When I was running a large corporate sales organization I tried to draw the subtle but important distinction for my team between focusing on the customer and cultivating the focus of the customer. The former generally meant compiling information about a client. The latter, more difficult, was understanding the client’s circumstances and aspirations so thoroughly that we could then turn and view our own company through his eyes. It was not just the acquisition of data but a complete change in our perspective; only the very best salespeople had the energy and empathy to do it.
In a weird juxtaposition, I have been forced to consider this distinction frequently in the last few weeks as I watched the no-indictment announcement in the Michael Brown case, also as I saw the video replays of Eric Garner’s choke-hold arrest and death, and yet again as I read the heated public debate and watched the protests that followed. It troubles me that I may very well have accumulated plenty of information about those events, but as a middle-aged, upper middle class white male I persist in understanding so little about my fellow citizens in Ferguson and Staten Island.
For many of us our first complex moral precept as children was the Golden Rule. In the Christian expression and in many other faith traditions it is often stated as “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. It is a wonderful standard but it presupposes one very important precondition, that we are able to view the others’ circumstances empathetically from their perspective and within their circumstances. In practice that is quite difficult.
For instance, what I want “done unto me” is to have life’s game played fairly and by clear rules. Among the things I value are social order and propriety. Of course, I can afford to hold that viewpoint because, by virtue of my race, gender, family circumstances, social status, and upbringing, the game has been designed for me to continue winning. Law enforcement is therefore my natural partner, so in important visceral ways it is difficult for me to watch the national protests against the police.
I don’t hold to the illusion that society is always just, but I do firmly maintain two great assumptions. The first is what Lord Sankey famously called the Golden Thread of common law: the presumption of innocence. The second assumption is due process, that very American guarantee contained in both the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. My faith in these two conditions enables my confidence in the police and the justice system
But what if, through some unsanctioned racial practices of civic institutions, or just the repeated personal bigotries of individuals, I had reason to believe that neither the presumption of innocence nor due process were regularly extended to me, my race, or my class? How might I respond? How would I interpret a police cruiser coming down my street at night? What response would I have to a police stop and street interrogation if I felt barred from the generous constitutional protections that I now enjoy?
Those questions are not designed to somehow lionize Michael Brown, Eric Garner and the protestors, nor to demonize Darren Wilson or the Staten Island police. Nor do I want to rush to one side or the other in the political debate. In fact, I hope for joint insights from within the coalition of historical conservatives and classical liberals who share a common sensitivity to the tension between the extent of government reach and the regard for personal liberty.
But since my natural disposition is with law enforcement, I realize better than I have in a long while that I must train myself to look at society through the eyes of citizens who have no confidence in the civic protections that, by virtue of my own class and color, I can and do take for granted. Until I can accomplish that I pledge to resist bloviating on what is right or wrong about race relations in America today.