It’s been a long walk from last Monday for all of us. Thank you for bringing this issue to the blog though, because it would be negligent to write back and forth during the summer without addressing the problem of race and police (Jessica’s post can be found here). Unfortunately, your plea for us to educate ourselves about race relations and take actions to improve them was followed by attacks on police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, a terrorist attack in Nice, and an attempted coup in Turkey, and the response that I drafted last Thursday seems startlingly inadequate in light of those events. We have suffered a lot. However, that makes it all the more important for us to write.
Where I come from…
Black lives matter. One of the reasons I am so drawn to English as a field of study is that it involves focusing on the particular. As G.K. Chesterton puts it in The Man Who Was Thursday, “The philosopher may sometimes love the infinite; the poet always loves the finite. For him the greatest moment is not the creation of light, but the creation of the sun and moon.” If I am going to address this issue honestly and genuinely, it must be through my particular view of the world.
However, I am often inclined to take this particularity too far, to see peoples’ subjective experiences as completely separate from the world of policy and theory. I sometimes think theories of oppression and injustice can be extrapolated to describe a person’s character in a way that is unsympathetic to their full humanity. But it is also a sin to discount the humanity of a whole group of people on the basis of an overzealous application of a theory. In fact, I am guilty on both counts. I enjoy living in the world of ideas, in which the only test of truth is consistency and beauty. As an upper class model minority male, I have the privilege of existing in that world without much trouble. It is easy for me to defend a beautiful theory from an ugly reality, because the ugly fact has few implications for me. For example, I can defend the right of final clubs to freedom of association without sanction because I don’t experience the disadvantages of sex discrimination. Therefore, to criticize rhetoric because it shames those who say “All Lives Matter” as imbecilic racists is to ignore the plank in my own eye while I pluck a speck of dust from the eye of a stab wound victim.
I am repenting of these sins in the hope that we can begin to work towards justice, reconciliation, and truth.
First, I must take a moment to mourn and behold. Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens are humans. Brilliantly idiosyncratic, vivid beyond representation, and undeniably material, they are people in the image of God. I am sad that we have lost them. It is because of their materiality, the fact that Philando and Alton are black, that Brent, Patrick, Michael K., Michael S., and Lorne were police officers, that other humans decided to take their lives. I find it a tragic irony that a certain part of their humanity was used as an excuse to dehumanize them. But it is not all that surprising. The world we live in is broken, and the systems of justice we’ve created are broken, and so it is that my individual brokenness also contributes to these terrible days.
It is difficult for me to draw the connection between these men and the structures that create society without reducing them to symbols of a cause. Although theory and ideas can be beautiful, it is often a cold beauty, devoid of the messiness of humanity. Politics, despite all the appearances to the contrary, is a human endeavor. Therefore, when people die during an interaction with the political world, whether that interaction is with a police officer or during a protest, their deaths are political. They are indications, symptoms, of the prejudice against blacks that occurs and has occurred in our politics; they show the blind spots in our theories. The deep disparity in the way I experience the political world and the way a black man experiences the political world is unfathomable to me. It can make me feel secure in my complacency, smug in my ability to avoid co-opting another group’s struggle. It can also make me despair of hope for change and connection. However, I, as a human being, have the capability and the responsibility to transcend self-interest. Therefore, I support blacks who are adamantly, courageously reminding the world to acknowledge their full humanity, reminding us that their lives, black lives, matter more than we can imagine.
I know that this is high flown language. I fear that in my attempt to get at the indescribable experience of life, I have exoticized black people in another way or commodified them for the sake of my own ego. I do not mean to single their lives out in that way; all human life is indescribable. At this point in time however, it is important for us to know that that extends to black people as well. Regardless, I offer my support to those who, due to my past silence, cannot presume to have it.
I’m sure that my words are insufficient, but I offer them anyways in the hope that there is some truth in them.
“And I love light. Perhaps you’ll think it strange that an invisible man should need light, desire light, love light. But maybe it is exactly because I am invisible. Light confirms my reality, gives birth to my form… That is why I fight my battle with Monopolated Light & Power. The deeper reason, I mean: It allows me to feel my vital aliveness.” — Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man