This past Monday was the first time in weeks I wasn’t lulled to sleep by the sound of a helicopter hovering over my St. Paul, Minnesota neighborhood, only a few miles from the scene of George Floyd’s murder.
After the senseless murder of George Floyd by the police in my own community, and the appalling litany of other senseless murders of Black citizens by police or former police, we have all heard the cries for public and private repentance. As is often the case after the public is swept up in a cause, the injustices seem nevertheless to recede from consciousness fairly soon after.
Actually, that’s not right at all.
The injustices recede from the consciousness of folks like me, who aren’t the ones vulnerable to the abuses of power that harm people of color disproportionately . The memory and trauma remain constant in the Black community. The din of the chopper blades never recedes.
This moment seems somehow, maybe, different. There are small signs suggesting that the national conversation around race and police violence might bring about real changes both in individual hearts and in local and national policies. More people seem open to dialogue about race, and many cities are already taking steps—baby steps—to change policing policy.
There are still lots of people unwilling or unable to consider the possibility that systemic racism is real in America, and/or that they may harbor racists attitudes themselves.
Conversations about race make people uncomfortable, and we can process that discomfort in ways that are more or less productive. Still, we have to talk about racism. That makes it all the more important to reason clearly about where personal and collective blame for racism might be in order. I do not pretend to have wisdom or authority in those regards, but I do find it surprising that anyone who takes the idea of Original Sin seriously and knows anything about the common phenomena of self-deception and confirmation bias can be so sure that racism isn’t real.
So, I’d like to pose a question regarding the justification for the beliefs we hold about systemic and individual racism. I want to put my question not only to the skeptics, but also to anyone like me stumbling through the process of figuring out our part in what is broken and what can be fixed: On what grounds can people claim to know with such confidence that racism isn’t a problem at large or in our own hearts? If racism is present, is it something we are always able to see?
First let’s think about individual racism: Why would we think that the presence of our own prejudice should be visible, just by simple introspection? Individual prejudice is a problem of perception as much as it is a conceptual one. The harmful biases that infect our understanding of others can and often do fly under the radar of our conscious awareness. It’s in how we see people, and we aren’t always reliable judges of the quality of our own vision.
The philosopher Miranda Fricker makes this point quite forcefully. She argues that we commit what she calls “epistemic injustice” when we allow harmful prejudices to color how we view our fellow humans as knowers and speakers of the truth. We navigate the social world by making assessments of other people’s credibility all of the time, and we aren’t always that good at it.
Conversations about race make people uncomfortable, and we can process that discomfort in ways that are more or less productive. Still, we have to talk about racism.
We can hold explicitly anti-racist convictions, and at the same time, have our social perception skewed by harmful stereotypes that perpetuate injustice, without our even realizing it. This has tremendous impact on whose testimony we take seriously.
This brings us to the epistemological problem we face concerning systemic racism: Will we be able to see discrimination that might be hard wired into how our communities function when we are not the ones who are directly harmed by it?
On a very practical level, we can address this by being more reflective about whose testimony we take seriously and why, and this can help us to clarify our vision about where there is systemic racism in our communities. The good news is that many of the aspects of public life that carry on the legacies of Jim Crow, like discrimination in housing, segregation and funding disparities in schools, and policing are issues that are decided at the local level, the only level of politics at which it seems we can make any difference these days.
We can become more responsible neighbors by engaging in these issues with a focus on cultivating the virtue of justice precisely by careful attention to the assumptions we have heretofore uncritically and often unconsciously accepted.
Consciously making an effort to believe the testimony of the people we discover we have unfairly stereotyped is one way to get ourselves about this work. (That’s Fricker again, by the way.) It’s worth taking a hard look at whose testimony we take seriously, and then asking whether we’ve got good reasons to weigh the evidence the way we do. This matters when we deliberate about how to vote, where to shop, where to send our kids to school, and when to bother our local representatives with calls and emails.
Are we listening carefully to what the Black community has to say about how they are affected by zoning laws and school levies? Do we seek the advice of our Black friends when we decide who should be mayor, since mayors pick police chiefs? There may not be consensus within any one community about how to solve our civic problems, and at the end of the day, we might have principled reasons to favor different solutions than the ones advocated by those whose advice we sought.
The point is that, if we do not take the testimony of our Black neighbors seriously when it comes to these particular issues, we are not reasoning about the common good, just a sad shadow of it.
The work is hard, but it is necessary, and I know—as I know my Savior lives—that we have to make a go of it. Catholics, especially, have a duty to lead by example in these regards: the truth shall set us free. Come, Holy Spirit.
Faith Glavey Pawl teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota
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