Black Lives Matter — 12 June 2020
Except for a comment or two on posts by other people, over the last week and a half I haven’t said a word in any public forum about the murder of George Floyd, or any of the events that have followed. There are a couple of reasons for this.
First, I’m unable to find words to express my horror and fury and disgust at this atrocity, nor at the fact that it’s very far from an isolated case. Any combination of outraged adjectives seems feeble, both for this individual incident and for the monolithic, deadly reality of deep-seated racism in our justice system.
Second, even if I could find adequate eloquence, I always feel presumptuous in railing against an injustice of which I’m unlikely to be the direct victim. Who cares what some random 58-year-old white dude thinks about racist police brutality?
But I realize that this won’t do. Nobody cares or needs to care what I think on this issue, but it’s nonetheless incumbent right now for all of us—maybe especially us 58-year-old white guys—to say what we think anyway. Modesty and sheepishness and circumspection are not virtues at a time like this. So, lest anyone suppose that my silence has implied either indifference or sympathy with the perpetrators, let me keep it simple:
Black Lives Matter.
I use this now-stock phrase because there is nothing whatsoever about it that a reasonable person should find offensive. Nobody, as far as I know, has suggested in using it that Only Black Lives Matter, or that Black Lives Matter More. Yet many white people, including plenty of people I knew back in high school, seem to find this plaintive phrase infuriating.
Many of these same folks, who seemed to feel no pressing need denounce Floyd’s killing, were swift in their finger-wagging indignation over the looting and other violence connected to some of the past week’s protests. Wrong as this violence (at least some of it probably the work of agents-provocateur) unquestionably is, the hand-wringing response to it by many white people who didn’t seem overly upset by the killing itself suggests the need of a reminder like the phrase Black Lives Matter.
Here's what I hope isn’t true: I hope the elaborate revulsion that some of my fellow white folks evince when they hear “Black Lives Matter” isn’t a reaction to the reflexive internal response “No They Don’t.” Or, “Yeah, But Not That Much.” Not as much as broken store windows or stolen jewelry or re-thinking our own sense of self-justification. But I have to wonder.
In any case, here’s what I think, in the broadest possible terms, about how we should proceed. Black people and other disadvantaged minorities in our country have been trying to engage white society about their plights since at least the end of the Civil War. The vast majority of this engagement, ranging in approach from advocacy to being “a credit to one’s race” to nonviolent resistance to militancy to taking a knee, has been peaceful and dignified on the nonwhite side; white folks have often responded, however, with near-psychotic violence or, on a good day, with patronizing condescension or angry evasion.
Every civil right that white Americans take utterly for granted, down to the most basic, had to be won by black folks, virtually inch by inch in some parts of the country, school by school, drinking fountain by drinking fountain, lunch counter by lunch counter, public swimming pool by public swimming pool, in slow, stubbornly entrenched battle. Black folks have had white allies along the way in this struggle, of course, some of them important, but overall, their victories, which benefit all of us, are their own.
But now it’s time for us white folks to step up. We love things being All About Us; here’s our chance. Black activism can lead the way on changing laws and policies and what sort of language or practices aren’t socially acceptable. But sooner or later this work, essential though it is, runs into the wall of hardwired, often not fully conscious racism. Racist police violence can and should be combatted by protests and changes in policy and training; it can’t be truly eliminated until white folks will no longer tolerate it. And that’s not likely to happen until we are willing to admit that, whether we approved of it or not, we have tolerated it.
I wish I had suggestions more specific than “step up,” but I really don’t. I need guidance on this myself. Ideally, I think, the change would begin within law enforcement culture, with a shift in aspiration from being a thuggish enforcer of an archaic social order to a proud public servant of all people equally. Plenty of cops already see themselves this way; it’s time we asked them to assert themselves as leaders in their profession.
But we can’t wait for this optimistic scenario. The rest of us need to learn to speak up, challenging casual racism on the part of family members, friends, co-workers. And if we witness one of these mortifying incidents of public bullying of black folks by a fellow white person, we need to try to summon the courage to stick up for the black person. It isn’t right that our voices will carry more weight with the bully than the black person’s, but it’s often the case.
Much more often, though, I think that we need to work on mastering the fine and noble art of Shutting the Fuck Up. When we hear or read a racial opinion or observation that we perceive as critical of our own position, we should take a few minutes to think it over before we leap to our own defense or reflexively self-justify. And when I say we should take a few minutes to think it over, I mean we should take a few years.
Also, we should take the earliest opportunity to run the toxic garbage currently polluting the White House, the Senate and many other governing bodies around the nation out of power on a rail. This won’t get rid of racism, obviously, but it can strike a gratifying blow against overt, unapologetic racism.
Black activism can change policy; it can’t cure racism. We can only do that for ourselves, and only if we want to. We should want to.
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