On the Labyrinth of Race-Relations

by Alex Knepper

I recoil at discussing race relations because I am generally pessimistic about America’s ability to resolve the issue in a satisfactory manner. The divisions are so deeply entrenched, the history so ugly and raw, the various sides so unwilling to talk to each other with charity and openness — and there is an understandable abhorrence toward the idea of compromise on an issue that seems to admit of none that is not tantamount to making a deal with the devil. Eric Holder seems to have been right: we all claim to want to have a conversation about race, but at the end of the day we are usually too cowardly to do that. So the floor has been ceded to the loudest and angriest voices.

Still, this means there is a special responsibility for moderate voices to speak out. I lean somewhat to the left on the question of police brutality, insofar as it is connected to my broader concerns with the state of criminal justice — but, as with all other civil rights causes, little of consequence will be accomplished unless leaders emerge whose aim is to persuade rather than to agitate. It is easy to understand why some black people feel the need to agitate — if someone’s boot is on your face, the last thing you want to do is engage in a logical argument: you want the damn boot off of your face, and you want it off now. Yet, if the only way to remove the boot from one’s face is to persuade the person wearing it to remove it — then there is no alternative. (And those who reject the notion that the black community even has a boot in its face must come up with a better rationale for that rejection than the red herring of ‘black-on-black’ crime statistics.)

Most white people seem to want to respond to the assertion that ‘black lives matter’ by proclaiming that ‘all lives matter.’ This is very often driven by willful ignorance of the intent behind the phrase. Many good analogies and metaphors have been floating around social media to attempt to explain — for instance: say a family is having dinner, but Bob’s plate is somehow empty. Someone sitting next to him says ‘Bob needs food,’ which elicits a reply from someone else that ‘Everyone needs food’ — which is literally true but misses the point to an insulting degree — and then everyone continues to eat while ignoring Bob’s empty plate.

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That is a reasonable explanation. Yet I don’t think this approach will be persuasive to white people. People of any race naturally feel insulted and resentful when others try to get them to affirm some chant or slogan as a substitute for argument — especially when the question at hand is so raw, complex, and full of emotional minefields. People surely don’t like having it implied to them that they think other people’s lives don’t matter — especially when some of the major allegations of police brutality taken up as causes by the movement are not quite as open-and-shut as others.

There is and always has been a problem with police brutality toward black people — and especially black men, who are intuitively perceived by many if not most white people as being threatening. The extent of the problem is up for debate, but a neutral observer would find it difficult to deny its existence — and given our racial history it would be far more shocking if it did not exist. Part of the problem owes to the fact that many of the poor black neighborhoods in which these incidents typically take place are so plagued by violent crime that police almost cannot help but learn to be overly suspicious and hyper-vigilant. Too many progressives simply do not appreciate the degree of risk some cops live with, and why some might be driven to make terrible decisions in the heat of the moment — usually out of fear, that most unruly of passions. We also are an extraordinarily large and populous nation, so disturbing events are going to seem more common than they are when every one of them is broadcast on the national news.

And yet, the reactions from so many white conservatives seem utterly callous: dismissing the dead as ‘thugs’ (the new ‘n-word’), pointing to a criminal record or past charges as if it constituted proof that the people in question deserved execution, or maliciously demanding total perfection in conduct among black people — again, as if any deviation is a justification for someone’s death. Would white conservatives ever think it appropriate for black people to talk about white people in this way?

Most strikingly, it seems like the same people line up on the same sides of the argument every time there’s an allegation of police brutality. I seldom hear anyone say ‘This case is stronger than this one, this one looks cut-and-dry, maybe this one’s more ambiguous…’ — and this is what makes me most pessimistic. If we can’t honestly assess the individual cases on their merits — if we insist on standing on the same side every time — then we are not going to come any closer to a clear-minded livable resolution to this issue.

What can be done? There is no convenient or comfortable solution. But if there is ever to be one, it can only begin with genuine conversation: white and black Americans leaving their bubbles, seeking out alternative points of view, listening with openness and charity rather than with the aim of lecturing. This is not to suggest moral equivalence — again, I do tilt left on this issue. It is simply a recognition of the fact that we have to find a way to make it possible for all of us to live together in a satisfactory, stable manner. This issue simply cannot persist indefinitely without degrading America’s greatness.

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