Thomas M. Scanlon, Alford Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy, and Civil Polity at Harvard University says “Police violence, especially against blacks and other minorities, is not a new phenomenon. It has been true for many years and was even worse in the past.”
He adds that “Mass protests of the kind we are seeing have been much more frequent since the 1960s.”
Following is the full text of the interview:
After a black man was killed in Minneapolis, USA, we witnessed popular protests against this violent act. What are the reasons for these clashes between the American police and the colored people, especially the blacks?
Members of minority communities, especially blacks, believe, very reasonably and correctly, that the police do not take their rights sufficiently seriously, treat them with disrespect, and use violence against them when this is not justified and would not be used against whites in similar circumstances. What you say raises two questions: Why does this kind of behavior by police occur and persist? And why are we seeing these protests now? The answer to the first question is that because of the groups from which police are recruited and the internal culture of police departments, police see the residents of minority neighborhoods as people they are to control rather than as people they are to protect. They see black men, in particular, as more likely than whites to be criminals or to be a threat them, and are, therefore, partly for reasons of self-protection, feel justified in using violence first. But they also are particularly sensitive to having their authority questioned by blacks, particularly black men. This may in part be self-protection: they see a willingness to obey their commands as important to their safety. But it is also a matter of status: they feel superior to blacks and resist any questioning of that superiority. This was shown, for example, in an incident here in Cambridge at which police confronted a black Harvard professor who was returning from a trip in his own house, accusing him of having broken in. They were extremely disrespectful, demanding he leaves the house, and so on, and became very angry when he refused to do this.
Police violence especially against blacks and other minorities is not a new phenomenon. It has been true for many years and was even worse in the past. Mass protests of the kind we are seeing have been much more frequent since the 1960s. In one way, this reflects a kind of progress. Blacks are more encouraged to think that they do not have to stand for this kind of mistreatment and that protests will receive a sympathetic hearing in the national press and in many sections of American society. But this progress itself fuels resentment on the part of the police and members of society who identify with them, at having their status and authority called into question.
As president of the United States, Trump also angered protesters with a tweet following the incident, to the point that Twitter was forced to hide his tweet. What is the reason for Trump’s racist approach?
This resentment is encouraged by politicians such as President Trump and the members of his party (going back to Nixon’s “southern strategy” in the 1960s), who cynically want to exploit it for political gain. Many whites, like white members of the police force, do not want to have their superior status questioned, and do not want to accept the charge, made explicit in the protests and echoed in the more liberal press, that blacks still suffer from widespread discrimination, in their treatment by police and in other ways. So a lot of what we are seeing is the product of progress made in the 1960s, and the backlash against it.
Which moral schools pay more attention and emphasis to the fight against racism and the rights of minorities, or at least have a theoretical basis for this emphasis?
I am not sure what you mean by “schools of philosophy.” As for myself a member of what might be called the school of egalitarian liberalism, of which the work of John Rawls is a leading example, I believe that this school provides a solid basis for condemning discrimination against blacks in the treatment by police, in the provision of public services such as education and public health, and in economic opportunity.
One of the dangers facing the United States is the multiculturalism that prevails in this country, for which liberalism has not been able to find a solution. Why has the country not been able to find a way to this multiculturalism and attract immigrants, linguistic, racial, and religious minorities to the dominant American culture?
The term, ‘Multiculturalism’, generally refers to a view in political philosophy that a society consisting of different cultural groups is possible and even desirable. But I take it that by ‘the multiculturalism that prevails’ you may mean simply the social phenomenon of cultural diversity. Multiculturalism in the former sense includes the idea that in order to have a peaceful and desirable society it is not necessary for members of distinct cultural groups to adopt the “dominant culture” of the society. This idea is an important part of what “liberalism” means in the U.S. I think that this idea is widely accepted in American society. As in the case of racism discussed earlier, I think that what we are seeing is in part a by-product of this progress. Significant sectors of American society, particularly away from the coasts and the large cities, see the erosion of the idea that everyone must accept the “dominant culture” as a threat to their status, as the only, “real Americans.” Cynical politicians such as our current president and many members of his party are trying to foster and exploit this resentment for their own political gain. So the problems we are seeing are not a failure of liberalism except in the sense of illustrating that liberalism is not as widely accepted as one would like it to be. And this is true in no small part because of the actions of cynical political leaders.
Interview by Javad Heirannia
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