Inaction is a weapon of mass destruction. Faithless, 2004.
In the middle of a worsening pandemic, this week protests flared up after the brutal killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by police in Minneapolis, which was filmed and shared on social media. This was followed by further police violence against unarmed demonstrators across the USA. Since then there have been further protests around the world, in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. This particular murder was far from unique, and is the latest in an unbroken sequence of police or police-sanctioned killings of black people that can be traced back to the days of slavery. Even documented cases are undoubtedly the tip of a much larger iceberg, and of course fatal violence is merely the most extreme way in which racism continues to undermine the pretence of freedom and equality which are supposed to be the founding principles of the USA and most democracies. Freedom, equality and justice don’t exist unless Black Lives Matter.
It’s far too easy for me to write a paragraph focusing on the USA (I am white and I live in the UK), as if racism were a problem that doesn’t affect me and is beyond my control. In fact it does affect me, and I affect it, whether through action or inaction. Following Twitter this week as the demonstrations unfolded, I could see a clear consensus among the many black people in my timeline who took the time to explain how non-black people could help. That message was in essence: educate yourself, and commit yourself to improving the system. Although more direct and short-term action, such as donating and demonstrating could be helpful, the core message that I received is that much more fundamental and long-lasting change is critical and that white people like myself are still not getting it.
This pandemic has stopped the world turning, giving us a chance to stop and reflect on the world as is it is, the way it is broken, and the way we want it to change. Isolated from the usual day-to-day excuses and watching those terrible images flooding in over the week (so far) of protests met with brutality, I looked inside myself, and I couldn’t deny it. I am ashamed of my ignorance and inaction.
Shame. When we are ashamed of something we either keep silent or change the subject. Shame is a very double-edged sword – it can be used to enforce conformity, for example – but it can also help us behave morally when it is against our selfish interests to do so. That is what is happening now; I feel ashamed because I have done so little to stop the injustice. I feel ashamed because I am still largely ignorant about the ways in which I benefit from racism and the suffering it causes other people. Being silent or changing the subject only helps to perpetuate my shame. If I am ever to see freedom, equality and justice, I need to own it. I won’t change the subject.
Ignorance. The easiest way to avoid dealing with a problem is to ignore its existence. Ignorance requires zero energy and is favoured almost like a law of nature. White people benefit from racism, historical and present. Many of us are content to recognize and deplore structural racism all around us, but we are less keen to analyze its causes. Indeed, one of the main causes has to be our own ignorance. If we do not understand how we ourselves participate in and benefit from racism, if we don’t fully understand the harms it causes, we can avoid the urgent need to take action. If ever I want to see freedom, equality and justice, I need to learn about racism.
Inaction. In a system that needs to change, inaction is what keeps things the same. Being passive feels comfortable: “I didn’t do anything wrong”. But if your inaction sustains or exacerbates injustice, it is wrong. It’s been said a hundred times in many different contexts:
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” attributed to Edmund Burke, 1770;
“Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” John Stuart Mill, 1867.
“Silence becomes cowardice when occasion demands speaking out the whole truth and acting accordingly.” Mahatma Gandhi, 1946.
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Desmond Tutu, 1984.
Martin Luther King, in particular, identified silence and inaction as a central component of racial injustice on so many occasions, it is easy to imagine he may have seen it as the most important barrier to progress.
The reason why so many people have had to articulate this idea so many times, is because i) it’s a universal truth and ii) people don’t want to understand or believe it. After all, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” For many white people that is precisely how racism works – accumulated centuries of power and wealth depend on continued ignorance and inaction. The problem is not unique to racism and it could be seen as the overarching cause driving the converging global problems of this century, from climate change to the pandemic response; inaction really is a weapon of mass destruction.
I hope I can live up to my paragraphs on shame, ignorance, and inaction, because anti-racism can’t be a performance art. But because being silent and changing the subject are not an option it is necessary to speak up, if only to say “I am ashamed to be part of this, and I want to learn how I can change”. If you are in the same situation, below are some links to a few books that have been recommended by various knowledgeable people I follow on Twitter (there are many more books, this is a white British scientist orientated selection). I have not yet read all of these myself, but I am making a start.
I am grateful to Crystal Fleming (@alwaystheself on Twitter) whose thread indirectly pointed me to Charles W Mills chapter “White Ignorance”. As a piece of academic philosophy is probably too technical to recommend here as general reading but which certainly informs and aligns with the advice I’ve received and tried to pass on here.