Society

Our racial, and sometimes racist, scripts

Let Christians become known as the calm and empathetic voices

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David Smart - Shutterstock

We all have mental scripts from which we read when reacting to a traumatic public event, and those tell us what we really feel and think. Relatively few of us manage an honest “I don’t know what to think about this,” especially when speaking of race and class. Our script tells us what we must conclude about race and class in America, and that decides what we believe about what has happened in the world, in particular (the latest news story) and in general.

We can see the obvious scripts, the “Racist Cops” and “Black Criminals” ones, and many subtler ones, like the “Must say a hard word about race” one. Writing in The Washington Post, Christine Emba describes one script she has encountered:

When black writers or speakers dare to suggest that their community has long been ill-treated, that the effects persist into the present day, and that perhaps our white neighbors and friends are even slightly privileged by not having to worry constantly about their impending deaths, the reply is, “Well, we’ve tried. There’s a black president, after all. It’s your turn to do better — haven’t you seen the statistics for black-on-black crime?”

Our own scripts

The pressing question for us is: What do we do with our scripts? That is true whether your script is “Racist cops!” or “Criminal blacks!” or something subtler. Question them hard. Try to break yourself of them.

First, figure out what they are. Engage in an examination of speech as a kind of examination of conscience. Social media makes this easier than it has ever been because we leave records.

Look at what you say first in response to a public trauma: whose side you take, who you blame, and how quickly and how strongly you speak. Count the adjectives and exclamation marks. Look at how much you say, whether you stop or pile on. Look at what you say after the first reaction, whether you moderate your claims or double-down on them. Look also at the news stories and the commentary you share and ask yourself why you did.

Second, when you’ve figured out what your script is, play against it. Question those you instinctively support and give those you blame the benefit of the doubt. In both cases, dial down the emotional level of your claims. (I find it helpful to think, “How am I going to feel about this if in a week I find out I was wrong about the facts?” Most of us are vain enough to try hard not to look stupid.) Before writing at all, make sure you can articulate a reason you should write and how much you should write.

The rhetorical preferential option

Third, remember as you speak the Catholic preferential option for the poor. The poor include those who are poor in culturally-supported racial and ethnic identity. I’m assuming most readers are white. To whom much is given, of him much is required, and being white (and especially WASP white) gives one much. I wrote about this here for Ethika Politika and here for Aleteia.

Exercise what I’ve called the preferential rhetorical option for the poor. One simple way to express that preferential option is to suppress your first critical reactions to the statements of and about black victims of prejudice or police violence and to try hard to see the world from their point of view. Don’t post your first response on Facebook. Don’t assume that the burden of proof is on them. Assume they see things you don’t. In short: Listen to them as you would have them listen to you.

Emba’s parents, for example, successful middle-class Americans, a pharmacist and a nurse, told her brother when he got his driver’s license: “Drive slow; don’t be outside at night; if you’re stopped by the police, always keep your hands in view; never raise your voice; don’t talk back; you’re not like everyone else; this country isn’t safe for you; you should always be on your guard.”

The black free market conservative Ismael Hernandez just wrote on Facebook: “There is no doubt that indignities are experienced often by blacks for the mere fact of being black — I have experienced them. There are a number of whites who deny racial animosity but have it.” He points out that some of these people become police offers and other public officials. “Blacks at times feel that social repulse and are right in denouncing it.”

If our society looks like that to people like them, it is like that, and that should inform how the rest of us think about it. Their insights should help us break ourselves of our scripts.

To make this practical: Don’t respond to the cry “Black lives matter” with the high-minded-sounding trump card “All lives matter.” Everyone knows what it means and what you mean by trying to trump it. “All lives matter” is not a statement of a wider and deeper humanism but a denial of the black experience the phrase expresses. As the writer Sam Rocha has written satirically: “Blessed are the poor.” “Blessed are all!”

It’s not much, taking care to speak charitably by breaking away from the scripts your mind supplies. It would still be something if Christians became known as the calm and empathetic voices, quick to understand and slow to judge but firm in judgment when they do, who spoke with a special solicitude for the racially and economically marginalized.

More to read: Have we been focused on the wrong MLK quote all these years?

[Editor’s note, lede graph revised for clarity.]

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David Mills

David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream, editorial director for Ethika Politika, and columnist for several Catholic publications. His latest book is Discovering Mary. Follow him @DavidMillsWrtng.