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A Rhetoric of Racial Despair

Anger and grief can inspire social progress. But they can also turn into rage and despair depending on the way we talk and think about what’s happening.

What is the future of racial reconciliation in America?  

That question has been on so many minds and hearts these days, on both sides of the political spectrum. Many of us earnestly wonder whether the events we’re witnessing will lead to deeper racial healing and harmony – or something else.  

Unfortunately, in the precise moment when we need help to find pathways of healing, our national conversation on race (like the protests themselves) have been beset by the influence of those agitating for a deepening of conflict, rather than stepping towards reconciliation. 

Inflammation in our body politic

Although President Trump has attempted to call out the horror of George Floyd’s death and appeal for healing, many have felt the President’s commentary as a whole has not helped assuage the pain. As Tom Switzer wrote, “President Donald Trump, far from leading the healing, is fanning the flames of resentments and hatreds while the quiet voices of the thoughtful people of goodwill— the folks who want to build bridges—are in short supply.”

The influence of President Trump’s comments in our national dialogue has been carefully examined and critiqued—as they should be. Attention has also gone to online propaganda on social media coming from Russia and China, with a POLITICO analysis finding more than 1200 tweets in the first days of the protests coming from foreign agents and entities tied to both governments, relentlessly pushing divisive messages using trending hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter and #Minneapolis.

How well is our national conversation leading us towards greater reconciliation, equality, and healing? To what degree might it be inducing deeper despair and widening rage?

While this kind of critical scrutiny must continue, less attention has been paid to the influence of other prominent voices speaking out about the crisis—especially the many scholars and pundits writing on the left. Under the collective influence of all these voices, undoubtedly the national conversation we’re having—or not having—will continue to shape what happens next. In what follows, I propose a closer look at several patterns in public rhetoric I argue are likely to induce greater despair and rage.

A discussion of these patterns, however, should start with one crucial acknowledgment. 

The legitimacy of righteous anger

The death of George Floyd was repulsive. Heart-breaking. And enraging. 

To virtually everyone. 

And it’s important to underscore the legitimacy of righteous indignation. In an article called, “Oh God, Make Us Angry!” Christian writer Amy Dimarcangelo first acknowledges the way anger can become toxic, before asserting, “there’s another kind of anger—righteous anger against sin and evil that is rooted in a love for what is good and just.” She continues, “God hates injustice. He hates racism and oppression and abuse and corruption. And so should we.”  She goes on to cite the many scriptures that say things like “Abhor what is evil” (Romans 12:9).

Illustrating such indignation, Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post declared: 

I condemn riots, destruction, property theft and all manner of senseless violence. But I understand the feeling that animates these spasms. When I watch the video of officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck, choking the life out of him and ignoring his cries of distress, I want to throw something. When I see the video of Gregory and Travis McMichael accosting and shooting Arbery, I want to throw something else. I can’t help but think of my own two sons and how, for either of them, a routine encounter with police—or a run-in with self-appointed sheriffs—could be fatal. I want to scream.

A community organizer, Alicia Smith, writes “There are no words in the English language that will convey the despair that I felt watching that man’s life leave his body and him scream out for his mother. I heard my son saying, ‘Mama, save me.’” 

She continued, “My kids are little boys, and my son asked me, ‘Am I going to live to be a grown-up?'”

It starts to make sense why Roxane Gay writes, “The rest of the world yearns to get back to normal. For black people, normal is the very thing from which we yearn to be free.”

Such commentary touches hearts and lifts our collective imagination to stretch for a better world one in which precious brothers and sisters don’t feel so much fear and frustration in the course of “normal” society. Dimarcangelo elaborates

In a world wrought with racism, violence, corruption, crooked justice systems, oppression, exploitation, and abuse, the heat of angry love will enflame our resolve to keep contending for justice. Godly anger fuels the pursuit of justice. Godly anger rouses a right response to abusers. Godly anger calls corruption to account. Godly anger against injustice spurs the pursuit of justice. Crying out for justice—for the vindication of the innocent and the punishment of the guilty.

Rousing this kind of sentiment is clearly a good thing—crucial and timely and inspired.  In sharp contrast to these kinds of appeals to empathy, compassion, and collective progress in accountability and justice, however, a different kind of conversation is being prompted by other voices—one more likely to prompt raging against this world, than aspiring towards a better one. 

In what follows, I break down seven patterns in our national conversation worth taking seriously—and which I will argue collectively exert a sizable influence on an American public already on edge. As with other more obvious influences on our national discourse, I hope more scrutiny will help us consider their impact on the precious fabric of our civil society. 

