery politicians seeking to preserve the peculiar institution; and the journalist Linda Villarosa, who traced racist stereotypes about higher pain tolerance in black people from the 18th century to the present day. The articles that drew the most attention and criticism, though, were Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay chronicling black Americans’ struggle to “make democracy real” and the sociologist Matthew Desmond’s essay linking the crueler aspects of American capitalism to the labor practices that arose under slavery.
The letter’s signatories recognize the problem the Times aimed to remedy, Wilentz told me. “Each of us, all of us, think that the idea of the 1619 Project is fantastic. I mean, it’s just urgently needed. The idea of bringing to light not only scholarship but all sorts of things that have to do with the centrality of slavery and of racism to American history is a wonderful idea,” he said. In a subsequent interview, he said, “Far from an attempt to discredit the 1619 Project, our letter is intended to help it.”
The letter disputes a passage in Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay, which lauds the contributions of black people to making America a full democracy and says that “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery” as abolitionist sentiment began rising in Britain.
This argument is explosive. From abolition to the civil-rights movement, activists have reached back to the rhetoric and documents of the founding era to present their claims to equal citizenship as consonant with the American tradition. The Wilentz letter contends that the 1619 Project’s argument concedes too much to slavery’s defenders, likening it to South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun’s assertion that “there is not a word of truth” in the Declaration of Independence’s famous phrase that “all men are created equal.” Where Wilentz and his colleagues see the rising anti-slavery movement in the colonies and its influence on the Revolution as a radical break from millennia in which human slavery was accepted around the world, Hannah-Jones’ essay outlines how the ideology of white supremacy that sustained slavery still endures today.
“To teach children that the American Revolution was fought in part to secure slavery would be giving a fundamental misunderstanding not only of what the American Revolution was all about but what America stood for and has stood for since the Founding,” Wilentz told me. Anti-slavery ideology was a “very new thing in the world in the 18th century,” he said, and “there was more anti-slavery activity in the colonies than in Britain.”
Hannah-Jones hasn’t budged from her conviction that slavery helped fuel the Revolution. “I do still back up that claim,” she told me last week—before Silverstein’s rebuttal was published—although she says she phrased it too strongly in her essay, in a way that might mislead readers into thinking that support for slavery was universal. “I think someone reading that would assume that this was the case: all 13 colonies and most people involved. And I accept that criticism, for sure.” She said that as the 1619 Project is expanded into a history curriculum and published in book form, the text will be changed to make sure claims are properly contextualized.
On this question, the critics of the 1619 Project are on firm ground. Although some southern slave owners likely were fighting the British to preserve slavery, as Silverstein writes in his rebuttal, the Revolution was kindled in New England, where prewar anti-slavery sentiment was strongest. Early patriots like James Otis, John Adams, and Thomas Paine were opposed to slavery, and the Revolution helped fuel abolitionism in the North.
Historians who are in neither Wilentz’s camp nor the 1619 Project’s say both have a point. “I do not agree that the American Revolution was just a slaveholders’ rebellion,” Manisha Sinha, a history professor at the University of Connecticut and the author of The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition, told me.* “But also understand that the original Constitution did give some ironclad protections to slavery without mentioning it.”
The most radical thread in the 1619 Project is not its contention that slavery’s legacy continues to shape American institutions; it’s the authors’ pessimism that a majority of white people will abandon racism and work with black Americans toward a more perfect union. Every essay tracing racial injustice from slavery to the present day speaks to the endurance of racial caste. And it is this profound pessimism about white America that many of the 1619 Project’s critics find most galling.
Newt Gingrich called the 1619 Project a “lie,” arguing that “there were several hundred thousand white Americans who died in the Civil War in order to free the slaves.” In City Journal, the historian Allen Guelzo dismissed the Times Magazine project as a “conspiracy theory” developed from the “chair of ultimate cultural privilege in America, because in no human society has an enslaved people suddenly found itself vaulted into positions of such privilege, and with the consent—even the approbation—of those who were once the enslavers.” The conservative pundit Erick Erickson went so far as to accuse the Times of adopting “the Neo-Confederate world view” that the “South actually won the Civil War by weaving itself into the fabric of post war society so it can then discredit the entire American enterprise.” Erickson’s bizarre sleight of hand turns the 1619 Project’s criticism of ongoing racial injustice into a brief for white supremacy.
The project’s pessimism has drawn criticism from the left as well as the right. Hannah-Jones’s contention that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country” drew a rebuke from James Oakes, one of the Wilentz letter’s signatories. In an interview with the World Socialist Web Site, Oakes said, “The function of those tropes is to deny change over time … The worst thing about it is that it leads to political paralysis. It’s always been here. There’s nothing we can do to get out of it. If it’s the DNA, there’s nothing you can do. What do you do? Alter your DNA?”
These are objections not to misstatements of historical fact, but to the argument that anti-black racism is a more intractable problem than most Americans are willing to admit. A major theme of the 1619 Project is that the progress that has been made has been fragile and reversible—and has been achieved in spite of the nation’s true founding principles, which are not the lofty ideals few Americans genuinely believe in. Chances are, what you think of the 1619 Project depends on whether you believe someone might reasonably come to such a despairing conclusion—whether you agree with it or not.
Wilentz reached out to a larger group of historians, but ultimately sent a letter signed by five historians who had publicly criticized the 1619 Project in interviews with the World Socialist Web Site. He told me that the idea of trying to rally a larger group was “misconceived,” citing the holiday season and the end of the semester, among other factors. (A different letter written by Wilentz, calling for the impeachment of President Donald Trump, quickly amassed hundreds of signatures last week.) The refusal of other historians to sign on, despite their misgivings about some claims made by the 1619 Project, speaks to a divide over whether the letter was focused on correcting specific factual inaccuracies or aimed at discrediting the project more broadly.
Sinha saw an early version of the letter that was circulated among a larger group of historians. But, despite her disagreement with some of the assertions in the 1619 Project, she said she wouldn’t have signed it if she had been asked to. “There are legitimate critiques that one can engage in discussion with, but for them to just kind of dismiss the entire project in that manner, I thought, was really unwise,” she said. “It was a worthy thing to actually shine a light on a subject that the average person on the street doesn’t know much about.”
Although the letter writers deny that their objections are merely matters of “interpretation or ‘framing,’” the question of whether black Americans have fought their freedom struggles “largely alone,” as Hannah-Jones put it in her essay, is subject to vigorous debate. Viewed through the lens of major historical events—from anti-slavery Quakers organizing boycotts of goods produced through slave labor, to abolitionists springing fugitive slaves from prison, to union workers massing at the March on Washington—the struggle for black freedom has been an interracial struggle. Frederick Douglass had William Garrison; W. E. B. Du Bois had Moorfield Storey; Martin Luther King Jr. had Stanley Levison.
“The fight for black freedom is a universal fight; it’s a fight for everyone. In the end, it affected the fight for women’s rights—everything. That’s the glory of it,” Wilentz told me. “To minimize that in any way is, I think, bad for understanding the radical tradition in America.”
But looking back to the long stretches of night before the light of dawn broke—the centuries of slavery and the century of Jim Crow that followed—“largely alone” seems more than defensible. Douglass had Garrison, but the onetime Maryland slave had to go north to find him. The millions who continued to labor in bondage until 1865 struggled, survived, and resisted far from the welcoming arms of northern abolitionists.
“I think one would be very hard-pressed to look at the factual record from 1619 to the present of the black freedom movement and come away with any conclusion other than that most of the time, black people did not have a lot of allies in that movement,” Hannah-Jones told me. “It is not saying that black people only fought alone. It is saying that most of the time we did.”
Nell Irvin Painter, a professor emeritus of history at Princeton who was asked to sign the letter, had objected to the 1619 Project’s portrayal of the arrival of African laborers in 1619 as slaves. The 1619 Project was not history “as I would write it,” Painter told me. But she still declined to sign the Wilentz letter.
“I felt that if I signed on to that, I would be signing on to the white guy’s attack of something that has given a lot of black journalists and writers a chance to speak up in a really big way. So I support the 1619 Project as kind of a cultural event,” Painter said. “For Sean and his colleagues, true history is how they would write it. And I feel like he was asking me to choose sides, and my side is 1619’s side, not his side, in a world in which there are only those two sides.”
This was a recurrent theme among historians I spoke with who had seen the letter but declined to sign it. While they may have agreed with some of the factual objections in the letter or had other reservations of their own, several told me they thought the letter was an unnecessary escalation.
“The tone to me rather suggested a deep-seated concern about the project. And by that I mean the version of history the project offered. The deep-seated concern is that placing the enslavement of black people and white supremacy at the forefront of a project somehow diminishes American history,” Thavolia Glymph, a history professor at Duke who was asked to sign the letter, told me. “Maybe some of their factual criticisms are correct. But they’ve set a tone that makes it hard to deal with that.”
“I don’t think they think they’re trying to discredit the project,” Painter said. “They think they’re trying to fix the project, the way that only they know how.”
Historical interpretations are often contested, and those debates often reflect the perspective of the participants. To this day, the pro-Confederate “Lost Cause” intepretation of history shapes the mistaken perception that slavery was not the catalyst for the Civil War. For decades, a group of white historians known as the Dunning School, after the Columbia University historian William Archibald Dunning, portrayed Reconstruction as a tragic period of, in his words, the “scandalous misrule of the carpet-baggers and negroes,” brought on by the misguided enfranchisement of black men. As the historian Eric Foner has written, the Dunning School and its interpretation of Reconstruction helped provide moral and historical cover for the Jim Crow system.
In Black Reconstruction in America, W. E. B. Du Bois challenged the consensus of “white historians” who “ascribed the faults and failures of Reconstruction to Negro ignorance and corruption,” and offered what is now considered a more reliable account of the era as an imperfect but noble effort to build a multiracial democracy in the South.
To Wilentz, the failures of earlier scholarship don’t illustrate the danger of a monochromatic group of historians writing about the American past, but rather the risk that ideologues can hijack the narrative. “[It was] when the southern racists took over the historical profession that things changed, and W. E. B. Du Bois fought a very, very courageous fight against all of that,” Wilentz told me. The Dunning School, he said, was “not a white point of view; it’s a southern, racist point of view.”
In the letter, Wilentz portrays the authors of the 1619 Project as ideologues as well. He implies—apparently based on a combative but ambiguous exchange between Hannah-Jones and the writer Wesley Yang on Twitter—that she had discounted objections raised by “white historians” since publication.
Hannah-Jones told me she was misinterpreted. “I rely heavily on the scholarship of historians no matter what race, and I would never discount the work of any historian because that person is white or any other race,” she told me. “I did respond to someone who was saying white scholars were afraid, and I think my point was that history is not objective. And that people who write history are not simply objective arbiters of facts, and that white scholars are no more objective than any other scholars, and that they can object to the framing and we can object to their framing as well.”
When I asked Wilentz about Hannah-Jones’s clarification, he was dismissive. “Fact and objectivity are the foundation of both honest journalism and honest history. And so to dismiss it, to say, ‘No, I’m not really talking about whites’—well, she did, and then she takes it back in those tweets and then says it’s about the inability of anybody to write objective history. That’s objectionable too,” Wilentz told me.
Both Du Bois and the Dunning School saw themselves as having reached the truth by objective means. But as a target of the Dunning School’s ideology, Du Bois understood the motives and blind spots of Dunning School scholars far better than they themselves did.
“We shall never have a science of history until we have in our colleges men who regard the truth as more important than the defense of the white race,” Du Bois wrote, “and who will not deliberately encourage students to gather thesis material in order to support a prejudice or buttress a lie.”
The problem, as Du Bois argued, is that much of American history has been written by scholars offering ideological claims in place of rigorous historical analysis. But which claims are ideological, and which ones are objective, is not always easy to discern.
*An earlier version of this article contained an incorrect title for historian Manisha Sinha’s book.
Adam Serwer is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers politics.
African American imaginings of Africa often intermingle with–and help illuminate–intimate hopes and desires for Black life in the United States. So when an African American pop star offers an extended meditation on Africa, the resulting work reflects not just her particular visions of the continent and its diaspora, but also larger aspirations for a collective Black future.
Black is King, Beyoncé’s elaborate, new marriage of music video and movie, is a finely-textured collage of cultural meaning. Though it is not possible, in the scope of this essay, to interpret the film’s full array of metaphors, one may highlight certain motifs and attempt to grasp their social implications.
An extravagant technical composition, Black is King is also a pastiche of symbols and ideologies. It belongs to a venerable African American tradition of crafting images of Africa that are designed to redeem the entire Black world. The film’s depiction of luminous, dignified Black bodies and lush landscapes is a retort to the contemptuous West and to its condescending discourses of African danger, disease and degeneration.
Black is King rebukes those tattered, colonialist tropes while evoking the spirit of Pan African unity. It falls short, however, as a portrait of popular liberation. In a sense, the picture is a sophisticated work of political deception. Its aesthetic of African majesty seems especially emancipatory in a time of coronavirus, murderous cops and vulgar Black death. One is almost tempted to view the film as another iteration of the principles of mass solidarity and resistance that galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement.
But Black is King is neither radical nor fundamentally liberatory. Its vision of Africa as a site of splendor and spiritual renewal draws on both postcolonial ideals of modernity and mystical notions of a premodern past. Yet for all its ingenuity, the movie remains trapped within the framework of capitalist decadence that has fabulously enriched its producer and principal performer, Beyoncé herself. Far from exotic, the film’s celebration of aristocracy and its equation of power and status with the consumption of luxury goods exalts the system of class exploitation that continues to degrade Black life on both sides of the Atlantic.
That said, the politics of Black is King are complicated. The picture is compelling precisely because it appears to subvert the logic of global white supremacy. Its affirming representations of Blackness and its themes of ebony kinship will resonate with many viewers, but will hold special significance for African Americans, for whom Africa remains an abiding source of inspiration and identity. Indeed, Black is King seems purposefully designed to appeal to diasporic sensibilities within African American culture.
At the heart of the production lies the idea of a fertile and welcoming homeland. Black is King presents Africa as a realm of possibility. It plays on the African American impulse to sentimentalize the continent as a sanctuary from racial strife and as a source of purity and regeneration. Though the movie does not explicitly address the prospect of African American return or “repatriation” to Africa, allusions to such a reunion shape many of its scenes. No doubt some African American viewers will discover in the film the allure of a psychological escape to a glorious mother continent, a place where lost bonds of ancestry and culture are magically restored.
