FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

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.

More articles by:

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. 

August 05, 2020
Roy Eidelson
Black Lives Matter: Resisting the Propaganda of Status Quo Defenders
Melvin Goodman
The Department of Homeland Security: the Ideal Authoritarian Tool
Paul Street
Misleaders at a Funeral: Bill Clinton and Barack Obama Eulogizing Racial Justice in the Name of John Lewis
Seiji Yamada
Hiroshima, Technique, and Bioweapons
Vijay Prashad
How Trump Managed to Lead the World with the Worst Response to the COVID Pandemic
Richard C. Gross
Trump’s Alternative
Jonas Ecke
The Worst Hunger Season Yet to Come: Global Moral Failure in the Time of Covid-19
Rafiq Kathwari
The Battle for Kashmir
Kenneth Surin
Malaysia’s Arch-Kleptocrat is Found Guilty
Medea Benjamin - Nicolas J. S. Davies
U.S. Cold War China Policy Will Isolate the U.S, Not China
Lee Camp
Why Housing Is a Human Right
Sam Pizzigati
For Egalitarians, a Sudden Sense of Possibility
Jonathan Cook
Can Israelis Broaden Their Protests Beyond Netanyahu?
Thomas Knapp
Ten Years After Lieberman’s “Internet Kill Switch,” the War on Freedom Rages On
Binoy Kampmark
Staying on Message: Australia, the US and the AUSMIN Talks
Elliot Sperber
The View From Saturn 
August 04, 2020
John Pilger
Another Hiroshima is Coming…Unless We Stop It Now
Dave Lindorff
Unsung Heroes of Los Alamos: Rethinking Manhattan Project Spies and the Cold War
Kenneth Good
Escalating State Repression and Covid-19: Their Impact on the Poor in Kenya
Dean Baker
We Need an Economic Survival Package Not Another Stimulus
David Rosen
Globalization and the End of the American Dream
John Feffer
The Pandemic Reveals a Europe More United Than the United States
Patrick Cockburn
The Government’s Failed Track-and-Trace System is a Disaster for England
Ramzy Baroud
‘Optimism of the Will’: Palestinian Freedom is Possible Now
CounterPunch News Service
Statement From Yale Faculty on Hydroxychloroquine and Its Use in COVID-19
Manuel García, Jr.
Ocean Heat: From the Tropics to the Poles
Sonali Kolhatkar
Why the Idea of Jobless Benefits Scares the Conservative Mind
Greta Anderson
Framing Wolves in New Mexico?
Binoy Kampmark
Pulling Out of Germany: Trump Adjusts the Military Furniture
Shawn Fremstad – Nicole Rodgers
COVID Stimulus Checks Shouldn’t Penalize One-Parent Households
Adam Shah
The 1 Percent’s Attack on Unemployment Benefits is a Sign of Our Broken Democracy
Evaggelos Vallianatos
On the Beauty of Life
B. R. Gowani
Mohammed Rafi: Singer and Human Par Excellence
David Krieger
Eight A-Bomb Haiku
August 03, 2020
Linda Pentz Gunter
The Resistible Rise of Nuclear Gangsters…and Their Downfall
John G. Russell
The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters
Cal Winslow
Their Heroes and Ours: California’s Health Care Crisis
David Barber
Renouncing White Privilege: A Left Critique of Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility”
Linda G. Ford
Free Joy Powell! America’s Political Prisoner for Fighting Police Brutality
Prabir Purkayastha
Trump’s Withdrawal From WHO: a Cover-Up for His Abject Failure on COVID-19
Dean Baker
The Plunge in Consumption of Services Leads to a Record 32.9 Percent Drop in GDP
Ramzy Baroud
Human Rights Defenders: Palestinian Eyewitness Testimony of the Execution of Abdul Fattah al-Sharif by Israeli Soldier, Elor Azaria
Karen J. Greenberg
Accountability is Gone in America
Cesar Chelala
A Wrong Message for the Pandemic
Jonah Raskin
Chesa Boudin: Reformer in the San Francisco DA’s Office
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail