IT MAY OR MAY NOT surprise you to know that there are self-identified humanists who don’t think systemic racism is a big problem in the United States. Or they simply don’t think it’s a humanist issue. The same goes for disproportionate targeting and excessive use of force by law enforcement against African Americans. And this is precisely why the cover of the issue at hand asks if black lives matter to humanism. (Someone said to me, do you really have to ask? Judging from comments on the American Humanist Association’s Facebook page and other direct sources the answer appears to be yes.)
Writing this column is always the last thing I do before the issue goes to print, and I found myself wondering several times during production if there would be yet another national news story involving excessive use of force by police against an African-American citizen. And there it was on the news the night of June 7—video of an officer in McKinney, Texas, responding to a reportedly chaotic situation at a suburban pool party the day before, pinning a high school girl in a bikini on the ground, pulling her hair, and verbally abusing her before pulling a gun on other black teenagers. (And of course this was ten days before a white supremacist killed nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina.)
The events were reported from very different perspectives from different sources, but the officer at the center of the story, Eric Casebolt, resigned from the police force three days later and apologized for letting his emotions get the better of him. It’s paramount to ask why he went after who he did in the way he did, but it’s also worth noting that, as reported by his attorney, Casebolt had responded to two suicide calls earlier in the day, one in which a father shot himself in front of his family at a pool. If this is a day in the life of a Texas police officer then we not only need to train cops to better handle their emotions and gain control of their implicit biases, we also need to ask if we’re expecting too much from individuals wearing a badge and armed with a gun.
Issues of race, racism, and policing have the nation’s attention and they are infinitely complex because they involve human beings whose experiences in the world vary greatly. The activists and scholars who participated in the “Humanism and Race” panel at the recent AHA annual conference spoke to a predominantly white audience about the state of racial disparity in the United States today. They challenged these humanists to consider their own position of privilege and to shed their sense of certainty in order to approach an understanding of black lives. An understanding that all lives can’t matter until black lives matter. If the conversation (continued herein) was making people uncomfortable, they said, that was a good thing because it creates a place from which we can approach understanding.
In a June 7 New York Times op-ed, Paul Bloom talks about empathy and the valiant effort to put oneself in someone else’s shoes, but how utterly we fail at it. “These failures should motivate a certain humility,” he writes. “Instead of assuming that we can know what it is like to be them, we should focus more on listening to what they have to say.” And in a collective interview with members of Jewish Voice for Peace published May 19 at Truthout, JVC leaders were asked about organizing in majority white Jewish communities for racial justice and the Black Lives Matter movement. “Our work is not to convince people of our knowledge,” they said, “but to give people room to respond to the fire of their own truth.” No matter how uncomfortable with or uncertain we are about others’ truths, I for one am convinced that giving people room to respond to the fire of those truths is a wholly humanist act.