The problem is not just that such an Africa does not exist. All historically displaced groups romanticize “the old country.” African Americans who idealize “the Motherland” are no different in this respect. But by portraying Africa as the site of essentially harmonious civilizations, Black is King becomes the latest cultural product to erase the realities of class relations on the continent. That deletion, which few viewers are likely to notice, robs the picture of whatever potential it may have had to inspire a concrete Pan African solidarity based on recognition of the shared conditions of dispossession that mark Black populations at home and abroad.
To understand the contradictions of Black is King, one must examine the class dynamics hidden beneath its spectacles of African nobility. The movie, which depicts a young boy’s circuitous journey to the throne, embodies Afrocentrism’s fascination with monarchical authority. It is not surprising that African Americans should embrace regal images of Africa, a continent that is consistently misrepresented and denigrated in the West. Throughout their experience of subjugation in the New World, Black people have sought to construct meaningful paradigms of African affinity. Not infrequently, they have done so by claiming royal lineage or by associating themselves with dynastic Egypt, Ethiopia and other imperial civilizations.
The danger of such vindicationist narratives is that they mask the repressive character of highly stratified societies. Ebony royals are still royals. They exercise the prerogatives of hereditary rule. And invariably, the subjects over whom they reign, and whose lives they control, are Black. African Americans, one should recall, also hail from the ranks of a service class. They have good cause to eschew models of rigid social hierarchy and to pursue democratic themes in art and politics. Black is King hardly empowers them by portraying monarchy as a symbol of grandeur rather than as a system of coercion.
There are other troubling allusions in the film. One scene casts Beyoncé and her family members as African oligarchs. The characters signal their opulence by inhabiting a sprawling mansion complete with servants, marble statues and manicured lawns. Refinement is the intended message. Yet the conspicuous consumption, the taste for imported luxury products, the mimicry of European high culture and the overall display of ostentation call to mind the lifestyles of a notorious generation of postcolonial African dictators. Many of these Cold War rulers amassed vast personal wealth while their compatriots wallowed in poverty. Rising to power amid the drama of African independence, they nevertheless facilitated the reconquest of the continent by Western financial interests.
Black is King does not depict any particular historical figures from this stratum of African elites. (Some of the movie’s costumes pair leopard skin prints with finely tailored suits in a style that is reminiscent of flamboyant statesmen such as Mobutu Sese Seko of the Congo.) However, by presenting the African leisure class as an object of adulation, the film glamorizes private accumulation and the kind of empty materialism that defined the comprador officials who oversaw Africa’s descent into neocolonial dependency.
Black is King is, of course, a Disney venture. One would hardly expect a multinational corporation to sponsor a radical critique of social relations in the Global South. (It is worth mentioning that in recent years the Disney Company has come under fire for allowing some of its merchandise to be produced in Chinese sweatshops.) Small wonder that Disney and Beyoncé, herself a stupendously rich mogul, have combined to sell western audiences a lavishly fabricated Africa—one that is entirely devoid of class conflict.
Anticolonial theorist Frantz Fanon once warned, in a chapter titled “The Pitfalls of National Consciousness,” that the African postcolonial bourgeoisie would manipulate the symbols of Black cultural and political autonomy to advance its own narrow agenda. Black is King adds a new twist to the scenario. This time an African American megastar and entrepreneur has appropriated African nationalist and Pan Africanist imagery to promote the spirit of global capitalism.
In the end, Black is King must be read as a distinctly African American fantasy of Africa. It is a compendium of popular ideas about the continent as seen by Black westerners. The Africa of this evocation is natural and largely unspoiled. It is unabashedly Black. It is diverse but not especially complex, for an aura of camaraderie supersedes its ethnic, national and religious distinctions. This Africa is a tableau. It is a repository for the Black diaspora’s psychosocial ambitions and dreams of transnational belonging.
What the Africa of Black is King is not is ontologically African. Perhaps the African characters and dancers who populate its scenes are more than just props. But Beyoncé is the picture’s essential subject, and it is largely through her eyes—which is to say, western eyes—that we observe the people of the continent. If the extras in the film are elegant, they are also socially subordinate. Their role is to adorn the mostly African American elites to whom the viewer is expected to relate.
There are reasons to relish the pageantry of Black is King, especially in a time of acute racial trauma. Yet the movie’s mystique of cultural authenticity and benevolent monarchy should not obscure the material realities of everyday life. Neoliberal governance, extractive capitalism and militarism continue to spawn social and ecological devastation in parts of Africa, the Americas and beyond. Confronting those interwoven realities means developing a concrete, global analysis while resisting metaphysical visions of the world.
Russell Rickford is an associate professor of history at Cornell University. He is the author of ‘We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination.’ A specialist on the Black Radical Tradition, he teaches about social movements, black transnationalism, and African-American political culture after World War Two. Follow him on Twitter @RickfordRussell.
A história da minha educação para o racismo me diz que fui racializada como branca para ser racista.
Sou branca e fui criada como branca. Mais do que isso, fui educada para saber identificar os fenótipos das pessoas negras, de modo a estabelecer rigorosas distinções entre pessoas brancas, pessoas então chamadas de “mulatas” e pessoas negras. Cresci aprendendo que pessoas negras são sujas e que a cor preta estava associada ao nojo, ao abjeto. Na escola progressista em que estudei, havia apenas duas pessoas negras, ambas filhas de funcionários. Durante décadas, escutei a exaltação dos ancestrais portugueses e italianos, que nos legaram pele branca, cabelos lisos e, no meu caso, olhos azuis, joia rara na família e objeto de disputa como signo da herança materna portuguesa ou da herança paterna italiana.
Fui ensinada a ser superior porque branca, embora a superioridade de uma mulher branca de família pequeno burguesa estivesse fundamentada na cor, não em privilégios de classe ou gênero. Quando analiso para a minha educação para ser racista, vejo retrospectivamente que as pessoas brancas da minha família de imigrantes pobres talvez precisassem afirmar o privilégio de cor para escapar da subalternidade justo por não terem o privilégio de classe.
Por isso, inclusive, além de racistas, eram também classistas e repetiam os estereótipos que o racismo usa ainda hoje: pessoas pretas e pobres são igualmente perigosas, eventualmente preguiçosas, embora as mulheres negras tenham sido sempre alocadas nos trabalhos braçais do cuidado da casa e no cuidado de crianças. Esta divisão marcou a minha infância. Quando criança, nunca entendi a divisão subjetiva entre não poder gostar de pessoas pretas e adorar a mulher preta que cuidava de mim quando minha mãe não estava.
Há muito tempo quero escrever sobre minha experiência pessoal de ter sido educada para ser racista e, portanto, ter chegado à vida adulta naturalizando a desigualdade racial. Do debate que se seguiu ao artigo de Lilia Schwarcz a respeito do novo vídeo da Beyoncé, foi o texto de Lia Vainer Schucman que me motivou a escrever. Isso porque considero o argumento dela irrefutável: “nossa racialidade está sendo marcada, algo que acontece há alguns séculos com negros e indígenas no Brasil, ou seja: é quando o grupo antecede o indivíduo (o que nomeamos de processo de racialização).” A história da minha educação para o racismo me diz que fui racializada como branca para ser racista. Já Schucman defende uma racialização que, como reconhecimento de que todas as pessoas são marcadas, poderia nos levar ao fim do racismo. Parece contraditório, eu sei, mas vamos lá.
