Silver Rights

News, thoughts and comments on civil rights and related issues.

Saturday, July 17, 2004  

Commentary: "Whites only" sign is inexcusable

It has been said one way to get a mule's attention is to hit him on his head with a two-by-four. But, committing an egregious offense to attract attention to whatever one is protesting is not a good idea. A man in Arizona recently learned that the hard way. Upset with neighbors, he decided to erect a sign saying his home was for sale. Not a problem. For sale by owner signs are allowed in his community. But, the sign did not stop there. It said "4 Whites only." The sign engendered consternation among observers, including officials from the state attorney general's office. The few neighbors willing to speak were blase, though. No private citizens filed a complaint about the sign, though it clearly violates laws against racial discrimination. Meanwhile, the homeowner kept a low profile. But, eventually, a reporter discovered his identity and he consented to an interview. The man's reason for posting the sign is not what you would expect. The West Valley View has the details.

John Miranda swears he is not a racist. In fact, he believes that he is a victim of racial discrimination.

And that, the 68-year-old former Marine says, is why he attached a sign reading “4 Whites Only” to the “For Sale by Owner” sign that stands in front of his Waddell home.

“All my life, I’ve seen bigotry,” said Miranda, who is of Hispanic heritage. “That’s why I did this — because I’m seeing bigotry again. I knew the sign was going to draw the attention of the media, and I would be able to explain my side.”

The local property owners association allegedly ignored Miranda's request that a ditch dug behind his home be filled. He ended up paying the cost of the task himself. Miranda believes he was treated shabbily by the POA because he is Hispanic.

I suppose that if drawing attention so he could express his frustration with the POA was really Miranda's objective, he achieved it. They now know he is disgruntled. But, in the process of getting their attention, Miranda created an impression behavior that has been illegal for decades is acceptable. Though I doubt punitive action against him will be taken, he broke the law.

No matter Miranda’s motivation for putting up the sign, “What he did is against the law,” said Rebecca Flanagan, director of the federal Housing and Urban Development’s Phoenix field office. “There are many legal ways to deal with and settle [HOA and POA] disputes. This is not one of them.”

A formal complaint against Miranda has been filed by the Arizona Attorney General’s Office in consultation with the San Francisco HUD office, which handles enforcement of the Fair Housing Laws, Flanagan said.

It is not unusual to hear people who engage in discriminatory behavior say they are doing so in jest, though their claims are seldom convincing. They assume such abuse is amusing and it isn't. Claims to have engaged in discriminatory behavior to get a platform for expressing one's own grievance are less common. But, Miranda's alibi suffers the same defect as those of people who claim that calling someone a 'jigaboo' or 'spic' or wearing blackface is good, clean fun. It ignores the pain such behavior causes people who are targets of it, and, the damage it does to the social fabric by encouraging discrimination. An acceptable response to Miranda's situation would have been to pursue a discrimination complaint against the people he felt had harmed him.

Reasonably related

I learned about this topic from an entry at Blogcritics written by Phillip Winn.

posted by J. | 11:45 PM

Friday, July 16, 2004  

I, Robot is entertainment with a message

A.O. Scott, writing at the New York Times, has some interesting thoughts about what it means to be human. Suspend your disbelief and imagine a society in which robots are common within our life times. Come on. It is not that hard to do. If you are reading this blog on a laptop or handheld, you are using technology that seemed unlikely, the truly personal computer, little more than a decade ago. Scott is wondering about humanity and boundaries after viewing I, Robot, the new Will Smith vehicle, based on short stories by Isaac Asimov.

The plot is basic detective story. An investigator is probing the murder of an elderly scientist. He believes the killer may be a robot. That, as any science fiction fan can tell you, is impossible because of the first rule of robotics as posited by Asimov: Thou shalt not allow harm to come to a human. The inability is programmed into the brain of the robot and cannot be erased. Robots stop functioning if they are in circumstances not amenable to following the rules. The detective must prove a supposed impossibility has occurred.

But, the aspect of I, Robot that interests me as a civil rights advocate is the status of robots in society. Would it resemble that of people whose rights are limited by custom, if not law?

Scott observes, I believe accurately, that the people who do the most menial work in society are usually regarded with prejudice, if not contempt. She likens the bias against robots in the movie to classism and racism.

Del Spooner, a brooding, wise-cracking homicide detective played with weary action-hero bravado by Will Smith, shows no such sensitivity. He is, in fact, a raging anti-robot bigot, harboring a grudge against the helpful, polite machines that shuffle around the city running errands and doing menial work. Early in the movie, he chases down a robot he mistakenly believes has stolen a woman's purse, only to discover that he has been guilty of technological profiling. He is repeatedly scolded for his prejudice — by his grandmother (Adrian Ricard), by his boss (Chi McBride) and by the sinister head of the top robot-producing corporation (Bruce Greenwood) — which gives the movie an interesting undercurrent of racial irony.

But, robots would not be human. Would intelligent machinery be treated with the same derision as is common behavior of humans toward people they consider themselves better than? It is only speculation, but I think there might need to be a nexus of common humanity for true bigotry to occur. Part of the purpose of abusive interaction is to elicit a response. Since a machine cannot respond in kind, there is little emotional payoff in abusing one. I can curse my PowerBook, but it will not be effected. The same may apply to the sense of superiority that is a key component of racism and sexism. It depends on the bigot believing he was born better than the target person or group. Since there is no genetic inferiority argument to apply to robots, I don't see how such an outlook could be sustained. Perhaps robots would be too other to function in the role of human otherness.

Scott observes the issue of where humanity begins and ends is a recurring theme in sci-fiction.

Spooner's attitude also revives some familiar conundrums of sci-fi philosophy, which the script, written by Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman, tackles in lengthy expository scenes. Where is the boundary between the human and the nonhuman? How does the technological blurring of this boundary affect our ethical conceptions of humanity and inhumanity?

This theme is one of the reasons I'm drawn to speculative fiction. Writers such as Ursula Le Guin, Greg Bear and China Mieville offer insights into issues of individual rights and civil rights. A viewing of I, Robot apparently provides food for thought about what it means to be human. . . and not.

Reasonably related

Isaac Asimov developed his ideas for his well-known Foundation cycle when he was in his 20s. The first set of novels was published in 1951-53. How have they held up over time? And, what does a person interested in civil rights think of his imagined future society? The answers are available at Mac-a-ro-nies.

•Wired weighs in. Read Jason Silverman's review of I, Robot.

posted by J. | 11:30 PM