Editor’s Note: John McWhorter teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy and music history at Columbia University and is the author of “The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
McWhorter: Giuliani fundamentally misunderstands Black Lives Matter and what it's about
Studies about race and policing provide context but we still need more information, he says
Rudolph Giuliani’s claim that Black Lives Matter is responsible for tragedies like Micah Johnson’s murder of five Dallas policemen last week is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Black Lives Matter movement is and represents.
But make no mistake, Giuliani is correct in arguing that black men are in much more danger of getting killed by one another than by police officers, as is painfully clear during a summer like this one when black youth are killing each other by the score in cities like Chicago. I myself have argued that Black Lives Matter ought to extend its vigilance to such intranecine violence. I stand by the point, despite its extreme unpopularity in many circles, and that anyone should be perplexed at the apparent idea that it’s less grievous to be killed by a neighbor than by “the state,” as many put it.
Nonetheless, police officers killing innocent black people is still crucial as well: It is this aspect of the relationship between the cops and black communities that creates and sustains the entire sense that black people live under siege from racism. Statistical discrepancies (between equally affluent whites and blacks in favorable mortgages or car payment plans, for instance), so-called cultural appropriation (such as white people’s use of black slang expressions or hairstyles), and the like do not leave a psychically healthy people feeling like life has not made much progress since 1965. What creates this feeling more than anything else is the threat of violence and death at the hands of people of authority.
In short: If killings like those of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile weren’t so ordinary, people like Giuliani who see black people as making too much of the race thing would find themselves in an America much more to their liking, where black America is aware of and weary of racism but senses it more as an inconvenience than an obstacle. We must be able to keep in mind – and back up with advocacy and action – the fact that both black-on-black killings and white cop-on-black killings matter. People like Giuliani are no better at that than BLM and its supporters.
Instead, Giuliani and like-minded white Americans think the BLM crowd should just shut up. He thinks there should be no protests against cop killings of black people as a general phenomenon. It isn’t that Giuliani would have protesters clarify their message; he just wants them to go away. And why? For starters, because he thinks they are responsible for cops getting killed.
Context matters. We cannot separate Micah Johnson’s psychopathically savage act completely from BLM when he actually mentioned the group. We can’t blame Donald Trump for assaults, epithets and matters of atmosphere he had nothing directly to do with while insisting that people like Johnson and Ismaaiyl Brinsley (who killed two officers in New York two years ago in the wake of the killing of Eric Garner) were lone actors divorced from any situational influences.
But that isn’t the main issue; the question Giuliani’s rhetoric raises is whether the potential for actions like these makes BLM “racist” and would justify shutting it down completely. Many of us will feel that one of life’s tragedies is that there are always hairs out of place, that social and historical currents have a way of bringing out not only heroes but also the occasional psychopath, that to be candid, reality bites. Giuliani certainly understood this after the various tragic actions rogue officers visited upon people amid his well-intended programs for lowering crime in New York.
Then there is a larger point. The debate in our moment is not about why the police target poor black communities rather than rich white ones, or whether black people commit more crimes. It’s about whether black people live in greater danger of not only being stopped by cops or being arrested, but also of being killed by cops for no real reason. BLM’s grievance is not about black gangsters getting shot dead during altercations with cops, or while running from cops. The issue is people just getting iced for, well, nothing.
We will continue to see dueling rhetoric, but it is too blunt-edged to be useful; what we really need is in-depth research. Roland Fryer’s recent study stands out in its finding that cops are not more likely to kill black people than white ones. However, other findings paint a richer picture here. Blacks are more likely to be shot when unarmed. Cops kill people at the same rates whether crime rates are high or low in a city, not merely in direct response to “hot” neighborhoods. And, blacks are subject to assault by the cops short of killing more than whites.
These studies taken together leave a suggestion that statistically, there is a tendency among cops toward (usually) unconscious bias against black people. It is the kind of bias to which we might attribute the shooting of Tamir Rice, the asphyxiation of Eric Garner, and now the fact that Philando Castile was killed in the act of reaching for his wallet instead of putting his hands up.
It is tragic cases like these that have so many people so upset right now, and simple statistics documenting whether or not people are killed and whether or not they are armed do not get at the heart of the matter.
I hereby pose a genuine question: Is there a list of as many cases of white people being killed over the past three years, while unarmed and not doing anything to deserve being killed under any conception of justice or morality?
If such a list of examples exists, then America needs to consider that we have been hoodwinked by a media too devoted to a story about racism to tell the truth, and we will all be better for the revelation.
If no such list exists, however, then people like Giuliani would be well advised to consider the nature of the injustice BLM is protesting, and understand that what’s at stake here is the very sociological fabric of this country. Racism in America is like a house that has largely burned down; the problem between black people and cops is a chimney still standing. We should take axes to that chimney at last.
John McWhorter teaches linguistics, American studies, philosophy and music history at Columbia University and is the author of “The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.