Há muitos anos tenho trabalhado para desconstruir as camadas de racismo que me foram sobrepostas. Aqui, uso o verbo descontruir como foi proposto pelo filósofo franco-argelino Jacques Derrida, a quem dediquei minhas pesquisas de mestrado e doutorado e com quem comecei a aprender que quem fala, o faz a partir de algum lugar. Isso porque um dos objetivos da desconstrução é a crítica à suposição da neutralidade dos discursos, que serve como anteparo a todas as premissas ocultas que os discursos de saber-poder contém.
Como mulher, experimentei inúmeras vezes – e infelizmente ainda experimento – a diferença de poder entre o discurso masculino de autoridade e o meu. Como pesquisadora, fui aprendendo a perceber e denunciar que esse discurso masculino obtém sua autoridade de uma suposição de neutralidade do saber. Daí para a leitura da filósofa Donna Haraway e seu clássico “Saberes localizados” foi um passo curto. No ensaio, Haraway desconstrói a suposição de neutralidade do discurso da ciência e confere às feministas a responsabilidade de produzir conhecimento como saber situado. É o que venho tentando fazer há algum tempo, tanto na minha escrita quanto no meu trabalho de orientadora de pesquisas acadêmicas que, muitas vezes, procuram a neutralidade em busca de autoridade, mesmo que para isso acabe abrindo mão da autoria do texto.
Neste processo, ainda em curso, precisei aprender que branco também é cor. Enxergar-se branca é enxergar-se marcada pela própria branquitude. É este aspecto que me mobiliza no debate sobre lugar de fala: a desconstrução da suposição de neutralidade de qualquer discurso. Quem continua pretendendo se ver como neutro ou neutra é quem, por acreditar que não tem cor, pode continuar oprimindo – seja as pessoas negras, seja as pessoas brancas subalternizadas – por uma suposta neutralidade do saber.
Não por acaso, o livro de Djamila Ribeiro (“O que é lugar de fala”, editora Letramento, 2017) tem como epígrafe trecho de um artigo de Lélia Gonzalez: “Exatamente porque temos sido falados, infantilizados (infans é aquele que não tem fala própria, é a criança que se fala na terceira pessoa, porque falada pelos adultos) que neste trabalho assumimos nossa própria fala. Ou seja, o lixo vai falar, e numa boa.”
Aqui posso fazer Djamila e Lélia conversarem com Achille Mbembe de “Crítica da razão negra” (N-1 Edições, 2019), em que ele divide a razão negra em dois momentos: o primeiro, o da consciência ocidental do negro, orientando pela interpelação do colonizador com perguntas como “quem é ele?; como o reconhecemos?; o que o diferencia de nós? poderá ele tornar-se nosso semelhante? como governá-lo e a que fins?”. No segundo momento, Mbembe percebe que as perguntas são as mesmas, a mudança está em quem as enuncia: “Quem sou eu?; serei eu, de verdade, quem dizem que eu sou?; Será verdade que não sou nada além disto – minha aparência, aquilo que se diz de mim?; Qual o meu verdadeiro estado civil e histórico?”.
Quando me reconheço portadora de uma cor – branca – também posso enunciar estas perguntas, de tal modo a não precisar mais sustentar a posição de ter que repetir ao outro as perguntas do colonizador. Eu sou branca, e quanto a isso não há opção. Mas quanto a continuar sendo herdeira da violência da tradição colonizadora, acredito que haja escolha possível e que esta passa pelo desejo de cura da ferida colonial.
Retomo então minha experiência. Foi o racismo que me ensinou que sou branca. Fui marcada como branca a fim de que esta marcação funcionasse como signo de superioridade. Mas a mim hoje parece fácil perceber que a necessidade de marcação de superioridade só existe para aquele que se sente inferior, que se sabe fora do lugar de superioridade que almeja. Numa formação social marcada pela violência colonial, sobreviver é, entre tantas outras coisas, escapar do lugar de subalternidade.
Refletir sobre a experiência de ter sido marcada com a cor branca me ajudou a fazer a distinção que estou propondo aqui entre suposição de neutralidade do branco – a “branquitude” que não pretende se assumir como tal – e a admissão de que branco também é uma cor, uma marcação ou, para falar em termos interseccionais, um marcador que, se existe negativamente para a pessoa negra no racismo estrutural da sociedade brasileira, existe positivamente para a pessoa branca.
Com essa diferença, esboço uma hipótese: a maior rejeição à ideia de que todo discurso é situado, e que certos discursos estão autorizados por estarem situados a partir de um lugar de poder, e outros estão desautorizados por estarem situados fora desses lugares, a maior reação vem de quem ainda não vê a sua branquitude por se acreditar “neutra”. Para isso, é preciso negar que branco seja cor. É desse lugar de neutro que intelectuais, mesmos os/as mais respeitados/as, parecem não poder abrir mão. E aí caem na pior armadilha: “sou branco/a mas sou legal” (uma espécie de versão atualizada de “tenho até amigo gay”).
Fui racializada como branca porque fui educada para ser racista, o que me obrigou a assumir a minha cor e a carregar com ela o peso do racismo estrutural brasileiro. Se hoje penso, escrevo, pesquiso e ensino contra o racismo é por não suportar mais o sofrimento de viver num país em que pessoas negras são brutalmente excluídas, violentadas e exterminadas em nome da minha suposta superioridade branca. Esta é a cor da minha pele. Já o meu desejo tem sido destruir o racismo que me impôs uma suposição de superioridade branca na qual não me reconheço.
Carla Rodrigues é professora de Ética no Departamento de Filosofia da UFRJ, pesquisadora do Programa de Pós-Graduação em Filosofia e bolsista de produtividade da Faperj.
WALLAGARAUGH, Australia — Bruce Pascoe stood near the ancient crops he has written about for years and discussed the day’s plans with a handful of workers. Someone needed to check on the yam daisy seedlings. A few others would fix up a barn or visitor housing.
Most of them were Yuin men, from the Indigenous group that called the area home for thousands of years, and Pascoe, who describes himself as “solidly Cornish” and “solidly Aboriginal,” said inclusion was the point. The farm he owns on a remote hillside a day’s drive from Sydney and Melbourne aims to correct for colonization — to ensure that a boom in native foods, caused in part by his book, “Dark Emu,” does not become yet another example of dispossession.
“I became concerned that while the ideas were being accepted, the inclusion of Aboriginal people in the industry was not,” he said. “Because that’s what Australia has found hard, including Aboriginal people in anything.”
The lessons Pascoe, 72, seeks to impart by bringing his own essays to life — and to dinner tables — go beyond appropriation. He has argued that the Indigenous past should be a guidebook for the future, and the popularity of his work in recent years points to a hunger for the alternative he describes: a civilization where the land and sea are kept healthy through cooperation, where resources are shared with neighbors, where kindness even extends to those who seek to conquer.
