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Technology, Testimony, and The Black Lives Matter Movement

Technology, Testimony, and The Black Lives Matter Movement

As I write this essay, waves of protest are rolling across America. And not just America: all over the world, people are rising up in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. I’ve never seen so many people actively engaged in the struggle for racial justice. We are fighting for changes that are long overdue. But that raises a question. Why didn’t the movement gain traction earlier? Or later, for that matter? Why now? I think the answer involves a pair of factors. One factor is technology; one is a phenomenon Miranda Fricker calls testimonial injustice. In her influential 2007 book Epistemic Injustice, Fricker argues that as we navigate the world, we are constantly evaluating the credibility of the people around us, sometimes consciously, sometimes subconsciously. To make these evaluations we rely heavily on stereotypes. It’s crucial to note that Fricker uses “stereotype” in the same neutral sense that social psychologists sometimes use the term: on her definition, stereotypes are simply “widely held associations between a given social group and one or more attributes.” There is nothing wrong with stereotypes as such. Somebody’s being a doctor, for example, is a perfectly good prima facie reason to take her medical advice seriously. Stereotypes play a normal and necessary role in our epistemic lives. However, testimonial injustice is what happens when our credibility assessments get skewed by a particular kind of stereotype: identity prejudicial stereotypes. Identity prejudicial stereotypes are those stereotypes that make us systematically underestimate the epistemic trustworthiness of an oppressed or marginalized group. (Think of the old sexist trope that women are prone to “hysteria”.) The problem of testimonial injustice is both epistemic and ethical. On the epistemic level, when we systematically undervalue certain kinds of testimony, we compromise the pursuit of truth. On the ethical level, testimonial injustice wrongs the speaker and, often, the social group from which they come. Racial oppression is not new. Nor have people of colour been suffering in silence until now: for generations, we have been trying desperately to make white people take our stories seriously. One of the reasons we struggle to be heard is testimonial injustice. Some reports are met with flat disbelief; others are met with more subtle forms of testimonial injustice. Maybe the cops did pull you over, goes an all-too-familiar sceptical refrain, but surely you were doing something wrong. Or even if you weren’t doing anything wrong, surely they had good reason to think you were doing something wrong. Maybe they killed a man, but surely they were acting in self-defence. Or even if it turns out that the man was unarmed, surely they had good reason to think they were acting in self-defence. Fricker distinguishes between what she calls the primary harms and the secondary harms of testimonial injustice. Of the primary harms she writes, “The capacity to give knowledge is one side of that many-sided capacity so significant in human beings: namely, the capacity for reason... When someone suffers a testimonial injustice, they are degraded qua knower, and they are symbolically degraded qua human.” Philosophically, the idea is evocative. When it comes to the Black Lives Matter movement, however, the symbolic “primary” harms of testimonial injustice lack the urgency of the material harms, the harms that Fricker calls “secondary.” This is where technology enters the story. Over the past five or ten years, smartphones have grown increasingly common. The more common they have got, the more people were able to start capturing bits and pieces of everyday life on video, and for people of colour those bits and pieces include scenes of police harassment and violence. When George Floyd was murdered a teenage girl managed to catch it on camera. The video allowed white audiences to catch a glimpse of the violence and indifference with which police can treat people of colour. These audiences were outraged – rightly – by what they saw. The cause of racial justice has not had this level of public support since the Civil Rights Movement. Here’s the thing. If I’m right, then this is not a story about how we solved the problem of testimonial injustice. On the contrary, one of the reasons the movement has managed to gain so much ground is because it sidestepped the problem of testimonial injustice. Who needs testimony when you can witness a scene with your own eyes? ***

Artwork by Scott Eaton

I grew up in a mixed-race family. When the protests started, my (white) half-sister shared a childhood memory of my father driving her to school in the mornings: Driving on [Interstate] 280 we would get pulled over regularly regardless of the fact that he would drive a few miles under the speed limit and always made sure his vehicle was pristinely taken care of, with all tail lights working etc. He was always so well groomed, with fancy clothes and a clean, perfectly taken care of vehicle. I look back on that part of him and have to wonder how much of that was just who he was and how much of that was born from necessity, like a shield. Once [they] pulled [us] over the cops always had us get out of the car and would separate us and then ask me how I knew him. When I told them he was my dad they never believed me and it would make the situation worse. I started carrying a picture of our family with me so I had proof. That image – a twelve-year-old girl tucking a family photo into her backpack, hoping it will be enough to prove she’s not getting sex trafficked or kidnapped – that image breaks my heart. She continues: At the time I remember thinking “well, this is super fucked up but at least things are changing. At least in 20 years things will be better and we’ll all be able to live more comfortably with less of this bullshit and systemic racism.”

