Recent events have been no easy matter. First we’re struck by Covid-19 and told that it will be a reoccurring event, but then another recurrent plague has struck the US yet again–a police officer has murdered an African-American citizen. People are livid and have rightly taken to the streets to protest! Yet my post is not about those protesting for justice and equality. Rather, my focus is on White America’s reaction—a reaction that involves being confronted by the raw, unwelcome truth of good old-fashioned American racism. This is a confrontation that shatters White America’s conception of herself and her sacred belief as stated in the Pledge of Allegiance: Justice and Liberty for All. It is an extremely dangerous confrontation that will only result in a violent backlash by White America.
In looking at how white Americans view themselves and their world, I can’t help but think of Plato’s Republic. In Book VII, Plato paints a bleak picture of a cave that has a group of prisoners chained up since birth, unable to look anywhere but at the wall in front of them. Behind the prisoners (but on a much higher elevation) are puppeteers, separated only by a low wall (and below the elevated bit is the path to leave the cave). Further behind the puppeteers is a light source, a fire, which causes the puppets on the low wall to cast shadows upon the wall the prisoners must stare at. The prisoners think that these shadows are actual things, such as humans, animals, and various objects. Having nothing else to do all day except stare at this wall, the prisoners devise a competition to congratulate and reward those who can deduce which shadow is passing, remember which ones have passed, and predict which shadows will appear next.
Until one day the prisoners are unchained and see what is behind them. But the light from the entrance of the cave is too painful to look at so the prisoners avert their gaze, preferring to look at the wall again. One of the prisoners, let’s call him X, happens to be told that the shadows on the wall are an illusion but whats in the light is the truth. However X resists the truth until he is dragged, against his will, out of the cave and into the sun where he is forced to see things for what they actually are. Finally accepting that shadows are not actual objects, X begins to pity his former self and his cave dwellers. Afterwards X returns back to the cave, now struggling to see in the shadows because his eyes are no longer adjusted to the dark. The cave dwellers think he is blind and conclude that it is pointless to ever leave the cave. Yet X tries to educate them about the truth—that they are living in a cave of shadows—but the people won’t have it. They won’t have their whole way of life challenged. So they turn violent and kill him.
Let’s imagine that the United States is like the cave. White people are the prisoners looking at the shadows of liberty and justice. Those shadows only exist because ethnic minorities figuratively (and literally in the case of African Americans up until 1864) are forced to walk and carry all that make up the illusions of justice and liberty for all.
Living in the hard reality that they are second-class citizens, people of colour are trying to show the country that they are being denied justice and liberty, but a large amount of people (read: white people) simply refuse to believe this. They would rather continue to kill and murder the truth-bearers. And I do not mean murder in the sense of the countless murders African-American and other people of colour have already experienced. I am speaking of White America’s reaction of incoherence and violence to the current protests: thinking that there isn’t systematic racism in police forces; refusing to believe that police use excessive force; wondering why must the protesters act so violently (usually it’s the police’s fault), and preferring to shoot at looters (the last bit being said by no other than President Trump).
Is it really any surprise? According to a recent Yahoo/YouGov poll, 57% of White Americans think the protests are violent, and to add insult to injury, 48% of them think that the reason for protesting is the result of a long-standing bias against police instead of a genuine desire to hold police accountable for their actions. Tellingly, however, is that 57% of them believe that the criminal justice system treats Whites better, i.e. White America knows that minorities are targeted by the police but chooses to resist the truth. White America (or more fittingly, the White Cave People) prefers revelling in the shadows, defending the status quo at all costs, because it has too many things attached to it. Some are bullshit and need to be gotten rid of immediately (like being congratulated for being born with white skin), but others are very real, such as the social and & economic benefits whites have at the expense of ethnic minorities (e.g. building wealth through property ownership).
While comparing White America’s reaction to Plato gives quite a bleak conclusion, we need not despair. White America will very well use excessive force against the protesters, but like the long, hard-won road to legal equality, the truth bearing activists will continue the fight for proper, full on equality. And all those who know the truth–we must continue educating our fellow countrymen. Until then, White America will continue to be confronted with its ugly, uncomfortable truth: America is not the freest county in the world if you are not white. And that famous line in the pledge of allegiance really ought to read like a pharmaceutical advertisement: Justice and Liberty for All*
*except anyone not white