true vs good, again

As time goes on, I’m more and more convinced that the fundamental contemporary political failing is the inability or the refusal to sort “this is true” statements from “this is good” statements.

So check out this piece in Gawker by Donovan X. Ramsey, titled “White America’s Silence on Police Brutality Is Consent.” It makes a moral argument that begs a political argument, but can’t bring itself to make that political argument. Ramsey lays out an indictment of white America for its silence on the continuing war against black America by the police. Although I agree with some of this commenter’s critique about how Ramsey is representing the polling, I don’t  generally disagree with Ramsey much at all descriptively: this is a country of hideous racial inequality, particularly when it comes to police violence, and while I believe most white Americans are consciously opposed to racial inequality, their failure to actively work to end it amounts to tacit support. I’m on board, there.

But where is the prescriptive element? I mean, I get that Ramsey wants white Americans to rise up and work to fix things. But how does he propose that we actually inspire them to do so? Sure, it should be enough to show them the reality to provoke them to fight for change. But should is a word of remarkably little relevance in the real world. 50 years after the most important Civil Rights legislation, it seems obvious that just pointing out that our society is unjust is not enough to provoke the white majority to create change.

In other words, the piece recounts in exacting detail a political problem but does nothing to establish a political solution. It begs for a next step– “here’s what I would do to convince white Americans to get on board with a political movement against racial inequality”– that it never takes. And in not taking that next step, it falls perfectly into line with the general, bizarre trend, the trend to say “it’s not the job of oppressed people to educate you.” Really? Then whose job, exactly, is it? I hear that all the time, and I find it such a bizarre attitude for self-described activists to take. To call yourself an activist is precisely to say “It is my job to educate you.” Change is active by its nature. The status quo doesn’t need activists. Change requires that you make it your job. So where’s the political strategy? I don’t pretend that it would be obvious or easy– in fact I think it’ll be incredibly hard– but, well, 200 years ago you could buy people, and the ability to do so was deeply embedded in the economy. Things can change, but you’ve got to make them happen and you have to motivate people who aren’t inherently predisposed to be motivated in order to do so. That’s me making a “this is true” statement, not a “this is good” statement.

It’s ugly that positive political change so often involves having to motivate precisely the people who you see as responsible for the problem. But life’s ugly. The world’s a broken place.

There is no plausible scenario in which racial inequality is ended in this country without the support of the white majority, a majority that is likely to endure for quite some time, despite what you might have heard. So what do you want to do? If people have alternative possibilities, I’m all ears. Seriously. Drop me an email. But from my vantage, I just don’t see how change is going to come without making much better progress with convincing white people to care about black lives, and I don’t think that the current rhetoric of most left-wing race politics is oriented towards convincing them. I see a lot of pieces like Ramsey’s: long on “these people are bad,” short on “here’s how to make them good.” I don’t think that’s working, and I don’t think saying so makes me a bad ally.