Is it really so difficult to state two obvious truths? One, the relationship between many if not most African Americans and the police is fraught with distrust and deep resentment. Another one, the great majority of police officers are consummate professionals who work under conditions that virtually none of us would ever consider accepting upon ourselves. Why is it so difficult in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, may his memory be a blessing, for everyone to acknowledge both truths?
It’s a big question. One element of a complicated answer if this: the blurring of critical terms and of the consequent distortions in public discourse when reason is needed more than ever.
Protest and Riot
One pair of blurred terms is protest and riot. A riot is not a protest. A protest is peaceful and it is a Constitutional right. A riot is not peaceful and is not a constitutional right.
If a riot is confused with a protest, there can be no solution, only destruction. Indispensable to the solution of any social problem is to define the solution. Without that, a problem cannot be solved.
Granted, say, that racism is systemic in the US. Is the solution different police review boards? Is the solution government subsidies to black families? Tuition-free college education for black Americans? Agreement that American history is primarily racist, requiring a wholesale rewrite of textbooks of American history? Is the solution better health care for black Americans?
Is the solution one of the above? All of the above? Something else? Whatever it might be, how is it to be measured?
Without agreed upon criteria for definition and measurement, systemic racism can never be uprooted. At the protests I see and through their spokespeople in the media, concrete solutions discussed elsewhere are not admitted. Only a scattershot lashing out at all police and all of American history.
Other critical terms are blurred, with the same effect: no possibility of solution.
Speech and Speech
One word is given two opposite meanings, each one blurred and dangerous. If you state that you do not agree with violence, then many will term your speech violence. If you engage in violence, many of the criminals will call their violence speech.
Orwell is weeping.
Trust and Exaggeration
Another pair of blurred terms: Trust and exaggeration.
The death of a black person at the hands of a police officer happens too often in America to be anecdotal. The death of a white person at the hands of a police officer occurs about one-third as often, a phenomenon virtually uncommented on. In any event, a large percentage of black Americans do not trust the police. This must be addressed, whether the actual dimensions of the problem do support, or do not support, the distrust.
Without a restoration of trust, many black Americans will not call the police when needed, or will be violent to police, or will foreclose discussion with a caricature of American history, or will defund the police, or will be left to their own devices when police are needed but refuse to come for fear of violence or lawsuit.
No one benefits — not the black community, not the police, not society generally — without mutual trust between the black community and, for that matter, all communities, and the police.
Justice and Property
Another pair of confused terms: Justice and property.
Justice is neither the destruction of property nor the facile dismissal of the destruction of property with the claim that property “can be replaced.”
Ask the people (including African Americans) whose livelihood has been destroyed by recent riots just how fast their property will be replaced; and, even if it is, what element of justice has been served.
Racism and Policy
A related pair of confused terms: Systemic racism and injustice, on one hand; and specific policy prescriptions, on the other.
Systemic racism and injustice are so easily interchangeable because both are so handily adjustable. Any elimination of racial bias, however great or small, can leave one firmly believing that systemic racism remains strong, or that it has been eradicated. Either way, specific policy prescriptions can be ignored.
Take, for example, the vast expansion of federal spending on Medicaid, food stamps and other programs that disproportionally benefit the black community. These signature liberal policies — an investment of billions of dollars — have been in place for some 50 years. If they are deemed to be the solution to racism, then a claim of systemic racism is made in bad faith.
If they are deemed not to be the solution to racism, then what is? It must be specific. “The elimination of systemic racism” is not an answer. It is an emotion, too loose to yield a solution, only eternal grievance.
Majority and Minority
Another word pair: Majority and minority.
Many say that only a minority of protesters rioted. This is true in some places, not in others.
Take Minneapolis. It now has roughly a 10-mile stretch of destruction. The so-called minority is the majority. The terms, thoroughly confused, become meaningless in Minneapolis, for example.
Worse, the terms facilely cover over a major problem: violence and its justification. A society whose leaders do not unequivocally condemn violence is a society that will find itself threatened with dissolution.
Another word pair: Double standard. The blurring here is not in the term, but in its application. Covid, we are told, has disproportionally affected the black community. Then why do the protesters — who are disproportionally African American — not follow anti-COVID social distancing at the Colorado Capitol and elsewhere?
A final word pair: social distancing.
Actually, these two words constitute a single term, perhaps the most abused term of all.
Politicians demand that a person not be present when his or her mate or parent dies — because of social distancing. We must protect the public above even the most basic humane considerations! Then the same politicians — not all, but most — even as their jurisdictions remain under social distancing regulations, attend rallies bereft of social distancing.
This is worse than a confusion of terms. This is worse than hypocrisy. This is sheer cruelty — ask the distanced relatives of the dead.
If, G-d forbid, there is a second wave of COVID, good luck in enforcing another lockdown. It will be called crying wolf.
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