Seven Rhetorical Themes 

1. “Black people clearly don’t matter in America.” It’s hard to watch the awful video of Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis and not grapple over how little George Floyd’s life appeared to matter to those officers. To assert the value of black lives—and underscore how much they do matter (or should matter)—seems not only reasonable, but even urgent. 

But rather than lamenting the fact that black lives don’t matter enough to some in America, starkly generalized statements have become a starting point for many in the public conversation today. Soon after the death of George Floyd, Princeton professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor decried the event in a New York Times op-ed as “a chilling affirmation that black lives still do not matter in the United States.”

Calling the pace of the effort to get the country back to normal led by “mostly white public officials” as another form of “state violence,” Taylor continued, “If there were ever questions about whether poor and working-class African-Americans were disposable, there can be none now.” 

Likewise writing in the Times, Professor Kihana Miraya Ross from Northwestern University suggests that “racism” doesn’t sufficiently capture the true pervasiveness of what she calls “society’s hatred of blackness” – going on to argue that “anti-blackness is endemic to, and is central to how all of us make sense of the social, economic, historical and cultural dimensions of human life.”

Roxane Gay added, “We are reminded, every single day, that there is no context in which black lives matter.” Referring to the opposing political party, she added, “They don’t care about black lives. They don’t care about anyone’s lives.”

No context in which they matter. Don’t care. Endemic to how all of us make sense of human life.

Has America improved at all in this regard?  Professor Ross continues, “there has never been a moment in this country’s history where this kind of treatment has not been the reality for black people” – insisting that “Mr. Floyd’s brutal killing is not an exception, but rather, it is the rule in a nation that literally made black people into things.” 

Hers is a story not of slow, painstaking progress, and setbacks – but of “400 years of black suffering — of our unremitting interminable pain, rage and exhaustion.”

Unremitting pain.  Interminable.  Never a moment where not the reality.  

2. “The government doesn’t have our well-being in mind.”  Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor also writes about what she calls “the failure of the state to protect black people” and argues the U.S. “government has abandoned us” after years of being both “impervious to their suffering” and “an accessory” to horrific treatment—even to the point, she underscored, of “allowing rats to maul black children in their cribs at night.”

On both sides of the political spectrum, the public is generally agreed in the disappointing limitations of elected officials to exert change—with harsh anti-government sentiment showing up in libertarian and far right rhetoric as well. Few subsets of our nation, however, are more disappointed and disillusioned than the African-American community. 

Charles Blow highlights “the savagery and carnage” that George Floyd’s death represents—and what he describes as “the nearly unchecked ability of the state to act with impunity in the oppression of black bodies and the taking of black life.” He goes on to describe a pervasive feeling that “people in power on every level—individual officers as well as local, state and federal government—are utterly unresponsive to people’s calls for fundamental change and equal justice under the law and equal treatment by it.”

Elsewhere, Blow had written about “how consistently and continuously states have failed black people in this country.” 

This same harsh evaluation comes to permeate commentary about the country as a whole as well.  As one commentator posted online: “Love, respect, and solidarity to those rising up in Minneapolis, LA, Memphis, and all over this miserable country. In order for non-violence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The U.S. has none. None.”

Utterly unresponsive. Consistently failed. Oppressing with impunity. Abandoned.

3. “Law enforcement cannot be trusted at all.” Whatever suspicion may exist towards government generally, the intensity of fear towards law-enforcement is distinctive—a feeling that filters into the rest of life. As one person commented online, “black people have to constantly read and watch their community be horribly brutalized and straight up murdered, by those who swore to protect you no less. Not only that, they have every single thing in life stacked against them. Imagine having that level of frustration and helplessness inside you . . .”

Every single thing in life stacked against them. That’s how it has come to feel for many —something far beyond law enforcement alone. 

Pointed accusations at the core intent of law enforcement are everywhere right now. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor characterizes police as “preying on black people” and looking for “new excuses . . . to harass African-Americans.” 

And Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner (killed by police in 2014) was quoted this week as saying, “The police officers come into our neighborhoods to brutalize, terrorize, and murder our children, and we have done nothing.” 

That’s how a significant portion of our country sees our police force now. One online commentator argued, “Our country’s police departments can trace their origins directly back to armed slave patrols in the 1700s.” Thus, John Hopkin professor Vesla Weaver described police as “the violent armed guardians of upholding an old racial order that has been a foundation of this country.”

Preying. Harassing. Brutalizing.

