Glenn Loury’s recommendations to see beyond the three judgmental binaries he notes strike me as eminently reasonable. Similarly, his insistence that we resist making Michael Brown the innocent victim and Darren Wilson the racist with malevolent intentions is also reasonable. And this is what concerns me—Loury recommends a kind of reasonableness that wants to find balance in judgments, though there is almost nothing reasonable about the situation in which we find ourselves.
During the grand jury proceedings in Brown’s death, jurors were shown a statute that allows the shooting of fleeing suspects. According to a 1985 Supreme Court ruling, such an act is illegal unless the subject is considered a threat. Yet jurors were given explicit guidance that the statute permits officers to engage in the kind of behavior Wilson displayed. It took weeks for the proper instructions to make it into jurors’ hands, and when one juror asked if the Supreme Court overruled Missouri law, the attorney responded with astonishing ambiguity: “some parts of it . . . not necessarily.” The answer is a straightforward yes. This is gross incompetence or malevolent conspiracy. Either way, how is this friendly to blacks?
Loury wants us to be reasonable when the situation is not.
We also have in hand the exculpation of Daniel Pantaleo in the strangling death of a black New Yorker, Eric Garner. Here, unlike in Brown’s case, the evidence was uncontroversial since Pantaleo was filmed choking Garner, and the coroner ruled the death a homicide. When black men are strangled by the police for all the world to see and yet the officer escapes charges, how could blacks not feel as if they are routinely treated as foe?
Loury is right that black males are responsible for a tragic number of violent crimes just as he is surely correct in saying that people deserve to be safe. But safety has to do with more than just whether one is likely to be shot. The sociologist Johan Galtung coined the term “structural violence” to describe policies that severely disadvantage some citizens. People talk about safety from black violence, but what of black safety understood as safety from the policies that daily contribute to the tragedy of black violence? It is a remarkable feature of American life that so few serial killers have been black. It is even more notable that the shooters in school mass murders have so rarely been black. “Ghetto culture” is often described as pathological, but few have the courage to say that at least black violence in economically depressed neighborhoods often has to do with putting a dollar in one’s pocket, a revered American preoccupation. When young white men shoot up schools with weapons curated in their families’ veritable arsenals or send feminists horrifying death threats simply because women demand respect, where is the reason there? Why aren’t the police stationed in the schools and on the street corners of affluent areas where entirely unreasonable rage seems to bubble in the minds of young white men with the time and resources to plot the massacres we’ve seen?
When we step back and take a clear look at America’s views on crime, we see an upsetting asymmetry. Young white men who kill whole groups of people for no reason at all somehow fall into the category of victims, since surely something must have pushed them to the edge. We almost refuse to believe that these young men could be violent criminals plain and simple. Conversely, young black boys cannot even play in the streets without being a target of state violence, as twelve-year-old Tamir Rice fatally learned.
It seems to me the friend/foe distinction may be the most central in all of this. This distinction is an age-old one in politics and political thought. It depends upon the idea that there is a coherent “us” that needs to be wary of a potentially threatening “them.” It is the kind of distinction that has no place among democratic citizens. I think blacks would be happy to do all they can to be seen as friends—if they were to stop being treated as foes, if they were treated as citizens rather than as insurgents.