Two different aims are being run together in the Black Lives Matter movement: one for which protest is apt, and the other for which protest is not. The difference is essential.
One aim of the BLM movement is to make sure officers who kill innocent blacks are not protected by police departments. This is the immediate aim. It’s clear what would count as succeeding in this aim, and when the protests can stop: if police departments reform their practices and hold officers accountable for killing innocent black citizens.
But there is something much bigger which the BLM movement highlights: that America is waking up from its fantasy of the last 50 years. There has been the illusion that the civil rights movement of the 60s basically made America equal for all its citizens. Part of what the BLM movement is bringing out is just how untrue this is: ending slavery didn’t make blacks equal as citizens, and ending segregation didn’t either. Much more work was needed after ending slavery, and there is much more work to do after ending segregation. This is the bigger aim. But protest doesn’t help with this aim.
Protest to achieve the bigger aim assumes there is already a theoretical answer about what true equality in America looks like. Protest is seen as the way to actualize that answer. But do we actually have such an answer even in theory? Who figured it out?
The implicit assumption in our society is that the (white) founders of America, as part of the Enlightenment, already figured out the answer. That Enlightenment thinkers like Locke and Kant, and through them Washington and Jefferson, laid the theoretical foundation for a fully pluralistic, democratic society. As if since then we are simply going through the practical revolutions needed to realize the already discovered theoretical answer.
This is not true. Kant articulated a beautiful vision of equality, but his view no more tells us, even theoretically, how diverse societies can live together than the Bible does because it speaks of heaven. When it came to telling even an abstract story of how people of diverse cultures can live together, Kant cheated. He punted the problem by assuming that Europeans are the most civilized, and harmony is achieved by Europeans leading everyone else. Kant didn’t even raise the question most pressing for us: how can whites and blacks and everyone else live together as equals and share their cultures and histories?
Rawls updated Kant by saying how Kant might have answered this question. In the veil of ignorance there is no reference to any culture, white or black. Harmony is achieved not by Europeans leading the way, but by everyone setting aside their cultures in the deliberative process. But the impossibility of setting aside cultures this way is shown in the irony of what Rawls is most famous for: reawakening interest in the history of European moral and political philosophy. Rawls didn’t help us get beyond cultures. He ended up reinforcing the philosophical value of a particular culture.
This is the society we live in. The most celebrated philosopher of the Enlightenment didn’t even address the question of how blacks and whites can live together as equals. The most famous political philosopher of the twentieth century addressed the question but in a way which reenforced only the achievements of European philosophy. No wonder there is rampant inequality in our society.
To achieve the bigger aim of the BLM movement, it has to be accepted is that no one has already figured out for us the answer of how whites and blacks and everyone else can live together. The fundamental block to greater harmony is ignorance. Just as we don’t how how to cure cancer, we don’t know how practically people of different backgrounds and cultures can live as equals. You can’t protest ignorance, but you can raise consciousness that there is ignorance.
We need protesting for the sake of the immediate aim of BLM. And for many other immediate aims. But to address the bigger aim, we need public gatherings not as protest but as signs of self-reflective solidarity. Want to make people really think? Let us gather in large crowds in parks or halls to discuss Du Bois or Fanon and their criticisms of a false universality built into the Enlightenment narrative. Or let us meet to think about Dewey and Wittgenstein, who, even as white men, provided great internal criticisms of the modern Western philosophy which is at the foundations of our society.
There is much Kant got right, including this great beginning to his essay, “What is Enlightenment?”:
Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another.
This is no less true if the guidance we are falling back on is that of Kant or other Enlightenment thinkers. We are not thinking for ourselves if we assume that others at some time before us (say in Europe in the 1700s) have already figured out what a just society looks like, and our task now is only to demand that the people in charge live up to those ideals.
To have racial equality in America we need to stand on our own two feet and tackle the questions which Kant and Hume failed to address. We need to emerge from their shadow into the full light of our own intellectual maturity.