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A View From India: Ferguson and Aftermath: A Bit too Black or White

By       Message Prakash Kona     Permalink
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Unfortunately or maybe fortunately for humankind, reality is never black or white. I sincerely doubt if it is even gray. Perhaps like water it could be colorless, odorless and tasteless. But we can't exist without water just as we can't exist without reality. Such a simple assumption is enough for one to rethink the whole thing carefully. I am distrustful of categories. I am distrustful of what I have not seen. I am more distrustful of whether what I see is the truth and nothing but the truth. I am not expecting God to help me know the truth. I merely need to know myself.

Therefore I'll go with Socrates who subscribed to the idea that life is a pursuit of the truth. He did not say anything about finding the truth except through metaphors or images like the sun in the allegory of the cave. In fact Socrates adhered to the view that it is fools and tyrants who claimed to know everything and did not have any doubts when it came to what they thought they knew.

The pursuit and the means used to arrive at a tentative sense of what is true as opposed to what is false is as important as the truth itself. That is what is missing in this entire debate which has been reduced to race, law and order and politics as if there is nothing more to the truth but these categories. Once you know that the way the questions are framed is itself open to question it doesn't make too much sense being part of the debate. The frame itself needs to be changed in order to enable the right questions to emerge.

The way the discourse has been shaped right from the very beginning was on preconceived terms. It began with a minority black "law-breaker" and an armed white law-enforcer backed by a powerful racist state and continues in the same vein. That's what I find problematic. We need to look at the social conditions that create a white police officer and a defiant black man seeming to threaten the day-to-day functioning of the state -- both placed in violent confrontation with one another. Everything else is rhetoric but this is not so because lives -- Michael Brown and Eric Garner -- are lost and reputations, that of the police officers, destroyed.

Too much of the language used in the entire debate is past tense. It looks as if the Civil Rights Movement never happened and Obama is a white President who paints his face with a shade of black and cuts his hair short every morning in order to look "black." What about the "white" writers, journalists, students and common people who are with the protesters and not with the police! When the debates are centered round "race" in such distinctly black and white terms they should be looking at this aspect as well.

One thing is that the police are not getting any public support which usually is the case because the public is instinctively empathetic to victims of the law rather than the enforcers of the law. The second thing is that to determine the truth of "intentions" is practically impossible and the Grand Juries are placed in the unenviable position of having to go with the fact that it is not always possible for a police officer to be 100% neutral and in control of his or her emotions while dealing with potential or perceived law-breakers. All I am saying is that innocence and guilt are not the real issue over here. I doubt if the police officer or the victim could be certain of his intentions.

What if the white police officer was a black man! What if Michael Brown Jr. was a white teenager! What if both of them were whites or both of them blacks! In any of these combinations the issue would not have been as much of an issue to begin with. We need to ask the question: why should it not be so.

The white guy happens to be a police officer which means the state gives him a weapon to fulfill certain obligations. I don't understand the obsession with his indictment. "I leave symbols to the symbol-minded," says George Carlin. He is right. How will this indictment of one or two police officers actually address the race conflict is a mystery to me. It doesn't mean that I want the officers to go unpunished if at all it could be proved that their intention was indeed to kill. However, to reduce racial tensions to mere symbols and expect a symbolic "indictment" to solve the issue of institutionalized racism in any of its manifestations borders the unrealistic.

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The race question has to be addressed at the level of an unequal society and the kind of aesthetic generated by the culture industry which is in the hands of the media and corporations. Both in turn are connected to the foreign policy in the third world where weapons are sold to the ruling classes to suppress mass movements. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were addressing these issues at the end of their lives before they were killed. Inequality is not an issue that could be addressed within the legal framework of the state. It means the state must change its parameters.

From flickr.com/photos/7477245@N05/5112393060/: Ghandi
Ghandi
(image by Luiz Fernando / Sonia Maria)
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Addressing an imperial-colonial state, this is what Gandhi tells the British after the infamous Jallianwala Bagh massacre: "We think it is time you recognized that you are masters in someone else's home. Despite the best intentions of the best of you, you must, in the nature of things, humiliate us to control us. General Dyer is but an extreme example of the principle. It is time you left." Gandhi saw colonialism as the real enemy and not General Dyer who had massacred innocent people because a colonial order allows him to do so. The white police officers are only an example of the principle where a violent state uniformly disciplines its citizens. The police officers are small fish in a shark-infested sea. Keep the sharks in mind is all that I am saying.

Social power in the form of public opinion has always been confronting state power since the origin of power itself as manifested through a government whose legitimacy is acknowledged by a majority. A military-industrial state with imperial ambitions such as the US needs to look strong and cannot afford to be seen as succumbing to public opinion. Saint Augustine blamed the fall of the Roman Empire to corruption and injustice rather than the arrival of Christianity. In the long run, to appear unjust is perhaps far worse than the appearance of being weak.

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World public opinion is stronger today than it ever was at any point in history. It's about time that state power recognizes its limitations and its agenda redefined to be more accommodative of debates related to equality in practice and not just as in Hollywood films. At the same time it is important that the black protesters introspect rather than take to the streets to make a point. They have to look inward at the state of their own society and work to create an egalitarian order that will not make a distinction between black and white. A black person who looks at all whites with a jaundiced eye is not fundamentally different from a white person who does the same thing. Real equality will eliminate racism not keep it alive in a changed form.

Therefore I am appalled by the suggestion about police body cameras which only adds to the tragic irony of the race confrontation. That's a solution devised by morons for the morons. A society where trust has broken down and where evidence is about cameras (which are neither innocent nor neutral by the way, because they depend on the perspective of the one who holds it and could be manipulated to suit a particular viewpoint) is a society on the brink of moral collapse. A society that places unconditional faith in politics is a society that is going nowhere. Since stereotypes are more about perception rather than reality the perception has to be broadened to be inclusive and accepting rather than judgmental and biased.

The quest for justice is meaningless where there is no dialogue between groups and individuals. Lasting peace, which is only possible in a just society, can be achieved where people are willing to talk with one another on issues that matter. In a country like the US where identity is a dominant discourse, real dialogue is a near impossibility because too much is about maintaining the status quo through symbolic statements and about preserving one's own sense of space. The American media which is only too quick to color race related issues is a poor mediator when it comes to resolving conflicts. Overcoming barriers that prevent people from entering into a dialogue is what well-thinking men and women should be contemplating upon instead of sloganeering and consuming a mainstream argument which makes no real difference at the end of the day.

 

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Prakash Kona is a writer, teacher and researcher who lives in Hyderabad, India. He is currently Professor at the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad.


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