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Discrimination As a Sign of More General Wrongdoing
Rick Garlikov

Minority groups, no matter whether based on gender, race, ethnicity, age, religion, ideology or philosophy, or any other characteristic, often are the first to recognize and articulate wrongful practices which actually or potentially affect everyone, but are either more prevalent abuses of minorities or seem to be discriminatory, rather than merely wrong, to one conscious of one’s differences from the majority.  These practices are wrong, whether discriminatory or not, but are more noticeably wrong, particularly to the minorities victimized or plagued by them, when they are also discriminatory.

For a simple example, students in a predominantly black college where I, a white male, taught for awhile pointed out how hateful toward them the sales clerks were in a particular store in a nearby predominantly white suburb where I happened to live.  They considered it discriminatory.  I had shopped in that store previously on a few occasions and I too had noticed that the sales staff was particularly unfriendly and unhelpful.  I didn’t like to shop in there and only did so based on the price of some items that were significantly less expensive in the store though it was not a pleasant place to shop.  I didn’t browse or linger in the store, but went in for a specific item if I couldn’t find it for a decent price anywhere else.  This was pre-Internet days, so items generally had to be found and purchased locally in stores.  I pointed out to my students that if they were to watch the sales staff interact with the white customers, they would see they treated them the same and that these people were equal opportunity jerks, not discriminatory in particular against blacks.  They mistreated or were unkind to everyone.  

That does not make their behavior any more right, of course, but what I had found just mildly irritating and essentially ignored and forgot about after leaving the store (though it was in the back of my mind when I passed or thought about the store), had been much more noticeable and disturbing to my students, because they saw it as unfair discrimination in addition to its being just wrongful behavior.  Thus they noticed and remembered it more and were more upset by it.  What I sloughed off and tolerated as just individual, common, bad behavior that just had to be endured and accepted if I wanted to shop there, they saw as racist, egregious behavior that should be changed.  While they were mistaken, if I am right, that the behavior was racist and discriminatory, they were right that it was bad behavior that should be changed.  

Now, of course if bad behavior in general is also done maliciously in particular toward minorities and is discriminatory, it is all the worse, or involves two wrongs, not just one.  But in this essay, I want to write mostly about the elements of wrongdoing that are universal, though more noticeable to minorities because they do not realize it is universal or ecumenical wrong behavior and mistakenly think it is discriminatory.

I bring this up because of two recent social movements against what minorities consider to be discriminatory behavior but which I want to argue here are just wrongful acts that potentially affect everyone though they either affect minorities in some cases more or are more noticeable and seem more egregious because they are seen as discriminatory and not merely commonly wrong.  Minorities are thus often the first to call attention to bad practices the rest of us unwittingly accept and ignore as just facts of life about which nothing can really be done and that one can’t complain about expecting any sympathy.  In reality, they are wrongful acts that should be minimized or eliminated, and the rest of us owe a debt to minorities for bringing them to our more conscious attention.  Unfortunately we don’t always appreciate that fact and instead consider minorities to be seeing discrimination where there is none and just being overly sensitive to, and whining about, problems everyone has.  By ignoring the mistaken claims of discrimination we too often also mistakenly ignore the wrongful treatment of people (even of ourselves) in its own right.

There is a compounding problem in all this, though, as well.  In some cases, minorities suffer problems (whether of wrongful acts or the bad consequences of merely problematic acts) in disproportion to their numbers, and when that occurs it may be (or may be seen) by anyone as discriminatory or it may be (or be seen) as causally related to factors other than discrimination, but factors which need to be addressed or remedied somehow.  For example, a black vice president of one of the largest Alabama banks at the time, whom I invited to discuss discrimination against blacks in banking explained to my students that even though banks were closely monitored for illegal discrimination and in fact would like to have more black customers because it would be more lucrative for them, there were historical, nondiscriminatory causes for why blacks had more trouble getting loans or getting loans at good interest rates than whites.  He pointed out that banks were distrusted much more in black culture than in white for historical reasons (some of which may have involved racism in the past), and that prevented contemporary black people from interacting with banks and bankers in ways now open to them to establish good credit with banks.  He explained what banks looked at for making credit decisions and pointed out what they could start doing now, long before they might need credit, to be sure they could secure it later at a decent rate when they wanted or needed it.  What he explained would also have been unknown to many white students, particularly financially poor ones, whereas white (and perhaps some black) students from more middle or upper class families might just naturally have fallen into practices (such as using credit cards instead of paying cash for most or all things)  that tend to make one creditworthy according to banking criteria.  

While I already knew one of the criteria he described, I remembered the first time I heard it (I was over 30 at the time) and couldn’t believe it could possibly be true, and only began to believe it after hearing it from different sources, including bankers -- that people who borrowed money in the past and paid it back were more creditworthy than those who had always paid cash for everything and were quite solvent and responsible with their money, not purchasing anything they had not saved up to be able to afford.  Banks basically trusted people more who had needed loans and paid them back than they trusted people who did not need to borrow (previously).  In particular, banks trusted people more who used credit cards (and paid them off in time) than they trusted people who saved money and paid cash for everything.  And, particularly difficult to believe, they cared about that more than if you had savings or were solvent.  So he explained to the students they should get a credit card and pay it off in full each month (to avoid interest charges), and that they should sometimes possibly take out a small loan they didn’t need and pay it back fairly quickly (so as not to cost them much interest).  He also explained that they should open up an account with a local bank branch and introduce themselves to the manager and try to develop something of a personal rapport with the manager and staff.  All that helped one get a loan, and sometimes at a lower interest rate instead of being rejected or charged higher interest.

In that case, what seemed like wrongful discrimination was in fact not discriminatory and possibly  not even wrongful if credit standards are reasonable under moral scrutiny even though they seem counterintuitive to those of us raised to save money and not to purchase anything we could not afford to pay for.  The world of bank lending is different, whether rightfully or not.

But clearly what is wrong is use of violent, and particularly deadly, force against clearly unarmed people who are not a viable threat to anyone.  Whether police disproportionately apply this force to blacks out of racial prejudice or racial mistrust and fear or out of more opportunity because of the nature of crime in black communities, insofar as white cops kill or use more, or more brutal, force against black citizens, that at least gives the appearance of egregious discriminatory behavior, and there is evidence it is based on bigotry in many cases.  The perception is not always, if ever, mistaken. But in the context of this essay, the point is that unnecessary and unreasonable excessive and/or deadly force is wrong, no matter who it is applied to.  But it either occurs more against black or is more noticeable when it does, and more offensive or reprehensible if racially motivated, than when it occurs against whites.  

Therefore, the reason that the response “All lives matter” is unacceptable and so offensive to blacks in the “Black lives matter” movement is they are protesting a terrible wrong that seems to, and does often, disproportionately affect blacks and is accompanied or caused by discrimination.  The response “All lives matter” even though true (if we are talking in both cases about innocent lives) is an inadequate and offensive response in that it seems to ignore a problem that is faced more or solely by minorities.  If there were more, or more obvious, evidence that police beat or kill innocent white people for no good reason at all too and that that was ignored or accepted because it was just thought to be an unfortunate cost of police work, then the response “All lives matter” would be appropriate and acceptable even if minorities were more aware and less tolerant of it.  When I pointed out to my students that the store clerk behavior was mean to everyone and not merely discriminatory against them, they justifiably found it no less appalling or wrong.  They saw it was wrong to treat anyone that way, and that courtesy mattered for all customers, not just black ones.  If it turns out that whites are unfairly brutalized by police too, then “All lives matter” would probably be an acceptable response to “Black lives matter” even though the problem is first noticed and rightfully protested as occurring to minorities who point out its reprehensible nature.

But if a harmful act, practice, or occurrence affects someone or one group more than another, then the answer that it is harmful to everyone ignores the problem.  If you vacation in a hotel room that turns out to have rattlesnakes in it, and you call the front desk to say the room is dangerous, and the desk said only “rattlesnakes are dangerous for everyone” that would be an insufficient response.  You already know rattlesnakes are dangerous to everyone, but the problem is you are the (only) one that has them in your room.  You are calling to say that you are in more danger from them at the time than most other people.  The hotel needs to do something about that, whether they also try to do things to minimize snakes on the premises in general or not.  You have a specific problem that needs immediate addressing.

Whenever minorities point out (and/or peacefully demonstrably protest) problems that are broader than just discrimination, but which are tolerated by non-minority victims as just a normal part of life they have come to accept as there being no point protesting or “making waves” about, everyone victimized by the practice should be grateful for minorities’ recognizing it and standing up to it.  Non-minorities should try to solve and eliminate the problem that is pointed out instead of just trying to ignore, excuse, or justify the practice, while allowing it to continue, and essentially telling minorities just to accept it and ‘walk it off too’ as they do because it is not really a problem.  A problem faced by everyone is not therefore not a problem.  If anything it is a bigger or more significant problem than one faced rarely, uncommonly, and randomly faced by anyone which is therefore harder to predict or justify expensive or stringent measures to prevent.  There should be no hesitation about trying to remedy problems faced by many people in general, even if most problematic or problematically noticed by, and less tolerable to, minorities.

That leads me to the issue of transgender bathrooms, which clearly is not usually at the same level of moral consequences that police brutality is, but which is nevertheless a serious issue for those affected to varying degrees by it and which can lead to ‘outing’ people in a way that fosters bullying and disrespect that sometimes does lead tragically to suicide or other serious harm.  But again, I think there is a broader problem that probably has had tragic consequences not realized should be associated with it because the problem is so ‘normal’, ignored by so many, and tolerated for so long that it will seem even whiny to talk about because most people just cope with it, get on with their lives, and forget about it.  But transgenders are more affected by it because it relates more to their core concept of themselves and thus they notice it more to the point of raising the issue for remedy.  

The concept of sensitivity is worth digressing for a second to look at, because the appropriateness of its degree seems to be inversely proportional to its degree of occurrence in any given person, ranging from the callous to the tenderest and most actually vulnerable, to the overly obsessive.  For example, those with no peanut allergy or experience of it might consider those with fatal peanut sensitivity to be wimps, telling them to “Get over it for Chrissakes; this is only a little peanut butter; it’s not going to kill you.  Peter Pan is not going to poison you.  Quit being such a baby and a hypochondriac.”  (Remember the justifiably vehement response to Tom Cruise's denial of the seriousness of postpartum depression.)  At the other end of the scale is the valetudinarian, susceptible to every minor problem, or the overprotective parent who ends up crippling their child by preventing them from building sufficient strength of character to triumph over harmful acts or reasonable resistance to harmful things which cannot be eliminated.

In regard to emotional sensitivity about locker room and bathroom issues, those who don’t mind being in a locker room with other naked people with similar anatomy are not going to understand the reactions to it (ranging from dislike or repugnance to disgust or revulsion) of those who do.  And combining insensitivity with brutal callousness, whether physical or emotional, in some people when that occurs, is always going to cause problems for the most sensitive tender souls in their proximity, particularly when the former are numerous and the latter not, and when those in between don’t intervene to stand up for the most vulnerable because they just experience the problem as natural and something that just has to be endured.  But in some cases it is not natural and it should not have to be endured by anyone, particularly if it can be relatively easily remedied and make life better for everyone.

But I think transgenders raise the bathroom access issue in too narrow a light because they mistakenly think they are the only ones bothered, plagued, traumatized, or victimized (the word choice for that depending on one’s sensitivity and reactions to the problem) sufficiently by it to consider it wrong enough or bad enough to need or deserve being addressed or remedied.  What they perceive as discrimination, is, I think, just the perception of a wrong of which they are simply more acutely aware than the average person who is aware of it to a lesser extent.

