"End racism" is too easy an answer

My thoughts on George Floyd, the riots, and how change happens

I’ve watched the video of George Floyd being killed by a police officer kneeling on his neck. I’ve scrolled through the photos of cities burning throughout the country. And I’ve read through the news accounts of what happened, and studied what’s been happening to the black men and women in this country at the hands of white racist police, white racist men, white racist women, and a society and institutions which have been arranged against them for centuries.

I’ve read and watched, and I mainly feel two things. One is grateful for my privilege. Mainly that I live in rural New Hampshire where I am isolated from the violence, but also grateful that as a white man I’ve never felt the need to worry about the kinds of encounters with police which are commonplace for black men and women.

And two, I feel that if I were in their position, the position of a young black man, or a black person living in America, I would be pissed as fuck. I wouldn’t be immune to the urge to hurt, to destroy, to seek revenge. I would likely consider the instruments of state and the laws they uphold to be null and void. To those urging me to demonstrate in peace, I would likely tell them go fuck themselves. I would most likely support meeting violence with violence, as has always been necessary throughout history. I would say to detractors that the peaceful movements which changed history (Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi) were the exception, not the rule, led by extraordinary, once in a century exemplars of moral force and wisdom. And then I would say fuck it, I’m too angry, this violence has been going on too long, the institutions of government are too corrupted, and no one is listening: I’m going to throw a brick through a police car window and then try to burn something down.

If you, dear reader, think you could continue to preach peaceful resistance and nonviolence in the face of centuries of rape, violence, and murder against those closest to you, based solely on the color of their skin, good on ya. I sure couldn’t.

All that said, I am sheltered away in the mountains, and I am at my keyboard writing about events with a level head. These protests are not affecting me or my family. I have a level of detachment, and maybe that’s useful at the moment. We all have our roles to play, if we choose — and so I have a few more words, written here as a citizen of the United States and a human living in the world.

Merely naming racism as the thing which we are fighting against, which is what I see many, in effect, doing, is too simple a response, too easy an answer. Surely there are racists among us, those who literally desire to arrange society (or keep it arranged) in such a way that presumes white superiority. But I think this is a small percentage of America. I’m talking single digits. For the rest of us, the picture is a lot more muddled. And the gradations matter.

We all have implicit bias to some extent or another — as 30 years of social science have shown, and as Harvard’s Project Implicit illustrates — we all take just a little longer to associate black faces as “good” as we do white faces. But distinguishing between implicit bias and I want to hop in my pick-up and go hunt down a black man racism (it’s odd that I have to say this) is… important to do.

The world is pushing toward a dramatic and dangerous over-simplification of everything, including this, to the point where we don’t have the language to communicate. Sometimes I feel that we are all pawns in a version of Orwell’s 1984, except rather than a totalitarian government which deletes words from the dictionary so that people forget their meaning, we have social media and technology platforms which have boiled all of humanity down to six emotions, or twenty kinds of emoji faces, or a few dozen GIFs on repeat. Nuance is not rewarded. Online, it seems you are either with us or against us, no matter who you are or what you say.

There is a sentiment, for instance, of varying popularity among very online lefty liberals, that if you are white and silent on Facebook, that means you are complicit. In this telling, if I do not also post to social media about how racism needs to end (oh, is that all?), then I am complicit in the death of George Floyd. This is a suggestion which of course I resent, and not only because I am often busy with my days and detached from my computer but also because I don’t like posting to social media in the first place, and also because it’s absurd.

Just saying racism needs to end is cheap. Besides, the more you unpack what’s really going on, the more you descend into the particular, as a brilliant Malcolm Gladwell podcast would have us do, the more you realize just how complicated our problems really are. No one wants to hear the nuanced answer to anything these days — they especially don’t want to hear that ending the killing of black men by white police officers isn’t a simple matter — but if this newsletter has a thesis, perhaps it’s this: there are no easy answers.

No meme will extract us from a morass of existential dread, and no pithy inspirational poster will solve our life. Ending racism is neither feasible nor even useful as a goal. I’m not even sure it’s useful as a meme. Ok, let’s end racism. Now, what?

The real problem of police violence against black men and women, as I see it, is something like the inability of the institutions to reform themselves, in this case driven largely by police unions and the failure of politicians (both Democrats and Republicans) to stand up to police unions. There are also, of course, widespread cultural norms which need to change, stunningly huge racial wealth gaps, historic inequities in education, and not to mention 40 million newly unemployed people living through the tragic mismanagement of a global pandemic which is also disproportionately killing black people. All of these are complex problems in and of themselves. But if I had to zero in on something useful, something actionable, in the problem of police violence, I would point, as Conor Friedersdorf does, to the unions. Specifically the obtuse, secretive system of arbitration they use to keep bad actors in their ranks on the job.

Friedersdorf chronicled numerous examples back in a 2014 Atlantic piece, “How Police Unions and Arbitrators Keep Abusive Cops on the Street.” It’s a piece he could probably write multiple times every year, but instead he usually just points back to the original one. While there are examples of police officers getting fired for “egregious misbehavior, the opposite is more often the norm, he wrote:

all over the U.S., police unions help many of those cops to get their jobs back, often via secretive appeals geared to protect labor rights rather than public safety. Cops deemed unqualified by their own bosses are put back on the streets. Their colleagues get the message that police are all but impervious to termination.

I realize this may sound like I subscribe to the “few bad apples” thesis, rather than the “systemic racism is bad” thesis, but again, it’s more nuanced than that: I subscribe to the “systemic entrenched institutions of a historically racist country fail to root out bad apples even as overall painfully slow progress is made in fits and starts” thesis.

Plus, there are just a lot of different institutions. There are nearly 18,000 individual law enforcement agencies in the United States, from state and county sheriff departments to municipal police. That’s nearly 18,000 opportunities for reform — if you show up. And I’m not talking about showing up on the streets to march, or logging in to Facebook to post. I’m talking about city hall and county council and voting in local elections.

I remember covering a lot of City Hall meetings during my time as a reporter in Santa Fe. Dozens of police officers or firefighters would show up to these meetings, in uniform, any time their budgets, pensions, health insurance, salaries, or any other issue effecting them would come up for discussion. It’s tough to tell a room full of police officers you’re going to submit their officers to independent investigation when they are lining the entire back wall of the council chambers, and the other people who also show up to the meetings largely support their cause. Sometimes the fire chiefs and the police chiefs themselves become city and county councilors.

Of course, there is a selection bias for those who are able to show up. If you’ve got kids or you work late, chances are slim you’re going to make it to (or even know about) the exact city council meeting where police reform is on the agenda. And since you likely don’t have a local town newspaper anymore, there’s not even a reporter at the meeting to listen, do interviews, and write about it for the next day’s paper, as I used to do.

The squeaky wheels of local government are almost always older and whiter, which is perhaps one reason why NIMBY homeowners tend to prevail more often than not — they are the ones showing up to the planning commission meetings to give the commissioners and earful about how they’re not against new housing per se, just that kind of new housing. I’ve watched it happen too many times to count.

I’ve always known this method of decision-making at the local level is a flawed way to have one’s elected leaders represent the will of the people. But then, the people who show up do tend to be a rough proxy, more or less, for those who show up to vote. Meanwhile, it’s not at all clear that those who take to the streets to protest (mainly young people) show up to vote, much less show up afterward to the meetings. If they did, this would be a very different country, and Donald Trump would not be president.

It is frustrating — so very, very frustrating — to see a certain liberal cohort on social media attempt to shame their followers into posting the some meme, because they have convinced themselves that if enough people to do so change will naturally follow.

Barring the odd school board election (my kids were not in public schools at the time), I have voted in every local, state, and federal election in which I have been eligible to vote, for the entirety of my life, from 18 years old to today. That is a nearly 20-year voting record. That is every county council race, every city council race, every party primary for Congress, Senate, and the presidency, and every presidential election. All of them. I once dragged my kids half a mile through a torrential downpour so they could come see my partner and I vote. When they asked why they couldn’t just stay home, I told them: because you go even when it rains. You go if they’re trying to stop you from going, if you have to travel all day and wait in line for hours. There are people who put their lives on the line to give you that privilege. So, you go no matter what. If it’d been ten miles in the rain, I would’ve taken them.

As I said, we all have our roles to play in life, if we choose. If yours is to throw a molotov cocktail at a police car near where George Floyd was killed, I can’t say I really blame you. There’s a lot to be angry about. If you want to lie down in the streets or march on them, do that. And do what you need to do to protect yourself and your family.

But before you equate silence on Facebook with complicity in racism and police violence, before you post online that everyone should “call out racism” where they see it, and before even you get on a bus to go join a protest — before any of that, think about that next city council meeting, where the police union’s collective bargaining agreement is up for review and there are uniformed officers in the back and the city council is trying to decide whether to press forward on independent arbitration or perhaps tackle something easier, like a “resolution in support of ending racism.”

And for the love of God please show up to vote, and show up after for when the decisions get made. Go to the meetings. They are almost always open to the public, and open for public comment. Show up as often as is necessary. Hit the local leaders who have failed us where their interests really lie. Be the squeaky wheel in the halls of the bureaucracy. It’s more lonely, more boring, and more effective than being very online.