Muhammad Ali once explained why the idea that there were some decent white people wasn’t a useful argument for him. Suppose there were ten thousand snakes, most of which were venomous, in the next room. Should he hope that the non-venomous snakes would protect him, or should he close the door?
Last year, Donald Trump Jr. compared terrorists among Syrian refugees to poisoned Skittles: You don’t know which ones will kill you, so it’s not worth taking the risk.
Meanwhile, people defending laws requiring transgender and non-binary people to use the bathrooms that align with the gender on their birth certificate argue that sexual predators will use tolerance of transgender people as an excuse to sneak into bathrooms and molest girls.
Superficially, it looks like these are comparable comparisons, and that liberals are hypocrites for advancing the argument when it applies to whites and men, while rejecting it when it applies to Muslims and trans folk. But these groups have crucial differences.
Scale and practical risk
Before you point out that men get raped and sexually harassed too: I know, and so does RAINN. About one in ten reported sexual assault victims are male, and statistics most likely underreport male victimization more than female victimization. I was sexually harassed in a former workplace, by a woman manager, so I know that it happens.
Such complaints, though, are derailments. A woman has a high chance of being sexually assaulted, and an even higher chance of being sexually harassed. Sexual harassment is a daily issue for far too many people who are seen as women.
Statistics on racism are trickier, particularly since the system is so geared towards pretending it doesn’t exist. After all, say the Blue Lives Matter apologists, if Philando Castile was killed because Minneapolis police are racist, why did they kill Justine Ruszczyk Damond?
The mechanisms for creating non-racist narratives are complex, but despite this, the data is clear that people of color, and particular blacks, are routinely bigoted against. For instance, while the EEOC technically protects all people, the overwhelming number of cases are for minority employees and against white management.
Again, I know the apologist position: Black people are more likely to complain, white people don’t drag out the race card, and the system doesn’t listen to complaints about white people. More than half of white Americans believe racism against whites exists. Meanwhile, the US Justice Department is investigating racism against white students in admissions policies.
And again: This is a distraction. The issue is not whether white people are sometimes discriminated against because of our skin color; we are. The issue is whether black people have good reason for not trusting whites in general. The answer, sadly, is a definite yes. Even if we quibble (which I don’t) with Ali’s 9-in-10 ratio, there are a lot of venomous snakes out there.
In contrast, what portion of Muslims are terrorists? Magician Penn Jillette, known for not holding back in his opinion (he is a vocal atheist, and hosted a popular debunking show called Bullshit!), argues that, while the probability that a terrorist is Muslim is high, the probability that a Muslim is a terrorist is very low.
Pew Research statistics say that six in seven Muslims around the world reject violence against civilians, and that only about 1% say that violence against civilians is often justified. Before jumping on this to point out that even a hundred of Ali’s ten thousand snakes justifies fear, keep in mind: These are not people who want to be terrorists, these are people who say it’s sometimes justified. According to Gallup, one in five North Americans say violence by civilians against civilians is “sometimes” justified: This perspective is not limited to Muslims. And most mass murders in this country are committed by white Christian men.
As for transgender individuals, there is no real evidence that the sort of pervert who would enter a bathroom for the purposes of sexually assaulting someone would wait for permission. Sexual assault is a crime regardless. Allowing transgender individuals to use facilities that match their gender simply does not credibly increase the risk that others in that room will be assaulted.
However, forcing transgender individuals to use the restroom that conforms to their “legal” or “birth” gender assignment does significantly increase the risk of assault. At least one in two transgender persons are sexually abused or assaulted during their lifetime. On average in 2017, two transgender people have been killed each month. And on the radio show Breakfast Club, one host said he’d kill someone if he found out she was transgender after they’d had sex.
For the matter of transgender and nonbinary persons, the issue is clear: There is negligible tangible risk to a cisgender person around a transgender person, even in a restroom, but there is significant, life-threatening risk to a transgender person, be it in a restroom, a bedroom, or an alley.
As for Muslims, the stated purpose of many refugees is that they’re coming to this country to get away from terrorist violence. And many of them face threats of violence from non-Muslims both in the US and abroad.
Are there some wolves in the fold? Undoubtedly. That suggests that we should work harder on vetting immigrants from certain Muslim countries, as Obama did, rather than completely banning them.
I understand the other position: Why should we increase our exposure at all? Even if the risk that a terrorist will sneak through is very small, why open ourselves up to the risk at all?
The answer to that goes to the heart of who we are as a country. Should we turn away thousands of people in need because one person might do us harm? In 1939, our reason for turning away the St. Louis, filled with nearly a thousand Jewish refugees, was “immigration quotas.” Today, our reason is “There could be a terrorist.” In both cases, we’re defending wrong action.
Regardless of how we feel about allowing refugees from Syria and other war-torn Muslim-dominated countries, using Ali’s words to defend that action is comparing apples to oranges.
What do white men lose from being denied access to black or women spaces? Unlike a transgender person or a Muslim refugee, my life is not in significant danger. I don’t need shelter.
Ali was admitting that he was cutting off some potential support, but he was saying that the high likelihood of risk wasn’t worth the minimal payout. Such an analogy only applies to other situations where the people in question are at tangible risk.
Everything in life involves risk, and everyone has to decide on their own what acceptable risk is. But it’s not hypocritical for a white cisgender male liberal to understand that the risk for women and people of color from us is much higher than the risk to us from Muslims, transgender persons, and others.
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