Praise vs. Progress: The Flawed Fight For Racial Equality

The killing of Trayvon Martin three years ago, an act of dubious legal and moral validity, sparked a movement that sought to identify and protest race-based injustices. That spark roared to a flame in Ferguson, amidst allegations of murder at the hands of local police.  The fire burned on through similarly controversial police actions involving minorities in New York, Cleveland and Baltimore.

Voices raised against the stain of racism from every angle; from the #BlackLivesMatter movement to columnists and essayists across news media to millions of individuals around the country using their social media accounts to advocate change.

They were legion, and they were right.

The disease of racism does continue to live in this country.  A disappointingly high number of white Americans do not recognize and admit the privileges inherent in living in white skin.  The police forces across the country, especially those in low-income areas, do need to reassess their training, their methods, and their selection of officers to eliminate instances of over-aggressive or truly racist behavior.

There’s one problem though.  They—the Voices—bury the righteousness of their message with a frustrating frequency.  They’re too quick to employ over-simplified or logically flawed talking points.  At times, they seem more concerned with receiving plaudits and praise from each other than actually registering the change they so adamantly claim they seek.  Consequently, for all the energy invested and words spoken, efforts fall short of their intended goal, ranging from being rendered useless to downright counterproductive.

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Change is borne of discussion and understanding.  Stifling or pre-empting the conversation by answering the questions before they are even asked has the opposite effect.

Consider a well-circulated meme like this :

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Pause and take a minute to evaluate how this will be received by viewers across the spectrum of racial awareness.

Allies to the cause of equality and empathy may enthusiastically agree—but aside from sparking a circlejerk among like-minded individuals, nothing resembling progress or increased understanding happens.

Those who live in denial of the burdens placed on Americans of color will reject it instantly and emphatically.  Right or wrong, present folks who maintain views in stark contrast of yours with an emotionally incendiary argument, and they will react in kind.  Every time.  Without thought.  The conversation that so desperately needs to happen has now ended before it began.

Those who fall somewhere between those posts—and make no mistake, this is the vast majority of Americans—have neither harbored malice towards African-Americans nor given much thought to the plight of their everyday hardships.  Presented with the material above, they will question it; not out of rejection or resistance, but because it simply offers a very flawed and incomplete argument for the point it attempts to make.

The photo on the left illustrates a suspect offering no resistance.  The photo on the right illustrates a suspect resisting arrest.  The crime committed is a red herring.  It is entirely possible that the treatment afforded from the officers skewed even further into both friendly and hostile territory due to the race of the respective suspects; that is a very valid, but very different conversation than what the meme implies.  Pedantic?  Possibly.  But issues this volatile demand attention to that level of nuance to be discussed effectively.

Now consider this article.

It is clear, from the opening sentence through statements like “The truth, as I see it, is that if black men and women, black boys and girls, mattered, if we were seen as living, we would not be dying simply because whites don’t like us.”, that the essay would not attempt to elicit any constructive thought towards a closing of the racial wound from the reader.  While serving as a catalyst of an emotional response from like-minded readers, the piece only further impedes the establishment of meaningful discourse with those in greatest need of enlightenment by repeatedly excluding balanced reasoning from its narrative.

Yes, America has a history littered with horrific acts of racism—a history that bleeds into modern day in surreptitious and blatant manners.  But Michael Brown was not shot because he was black.  Michael Brown was shot because he assaulted a police officer and reached for his weapon.  To exclude this fact from the discussion is just as egregious a violation of logic as assuming America is beyond racism because we elected a black president.  To expect those of a different opinion to look past simple cosmetic observations and find a deeper truth, you have to be willing to do the same yourself, even when what you find isn’t what you wanted to see.

Are we, as a nation, truly so incapable of critical thought that we can’t acknowledge Brown’s assault prompting a justified use of force while simultaneously admitting the existence of discrimination against and systemic oppression of blacks by whites?  Are we only able to see the binary options of “Michael Brown was a victim because he was black” and “there is no racism in America anymore” as the containers into which we must cram every thinking person’s viewpoint?  If so, the dream of total equality, understanding, and acceptance will remain permanently out of reach.  The tangled mess of race relations in America is a complex problem demanding a complex discussion from which it can be sorted out.  Retweets, shared memes on Facebook and intentionally myopic essays won’t cut it.

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Weeks ago, the ongoing dialogue of racism in America reached a painful nadir in the form of a massacre of innocent souls in Charleston.  This act of terrorism was hate incarnate.  Evil personified.  A painful reminder that for all the progress we have made as a culture—and to deny such progress, as the article above flatly does, is to insult those who worked so tirelessly and bravely to achieve it—we still have a long road to travel.

If our goal is to progress down that road—and not simply congratulate ourselves for our ability to gauge the length of it—we need to eschew simplifications and emotional appeals to allies.  We need to ask questions, and listen to the answers.  Even from those whose opinion we despise, we need to listen.  Without listening, and without the respectful discussion that follows, we’re doomed to stall on this march to understanding.

In the aftermath of Charleston, the shooter told police that before he murdered Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Hon. Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., Rev. Sharonda Singleton, and Myra Thompson, he “almost didn’t go through with it because everyone was so nice to him.”

Think.  Talk.  Listen.  Learn.  Love.