4. “Those concerned with looting, etc. are not seeing the bigger picture.” In commentary on what she called “so-called looting,” Ashley Reese suggests that  robbing a Target “provided protesters with a sliver of catharsis in the face of an uncaring police force, an uncaring society”:

Many stores are a mess of glass and buildings were set ablaze. But a family is enjoying a new Instant Pot, a child gets to play with a new set of toys, and a household has a new vacuum cleaner thanks to an afternoon spent “looting” [in bunny quotes] a local Target store.

As if that wasn’t persuasive enough, Reese added, “Improving one’s life with some creature comforts in the face of state violence—in the face of state forces that can make living comfortably a challenge—is an act of political resistance.” [Whole essays have been dedicated to similar arguments in the past—Vicky Osterweil’s “In Defense of Looting”]. 

What about those raising concerns about the consequences of the vast destruction of property and hundreds of small businesses? Reese goes on to suggest any harboring such concerns don’t likely care about black people enough: “For far too many Americans, it is easier to mourn the destruction of a series of chain stores, owned and operated by millionaires, than the death of a Black American.”

Another commentator writes, “Yet when the entrenched powers show more concern for a tire store or a forgery than for a human life, how is one to get the attention of such systems?” Raven Rakia adds, “When the same system that refuses to protect black children comes out to protect windows, what is valued over black people in America becomes very clear.”

Refuses to protect black children. Political resistance. A sliver of catharsis.

5. “Violence is a logical consequence of what African-Americans have faced.” As Charles Blow notes, “When people feel helpless, like there is nothing left to lose, like their lives already hang in the balance, a wild, swirling, undirected rage is a logical result.”

He went on to suggest that the “chicken is coming home to roost”: “You destroy people’s prospects, they’ll destroy your property.”

One commenter from Maryland said, “Mayhem on the streets is inevitable when the lives of black people are devalued, when those we pay to protect and defend instead target and kill with seeming impunity.”

Of course, there’s a legitimate sense of frustration among many at the way this keeps repeating. As community activist Kass Ottley put it, “How many times can you address the same issue and see nothing change?” 

In such a state, many protestors speak of having no other option but to try and force this. How else will anything change?   

In an article entitled, “Of Course There Are Protests. The State Is Failing Black People” Dr. Taylor suggests that, “The collapse of politics and governance leaves no other option.”

If you cannot attain justice by engaging the system, then you must seek other means of changing it. If we and those who stand with us do not mobilize in our own defense, then no official entity ever will. . . . Black Lives Matter only because we will make it so. Formal mechanisms for social change failed to function, compelling African-Americans to act on their own behalf.

So, in other words, these combustible protests are not the responsibility of the African-American community. As Charles Blow elaborates, “Our intransigence on the issue of social justice and use of force by the police is making last-straw extremists of members of a generation that feels unheard and disrespected.”

In her article, “This Is What You Get,” Ashley Reese argues that the absence of any comparable national riots to this point was “a feat of extreme restraint” in light of previous incidents. Another commentator said:

Time and again, racist violence is perpetrated by white people. Time and again, we wait patiently for the white system of justice to actually perform the promised justice, to respect non-violent calls for basic equality, to punish officers caught on video committing violent assault, to bring charge someone with the cold-blooded murder they were caught on tape committing, and only after it is demonstrated, again, that justice is not blind, are there riots, because apparently violence is the only thing you understand.

NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar similarly suggested that turbulent protests are sometimes the only way some marginalized Americans feel like they can be heard: “They don’t get the political power or the financial power to change the circumstances, so what are they going to do? The rioting is the voices of people who have no voice.” He continued, “I just remember seeing a sign that someone held up in Minneapolis that said, ‘Can you hear us now?”’ Jabbar said. “I think that’s a very poignant statement.”

Some go so far as to suggest they have no other choice. Leslie Redmond, president of Minneapolis NAACP: “We’ve warned them that if you keep murdering black people, the city will burn. We have stopped the city from burning numerous times, and we are not responsible for it burning now.”

Making a similar assertion, Amanda Mull tweeted that the driving choice behind the riots was not that of people doing the rioting at all. 

Commenting on this tweet, National Review writer Kyle Smith noted that people “are putting the word civil in scare quotes. I picture the peaceful leaders of the ‘civil’-rights movement shaking their heads in disbelief.”

6. “Peaceful protests don’t work anyway.” It’s not that people aren’t still open to another way. Twenty-two-year-old Max Bailey is quoted as saying, “If you can tell me something better for me to do—if you can tell me a way that we could change the world without trying to make noise like that, then I’ll get out of the streets. If you can show me the path, I’ll get out of the streets,” he said. “I won’t stand in front of no cars anymore if there’s an easy path.”

