Friday, September 6, 2013

Is the Bike Movement Too Cynical for Social Justice?

There's a need for a wider range of voices in the bike movement, and I know that at least some key people are working to create a social justice space. However, I think the struggle for social justice is being impeded by political correctness. Not political correctness itself, but fear of it. Fear that working to build more inclusive institutions is a distraction from something more important.

Flipping through a recent issue of the New Yorker, I came across an article about a white curator, Bill Arnett, who has for years pushed the art world to take African-American outsider artists seriously. The article focused particularly on the artist Thornton Dial, and the author, Paige Williams, commented that, "it can be tempting to ascribe Dial's rise to political correctness, but his work is strong enough to counter such skepticism." In other words, this artist's popularity might only indicate that his skin color makes admiring his art something laudable in the art world. Similarly, I have been told twice recently that gestures toward social justice made by institutions must be hollow attempts to satisfy some perceived demand for that sort of thing. The speakers in both cases were middle-aged, white men. One was talking about an institutional diversity initiative at a liberal arts college, and one was talking about bike advocacy organizations. This is what people have thought it's appropriate to say in front of me. Who knows how my reputation is dismissed behind my back with words like political correctness. Do you know what it's like to hear that your concerns are unworthy of the attention some people can take for granted, simply because you aren't the right color?

I would call this not skepticism, but cynicism: a cynical belief that any people of color who gain the attention of powerful institutions must be a front for white people's interest in political correctness, and it's a problem. It's awfully demeaning, and has added yet another barrier to inclusiveness across lines of race/class. What is particularly weird about this cynicism is the way that it is espoused by seemingly liberal individuals, who would otherwise shrink from accusations of racism. It almost seems like an effort to show how un-racist they are, as though somehow the PC champions of POC are the racists for making room for difference. The cynics see past this to...what, exactly? To me, it sounds like a profound denial of the need for restructuring many institutions that have benefited whites over others.

It might look unfair to attach a job or seat on a board of directors to somebody's skin color or gender. The key is that what might seem fair to you could be based on the position you inhabit, as a raced, classed, and gendered individual. We're not standing on level ground; the way that our world has organized access to resources means that we're on a hillside, and you may be closer to the top than some others simply because of the conditions into which you were born. Not only did you get a head start, but maybe you've been aided by your uncle's friend showing you the trailhead, or your classmate's father giving you a deal at the trail supply store he runs. There are two questions about social position to consider, in any field: how what you look like, how you act, and who you know got you to where you are and, on the flip side, how not looking and acting and knowing the right stuff keeps others from getting there. Racial difference can be expressed in the most subtle gestures, the most casual words, that reinforce the distance between us. If you're already near the top of the peak, it might not move you, but if you're down at the bottom you might be set back once again.

We're social creatures; we help our friends. Why is it a bad thing to recognize that one's circle is limited, and that it might take work to make connections beyond it? Why would it be bad to have a wider network from which to draw help with advocacy projects? The thing is, if you have a pretty limited circle from which to draw, you're not necessarily going to craft a message or programming that's appealing to a wider audience, because you have no idea what that wider audience cares about. And for a social movement, which would seem to want to get more people on board, that's a strategy fail. It is not a distraction from something more important to discuss race and class in the bike movement because Americans are hardly a homogeneous bunch. If you're not interested in the different experiences of the people you're targeting, why would they care about this bike thing you're into?

For far too long people without much interest in experiences other than their own have dominated the room, assuming that we all agree that aspiring to Copenhagen is best, or that all women want to wear heels on their bikes. They've been allowed to make their perspectives into THE perspective, leaving aside the social conditions that make Eurocentric visions of cultural supremacy seem normal, or that perpetuate expectations of gendered behavior. The philosopher Donna Haraway calls this the "god trick," a view from nowhere that allows particular people to claim that their experience is objective reality.

The continued championing of one narrow vision of bicycling has had at least one real effect: instead of us all seeing driving and suburbanization as a common enemy, embattled communities see bicycling and other sustainable practices as unwelcome symbols of power and privilege. The return to the city of the children and grandchildren of white flight is not a separate issue from urban renewal's undemocratic subsidy of destroyed urban neighborhoods. Bicycling is not a separate issue from oil dependency and superstorms. Road safety is not a separate issue from racist and classist structures of social status and the norm of expressing how wealthy you are through the kind of car you drive. The unremarked deaths of immigrants using bikes is not a separate issue from the outcries for safety that follow white cyclists dying. The use of bike infrastructure as an economic development strategy is not a separate issue from the lack of jobs with decent wages. The status displayed through driving is not a separate issue from social inequality. The anger some motorists express when interacting with bicyclists is not a separate issue from gentrification.

The segregation encouraged and enabled by the federally subsidized suburbanization of the United States still impacts our cities today. We have all been affected by it, negatively or positively, and belittling the importance of including the concerns of the negatively affected groups in favor of carrying out the desires of the positively affected groups sets us against each other once again. It's time to address the social side effects, the barriers to bicycling that show how it connects to wider frameworks of race and class bias. It's time to confront the use of bike infrastructure as a gentrification strategy, with the narrow vision of economic development that model suggests. If this stuff is a distraction from something more important in the bike movement, maybe the bike movement's not really that important.