Our Diachrome Society
In order to set PZ Myers mind at ease, and to show it is possible to concentrate on more than one public event at a time, I think it is more than appropriate to consider events in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, MO. A couple days ago, police shot and killed an unarmed black man. As happens, communities reach a point where they will no longer tolerate official neglect, abuse, and the presumption of danger on the part of police. Residents took to the streets in protest, protests that turned angry and occasionally violent. The whole situation has not been helped by the fact that the media have managed to present yet another victim of white on black violence as some kind of criminal-in-waiting, whose appearance and dress were provocative enough to present a threat. Luckily, some African-Americans, tired of more of the same, have asked a simple question: If they were shot and killed, which photograph would the media use to present them to the world? Participants in this social media campaign then post two different pictures of themselves. One is usually a more casual, relaxed photograph. The other presents them as soldiers, doctors, college graduates, and otherwise engaged in professional activities or at a point of great achievement in their lives.
The problem, of course, is that far too many of my fellow white Americans are just not prepared to see African-Americans as human beings who have multiple facets to their personalities, enjoying dressing down and enjoying comfortable clothes as well as being professionals, working and studying and excelling. We all do this. We all have photographs of ourselves with friends and family that, presented out of context, might make us look like drunkards, or perverts, or perhaps even dangerous criminals. To believe that a single photograph can capture a person’s life and thought and personality is ludicrous on its face. Yet, we are more than willing to do just that when we are presented with a photograph of a black man or woman.
We often read and hear about the desire, sometimes even demand, that we live in a color-blind society. I would suggest that in fact we do live in a color-blind society. Being color-blind means we see only black and white. That word “black” too often comes freighted with all sorts of social, cultural, and historical baggage that, pardon the pun, colors our perception of what “being black” means. For us whites, presented with images and narratives of blackness in America that include criminality, violence, poverty, and other tropes, it is just too easy to make assumptions rooted in these narratives, rendering African-Americans not so much human as characters, even caricatures.
Consider the photograph above, of police armed with automatic rifles in full body armor approaching a single unarmed African-American. Some people might interpret this picture as an expression of official violence and threats of violence. Others might see the police doing their jobs; the photograph gives us no context, and perhaps just out of frame is a hand-gun the man was carrying. Perhaps he was walking in an area cordoned off by police, who are acting on orders to limit civilian access to certain areas as a way of limiting both the protests and any potential damage from possible violent protests. Whatever the case may be, this single photograph tells us absolutely nothing about what is happening.
We have lived far too long in an America where the presumption is that an African-American man presents a threat to businesses, to property, and to our life and health. Half a continent away, in Seattle, a mall rent-a-cop pepper sprayed a black man who was trying to ignore a hostile white man shouting racial epithets at him. Had Paul Blart been armed, we might well have yet another young black man murdered for the simple act of walking near police and other armed security personnel.
It is long past time for us to insist people stop demanding official and social color-blindness, precisely because we already do live in such a society. And it continues to take a toll on the lives of our fellow African-Americans. I would far rather we see the world in full color, with all the shades and and colors that exist. The cost of living in a color blind society is we cannot see the blood on our hands.