“What happened in Australia was a real high point in human development,” he said. “We need to go back there.” Writing, he added, can only do so much.
“Dark Emu” is where he laid out his case. Published in 2014 and reissued four years later, the book sparked a national reconsideration of Australian history by arguing that the continent’s first peoples were sophisticated farmers, not roaming nomads.
Australia’s education system tended to emphasize the struggle and pluck of settlers. “Dark Emu” shifted the gaze, pointing to peaceful towns and well-tended land devastated by European aggression and cattle grazing. In a nation of 25 million people, the book has sold more than 260,000 copies.
Pascoe admits he relied on the work of formal historians, especially Rupert Gerritsen, who wrote about the origins of agriculture, and Bill Gammage, whose well-regarded tome, “The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia” (2012), tracked similar territory. Both books cited early settlers’ journals for evidence of Aboriginal achievement. Both argued that Aboriginal people managed nature in a more systematic and scientific fashion than most people realized, from fish traps to grains.
What made Pascoe’s version a best seller remains a contentious mystery.
Critics, including Andrew Bolt, a conservative commentator for News Corp Australia, have accused Pascoe of seeking attention and wealth by falsely claiming to be Aboriginal while peddling what they call an “anti-Western fantasy.”
Asked by email why he’s focused on Pascoe in around a dozen newspaper columns since November, Bolt replied: “Have fun talking to white man and congratulating yourself on being so broad-minded as to believe him black.”
Pascoe said “Bolty” is obsessed with him and struggles with nuance. He’s offered to buy him a beer, discuss it at the pub and thank him: “Dark Emu” sales have doubled since Bolt’s campaign against Pascoe intensified.
His fans argue that kind of banter exemplifies why he and his book have succeeded. His voice, honed over decades of teaching, writing fiction and poetry — and telling stories over beers — is neither that of an academic nor a radical. He’s a lyrical essayist, informative and sly.
To some Aboriginal readers, he’s too Eurocentric, with his emphasis on sedentary agriculture. “It is insulting that Pascoe attempts to liken our culture to European culture, disregarding our own unique and complex way of life,” wrote Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, a politician in the Northern Territory who identifies as Warlpiri/Celtic, last year on Facebook.
To others, Pascoe opens a door to mutual respect.
“He writes with such beautiful descriptions that let you almost see it,” said Penny Smallacombe, the head of Indigenous content for Screen Australia, which is producing a documentary version of “Dark Emu.” “It follows Bruce going on this journey.”
A telling example: Pascoe’s take on early explorers like Thomas Mitchell. He introduced Mitchell in “Dark Emu” as “an educated and sensitive man, and great company.” Later, he darkened the portrait: “His prejudice hides from him the fact that he is a crucial agent in the complete destruction of Aboriginal society.”
At the farm, tugging at his long white beard, Mr. Pascoe said he wanted to guide more than scold, letting people learn along with him. It’s apparently an old habit. He grew up working-class around Melbourne — his father was a carpenter — and after university taught at a school in rural Mallacoota, just down the winding river from where he now lives. He spent years guiding farm kids through “The Grapes of Wrath” while writing at night and editing a fiction quarterly, “Australian Short Stories,” with his wife Lyn Harwood.
In his 30s, he said he started to explore his heritage after recalling a childhood experience when an Aboriginal neighbor yelled that she knew who his real family was so it was no use trying to hide. Talking to relatives and scouring records, he found Indigenous connections on his mother and father’s side. His publisher, Magabala, now describes him as “a writer of Tasmanian, Bunurong and Yuin descent.”
“Dark Emu” followed more than two dozen other books — fiction, poetry, children’s tales and essay collections. Pascoe said he had a hunch it would be his breakthrough, less because of his own talent than because Australia was, as he was, grappling with the legacy of the past.
In 2008, a year after his book about Australia’s colonial massacres, “Convincing Ground,” Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized to Indigenous people on behalf of the government. In the months before “Dark Emu” was published, all of Australia seemed to be debating whether Adam Goodes, an Aboriginal star who played Australian football for the Sydney Swans, was right to condemn a 13-year-old girl who had called him an ape.
“There was just this feeling in the country that there’s this unfinished business,” Pascoe said. Pointing to the protests in the United States and elsewhere over racism and policing, he said that much of the world is still trying to dismantle a colonial ideology that insisted white Christian men have dominion over everything.
The deep past can help by highlighting that “the way Europeans think is not the only way to think,” he said.
Pascoe now plans to make room for a dozen people working or visiting his 140-acre farm. Teaming up with academics, Aboriginal elders and his wife and his son, Jack, who has a Ph.D. in ecology, he’s set up Black Duck Foods to sell what they grow.
The bush fires of last summer slowed them all down — Pascoe spent two weeks sleeping in his volunteer firefighter gear and battling blazes — but the small team recently completed a harvest. Over lunch, Pascoe showed me a container of the milled grain from the dancing grass, shaking out the scent of a deep tangy rye.
Out back, just behind his house, yams were sprouting, their delicate stems making them look like a weed — easy for the untrained eye to overlook, in the 18th century or the 21st.
Terry Hayes, a Yuin employee, explained that they grow underground in bunches. “If there are five, you’ll take four and leave the biggest one,” he said. “So they keep growing.”
That collective mind-set is what Pascoe longs to cultivate. He likes to imagine the first Australians who became neighbors, sitting around a fire, discussing where to set up their homes and how to work together.
That night, we sat on his porch and watched the sun set. On a white plastic table, in black marker, Pascoe had written Yuin words for what was all around us: jeerung, blue wren; marru, mountain; googoonyella, kookaburra. It was messy linguistics, with dirt and ashtrays on top of the translations — an improvised bridge between times and peoples.
Just like the Pascoe farm.
“I’d love people to come here and find peace,” he said, shaking off the evening chill after a long day of work that did not involve writing. “It would give me a lot of deep satisfaction for other people to enjoy the land.”
Damien Cave is the bureau chief in Sydney, Australia. He previously reported from Mexico City, Havana, Beirut and Baghdad. Since joining The Times in 2004, he has also been a deputy National editor, Miami bureau chief and a Metro reporter. @damiencave A version of this article appears in print on Aug. 21, 2020, Section C, Page 12 of the New York edition with the headline: Building a Future With the Indigenous Past.
NOVA YORK – Adolph Reed é filho do Sul segregado. Nascido em Nova Orleans, ele organizou negros pobres e soldados contra a guerra nos anos 1960 e se tornou um intelectual socialista em universidades de prestígio. Ao longo do tempo, ele se convenceu de que a esquerda está muito focada em raça e pouco em classe. Vitórias duradouras foram alcançadas, ele acredita, quando trabalhadores de todas as raças lutaram ombro a ombro por seus direitos.
Em maio, Reed, de 73 anos, professor emérito da Universidade da Pensilvânia, foi convidado para falar aos Democratas Socialistas da América (DSA), em Nova York. O homem que fez campanha para Bernie Sanders e acusou Barack Obama de promover uma “política neoliberal vazia e repressiva” discursaria à maior seção dos DSA, que formou a deputada Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez e uma nova geração de ativistas de esquerda.
