Thursday, July 14, 2016

Amid Racial Tensions, Can Americans Come Together?

After the murder of five Dallas police officers last week, there is a palpable turn in the national climate toward rhetoric of reconciliation. The President asks us to seek empathy and mutual understanding and citizens share social media memes of police officers and citizens being nice to each other. The media frames its stories around the need to "come together" and find "common ground."

These rhetorical efforts are necessary and good. They represent a nation stepping back from what feels like the brink. (It's not, but it can easily feel like it is). In moments like these it is the responsibility of leaders to call for calm and emphasize what we have in common. As the President did Tuesday, leaders should also remind us that we've seen much worse, and have come through it. In a tense environment, responsible leaders offer perspective and breathing space. They do not add fuel to the fire. Instead, they mourn lost life and carefully try to balance the competing claims of all Americans. The essential task at hand is to avoid a deepening spiral of violence. This task the President performed admirably this week.
President Obama in Dallas
Now it is our job to be more honest than a President can afford to be. Reading his speech carefully, it seems clear the President is under no illusion that trying harder to understand each other will in itself produce the change we need. I wish all Americans had the same clarity.

Talk of coming together is often little more than cheap sentiment signifying nothing. Like anyone who isn't a sociopath, I fully support peace, empathy, finding common ground, and coming together. But if our goal is clarity of thought rather than delusion, if our goal is to actually solve problems and save lives--that's what's at stake!--then we must boldly speak against sentimentality masquerading as problem solving.

The problem is state failure. As we speak right now, Black Americans face crisis-levels of economic distress, educational neglect, violence, poor health, poverty, and discrimination. This crisis is immediately obvious to anyone who simply takes White expectations of state services and general well-being and applies them more broadly. This crisis congealed hundreds of years ago, and has continued uninterrupted ever since. It is not of Black Americans' own making. They did not start any of this. It is a crisis of White supremacy.

The appropriate question is not and has never been why African American communities often suffer  from higher levels of poverty and crime. The more honest query is how a people has accomplished so much in the face of centuries of systemic racism and neglect. The American state's failure to protect life and liberty for certain classes of its citizens continues to the present day. The great question at hand, then, is how to excavate this system and tear it out by the roots.

The intractable problem is that many--probably most--Americans refuse to admit this. And in this thick haze of self-delusion and irresponsibility, they venture forth to praise the police and the way of life they defend.

Please read me carefully. It is right and peace-producing to praise police officers who do their work with integrity and care for human life. It is wrong to defend the broader systems in which police are forced to operate. The police are themselves caught up in forces bigger than themselves. The American system produces racialized poverty and violence, and then polices it capriciously, offering neither the presumption of innocence to the upstanding, nor the likelihood of punishment to the guilty.

Americans who defend this system seem universally to think of themselves as people who oppose racism and violence and stand for justice. That may be how they see themselves, but we are under no obligation to join them in their delusions.

So we must be clear-eyed about what reconciliation rhetoric is doing in the contexts in which it is deployed. Often the rhetoric is so empty of any tangible content, so slathered in sentiment, that supporters of systemic racism are its most eager users! But memes about friendly police officers won't change the way DA offices work. Calls to respect authority won't abolish private prisons. Trying harder to understand each other won't reform use of force standards. Thanking police officers for their service won't end the war on drugs. And asking young Black men to never make a mistake--never a wrong move or word--won't remove the suspicion from an American public that is more interested in containing than empowering them.

We do need to come together, that's true. But you need only look around your neighborhood, I'd wager, to see that most White Americans might not really want to come together. Coming together would mean trying to level the playing field. It would mean desegregating the schools. It would mean making residential zoning work for the poor instead of incumbent homeowners. Guaranteeing the vote. Providing quality and accountable policing in poor neighborhoods. It would mean treating the condition African Americans face as the crisis that it is, for as long as it takes. It would mean getting serious about reparations. Coming together would mean all these things and more.

I feel compelled to be honest. I'm not sure most White Americans want to come together. I don't think most White Americans want to deal with the crises affecting their fellow citizens. They want to make sure the crisis doesn't spill over its borders. They want to see it contained. That brings us back to the police, doesn't it?

I say all this not because I'm a morbid pessimist but because history is a hard teacher. Looking to our past, we might say there were two epoch-making moments when Americans came together and resolved their differences when chaos threatened. The first was the Constitutional Convention. The hard-won compromise provided the framework for an enduring political union and national prosperity. The second was the end of Reconstruction. After 700,000 deaths in the Civil War and years of aftershocks, it is astonishing how quickly Americans got back to the normal arts of political compromise, paving the way for the United States to emerge as a global superpower.

Both of these compromises were at once essential to national prosperity and devastating to African Americans. The Constitutional framework set up a functionally pro-slavery federal government that enabled three generations of newly created southern states to spin out a cotton kingdom across the continent on the strength of an internal slave trade of extraordinary brutality. The compromised end to Reconstruction signaled the end of state-sponsored efforts to ensure equal rights for Black Americans. The South could have its mob rule, and White Americans would pretend they lived in a Republic.

There is a more recent example. We might speak of the period after the turmoil of the 1960s and early 1970s as a coming together moment. Nixon's "silent majority" was as much rhetorical device as reality, but there was a distinct turn away from the crisis of White supremacy. As Americans turned toward conservatism, they defeated the civil rights movement and left old problems to fester.

We could come together now, as we have in the past, only in order to contain a crisis rather than solve it. The same people always end up bearing the brunt of these false periods of peace. This is why Black Americans and everyone who cares cannot stop protesting. We don't want oppressed people to sit down and be quiet. We want to remove the oppression. We don't want peace without justice, because in the end that leaves us with neither.

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