We All Know Racism When We See It. Don't We?

A white woman revisits black lives matter

Posted Jul 12, 2020

Tony Webster
BLM poster in Minneapolis
Source: Tony Webster

One week ago, I posted “A White Woman's Take on Black Lives Matter” to express my sympathy with the movement and also acknowledge that I understand the reasoning behind the emphasis on “black lives” even when “all lives” seems more fair to some minds. I conceded that some aggravating encounters I had with cops back in the day could have been worse if I were a black man instead of a white woman.

Since posting it, I've done a lot of listening to feedback from readers, reading new material, and thinking. I felt a follow-up was necessary.

One reader emailed me privately to say she thought my post could do more harm than good for the BLM movement. I was confused. Her argument was that there was no evidence of racism in the George Floyd incident and that assuming racism motivated the awful tragedy derailed my other “good points.” She added that Floyd was a criminal who had drugs in his system and was resisting arrest. I had the same reaction many of you might be having right now: none of that matters. Even if he was high on drugs and resisting arrest and trying to pass counterfeit bills, none of those aggrievances warrants instant death. And since the officer was fired, and now faces criminal charges, it seems that society agrees with that opinion.

But was his killing racially motivated? She had a point. I wasn’t sure. Philosophers are trained to question all assumptions and determine through reason whether those assumptions are founded. If you get good at it, you start to question subconscious assumptions too—those you didn’t even know you had until you started thinking about it. One reader emailed me Sam Harris’s recent podcast on BLM and police behavior, “Can We Pull Back from the Brink?” After listening to it in its entirety three times, I was reminded of a very important philosophical ideal: facts over feelings—reason over passion Spinoza would say. Harris’ thorough discussion of the issues is a powerful reminder to review the data and the facts before jumping to conclusions, which, at least one reader implied I had done.  

Case in point: In the years 2017-2020, police officers consistently killed almost twice as many white people as black people, year after year. Are there some wrongfully killed black people? Yes. Are there some wrongfully killed white people? Yes. Are there some instances where those killed are violent criminals who might be armed and are high on methamphetamines, all of which make them hard to control and arrest rendering deadly force necessary?

The BLM movement is strong and poised to make real change for people of color, and thus for everyone. Being super careful about correctly identifying racism when and where it occurs will only serve to bring its message into laser beam focus.

One questionable example is Elie Mystal’s article on the shooting death of Breonna Taylor, which was published in the “Racism and Discrimination” section of The Nation, and describes Taylor as being “murdered for sleeping while black.” Taylor’s death was an awful tragedy and she was a black woman, but to suggest the case is “murder” (which typically implies intent to kill) and further, that it’s an example of racism is highly questionable. When citizens and cops are shooting at each other in the dark and no one knows who anyone is, racist intentions would be hard if not impossible to prove.

Why does this matter? Let’s switch up the content to something, at least at the moment, less incendiary. I wrote a PT post on sexism in 2016 in which I made a very similar argument. When, in 2016, Matt Lauer was accused of sexism in the way he questioned Clinton vis-à-vis Trump, I watched those interviews, again and again, searching for clues. Nothing. Zilch. People, lots of people, thought they saw Lauer acting in a sexist manner toward Clinton in cutting her off (interviewers do this all the time), and asking her really tough questions (Trump got tough questions too and besides, isn’t it sexist to worry about a woman being asked ‘tough’ questions?). My point: If you see an -ism everywhere, you’re very likely to get overwhelmed, overly frustrated, and either become violent and angry (yup, we’ve seen that) or give up (yup, we’ve seen that too).

Sexism exists in America. Racism exists in America. But in both cases, I think it’s really important to be clear about what we see when we see it. The reader who emailed me privately made me think twice about calling the George Floyd incident a “racist” one. Wrongful violent deaths are tragic regardless of race. Sometimes it’s just plain police brutality. Sometimes it’s just a man asking a woman tough questions. Without assuming another level of evil that may or may not be there, we’re better able to “know the enemy,” which gives us an enormous edge in the fight.    

Image: Tony Webster / tony@tonywebster.com / Creative Commons/ Wikimedia Commons


Grynbaum, M. (2016, Sept. 8). "Matt Lauer Fields Storm of Criticism Over Clinton-Trump Forum." The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/08/us/politics/matt-lauer-forum.html

Harris, Sam, host. "Can We Pull Back From the Brink?" Making Sense podcast. June 18, 2020. https://samharris.org/can-pull-back-brink/

Mystal, E. (2020, May 15). "Breonna Taylor Was Murdered for Sleeping While Black." The Nation. https://www.thenation.com/article/society/breonna-taylor-was-murdered-for-sleeping-while-black/

Statista Research Department. "People Shot to Death by U.S. Police, by Race 2017-2020." July 1, 2020. https://www.statista.com/statistics/585152/people-shot-to-death-by-us-police-by-race/