We cannot remain silent about racial injustice
Letter to the Editor | Friday, May 29, 2020
During my freshman year at Notre Dame, I wrote a paper about the death of Eric Garner (and the Black Lives Matter movement, more broadly). It was 2018 –– four years after the incident –– and that was my first time seeing the video of Mr. Garner, in which he was held in a chokehold by a NYPD police officer and cried out, “I can’t breathe!” I wished that I had known more when it happened because, more than anything, I wished that I hadn’t been silent.
I cannot remain silent today. George Floyd died this week in a strikingly similar way: on the pavement, repeatedly exclaiming, “I can’t breathe,” as a police officer pressed his knee into Mr. Floyd’s neck for five excruciating minutes. The news of George Floyd’s death comes less than three weeks after the video surfaced of Ahmaud Arbery, in which an unarmed black man was shot by two white men in Georgia. I cannot remain silent.
In trying to gather my thoughts to write this letter, I have been wrestling with many thoughts, but I keep coming back to one philosophical thought experiment: Mary’s room. The thought experiment comes from Frank Jackson’s “Epiphenomenal Qualia,” and it goes something like this. There is a brilliant scientist named Mary, who is an expert on the neurophysiology of vision. She knows everything there is to know about color, even though Mary herself has never seen color. She lives in a black and white world; there are no windows and no way out of her black and white room, with her computer that operates only in black and white. One day, however, Mary sees a momentary flash of red on her computer screen –– her first sight of color. Does she learn anything new from this experience? She already knew everything there is to know about red: which wavelength combinations stimulate the retina and how the information is interpreted by the central nervous system for her to recognize the flash as being red. If Mary does learn something new, this suggests that we gain knowledge from the subjective experience –– that is, in Mary’s case, observing the color firsthand.
I am a white man. I have not been targeted by the police. I have not been asked if I got into Notre Dame because of affirmative action. I have not lost a loved one in the hands of law enforcement. I have never feared going for a run in my neighborhood. I have not (and never will) know what it’s like to be black in America.
Going back to the implications of the “Mary’s room” thought experiment, there is a certain dimension –– the subjective experience –– to racial injustice that I will never encounter, but this does not dismiss my silence. Even without personal experience, I still know that this is not a matter of politics; this is a matter of livelihood. We cannot embrace the idea of colorblindness, let alone permit the idea that “race does not matter” when lives are lost in the hands (and now under the knees) of law enforcement because of race. As physician-anthropologist Dr. Kim Sue puts it, “It is critical to recognize and struggle with our complicity in systems of violence as well as our varying levels of privilege and power that either indirectly or directly can harm others in our community … We must strive for a better practice, acknowledging our history of harm and complicity, and thus bearing the burden of being change agents within our own systems.”
For Trayvon Martin, for Michael Brown, for Eric Garner, for Ahmaud Arbery, for George Floyd and for all those whose deaths have not received the same level of news coverage (if any), I cannot be silent. We cannot be silent.
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.