This essay is part of our series on Race and Racism in America. See the full collection here.
Reflecting on racially motivated police brutality and the death of George Floyd, an African American recently told me, “Nobody understands. If your neighbor’s house was on fire, you’d help them. But no one thinks of us as enough of a neighbor to help us.”
As a Latina who hopes for national civic friendship to heal the racial tensions that are destroying us, I feel the same way. I have written about the systemic and pervasive nature of institutionalized racism in previous essays.
Sadly, the long-awaited movement of the collective American consciousness toward recognizing police brutality has quickly become obstructed by violent protests and riots. What was an evil moment that might finally move American political opinion toward good and swift action became a discussion about the evils of rioting and arguments over whether radicalized antifa or white supremacists are to blame. When only urban African Americans’ lives were at stake, the threat seemed remote. With the looting and rioting, however, neighbors’ houses were on fire—neighbors that the nation cared about—and suddenly, many could imagine that their house could be on fire soon, too. Now, the majority feels afraid, threatened by aggressive, racialized forces outside of their control.
Many minority Americans already felt this fear before the riots began. Amid reports of COVID’s disproportionate effect on racial minorities (blacks and Latinos are three times more likely to know someone who has died from the virus, and Native American communities have experienced disproportionately high mortality rates) and George Floyd’s death, many are still reeling from the disclosure that two different district attorneys failed to file charges against the killers of Ahmaud Arbery, who may have been racially motivated. These recent events have exacerbated tensions in many minority Americans’ lives, calling attention to what has persistently lurked in the background. Although it hasn’t been established in court, for many minority Americans, there is no doubt that both the failure to charge Arbery’s killers and the killing itself were racially motivated, outgrowths of a persistent and deeply rooted national evil.
A Dehumanizing Calculus
My family is Latino, not African American. We also experience institutionalized racism, police brutality, and racial profiling, in shared and in different ways, though it is important to recognize, as Tocqueville did, that the black experience in America is unique, and that black Americans are particularly susceptible to long-term injustice due to the ramifications and legacy of slavery.
Our extended family recently had to formulate a plan to extract a relative from a place that had become a scene of protest. Our relative had been sent there on an errand before the protest materialized. We were worried police or armed citizens coming to defend businesses might mistake our relative as an “enemy.” Just last week, Justin Howell, an African-American Texas State University student, was hit by a “less-lethal” projectile fired by police, who also shot at the people who attempted to bring Howell to get medical aid. Apparently, the officers were aiming for another protestor standing nearby, who had thrown a backpack and water bottle at the police officers. Howell is now in critical condition with brain damage and a skull fracture. On June 30, 16-year-old Brad Levi Ayala was also shot in the head with “less-lethal” munition as he stood far apart from a crowd, apparently unarmed and peaceful. He is still in the hospital, and his family anticipates a long road to recovery.
Out of necessity, our discussion got particular, dehumanizing, and distasteful. We planned to have our more stereotypically “Latino”-looking relative pick up and accompany a more “white-passing” relative in a “middle class” vehicle. If things turned violent, it would be safer to have the relative accompanied by someone who looks “whiter.” We did not want our relative to become another victim of police brutality, shot in the middle of a protest while behaving peacefully. We did not want to become another family trying to prove to other, skeptical Americans, that what happened to our relative was unjust and specifically connected to racial animus.
These are big versions of little plans and reflections we often have. What struck me was that we were rehashing reactions we had practiced in smaller ways under “normal” conditions in America. We are forced to consider how to act, when pulled over, to signify our unquestionable compliance and deference, making prudential distinctions based on who would be perceived as more of a threat based on gender, color, and car type. We discuss what to do, if followed in a store, to make people less suspicious that we are stealing; what accessories or cosmetics make us look more or less “ethnic;” and whether that matters for what we are planning on doing.
In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. says: “I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends.” Focusing on the wrongs of rioting without focusing on the formal, institutional, and cultural forms of systemic racism is an attempt to use norms of stability for the sake of immoral ends. As David French writes, this is often a result not of malice but of where one “sits” in their experience of American life.
The Community, the Individual, and the Sense of Threat
“What is so different about this?” some might ask. Every citizen should seek to dress and speak “appropriately,” pursuing education as a part of human flourishing. Every citizen should show compliance with law enforcement. This question misses the point. The bar for minority Americans to be respected and to be safe is higher than it is for other American citizens. Following social and legal norms is not enough.
As we saw with Christian Cooper, another citizen can easily use your increased risk of being shot by a cop as a threat, even when you are simply out birdwatching in Central Park. Minding your own business does not help either, as we saw in the cases of businessmen Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson, who waited for an associate before purchasing coffee, were mistaken for loiterers, and were then arrested. Citizens should show that they are listening to the police, of course. But, as we saw with the deaths of Philando Castile and Rubén García Villalpando, listening to the police is not enough. Even the disabled and their caretakers are not protected, as we see in the cases of Magdiel Sanchez, Lacquan McDonald, Stephon Watts, and Charles Kinsey and Arnaldo Rios-Santo. And the deaths of Breonna Taylor and Botham Jean show that being innocent, in your own home, and not even a suspect in any crime, is not enough to keep you safe, either.
The president does not make things better. On June 4 he tweeted about looters desecrating churches that “YOU DON’T BURN CHURCHES IN AMERICA!” Notably, he was silent in spring 2019 when Holden Matthews, a twenty-one-year-old white man and son of a police deputy, set three black churches on fire in Louisiana.
