I had planned some upcoming posts about race in America – on racial profiling, on the life of Muhammad Ali, and on ESPN’s recent documentary series about O.J. Simpson. But events have overtaken me. It seems that every time we turn on the TV, another awful entry has been logged in the annals of race and policing. Two days ago the shooting of Alton Sterling in Louisiana; yesterday the shooting of Philandro Castile in St. Paul; and today the attack on police officers in Dallas, details of which are emerging as I write, but which President Obama called a “vicious, calculated and despicable attack on law enforcement.”
Yesterday, before Dallas, the Times published a vehement essay on policing and white privilege by Georgetown sociologist Michael Eric Dyson. Titled “What White America Fails to See,” the essay addresses white Americans, directly and collectively, from its first challenging sentence: “It is clear that you, white America, will never understand us.” In the originally published piece -- the current online version, I have just now noticed, informs readers that “this essay has been updated to reflect news developments” -- Dyson continued:
You will never understand the helplessness we feel in watching these events unfold, violently, time and again, as shaky images tell a story more sobering than your eyes are willing to believe: that black life can mean so little. That Alton B. Sterling and Philando Castile, black men whose deaths were captured on film this past week, could be gone as we watch, as a police officer fires a gun. That the police are part of an undeclared war against blackness.
You can never admit that this is true. In fact, you deem the idea so preposterous and insulting that you call the black people who believe it racists themselves.
With these remarks – all of which I am surprised to see have been eliminated from the new version, presumably to soften the piece in the aftermath of Dallas -- Dyson advanced a narrative of U.S. race relations fashioned in recent years by African-American writers such as Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow) and Ta-Nehisi Coates (Between the World and Me). One of this narrative’s fundamental tenets holds that criminal-justice realities in this country, from shootings by cops in the streets to the “mass incarceration” of African-Americans in our penal institutions, represent no mere haphazard patchwork of flaws and inequities, but in fact, as the title of Alexander’s book suggests, a concerted system of racial oppression – the “undeclared war against blackness.”
A second tenet is that the radical asymmetry in race power and privilege in the U.S. not only shields whites from understanding black life, but prevents them from doing so – absolutely, and whatever their individual intentions. “Whiteness is blindness,” Dyson writes. “You cannot know what terror we live in.” Such occluded vision, the narrative holds, is an inescapable condition of white status:
At birth, you are given a pair of binoculars that see black life from a distance, never with the texture of intimacy. Those binoculars are privilege; they are status, regardless of your class. In fact the greatest privilege that exists is for white folk to get stopped by a cop and not end up dead when the encounter is over.
Those binoculars are also stories, bad stories, biased stories, harmful stories, about how black people are lazy, or dumb, or slick, or immoral, people who can’t be helped by the best schools or even God himself. These beliefs don’t make it into contemporary books, or into most classrooms. But they are passed down, informally, from one white mind to the next.
The problem is you do not want to know anything different from what you think you know.
The narrative exudes both fatalism and pessimism. It insists that whites – whatever their individual politics, and however enlightened they might believe themselves to be -- are unavoidably complicit in racial oppression and all but inalterably complacent about it. Perhaps most dismaying to white liberals is the insistence that they have no standing in the discussion; indeed that there can be no discussion. Dyson in this essay, like Coates in his recent book, is not out to promote racial cooperation, but to express collective black hurt and outrage. He is not there to converse, but to indict; and whites – especially those who sympathize – will feel unfairly judged and pre-empted. And accused.
You make us afraid to walk the streets, for at any moment, a blue-clad officer with a gun could swoop down on us to snatch our lives from us and say that it was because we were selling cigarettes, or compact discs, or breathing too much for your comfort, or speaking too abrasively for your taste. Or running, or standing still, or talking back, or being silent, or doing as you say, or not doing as you say fast enough... You do not condemn these cops; to do so, you would have to condemn the culture that produced them — the same culture that produced you.
One eloquent and heartfelt responder on the Times website wrote that “I understand your anger,” adding that “Believe it or not, I feel it, too. I too, feel angry when I see Confederate flags flapping over the highway in South Carolina or when I hear ignorant and racist statements.... I, too, am bitter about the police and their privilege to murder without facing consequences.... But I'm a white woman. Does that automatically make me an accessory to these crimes?”
