Over the years, John McWhorter, a linguistics scholar at Columbia University, and Glenn Loury, a Brown University economist, have conducted a series of thoughtful public conversations about U.S. politics with a focus on race and black identity. Their latest discussion concerns the Black Lives Matter movement. Should its activists protest police killings of black people or all killings of black people? Before I offer a perspective, here’s a slightly condensed transcript of their exchange:
John McWhorter: The reason Black Lives Matter has a lot of eyes rolling is not because people don't care about black people and don't understand the problem with police. The problem is that the typical black man in a particular kind of community is at much, much more risk of being killed by another black man. And you can't argue it away. There are all these sophisticated feints such as saying that there's a difference between the state murdering and citizens murdering. But none of it goes through.
This high indignation about one white cop doing a terrible thing looks incongruous given that in these same communities, hundreds of black men are killing each other every summer. And so I think, in short, Black Lives Matter is very important. It could make a very important difference in modern black history. But for it to be a movement that resonates historically, it has to add a new wing where it firmly says and stands behind the idea that black lives matter when black people take them too.
There has to be a second wing that goes into black communities and works in a real way on the black-on-black murders. That would make Black Lives Matter complete. As it is now, it's incomplete and it looks shrill. And the idea that Black Lives Matter when white people try to take them looks recreational, it looks childish, it looks peevish, and it's just wrong, it's incomplete.
That's my take on Black Lives Matter.
Glenn Loury: I don't personally disagree with the sentiment that you just expressed. But here's what the rebuttal would be, I think. First people would say, “Yes, there's violence in black communities in low-income urban black enclaves. Homicide rates are very high. But this is a consequence of the structural racism that has played out over history and continues to play out today: that confines people to racially segregated neighborhoods; that denies people an opportunity to develop their talents and to live decently with legitimate jobs and so forth; drug trafficking is flourishing; people are concentrated in public housing; gangs are proliferating; young men are idle, so there's a structure that accounts for the behavior, and it's unfair to ask a movement demanding justice from the police to be responsible for patterns of behavior that are deeply embedded in a system over which black people don't exercise any control.” Another rebuttal would be, “These are two different subjects all together. Why are you changing the subject? We came here to talk about police brutalization of black people. And you tell me about something else: that young black people brutalize themselves. I can agree with you and stipulate that the latter is a problem, but it's not the subject I'm trying to talk about. Why are you trying to change the subject?” Those are two possible rebuttals to the position that you just stated.
McWhorter: And they fail utterly. I am never more struck than I am lately about how certain sentences that you here often enough are accepted as truth until they become almost a kind of music. You take a group of people who are all the same color and you put them together in neighborhoods where job opportunities are not great. And the inevitable result is that the men are going to start killing each other over trivia?
That is an equation that I don't think any historian or any anthropologist would think of as applicable to homo sapiens that we know.
A group of people who are poor, all put together in one place, without a whole lot of opportunity will start killing one another. No. If you think about it, it would be considered racist if a white person said that 75 years ago.
But today we're somehow encouraged to think about that as an “enlightened” or “humane” take on what goes on in black America. And as far as changing the subject, all you have to do is think about the mother who just lost her second son. Now go up to her with a pad and tell her, “Well, this is really sad, but we're really more interested in things that the state does. We're really more interested in things that people who are responsible for the public order do. Now the fact that this was done by somebody who was from three blocks over, well, we're sorry, that's regrettable, but we're not concerned with that. We're doing this now.” It seems almost inhumane yet we're supposed to accept that as wisdom.
Loury: You don't believe it's necessarily the case that because people are poor and concentrated in this way that they have to be violent––that in a way, it diminishes the humanity of people to say that they're just gonna be violent because of some environmental circumstance. They have the volition and moral will to eschew violence despite their deprivation.
But a person might say, “Look, the state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Agents of the state who abuse that awesome responsibility constitute a real threat to democratic values. There's a great deal more at stake here than the personal safety of an individual. This is about an abuse of power. And the lack of accountability for agents of the state who abuse power in this way creates a circumstance in which people are basically terrorized. They may fear victimization by their neighbor, and the fear may be quite real. That's one thing. But victimization by the people whose salaries you pay with your tax money and who are supposedly there to serve and protect you, agents of the state, the fear of victimization by them is quite another thing altogether. It's a different order of violation. And it's appropriate to prioritize the response to these things in the way that Black Lives Matter has done.”
