The week of July 4, 2016 will go down in American history as a somber and tragic week. It started with the deaths of two African-American men, who lost their lives in videotaped encounters with police. The deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille were widely publicized on social media and on the news, and triggered yet another national unrest about policing and race. While the country was still learning details about those two men, a sniper in Dallas, Texas, attacked police officers and murdered five. The violence, and the often confused response to it, seemed to be a tragic signal that our country was being torn apart by division.
There are indeed forces at work in American culture that seek to divide, to wound, and even to kill. We live in a time of overwhelming animosity on every side of the political aisle. Good faith disagreements seem rare, and hostile accusations seem common. America’s racial tensions are not new, of course, but with the omnipresence of social media and the temptations to make every tragic news event an opportunity for political leverage, they certainly seem that way.
But we should remember two things. First, the most violent and angry voices in our country do not represent the majority of Americans. Media coverage that almost always gives more airtime to the most outraged or outrageous personalities obscures this fact. But the overwhelming majority of American citizens—white, black, and otherwise—desire peace, understanding, and safety.
This is crucial to keep in mind when we address issues of race, bias, and justice. The vast majority of police officers in this country do not see black Americans as targets or villains. Likewise, the vast majority of black Americans are not criminals or “thugs.” When we reduce individuals—both individual persons and individual circumstances—to broad categories, we engage in the same kind of irresponsible identity politics that creates a culture of distrust and animosity in our culture.
The second thing that we should remember is that, while we can and should pass more just laws, real cultural change is accomplished through virtue rather than legislation. When we see injustice, our instinct should indeed be to protect the innocent through rule of law. However, we have to be willing to talk in moral categories, to have the conservation about right and wrong that many elites who have peddled moral relativism are embarrassed to have. Government can make good laws but it cannot make good people.
As we seek healing and unity in our country, let’s be willing to see people as individuals first, without reducing them to categories. And let’s acknowledge that what our culture needs more urgently than political solutions is personal virtue. If we do that, we will be able to speak truthfully and compassionately to a country that desperately needs wisdom.