By Tim Wise
This past week, Chris Rock noted in an interview that in his estimation, although racism remains a real and persistent problem, America is producing the nicest White people in its history.
Perhaps. But if so, this only suggests the pitiable limits of niceness and its utter irrelevance for the production of something approaching justice or — for that matter — even insight. And if so, it may merely signify how far we had to come out of the pit of whatever one takes the opposite of nice to be: mean, nasty, cruel, selfish, and so on. In short, it’s pretty thin gruel in the pantheon of praise, however sincerely Rock may have meant it.
One can be perfectly nice, after all, and still fail to see that which is right before you, staring at you from the computer screen as you watch Eric Garner killed on the streets of Staten Island with an illegal chokehold. The officer who applied that pressure to Garner’s neck might himself be “nice” in the sense that he is kind to old people, babies and animals. Likewise, the grand jury that decided yesterday not to indict him for any crime might well have been filled with nice people, who send get-well cards to sick friends and relatives, participate in Secret Santa at work and volunteer at the local food bank.
And what of it? Their niceness did not, clearly, provide them with the gift of comprehension, as they managed to watch an officer kill a man who posed no threat to him whatsoever—no reaching for his gun, even in some paranoid fever dream, no charging him like a bull, or as Darren Wilson put it to justify his killing of Mike Brown, like “a demon.” Their niceness came laced with nothing so helpful as empathy as they watched a man choked to death, gasping for air, all because he had been selling loose cigarettes on the street and dared to tell the officers to leave him alone when they decided to harass him for that most serious of crimes.
Their niceness, however real it may be in some abstract sense, means nothing. It will neither bring Eric Garner back nor prevent the deaths of more just like him. So too, I suspect there may be at least a few nice White folks on that grand jury outside of Akron that refused to indict the officer who killed John Crawford a few months ago in the Walmart there. Among their number may well have been at least a few White folks, for instance, who have nursed a wounded bird back to health or taken soup to a shut-in. But from this possibility, we are supposed to conclude what, exactly? Perhaps only this: that nice people can watch cold-blooded murder on video — a video that completely contradicts what the officer said about the incident, and also gives the lie to the claims of the possibly nice White man who first alerted police to Crawford’s presence in the store — and still see nothing at all in the way of a crime. Clearly whatever part of the brain controls niceness is not remotely connected to one’s optic nerve, so let us at least make note of this for future reference.
So too, the cop who killed 12-year old Tamir Rice in Cleveland and then lied about it — a lie we can all be quite sure of because that killing too is on tape — might well have once adopted a rescue pet, or donated $500 to a women’s shelter, or coached Little League and treated his players well, even when they struck out with the bases loaded, thereby costing the team the big game. And those who will seek to rationalize that killing (and oh yes, there are plenty who do), might be nicer than say, a sadist like Bull Connor, or Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam — the killers of Emmett Till, for whom the word “nice” would have been scarcely appropriate — and yet, again, one wonders about the value of such an accolade in times like this? That many Whites are nicer today than those who regularly strung Black men up from trees is an incredibly low peg upon which to hang one’s hat. And let us not forget, even those White men had wives who quite nicely, one suspects, made sweet tea and chicken salad for the lynchings perpetrated by their husbands. No, nice is less than meaningless.
In fact, I’m starting to wonder if nice might actually be the problem.
Nice is like a set of noise canceling headphones, which disallows those possessed of it from hearing the cries of others suffering under the weight of injustice. Nice is precious, nice is content, and nice does not want to hear of pain. Niceness cannot brook anguish because anguish disturbs the sleep of the just.
Nice is like one of those aromatherapy masks you can get at a day spa. It slips right over the eyes and lulls you into a state of relaxation with the pleasant aroma of lavender. Nice is a soothing massage, a warm cup of tea, or Enya.
Nice is the blue pill from the Matrix — the one Morpheus offers to Neo, which Neo does not take but most White folks have — and which allows us to remain oblivious to the world and how that world is being experienced by those who have had no choice but to ingest the red pill, simply so as to understand what the hell is happening in their own lives.
Nice is the enemy of justice because to raise one’s voice against oppression is to be instantly pegged as not nice … as disruptive … as unruly … as dangerous. To block traffic, or interfere with the all-important Christmas tree lighting in Rockefeller Center is not nice. To interrupt the symphony orchestra in St. Louis, or the drunken revelry of nice White baseball fans at a Cardinals game is not nice. To signify sympathy for a murdered young man in Ferguson, with even a gesture as simple as raising one’s hands as you come out of the tunnel before the football game is not nice. It is, to some — who would rather just watch Black men entertain them with a few nice interceptions — worthy of punishment, or professional discipline. How dare they, say the nice White people who paid good money to see Black men play gladiator for the glory of the hometown team.
Nice people change nothing. They never have and they never will. Those who are nice are so invested in their niceness, in their sense of propriety and civility that they rarely raise their voices above a whisper, even in the face of sweltering oppression. Nice White people were the ones who didn’t own Black folks during the period of enslavement but also didn’t raise their voices against the ones who did. Nice White people are the ones who didn’t spit on sit-in demonstrators but also had no problem spending money with businesses that had remained segregated all those years.
To be nice is to have an emotional stake in the prevention of one’s own pain. Nice people don’t like to look at the ugly. It’s upsetting, and most of all because it puts us on the hook and calls forth our humanity to actually put an end to that pain. Precisely because most people are good and decent and nice, they turn away from any evidence that the world, and their society is less decent than the sum total of its citizenry. It’s too much to take in. This is the irony of niceness: unlike persons with antisocial personalities or severe sociopathy who quite enjoy pain and suffering and often seek to cause it, those who are nice are so wrapped up in rainbows and lollipops as to make gazing upon the truth a bridge too far.
Nice people do not protest, angry people do; and right now, I’d trade every nice White person about whom Chris Rock was speaking for 100,000 angry ones. But not those who are angry at Black folks or brown immigrants or taxes—we have more than enough of them. I mean 100,000 who are angry enough at a system of racial injustice to throw ourselves upon the gears of the machine, as Mario Savio once insisted. A hundred thousand angry enough to join with our brothers and sisters of color and say enough. A hundred thousand who are tired of silence, tired of collaboration, tired of nice, and ready for justice.
In short, and though I know it won’t strike you as, well, nice: fuck nice. And if you’re more disturbed about my language here than the death of Black men at the hands of police, then know that you are the problem, and you’ve made it clear what side you’re on. It will not be forgotten.