From “How Could He…” to “How Am I…”: A Confession

The writer Robert Penn Warren once described the “national rhythm” on race matters to be one that swayed between “complacency and panic.” There is a great deal of truth in this observation – especially among elites – and unless we can break that rhythm we seem doomed to remain trapped in what Ibram X. Kendi has aptly called “the American nightmare.”

But how are we supposed to break this rhythm? It seems to me that the beginning of an answer is to be found in reframing the sorts of questions we tend to ask. By “we” I mean all of us and especially those with power and privilege. In times like these – the times of “panic” – we all too often focus on questions that begin with, “how could he…?” How could he – someone like Officer Derek Chauvin – engage in such grotesque brutality against the body of another human being? And we focus our attention on holding him accountable and disempowering those like him from doing it again. Asking these sorts of questions and acting on the answers in appropriate ways strikes me as necessary, but insufficient to break the rhythm between complacency and panic.

In times like these, we tend to ask of our political leaders: how could he – the right-wing authoritarian President – be so lacking in empathy and full of disdain for his fellow citizens? Or perhaps how could he – the well-meaning liberal Mayor – be so superficial in his diagnosis and prescription for what ails the American soul? These questions about our leaders are also well worth asking, but they are not enough. When panic fades, these politicians will likely go back to business as usual, complacency will set in, and we will remain stuck in the rhythm.

In order to break the rhythm between complacency and panic, “how could he” questions must be supplanted in our minds by “how am I” questions. How am I complicit in the preservation of white supremacist, patriarchal, imperialist, ableist, and heteronormative structures of power that destroy the lives of so many human beings every single day? Recent events demand of us that we ask questions like: how am I complicit in the perpetuation of an economic system in which African Americans control, on average, approximately one-tenth of the wealth of white Americans? How am I complicit in the perpetuation of an educational system in which access, quality, and opportunity are distributed in ways that perpetuate racial inequality? How am I complicit in a system of law enforcement in which African Americans are disproportionately stopped, questioned, harassed, and attacked by those who are supposed to protect them? How am I complicit in a criminal justice system in which African Americans are disproportionately arrested, convicted, and sentenced to lengthy prison sentences?

The truth is that unless we – those who have benefitted in ways large and small from the structures of power that created these disparities – take responsibility for dismantling them, we will remain forever stuck in the rhythm between complacency and panic. The conception of responsibility I have in mind calls out complacency for what it is: complicity in the perpetuation of injustice. Yes, we need to hold those who violate our rights accountable and structure our institutions so they will not be able to do it again in the future. Yes, we need to hold politicians accountable for their many failures. But that is not enough. Responsibility also requires each of us – as individuals and as members of broader communities – to reflect on the millions of details of our lives and to think about how those details help perpetuate this nightmare. We cannot let ourselves off of the hook. We may be doing some of the right things, but we are not doing enough.

Lest this be received as a holier-than-thou sermon, allow me to conclude on a personal note. I am an upper middle-class professor and writer. I benefit in innumerable ways from the structures of power I have just described. Through my teaching, writing, and engagement with the world, I try to do the right things. I teach the right things. I write the right things. I tweet the right things. I sign the right petitions. I vote for the right candidates. But I am not doing nearly enough. I am not going to let myself off the hook.

This is not a sermon; it is my confession.

This is not a sermon; it is my confession.

This is not a sermon; it is my confession.

This is me, trying to find my rhythm outside of complacency and panic.

Nicholas Buccola’s books include The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass, The Essential Douglassand The Fire is upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate over Race in America. He is the Elizabeth and Morris Glicksman Professor of Political Science at Linfield College.