McWhorter: I reject that. I think that argument is hopeless. That is a wordy, beautifully put argument designed to give people an excuse to focus on racism as the problem as opposed to the more complex issue of looking at a Rube-Goldberg sequence of socio-historical events that have led us to an unfortunate situation where racism from whites may not always be the problem that we need to face. And it's not that the black men shooting each other are evil. I understand their humanity too.
But the idea that democracy is threatened by the white cop whereas if the kid from three blocks over does it, well he's just an ordinary person? No!
And I am confident that A. Philip Randolph, that Martin Luther King, would not agree with that fancy way of putting it. The situation that we're in now is as if—think about Selma. Think about watching people coming over that bridge with the terrible things that happened, and meanwhile over on the other side of the bridge, black teenagers were killing each other by the dozens every summer. And the idea was, “No, we're not really going to think about that, because they kinda can't help it, and that's not important because they're the keepers of public order.” Imagine what Selma would've looked like if that's what the situation was. That's where we are now. And no amount of fancy Latinate words can disguise that simple fact from me or most of America watching.
Airing those viewpoints is a service—and there’s a lot to chew on that I won’t address here.
But it seems to me that the debate about whether to focus on police killings or “black-on-black” killings presumes that reducing the former will not help to reduce the latter.
What if the opposite is true?
Black Lives Matter calls for 10 specific changes to policing policy, including body cameras, an end to “policing for profit,” better training, and stricter limits on the use of force.
If reforms of that sort were implemented in Baltimore, where local police officers operate in a culture where stunning brutality is commonly meted out to innocent residents, or Ferguson, Missouri, where residents suffered through years of misconduct so egregious that most Americans could scarcely conceive of what was going on, wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect that relations between black residents and police would slowly improve?
Wouldn’t better behaved, more accountable, less abusive police departments make people in poor black communities marginally more inclined to involve law enforcement in disputes before they turn deadly, to cooperate more during homicide investigations, and to collaborate with the cops in making their blocks safer?
Those sorts of marginal changes could help to reduce the murder rate.
If the municipal authorities are known to destroy the lives of poor people over minor traffic infractions or to use excessive force so often that they pay out millions in lawsuits—if they abuse and lose the trust of a community over many years—a case can be made that effective, visible reforms are a prerequisite to a relationship between police and residents that is conducive to stopping a murder epidemic.
Black Lives Matter activists are often silent about black-on-black killings. Perhaps that is a P.R. mistake. But the reforms they are urging strike me as a more realistic path to decreasing those killings than publicly haranguing would-be murderers to be peaceful.
Black Lives Matter participants are civic activists, not respected high-school teachers or social workers or reformed gang members who can influence their former brethren.
Since police departments are ultimately responsive to political institutions, fighting for police reforms with civic activism is a relatively straightforward project. Reformers identify what they regard as prudent changes, persuade policymakers and the public that they’re needed, and achieve victory if they get the votes. I think that body cameras could significantly reduce excessive force, so I write articles urging that they be made mandatory with most footage publicly obtainable.
Fighting to stop black-on-black murder is much less straightforward project. And the tools available to civic activists are a much poorer fit for it: the undesirable behavior is already against the law; lots of attention has been paid to the problem for decades, so awareness-raising isn’t all that valuable; and there are few obvious best-practices to spread. More generally, street marches and protests have a rich history of sparking political change… but have they ever persuaded private citizens to kill less? I can imagine Black Lives Matter scoring political points for talking about black-on-black crime; I grant that if all black lives mattering really is the mission, movement rhetoric that ignores the vast majority of black murder victims is discordant; but I don’t see how the activists could help stop those murders.
Perhaps that is a failure of imagination on my part. I’d be curious to know what McWhorter has in mind when he urges Black Lives Matter to add a piece about black-on-black killings. Putting aside the question of public relations, what would that achieve and how? What specifically would McWhorter have the activists say and do? If you’re a reader who feels that Black Lives Matter activists should broaden their focus to all black murder victims, what exactly do you want them to do?*
Email firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts.
*Some critics of Black Lives Matter think that policies like Stop and Frisk save scores of black lives. That’s a legitimate case to press, but Black Lives Matter rejects that logic with plausible arguments, so it’s not useful for purposes of this conversation. Suggestions for what they should do cannot be directly at odds with their existing beliefs.