Ele planejava argumentar que o foco da esquerda no impacto desproporcional do coronavírus na população negra minava a organização de uma frente multirracial, o que ele via como chave para a luta por saúde e a justiça econômica.
Como puderam convidar, perguntaram os membros do DSA, um palestrante que minimizava o racismo em tempos de peste e protestos? Deixá-lo falar, afirmava os afrossocialistas, seria “reacionário e reducionista”. “Não podemos ter medo de discutir o racismo só porque o tema pode ser manipulado pelos racistas”, afirmaram. “Isso é covardia e fortalece o capitalismo racial.”
Em meio a boatos de que os opositores interromperiam sua palestra via Zoom, Reed e os líderes do DAS concordaram em cancelar a palestra. A organização socialista mais poderosa do país rejeitou um marxista negro por suas opiniões sobre raça.
– Adolph é o maior teórico democrático de sua geração – disse Cornel West, professor de filosofia de Harvard (e socialista). – Ele assumiu posições impopulares sobre política identitária, mas tem uma trajetória de meio século. Se desistirmos da discussão, o movimento vai ficar mais estreito.
A decisão de silenciar Reed veio num momento que os americanos debatem o racismo na política, no sistema de saúde, na mídia e nas empresas. Esquerdistas que, como Reed, argumentam que há muito foco em raça e pouco em classe numa sociedade profundamente desigual são frequentemente postos de lado. O debate é particularmente caloroso porque os ativistas enxergam, agora, uma oportunidade única de avançar em pautas como violência policial, encarceramento em massa e desigualdade, e em que o socialismo – um movimento predominantemente branco – atrai jovens de diversas origens.
Intelectuais de esquerda argumentam que as desigualdades de renda e de acesso à saúde e também a brutalidade policial são frutos do racismo, a principal ferida americana. Depois de séculos de escravidão e segregação, os negros deveriam lidera a luta antirracista. Colocar essa luta de lado em nome da solidariedade de classe é absurdo, dizem eles.
– Adolph Reed e sua turma acreditam que se falarmos muito sobre raça, vamos alienar muita gente e não conseguiremos construir um movimento – disse Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, professora de estudos afroamericanos na Universidade Princeton e socialista que já palestrou aos DSA e está familiarizada com esses debates. – Não queremos isso, queremos que os brancos entendam como seu racismo prejudicou a vida dos negros.
Reed e outros intelectuais e ativistas proeminentes, muitos deles negros, têm outra visão. Eles veem a ênfase em políticas raciais como um beco sem saída. Entre eles estão West; a historiadora Barbara Fields, da Universidade Columbia; Toure Reed, filho de Adolph, da Universidade Estadual de Illinois; e Bhaskar Sunkara, fundador da revista socialista “Jacobin”.
Eles aceitam a realidade brutal do racismo americano. No entanto, argumentam que os problemas que atormentam os Estados Unidos hoje – desigualdade, violência policial e encarceramento em massa – afetam negros e pardos, mas também os pobres e a classe trabalhadora brancos.
Risco de ‘dividir coalizão’
Os movimentos progressistas mais poderosos, dizem eles, estão enraizados na luta por políticas universais, como as leis que fortaleceram os sindicatos e os programas de incentivo ao emprego do New Deal, e as lutas atuais por educação superior gratuita, valorização do salário mínimo, reforma da polícia e acesso à saúde. Programas como esses ajudariam mais os negros, os latinos e os indígenas, que, em média, têm renda familiar menor e mais problemas de saúde do que os brancos, argumentam Reed e seus aliados. Insistir na questão racial pode dividir uma coalizão potencialmente forte e beneficiar os conservadores.
– Uma obsessão com desigualdade racial colonizou o pensamento da esquerda – disse Reed. – Há uma insistência de que raça e racismo são os determinantes fundamentais da existência dos negros.
Essas batalhas não são novas: no final do século XIX, socialistas enfrentaram seu próprio racismo e debateram a construção de uma organização multirracial. Eugene Debs, que concorreu à presidência cinco vezes, insistiu na defesa da igualdade racial. Questões similares incomodaram o movimento pelos direitos civis nos anos 1960.
A disseminação do vírus mortal e o assassinato de George Floyd por um policial, em Minneapolis, reacenderam o debate, que ganhou um tom geracional à medida que o socialismo atrai jovens dispostos a reformular organizações como os Democratas Socialistas da América, que existe desde os anos 1920. (Uma pesquisa da Gallup indicou que o socialismo é tão popular quanto o capitalismo entre pessoas de 18 a 39 anos.)
O DSA tem mais de 70 mil membros no país e 5,8 mil em Nova York – a média de idade está em torno de 30 e poucos anos. A organização ajudou a eleger candidatos como Ocasio-Cortez e Jamaal Bowman, que venceu um conhecido candidato democrata nas primárias de junho.
Em anos recentes, o DSA já havia recebido Reed como palestrante. No entanto, membros mais jovens, irritados com o isolamento provocado pela Covid-19 e engajados nos protestos contra a violência policial e contra Donald Trump, irritaram-se ao saber que ele havia sido novamente convidado.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, de Princeton, disse que Reed deveria saber que sua palestra sobre Covid-19 e os perigos da obsessão com desigualdade racial soaria como uma “provocação”.
Nada disso surpreendeu Reed, que, ironicamente, descreveu o ocorrido como uma “tempestade em uma xícara de café”. Alguns esquerdistas, disse ele, têm uma “recusa militante a pensar analiticamente”. Reed gosta de duelos intelectuais e, especialmente, de criticar progressistas que ele enxerga como muito amigáveis aos interesses do mercado. Ele escreveu que Bill Clinton e seus seguidores estavam dispostos a “sacrificar os pobres fingindo compaixão” e descreveu o ex-vice-presidente Joe Biden como um homem cujas “misericórdias estavam reservadas aos banqueiros”. Ele acha engraçado ser atacado pela questão racial.
– Eu nunca falo a partir de minha biografia, como se isso fosse um gesto de autenticidade – disse. – Quando meus oponentes dizem que eu não acredito que o racismo seja real, eu penso “OK, isso está estranho”.
Reed e seus camaradas acreditam que a esquerda muitas vezes prefere se envolver em batalhas raciais simbólicas, de estátuas à linguagem, em vez de ficar de olho em mudanças econômicas fundamentais. Melhor seria, eles argumentam, falar do que une brancos e negros. Enquanto há uma vasta disparidade entre americanos brancos e negros no geral, os trabalhadores pobres brancos são muito parecidos com trabalhadores pobres negros no que se refere à renda. Segundo Reed e seus aliados, os políticos do Partido Democrata usam a raça para se esquivar de questões econômicas, como distribuição de renda, o que incomodaria seus doadores ricos.
– Os progressistas usam a política identitária e a raça para conter os apelos por políticas redistributivas – disse Toure Reed, cujo livro “Toward Freedom: The Case Against Race Reductionism” (“Rumo à liberdade: o argumento contra o reducionismo racial”) trata desses assuntos.
