Whitewashing Slavery

Whitewashing Slavery

In 2015, the Texas Board of Education introduced a social studies curriculum that came under wide criticism for its whitewashing of the brutalities of slavery in the American South.  One of the more damning revisions was the statement, “The treatment of enslaved Africans varied.  Some slaves reported that their masters treated them kindly.”

Let’s be perfectly clear.  That is racist bullshit.

An honest statement would read, “In a vast majority of instances slaves were brutalized, raped, tortured and forever separated from parents, spouses and children for the economic profit of their abusers.”  Citing exceptions to this rule can have only one purpose – to diminish the horrors of slavery. Owning another human being was never an act of kindness.  Considering another person as your property is evil.  Indeed, the inclusion of the term “masters” in a modern textbook is deeply disturbing, reinforcing the racist inference that white people are inherently superior to black people.  Those who owned slaves were not “masters.”  They were monsters.

Unfortunately, the whitewashing of slavery is epidemic in America.  In conversations about slavery, I often hear white people comment that there were black slave owners.  As with the “kind master” trope, the rare exception is offered as proof that slavery was either less horrible or more justifiable.  These types of statements are not designed to educate people, but to misrepresent the realities of slavery.  Imagine for a moment if someone said, “The treatment of Jews in concentration camps varied.  Some Jews reported that their guards treated them kindly.”  Even if this were true in some rare circumstance, such statements are morally abhorrent.  They misdirect and obscure, allowing the hearer or reader to avoid confronting the horrific.

In recent weeks, I’ve been reading “The Half Has Never Been Told” by Edward Baptist.  It is a book too painful to read quickly. The title comes from an interview with a former slave, who when asked to recount his experiences as a slave, replied, “The half has never been told.”  In response, Baptist does his best to communicate the untold half, carefully documenting the brutalities of slavery.  Though I’ve been educating myself about slavery for several years, his portrayals have been horrifying, forcing me to abandon many misconceptions about slavery.

For example, according to Baptist’s research, if the Texas Board of Education wanted to improve their textbooks, they could add a statement saying, “The sexual abuse of female slaves varied.  Some slaves reported that they were only occasionally raped.”  The high incidence of bi-racial children should be evidence enough of the systemic rape of black slaves.  However, both the accounts of slave owners and slaves made it clear that the sexual exploitation of female slaves was nearly universal.  Thomas Jefferson may have expressed noble sentiments about equality, but his relationship with Sally Hemming  is probably best described as rape.  If the President of the United States casually justified such behavior, we can assume it represented a national ethos.

For nearly a hundred years, while southern Americans cultivated a society of chivalry, chastity and honor, these same champions of moral rectitude were systemically raping millions of black women and girls.  When we hear claims that the Confederacy was protecting their way of life, we must understand that this way of life involved the most pervasive rape culture in the history of humanity. Don’t believe the propaganda about the South fighting for state’s rights. Thousands of white men fought in Civil War to defend their right to rape black women at will.  They also fought to protect one of the most brutal economic systems in human history.

According to Baptist’s research, between 1800 and 1860, the production of cotton in the American South increased by 400% even though there were no technological advances introduced for the planting and harvesting of cotton.  This is extraordinary because economists have historically concluded that, absent a technological advance, this kind of dramatic rise in productivity is impossible. Of course, nearly all of their models are predicated on the concept of hired labor.

Sadly, the explanation for this unheard of increase in productivity is fairly simple – torture.  Baptist goes to great lengths to chronicle the introduction of “pushing” across the cotton plantations of the American South.   This technique, documented in letters and pamphlets from that time, involved selecting three or four of the best workers on a plantation, pushing them to work at maximum capacity for 12 hours a day, and punishing all those who produced less than these workers.  The system was simple.  Set extremely high planting, weeding and harvesting goals and apply lashes to each and every slave who failed to meet these goals.  In response, slaves had only one alternative – work faster and harder.  Only the most productive escaped torture.

The vast economic expansion of the American cotton industry was driven by the torture of millions of black men, women and children, all of whom were required to work in slave camps across the South. These were not the plantations of American nostalgia, where slaves co-existed with their enslavers, mutually benefitting from their labors.  These were brutal work camps designed and perfected by Americans long before the horrors of the Nazi concentration camp or the Russian Gulag.  The average life span for a slave in these camps was about fifteen years before they were broken physically and mentally. Those who tried to escape this brutality were caught and tortured to death, often while their fellow slaves watched.