Even so, there is a striking level of widespread cynicism that anything good will come of a peaceful route. As Nikole Hannah Jones, creator of the New York Times1619 Project, tweeted this week: 

Attempts to get along and be civil are increasingly portrayed as deeply naïve. Roxane Gay writes, “Some white people . . . fret over the destruction of property and want everyone to just get along. They struggle to understand why black people are rioting but offer no alternatives about what a people should do about a lifetime of rage, disempowerment, and injustice.”

From this vantage point, peaceful recourse is recast as naiveté, as Professor Ros puts it, “When they kill our children, our mothers and fathers, we are expected to forgive, to be peaceful in the face of horrific violence. We are asked to respect a law that cannot recognize our humanity — that cannot provide redress.”

More and more, the possibility of change through persuasion is likewise seen as off the table. As Roxane Gay adds, “the people who truly need to be moved are immovable.”

If you can tell me something better for me to do . . . I’ll get out of the streets.

7. “It’s time to fight backviolently if necessary.” Instead of pursuing alternatives demanded by these tense times, there’s even more talk of revolution than before. As I noted in an earlier piece, one political type of revolutionary language has become increasingly common among university-educated millennials—especially since Bernie Sanders’ campaign. For instance, protester Chelsea Peterson stated “It was important for me as a white person to actually show up because it is our responsibility to dismantle the systems of oppression that we have created.”

Perhaps this is what Michael Moore meant in tweeting, “We must rise up. We revolt.” Yet Moore then went on to urge the rioters to keep up the good work: “Riots? THIS IS A REBELLION.” 

After calling for the local county attorney to be arrested, and essentially applauding the destruction of the Third Precinct police building (“Good citizens burning down the evil police precinct in MN”), Moore then re-tweeted this statement from Colin Kaepernick:

Rebellion. Burning. Fight Back.

Where does this lead? 

That sort of larger conflict seems to be something some people on both sides are almost eager to see happen—with crossing accusations that “progressives want a race war” and “President Trump wants a race war.” 

Does any of the commentary summarized above have a real influence? 

Of course it does—just as the commentary from President Trump and pundits on the right has an influence. Just as the commentary from foreign agitators is having an influence. Check out the kinds of comments sparked by Professor Taylor’s NYT op-ed:

  • “Mayhem on the streets is inevitable when the lives of black people are devalued, when those we pay to protect and defend instead target and kill with seeming impunity.”
  • “The United States Constitution states that violent resistance, protest, or revolution is legitimate. I don’t have the exact wording in front of me. However, we all know how this country got started. And we have all been taught about the American Revolution.”
  • “To say that ‘nothing justifies rioting, burning, rampaging, looting, attacking police cars and stations’ misses the point entirely. To not expect people who see no rights, no future, no empathy to occasionally explodeespecially when that history stretches back over three centuries as it does for Americans of coloris the height of unrealistic and misguided finger-pointing. Point your fingers at those who never see it as time to change these conditions. Not at those who react.”

Also notice this sampling of public comments accompanying Ashley Reese’s Jezebel manifesto

  • “I dearly wish they would have burned those cops houses down. Why didn’t they?” (citing this Malcolm X quote, “Stop sweet-talking [the white man]. Tell him how you feel…. [Let him know that] if he’s not ready to clean his house up, he shouldn’t have a house. It should catch on fire and burn down.”)
  • “Honestly, I’m fed up with everything . . . this pandemic has made me seriously despise people to the point where I want them seriously dead. So y’know what? Burn the f** corporations down. Burn it DOWN. It can all be rebuilt but a man’s life cannot.”
  • “If the cops ever take me out like Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Sandra Bland, et al. I want and give full permission for people to riot and loot as many corporate chain stores as possible and burn as many police stations as they can all throughout the nation, in my name and in the name of justice. I want people to reach the rich neighborhoods raze them and get the oppressor class scared.”

President Trump isn’t the only voice meriting critique for stirring up aggression and resentment.

Rippling, rhetorical implications

What are the consequences of the kind of commentary described above? 

Thirteen different times in the Book of Mormon, references are made to some who go about “stirring up the people to anger” through various kinds of messaging—with the resurrected Christ Himself declaring to the ancient inhabitants of this land, “This is not my doctrine, to stir up the hearts of men with anger, one against another; but this is my doctrine, that such things should be done away.”

It’s important to note that the Book of Mormon also repeatedly highlights the consequences of inequity, especially in the period right before the major destructions before Christ’s coming – with Mormon noting “there became a great inequality in all the land” and pointing out about this same time, “they did trample under their feet and smite and rend and turn their backs upon the poor and the meek.”

And yes, this led to understandable grief and sorrow in these ancient people as well:

Now this was a great cause for lamentations among the people, while others were abasing themselves, succoring those who stood in need of their succor, such as imparting their substance to the poor and the needy, feeding the hungry, and suffering all manner of afflictions, for Christ’s sake.

Just as there were legitimate reasons for grief, despair and frustration then, there are good reasons for all of this now—real-life heartbreaking realities behind the intensity of emotions behind the rhetoric.

That’s why none of this analysis is about delegitimizing grievance, explaining away injustices, or distracting from the tragedies we’ve seen.  Instead, this is about asking as we channel justified anger into words, how well is our national conversation leading us towards greater reconciliation, equality, and healing? To what degree might it be inducing deeper despair and widening rage? 

Alongside the more high-profile voices that have been rightly critiqued for “stirring up” the American people, it’s not hard to see ways in which the combined rhetoric above from academics, pundits, and online commentators holds a similar power to induce despair, angst and an escalating racial conflagration into the future.   

Simply qualifying some of the positions scrutinized above could go a long way towards softening both rhetoric and hearts – e.g., It’s sadly true: black lives don’t matter to some people in America. And sometimes government does not seem to have our well-being in mind. Some law enforcement cannot be trusted . . . 

Interestingly enough, when framed in this way, Americans report vast agreement with the nuance. In one Rasmussen poll of 1200 voters, 79% reported agreeing with this statement: “Following the killing of George Floyd, most protesters wanted to peacefully express their legitimate grievances. Unfortunately, a small number of troublemakers and looters led to violence.” As the pollster went on to note, “That positive view of the protesters is shared by 84% of black voters, 79% of white voters, and 76% of Hispanic voters. It’s shared by men and women, rich and poor, by those with a college degree and those without.”

In that same poll, 84% of respondents agreed that “Most police officers are good people trying to do a difficult and dangerous job. Unfortunately, a small number of troublemakers and racists lead to racial injustice.” Once again, support for that statement showed up across categories, including 87% of white voters, 78% of black voters, and 75% of Hispanic voters – including young and old, men and women, and in every part of the country.

In the absence of such qualifications, perceptions of police, of protesters, of the black and white communities, and of government itself can become so over-generalized that they can inadvertently start to fuel both widening resentment and a sense of helplessness. 

Writing in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, Robert Woodson, a black man who has given his life to uplift youth in inner-city communities, expresses with concern, “I can think of no better way to instill hopelessness and fear in a young person than to tell him he is a victim, powerless to change his circumstance.”

The situation we face as a country is serious—and cause for legitimate, and deep concern among us all. It’s hard for many to see a way these tensions become better. 

But there is a way!  Further exacerbating racial conflict is not inevitable – not for those who opt out of the acrimony and accusation. For Christians, a way out depends on seeing more deeply what we are facing—and not forgetting our scriptural imperative to extend grace even to enemies and to “believe all things, hope all things, and endure all things.” Rather than dismissing the legitimate concerns of protesters, this means the opposite: taking seriously exactly what the protesters are highlighting and not giving up on the deeper relationships as fellow citizens that still bind us together.  

After describing his own softening of heart to appreciate Black Lives Matters after an earlier spate of violence, a reformed Glenn Beck pleaded for greater empathy across differences as “the path we must choose as a nation.” Then he warned, “If we don’t, what we have seen this year will be just the beginning of the hate we are about to unleash.”

America’s own history points towards the kind of remembrances that will be critical in the months ahead. George Washington himself recounted a vision he received in the winter of 1777 – when he saw “an ill-omened spectre” approach the American land: 

It flitted slowly and heavily over every town and city of the latter. The inhabitants presently set themselves in battle array against each other. As I continued looking, I saw a bright angel on whose brow rested a crown of light on which was traced the word ‘Union.’ He was bearing the American flag. He placed the flag between the divided nation and said, ‘Remember, ye are brethren.’  (Told to Anthony Sherman, who recounted it to Wesley Bradshaw, publisher of the National Stripes). 

All of us have flaws and struggles, including our Founders.  But rather than condemning and tearing down our American legacy, may we do the opposite and hear the pleas of the father of this nation. And, oh, remember, we are brothers and sisters!

About the author

Jacob Z. Hess

Jacob Hess is a contributing editor at Deseret News and publishes longer-form pieces at He co-authored "You're Not as Crazy as I Thought, But You're Still Wrong" and “The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.” He has a Ph.D. in clinical-community psychology from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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