This was about 25 years ago. Now I look back and realize how naive that thinking was. And I think about how Arthur must have felt. Here he was just trying to be a good father, driving me to school and shit like this happens. It had to have been not just demoralizing but he must have felt so helpless and pissed off [...] And this is nothing! This pales in comparison to the shit that happens when a little white girl isn’t present. Her thinking might have been a little naive, but it was also understandable. If more white people had experiences like hers, seeing first-hand how people of colour are treated, maybe there really would be less systemic racism by now. The other day my youngest brother said that for every Black and Latino man in America, learning how to drive a car includes lessons, formal or informal, on how to reach for your license and registration without getting shot. It was a passing comment – he said it like it was obvious. It should have been obvious. I had heard people say it before; I knew it in an abstract kind of way. But somehow it had never sunk in that my brother, my own little brother, was one of those young men studying how-not-to-get-shot-in-a-routine-traffic- stop strategies. I was rattled: my little brother shouldn’t need to know a thing like that. ***

The murder of George Floyd is politically important because it is extraordinary. Killing an innocent, unarmed man – a man already in handcuffs – is one of the most dramatic abuses of police power imaginable. I think stories like the ones from my father and my brother are worth telling too, but for the opposite reasons. Stories like those are worth telling because they’re ordinary. People of colour are subjected to a whole spectrum of injustices under the pretext of “law enforcement”. At one end of the spectrum are the small but crushingly common injustices, like getting pulled over again and again, day after day, as you drive your daughter to school. At the other end is death.

If those are the ends of the spectrum, then the middle is prison. The United States incarcerates more of its people than any other country in the world. As of 2016, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, almost 2.2 million people were locked in American jails and prisons. Even though we have only 5% of the world’s population, we have fully 25% of its prisoners. A disproportionate number of those prisoners are Black, Native American, and Latino. Why? Part of the answer, at least, is the War on Drugs. As Michelle Alexander writes, “People of all races use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates”. (The data suggest that if anything, rates are slightly higher among white people.) “Nevertheless”, Alexander continues, “black men have been admitted to state prison on drug rates at a rate that is more than thirteen times higher than white men.” And once admitted, according to the United States Sentencing Commission, Black men serve sentences that are on average 19.1% longer than those of similarly situated white men. Every step of the way, from arrest to conviction to sentencing, things go measurably worse for people of colour.

“Stop killing us” is our first and most basic demand, but not our only demand. When we say “Black Lives Matter”, we also mean that it matters what our lives are like. We should not suffer harassment and violence at the hands of the very people who are supposed to protect us. We should not be systematically wronged by the very institutions that promise justice.

A project like dismantling systemic racism can seem dauntingly abstract, so I’ll close with a few concrete suggestions about how you can help.

Read: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colourblindness by Michelle Alexander, in which she traces the oppression of Black Americans from slavery to Jim Crow to our current regime of mass incarceration. Her argument is clear, restrained, and relentlessly well-researched. Anybody seeking to understand racial oppression should read this book.

Donate: There are all kinds of organizations doing good work for communities of colour, but one place to donate is the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. The NAACP has been leading the fight for racial justice for over a century. Another is the United Negro College Fund, which grants scholarships to over 10,000 minority students each year. No matter where you are in the world, this is a way you can help.

Protest: Most protests are local, but the National Action Network is organizing a national protest in Washington, D.C. The national protest will be held on August 28th, the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedoms where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech. It will be led by the family of George Floyd; an estimated 100,000 people are expected to attend.

Moya Mapps is a PhD student in the Yale Philosophy Department and a member of the editorial board of The Philosopher. They study moral, legal and political philosophy and the history of feminist thought.



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