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The Name I Say

This post is part of our Social Impact Summer Series. Initiated by The Institute for Social Justice Inquiry and Praxis and the Faculty Blog editorial team, the Series is meant to facilitate timely reflections and commentaries on unfolding events and to provide space for our faculty colleagues to strategize and coordinate efforts as we work toward freedom for ourselves, our students, and our communities.


When I was a child, I watched the LA riots on television. When I was a student at Morehouse, Amadou Diallo was omnipresent at the political events and panel discussions on campus. When I was in graduate school, the government was indifferent to the destruction of black life in New Orleans, and the Gretna police opened fire on those who sought refuge. When I became a father, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Michael Brown made a return to Morehouse seem essential for the maintenance of my soul. Yet in this moment, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor are not the names that I am compelled to call out. Governmental indifference to black life has a death toll in the thousands – dwarfing the devastation of Katrina – but my sanity and vocal cords will not allow me to call those names out. Instead, amidst all this tangible death I mourn for the abstract.[1] The name I call out is “rationality.”

Irrational Protests

Throwing away two and a half months of physical distancing by engaging in mass gatherings to avenge the death of one black man is not rational. Protest can be an effective tool for policy change. My own research shows that Congress only pays attention to police brutality in response to the kinds of mobilizations we witnessed last weekend. I am not saying that last week’s protests will necessarily yield zero benefits. I am asking about the costs. I am asking about what the intended benefits should be. If the goal is to curtail police violence, then we need to ask for more than just the prosecution of individual officers. Take the example of California’s response to the murder of Stephon Clarkand push even further. More importantly, COVID-19 is a far greater killer of black people right now than police. That is the only potentially rational protest in the name of black life. Everything else is for the ‘gram.

Irrational Policymaking

Governments at all levels have abandoned rational policymaking. We have collectively decided to pretend that we are powerless against the spread of this virus. We are all living through some shared hallucination in which there are not any policy solutions to this pandemic. The reality is that such solutions and plans do exist. In the real world, South Korea and other nations have already demonstrated that testing, tracing, and isolation work. The estimated cost of mass testing, tracing, and isolation is 300 billion dollars over two years (at the high end). Our shuttered economy is losing that much in productivity every day. The expansion of social programs to deal with the economic consequences is higher by an order of magnitude. Basic rationality shows a clear path forward.

Unfortunately, rationality died from COVID-19.


[1] Don’t worry. As far as I know, Q-Tip is fine.


Matthew B. Platt is an associate professor of political science at Morehouse College.