Saturday, July 9, 2016

America's Terrible Week: A Few Thoughts

It's been a terrible week here in the United States.  Alton Sterling was killed by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  Philandro Castile was killed by police in Falcon Heights, Minnesota (a city I had previously associated with happy memories of the Minnesota State Fair).  Both appear to be part of a larger trend of disproportionate killing of black Americans by police officers.  And then five police officers were killed by a lone gunman in Dallas, Texas just a few blocks from where JFK was shot.

It's the kind of heart-numbing horror that makes me want to crawl into a hole and cry myself to sleep.

I don't have anything like a coherent statement about all of this, although I've written about similar issues before (see here and here).  This time I have a few random thoughts.

Factual Issues

  • Black Americans are killed by police at something like two to three times the rate of white Americans.  (See this database from the Guardian for details).
  • Sterling and Castile seem to have both been in possession of firearms when they were killed, which they were carrying entirely legally.  The NRA has yet to make specific comments on either incident.
  • Black Lives Matter had nothing to do with the gunman's actions in Dallas.  Authorities say that the man was acting alone.  No doubt numerous conspiracy theories are sprouting up about the "real" nature of the attack, and like most conspiracy theories the lack of reasons in their favor is just more fuel for the believers' fire.

Moral Issues

  • Black Lives Matter.
  • If you don't know why Black Lives Matter is a thing or you think we should make it "All Lives Matter" instead, read this.  Of course we all believe that all lives matter.  Or we say we do.  That's the problem.  Unfortunately the systemic realities in the United States show that some lives matter less than others.  It's important to assert that black lives matter as an effort to transform our professed belief that all lives matter into a true belief.
  • White people, we need to listen to black people's perspectives.  Here are a few perspectives from philosopher George Yancy, English professor Roxane Gay, science fiction author Steven Barnes, and Desert Dragon on her blog.  There are a lot more perspectives out there.  Find them.
  • As we listen, we white people need to realize that we will never completely understand what it's like to be black in America.  But this does not absolve us of the duty to try to gain what degree of understanding we can.
  • Listening is hard for white people because we are assumed to be authorities on all things.  The thought that there may be perspectives we don't immediately understand challenges this authority.  Rather than denying that racism is an issue in the United States because it's not immediately obvious to us, we should shut up and listen.
  • Yes, blue lives matter, too.  We should all mourn the officers killed in Dallas.  It's a tragedy. 
  • While individual police officers can be good or bad people who are good or bad at their jobs, we need to acknowledge that there are serious systemic issues with law enforcement in the United States.

Critical Thinking Issues

  • It is possible to both care about black people and to care about police officers.  It's possible to think that systemic racism exists in policing while at the same time realizing that police have a dangerous, difficult job. It's possible to respect police officers as human beings while also holding them to a higher standard when it comes to racial justice.  To say otherwise is a classic logical fallacy called False Dilemma.
  • Whatever you think about all this, try to have reasons for your beliefs.  Try to make coherent arguments.  Don't fall for bombastic fallacies, cheap shots, bigoted rhetoric, or baseless conspiracy theories.  Think critically.  Someone's life might depend on it.


  1. Another good one on "Black Lives Matter" versus "All Lives Matter":

  2. What some philosophers have said about police shootings:


  3. Ethan, I feel like this article pretty much sums everything up perfectly. It’s sad that even more officers and black people have been killed. I honestly don’t even know what to think of any of this mess anymore. I have two uncles who are police officers in two very dangerous and volatile places. Obviously they are black (LOL) and I worry about them and their safety. I have to because people claiming to be pro-police (including organizations and politicians) only support white cops. I also worry about the people who will be attacked because of their skin color. And I am extremely concerned about bigots using the deaths of police officers to further feed the flames of racism.

    I want to know what the resolution needs to be for this mess to come to an end. There needs to be some kind of closure on both parts. People are blaming BLM for the acts of the assailants and of course these people throw all black people into the same category as if we are not diverse with very different ways of thinking. One great example of this would be a recent clip of Don Lemon and his conversation with a standoffish black Sherriff. Another glimpse of this are the countless black YouTubers and black people in general denouncing violence against the police and in general—guess what? These black people are under attack for claiming pacifism.

    We must also realize that all blues lives are not all white. Many blue lives are black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American. Let’s start showing true representation of the diversity of the police force instead of slapping white faces everywhere reaching for guns further perpetuating the racist white cop ideology. It is also important that we hold officers to the same standard as civilians in every case.

    Like you said, there are very aggressive cops out there who want nothing more than to harm people and abuse the honor of carrying that badge. The fact that these cops’ actions are not condemned throws dirt on every police department across the nation. It’s disrespectful to the oath that officers take and to the American public. People, primarily racist white media, are polarizing recent violent stunts against officers and blaming BLM and black people in general. News flash. Non-white officers are not safe from police brutality. Just look at what happened in Baton Rouge and Dallas. Heck look what happened in New York a few months back. Look literally everywhere.

    I am so disgusted by this world we live in. Terribly disgusted.

    1. Kyanna, thank you for your comment. You raise a great point that a lot of people seem to be forgetting that not all police officers are white. The simplistic white vs. black racial narrative doesn't really work here. I first heard about the tragic shooting in Baton Rouge yesterday when Fox News was playing at a restaurant. The way Fox News was spinning it, you'd think we were on the verge of a race war personally instigated by President Obama (and to some extent by MN Governor, Mark Dayton). I also worry that the important messages of BLM are going to get lost in the "war on cops" narrative being pushed in some parts of the media. I don't know why it's so hard for some people to see that people murdering cops and cops murdering people are both bad things.

    2. Bingo! Yahtzee! It’s not a huge feat. The fact that we as human beings AND American citizens refuse to do so speaks volumes about our intentions.

  4. An article that uses some contemporary philosophy of language to shed light on "Black Lives Matter" versus "All Lives Matter:"

    1. Ethan,

      I read this article and found it interesting. To be honest, there is never going to be a time where it is socially acceptable to speak openly about race in America. Ian Olasov mentions that ‘sloganeering’ only deepens disagreements but the fact is literally just speaking about these issues ‘deepens disagreements.’ We live in a place where people are assumed equal and yet equality is implied but it is not applied in many aspects of American life. Folks use this stuff as a means to pander to the public and the sad fact of the matter is that it actually works. I guess though. Thanks for sharing! And I have a question— what are your favorite philosophy based websites? Thanks!

    2. I did think that article was a bit hard on slogans. I don't see why slogans can't be an entry into deeper conversations, at least as long as people realize that a slogan is not the whole truth (that's maybe the problem). While talking about race is difficult and we're not at a place yet where it's generally socially acceptable, I wonder if we might get there in a few decades. It would take a lot of work. I think the problem for a lot of white people is that somewhere deep down we know there are serious problems, but this is such a threat to our deeply held ideals of individualism and equality that we have trouble talking about it. To admit we don't have an equal society is a threat to our self image.

      As for philosophy websites, here are a few good ones:

      If you like podcasts, this is a good one and also includes some Islamic and Indian philosophy:

      A few blogs: