“Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”
Often misquoted, British political philosopher and public servant John Stuart Mill delivered the above statement in a speech to the University of St. Andrews in 1867. Just six months earlier, 44 blacks and 3 of their white allies were murdered by a group of ex-Confederates in the New Orleans Mechanics Institute Massacre of 1866. Many of the blacks who were shot, stabbed, bludgeoned, and executed in broad daylight were war veterans. They were protesting the “Black Codes” to ensure the Reconstruction South would not look like the antebellum South. It is unclear whether J.S. Mill — a supporter of emancipation and racial equality — was alluding to these tragedies of American Reconstruction in his speech. But his quote was timely, as President Andrew Johnson turned a blind eye to the indiscriminate slaughter of black combat veterans who had fought for the Union.
Mill is regarded as one of the West’s last true philosophers. He wrote scathing critiques about slavery, economic inequality, and racial inequality; he promoted freedom of speech and liberty at a time when it was not always popular to do so. However, Mill would receive mixed reviews by today’s standards of social justice. He worked for the East India Company for three decades and believed in the idea of “benevolent despotism.” For Mill, the once thriving lands of China and India were now backwards and required the guiding hands of British leadership and the East India Company. Mill struggled to differentiate between violent barbarism and legitimate revolutionary-political struggle for Indian independence. He believed British intervention in Indian affairs was not a violation of international laws because “barbarians have no rights as a nation.”
But Mill also showed an incredible ability to listen to others’ viewpoints and change his opinions as he grew older and wiser. After marrying late in life, Mill’s conversations with his wife turned him into one of history’s earliest and most outspoken male champions of women’s suffrage. He wrote a book criticizing the subjection of women in modern society and co-authored essays with his wife condemning domestic violence.
Mill’s life teaches us two lessons that our citizens need in this time to better understand one another:
1. People are complex; few people are all “good” or all “bad”
2. People are capable of change
John Stuart Mill was an imperialist and by today’s standards, a racist. He was also a “good man” because he took action when faced with injustice.
I understand what it feels like to sit despondent, feeling helpless, silently wondering: “Well, what am I supposed to do about this? How can I help heal a broken nation?” I will issue three challenges to you today. Each challenge relates to either social, political, or economic contributing factors that exacerbate the state of racial disconnect in this country. Each challenge increases in its difficulty and what it will require of us in terms of time, effort, and self-sacrifice.
#1 — The Social Challenge: Pick up the phone
Consider the demographics of the people who hold social influence from positions of leadership and management. Not a single NFL team is owned by an African-American. Worse, only 3 head coaches and 2 general managers are people of color. Players of color represent almost 70% the labor and almost none of the management. Contemplate whether America gave serious consideration to the issue of police brutality when black players tried to use what little platform they did have to protest peacefully, or if we focused on the flaws of its messengers and our displeasure with their method of 1st Amendment expression. NFL owners remain silent or talk while saying nothing from their team’s public relations Twitter account. Does America truly listen to black voices?
First, I challenge each of us — regardless of our race — to pick up the phone and call someone who is different. Think about the demographics of your close friend group. Due to several factors that smarter men than I have written entire books on, Americans are able to isolate themselves from diverse interactions and many of our communities are becoming increasingly homogeneous. Several studies show that even American churches are now one of our most segregated civic institutions. Exclusionary zoning provides a new barrier to integration under the guise of a different name.
Talk with someone from a different background, race, ethnicity or (god forbid!) political party about how their life experiences shape their perspective on police brutality, protests, violence, and public service. Genuinely listen for opinions that differ than your own. In your consideration of the opinions and actions of others, remember the lessons of J.S. Mill: people are neither “good” nor “bad,” they are complex and capable of change.
#2 — The Political Challenge: Write your leadership
George Floyd’s murder sparked a powder keg of frustration filled with decades of police brutality, targeted “drug war” legislation and disparate sentencing for people of color leading to mass incarceration, exclusionary zoning, sub-standard K-12 schooling, and much more. Here are just a few policy considerations that should — at the very least — be up for legislative debate. Notice I am not telling you what to think. I can only encourage you to research and write to local, state, and federal leaders expressing how you feel about them:
- Federal choke-hold ban
- Qualified immunity
- Implementing implicit bias training
- Higher standards for entry to the police force
- Higher pay for police officers (incentivize recruiting quality trainees)
- “Procedural justice” policing models; reforming the “tactical” mindset
- “Pattern or practice” investigations and reviews of police departments
- Establish municipal civil review boards
- Review or reform diversity plans for state agencies
- Police union contract reform
- Prohibiting District Attorneys from accepting donations from police unions
Finally, if rioting in the streets or the impunity with which Ahmaud Arbery was killed in broad daylight offend you, perhaps its time to pay more attention to local elections. District attorneys, sheriffs, commissioners, city councilmen, and mayors all have a profound impact on the conduct of law and order in our communities.
#3 — The Economic (and Educational) Challenge: Volunteer and Donate
Black communities are being disproportionately affected by the medical and economic impacts of COVID-19. As we add trillions to our national debt for coronavirus relief, one check in the mail is no match for historic levels of unemployment (black workers already had the highest unemployment rate nationally pre-COVID 19). Meanwhile, our poorest people seem to belong to an economy that is completely de-coupled from a stock market that nears all-time highs.
What black people need most is agency in a country where money wields power; and the means to accessing a prosperous economic market is education. Yes, we need more black politicians. But more importantly, we need more black CEOs like Robinhood’s Wes Moore to talk about redlining and predatory lending practices. We need smart people to volunteer their time to tutor promising teens of color so their ACT/SAT scores don’t act as a barrier to higher education.
This is our broadest and toughest challenge. But here are just a few ways you can volunteer and/or donate in your community, and hopefully interact with a diverse group of people in the process:
The myth about the ‘good men’ John Stuart Mill addressed in his speech is that goodness is somehow inherent in a human being irrespective of their actions. John Stuart Mill’s words echo today alongside Dr. King’s:
“It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people.”
Despite the challenges ahead, I am encouraged by the number of white allies raising their voices in protest with black people. It is neither controversial nor inflammatory to flatly and unequivocally state that racism and police brutality are problems requiring action. I am encouraged by the thousands of policemen and National Guardsmen of all races who continue to endure sleepless nights and maintain incredible self-discipline and professional bearing in the face of indiscriminate violence, a barrage of vitriolic insults, and senseless destruction. These actions are counter-productive and antithetical to the standards we wish to pervade our justice system.
I remain optimistic. In the 1980s a black mother of ten named Naomi was disheartened to learn that her son wanted to marry a white woman. Naomi raised her family in the inner-city not far from Ferguson, Missouri where Michael Brown was killed in 2014. She did not want to meet her son’s fiancé. She recalled scrubbing floors of racist white women to make ends meet, and simply could not imagine her son with one of “them.” Meanwhile in the suburbs of Cincinatti, a woman named Roberta kicked her daughter out of the house for dating a black guy. She was raised to believe that black people were the root of some of society’s greatest problems and were not to be trusted.
I remain optimistic because those two women are my grandmothers. Eventually, Naomi wanted to see for herself why her son fell in love with a white woman. Before her death, she developed a loving relationship with my mom. Roberta decided to meet my dad before I was born, and soon began to think he walked on water. People are complex, and people change.
Let’s get after it, we’ve got work to do.