Filho de intelectuais itinerantes e radicais, Reed passou sua infância em Nova Orleans e desenvolveu um “ódio especial” pela segregação que havia no Sul. Ainda que ele tenha sentido algum prazer quando Nova Orleans removeu homenagens a personagens históricos racistas, ele prefere um outro tipo de simbolismo. Ele se lembra de, ainda menino, viajar por pequenas cidades do nordeste americano e ver lápides, cobertas de musgo, de soldados brancos que morreram lutando pelos Estados do Norte contra o Sul escravocrata na Guerra Civil.
– Ler aquelas lápides me dava uma sensação calorosa. “Então fulano morreu para que outros homens pudessem ser livres” – disse. – Há algo de muito comovente nisso.
O que mais chocou Hannah Arendt quando, a convite da New Yorker, cobria em 1963 o julgamento de Eichmann foi a incapacidade dos responsáveis pela barbárie do holocausto de pensar. Como seria possível que todos aqueles oficiais nazistas alegassem que estavam apenas seguindo regras, por mais absurdas e cruéis que fossem? E, se estavam obedecendo ordens, até que ponto seriam culpados?
Arendt estava presenciando naqueles dias em Jerusalém uma pergunta que muitos alemães se fizeram após o fim da guerra. Foi a questão que, em 1946, ainda no calor dos acontecimentos, durante o tribunal de Nüremberg, o filósofo e psiquiatra Karl Jaspers, um dos principais mentores e depois grande amigo de Arendt, se coloca no livro A questão da culpa. Indo além do sentido de culpa estritamente penal, Jaspers traz um sentido também moral ligado à responsabilidade que temos perante nossos atos. “Eu, que não posso agir de outro modo a não ser como indivíduo”, escreve Jaspers, “sou moralmente responsável pelos meus atos, incluindo a execução de ordens militares e políticas. Não é simplesmente verdade que ‘ordens são ordens’”.
Mas Jaspers não se indaga apenas sobre a culpa daqueles indivíduos que estavam sendo julgados, mas sobre a responsabilidade de todo o povo alemão diante da barbárie daqueles anos. Para Jaspers, que era casado com uma judia, ainda que nem todos os alemães pudessem ser punidos por crimes de guerra, isso não os blindaria de reconhecer uma parcela de cumplicidade. O silêncio da indiferença, também ele, é político. Justamente aqueles indivíduos que se diziam apolíticos seriam acometidos por aquilo que Jaspers chama de culpa política. É nesse sentido que o ensaio traz uma reflexão autocrítica de responsabilização coletiva dos alemães com vistas à possibilidade de renovação cultural e política.
As reflexões de Arendt e Jaspers, ambas situadas durante processos de julgamentos penais, trazem então duas dimensões distintas da responsabilidade: a individual e a coletiva. O que é extremo naquele contexto representa um dos mais recorrentes dilemas filosóficos — a tensão entre regras que seguimos e a capacidade de nos responsabilizarmos por nossas escolhas. O problema é que, uma vez que várias dessas regras não estão sempre disponíveis à escolha do indivíduo, elas extrapolariam o âmbito da liberdade individual. Elas fariam parte daquilo que Wittgenstein chamou de jogo de linguagem: por tais regras serem socialmente compartilhadas, nosso horizonte de significações e visões de mundo esbarra no vocabulário que encontramos disponível.
Quando eu era criança, o que mais gostava de fazer era criar meus próprios jogos. Inventava as suas regras em detalhes: desenhava as cartas e o tabuleiro, definia as peças e como se ganharia o jogo. Gostava mais desse processo de criação do que dos jogos com regras já definidas. Talvez houvesse ali uma certa preferência pela subversão.
Acontece que criar novas regras sociais não é tão simples quanto a de um jogo para brincar. Várias dessas regras nos antecedem de um modo que sequer é possível participar do jogo se quisermos prescindir delas. É o que Wittgenstein argumenta em sua crítica à linguagem privada: eu já disponho de um vocabulário que não é propriedade minha; nele, não faria sentido nos referirmos a uma linguagem que fosse exclusivamente individual.
É disso que se trata a crítica estrutural. Numa ampla tradição que em grande parte remete a Hegel, o objeto da crítica desloca-se do indivíduo para aquilo que o antecede: Padrões, práticas e hábitos sociais que traçam o horizonte de nossa relação com o mundo e que atravessam até mesmo a constituição de nossos desejos. Tal deslocamento vale desde a nossa referência cotidiana a objetos até a aspectos arraigados em práticas sociais que perpetuam relações de injustiça, como no que se chama de racismo estrutural.
A linguagem que compartilhamos já traz referências a uma semântica e a uma pragmática — um sentido e um uso de palavras e expressões. É o caso do termo “denegrir”, cujo teor racista tem sido alertado de algum tempo para cá. Acontece que enquanto uma pessoa não toma conhecimento deste sentido (não adentra, por assim dizer, o universo semântico implícito na expressão -, não se pode simplesmente acusá-la de usar o termo em um sentido intencionalmente racista. Em outro caso recente, um filho de imigrantes nos Estados Unidos foi fotografado fazendo o gesto de “OK” com a mão. Aparentemente, não haveria problema no gesto, não fosse o fato de ele ter sido apropriado na dark web por movimentos supremacistas brancos. Apesar de não ser possível exigir que ele tivesse consciência dessa apropriação (no caso, aliás, a acusação é ainda mais kafkiana porque ela estava apenas estalando os dedos), bastou uma postagem da foto no Twitter com a marcação da empresa onde ela trabalhava para sua vida virar de cabeça para baixo.
Enquanto há formas estruturais de racismo, qualquer um pode estar sujeito a práticas racistas já incorporadas em hábitos e normas sociais. Se formas de injustiça são estruturais, isso significa que a sociedade como um todo compartilha de uma responsabilidade em transformá-las. Poderíamos dizer, seguindo Jaspers, que o problema reside nas próprias regras a serem seguidas, e que por isso há também uma responsabilização coletiva na mudança delas.
O problema que surge, aqui, é justamente sobre o lugar da responsabilidade do indivíduo tal como posta no contexto extremo dos julgamentos do pós-guerra: Se não somos nós que escolhemos as regras do jogo, o que nos faz responsáveis por segui-las?
Gostaria de sugerir, aqui, duas ideias sobre este problema. A primeira é a de que aquilo que à primeira vista parece ser um limite da crítica estrutural é o que, na verdade, pode ser mais adequado para entender aquilo que cabe à responsabilidade individual; em segundo lugar, que alguns conceitos que tem assumido papel preponderante no debate ligado a pautas identitárias estão esvaziando o potencial da crítica estrutural, pois recam em uma lógica de punitivismo que paradoxalmente acaba por retirar do indivíduo uma dimensão que lhe cabe de responsabilidade.
Tomemos o exemplo do conceito de lugar de fala. O sentido por trás dele, que remete aos trabalhos de Gayatri Spivak, reside na noção de que nem as nossas formas de nos referir ao mundo nem o peso que eles terão no discurso são igualmente compartilhados. Como tem sido amplamente discutido pela literatura pós- e de(s)colonial, trata-se de uma crítica a uma suposta neutralidade epistêmica de nossas visões de mundo, onde questões de injustiça epistêmica são também políticas — quem está dentro e quem está fora, quem pode falar e quem é silenciado, quais falas, enfim, importam para o discurso — aquilo que no debate em línguas inglesa tem sido chamado de standpoint epistemology.
