Photo by Steinar Engeland
Our preference for the devil we know is primal: the veiled threat is a vital ingredient of all great horror films. Why attempt to depict a petrifying antagonist, when you can shroud it in darkness and encourage your audience to superimpose their own deepest fears?
There’s comfort in black-and-white simplicity—even if what we see is horrific. When we can describe a problem using just a few words, we feel as if we’ve captured the source of our suffering and bound it in a crystalline idea: solid, immovable and—most importantly—known. We feel oriented. We know where we are, where we must go and how we might get there.
Unfortunately, though, many problems are not as straightforward as a single demon we might slay. If we want the comfort of simplicity, our only option is often to believe a black-and-white lie. If we want to fix the problem, we must embrace the discomfort of seeing the shades of grey.
On 25 May 2020, George Floyd died at the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin. The official post-mortem report declared Floyd’s death a homicide: the cause of death was listed as “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint and neck compression.” In some ways, the video was even more harrowing than those of past police shootings. To see an officer make a split-second decision to shoot an unarmed black man is one thing. But to see Chauvin pressing his knee down upon Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes, while he pleaded to be allowed to breathe and, later, lay unresponsive, is quite another. Perhaps this is why the fallout has been more explosive than any I can remember. Maybe this was the final twist that opened the valve of righteous anger. Perhaps it was a little of both.
While the response has once again brought the vital issues of police brutality, racism and racial injustice to the fore and inspired peaceful protests across the US and elsewhere, not all the reactions have been positive. A relatively small number of protestors have turned to violence. Many of them are members of Antifa—an organization principally made up of privileged white kids, who claim to oppose fascism by saying and doing surprisingly fascistic things. The sight of white rioters destroying the property, businesses and livelihoods of innocent people, many of them black, often in the face of opposition from black people, is bizarre. But, even if you think such acts are an understandable reaction to what has happened to George Floyd and others like him, we must oppose them on pragmatic grounds. Time and again, history has shown us that not only is violence less effective than peaceful protests and other nonviolent measures at achieving positive outcomes, but that it tends to make adverse outcomes more likely. For instance, a recent study found that, in the 1960s, peaceful activism, especially when met by repression from the state or vigilantes, increased the share of votes for Democratic candidates in neighboring counties if their platforms emphasized civil rights. Meanwhile, protester-initiated violence tended to shift discourse away from the issue of civil rights and towards matters of law and order, thereby increasing the vote share in neighboring counties for Republican candidates, whose platforms tended to emphasize social control. Just as such violence played into the hands of Nixon in 1968, the violence that followed the killing of George Floyd may play into the hands of Trump in November. Those of us who took part in or supported the rioting acted against the interests of black people.
Most people agree that physical violence is a counterproductive political tool. Unfortunately, we are far less aware of how counterproductive certain words can be: such as the self-righteous hectoring of those who have not commented on the issues raised since the killing of George Floyd, on the basis that the only possible explanation for such silence is racism. Those who have engaged in this rhetoric in the name of compassion would do well to remember that we all face challenges about which others know nothing, and that such challenges often take up enough of our cognitive and emotional bandwidth that we have none left to devote to causes outside of ourselves, no matter how worthy. Sometimes, the best thing we can do for the world is to focus on fixing our corner of it. Even when our lives are going well, we all face a bandwidth problem. For instance, over the past few years, China has rounded up and detained up to 1.5 million Uyghur and other ethnic Muslims in internment camps for re-education. When was the last time you did anything to challenge that crime? Probably never. And, while there should be far greater awareness of that particular issue, there is an abundance of problems against which we might take a stand. Of course, we should all do what we can to improve the issues about which we are passionate if we have the capacity to do so, while also challenging specific wrongs as and when we encounter them. But to stand for everything, all the time, is to stand for nothing. Those of us who have denounced people for not being sufficiently vocal about racism should bear in mind that, one day, there may be another issue to which they themselves are deemed to have paid insufficient attention. And when that happens, they will rightly hope for the same kindness denied to those they condemned.
Equally counterproductive are the well-intentioned, yet overly simplistic, black-and-white takes on police brutality, racism and racial injustice, often accompanied by sanctimonious bullying of those guilty of making nuanced statements in public. Such takes are, to some extent, understandable. If acknowledging shades of grey is uncomfortable at the best of times, expressing nuance at a moment when the righteous anger surrounding the already radioactive issue of racism is at a peak can be especially costly. But, in ignoring the shades of grey in favor of the comforting falsehoods of black-and-white problems and solutions, we sacrifice the knowledge we need to make meaningful progress.
