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Nine totally innocent black people in a South Carolina church were murdered by a 21-year-old white man intent on starting a race war. For normal people there can only be one reaction–grief. Publishing this response when there can be no second might seem trite, as in why make a point of saying something when only that one thing can be said. But the only other option is not airing any response and I find that unacceptable.

When white people write about race they literally don’t have skin in the game. It often feels like philosophy play. No matter what conclusion they reach, the white writer’s safety is never in jeopardy. The implications of the article only affect them insofar as they care about the lives of the people who the article is about, ie non-white people. Black people are being killed in the street by citizens, and those ostensibly there to protect them, police.

I have a dual sense of race. In a cosmic or existential sense, there is no god and all people’s lives matter equally because we’re all bumbling about on this planet trying to have a good time living decently. Race is a social construct, skin pigment should be irrelevant. Except of course it isn’t.

I think racism stems from the unfortunate flipside of the drive that makes a mother instinctively love her baby. In evolutionary terms, 10,000 years ago in the Pleistocene, it’s easy to see the advantages of being close with one’s own tribe. Danger was everywhere, trust was necessary, and at a time when we spent life mere kilometres from where we were born we didn’t encounter even a fraction of the diversity we do today.

All humans have an ineluctable, diabolical genius for automatically sussing out people like them. We sort them into various categories based on blood, ethnicity, geographic ties, gender, religion, race, nationality, class. But ultimately these are subdivisions of two largest categories: alike and not alike. How similar is this person to me, and how are they different?

That’s why most people are disproportionately friends with people like themselves, and why the quaint liberal notion that people be judged solely according to the content of their character instead of these factors doesn’t really play out much in reality. It is a lovely notion, but it’s not usually how things go. We surround ourselves with people like us. (Cosmopolitanism has increased due to internet and cheaper flights–we see different people as less different or even as the same as us, but it didn’t start out this way, we had to climb out of our natural state.)

Loving your family because they’re family (or have some other of the above commonalities) can often be a lovely thing, or at least benign. But on a large-scale, a world of people preferring those like themselves inadvertently makes them opposed to those who are different as a byproduct. If you add this dynamic to crowd-think, racism is easier to understand.

It’s a fact that people are people irrespective of their skin colour, but saying this to a victim of racism is like telling someone with dead lost to a Holy War that there is no god. The underlying fact of it is irrelevant when in practice it can mean life and death.

I’ve heard Jews here scared to publicly criticize a provincial or federal policy lest they get audited say they’d feel safer hearing Muslims, perhaps living in arms-range of Hamas or ISIS, publicly denounce these two barbaric groups, even if the consequences for doing so has been death or worse (death of family members to send a message). Many Muslims do publicly denounce these groups, but there are understandable, practical reasons why they may remain silent. Many people who hate ISIS don’t bother to claim so publicly because they never say anything publicly. Silence doesn’t equal consent. On the flip side I imagine there are racist CEOs of companies only begrudgingly removing Confederate flags from stores now out of profit motive, sensing shoppers (thankfully) want this. It’s Pride now, and I imagine homophobic CEOs realise rainbow flags are good for business. Knowing a person’s private heart is complicated.

White people often think everyone is in a race but us, so when a white person does something they’re just a person doing it, not a person of a race. Many white people don’t feel compelled to publicly denounce white crimes because it doesn’t occur to us that we should. This white guy killed people in my name, and that’s unacceptable. Many other white people also hate this shit but don’t have a public platform to denounce it, but I do so I will.

I get that white people bemoaning the conditions non-white people live in can sound like giving themselves a sanctimonious pat on the back–look what a humanitarian I am! Gushy white liberal guilt makes for poor reading. But seeing it exclusively in these terms makes it about the author when what matters is the article’s subject, in this case those murdered for not being white. Anyway, it doesn’t take an especially enlightened humanitarian to denounce race wars or the death of innocent people. It’s the right position and it’s important, but it’s mundane and basic.  

It’s hard to talk about this stuff without it devolving into platitudes. Both social justice advocates and those who lament PC censorship both speak them. But consider, there isn’t a single worthwhile principle or philosophy that can’t be reduced to a corny platitude. When dealing with these issues it’s easy to scoff at this or that often repeated slogan or pre-packaged phrase, but align yourself with the substance behind it.

Dizzy Gillespie used to say that “everyone’s my brother until they prove otherwise.” If I had the power I’d “extend the chill” to non-white people, a phrase I like because it has a light touch on a heavy subject and carries the idea of allowing everyone to do what white people take for granted, innocently wander about enjoying life without fear, oblivious to even the thought, that for no reason it might suddenly end.

For now and from afar, it seems this ghastly crime is doing anything but starting a race war. I hope I’m right and I hope that continues.

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