Reacting to the killings of Sterling and Castile and then the Dallas police sniper, Jon Chait writes to reassure us that the country is not falling apart at the seams, and in fact is slowly addressing the issue of mutual distrust between blacks and the police. Freddie de Boer responds that the situation is dire enough that progress of the type Chait talks about is insufficient. Both are playing exactly to type, but both have written good pieces. The main question to ask, I think, is not which vision is more true, because they can both be true at the same time. Chait says: things are slowly getting better. de Boer says: things are so far from good enough that the amount by which they are getting better, even if they are, is minuscule compared to what needs to be done. Therefore, to de Boer, whether things are getting better is completely irrelevant.
In fact, we can assume they are both right. The question we then have to ask is: which point of view is more effective. I think de Boer’s fear is that Chait’s conclusion encourages complacency and will lead to it. If things are getting better, why bother doing anything? Meanwhile Chait’s fear is that de Boer’s conclusion would lead to social breakdown. But my fear is that de Boer’s conclusions will lead to complacency. As Erik Olin Wright says in an essay in Jacobin that I think gets at a lot of how I think about politics, “smashing capitalism” seems like something we neither want to nor can do in today’s world. Things are getting better, but they’re nowhere near good enough shall be the rallying cry. In the specific case of police shootings of black people: we can try to make sure police stops aren’t used as a revenue source, we can ensure via social media that when there is an interaction with police, potential witnesses are alerted, among many, many other useful things. Maybe gun control can help. These things will not get rid of racism, or police racism. But if we hold ourselves to de Boer’s implied impossible standard that nothing that doesn’t bring the elimination of a problem is worth doing, then we’re stuck just sitting here.