As police relentlessly murder Black people across the United States — and a multiracial movement led by young Black people surges in the streets to stop them — many elected officials strike a somber and philosophical tone. Reflecting on the killing of George Floyd, Joe Biden remarked on May 29 that, “The pain is too immense for one community to bear alone. I believe it’s the duty of every American to grapple with it and grapple with it now.… The very soul of America is at stake.”
Two days later on “Face the Nation,” Melvin Carter, the mayor of St. Paul, Minnesota, echoed these sentiments, saying that “we have deep soul-searching work to do as a nation to stop this pattern from happening over and over and over again.”
The invocation of “soul searching,” weighty with religious connotations, has permeated our political discourse. But as a way to resolve our political problems, it is completely unserious. What are we searching for? How will we know when we find it?
The word “soul” is worth lingering over. Even its secular usage is profound: Music without soul is void of intensity, honesty, energy or feeling. It is cold and lifeless. Our soul is generally understood to represent the core of who we are as human beings, our inner consciousness, heart and mind. It is intensely personal, something we only fully reveal in the most trusted of places: with an intimate partner or close friend, to a therapist, in a diary or a prayer. In church, those who confess their sins — in thought, word and deed — are promised absolution; their souls can be saved.
But our politics is about the here and now — not the afterlife. Despite the depth implied by the phrase, “soul searching” is an evasive rhetorical maneuver that supplants the transformation of structural power relationships with the concept of individual moral transformation. That is not to say that there are not both moral and individual questions relevant to fighting racism. But the retreat to framing issues of racial oppression and police violence as something to be fixed by examining our inner lives is a permission slip that lets the existing power structures of our world remain intact and unchallenged.
When a politician suggests we look inward, they sidestep the conflict that is happening in the actual world. By prescribing “soul searching,” they are not required to exercise courage and act decisively — for example, by taking steps to defund the police, end the war on drugs or abolish prisons. The mayor of Cleveland, Ohio, for example, said the city had engaged in “a lot of soul searching” after police killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in November 2014. Not enough, apparently: In 2016, the City of Cleveland sent the child’s family an itemized collection notice: $450 for ambulance life support services and $50 for mileage.
Unsaid — but understood — is that the advice to engage in “soul searching” is intended for white people: We must reflect on ourselves, our complicity, our privilege. Political solutions are forestalled while awaiting the outcome of white spiritual journeys. But what if the search takes too long, or comes up empty? A debilitating white guilt pervades the concept of “soul searching” that, even if well-intentioned, finds its ultimate expression in white spiritual atonement seeking Black forgiveness. Progress can be measured by symbolism — white police washing the feet of Black clergy — rather than concrete changes that dismantle current power structures. Redemption substitutes for reparations.
By centering the white soul as the terrain for political change, the shift to “soul searching” also negates the value of Black interiority, intelligence and agency. Numerous Black scholars and organizers have conceptualized, researched, and proposed ideas to eliminate the racist carceral state and transform society — and continue to advance that conversation. Black aspiration to universality is an ultimate transgression: Right-wing politicians and liberal pundits alike react by arguing that their ideas are not very well thought-out. They imply that Black people are incapable of reason, that their arguments lack evidence or that they are overreacting out of emotion — as if outrage were not a reasonable response.
“What started as a renewed push for police reform has now touched seemingly every aspect of American life,” The New York Times reports in a story about corporate brands, though “some wonder how lasting the soul searching will be.” The omnipresence of “soul searching” today makes sense: Its longest-tenured salesperson and truest adherent is Democratic nominee Joe Biden. In his book, Biden recalled a conversation with Mississippi’s segregationist U.S. Sen. John Stennis in 1989:
“‘The civil rights movement did more to free the white man than the black man,’” Stennis said, according to Biden. “He could see me looking at him, confused, and he pounded on his chest. ‘It freed my soul,’ he said. ‘It freed my soul.'”
It’s clear Biden sees parts of himself in such stories. As the sponsor of the 1994 Crime Bill, Biden played a key role in propelling the U.S. to the highest incarceration rates in the world, disproportionately harming Black people. Healing phraseologies like “soul searching” allow Biden to performatively repent and seek forgiveness as a product of his time, while doing little to reverse the damage done.
In February, Biden expressed his admiration for the “the ultimate act of Christian charity” performed by the Black parishioners in South Carolina who he said forgave the white supremacist who murdered them. If Black people are expected to forgive everything, however, then anything can still be done to them. The racist logic stretches back across our history; Black people have “no rights which the white man is bound to respect.” Asking questions or making demands of Biden as he seeks the presidency — rather than offering him forgiveness — might mean that “you ain’t Black.”
Massive street demonstrations have made such questions and demands inescapable for Biden. Yet after being baited by a tweet, he refuted demonstrators and reiterated his plans to increase police funding by $300 million for community policing and training. Implicit bias training for police is in some ways a bureaucratic manifestation of “soul searching.” It certainly did not stop San Jose police from shooting the very person who trains them in the groin — narrowly missing Biden’s target of choice.
From the beginning, Biden has framed his campaign as “battle for the soul of a nation.” Yet if he manages to win an election that will be rife with racist voter suppression, he is already counting on “soul searching” in order to govern. He has repeatedly claimed that in a post-Trump era, the GOP will re-examine itself, have an epiphany, and a bipartisan equilibrium will be magically restored. Such wishful thinking ignores that the Republican Party is moving further to the right and will continue to do so as various successors to Trump emerge. It also ignores that the bipartisan collaboration was only achieved by a rightward shift by Democrats, advancing the very policies that Biden seeks forgiveness for today.
Finally, the repeated turn to “soul searching” in this political crisis provides a glimpse into many centrist Democrats’ approach to the question of power — and into why they keep losing. When facing the right wing and the billionaire class, they are unwilling to wield power; instead, they attempt persuasion which typically ends in compromise with their reactionary agenda (so who is winning whom over?). But when facing the left and an increasingly militant multiracial working class, these same politicians are perfectly willing to deploy power — be it in a primary election, or in the streets of the cities they govern.
Political conversions are not impossible, of course. But too many Black people have already been killed along this winding and seemingly endless road to Damascus. In a polarized world, persuasion efforts should be focused on those who are genuinely undecided — but not by appeasing our opponents and abandoning the pole around which a spirited and soul-full popular movement is rallying to build a different world.
Those who embrace a worldview that denies Black humanity must be isolated, resoundingly defeated, stripped of power and rendered irrelevant. That should give them plenty of time to search their souls.