We Need to Talk About Racism (Pt. 1 of Many)

Jake Halpern is the author of the Darren Wilson profile appearing in this week’s New Yorker. The profile is garnering a lot of attention. However, at this moment, I’m more interested in Halpern’s “All Things Considered” interview, which I listened to on my drive home on Monday.

CORNISH: In the end, how did this change your understanding of Darren Wilson?

HALPERN: I think that meeting someone in person, whoever they are, meeting their family, seeing their child – you inevitably see them in a more human way. That’s true. And yet, reading the police reports, even to some of his own police reports, I also felt like he is a human, but he was part of a system that was really doing some bad things.

I think I saw the contradictions of it, the really egregious things that that police department did and some of the checks that this guy did – the pedestrian checks and whatnot – that were super questionable and where there were real suffering as a result of it, and yet simultaneously see this guy as a three-dimensional human being. And it was complicated. It made it difficult to kind of come up with easy answers and, you know, swift, knee-jerk conclusions.

You probably know by now that I consider myself to be a Nerdfighter, so you may also know that Nerdfighters hold the maxim to imagine others complexly in ultra-high regard. It’s the Golden Rule of Nerdfighteria. You might think, then, that I’d be psyched about Halpern’s flat-footed attempt at nuance — his obvious belief that Darren Wilson is more than the worst thing Wilson’s ever done.

Except…we aren’t really hearing a complex imagining of Wilson here, because Halpern seems unable to imagine a human being who is fully human and fully racist. Even though we are complex enough creatures to be both of those things at once.

In trying to resolve a contradiction which does not exist, Halpern sets up systemic issues — racism, in particular, but a whole mess of accompanying factors as well — as somehow outside of human identity. This is obviously nonsense; nothing humans do is truly outside of human identity. Yet in Halpern’s estimation, you can see Wilson as a cog in the machine OR as “a three-dimensional human being.” To see Wilson both ways at once is to invite cognitive dissonance and a nascent migraine, simply because one construct precludes the other.

These constructs are no good, so let’s chuck ’em.

Our biases, both good and bad, are a part of our complex humanity. This fact does not excuse harm that comes from bias; it accounts for it. Darren Wilson was able to murder Michael Brown because the murder of people of color by white men is one of America’s original sins. We haven’t truly acknowledged this sin, and we’ll be unable to escape it until we do. Until then, this dynamic, in the fullness of its history and its nihilism, comprises an unseen part of the American identity. We can and should attempt to root it out from the depths of our soul.

The intellectual dishonesty required to situate America’s original sins outside of our social identities is vast and disturbing.