Thursday, April 30, 2015

Nonviolence for White Americans

I planned to write about human relationships with robots in the movies Robot and Frank and Ex Machina.  I will do so later, but with the earthquake in Nepal and the events in Baltimore surrounding the death of Freddie Gray on my mind, I wanted to say something about relationships between human beings.

Nonviolence has been in the news this week, with articles such as Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Nonviolence as Compliance” and Benji Hart’s“Baltimore’s Violent Protestors are Right.”  There’s even an article on Gandhi and Baltimore by Tom Hawking.

If nonviolence is understood as passively acquiescing to injustice (as the click bait headline of Coates’s article suggests while the actual article does not), then it’s my duty as a philosopher to point out that it’s simply inaccurate to claim that this is nonviolent philosophy as understood the tradition of Gandhi and King.
But honestly I’m not interested in being another white person to lecture African Americans about nonviolence.  I’m also not interesting in being another white person to use the situation in Baltimore to make sweeping claims about violence and social change, which I find just as problematic. 

In this post I am addressing my fellow white Americans, because we are the people most in need of the principles of nonviolence.

Fear as the Basis for Violence

While a lot could be said about the militarization of police, cultures of protecting and encouraging racist behavior among police departments, or gun laws that enlarge the scope of legally justifiable self-defense, I want to concentrate on a more fundamental issue: fear.  Fear is the basis of all of this, especially white Americans’ fear of black Americans.

Fear played an obvious role in the killings of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown; even if we grant that George Zimmerman and Darren White may have been legitimately afraid and may have shot white people in similar situations (and I have serious doubts about the latter), Zimmerman and White each explicitly framed the incidents in terms of racialized fear.  Baseless fear was the root of the police killing of Eric Garner in New York.  Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore may be less about immediate fear than it is about dehumanization that results from white people’s fear of black people.

Fear has also played a role in other issues such as white flight, continued segregation, and disproportionate rates of poverty, unemployment, and incarceration.  Fear encourages white Americans to categorize black Americans as threats rather than human beings.  It is an assault on human dignity that results in the belief that black lives don’t matter.  This is violence.

Given the way American society and the media are constantly telling white people to be afraid of black people, it’s no wonder that many of us feel this fear so deeply, and given our national mythology of a color blind, post-Civil Rights society, no wonder we usually fail to acknowledge this fear.

Overcoming Cowardice

Gandhi said repeatedly that if he had to choose between violence or cowardice, he would choose violence (see for instance, “Ahiṃsā, or The Way of Non-Violence”).  This surprises people unfamiliar with Gandhi’s work, which is why you should read primary sources!  Gandhi thought that nonviolent action is usually – but not always – the best alternative, but he was insistent that nonviolence requires the overcoming of fear.  Gandhi, like King after him, was keen to undermine the equivalence of courage and violence, a lesson I think our violent society would do well to learn.  (See also my post on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and this 1968 speech in which King addressed recent riots). 

White Americans need the courage to overcome our fears.  We must have the courage to counteract our racist society, to stop dehumanizing and disrespecting black people, to stop seeing our fellow human beings as threats, and to stop denigrating black communities.

Undoing pervasive social conditioning is not easy, but with courage and reflection it may be possible to make some small progress.  So, white Americans, next time you feel an involuntary reaction of fear, assume somebody is “suspicious,” unthinkingly say that a particular part of town is “bad,” and so forth, stop and reflect about whether you’re doing so out of fear and whether you want to be the type of person ruled by fear.


This alone is obviously not going to solve all our problems, but in a society where fear blinds many of us to the humanity of our fellow citizens, it’s a start.  If we can start working on fear as one of the root causes of racial injustice, perhaps we can also start thinking about real political solutions to the systemic and structural racism that harms all of us.

Likewise, we should help people in Nepal after last week’s devastating earthquake, but we should also think about what we can do to end the global inequality and poverty that make responding to natural disasters more difficult.

Relying on courage, reasoning, compassion, cooperation, and political action to solve problems and build healthy societies is what nonviolence is really about.  It’s about time we white Americans started doing our part.

1 comment:

  1. This article gives examples of some of the kinds of fears I'm talking about: