I read a proverb this morning claiming that wisdom existed before anything else did, and that it's been there all along. Let's ask for wisdom now to navigate our current conversation with dignity and grace.
As I often do on this blog, I'll start with one side of our cultural conversation - the left - and follow with the other. So don't you worry, my conservative friends. I'm coming for you, too.
I'm sure you've all seen various versions of the meme describing what Black Lives Matter is trying to say in the face of the All Lives Matter response. The explanation affirms that all lives matter but argues that we need extra help with black lives right at this moment. Even if you read and have been convinced by Heather MacDonald's claims that the rate of police murdering blacks being arrested is similar to that for whites being arrested, you're probably aware that blacks get arrested at a far higher rate than whites. This is true even for crimes that whites and blacks commit at the same rate, like smoking and dealing marijuana. Blacks and whites are known to use marijuana at similar rates, but blacks are arrested three times as often. Even if you think those arrests are more about class than race, surely it's not hard to imagine how blacks would feel targeted. But whatever you believe about the data, the explanation at least makes sense. We're asking you, BLM claims, to help us because we're uniquely in danger right now, not because we deny the value of anybody else's life. Fair enough.
Such an explanation makes it seem insane, and probably just downright racist, to be against Black Lives Matter, or even to be indifferent to it. But if you go to the Black Lives Matter website, their stance is not nearly so simple or straightforward. So what am I buying into when I support them? This is a classic case of a "motte and bailey" argument. First, a highly controversial claim is made, and when that is attacked, the interlocuters suggest that 'all we were really saying was' something simple and uncontroversial with which only a terrible person could disagree.
On the "What We Believe" portion of the BLM website, the description of their mission sounds beautiful and straightforward for the first several paragraphs. It expresses the desire to live in a world where blacks can thrive, and to empower blacks to fight for that world.
But by the end of the statement, friends of the movement are called 'comrades' several times, which (in case you were born after 1989) references a communist notion of equality. They're making sure to mention queer and trans people, to throw off the confines of the nuclear family, and to de-center men. That last one is particularly odd, since BLM arose from concerns over police and incarceration, an issue which affects black men in a wildly disproportionate way compared to black women. In fact, while black women bear a terrible burden of sustaining family life while so many black men are caught up in the criminal justice system, they also tend to have better outcomes in almost every other regard: education, income, and health. Historically, black women's domestic roles made them familiar and comfortable to white employers, while black men were treated more like a threat. In other words, the black experience doesn't fit well into feminist categories.
It's also a little odd that so many typical leftist causes are included in the Black Lives Matter statement, since this doesn't actually align well with the 'listen to black voices' argument I'm always hearing from the same group. American blacks are overwhelmingly Christian (79% self-identifying) and quite socially conservative, particularly on matters of sexuality and gender. One the whole, they're neither known for their communist leanings or even their socialist ones. For reference, just check out the handy victory of Joe Biden over Bernie Sanders in South Carolina, where the black vote made all the difference. I'm going to guess that blacks in South Carolina are no more taken with Joe Biden than anyone who's voting for him in November is. But blacks believe in business and tend to be a highly entrepreneurial group. Bernie just wasn't a good fit.
So is BLM black, or leftist? If you're tempted to assume these overlap well, you haven't yet grasped just how badly American blacks fit into our white political categories. They just... don't. And why should they?
Before I turn the tables on my right-leaning friends as well, let's talk about 'white privilege'. I am told over and over again that this term simply means that, whatever your life experience, as a white person you didn't suffer because of the color of your skin. Therefore, you needn't be offended if you grew up a poor white Appalachian with drug-addicted parents and no economic hope, for instance. The point is, it wasn't because you were black.
The only problem with this term is that it seems to communicate exactly the opposite of what it means. It seems to say that white people have something that they ought not to have: privilege. Of course, in a few cases this is certainly true, as when a young man like Brock Turner gets off with no, or very little, punishment for rape because he had such a great life ahead of him. It's true when a white, middle-class friend of mine who was addicted to cocaine got pulled over with an 8 ball and a baby in the back seat and was told that she was "too pretty to go to jail." Certainly, we want equal justice and no special favors for white people, although I wouldn't be surprised if class had as much to do with these sorts of cases as race did. But in the majority of cases we're thinking of when we talk about 'white privilege', what we really mean is that we want black people to have the same things. We want them to be able to walk around a store without being followed, to only get pulled over for probable cause, to be able to own nice things without it being assumed that they were stolen. In other words, we want them to have the same privileges of equal citizenship that white people have. But if that's what we want, the term 'white privilege' is a very poor way of communicating that. It would make more sense to refer to the frustrating circumstances that blacks have to deal with as 'black exclusion', for instance.
Nowhere was this made more clear than the bizarre spectacle of whites on their knees at a recent protest, holding their hands up like a bunch of charismatics, denouncing their white privilege. One black commenter captured the feelings of many when she said, "This is weird and uncomfortable and I'm 99% certain most other POC feel the same as me. Y'all are getting WEIRD. Like Jonestown weird." What does this gesture even mean? Will these people beg the cops to follow them around stores or pull them over unnecessarily? Just HOW are they going to give up their white privilege?
What they can do, on the other hand, is USE their privilege to help reform the criminal justice system, get black men training and jobs, and help stabilize impoverished neighborhoods. Looking at these sorts of displays in recent days, I couldn't help but think to myself, "Wow. Look at the white people making it about themselves again." They seem to be saying that if they gaze long enough into their own navels, this will somehow actually solve the real, practical problems facing black and other marginalized communities.
To my left-leaning friends, if you've stuck with me this long, you get your reward. For now I will turn the sword of my ire on our conservative friends.
I'm not the first to point out that while conservatives may have a point about political correctness gone wild, they certainly have a political correctness of their own. If college students on the left are acting like snowflakes about their favorite categories of gender and race (honestly, I don't feel like they care much about class anymore...), so too are the snowflakes on the right melting in the hot sun of any mention of nationalism-run-amok, Trump's wildly inappropriate behavior, the relevance of racism now, and any number of other hot-button issues. This means we have to double back and think about those phrases 'black lives matter' and 'white privilege'. When Mitt Romney says that black lives matter, and when he marches with protesters, is he the motte, or the bailey? Is he affirming the simple, bipartisan point that our criminal justice system is wildly out of control, and that this will inevitably affect marginalized people the most? Or has he suddenly jettisoned his Mormon roots to support socialism, radical feminism, and the rejection of biological sex? I mean, come on.
This goes for your churches, your neighbors, and your friends, too, conservatives. Argue with them all you want about the more controversial elements of leftism, but don't condemn them for using language that they do not understand in a controversial way. Most likely, they are making a good faith effort to engage in a movement that's got at least one thing obviously correct. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery were murdered in cold blood. Their deaths were needless and a source of great mourning. After all, isn't it the prophets who yelled in fury that "the poor cry out for justice"? Wasn't it Ezekiel who claimed that Sodom and Gemorrah fell, not just because of the rapey stuff, but because they "were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy"? Conservatives are supposed to care - a lot - about stable institutions of justice. But if all they're doing is reactionary tribalism they will have jettisoned their own tradition.
It takes more work, I know, but let's think deeply about the way we use words now. There's a difference between the broader cultural and academic conversation and the one you should be having with the person in the next cubicle or the next pew. It'll take every one of us embracing some nuance and extending some grace if we're going to climb out of this poisonous polarized moment. Refuse to oversimplify. Refuse to react. Refuse to give up.