While cleanliness in public access bathrooms, perhaps particularly men’s rooms, is sometimes seriously lacking, and can be revolting and terribly unsanitary, I want to address a different issue, one affecting even clean public bathrooms or of locker rooms -- the issue of personal privacy, not public access.  

First, there is an ambiguity in the terms private versus public.  ‘Public’ can mean open to the public (i.e., public access) or it can mean in public view.  Private can mean privately controlled and not open to the public except by invitation or allowance, or it can refer to usage that is personally private at the time and not open to public knowledge or view at that time, even if open to the public to use in general.   In the latter case, a facility of any sort (not just bathrooms or locker rooms) can be used by anyone in the public, but with personal privacy at the time.  For example, my bank branch gives customers access in a private area to their safe deposit boxes, though any customer can purchase a safe deposit box to which s/he then will have to it in that private area when no one else is already using it. The problem with public restrooms and with locker rooms, and one most people experience, not just transgenders, is not that they are open to the public but that there is insufficient privacy in them because they are communal, particularly for anatomical variations and physiological functions least desired to be shared and unable to be hidden in proximity.  It is not that they are open to the public, but that they are open to more than one person at a time, particularly relatively large groups, communally sharing them at the same time or able to at any moment.  

And individual stalls inside a communal area is not sufficient privacy for many people, even if they are sufficient to prevent visibility .  Most people do not like using communal public access restrooms because of the lack of privacy.  Proximity is the problem, not necessarily visibility.  As Rod Serling might have said about going into a public restroom or a locker room “You are about to enter another dimension, a dimension not only of sight, sounds, and smells but of mind -- a place that is private only in the deepest recesses of imagination -- a place where it is difficult to mind just your own business while tending to it and impossible to imagine others are not minding to it as well.”  Public restroom design could be much more private in any of a number of ways, most notably in the form of individual bathrooms, in some places now designated as “family bathrooms” where privacy is controlled by locking the door and gives no one outside indication of your gender,  your anatomical conformity to your inner core self, or any physical anomaly you wish to keep secret and not have to be made to feel self-conscious about any more than you do normally.

However, individual private bathrooms have to be open to public access not just to people with gender sensitivity or to any other kind of privacy issue because otherwise usage of the private bathrooms denotes something embarrassing is wrong with you or that you think it is.  I originally thought that transgender students would have been satisfied to use faculty private bathrooms because I thought shyness over visibility was the problem with communal group restrooms, but I realized that it was being made to feel self-conscious about being transgender that was in some cases as much a privacy issue.  One doesn’t want to be taunted as the kid who uses or has to use the “transgender” bathroom, or who has to have a private bathroom because there must be something wrong with him or her.  In fact, visibility is probably not the problem for most transgenders or most people in public communal bathrooms in America, because stalls offer sufficient cover, if the doors are intact and work, etc. (which is not always the case).  

Individual bathrooms would also solve the rapist or pervert issues feared by so many opponents to ‘non-discrimination’ laws about public bathroom use fear, particularly in regard to children who are old enough to use a public restroom unattended but too young to be able to defend themselves against sexual predators.  Usually the issue is couched in terms of safety of girls and women (“wives and daughters” in particular), but these days with the indiscriminate sexual preferences of sexual predators, boys and men are not much or any safer than girls and women.  I have daughters who I worried about in public restrooms when I was the only parent with them, and often asked some woman to keep an eye on them.  But if I were a woman with sons, I would have been just as concerned if they went into the public men’s room alone, whether with regard to molestation or to public exposure and indecency.  So, like many other issues raised by minorities as being discriminatory, this one also is a more general problem which it would be better for everyone to have solved, not just better for minorities.

This work is available here free, so that those who cannot afford it can still have access to it, and so that no one has to pay before they read something that might not be what they really are seeking.  But if you find it meaningful and helpful and would like to contribute whatever easily affordable amount you feel it is worth, please do do.  I will appreciate it. The button to the right will take you to PayPal where you can make any size donation (of 25 cents or more) you wish, using either your PayPal account or a credit card without a PayPal account.