Como se vê, o que encontramos no centro desta discussão é a importância dada aos processos de aprendizado, à percepção e à tomada de consciência reflexiva de nossos discursos.
Quando usado, contudo, para fazer ataques pessoais baseados em questões identitárias, o sentido pretendido pelo conceito entra em contradição com o que ele pretende: de um lado, ele pede por autocrítica e reflexão — ou seja, consciência do lugar a partir de onde se fala —, mas, de outro, acusa-se o indivíduo a partir de uma lógica identitária que justamente escamoteia a possibilidade do aprendizado e da reflexão. É o que se chama de contradição performativa: o próprio conceito, quando enunciado, perde a sua razão de ser.
Problema análogo vale para o sentido de punição no que tem sido chamado de cultura do cancelamento. Quem define quem é culpado e como deve ser punido?
Na genealogia moderna do Estado democrático de direito, o significado de punirmos socialmente alguém que cometeu um delito foi paulatinamente assumido pela esfera jurídica como sendo proporcional a esse delito. Qualquer pessoa que cometeu um crime deve responder por seus atos, mas antes disso ela tem que ter direito ao devido processo legal, que envolve presunção de inocência, direito ao contraditório e ampla defesa etc. A ideia básica do devido processo legal é que há uma pena correspondente a um crime. Não podemos simplesmente estampar um rótulo numa pessoa e taxa-la ad eternum de “criminoso”. É justamente esse tipo de postura que impede a reinserção social de quem foi preso e está novamente livre. Ao indivíduo também lhe é dado o direito a outras possibilidades de escolhas que também fazem parte do horizonte de sua narrativa, como arrepender-se e quer traçar sua biografia de uma outra maneira.
A assim chamada cultura do cancelamento acaba então assumindo dois pesos e duas medidas: ao mesmo tempo que pretende ser antipunitivista ou mesmo anticarcerária, pune socialmente sem conceder o que é previsto nas suas garantias legais. Cria-se uma espécie de antipunitivismo de ocasião, com a diferença de que a pena dada pelo cancelamento pode ser pior, pois não há mais a possibilidade de se pagar uma pena correspondente a um delito, mas enquanto viver a pessoa é condenada ao ostracismo.
Apesar dos holofotes do cancelamento acabarem se voltando para casos envolvendo celebridades, que já tem mais visibilidade, a consequências dessa lógica punitivista e persecutória atinge mais duramente pessoas em condições de maior vulnerabilidade. E, aqui, as intuições por trás da crítica estrutural mostram-se novamente fecundas: Se há falhas na forma como as instituições da justiça atuam — seletividade e desproporcionalidade das punições, práticas extrajudiciais, ou mesmo limites do legalismo —, a crítica deve se voltar sobretudo a isso, sem precisarmos retroceder a práticas de condenações moral.
É por isso que tenho me posicionado contra qualquer forma de moralismo persecutório — ou seja, que pune o outro a partir de sua própria régua moral. Como entendo, o julgamento que faço a partir de minha régua moral diz mais sobre mim do que dos outros. Ele traça uma linha vertiginosa e arrogante sobre como os outros devem se comportar, e com ela, apenas escancara o narcisismo de minhas próprias convicções. Desconfio, portanto, tanto de quem exige do outro a perfeição quanto de quem se diz perfeito (a tal pessoa de bem) — o que não passa de uma forma ou ingênua ou cínica de autoengano.
Mesmo quem se diz tolerante, a depender da sinceridade de suas motivações, pode apenas esconder formas mais profundas de injustiças estruturais. É por isso que na língua alemã, além do vocábulo de variação latina “tolerieren”, há o verbo “dulden” — que quer dizer “suportar”: eu tenho que suportar quem pensa diferente de mim. Não por acaso, Goethe diz que “[a] tolerância deveria ser uma atitude apenas temporária: ela deve conduzir ao reconhecimento. Tolerar significa insultar.”
Ao invés de voltar-se para a crítica a formas estruturais de injustiça — como tem enfatizado Silvio Almeida em seus trabalhos sobre o racismo estrutural —, o que o uso equivocado de conceitos como lugar de fala e outras práticas como linchamento virtual e cancelamento têm feito é o patrulhamento sobre quem pode ou não falar, muitas vezes assumindo um caráter cerceador da liberdade e de interdição do discurso. No limite, ele joga fora tanto as dimensões estruturais da crítica quanto a possibilidade de responsabilização individual — ou seja, a capacidade que cada um tem de rever suas próprias posições. Por isso, tenho usado o termo paradoxo, referindo-me a posições e posturas que entram em choque com aquilo que pretendem.
O que orienta a crítica estrutural, pelo contrário, não é o abandono da responsabilidade individual, senão confrontar o que podemos chamar de uma noção ingênua de liberdade: a de pressupor que os indivíduos são igualmente livres para perseguir suas próprias escolhas, sem justamente ter em mente um leque de condições estruturais que escrevem seu horizonte de liberdade – a começar pelo país que nascemos, as condições econômicas de sua família, cor de sua pele, etc. Nada disso depende da liberdade individual. Ao jogar a responsabilidade apenas sobre o indivíduo, perde-se de vista o conjunto de práticas compartilhadas inclusive numa perspectiva histórica e intergeracional. Reconhecimentos públicos de perdão cumprem esse papel: ainda que não seja o chefe de Estado enquanto indivíduo o culpado, o gesto de reconhecimento de injustiças históricas traz um importante significado simbólico de elaboração da memória. É por isso que, até mesmo para libertários como Robert Nozick, é legítimo o reconhecimento de dívida históricas —o que, apesar de não querer indicar uma culpa individual, significa reconhecer que práticas institucionalizas do passado são causas de injustiça no presente.
Enquanto volta-se às estruturas sociais, a crítica tem a vantagem de pensar quais são as condições sociais de realização da liberdade individual, compreendendo aí também o que podemos confrontar e não determinar de maneira identitária.
A fixação essencialista e unilateral em condições de identidade acaba por reduzir o pensamento à identidade. Ela encapsula a reflexão, ditando tanto quem pode e quem não pode refletir sobre determinadas questões quanto assumindo uma espécie de relação dada a priori entre identidade e pensamento — como se houvesse um bloco homogêneo determinado identitariamente e não pessoas que podem ter posições diferentes. E não só: se se fragiliza a dimensão de nossa possibilidade de escolha justamente além da condição na qual nascemos, retira-se o sentido de responsabilidade individual. Somos sujeitos com responsabilidade moral justamente porque podemos nos posicionar diante da condição identitária em que nascemos.
O pensamento, a reflexão ou a crítica nunca estão dadas, senão se encontram sempre em disputa, e é isso que permite com que — individual ou coletivamente — confrontemos as instituições, nossas hábitos e práticas sociais. Voltar o foco à crítica estrutural significa reconhecer que, afinal, podemos pensar — ou seja, assumir a responsabilidade que temos pelas nossas escolhas e por aquilo que nos cabe dentro do horizonte e do vocabulário de nossa liberdade.
Filipe Campello é professor de filosofia da Universidade Federal de Pernambuco e pesquisador do CNPq. É Doutor em Filosofia pela Universidade de Frankfurt (Alemanha) e realizou pós-doutorado na New School for Social Research (Nova York).