Taking Responsibility for Community Violence
Illinois State Universtiy, College of Arts and Sciences - Philosophy Department
June 1, 2001
FEMINISTS DOING ETHICS, Peggy DesAutels, Joanne Waugh, eds., Lanham, MD: Roman and Littlefield, 2001
This article examines the responses of two communities to hate crimes in their cities. In particular it explores how community understandings of responsibility shape collective responses to hate crimes. I use the case of Bridesberg, Pennsylvania to explore how anti-racist work is restricted by backward-looking conceptions of moral responsibility (e.g. being responsible). Using recent writings in feminist ethics.(1) I argue for a forward-looking notion that advocates an active view: taking responsibility for attitudes and behaviors that foster climates in which hate crimes are more likely to occur, even when a person's individual actions do not contribute directly to harms. Using the case of Billings, Montana, I explain how recent Not In Our Town campaigns take responsibility for hate crimes in the ways feminist literature suggests.
I take as my point of departure hate crimes committed against the family of Bridget Ward, an African American woman, who moved into the suburb of Bridesburg in 1996. When issues of responsibility for racism arose in the local press, most Bridesbergers insisted that their community was not racist; they blamed only the individual vandals. This narrow blame-assigning focus is in keeping with most Anglo-American definitions of responsibility as belonging essentially to individuals and not to communities. Traditionally, moral and legal theory construct responsibility from a perspective that looks downward and back. These perspectives are preoccupied with punishment and reward, praise and blame; they assume justice is done when guilty parties are found and tried.
This focus masks deeper community problems. As Elizabeth Spelman remarks, "tolerance is easy if those who are asked to express it need not change a whit." (2) Focus on praise and blame is, in part, a function of race privilege. Bridesberg is 98% white, and part of "the arrogance whitely behavior" is positioning one's self as a judge, expert, and problem solver. (3) The view from this particular subject position limits attention to individuals and their actions, rather than to communities and their practices; it shifts attention away from the fact that Bridesberger's collective practice of distrusting outsiders has lead to hate crimes in the past. Pointing to vandals and claiming "they are racist" does not free one's community of racism. It reinscribes a community spirit that is resistant to change.
The second part of this essay explores what communities like Bridesberg might have done to prevent violence. Often there is little individuals alone can do to stop racial violence, but that there is a sense in which community members are obligated to organize themselves. Strategies that focus community responsibility on retribution rather than long-term change, are short lived and ineffective. Anti-racist activism requires a forward-looking view of responsibility: one that aims at inoculating the community against increased risk of violence. This requires taking responsibility for the fact that one's town might foster climates in which hate crimes are more likely to occur. It requires that we begin inquiry in the lives of those harmed.
Collective citizen efforts to prevent Aryan groups from gaining a foothold in Billings, Montana offers a clear illustration of how to take responsibility for hate crimes using strategies designed consciously to prevent further hate crimes (e.g., when Black Churches were threatens, all community members attended services there; when a rock was thrown through a window with a menorah, many homes displayed menorahs). The community responses in Billings are a stark contrast to those of Bridesburg, and serve as a powerful example of how forward-looking notions of responsibility can translate into effective political strategy. Although, these strategies are not in and of themselves feminist, they are powerful illustrations of what feminists mean by forward-looking views. The success of resident's collective action and coalition building gave rise to a national Not In Our Town campaign used in about a dozen cities today.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 9
Date posted: April 25, 2009 ; Last revised: August 21, 2009