McKinney, Privilege, and Our Circle of Concern

There’s an ethical question that I heard years ago called “The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle.” It originated, I believe, from Peter Singer – who I confess is not my favorite philosopher. But the test is helpful for this conversation.

Imagine: each day, on your way to work or school, you pass a small pond. One morning while passing, you see a toddler-aged girl drowning in the pond. It is well within your means to save her, but doing so will require getting your clothes soaked and being late to work or school. Are you obligated to help? 

The answer, of course, is “yes.” 

Imagine, then, that there are many others passing by? Does their indifference and callousness make a whit of difference? “No.” 


Now the question expands: what if this results in losing your job or failing the class? The answer is the same. 

Finally, what if the same were true about a child dying on the far side of the world? Here, things get more difficult. It is still within your power to help, though your help would be indirect. For minimal cost – the price of a movie ticket or a CD  – you can provide life-saving food and medicine to suffering people through an international aid organizations. (Considering that no one spends money on music anymore, we should all have $15 or so lying around… But that’s a topic for another day.) 

Here, the sense of obligation shifts. Most people will say that they feel some degree of obligation, but not the same degree that they’d feel if they saw the girl drowning in the pond. We begin to ask question about the efficacy of international aid, the percentage of funds that make it to the field, and so forth. 

What the test reveals is that there is a limited circle of concern in which most people feel obligated to others. The drowning girl is obviously within that circle of concern. The starving child on the other side of the world, less so. We can more easily justify are inattention to the latter. 

Seth Godin asks a similar question, but puts it a little differently. In his version, you pass the pond while wearing a brand new, $1200 pair of shoes. You can save the girl only by jumping right in and ruining the shoes. Almost everyone will say, “Of course; ruin the shoes.” Then Godin points out that for $1200, you can feed 300 starving people for a month. Knowing that, how can anyone spend $1200 on a pair of shoes ever again? 

Now, most of us wouldn’t spend $1200 on a pair of shoes, but the point extends to the $120 pair of shoes, or the $1200 TV: the drowning child gets an “of course,” but the starving child – who is not within a certain degree of proximity to us – gets run through a different set of ethical filters. 

Which brings me to the topic of McKinney, Texas and white privilege

There’s something so stark, so nauseating, so horrific about the video footage of a police officer violently throwing a teenage girl to the ground and planting his knees on her back while she screams for help and cries out for her mother. It’s even more nauseating in the wider context of the video, where boys with black skin are being systematically culled out of the crowd and told to sit while white folks seem free to move about. And it’s chilling to see the cop pull a gun when the girl’s friends try to step in and help her. 

Is she the girl in the pond, or the one on the other side of the world?

Is her plight – and the plight of those who are subject to the officer’s abusive speech – something we should feel compelled to respond to, or something which we can in good conscience shrug our shoulders at? 

I think the answer to that question relies, to a degree, on the color of your skin. If you’re an African American or person of color, she’s the girl in the pond. Her suffering demands a response not because you can rescue her, but because what she was subjected to is something that you, your family, and your community are at risk of suffering as well. It’s proximity is very, very close. 

If, like me, you’re not an African American, then the situation is much different. One can watch the video, find it horrifying, be moved with empathy at the particulars of the case, and move on with one’s life. The overarching theme of brutality that targets black skin doesn’t (necessarily) break through to your circle of concern. You haven’t experienced similar things in your life and in your community. You don’t have to warn your children about how they mind themselves when police are around. You don’t have to live each day with the subtle legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation that cause a crowd to assume that you don’t belong at a swimming pool in a middle class neighborhood. 

This is what it means to be “privileged.” It means that society assumes some things in your favor. Or perhaps, it means that you aren’t subjected to certain bias, suspicion, and violence. Privilege is the ability to look the other way. 

The video isn’t a threat for white folks because all the white folks in the video walk away unscathed. They are invisible to the officer who is rounding up black kids because it is assumed that they belong there and the black kids don’t. If you’re white, you can ignore the whole thing and go on with your life, confident that you, your children, your white friends and neighbors aren’t likely to be subjected to overly harsh treatment based on the color of your skin. 

For white folks, the girl pinned to the lawn by the knees of a police officer might as well be on the other side of the world. 

Privilege can dismiss this as a tragic, but, isolated incident. Privilege can look at this case – and Freddie Gray, and Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner, and Walter Scott, and many others – as isolated incidents where “bad apples” acted with unjustified violence. Meanwhile, African American parents have to respond to this incident, like the others, by telling their kids to expect injustice and to go out of their way to comply with authorities. 

It doesn’t have to be this way, though. Paul told the Ephesians that Christ destroys the wall of hostility between the races. (Ephesians 2:13-16) He told the Galatians that in Christ, there’s no Greek or Jew. (Galatians 3:28) We see, in Christ’s reconciling work on the cross, that humanity is restored to what it was meant to be, one human community worshiping its one Lord. This news should turn us out towards the world with the knowledge that what my brother or sister suffers is a burden that I, too, should help bear. When my brother weeps because his sons are roughed up by cops for no reason, when my sister weeps because her daughter cried out for help and no one could help her, this should lead me to weep too. 

We can listen to our African American brothers and sisters as they share their stories. We can seek to empathize with their experience. We can expand our circle of concern and recognize that the girl in that video is no less than our neighbor. She is an image bearer, a fearfully and wonderfully made reflection of our Creator. She is our daughter. She is our sister. So were Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and Walter Scott. 

We should recognize a culture that proclaims equality and practices oppression. We should join those who say “Black Lives Matter” because all lives do, indeed matter, and we want to be a corrective voice in a culture that has undervalued black lives. 

I am saddened and sickened by the video from McKinney, as is everyone I’ve talked to about it. I am just as saddened by those who, in response, will dismiss the bigger questions it raises and fight to sustain the status quo. Our circles of concern need to expand to include our black brothers and sisters. We need to shed our privilege and refuse to look the other way.