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 a bunch of people out there right now who want to tell you “support the police” and “blue lives matter.” Many of these people also say slightly more nuanced things like “there is more crime in black neighborhoods so police are needed there” or “there are a few bad apples, but the police need the freedom to act” or “black people would be safe in encounters with the police if they just do what the police tell them.”
But all of those phrases have a missing word, right there at the end where it matters the most.
That word is “unconditionally.”
It’s easy to say members of the fringe aren’t part of the group. We’d prefer that they not be, at least we it comes to public perception. The fringe is an uncomfortable reminder of the flaws in our beliefs: as the Westboro Baptist Church is to Christians, as PETA is to environmentalism, as racist Trump supporters are to Republicans, as GamerGate trolls are to gamers, and so many others. We want to say these people are not really Christians, or environmentalists, or whatever group they claim to be part of.
But that’s rarely true—more frequently, these are the members we uncomfortably ignore, espousing views we have left carefully unstated inside our communities. They are bad actors we tolerate in our midst because, somewhere, we decided that solidarity trumps civility. When they finally become the loud voices, we suddenly want to distance ourselves from them, but it’s too late. Our complicity is already established.
People lie. People lie pretty much all the time—but most of those lies aren’t the sort of lies that matter. They are untruths that we expect and reinforce socially. They are lies that are, in a sense, required.
“How are you today?”
“Fine, how are you?”
I have trouble with things like that because I always want to answer truthfully. It took me a while to accept that it’s not a real question so much as a script, and that the answer is part of the script, and that because the answer doesn’t convey real information, it isn’t really untrue. It’s not really a lie. I may not be fine, but if I say that I am, that’s fine.
That’s a lie that isn’t really a lie, repeated for the benefit of a social script. We like social scripts, and they make us feel better. They make us feel like we understand the world. But there are lies we tell ourselves, too. There are social scripts we repeat to ourselves, and others, that are deeply, fundamentally, untrue. And while most of us know that “fine” doesn’t really cover it when the lie is about ourselves, it’s easy to forget that the scripts don’t really cover it about anyone else, either.
Especially if they have a different experience. And especially if the script is a script for those of us with social privileges. Like, say, if you’re white.
That was the question he asked, to a man near the front, when the first answer wasn’t good enough.
It was a workshop I attended recently with people I did not know. Some of them had traveled a ways to attend, but so had the presenter. And, when he called on the man, the presented asked what is an entirely reasonable question: “where are you from?” It was relevant to the work at hand, and something entirely acceptable to ask in a group.
“Boston,” the man replied.
With nary a missed beat, the (older, white, male) presenter replied, “no, where are you really from?”
I couldn’t miss the unspoken “…because of course you aren’t one of us.”
Reliably, whenever issues of sexism, racism, and prejudice appear, so too does the phrase “a few bad apples.” University professors are harassing their students, but universities and media hasten to remind us that they are just a few bad apples. Police officers are abusing the people they are supposed to protect and serve, but mostly when those people are black—still, it’s a few bad apples.
“A few bad apples” is in-group language. It’s what you say when you identify with the group in question, and you just can’t believe anything bad about that group because it would also mean something bad about yourself. It is, in essence, group-level denial: that person did something I can’t be associated with, so that must mean they don’t really represent my group.
We all know racism, sexism, and similar –isms are things we shouldn’t admit to; even those who embrace them ideologically would rather express them in different words. The disclaimer mad lib is simple: “I’m not _____, it’s just that _____.” Islamophobia? No, no, it’s just that there really are Muslim terrorists, so my fear is justified! Sexism? Are you kidding? Women just choose lower-paying jobs than men do. Racism? Don’t make me laugh. Black people just commit more crimes, so of course the police need to pay more attention to them. For Americans, for white people, for men, for those on the inside, an –ism is easily explained away by external factors.
From the outside, it looks a bit different.
If you’re a woman in the United States, you have probably gotten attention you didn’t want from men who didn’t want to take no for an answer.
If you’re black in the United States, you have probably gotten attention you didn’t want from police who assumed you were guilty of something.
And you’ll notice that what these things have in common is not, necessarily, some internal core quality (which is how many white people think about racism, how many men think about sexism, etc.). Instead, what they have in common is behavior, and a system that says that behavior is okay.