Productive Conversation (or lack thereof)
Issues of race in modern America are shrouded in controversy and emotions. For many, the myriad instances of police brutality that have been recently documented and our country’s current system of mass incarceration are manifestations of America’s systemic racism; others hold that, as a nation, we have moved on from our racially-divided past. With each successive incident or movement, from Eric Garner’s death in New York City to the University of Missouri’s protests over alleged racism on campus, our growing national debate over the existence of systemic racism grows more heated and more emotional, and as controversy builds and emotions rise, this debate becomes more and more difficult to have. This brings about a fundamental question: as a country, how will we be able to have a productive conversation about race when the issue seems to bring about such aggressive emotional responses from everyone involved? How will we move past allowing the emotional controversy over race in America to exist solely as a roadblock preventing productive conversation, and instead begin using our emotions as catalysts towards progress?
We may be able to find an answer in examining the rhetoric of two leading thinkers on America’s race issues: Ta-Nehisi Coates and Bryan Stevenson. In Coates’s “The Case for Reparations” and Stevenson’s Just Mercy, both writers seek to engage their readers emotionally as a rhetorical strategy, ultimately enhancing their argument and allowing their works to effectively and fairly communicate their opinions. Coates and Stevenson employ what I’ve termed an “emotional gateway,” telling heart-wrenching stories that deeply engage our emotions in order to make us more open to seriously considering their arguments. Much like a hacker identifies one part of a system to utilize to his advantage, Coates and Stevenson identify emotion as a way to open the human mind and insert their arguments; this rhetorical tool is a fundamental part of the structure of these authors’ respective works. If we understand why this device is so effective, we might be able to use the emotional gateway in our daily lives as part of a path towards a more productive conversation about race in this country.
The Emotional Gateway as a Rhetorical Device
Bryan Stevenson masterfully employs the use of the emotional gateway throughout Just Mercy. His central idea is that we need to temper our system of mass incarceration and execution, which is driven by racism and poverty bias, among other things, with what he calls “some measure of unmerited grace” (Stevenson 18). But rather than launch into a heady, overwhelmingly logical argument as so many Harvard Law graduates might, Just Mercy hinges on a large emotional gateway: the case of Walter MacMillan. Stevenson recounts how MacMillan was falsely accused and wrongly convicted, only to be put on death row shortly after; he describes the unparalleled frustration that MacMillan’s family experiences, and the terror of life on death row as an innocent man. Reading MacMillan’s story is infuriating. Stevenson brings us to a point of feverish frustration at the injustice of MacMillan’s plight, at which point, we are open to accepting any argument Stevenson puts forth. Because of Stevenson’s deft use of an emotional gateway, his central thesis is infinitely more convincing.
Walter MacMillan isn’t the only emotional gateway in Just Mercy, however. Among others, Stevenson uses a more personal emotional gateway to drive home his argument in chapter two, “Stand.” Stevenson describes sitting in his car listening to Sly and the Family Stone, only to realize that two police officers have pulled next to him, wrongly suspecting Stevenson of suspicious activity. The officers force Stevenson out of the car and draw their guns on him in public; after a few tense minutes and with some luck, the officers leave and Stevenson retreats to his apartment. Here is another example of injustice, in this case perpetrated against someone with who we are familiar with as readers. With our emotions heightened, Stevenson immediately pulls our focus back towards his thesis: “the more and more I thought about [the incident], the more concerned I became about all the young black boys and men in that neighborhood” (43). Now we are concerned with Stevenson, and as a result, more open to receiving his arguments about the ways in which we can start to fix the system responsible.
Similarly, Ta-Nehisi Coates makes use of the emotional gateway in his Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations.” Coates begins the article with the story of Clyde Ross, a black man born in Mississippi in 1923 to a family of sharecroppers. Coates briefly describes Ross’s difficult family background and the brutal persecution of black people in Mississippi before telling us the story of when a group of white men took then ten year-old Clyde Ross’s most prized possession: his horse. Coates quotes Ross: “I did everything for that horse. Everything. And they took him. Put him on the racetrack. I never did know what happened to him after that, but I know they didn’t bring him back. So that’s just one of my losses.” This image hangs below the quote:
Juxtaposing this photo with a story about a young sharecropper’s horse being taken from him is heartbreaking. This is a heavy-handed, emotionally heart-wrenching anecdote used perfectly by Coates as an emotional gateway. We hate the men who took Clyde Ross’s horse, and this opens us up more to the arguments Coates goes on to make in the rest of the article. A good emotional gateway does not just make us receptive of an argument, however; a good emotional gateway forces us to actually want an argument to be made to justify our emotional response. Coates masters this technique with his use of Clyde Ross’s life: we want Coates to tell us why the people who wronged Ross were extensions of a heritage of racism, we want Coates to tell us how we can be a part of the solution, we want to help Clyde Ross, and we want to know how we can fix the system that wronged him. If Coates jumped into his later arguments without this emotional gateway, those arguments would be less effective.
