From its inception, Culture Briefing has never attempted to respond directly to the weekly news cycle—much less the unceasing noise that forms our daily diet of “breaking news.” Our interest is in what we call the “deep structures” of late modern culture—that is, the norms and institutions that give shape and meaning to contemporary life. In our first briefing we described our goal in the following way:
The objective is fairly basic: to gather and showcase ideas that we think are worthy of your attention…Our hope is that, in time, this collection of ideas will be useful to you by helping you better understand the world we inhabit—both the great challenges to human flourishing we face, and the real possibilities for enduring change.
For this reason, when we do comment on current events, our aim is to shed light on the broader social context in which they arise. This week, we bring you three pieces that address the ongoing crisis of legitimacy in American public life around race and police violence. In previous briefings we have highlighted important contemporary work on the topic of racial justice in America (see Vol. 41, Vol. 18, and Vol. 8), but our angle this week is about how we talk about race in America—that is, how our public discourse reveals the kinds of change we can actually envision.
Our first piece is a vivid and beautiful first-person reflection by Garnette Cadogan, a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, called “Walking While Black.” Cadogan begins by describing the urban landscape of his native Kingston, Jamaica—a place he came to know well by walking its streets as a child, at all hours of the day and night. “I made friends with strangers and went from being a very shy and awkward kid to being an extroverted, awkward one,” Cadogan writes; “I imagined myself as a Jamaican Tom Sawyer, one moment sauntering down the streets to pick low-hanging mangoes that I could reach from the sidewalk, another moment hanging outside a street party with battling sound systems.” In time, the streets of Kingston were no longer to be feared; even when they weren’t “serene,” Cadogan found them “full of adventure.”
Not so in the United States. When Cadogan moved to New Orleans to attend college, a fundamental shift took place in his self-understanding: a shift from negotiating a set of external threats to being perceived as a threat. He says:
On my first day in the city, I went walking for a few hours to get a feel for the place...When some university staff members found out what I’d been up to, they warned me to restrict my walking to the places recommended as safe to tourists and the parents of freshmen. They trotted out statistics about New Orleans’s crime rate. But Kingston’s crime rate dwarfed those numbers, and I decided to ignore these well-meant cautions. A city was waiting to be discovered, and I wouldn’t let inconvenient facts get in the way. These American criminals are nothing on Kingston’s, I thought. They’re no real threat to me.
What no one had told me was that I was the one who would be considered a threat.
Cadogan goes on to describe, in vivid detail, the implications of this shift in self-understanding for the experience of everyday life as a black man on American streets. His description of the “complex and often oppressive negotiation” that takes place between black men and others on the streets (including armed officers) invites readers into the experience of routine but tense encounters that can quickly escalate—as in the recent shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling.
In a brief piece for the Huffington Post, Greg Thompson, executive director of New City Commons, writes of the “familiar oscillation between grief and anger, self-righteousness and empathy, numbness and nausea” that comes in the aftermath of observing yet more violence against fellow citizens, both the killing of citizens by police and the killing of Dallas police officers. Underneath this oscillation, however, is a deeper suspicion regarding paralysis and helplessness. “Having spent hours watching these videos and having spent years thinking about the history of race in America,” Thompson writes, “I sat in my room with only one thought: I have no idea what to do.” Interrogating this sense of helplessness leads Thompson to identify three basic challenges we face: what he calls the “collapse of citizenship,” a widespread and crippling “avoidance of leadership,” and finally, the very real possibility of increasing violence in our streets.
Thompson is surely right about these challenges and the pervasive sense of helplessness in our polity. Our third piece exposes what I take to be both a source and expression of that helplessness—namely, the ideologically fractured nature of our public conversations. Earlier in the spring, the Wall Street Journal began hosting an interactive page called “Red Feed, Blue Feed,” whose goal is to demonstrate the power of social media to skew our understanding of a given event or issue by selecting (or filtering out) articles from across the ideological spectrum of news sources.
Taken together, this week’s pieces paint a bleak picture of contemporary life in America. Indeed, these are dark days. And yet, as Nicole Baker Fulgham put it in a statement to Sojourners magazine, this most recent spate of violence in our streets “presents another moment for our nation to decide who we want to be.”