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Marking the unmarked category


This story about somebody calling the cops on a black man because he was picking up trash on the patio of the apartment building where he lives is all too common.  (Luckily the Boulder cops tend to be relatively docile, so the commission of the crime of being visible to the public while black didn’t result in him getting beat up or shot, even though he got pretty uppity with them, as you can see/hear if you watch the video linked in the story).

This in turn reminds me of a remark I overheard about an intellectual property law conference being held here today, at which almost all of the presenters are women.  The remark was that the composition of the panels at the conference seemed like an example of identity politics run amok.

Sociologists have a very useful concept: the unmarked category.  An unmarked category is present when the category is considered so normal or ordinary in a particular context that it goes unnoticed.  The category is the default setting in regard to social expectations, and it in a sense remains invisible precisely because it’s so dominant.  Being black in Boulder is a marked category, which means (white) people won’t see a man picking up trash, they’ll see a black man picking up trash.  They see something, so they say something.

For example, if you had asked a lawyer in 1960 to name three characteristics that every current Supreme Court justice shared, it’s very likely the lawyer would not have mentioned either race or gender.  In other words, we notice characteristics we don’t expect to see much more than characteristics we assume will be present.  (The typical NBA fan will probably not notice the race of the players on the court if they’re all black, but would be almost 100% certain to notice if all, or even a large majority, of the players were white).

What “identity politics,” so-called, has done is to slowly and painfully and partially transform being a white man in America into a marked category.  And makes a lot of the people who have become white men rather than members of society’s invisible default category very uncomfortable.  And when people get very uncomfortable, they often get mad at whoever they blame for making them feel that way.  And then they vote for Donald Trump.


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