The Radical Relativity of It All

So the other day I take my 7 year old boy to a skateboard event in San Francisco’s Tenderloin — yes, that’s the name of the neighborhood and, no, I didn’t make it up — sponsored by the city Parks and Rec. The Tenderloin, for those of you that don’t know, is one of the more, well, poor neighborhoods of the city — black, Laotian, Vietnamese, and more.

And then there was us — the beast and me, a middle class hebe and his demi-jew spawn. Oh, it was a beautiful, if chaotic, event — loud music, people everywhere, and some professional skater in the middle of it all. My boy, needless to say, was a bit intimidated — he had his board and his helmet but he was sticking close to his pops.

Seeing such a young one — he was certainly on the younger side — people were coming up to us to encourage his participation. One such young man introduced himself as Kevin. Kevin was a 19-year-old black man. He explained to us that he’d grown up in the SF housing projects and that skateboarding had helped keep him off the streets, out of trouble, and in school. So he suggested that I encourage my boy to skate — you know, to keep him off the streets.

But for me and the boy, skateboarding is about putting more street, as it were, into our lives. We’re not trying to avoid trouble; we’re trying to get into a little — just a little, of course.

And this brought to light the relativity of social issues — for one community, skateboarding is a way to stay out of trouble; for another, it’s a way of welcoming some trouble where there is too little. This disparity makes making sense of social policy insanely difficult.

Take the so-called issue of drugs. I love drugs! My friends love drugs! My whole life we’ve been dropping, eating, smoking, and snorting so many different things. In other communities, for other people, drugs have been devastating, laying waste to entire populations.

How can we have a conversation, then, about the role of drugs in our society? And, more complicated, how are we to legislate it? The same act — smoking some crack, smoking a joint, blowing lines — means very different things in different communities. But the law must apply to all, equally — at least nominally. We know, of course, that it is not applied equally — that there is enormous racial bias.

And yet I like the idea of police being empowered to choose when to enforce a law and when not to. Because the same act is not equal for all. I know, I know: our police, unfortunately, are not trained to do that. On the contrary, they are trained — perhaps implicitly — to enforce along racial lines. But I’m asking you to listen to what I’m saying: the equal enforcement of the law does not always make sense, especially in a country as wildly diverse as this one. As legislation can’t discern, it’s the job of the enforcers to do so.

The grand finale of this skateboard event was the giving away of 10 boards to 10 lucky kids, courtesy of this pro skater. When they announced the beginning of the give away, all the kids raced to where the new boards were lined up. My boy, sensing the excitement and wanting a board, began his foray into the group — before Dad yanked his ass back. And I explained to him that those boards were for kids who couldn’t afford their own and, as we can afford one, he had to sit this one out.

Because while the law may apply to us all equally, this doesn’t mean we are all the same. TC mark

Related

More From Thought Catalog

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1363230138 Michael Koh

    “And I explained to him that those boards were for kids who couldn’t afford their own and, as we can afford one, he had to sit this one out.”

    That's a very good point.

  • Rob

    Perhaps if a law can't, or shouldn't, be applied equally then the issue is with the law rather than how subjectively it's enforced. Interpretation of law (as it pertains to enforcing it) outside of the courtroom is dubious at best, and the last thing we need is to give the police more latitude …

  • Allison

    i thoroughly enjoyed this read.. i don't know what else to say about it… there really is no wrong or right change to be made – it's recognition is interesting, to say the least – i'v often experienced very similar situations & pondered as well.. thanks

  • http://twitter.com/srslydrew Andrew F.

    Kind of wish Daniel Coffeen was my dad.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gregpphoto Greg Petliski

    Take the so-called issue of drugs. I love drugs! My friends love drugs! My whole life we’ve been dropping, eating, smoking, and snorting so many different things. In other communities, for other people, drugs have been devastating, laying waste to entire populations.”

    Thats because, as you pointed out, youre jewish, and they (the poor) are not. Pretty simple. Now I don't know about you, but I don't know too many jews hooked on crank, do you?

  • Kate

    “And yet I like the idea of police being empowered to choose when to enforce a law and when not to. Because the same act is not equal for all. I know, I know: our police, unfortunately, are not trained to do that. On the contrary, they are trained — perhaps implicitly — to enforce along racial lines. But I’m asking you to listen to what I’m saying: the equal enforcement of the law does not always make sense, especially in a country as wildly diverse as this one. As legislation can’t discern, it’s the job of the enforcers to do so.”

    This is absolutely untrue, and it's horrible, horrible policy that is more than just implicitly racist. The same act is either equal for all, or it is not in the law: period. Just because you are a white, upper-middle-class male doesn't mean that your drug use is any more or less justified than drug use in a poor black community. To praise the glory of drugs for you and your friends and then explicitly note that drug laws should be enforced unequally is unequivocally racist and classist.

    First, you are confused about causality. The problem in poor communities isn't that drug use and addiction, as isolated acts, decay communities. You admit this yourself. Why, then, is drug use and addiction such a scourge on poor communities? Because there's not jobs. Because a majority of the male population is imprisoned and disenfranchised. Because there's poverty. Because drug treatment isn't available. Because the prohibition of drugs means that they're connected to organized crime units, which drive the business underground and make it inherently exploitative and profitable. There are all interconnected. (Also, as a note, your drug use is contributing to the culture of criminality, prison, and policing that destroys the communities.) To say that increased enforcement of unjust laws that already destroy a community will solve is absolutely ridiculous.

    Second, if the equal enforcement of a law does not make sense, it ought not be a law. Rape and domestic abuse is overwhelmingly committed by men. That said, we certainly ought enforce it on women who rape and abuse, no matter how statistically small it is. Why? Because if the law is meant to stop abuse and rape, it cannot discriminate based on perpetration or abuse and rape. Similarly, if drug use is inherently wrong, it ought be a crime. If you have exceptions in which is is “not wrong” or “less wrong”, it should not be a crime. If your exceptions fall along race, class, and sociospatial lines, that standard is thereby innately discriminatory and by no means should be enshrined in law.

    On that, too, the police should never be empowered to judge when laws ought be enforced. If something is a crime in society, we say that a) this act is inherently detrimental simply by virtue of its existence and b) a society without this act is preferable. The second point demands as perfect enforcement as possible. If we don't want to achieve perfect enforcement, then we ought not designate the act a crime.

    This article is ridiculous.

    • Kyle

      Try re-reading it.

      • Daniel Coffeen

        Thanks, Kyle — I was gonna say: the conservative nature of so-called liberal politics will never cease to amaze me. Every time I try shifting the terms of the exchange — usually by trying to weave in complexity — I am met with the same old pejoratives drummed out of the same old discursive machine. It's at once hilarious and maddening.

        So: I never suggested laws be enforced by race and class. In fact, I say the opposite. I do say that there are differences in race and class (is that verboten? can I not say there are differences?) and that these differences make the issue complicated. There are also cultural and religious differences that often are addressed — in which one religion does have the right to sacrifice or do other things that are otherwise illegal. Anyway…..

        Especially when we start talking about legislation and enforcement. Of course I am not saying the police enforce by race and class. Again, noting the obvious, I say the opposite. I am suggesting, however, the possibility of an entire redistribution of the legal/police apparatus. I am thinking of Plato's Republic in which the police are empowered, a rigorously trained force taught to think critically.

        Am I saying we do this? Fuck, I don't know — I'm not a policy wonk. Nor do I want to be. I just tried pointing out, via my experience, that these things are complicated — and power to those whose job it is to figure it all out. Glad it ain't my job.

        A little recognition of complexity, methinks, would make this country a much better place to live.

  • http://bmichael.me/ bmichael

    I wish tao lin never wrote on here because then id never 'have' to give this site page views.

    • Greg

      you're lame

  • Sing455sing455

    田馥甄.

  • http://brianmcelmurry.blogspot.com/ Brian McElmurry

    Harold Hunter

  • http://thoughtcatalog.com/2012/in-defense-of-anti-drinking-laws/ In Defense Of Anti-Drinking Laws | Thought Catalog

    […] of double standards. No, I want a country with a billion different standards. A moving target of standards for every single person! I don’t want organization and fairness. I want the beauty and excitement of chaos. I want […]

blog comments powered by Disqus