Over the last couple years, I’ve learned to take a page from Bastiat, if you’ll forgive the probably oversimplified and inappropriate association, and think about the unseen on matters of race. The unseen is important in many things, but perhaps it is especially important with race due to the large assumptions we make about the unseen of other races based on the seen of our own race.
For example, like many conservatives I used to ask why blacks were so outraged about killings by police officers and not outraged by the much more prevalent killings of blacks by blacks. Nevermind all the reasons, both subjective and objective, one might respond differently to the same actions committed by different people held to different standards. I literally had the audacity to assume that the outrage that I personally observed in the arena of public discourse was equivalent to the outrage that actually took place! Now I have had my eyes opened to some of the outrage that was previously unseen to me.
I have been thinking about this principle again. I am fascinated by the the conservative response to the non-indictment of the officer who choked Eric Garner. The pundits are all quick to point out how very different this case is from the Michael Brown case they just spent four months justifying, although some of them are bending over backwards to express their concern in the most guarded way possible, saying they don’t know enough about it to absolutely sure something is wrong. (Yet they somehow know enough to be sure it’s definitely not about the things their political opponents think it’s about. But, hey, partisans gotta partisan.)
What fascinates me, though, is their implicit confidence that they are responding to an objective illustration of these issues. They are patting themselves on the back for responding consistently to the facts that have entered the arena of public discourse without seeming to notice the array of influences over what facts enter the arena of public discourse to begin with. They are all commenting about how much more justified New York City’s anger was than Ferguson’s without seeming to notice that it is probably only because of Ferguson that they are paying attention to New York City at all. They want to treat these as isolated cases that are not representative of systemic issues without recognizing that a long unseen history of systemic issues could be the only reason these cases bubbled up into their field of vision in the first place.
YouTube clips of Garner’s choking were available weeks before Michael Brown was even killed, but his death remained largely unseen outside the arena of civil rights activists until Ferguson (which itself was largely unseen until the burned QuikTrip gave everyone something to denounce). That anger in Ferguson may have been partially kindled by a history of abusive local practices which have now gotten so much attention in the state that Republican lawmakers are writing up reforms.
In this narrative, unseen but justified anger over systemic issues provoked seen but unjustified anger over a single event, which gave partisans enough to argue about that it held our attention long enough to actually see the justified anger over another similar event. Isolated, unrelated incidents? Please.
Maybe I’m oversimplifying things. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence these publicized decisions came down so near to each other. It’s not like the grand jury process is new. It’s not like police officers killing unarmed men is new, either. What is new is that the decisions about them are being publicized. They have (at least until the next exaggerated health scare) burst from the unseen arena to the seen.
I am fascinated by how consistently the pundits are referencing the video as clearly showing the details behind Garner’s death without seeming to be aware of the influence the video had on the fact that they “saw” this death at all. The video is the reason that Eric Garner is the second “seen” grand jury decision that everyone is comparing to the first “seen” decision about Michael Brown.
Contrary to conservative beliefs about liberal media, the media does not relentlessly spotlight every white officer’s killing of a black man while ignoring the killing of whites. There are far too many “unseen” deaths (of all races) for even the media to pay attention to them all. Many are doubtlessly justified. But no one seems to have a good idea of how many aren’t, and how many of those unjustified deaths receive justice through the justice system. There seem to be a couple of issues that raise doubts that this happens with satisfactory regularity.
One issue is that when there is no video of the incident, the authorities have an enormous amount of control over the information that enters the arena of public discourse. After the release of Brown’s surveillance footage (which was not footage of the officer’s shooting), conservatives criticized liberals for caring more about the footage being leaked than the “facts” of the footage itself, while missing the whole point that the curious way these facts were released raised doubts about what other facts might remain unseen.
Another issue is the inherent conflict of interest in a prosecutor bringing charges against the officers he needs to help him bring charges against non-officers. This leads to unusual grand jury procedures, if the cases even make it to a grand jury at all. Conservatives have shown remarkable interest in dissecting the consistency of the evidence to Darren Wilson’s account without showing nearly as much interest in the unusual way the account was handled by the system. Sympathetic prosecutors may not have led the rigorous cross-examination of a regular trial, which may have left relevant facts unseen, or left questionable “facts” unchallenged.
The system of policing the policemen may have had these issues for a long time, but these issues have remained largely unseen. Until now.
Ferguson brought these issues to the attention of some of us in the St. Louis area, but the apparent absence of clear evidence contradicting the officer’s narrative allowed most to ignore their relevance; maybe the outcome would or should have been the same even without those potential slants. The video of Eric Garner – now that it has entered the arena of public discourse – is bringing those issues to the attention of all.
(Incidentally, this is why I don’t share the despair of those now saying “so much for body cameras”. This footage may not have changed the outcome of this grand jury decision, but it has done more to open people’s eyes to problems with the grand jury process – and thus the potential for change – than anything I’ve ever, uh, seen.)
Which circles us back to the issue of race. The debate about whether or not any given event is “about” race is somewhat distracting, I think. What seems clear to me is that there are a lot of unseen experiences, often grouped along racial lines, which influence not only our perceptions of those events, but whether we perceive them at all.