While Coates and Stevenson present emotionally-wrenching anecdotes in their work as a rhetorical device, in America today, emotionally crushing anecdotes having to do with race relations are everywhere. Cell phones have made recording audio and video easier than ever before, and as a result, video and audio recordings documenting police brutality against black people have surfaced with increasing frequency. The two videos below depict the deaths of Eric Garner and Walter Scott and were obtained by The New York Daily News and The New York Times, respectively.
If reading about Walter MacMillan’s plight in Just Mercy moved us emotionally, then the injustice of seeing another person die on camera under suspicious circumstances at the hands of the police is sure to bring us to an emotional boiling point. And that is exactly what these incidents, along with other racially-charged incidents in our country, have done. The video below shows the protests in New York City in response to Eric Garner’s death, courtesy of The New York Times.
But while both the increased documentation of police brutality against black people and increased percentages of black people in prison have sparked emotional turmoil in our country these emotions seem to have done little to spark productive conversation. As a society, rather than using our emotional turmoil as motivation towards coming together and solving the problems caused by race in America, we seem to simply grow more and more angry. And unlike how Stevenson and Coates’ rhetorical emotional gateway opens our minds to arguments, real world emotional trauma seems to force us into entrenching ourselves in our anger, closing our minds off to opposition and deepening racial tension in this country. This is my own experience with conversations laced with racial tension as well, and I am as a guilty as anyone else of letting my anger cloud my rationality in the face of what I believe to be racism. Even at Davidson, a place filled with some of the most intelligent young people in the country, conversations about race in modern America between people who have different points of view tend to result in tempers flaring. But Coates’ and Stevenson’s use of the emotional gateway can teach us something about how to better deal with this problem than simply becoming angry. I understand that there is a difference between having a conversation and writing a book. Coates and Stevenson make us angry intentionally with the knowledge that we will continue to read on; incidents happen in our country that enrage us, but there is no clear path towards progress in the wake of that rage.
Real world application of the emotional gateway seems difficult at first; but, we can find an answer in examining the lives of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Bryan Stevenson. In a sense, both of their careers seem to be defined by an emotional gateway. Coates describes the killing of his friend, Prince Jones, as one of the main reasons he has chosen to dedicate his career to addressing race issues in America, as well as the inspiration for his recent book Between the World and Me. Stevenson’s emotionally shocking encounter with the police did not send him into an unproductive fit of anger; it spurred outside his Atlanta apartment spurred him to work harder towards establishing his Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama. Stevenson writes about his reaction to the incident: “I decided to talk at youth groups, churches, and community organizations about the challenges posed by the presumption of guilt assigned to the poor and people of color” (Stevenson 44). Stevenson responded to his emotional trauma by letting it become inspiration and motivation towards productivity, not towards mindless anger and engaging in flustered, irrational rhetoric.
Here, Stevenson and Coates provide us with an example of a productive way to react to the emotional trauma that comes with race issues in America today. We can learn a lot from how these two thinkers make use of the emotional gateway, both in their writing and in their lives. As Davidson students, we have no excuse for perpetuating the cycle of anger and entrenchment that has come to plague conversations about race. We must follow Stevenson’s and Coates’ lead, and let the injustices of race relations in this country inspire and motivate us to productively make change.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The Case for Reparations.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 21 May 2014. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.
Eric Garner Original Arrest Video. Youtube. New York Daily News, 30 Dec. 2014. Web. 22 Nov. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LfXqYwyzQpM>.
Eric Garner Chokehold Death. Youtube. The New York Times, 5 Dec. 2014. Web. 22 Nov. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s0cwvKY6ZS4>.
Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2014. Print.
Walter Scott Death. YouTube. The New York Times, 7 Apr. 2015. Web. 9 Dec. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XKQqgVlk0NQ>.