Originally published January 22nd, 2016 on the Huffington Post
In today’s highly charged, extremely volatile environment, it’s extremely risky to weigh in on anything having to do with race. And yet, because of the extreme importance of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and the national conversation on race and policing that it has rightfully inspired, I deliberately choose to do so.
I am struck by the divergence between two of the nation’s most thoughtful and notable black writers about BLM. Their views are not only important in and of themselves, but even more, they constitute opposite sides of a powerful and important dialectic.
John McWhorter, Professor of Linguistics at Columbia University, has written that while he is not against the BLM movement per se, he is just as concerned, if not more so, with black on black crime. Because so many more blacks are killed regularly by blacks, black on black crime hurts the black community even more than the killing of unarmed black kids by white cops. As Professor McWhorter puts it, Do Black Lives Matter Only When Taken by White Cops? Does a black mother mourn the loss of a child any less when it’s taken by someone who is black than by a white cop? Do arcane matters of political philosophy–i.e., the underlying philosophical tenets of the BLM movement–really matter to someone who has just lost a child to street violence? For Professor McWhorter, this last point is so overwhelming that it essentially ends the discussion. This is not meant in any way to say that he either belittles or ignores the racism that is a prominent feature of many police departments and the harsh racist attitudes towards blacks that are held by far too many police, black as well as white.
On the other side of the dialectic is Ta-Nehisi Coates, national correspondent forThe Atlantic Monthly. In his own words: “…’Black-on-black crime’ is jargon, violence to language, which vanishes the men who engineered the [racial] covenants, who fixed the loans, who planned the [housing] projects, who built the streets and sold red ink by the barrel. And this should not surprise us. The plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return.”
For Mr. Coates, shifting the conversation away from the killing of blacks by white cops, especially unarmed black kids, is not only just another instance of whites taking over and controlling the discourse, but once again, of whites basically showing that they are able to do anything they want with the bodies of blacks with no recourse to justice. In short, the brutalization of blacks is written into the basic DNA of whites. For this reason, from its very founding, it’s really no surprise that the brutalization of blacks was also written into the country’s DNA as well. Is it not the case that Blacks have been subjugated longer than they have been free? Is it really any wonder that brutalization and subjugation persist to this day?
In Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, Professor McWhorter sees blacks hampered by three outmoded and self-defeating beliefs: Victimology, Separatism, and Anti-intellectualism. Yes, racism still exists, but it’s time for blacks to give up playing the perpetual victim card. There is no longer the kind of overwhelming and debilitating racism that blacks faced in the past. It’s also time for blacks to stop separating themselves from all things white. And finally, if they really want to get ahead in the modern world, the time is way overdue for blacks to embrace education. It’s the only way that blacks and whites can get ahead in today’s high-tech world.
In sharp contrast, for Mr. Coates, racism shows no signs whatsoever of letting up, especially since it’s hard wired into the DNA of whites. Since blacks cannot stop whites from practicing brutalization and subjugation, whites must ultimately stop themselves, if they ever really can.
I confess that of the two, Professor McWhorter is far easier to read. It’s not just that he excoriates blacks for what he sees them doing that is basically not in their best self-interest, but that it’s unbearably difficult to take the intense anger that boils off of every page of Mr. Coates’ book, Between The World And Me. Even though whites need to be made keenly aware of the unbearable trauma that black people have suffered repeatedly at the hands of whites, Mr. Coates’ anger towards whites is seemingly without bounds. To this reader, the same prime message comes through repeatedly, namely that whites are irredeemably evil.
Time and again, Mr. Coates pounds home the point that for most of our history, whites could do whatever they wanted with black bodies with little, if any payback. Further, the police are society’s most visible and potent symbol of the virtually absolute power of whites over blacks. Even though I don’t like to admit it, his intense anger made it all-too-easy for me, at least at first, to turn away from his very important message. It’s far easier for whites to accept Professor McWhorter, and by doing so, let themselves off the hook. However, in the course of putting together this dialectic, I came to appreciate Mr. Coates’s message all the more.
The best dialectic is one where a person is gripped by two equally powerful and opposing arguments, stories if you will. As a result, it’s never a simple choice of one versus the other. In this case, I believe that both messages contain important “truths” that I feel deeply.
It’s important to emphasize the basic points of the dialectic at which the stories disagree. In one, whites are the wrongful, if not inherently evil, party. In this story, blacks have been perpetually wronged. In the other, blacks have done wrong to themselves. In one, whites have to change, if they ever really can; in the other, blacks need to change. In both stories, philosophical tenets or beliefs system are important, but they are obviously not the same, and thus, their roles are not the same as well. In short, they differ over fundamental matters of good and evil, who the righteous versus the wronged parties are, who needs to change, etc.
If there is a point of agreement between them, and hence, a possible synthesis, however small it may be, it is this: Blacks and whites have profound changes that only they can make in themselves before they can live together in peace and harmony, let alone separately without each other. While this is undoubtedly true, none of us can change entirely on our own accord. We need others, especially those that don’t have the same take on things, who as a result push us further than we can go on our own. In brief, I believe that the need for others and the desire for change is also wired deeply into our DNA.
If the multiple killings of young black kids and unarmed black men is not a clear wake-up call that police departments everywhere are in need of fundamental reforms with regard to how cops use force, then nothing is. At the same time, having worked with cops over the course of my career, I know that every time they go out on a call, they live in abject fear of their lives, even though they often have trouble admitting it. Cops live in constant fear because in a society with over 300 million guns, one has to approach every situation as if everyone is armed with a deadly, high-powered automatic that can easily penetrate the best life-protecting vests. For this reason, if I had to assign blame, then I would put the lion’s share squarely on the NRA for contributing to and stoking the climate of fear such that far too many of our fellow citizens feel that they cannot trust the government to protect them.
In the end, I wish fervently that a direct action movement to curtail guns could take shape that was as full of as much passion as BLM. Indeed, I wish that BLM would expand its agenda to take on the role of guns in our society. That’s a movement I’d like to join.