In situations of oppression, epistemic relations are badly distorted. Who is considered a credible and capable transmitter of knowledge often depends upon the social position of the one who metes out judgment and the subject of that judgment. Social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter highlight the unequal social position afforded Black people and disparities in their being judged credible and capable. Testimonies bearing witness to these inequalities are often met with suspicion. One need only turn to reports of abuse in law enforcement to understand the deep sympathy with officers and disbelief of and hostility toward testifying Black people. Race-based harms are reinscribed in subsequent attempts for redress. Indictments by people of color sometimes raise doubts about their credibility as witnesses to their experiences and to the social facts that enable such injustices. Attending to testimonies of injustice and the limits of witness illuminates the cultural and structural forces that enable violence against Black people and encourage their silence and censure.
There can be no serious strides made to ameliorate racial injustice and antiblackness without accurate accounting of the history of both white supremacy and antiblackness as a national inheritance and global phenomenon. The national crises of our present highlight not only the inequalities borne uniquely by Black people, but also how their grievances are routinely ignored at best and undermined at worst. The antiblackness on display also reveals the precarious nature of receiving testimony of and bearing witness to racial injustice. That there is an unwillingness or inability to interrogate one’s beliefs in part precipitates a failure of moral imagination. The rise of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and coded antiblack rhetoric have demonstrated deep epistemic defects, including the resistance to revising false beliefs in light of better information and the difficulty of thinking beyond one’s social location.
Black people have historically and contemporarily testified to their oppression, sometimes with their very lives. George Floyd’s murder and the Covid-19 pandemic have directed increased national attention to Black people testifying to the racial injustices they suffer. It is crucial, then, to interrogate what white dominant or antiblack frames underlie local and national responses to the pandemic and current grappling with race. These are the very frameworks that often undermine receipt of Black people’s testimonies.
That Black people have testified to overwhelming disregard or harm in various domains is supported by the historical record. For example, the CDC recommendation for mask wearing to reduce the spread of Covid-19 raised doubts among Black men in particular that mask wearing may increase the likelihood that they would be targeted by law enforcement. The vulnerability of Black life to failures in public health and medicine can be seen in the field of dermatology, where physicians are trained to diagnose common skin conditions on white skin even though they manifest differently on dark skin. As the coronavirus spread, dermatologists started an international registry to catalog examples of skin manifestations of Covid-19. The registry compiled more than 700 cases, but only 34 cases in Hispanic patients and 13 in Black patients were submitted. The first cases of dermatologic manifestation of confirmed and suspected Covid-19 patients were entered into the registry beginning on April 8, yet it was not until July that pictures of “Covid-19 toes” in nonwhite patients were published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.
Religious ethics can have a crucial impact on the work of social justice. This is an opportune time for people and communities of faith to promote open engagement with the testimonies of Black people. Working not just to afford credibility to persons to whom it is often deprived (even when those testimonies are delivered in ways deemed “counterproductive,” such as displays of anger and protest) but also to question one’s own capacity for faithfully bearing witness to antiblackness will go a long way in promoting humility among persons who have not had to live under the specter of racism. Keeping open important opportunities for fraternal correction stands to combat what José Medina calls “epistemic arrogance.” Continued denial of Black people’s testimonies to antiblackness perpetuates pernicious webs of systemic injustice. Further, not seriously grappling with the antiblackness that pervades nearly every domain of American life contributes to the maintenance of immaturity in persons who do not bear the brunt of racial injustice. Tempering what Karen Jones calls “self-trust” (the suite of dispositions that allow one to rely on one’s cognitive competence), which can become excessive in persons who occupy social positions of privilege, makes room for one to be porous to others’ testimonies.
In Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, Miranda Fricker recommends that persons of relatively high social power employ the virtue of testimonial justice to elevate the credibility they mete out to persons of lower social power. In other words, when a hearer suspects that she is downgrading another’s testimony due to prejudice, critical self-awareness of social power differentials enables the hearer to neutralize the effect of prejudice in her credibility judgment by raising the credibility given to the testifying person. Important concerns arise. What is it that enables such critical self-awareness and the deployment of testimonial justice, especially in the face of deep epistemic defects? If antiblackness is constituted in part through ritual practices that affirm racial hierarchy, how are hearers of testimony reliably able to be critically self-aware in ways that adequately “neutralize” prejudice? As Medina writes, “In a situation of oppression, epistemic relations are screwed up. Inequality is the enemy of knowledge: it handicaps our capacity to know and to learn from each other.” Social injustice may preclude persons from being epistemically virtuous. The conditions for the possibility of epistemic justice, I think, are intimately connected to social, political, and economic justice. Without attending to the social conditions that underlie prejudice, it seems untenable that critical self-awareness will be taken up and that the virtue of testimonial justice can be accessed.
Consider how current rhetoric cites the present national moment as significantly different from other moments of the nation’s grappling with race. Though each tragic Black death is unique, the loss of Black life is quite familiar. At least part of what accounts for the increased national attention is that people are more confined to their homes due to pandemic lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, and social distancing recommendations. It took persons seeing for themselves George Floyd being suffocated by law enforcement to precipitate unprecedented demonstrations for racial justice. If seeing for oneself the social fact of antiblackness were a matter of simply paying attention, it would not have taken such a grotesque display of violence for people to bear witness to racial oppression. Instances of antiblackness and violence against Black people abounded long before, via traumatic experiences of enslavement, rape, and lynching, systemic practices of redlining and overpolicing, and institutional prejudices where certain cultural practices (surrounding dress or speech, for example) are rewarded over others. The security of Black lives must not always depend on persons witnessing Black death for themselves rather than giving credence to Black person’s testimonies. Racism surreptitiously cripples our capacity to bear faithful witness.
The terrain is fraught. With misinformation on the rise, it is crucial to denounce uncritical engagement with social and scientific information. And yet, Medina’s proposal for epistemic humility in the face of antiblackness takes seriously that our impoverished epistemic landscape weakens the capacity for what each of us can know. While I do not advocate an uncritical “believe Black people” approach, I do think the statement is right to suggest that Black people have intimate knowledge of their social experience. The #MeToo movement’s adoption of the slogan “believe women“ was meant to encourage the belief that women are as credible witnesses to their experiences as men are believed to be. Historically dominant groups’ adoption of a similar humility can disrupt the idea that positive social change depends upon their believing antiblackness to be true and worthy of redress.
Deeper engagement with the politics of testimony, what it means to bear faithful witness, centering the testifier rather than the hearer, and understanding the ways various forms of social injustice deform the epistemic landscape can help untangle the constellation of attitudes that underwrites antiblackness.