Who is to Blame?
The killings of young black men in Ferguson and, more recently, in Saint Louis and in many other places, as well as the recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union that in Boston black men are much more likely to be stopped, and interrogated by police than whites has once again drawn attention to racist practices by many police forces all over this country.
In their treatment of black men, especially young ones, many police forces are out of control.
Large scale, continuing protests by many Americans, black and white, show that many of us are appalled by this resurgence of anti-Black racism. Or, perhaps, it is not a resurgence at all. The racism has been there all along but lately it has been so dramatic that even we whites cannot overlook it any more.
Clearly serious changes have to be made. Racist police practices have to be stopped.
At the same time, as a white man, I worry that we will once again take the easy way out and point the finger at individual police officers and individual police chiefs and put all the blame on them.
Whites, liberals and leftists, do that to absolve themselves of any responsibility for the continuing racism that poisons our society. We blame the police, we blame “the government,” we may also blame mass media. Some are critical of the supposed Archie Bunkerism of the working class. But they do not understand that everyone, even white anti-racists, as members of this deeply racist culture, are implicated in its maintenance.
At the heart of racism is the belief that Black people are significantly different from whites, that, with very few exceptions, they share certain characteristics which are overwhelmingly negative. Black people are different, they share specific qualities, and those make them undesirable members of a white society.
The white anti-racist rejects that last belief: Blacks, anti-racists believe, are not inferior to whites. But what is very difficult for us white anti-racists to give up is the idea of a largely homogenous group--”Blacks” or “African-Americans”--which is significantly different from us whites. Growing up in racist America, white anti-racists are also imbued with this map of our society in which distinct and significantly different groups—Blacks and Whites—live together uneasily. Racist whites regard the others as inferior; we anti-racist whites regard them as equally as good as us, or sometimes as better, and at other times as victims of racism whom we, white anti-racists, need to assist in their struggle for liberation.
But that is of course a mental map that humiliates those regarded as different. There is great diversity among Black people, in bodily characteristics, in mental traits, in their emotional make-up, in abilities and interests. Lumping many, very different people under some common label manifests one's disinterest in knowing them for who they are. Not being interested in knowing a certain group of people is a way of showing contempt and disrespect. Approaching strangers and acting as if one knew them already—being prejudiced, pre-judging others—is profoundly insulting.
Some people respond to that difficulty by claiming to be “colorblind.” But ignoring the racial divisions that exist in housing, in education, in employment, in incarceration rates, and elsewhere is just another way of helping to maintain racist divisions. The evils you ignore can continue to exist without your opposition.
White anti-racists confront a serious dilemma. On the one hand we should treat each individual as the individual they are and not worry much about their group characteristics. On the other hand a racist society does lump people into groups and in so far as these distinctions are often unjust we cannot ignore them.
So our task is complex. We must resist the injustices done by racism and racists to a specific group of people. We must at the same time train ourselves not to think of these persons only as members of their group but take them individually as fully seriously as we want to be taken seriously ourselves. We must stop talking about “they”; we must learn not to notice their group membership as the outstanding characteristic of persons we meet. We demand from others that they see us for who we really are, and we hope to see others for the individual person they are, with their own history, and their own outlook on the world. We must learn ourselves, and teach others, not to allow group characteristics to come between us and the other person.
Racism will not disappear as long as we only see types and not unique human beings. Most of us find it quite difficult to get beyond the group traits through which our society defines us. We maintain the racial and gender and disabilities maps that are part of our culture. To that extent we are complicit in the racial injustices committed in this world, regardless of how hard and sincerely we are fighting them.