Monday, September 23, 2013

On the Use (and frequent misuse) of "Community"

In an episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm", Larry David laments that a bald sex offender has moved into the neighborhood, saying it reflects badly on "the bald community". Now this may sound a bit odd, but when you think about it, the word "community" is used in a similar sense all the time these days. Hence we hear about how things affect "the African-American community", as if there is any such thing. In dealing with the Syrian situation, I have heard politicians and commentators refer to "the world community", as if there is any such thing.

And why is this important? It is the premise of this post, and of others like it to come, that the way we use words is important, because the way we use words shapes our ideas, and our ideas shape our public policy.  Consider how the Justice Department in the U.S. has proceeded under the Voting Rights Act. This law was enacted to remedy the problem of suppression of voting by Blacks in the South. In states which met the threshold test of voter suppression, the Justice Dept. has to approve any changes in voting laws.

What the Justice Dept. has done is to look at whether "communities" are represented, which sounds like an admirable goal but is fatally flawed in the execution. Take the Arizona situation in which Arizona sought to add two judges in each of two counties which needed them. The Justice Dept. sought to require the counties to discontinue county-wide voting, and break into judicial districts, so as to facilitate Native-American representation on the bench. Native-Americans opposed this, and there is no evidence there were even any Native-American members of the bar who could qualify to run. Many other problems existed with this hair-brained scheme. There was no indication that individual Native-Americans were being denied any voting rights, but because of a faulty interpretation of what a "community" is, the Justice Dept. decided to take action in a situation requiring none.

Similar Justice Dept. misinterpretations of the law have resulted in racially gerrymandered congressional districts, designed to ensure the election of Blacks, like the one which snaked for 160 miles along Interstate 85 in North Carolina. All such districts rest on the assumption that people of a particular race should think and act alike; i.e., that people of a particular race constitute a "community", regardless of whether any other aspects of community are present.

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