I share her sentiments, and in fact just last week I drove through the South, where giant Confederate flags on country hillsides gave me the willies – not at all a flag I might affiliate with, but quite the opposite. But so what? Such sentiments notwithstanding, the collective “you” is not easily eluded. The problem for white Americans – if you are one of them hospitable to listening to Dyson’s narrative – is how to field its accusations without taking them personally. This, as I know from experience, is really hard to do, and especially when the rhetoric is angry, accusatory, and personal-sounding. But it’s important to sort out the merely individual “you” from the generic political one. Perhaps the most a white American can hope for, in this regard, is to gain some awareness of how his own thoughts and reactions are conditioned by who he is and how he is situated.
One useful perspective brought home to me by the discourse on “white privilege” is that race can be, and is, an issue for me, and for all white people: a topic; something we can engage with, worry about, write about... and then turn away from. For black Americans no such relief exists; race is not something they can turn away from. A topic for white Americans, a terror for black ones: I’m convinced that this discrepancy – the optional nature of race and race conflict for white Americans – forms one root of our abiding disharmony.
What is it in a society that constitutes a dominant point of view, and how is that view created, transmitted, and enforced? The murder of police officers in Dallas, as the President says, is vicious and despicable, and one shudders to imagine the grief and loss that have befallen their families. But I can’t help noticing, watching this morning’s TV coverage, how differently the death of police at the hands of a black man gets treated from the reverse. Within hours of the shootings, national news programs were chronicling the “Tragedy in Dallas,” complete with stirring music, footage of fellow officers saluting as the bodies were removed from the hospital, and grave testimony by police chief, mayor, and other public officials about the “fallen” officers – somber stories of the one who married just two weeks ago, or the one with two young children of another. Don’t mistake me; the murder of these officers is hideous. But is any such attempt made to humanize the “fallen” black men in this way – to make them heroes to “the white mind” that Dyson refers to; to inspire sorrow and the sense of loss?
In the end, what arises from the critique put forth by Dyson and others is a bleak sense of hopelessness. Does it matter -- is it worth pointing out, and can it be pointed out -- that progress has been made in this country? The officer in the South Carolina shooting of Walter Scott has been indicted on charges that could bring the death penalty, and I’ll be surprised if charges aren’t brought in Baton Rouge and St. Paul. Already the white governors of those two states have spoken publicly about their grave concerns, with one openly acknowledging the racism that frames such shootings.
I think I can understand that a glass that is just half full after 150 years might not occasion jubilation, but rather the opposite. Still, I have to follow the instinct, the hope, and the belief that we can do more and become better, both individually and as a nation. Progress will have to include a range of continued reforms in policing: aggressively recruiting more officers from the communities they are policing; increasing the use of body and dash cameras; providing better and more professional police training; pursuing more aggressive prosecution of those officers who do transgress. Plus, of course, redoubling efforts to address joblessness, urban desertification, and the dearth of human, social and financial capital in black communities.
Such proposals – specific remedies and the larger hopes they aim at -- run aground against the fatalism of Dyson’s essay. Ultimately, while pledging myself to listen, to really try to listen, as a white man and without attempting to refute or counter, I have to reject that fatalism. Hopelessness is a dead end. “We feel powerless to keep you from shooting hate inside our muscles with well-choreographed white rage,” Dyson concludes; “But we have rage, too.” That sounds ominous, coming mere hours before a black man went on a shooting spree apparently motivated by revenge – explaining, according to Dallas’ police chief, that “he was upset about the recent police shootings” and “that he wanted to kill white people, especially white officers.”
The story of cruelty and exploitation is by no means limited to the American chapter of world history; individuals, classes, groups and nations have perpetually used violence and power in the attempt to gain dominance and lead lives of unchallenged privilege. America has its own particular moral stains and tragedies, and its unpaid debts. Is there any silver lining in the current agonies? Is it possible that we might be entering a perpetually delayed process of coming to terms with slavery and its legacy? We should examine our ritual responses carefully. Healing without change is meaningless, even insulting. Prayer without progress is empty.
In the end I have to echo another white respondent in the Times, who fielded Dyson’s address and returned it just as directly: “I'm not your enemy,” he wrote. “You're right, I can't feel your rage exactly as you feel it, but that doesn't mean we can't march with common cause... Your army, your church, your movement, your foxhole includes me and people who look just like me, whether you want us or not.”