Last week, there was a highly publicized discussion between a small group of the de-centralized leadership of Black Lives Matter (BLM) and 2016 presidential candidate Hilary Rodham Clinton. While much debate and analysis has ensued over many parts of the discussion, there was a comment Clinton made that has been playing itself over in my mind: “You can get lip service from as many white people as you can pack into Yankee Stadium and a million more like it who are going to say ‘We get it, we get it. We are going to be nicer.’ That’s not enough…”
Clinton went on to urge BLM activists to present workable policy and program recommendations, playing into already existing critiques of the movement as one too-focused on spectacular demonstrations rather than substantial social change through legal and policy initiatives. Others have offered a thorough critique of Clinton’s chiding on these points, so I will not spend time duplicating those insights. Additionally, throughout this debate, others have drawn upon the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in order to leverage arguments against the many women of color who have invested their time, energy, and intellect to increasing the visibility of the BLM movement work. In light of that, I would like to make use of Dr. King’s social and political insights to momentarily buttress the critiques of Clinton:
Underneath the invitation to prepare programs is the premise that the government is inherently benevolent – it only awaits presentation of imaginative ideas. When these issue from fertile minds, they will be accepted, enacted and implemented. This premise shifts the burden of responsibility from the white majority, by pretending it is withholding nothing, and places it on the oppressed minority, by pretending the latter is asking for nothing. This is a fable, not a fact. Neither our government nor any government that has sanctioned a century of denial can be depicted as ardent and impatient to bestow gifts of freedom.
– Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Where Do We Go From Here?: Chaos or Community
I will leave this particular point of strategy aside, one that pits direct-action against the drafting of law and policy, a divisive strategy that often ignores the importance of engaging multiple tactics of resistance and movement building. I would instead like to return to the “Yankee Stadium” comment in order to tease apart the issues underlying it that bring me to my first of two purposes today: questioning the efficacy and sustainability of a moral plea within the broader context of social change work.
Empathy and Morality: The Limits of Individualism and Psychological Empathy
Many of us raised in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s were brought up with the idea that developing a sense of empathy is one of the most important tasks before us, as inheritors of multiculturalism. Learn to feel for others, and patterns of social behavior will change, so long as we listen and understand how different groups continue to struggle to achieve the American Dream. How many times did we hear this growing up? How many of us continue to hear this?
Where did this idea come from? “Empathy” is a term that has only existed in the English language for a little over a century, and was a concept in psychology that received little attention until after World War II, when an explosion of empirical research appeared in an attempt to understand the ways that German citizens failed to intervene on the quotidian forms of Holocaust violence against Jews. Decades of research from the 1950’s to present day have been unable to demonstrate any clear causal connections between an individual’s self-described experience of empathy, the willingness to intervene on violence, and possessing the capacity to carry out an intervention that is actually effective in preventing or intervening on violence.
I am sure that many did not previously know about this history of the social construction of ‘empathy.’ These ideas of the beneficence of empathy also came into increasing cultural popularity during an era where faith in collective social movements was on the decline, and an era of individual self-help and interpersonal empathy was on the rise. “Being a good person” took the place of efforts formerly occupied by involvement in community building and social change work.
The preeminence of the individual replaced a focus on collective governance – governing the individual self is a recurrent theme in modern and contemporary history, and finds its origins in ideas of individual salvation found in dominant Protestant Christianity (acknowledging the boldness of this claim, as well as the need to further develop it in later writing, I ask both secular and Christian readers to see that while I am not demonizing an entire spiritual legacy, I am hesitant to only see the hopeful aspects of hyper-individualism).
Many of us colloquially refer to ‘morality’ in the way I refer to ‘ethics’ – as a practice of navigating the multiple effects of our words and actions, and reflecting on our responsibility to act in social worlds. When I use ‘morality’, I am more specifically referring to a set of dogmatic truths that shape ideas of how we should think and behave, irrespective of the complexities of context, history, and dynamics of power. In this sense, I am anti-dogmatic as well as anti-moralist.
From this elaboration of morality, in combination with the ways moral claims often rely on a misguided conception of our empathic capacities, my hope is that it is increasingly clear why I am skeptical of approaching social change work primarily from a place of moral politics. I am also not alone in my skepticism. While many thinkers and social change agents from the Civil Rights era are quoted in order to silence critiques of dominance, I offer the words of Bayard Rustin, a behind-the-scenes organizer who – despite all attempts to sideline him – never faltered in his commitment to community-building, human rights, and a multi-front approach to social change:
Sharing with many moderates a recognition of the magnitude of the obstacles to freedom, spokesmen for this tendency [to feel a sense of isolation] survey the American scene and find no forces prepared to move toward radical solutions [to the problems of racism]. From this they conclude that the only viable strategy is shock; above all, the hypocrisy of white liberals must be exposed. These spokesmen are often described as the radicals of the movement, but they are really its moralists. They seek to change white hearts – by traumatizing them. Frequently abetted by white self-flagellants, they may gleefully applaud…Malcolm X because… they think he can frighten white people into doing the right thing. To believe this, of course, you must be convinced, even if unconsciously, that at the core of the white man’s heart lies a buried affection for Negroes – a proposition one may be permitted to doubt. But in any case, hearts are not relevant to the issue; neither racial affinities nor racial hostilities are rooted there. It is institutions – social, political, and economic institutions – which are the ultimate molders of collective sentiments. Let these institutions be reconstructed today, and let the ineluctable gradualism of history govern the formation of a new psychology.
