The correspondence theory of truth no longer reigns supreme in philosophical circles when it comes to the study of knowledge and judgment. But it remains handy for everyday people, especially citizens. That theory says, simply, a proposal is true if it corresponds to an observation in the world. Not a bad way to go when people are trying to figure out the stuff of democratic living. After a week in which we have seen the unwarranted killing by police of two black men — Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana — I’d like to think the correspondence theory of truth would get all Americans on the same page. But this has consistently failed to be the case. Maybe we can figure out why together.
So, I say: In America, black lives don’t matter. You say: That is false. I respond, implicitly invoking the correspondence theory of truth: Just look at the rate at which blacks are killed by the police and the rate at which police officers are exculpated. You respond with a number of points: the justice system works; blacks kill one another at tragic rates; the people killed sometimes had questionable backgrounds; if the officer pulled his weapon (for it almost always a man who does the shooting), he had a reason related to enforcing the law, and we must respect that. After I claim that black lives don’t matter in America and you respond with any of the above, one idea becomes clear: We are no longer talking about the same thing. At this point I realize the mistake I’ve made.
When I claim that black lives don’t matter in America, I mean to say something that to my mind is abundantly clear. Here’s how it works. We live in a liberal democracy that is founded on the sanctity of liberty. This implies that fairness is essential; indeed, that proposition is often explicitly at the heart of many democratic debates. The very idea of democracy reaches back to ancient Greece and is the foundation for our deepest principles concerning human rights. We believe that democracies are superior to other systems of government largely because they intrinsically respect the rights of the men and women who live in them.
I must then take into account the history of racial dominance in this country — the centuries of slavery; the decades of Jim Crow; the continuation of systemic racial inequality in wealth, jobs, education and public services. Then there are the deaths — the body count at the hands of the police that ticks these days almost as regularly as a national clock. I take all of these basic observations together and my considered position is that the claim that black lives don’t matter in America corresponds to the facts.
I then offer you this claim. But then it all goes wrong. You say I am not right, that I am not speaking the truth.
Where does the problem lie? The fiction writer George Saunders, considering not race relations but the divide between the political left and right, wrote in The New Yorker recently: “Not only do our two subcountries reason differently; they draw upon non-intersecting data sets and access entirely different mythological systems.” But our case is different. The distance between the left and right is represented by ideology and self-interest. While ideology and self-interest have something to do with our differences on racial truth, it crucially has more to do with the moment at which my experience enlivens my perception of how the racial past makes the racial present and how your experience leaves race in the past and renders the present as something unrecognizable to me but comforting to you.
Here’s one way of making sense of the misfire between us. You are with me when I am making my general comments about America’s foundational aspects. You are likely still with me on the observations about slavery. You may begin to edge away from our shared space of critical judgment somewhere around Jim Crow, but the horrors of lynching may persuade you to stay. The place, or the time rather, I mostly likely lose you is 1964. In your mind, our celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. made the world right in helping to usher in the era of formal equality when he cornered Lyndon B. Johnson into pushing for the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In your mind, that moment introduced a new world order in which blacks could no longer be victims. The law had set them free and listed the bad things that people could no longer do. Moreover, it said that those people would be held responsible for the bad things they did. Thus, even if bad things happened to black people, the law would settle all accounts; therefore, no one could ever claim again that blacks were at the special mercy of racism. You, at this point, are sure that my proposition cannot be true since it fails to correspond.
As I said, I see the mistake I’ve made, but it’s not in my construction of the truth. It is in presuming that you and I were ever speaking about the same thing. And the reason we weren’t speaking about the same thing is that we were not looking in the same direction; thus, our basis for correspondence is mismatched.
The direction I was looking toward was the internal life of a black person in America. The very real anxieties and fears we have in whether our ambitions are as secure as any other American’s. Whether our opportunities are equal. Whether our health care is of sufficient quality. Whether our college degrees are of equal worth. Whether our spouses will make it home from the grocery store. Whether our children will one day counsel a parent that everything will be O.K. while someone is slumped over in the car seat in front of her, bleeding to death after being shot by a police officer.
You were looking in an altogether different direction. You were looking in the direction of your own innocence. Though you bought a house in an entirely segregated neighborhood, it’s not your fault the schools are better where you live. Though you have only one black friend, it’s not your fault because your friends are your co-workers and your company or university is doing poorly on diversity. Though it’s a shame that this black man or woman died (pick one, any one), it’s not your fault that the police officer you pay with your tax dollars and who is sworn to protect you did so at the expense of an unnecessary killing.
And none of these are your fault because that day in 1964 made it all right – the law said what could not happen, and thus, it must not be happening. Your sense of America is predicated on the assumption of a reliable and stable democratic system. We cannot possibly speak about the same thing given these conditions.
That is a problem. A core idea of democratic life is consensus citizens coming to a wide agreement on contentious issues. Americans disagree on all kinds of issues, but this one, whether black lives matter, is genuinely special and momentous. We have the facts: systemic racial inequality and rampant police-perpetrated killings. Then we have the observation of those facts seen from our distinct perspectives. Everything depends on you and I not only agreeing in our judgment but also taking up the proper positions to get genuine buy-in for the sake of justice. If you insist on standing where you do while I stand where I stand, there will never be agreement that black lives don’t matter in America.
The terrible events Thursday night in Dallas, where five police officers were slain by a sniper at a rally to protest police shootings, has complicated things still more, as do the charged and sometimes violent protests still arising in cities around the country. From where I stand — and maybe here we can stand together — I see once again that violence tragically begets violence, and that if America had faced its history of racial violence many decades ago, maybe even a few years ago when Eric Garner was seen by millions of Americans being strangled by a police officer on YouTube, we’d all be better for it today. If America had decided that black lives do matter when it had the chance, the cycle of violence that has robbed us and threatens to continue to rob us of precious lives could have been broken.
One reason the correspondence theory of truth has lost favor among professional philosophers is that we can’t always rely on our senses to corroborate facts. But we’ve seen the videos. The difference between you and me isn’t a matter of error, but of will.