After Terrence Crutcher, Before James Baldwin: What White Folk Cannot Bear to Know

“All policemen have by now, for me, become exactly the same…No doubt I am guilty of some injustice here, but it is irreducible, since I cannot risk assuming that the humanity of these people is more real to them than their uniforms. Most Negroes cannot risk assuming that the humanity of white people is more real to them than their color.” 

I am speaking of myself and of nonblack, especially white people. Until we grasp what Baldwin means by that word “irreducible,” we will remain touched, but not moved by the killing of Terence Crutcher. (that phrase “touched not moved” is Toni Morrison’s.)

Touched: white sympathies, heartbreak as we stare at the screen. We think of our Black friends and mourn. But not moved: unable, unwilling to unmake the world we have made, the world we sustain and believe in and still want.

By world I don’t mean “structures,” a word which points to something very real, but has become sadly overused, drained of force and texture. I mean unmake the world of our invention, the world of our spiritual and social ease (Baldwin’s phrase), the one we guard and keep so that we do not have to face the awful truth of our lives. The truth that our life unfolds in an awful and invisible intimacy with the destruction of human flesh, an awful intimacy that we cannot bear. Terence Crutcher, his life cut short, his body in the road, bars the door to the forgetting we need, the forgetting we mostly pull off.

I saw a white man say on facebook: “tell us 1–2 concrete solutions to this. We need steps for what white people can do.”

You, ablaze in a house I set on fire, pass me some water to douse the flames.

“The white American remains proud of that history for which he does not wish to pay, and from which, materially, he has profited so much.” How hard it would be to enjoy stolen wealth without a story, without a world for concealing the theft. Whiteness is the name of that world, that story, sometimes announced, sometimes concealed, and despite ourselves, I think we still want it. On days like today I guess I suspect this is what most Black folks know about us, long before we knew it ourselves: we want a bit more justice for them, maybe, but we are not ready for a world in which whiteness has no meaning. We don’t know what such a world would look like, we’ve never seen it, and we do not want to know.

Touched, but not moved. What is Baldwin’s “irreducible”? The profound danger of living with people who suppose they have something to hold onto in this world as we have it; who mostly wish neither to kill their black neighbors nor to abolish the world that does. So an irreducible burden falls onto the shoulders of Black people, who cannot afford to, but must stall a car on a Tulsa highway, cannot but must seek help after an accident, cannot but must walk down the street for a snack and Arizona iced tea, cannot but must play children’s games in a park, and most of all, cannot but must live in the world they must live in and, far too often prematurely, die in. The danger is as irreducible as the gulf between white people and ourselves, a chasm, “a fearful, baffling place where they have begun to lose touch with reality — to lose touch, that is, with themselves — and where they certainly are not truly happy, for they know they are not truly safe.”