I just got back from a party --- yes, it's 5 in the morning --- and am still seething over a stupid argument I had with a postdoc, one I haven't mentioned much yet. I now officially don't like him: he's confrontational in ways I am not, his deadpan humor does not mesh well with mine, so we are constantly offending each other or having to explain that we are kidding, and he is, as one of the other postdocs says, a bit of a "shit-stirrer." I think I shall call him the Agent Provocateur. I would totally post my question to facebook if it didn't mean I had to block it from the people who are here in Postdoc City.
In the middle of a looping, random discussion of vaguely Marxist leanings, Provocateur said that, when you look at history, fundamental change has never happened and never would. I jumped in immediately and said, "of course things have changed, in lots of fundamental ways. Look at slavery; the US had slavery and now it doesn't." He totally took me to task for this: you can't say that anything fundamental has changed and blacks are any better off now; look at poverty, look at racism, look at all the economic fundamentals.
Well, yes, but --- things did change. We have the 14th Amendment; it was once legal to own another person and now it is not legal. They gained civil rights, they didn't have the right to own anything, to marry, to name themselves or move freely about the countryside. These are huge; they are on the books, they are there in law if not always followed scrupulously on the ground in this country, and they used to not exist.
-You really think black people can live where they want, move where they want, have the money to do anything? Have you seen the south? By now several people are involved in this argument and it has gotten heated and I am the only person on my side.
(And then Provocateur asked about incarceration, and yeah, he has a really good point there if we consider the numbers of black men locked up, but then he also mentioned the spring African American diversity festival, at which there were not white attendees, and I was like, really? You are going to declare segregated --- unofficially segregated --- attendance at a state fair type thing to being forced to work in the cotton fields for 14 hours a day?)
I was also trying to explain how wage slavery --- even in the shitty, dirty, repetitive jobs we have today, like floor-mopping and chicken-gutting --- is just not the same as slave labor, but this change is almost more about advances in technology than social activism and everything was getting muddled.
And despite my repeated shoutings that this was not a light-switch situation where the only options are everything is great vs. nothing has changed, we got to the point where I got called a racist and an apologist for slaveowners ---- and it is interesting that this is the point where the actual southerner was joining in ---- and also I'm not sure how this person went from racism is terrible and endemic to the south today to that means it is worse than under slavery to that means I am apologizing for slavery.
Instead of having an interesting conversation about whether you count change by the top, middle, or bottom members of a social group (meaning: do you measure progress by the lucky and wealthy few, like the fact that we have Obama as president or I have some friends in my grad program who are going off to become professors, the plight of a (still, barely) emerging black middle class, or the most exploited and weak of people from the ghetto or the prison system), it devolved into a shouting match where I was being challenged on my stats for how many black people were lynched during Reconstruction.
And I kept thinking about my grad school friends who are black --- true, it's not a large number! --- and thinking, you have got to be kidding; surely they would not let you claim that black life today is fundamentally no different from that under slavery. And then I thought of my sociology friend: what would he do? Would he punch him in the face? Because I really want to punch him in the face. And finally someone --- a friend of the host, so someone I don't even know --- managed to intervene on my side forcefully enough that the conversation ended, if not really ever resolved. We also went down to crazytown through the whole "comparative oppression" thing where women's progress and gay liberation progress get compared to black progress and since other groups have come so far, so fast in comparison to black rights that this shows there really hasn't been enough movement past slavery, and I wanted to point out how making this argument slides the terms of the debate as well as directly contradicts our first sticking point but also got sidetracked by my point that "women" and "gay" can very well overlap with the category "black" so how well can you compare these experiences really?
Arrrrgh. Also this guy kept weaseling on what he had said and hadn't and even what we were arguing about, which he has done before on less volatile subjects, and this pissed me off.
Okay. Exhaustion has set in. You can weigh in down in the comments. Or simply vote on the face-punching.