White People, Ferguson, and Empathy


This is not a post about whether or not Darren Wilson should have been indicted. This is not a post defending the rioting and looting that has come after. This is a post about examining our reactions to phenomena that we can’t properly understand.

Obviously, an ordered society cannot long survive when looting and destruction of property – especially the private property of innocent bystanders – are accepted as legitimate forms of airing grievances with the system. And so I have no fault with anyone who rightly points out that the excesses of the protesters must stop and I have no objection to the police arresting anyone who is involved in these activities and throwing the book at them.

What I do object to is the dismissive, contempt-laden tone taken by many commentators and armchair experts (particularly on twitter) about what is happening here. I don’t want to call out individual folks in this post but I saw numerous tweets to the effect of “White people didn’t riot when the OJ verdict was announced” (which is, boiled down, a not-very-veiled way of suggesting that white people are better than black people), or “I stand with cops. Period. The end.” (which is, boiled down, an invitation to totalitarianism), or other expressions bordering on glee that people were incensed that the system had exonerated Darren Wilson. Equally troubling, I find people expressing sentiment to the effect that they are either glad Michael Brown is dead, or are indifferent to his death.

All of this rhetoric is fine and well from people for whom, with relatively rare exceptions, the system has by and large over the years worked to protect their legal interests. Most of the people making these comments have probably been taught from a very young age, “If you are in trouble, call the cops. They will help you.” They have likewise been taught, “Never take the law into your own hands. If someone violates your rights, take them to court and the justice system will protect you.” They have been taught this because of the justified expectation that things would work out exactly this way. And they (apparently) have complete ignorance of the existence of a class of people for whom – for decades or even centuries – things did not work out exactly this way.

I think it’s difficult for many of us to acknowledge the shadow our parents cast on the way …read more    

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