|Reflections from |
It has become increasingly clear that no number of dead black teenagers is high enough to distress some people. The truth is, incidents such as the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown are only disturbing to those people already predisposed to view black people as fellow human beings, which, as it turns out, is a smaller sized group than one might hope.
By this point, the greatest portion of those who are likely to be horrified, outraged or goaded into action by such tragedies have already been mobilized. The tougher, but more crucial task is to find a way to reach those on the other side.
It may be hard to remember, but the people who lack empathy for these youthful victims are neither evil nor sick. They simply possess an abundance of the natural human tendency to compartmentalize. We all find ourselves most naturally in sympathy with those in whose shoes we can most easily imagine ourselves standing. For many people, skin color provides an obvious, and highly visible line where empathy can safely stop. If I see a black teenager gunned down, and I am neither black nor a teenager, I can rest secure in the conviction that his fate has nothing to do with my own.
The classic advantage, offered by the Civil Rights Movement to the segregationists in exchange for repudiating racism, was “you can stop being monsters.” Segregation was morally corrosive to those who practiced it, and the Civil Rights Movement exposed the fashion in which segregationists were harming their own selves, morally.
As powerful and decisive as this tactic proved a half century ago, it is of limited effectiveness today. There were both saints and martyrs in that generation, and we, in the main, are neither. Before segregation could be repealed, its defenders had first to be publicly exposed as willing to murder not only peaceful black protesters, but also children sitting in church, and perhaps most influentially, people who were not merely young, but also white.
Short of today's crises reaching similar extremes, this leaves us two other tactical approaches to pursue:
“Better Together” and “First They Came.” “Better Together” is as straightforward as it sounds. The argument can and must be made that America is a stronger, happier, better place because of its diversity, and that living in a diverse environment with equal rights for all is better not just for blacks and other ethnic minorities, but also for whites as well. In order to be effective, however, we must not merely argue this but also believe it as well.
“First They Came” is named after Pastor Niemöller’s famous lament about tardy resistance to the Nazis:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”The idea is that people who discriminate, police forces that overreach their charter, and communities that pass unfair laws won’t stop at the color line forever. Today it’s black teenagers losing their lives —tomorrow it might be you. The ultimate destiny of any group centered around exclusion and inequality is to cast out more and more subgroups for smaller and smaller deviations from a fictional norm.