I spent about 48 hours debating a group of people, on a Facebook thread, who’s first instinct in the wake of Baltimore was to pray, donate to the Baltimore police and fire departments, get involved with youth mentorship programs (them black thugs need to learn how to behave in society, after all), “put out the fire,” rebuild that poor CVS, and heap scorn on all those pesky, strange, useless, counterproductive, activist people who really should get back to work and produce “metrics” that actually “get shit done.”
Most of them seemed to be part of the defense industry in one way or another. Either that or some other status-quo-reinforcing sector of society. They were largely typical American churchgoers, the kind who you might find at a soup kitchen but never (God forbid) at a rally or a picket line. Also the type that has tended to apologize for or disregard every systemic injustice throughout American history, especially those injustices aimed at black people. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of churchgoers who amount to the opposite of this. But this wasn’t that.
Almost all of them were white and comfortable, with one Indian engineer who builds drones who presumably thinks he experiences the same kind of racism and hardships as the population of West Baltimore and reserves the right to shut up anyone who has the audacity to defend all those pesky, strange, useless, counterproductive, activist people in an intelligent and informed manner. Although I later learned he opposed the Iraq War at the time of its inception, so he beat me on that count (a low bar, but hey, my past life wasn’t so pretty).
The word “debate” isn’t quite right, since there wasn’t a single person on this thread who expressed any interest whatsoever in listening to a word I had to say, even as they all pretended to be open-minded, “civil” types. The politics of respectability was at full blast, in fact, where none of them were compelled to comment on the 67-year-old white guy who dropped in with an openly racist comment about them blackies needing to learn how to govern their children, but all of them were shocked — shocked — that someone would get so worked up about their seemingly liberal-minded reaction to the seemingly black-induced violence in Baltimore and those seemingly pesky, strange, useless, counterproductive, activist people.
What I learned but already largely knew: there are daunting swaths of American society that have never allowed even the semblance of a serious and uncomfortable thought about how power, race, and class function in a deeply inequitable society, and how this ought to shape the way we (as citizens) approach the task of “problem-solving” (one of their favorite, mostly vacuous phrases, ostensibly) and a good number of these swaths probably never will allow for the genuine and sustained entertainment of such thoughts. Their entire existence, after all, depends on avoiding such questions. Hence their propensity for replacing social movement and collective politics with individual acts of kindness as a means of psychological compensation. Hence their proclivity for dismissing or despising anyone who invests in anything other than a politics fully defined by individual acts of status-quo-reinforcing kindness. Hence their extreme vexation with democratic conversations and deliberations on structural injustice and mass resistance. Hence their almost Olympian capacity to revert the highly visible emergence of any gloomy social ill into yet another familiar and self-congratulatory discussion about personal responsibility, charity, non-profit volunteer work, and prayer.
Unlike the future, these people are hopeless.
ADDENDUM: My proposed split between “individual acts of kindness” and social movement politics is too facile. Most social movement agitators, activists, and organizers are also involved in plenty of community-based charity/volunteer work. This stuff goes hand-in-hand with agitation, collective outreach, and mass organization. The same is true in the other direction. Many (maybe even most) charities are in one way or another hooked in with broader social movements. So, really, it doesn’t have to be much of an either/or proposition to begin with. The two can reinforce one another. For many they do, and for many they don’t. And I’d argue ideology plays a major role in the determination of that balance.