“Racism and racial inequality are barriers for many non-whites, but viewing these disparities as a morality play between powerful whites and enraged minorities is a recipe for untold conflict.”
aves of riots and protests swept across the nation in response to the death of George Floyd at the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin—the most horrific in a string of viral incidents involving gross injustices against black Americans. While the political, social, and cultural outcomes of the upheavals hang in the balance, two separate narratives seem to be emerging as to their meaning.
The first and prevailing view is that Floyd’s murder was symbolic of the broader oppression of blacks in the country, precipitated by the unearned privileges and unconscious biases of the white population that remains unwilling to come to terms with its unconscionable history. This is the position espoused by virtually every mainstream news organization in their assessments of the current goings-on. In this telling, police brutality is just one manifestation of systemic anti-black racism in the United States and, until the majority comes to accept this uncomfortable reality, we cannot move forward as a nation. Even after officer Chauvin had been arrested and charged for murder, the harm wrought by the protests is the justifiable reaction to centuries of mistreatment.
In an article for The New York Times, opinion columnist Charles Blow writes, “The protests are not necessarily about Floyd’s killing in particular, but about the savagery and carnage that his death represents: The nearly unchecked ability of the state to act with impunity in the oppression of black bodies and the taking of black life.” In a Vox piece entitled “George Floyd’s killing has opened the wounds of centuries of American racism,” Emily Stewart argues just that: “Beyond the debates about the tactics demonstrators are using and who is and isn’t involved, there is a much deeper issue here that must remain in focus: the way black people are treated in the United States.” Writing for The Atlantic about the protests, Arnold Schwarzenegger (of all people), says that “We can’t ignore the issues of inequality in this country. No one can claim with a straight face that black and brown kids in the inner cities get an education equal to what kids in the suburbs receive. No one can deny that minorities find themselves on the wrong end of our justice system in unequal numbers. No one with a heart can watch these murders and not feel deep sadness, anger, and even guilt.”
The uncomfortable truth is that police are almost 20 times more likely to be killed by a black person than vice versa.
But another, less covered narrative has formed which contends that, though Floyd’s death was clearly an injustice and racial inequality remains an issue in America, the excesses of the riots and the violence that has ensued have been fueled by a toxic amalgam of racialized grievance and white liberal guilt that will likely result in conservative backlash. This line of thinking has been articulated by commentators including Christina Hoff Sommers and Bo Winegard.
In this view, the rush to reflexively blame racism and react as such arises from a need to form a moral identity as against the sins of America’s past and to make sense of recurrent disparities between racial groups. But notions of collective guilt and retributive justice bring out the worst in all races. As the economist Thomas Sowell spent an entire career relating, inequity of outcome between groups with different histories, cultures, and identities is the norm throughout human history and cannot exclusively be explained by injustice, oppression, or prejudice. The chasm between expectation and reality fosters a sense of cosmic justice and arouses hostilities between groups. Further, the underlying logic of anti-racism—that black people are primarily victims of racism and whites unconditionally benefit from their racial privilege—commits to the grimly condescending assumption that the fate of blacks is forever in the hands of whites.
Moreover, though police culture is notoriously opaque—upholding a “blue wall of silence” that prevents a strong system internal checks and balances—these practices are a response to the larger problem of violence in America and the anxiety felt by officers in uncertain situations. Although black Americans are more likely to get stopped by police than whites, numerous studies have shown no significant bias in policing outcomes, and the disproportionate rate of incarceration among black Americans is largely a result of the disproportionate volume of crime in that community. The uncomfortable truth is that police are almost 20 times more likely to be killed by a black person than vice versa. Unarmed police killings of citizens is extremely rare, with only nine blacks and 19 whites killed in 2019, according to The Washington Post’s database. In a country of 330 million people and almost as many camera phones, there is a strong tendency to extrapolate a supposed crisis from relatively rare events, with the reaction being more a product of our own psychology than what is actually happening in most of the country.
With different narratives comes a different set of solutions. If the problem is racism, then extracting racism from our institutions and our consciousness through inculcating anti-racist principles that put white privilege, systemic bias, and the pervasiveness of identity front and center would be the optimal approach. But if the killing of George Floyd is not interpreted as necessarily racist, with police violence having more to do with the entrenched distrust between cops and the communities they are oath sworn to serve, then it makes more sense to raise policing standards and improve internal affairs—perhaps beginning by reversing Qualified Immunity laws or addressing the insane fact that police officers often investigate their own murders of civilians.
A critic might assert that both issues can be tackled at once. Police brutality and negligence is linked to the issue of racial inequality, so we can kill two birds with one stone by unearthing the racist roots of policing practices. But this assumes that the problems are intertwined, which the relevant data does not suggest. There is no shortage of white Americans who get unfairly treated or killed by police, such as the horrifying police shooting of Daniel Shaver and the death of Tony Timpa, which eerily resembled that of George Floyd. The idea that removing institutional bias from police departments—assuming that is even possible—will resolve the overarching issues in policing rings hollow. More crucially, one side of the issue is getting much more attention than the other, as there is greater moral capital to be achieved in lamenting racism than discussing the policy issues in a colorblind way. And considering how the Black Lives Matter riots in Ferguson and elsewhere a few years back has not evidently changed policing outcomes, we are entitled to doubt whether the prevailing narrative yields the results most of us desire.
Although history repeats itself, it never does so in precisely the same way, and thus skepticism and uncertainty should be encouraged rather than pathologized.
A deeper concern with the protests is that, while passions run high, expressing doubt is stigmatized out of the conversation. I’ve seen countless posts among friends that staying neutral or agnostic aligns you with the oppressor, to the point where your own knee is seen as metaphorically crushing the life out of George Floyd and millions of black Americans across the country. Many people view this moment as a recycling of the valiant strokes of the Civil Rights era, when white moderates tolerating the status quo were perpetuating Jim Crow segregation. But this position commits itself to a form of historical determinism that can only perceive the present as a reiteration of the past. Although history repeats itself, it never does so in precisely the same way, and thus skepticism and uncertainty should be encouraged rather than pathologized. It is those who are religiously certain of their opinion and convinced of their own innocence who are capable of doing the most damage.
In a country undergoing rapid demographic and cultural change—not to mention a pandemic that could alter how we live for years to come—staving off increased racial polarization is a moral urgency. Racism and racial inequality are barriers for many non-whites, but viewing these disparities as a morality play between powerful whites and enraged minorities is a recipe for untold conflict. It also ignores the fact that most Americans share similar problems. The majority of people in the United States live paycheck to paycheck, while the life expectancy rate has declined and rates of suicide and depression have shot up. Our vastly dysfunctional social and economic systems are not generating the human flourishing we want to see; our leaders represent the worst of ourselves instead of our highest ideals; and our cultural reaction has largely consisted of stoking grievance in the name of our respective Cause. Imagining that we stalk separate paths, whether in terms of our racial, political, or cultural identities, rejects our vital overlaps.
None of us can know what the future holds in store, but maybe the chaos boiling over in the country at present will lead to new beginnings as a nation. Let’s hope for the best while girding ourselves for the worst.
Sam Kronen is an autodidact interested in the intersection of politics and culture. He can be reached on Twitter @SalmonKromeDome.