Sam Harris once remarked that, to live a good life, we must be “increasingly motivated by love and guided by reason.” As cities across America and beyond have descended into chaos and the social media conversation has grown increasingly toxic, what does it mean to be motivated by love and guided by reason right now?
The first part of that question is easier to answer. If the human cost of racism is the suffering it causes those who aren’t white, then to be motivated by love is to be sufficiently moved by that suffering to want to see it eradicated. For those unfortunate enough to have experienced such suffering first-hand, this isn’t a tall order. But those who are white and, therefore, significantly less likely to have ever been on the receiving end of racism, may need to listen to the stories of those who have. On this point, at least, the overall response to the killing of George Floyd has been pretty good. Of course, by definition, one can never fully appreciate what it is like to experience first-hand racism through second-hand accounts. But such accounts are better than nothing. Without them, the motivational force of love has little to work with.
To be motivated by love is to want to do not merely what seems right, but what is right. To be motivated by love is, on some level, therefore to be guided by reason, because we use reason to try to understand the context of those stories and figure out which actions are most likely to give rise to positive change. This means that it isn’t enough to listen to those who are black or consult first-hand lived experience as a black person, because lived experience only makes one the authority on that experience itself. To understand the bigger picture, we must turn to data.
Data are often accused of being dehumanizing. There is some truth to that. The numbers can’t do justice to the suffering that they represent, suffering that we want to remedy. But to dismiss the data on that basis is to make a grave mistake, because the only way to effectively communicate facts about what is happening to a large number of people is to do so quantitatively. And, without an understanding of the overall picture of racism, racial injustice and police brutality, any view on how we might make progress will be a shot in the dark.
Questions worth asking of the data might include:
- How many people do the police kill each year?
- Of those killed, what proportion are:
- White or of some other race?
- How do these numbers compare with the racial composition of the overall population?
- Of the homicides committed each year, what proportion is committed by people of each race?
- What proportion of homicide victims are people of each race?
- What happens to crime rates in black neighborhoods as levels of police activity increase and decrease?
- How do these numbers differ between black people of different cultures and cultural origins, and what might explain these differences?
- How have these data changed over time?
Asking such questions is difficult, and not just because analyzing the data is challenging. Doing so requires a willingness to confront the unexpected shades of grey that the answers will inevitably reveal. But, if we truly want change, people of all races must be prepared to face the truth in all its complexity. We should also be wary of any suggestion that our views on what is to be done about racism, racial injustice and police brutality should be determined by black people, since, clearly, black people have a range of opinions on these topics. We should not allow the condescending notion that all black people think alike to disguise the diversity of black viewpoints.
Some argue that non-black people should refrain from taking a position on these topics, leaving black people to work out the best way forward. But, as long as absolute consensus among black people remains out of reach—which is to say, forever—this gives white people no basis upon which to act. This argument therefore implies that those who aren’t black have no part to play in the fight against racism. Given that the racism we’re talking about is either perpetrated by white people or through structures and contexts over which white people often have a great deal of influence, for white people to simply stand aside and do nothing would be to guarantee the perpetuation of racism.
So white people must make a choice. Should they stand aside and allow non-white people to fight racism and racial injustice alone? Or should we all stand together, and accept that disagreements between black and white people are not just acceptable, but can be both amicable and productive? If we’re to be motivated by love and guided by reason, there is no choice here.
But how can we bring reason and love to bear when so many of us are in the grip of unreason and perhaps even hate? Perhaps we must each, as individuals, apply the forces of love and reason to our corners of the world. I know that isn’t enough. Though we have made tremendous progress in fighting racism over the past century, much of that progress has been made against its more clear-cut, black-and-white aspects, such as the Jim Crow laws. Today, we are mostly left to deal with racism’s slippery and elusive shades of grey. Positive change, change that brings us closer to a world in which the color of one’s skin is as unimportant as the color of one’s eyes, requires a critical mass of reason and love that no one of us alone can achieve. But we can each make a start. Because it is not whether we disagree, but how we disagree, that determines whether we are enemies or brothers and sisters. If we are ever to put racism behind us, that much is necessary. But is it sufficient and, if not, what would be? If we are ever to find answers to that question, we must begin with the words I don’t know.