– Bayard Rustin, in “From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement”
And here we find the limits of empathy, of the psychology of individuals, and moral pleas. We currently live in a country full of the racist effects of policy, law, and institutional harm with few – especially in elite settings – who would admit to being “a racist.” Though those hearts have ostensibly been changed, we do not have institutions that reflect this alleged change. We have also placed ourselves in a position of moral righteousness, which often makes it difficult to reflect on our own complicity in systems of oppression. Rigorous discussions of economic and class disparity have not been actively engaged, bringing me to my second purpose in writing today: understanding the role of privileged people of color.
Yankee Stadium and Liberals of Color
Alongside an imaginary Yankee Stadium filled with white liberals who espouse an antiracist morality, one can find a Yankee Stadium filled with another group of people to which I, myself, might belong: middle class and college educated people of color.
For too long, I have stood by and watched this second Yankee Stadium refuse responsibility and acknowledgement of the politics of class at play in much of the BLM public movement work, though I do acknowledge that these discussions are taking place in more quiet corners of Black organizing. Many middle class and college educated people of color use comparative analyses of poor/working class people of color and poor/working class whites as a shield against critical self-reflection on how privilege is operating in movement agendas.
We hold up poor people of color and say: “Look! The white poor are doing better than the poor of color. Racism is still an important analysis. Do not talk about white poverty and re-center white people.” In that moment, when those making such claims come from class or education privilege, we are allowing for poor people to become objects of persuasion, a violent tactic of deflection.
I do not offer these reflections as a way to denigrate the efforts that are ongoing and ever-expanding. I offer them as a form of engagement and support, to encourage even more work to happen, work that I myself participate in, given my various commitments and capacities. I write to reflect on alliances that need to be built to support and further the work of BLM, which from its inception has refused the reduction of racial issues to the plight of the straight, able-bodied, gender-normative man of color, already a huge shift from much of the Civil Rights rhetoric of the 1950’s and 60’s.
“Where Do We Go From Here?”
We need to continue to expand our analyses to include open critiques of capitalism, militarism, and economic and cultural imperialism, connecting our issues to the global impacts of our often-invisiblized U.S. privilege. Focusing on the narrow – yet still important – goals of ending police brutality will make our movements all too easy to quell by jailing “killer cops” and increasing police spending for equipment, including body cameras, and training. Our calls to de-militarize the police need to publicly and continually ask fundamental questions about why the United States is in possession of excess military supplies and to interrogate the national budget expenditures on the military, while also holding leaders accountable for veteran care and protection of active-duty service members.
The Black and mixed students I am in community with have told me that they do not always want to feel like they are “at the bottom of the barrel,” through hierarchical identity analyses that posit Black people as the “most oppressed.” If we are to believe statistics, even they show that Native Americans and immigrant refugees experience conditions atrocious enough to warrant heightened public discourse. Our fears of attention- and resource-scarcity cannot shape the complexity of our racial justice agendas.
It is crucial that we do not disempower Black youth by socially and intellectually isolating them by disallowing their participation in building mutually beneficial alliances with other groups of people. Alliance is a two-way street and commitments to social change are unsustainable long-term without everyone staking a claim to the benefits of our collective labor. Black America has inherited more problems than they can undo in isolation, and we all must contribute to antiracist work on multiple fronts, taking time to learn about the particular ways racism impacts different peoples.
What does this work look like? Part of it involves intervening on our own impoverished education through building independent study groups to learn from social change movements both within and outside of the U.S. We have to value the development of our collective intellect as much as we value direct-action work. Learning and studying together is action, though the effects may not appear as direct. In time, they will.
We need to explode open the biological, anthropological, geographical, and religious studies of the past and present that have justified racism and formed rigid racial categories. We need to acknowledge the salve of materialist consumerism that unsuccessfully wards off the burn of labor and advertising exploitation of our hard-earned income.
We need to fight for a national budget that re-allocates funds to antipoverty and antiracist programs that also understand nuances of gendered oppression and violence, including that experienced by the (fictively united) LGBTQ communities, as well as the particularities of urban, rural, poor, and immigrant communities. Developing prisoner-release support networks for housing, employment, and mental health will have to be a part of our efforts. All our calls for racial justice ought to also be infused with the knowledge that survivors of racial and ethnic genocide live among us: indigenous peoples, Jews, Armenians, Hmong, and so many more, each having diverse cultural practices we need to support.
We also need artists, healers, and beauty-makers to feed our aesthetic and emotional needs to see our lives represented and cared for in all their diversity and struggle, hope and pain. We need community-led programs to feed hungry kids and elders. Social spaces need to multiply where we can practice bringing our ideals to life without shaming ourselves and one another when we don’t get it right immediately.
We need to commit unconditionally to showing up, even in some moments when we are asked not to. Too many are looking for excuses to give up reflecting on privilege, or for excuses to refuse legacies of isolation, and we have to continually remind ourselves that nothing will change unless we let go of our need to feel constantly affirmed and wholly ‘good’. As deserving as we are of immediate change, this cannot happen without reflecting on the privileges we carry, nor will it happen while ignoring the plight of others who may struggle so differently than we do.
Thank you for reading. I will be posting again next week on Tuesday and Thursday.