Every Right is an Obligation
Black Lives Matter only When White People Have An Obligation to Make Them Matter
We are brought up to believe in the primacy of human rights, we like to think of every child born on Earth as endowed, by nature or by God, with inalienable rights which only need to be respected by the collective. Whenever experience awakens us to a world where those rights, to life, to peace, or to education, do in fact get alienated day after day, from Minneapolis to Mumbai, from Jerusalem to Johannesburg, we are outraged. In reality, rights are flimsy and subordinate concepts: a right is not effectual by itself, but only in relation to the obligation to which it corresponds.
The notion of obligations comes before that of rights, which is subordinate and relative to the former.
— Simone Weil, The Need for Roots
Simone Weil wrote these words in the early months of 1943 in London, as the incipit of a report commissioned by the Free French Resistance movement, which consulted her regarding the possibilities of regenerating the French nation once Germans had been driven out. Weil identified in uprootedness the origin of the sickness that afflicted all societies. This was caused by the proliferation of circumstances that made it so that men and women continuously had to sacrifice an obligation if another one was to be respected, or negate them entirely. These circumstances severed the links between individuals, families and communities. Regeneration would only be possible by growing new roots that reached the needs of the soul.
A man, considered in isolation, only has duties, among which are certain duties towards himself.
A human being, in isolation, has no right to water; this right only arises as the specular image of the obligation of others to provide water, when it is in their power to do so. As a matter of fact, our indignation towards a damage of this right, as in the case of Flint, Michigan, is an indignation towards the dereliction of duty of those who had the obligation to provide clean water. Analogously, the right to citizenship exists only when all parts of society have the obligation to recognise it. The Citizenship Amendment Act enacted in India in 2019, in combination with the National Register of Citizens, is a jarring attempt to renounce this obligation, and in some instances even shift the burden to the citizens themselves. This effectively removed the right of citizenship from millions of Indians, and gave the State the right to choose its citizens.
Weil presented a system that would look at the needs of the soul (Freedom, Equality, Truth, …) the same way we look at the needs of the body. As it were, the hunger and oppression brought upon France by WWII and the German occupation ended together with the war. However, even as French, British and Americans were celebrating a reaffirmation of the values of the 1789 revolution (liberté, égalité, fraternité), millions in British-ruled India were denied food during the Bengal famine of 1943, millions in the French and British colonial empires were denied citizenship in their own motherlands, and millions more in the United States continue to this day to be denied freedom, equality and fraternity.
A right which goes unrecognized by anybody is not worth very much
The idea that Black people, in white as much as in black majority nations, are being denied their basic rights, then seems to me to be looking at the wrong side of the problem. It is much more straightforward to point at those institutions and those individuals which fall short of their obligations to defend life, peace and education, benefits that were promised to all stakeholders of our social contract but that are today the privilege of the lucky and the white.
George Floyd, who died on May 25th 2020 under the knee of Derek Chauvin, did not have a right to life because police officers, white police officers especially, only have the option, not the obligation, to respect and defend Black lives. We know the obligation is lacking because police departments report cases of violence on Black bodies on a voluntary basis. Once the case is out of the news, it ceases to exists to the white nation. Thousand of cases never reach the news. The obligation is lacking because officers can act with impunity under the banner ‘I feared for my Life’, even when the same stance would not exonerate a Black person implicated in the same crime. The obligation is lacking when the punishment for homicide is suspension from employment with pay, as long as the victim is a Black criminal, even when the crime is the theft of a packet of chewing gums, even when the crime if non-existent. The obligation is lacking when a single officer or a comando can break into a black home and murder its occupants ‘by mistake’, with no consequence. The obligation is lacking when such mistakes are justified with stress, whilst at the same time burdening Black people with the obligation to be calm in front of life-threatening prejudice, in the midst of overt and subtle forms of aggressions.
Obligations are only binding on human beings. There are no obligations for collectivities, as such.
We expect our institutions to create and enforce the obligations that have so far been protecting white lives. However, as much as we recognise the systemic nature of racism, each failure can be ultimately pinned on individual aggressors and bystanders. In fact, the silent bystanders are those that give life to the systems of oppression, they are the medium through which the poison of social inequality spreads, and they only can interrupt it by recognising the obligations corresponding to the rights they profess. White people need to obligate themselves, but more importantly obligate their peers, to respect Black lives. When and only when that obligation is in place, will Black Lives Matter.