Knowing all this, when I heard about armed citizens protecting local businesses, I must admit that my first thought was not about the injustice of looting or the importance of protecting local businesses. Instead, I wondered how such collective action materialized so quickly. These citizens felt that property, order, and lives were at stake, and they mobilized swiftly. Why does it take Americans so long to effectively mobilize against the reasons so many people are violently protesting in the first place, to act via policy, coordinated community action, and peaceful protest? As my friend told me earlier, the national decision to act quickly depends on which neighbor’s house is on fire. With the images of chaos and looting, so many Americans felt like they themselves might be at risk. There was a clear threat. By contrast, the threat of institutional racism is not felt by those who are not its target. Sometimes, it is not even seen.
Making Racism’s Deadly Toll Visible
In Democracy in America’s chapter on the “Three Races that Inhabit the United States,” Alexis de Tocqueville describes a dying slaveowner’s agony. While he was healthy, the slaveowner failed to manumit his two illegitimate sons, slaves. As a result, after his death, they would be sold downriver, inherited as property by someone who is not their father.
Tocqueville uses the vignette to explain a crucial component of justice, one also found in the works of St. Augustine and emphasized heavily by Martin Luther King, Jr. In book ten of the City of God, Augustine describes justice toward others as merciful deeds, which imitate God’s mercy toward us. Such deeds are the worship God desires and demands of us. They demand right judgment of justice, incorporating mercy. This, in turn, must spring from compassio: fellow feeling—or, as Augustine puts it, “feeling with” another.
The dying slave owner felt for his enslaved sons because he identified them as a part of himself. Facing death, he clearly understood that the legal, religious, and cultural institutions of his country would cause others to always “interpret” the color of his sons’ skin in a way that kept them in bondage. They would not be identified by others as human beings, but as objects.
In our present day, American minorities do not have to convince other Americans that they should not be enslaved. Yet, as a nation, too many still view racial minorities as strangers to the common good. What I have described reveals that African Americans do not have to fight to be “technically” viewed as citizens, yes, but they are still understood as people who are somehow outside of the whole. Their problems are less immediate, their dangers less pressing. Martin Luther King knew that unless the nation’s racial majority saw minorities as full Americans, neighbors, and peers, there could never be true peace or true justice. King’s argument for recognition and peership is rooted in a Judeo-Christian ethic, one that incorporates the insights of people from Plato to Martin Buber into his understanding of radical racial integration. He, like Augustine, relies on compassio for justice.
The Limits of Suffering and the Temptation of Violence
King also saw clearly what happens when we fail to see and hear our fellow man. Without condoning violence, King warned that a “riot is the language of the unheard.” Elsewhere, he noted that “there comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.”
Violence as a means of reclaiming agency is not a new temptation for those who are suffering oppression. In his autobiography, Frederick Douglass explains how desperation drove him to violence, which restored his sense of dignity as a man.
In his chapters on Covey “the Negro Breaker,” Douglas wrote that “Covey was to break me, I was to break [oxen]; break and be broken—such is life.” His spirit and body crushed by the cruel Covey, Douglass finds himself on the verge of suicide or escape. Oddly, this moment of despair, and a friend’s intervention, allow him to pull back from despair, because he reaches his limit. The next time Covey approaches him to attack, Douglas defeats Covey in hand-to-hand to combat. He writes:
Well, my dear reader, this battle with Mr. Covey—undignified as it was, and as I fear my narration of it is—was the turning point in my “life as a slave.” It rekindled in my breast the smouldering embers of liberty . . . and revived a sense of my own manhood. I was a changed being after that fight. I was nothing before; I WAS A MAN NOW. It recalled to life my crushed self-respect and my self-confidence, and inspired me with a renewed determination to be A FREEMAN. A man, without force, is without the essential dignity of humanity. Human nature is so constituted, that it cannot honor a helpless man, although it can pity him; and even this it cannot do long, if the signs of power do not arise.
This tempts some minorities to despair of interdependence with white Americans, because it seems that they will never fight for racial minorities’ interests as their own, leveraging threats of violence because fellow feeling will never happen. Faced with what seems like indifference and the acceptance or infliction of direct harm from other citizens, some minority Americans are moving from trying to earn acceptance as peers to demanding recognition by inflicting pain. While looting and riots seem a far cry from self-defense, remember that slavery and police brutality are different beasts. The indiscriminate and faceless nature of structural racism is the indiscriminate and faceless nature of looting.
In truth, black Americans should not even be having to prove that they are peers in the first place—not presently, and not in the past. This is the American wound of racism that seems never to heal.
So what do we do next? How do you get the nation to respond to black Americans’ suffering as a national problem?
Here, again, King provides guidance. Nonviolent peaceful protest, he argued, allows a tension to arise within the souls of other Americans when they learn—by witnessing the suffering, virtue, and humanity of black Americans—how to identify with them as peers with dignity. King knew that, in order for black lives to be valued by all, black lives had to become human lives without reservation: American lives that we fight for together as a nation.
To be receptive to this truth, the nation must be humble. We need to reframe, re-understand, and reinterpret what it means to be an American citizen, whose past and present is fully a part of our stories and decisions about the common good. Even if we already profess our belief in the inviolable human dignity of all people, we must examine our consciences and our rhetoric, and we need to act.
As a nation, all citizens, regardless of color, need to respond to the persistent threat of institutional racism and persistent police brutality as if their own person was at stake. We must act to preserve life and the common good as quickly as if we were trying to preserve our own property from looting.
The best place to start is where King, Tocqueville, and Augustine do: compassio.