I don’t have the answers. But, like a typical philosopher, I have been asking a lot of questions.
These questions are primarily for my fellow white Americans, because these are the people for which I feel some responsibility but also because this is the group with the most power to change things in this country. So get ready, white Americans, let’s ask some questions.
Why questions? Why not answers? Let me give one answer—a sort of meta-answer if you will—before we get to the main questions.
Having studied white American history, having been a white American for over 40 years, and having known many white Americans during this time, I have come to suspect that one thing unites us: white Americans do not like being told what to do.
You couldn’t stop our ancestors from becoming Americans by committing genocide. You couldn’t get our forefathers to pay tea taxes to the British. It took a lot to stop some of us from owning people and lynching people while prattling on about rights and equality and order. For most of the last 100 years, you haven’t been able to stop most of us from getting real excited and patriotic about sending our poor people to kill brown people in far-off lands. You can’t get most of us to care about poor people, even the white ones. If you tell us not to vote for the racist demagogue hellbent on destroying the country, by God, most of us are going to call you a PC libtard and vote for him just to spite you. You can’t even get most of us to wear masks during a pandemic.
I am generalizing, of course. But it seems that in this case my lack of answers and abundance of questions might actually be a good tactic for changing things. So here are some questions.
- Do you care more about property or human lives? Order or justice? If you think about how you’ve reacted to the news during the past week, can you honestly say your previous answers were accurate?
- Do you feel like you understand the long, complicated, and often violent history of relationships between police and African American communities? Do you think this all started with George Floyd or Breonna Taylor? Did it start with Ahmaud Arbery, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, The Charleston Nine, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, or so many other men and women? Or decades earlier? Emmett Till? Ed Johnson? Before that with slave patrols of earlier centuries? Might this history continue to affect us today? Do you think your own experience with the police might be different than that of others?
- What other experiences that you take for granted might be different for others, especially for African Americans?
- If you’ve been quoting Martin Luther King, Jr., have you ever read one of his books? Or are you relying on sanitized interpretations of feel-good quotes taken out of context? Or what other like-minded people tell you he said? Do you realize that most white Americans disliked him during his lifetime?
- What do you think the purpose of police in our society is? Are police like those who killed George Floyd fulfilling that purpose? If you answered no, how do we change that? If you say yes, is that more disturbing even if more accurate? Are there a lot of different ways to answer these questions?
- Do you think there are some systemic problems with police that affect everybody, even white people?
- What are you going to do about these problems with police? Do we need new laws, civilian oversight with real power, politicians unafraid to stand up to deeply entrenched police cultures, or an entirely new culture of policing? New police? Do we really need police at all?
- Have you looked into policy options including various sorts of reform, defunding, or abolition? Why are so few politicians right now talking about real, specific changes to policing? Are some policy changes band-aids for deeper wounds? How do we treat the disease rather than the symptoms?
- If you have strong opinions about how other people should protest, where did you get those opinions? Why do you have them? Who do those opinions benefit? Are you telling other people what to do? Would you like it if other people told you what to do? Do you see why there might be a difficult history of white Americans telling others, especially African Americans, what to do?
- Have some police responses to protests incited violence rather than reacting to it?
- How has the “outside agitators” narrative often been used to ignore the real issues at hand? Are protests and riots often messy? Could there be some evidence of outside agitators (or whatever one calls them) in some cases? Do you think the problematic narrative and the presence of such people on the ground could both be true simultaneously? Who benefits from confusion about this point? Do events this complex admit of any simple narrative or explanation? What will historians of future decades or centuries say about this week?
- Should we trust any simple narrative about everything that’s going on during these… Riots? Upheavals? Insurrections? Revolutions? Is it likely that there are wide varieties of groups and individuals doing lots of things for lots of reasons in favor of lots of causes? Is more than one of these causes worthwhile? Can we recognize that many causes are worthwhile without losing track of the justified rage about the killing of George Floyd and so many others?
- Do you think the upheaval of the last week is a response to the deep, systemic injustices of our country, not just with police, but with racial, economic, and other disparities? Has the pandemic exacerbated these disparities or made them clear?
- Are the concerns for property during these protests or the drive for “getting back to work” during a deadly pandemic things you would expect in a wealthy nation that actually cares about human life?
- What are you going to do about all this?
- Are you doing the work? Any work? Even just a little?
- Do you have the answers to these questions? Do I? Does anyone?