Over the past year the Black Lives Matter movement has called attention to disproportionate police violence against disproportionately black Americans. For many black Americans, this was a breakthrough into the mainstream for a challenge they have lived with their entire lives. For many white Americans, this is a new and surprising piece of information about the world.
If you are a white American, it’s understandable that you would find it novel to think black Americans have more to fear from police officers. After all, you may have lived your entire life without worrying much about the police, and certainly without feeling like you have no control over whether you live or die at a traffic stop. You might wonder what we, a free and just society, should do about this new problem.
But of course it isn’t a new problem—just novel to you. It’s an old problem, and what’s new is that white people, by and large, now know about it.
There are often such tipping points in our knowledge of the world. We go through life thinking we have a pretty good understanding of things, and we operate on a day-to-day basis as though our assumptions are, if not perfectly accurate, close enough to count on. Yet, more often than not, something comes along that forces us to reconsider.
Assuming we don’t deny new information outright, we are forced to wonder how we got it wrong. And our bias, of course, is that we weren’t wrong in the first place. This new information is not as big a deal as it seems—it is an isolated problem, a new problem, and perhaps even a problem created by the people discussing it.
Faced with Black Lives Matter, powerful white people have begun systematically to argue each of those three points. The problem of police brutality against black Americans is really a problem of a few isolated bad apples, who don’t represent any kind of systemic error (because if they did, that would challenge our fundamental experience of the justice system as just). On top of that, race relations were fine before 2008, so this is probably Obama’s fault for making race an issue during his presidency (because we rarely experience racism, so if it has existed all along, that would mean we were ignorant). And finally, Black Lives Matter itself is the problem, because protests and criticism make the police nervous, and thus it is harder to do their jobs and they make more mistakes.
That last is the most insidious argument, but also the most understandable. We’d all prefer to think we have a clear understanding of the world, so we don’t distinguish well between problems we are unaware of and problems that don’t exist. All these arguments try to pretend the problem in our view of the world is with an isolated piece of information. Yet, to discover something fundamentally different from our assumptions means equally that the world is different and that our assumptions are flawed.
Instinctively, though, we reject that conclusion. We preserve our old deep assumptions and conflate what is novel with what is new. We now know that black Americans are being killed by police at an unjustifiable rate (and that’s assuming there is any such thing as a justifiable rate of police violence against citizens, itself a debatable point). But to treat this as a systemic problem also means to accept our own ignorance. If there is a systematic problem with our justice system, there is also a systematic problem with our assumption that it is basically fair. There is also a systematic problem with our experience of the world, which tells us the police are not likely to kill us. There is also a systematic problem with our society, because it has allowed us to live this long without knowing these things.
The very foundation of Black Lives Matter is to assert all these problems—that it is a systemic problem in the justice system, that it is an issue with our society that makes it safer to be white than to be black, and that it is a problem of white ignorance because we are protected from knowing and experiencing the real lives of our fellow Americans.
So, if you are a white American in 2016, you may be surprised to learn that police have been killing black Americans for decades, and you are likely at a psychological disadvantage. The things about society that protect you from this problem are also things that protect you from believing it is a problem. And so you feel inherently cautious about this novel (yet not new) information.
All that is forgivable. You, the white people of 2016, did not lay out this society. You did not build racism into its superstructure and foundations both. You did not decide to be ignorant of others’ experiences—at least, not until now.
Because although what you believed when you were ignorant is forgivable, what you believe afterwards is a choice. If you make the arguments above, try to paint the issue of racism as new, and blame those on the receiving end for bringing it to light, you are choosing to give more weight to your own comfort and your disproven assumptions than to the evidence before you and the testimony of your fellow citizens.
That is not forgivable. That is doubling down on the biases of society. That is making the assumption that what you know about is the same as what is true, and then using that same mistaken proposition to erase the problem instead of helping to solve it.
I do entirely understand the difficulty of breaking out of one’s assumptions. It is neither easy nor comfortable. What’s dangerous is that we so rarely remember to try.
Image Credit: Ella