By Chris Sick
By way of introduction, let me begin by telling you that this is a bit of writing designed to make you uncomfortable. There may be a softer, gentler way to make that point, but I don’t have much interest in such an approach.
The truth is that if you want to go for real understanding, or consider a new perspective, it requires you to be unsettled. Being open to having your mind changed is harder and less common than it sounds, and it starts with being willing to consider things that make you uncomfortable.
Few discussions are more unsettling in contemporary U.S. society than those about race. Outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder once famously (or infamously) referred to the U.S. as a “nation of cowards” for its inability to discuss race. Although lambasted by conservative media and politicians for his comments, often elided is that Holder wasn’t merely calling for more conversation or coverage, but more honest conversation, not constrained by fears of making each other uncomfortable.
In February’s issue of the Blitz, Peter Gerstenzang attempted such frank and honest discussion, ultimately uncovering few definitive answers or, even, causes for optimism.
I don’t pretend to have better answers, or really, any at all. The conversation is increasingly impossible to ignore, however, as police-involved shootings and deaths continue amidst massive protests demanding greater accountability for law enforcement. The killing of two New York City Police Department officers in an ambush days before last Christmas led to further accusations, including that the protestors and their political supporters (President Obama, Holder, and Mayor de Blasio) were partially responsible for an anti-police atmosphere that put officers at greater risk.
I may not have any answers, but I know asking the wrong questions won’t help a damn bit. Worse, insisting that either side is using public statements to cloak hidden, nefarious motives ensures not only a lack of good-faith, honest conversation, but that there won’t be any conversation at all. Insisting that the national debate is taking place between police and their supporters and, thereby, anti-police liberals, helps no one.
It is exactly that false dichotomy that Heather MacDonald insists on, in a recent National Review article. MacDonald’s piece is an example of how not to have an honest conversation and I choose it knowingly, but cautiously. An intellectual heavyweight of American conservatism often cited on issues of race, policing, and politics by politicians and other writers alike, I don’t take her on lightly.
MacDonald characterizes the Black Lives Matter protests following the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner as “anti-police agitation…all dedicated to the absurd proposition that police officers are the biggest threat facing young black men.” Such a proposition is, as MacDonald asserts, completely absurd. But it also is one that I haven’t seen a single protest leader, activist, media figure, or politician put forth. While conservatives and those who construct themselves as “pro-police” were insisting NYC Mayor de Blasio and President Obama have “blood on their hands,” they were actually condemning the murders and all violence against police.
For the sake of good faith, I’m going to assume that MacDonald and others are misapprehending, rather than intentionally mischaracterizing, their opposition. But it reveals a fundamental fault in their thinking. In formal logic it is understood that if one begins with faulty premises, faulty conclusions naturally will follow. Simply put, if you don’t understand the basics of the situation correctly, you’ll always come up with the wrong answer.
If you assume that those protesting police actions are anti-police, it’s easy to think the worst of them, and only a short logical leap from there to arguing complicity in violence against police. But such assumptions grow out of the refusal to listen, or even attempt to understand, the arguments you’re railing against. They come from a basic unwillingness to be uncomfortable in your thinking, and work at understanding another perspective.
Understanding, of course, is not agreement. I don’t expect readers to walk away from this, or any other single piece of writing, having turned completely around on the issue. But I think it might be a useful start to actually listen to one another. Of course police face tremendous risks, and it is unfortunately, undeniably true that police presence is higher in African-American communities in large part because of increased crime there.
MacDonald herself has written extensively on the subject, concluding that the criminal justice system, rather than arresting and incarcerating (or shooting) African-Americans out of any intrinsic racism, is merely responding to the outsized rates at which African-Americans commit crimes.
But the obvious question not only goes unanswered in such pieces by MacDonald and others, it goes unasked. Why? Unless one believes that culturally or genetically there is something inherent in African-Americans that makes them prone to violence and criminality, it would seem natural to ask what leads to such elevated rates of crime?
Again, I can offer no concrete answers on the matter here. The question is too broad to answer in this piece. But it is a question worthy of asking, and attempting to answer, in full.
There’s something beyond the sort of answers MacDonald offers which serve more as insulation against deeper questioning than encouraging it. These are questions that deserve the work of being uncomfortable, of deeply considering other perspectives and fully hearing alternative opinions, rather than misstating them in favor of winning an imaginary argument that is the furthest we can be from any honest conversation.