It is damning enough to realize the American economic miracle was built on the labor of slaves, that slaves produced the affluence that would make the United States the greatest economic power in human history.  Far more horrifying is the reality that this economic engine was fueled by the blood of tortured slaves.  Every major US bank invested in this system of torture.  Every significant political and economic leader in our history was aware and complicit.   Indeed, there are very few American institutions that aren’t in one way or another tainted by the blood of human torture.

If our history books were honest, they would tell the story of millions of tortured human beings.  They would shame us, forcing us to see our nation and its history as it is and not as we would have it be.  If Americans were lovers of truth, we would pass laws like those in Germany that make it a criminal offense to deny or diminish the realities of our Holocaust.  We would replace the monuments to Confederate monsters with memorials to tortured black men, women and children.  We would require every school child to fully understand the heinous acts of their ancestors.

Sadly, in classrooms from Texas to Massachusetts, this half of the American story continues to go untold.  Not because we do not know the truth about slavery, but because we don’t want to acknowledge our national guilt.  Until we confess and repent, whether we realize it or not, we are accepting, justifying and celebrating the horrific. The Egyptians who built the Pyramids with slave labor were slackers.  The Nazis with their concentration camps were novices. The Soviet Gulag was the work of amateurs.  When it comes to the application of systemic rape and torture, the United States is still unmatched.


Why I Disliked Black Panther

Why I Disliked Black Panther

Let me be perfectly clear.

Everyone should see the movie, Black Panther. It is an entertaining and ground breaking film with a nearly all black cast animating a comic book storyline full of social commentary on racism, colonialism and white privilege.  It wrestles with different visions of black empowerment.  It artfully uses nearly every scene to explore the challenges of being black in the world.  Even the Black Panther’s super powers are symbolic of the black struggle.  The more abuse the Black Panther takes, the more powerful he becomes.  As a white man, I was only aware of the most obvious narratives.  From what I am reading, black audiences are experiencing a deep catharsis while watching strong black men and women navigating the world.

I know my daughter did. I have never seen her more excited before, during or after a movie.  My wife found the movie – and watching our daughter watching the movie – emotionally moving.  They both left the theatre exclaiming, “That was awesome.”  I was less enthused.  When they asked what I thought, to their disappointment, I said, “It was good.”  Though I recognized the movie’s significance and power, I did not experience what they experienced. I didn’t connect with the movie emotionally.  Later, as I reflected on my response, I realized why.  This movie – unlike most – wasn’t about me.

It was not a movie about white men. We were barely present at all.  We were not the heroes.  We did not have super powers.  We did not save the world.  We did not get the girl.  Of the two white men in the movie, one was a crazy villain and the other a humbled and subordinate ally.  What I experienced in watching Black Panther was what people of color and women experience when they go to the movies.  Regardless of how compelling the movie may be, without the presence of strong characters that look like us, it is difficult to deeply connect.  We are watching someone else’s story.  This is what I disliked about Black Panther.

However, what I disliked even more was what that response indicated about me and our culture. As much as I’ve tried to become aware of my latent racism and sexism, this movie revealed how much further I have to go.  I am sympathetic to the plight of women and of people of color in our culture, but this movie suggested that I am not yet empathetic.  It is nearly impossible for me to fully appreciate or understand what it is like to be a person of color or a woman in a white male dominated society.  As with many aspects of our culture, I have been largely indifferent to how movies and media have excluded others and focused on me.

No wonder my wife and daughter have had no interest in the Star Wars movies that I’ve so enjoyed. If there was ever a black woman in any of the movies, I don’t remember her.  Until recently, all the heroes and villains of Star Wars were white men.  The central storyline was of the battle against the “dark side” of the Force.  Sadly, the Star Wars movies that I so eagerly anticipated have portrayed a future exactly like the present – one where people of color and women are marginalized and white men violently dominate.  More disturbing, these movies blatantly promote the “rightness” of such a world order.

Ironically, some of the critics of the Black Panther movie have attacked the movie for its undisguised social commentary and its lack of diversity. These critics seem hopelessly unaware of how nearly every other movie produced by Hollywood has an equally blatant worldview and a lack of diversity.  That these critics cannot see this intentionality in the movies they like, says far more about them than the Black Panther movie.  They, like me, aren’t used to the discomfort of being left out.

White male discomfort is a fairly rare experience. I seldom feel excluded and marginalized.  When I do, I am learning to welcome rather than resist that experience.  The only way for white men to learn empathy is if we allow ourselves to experience what so many others experience on a daily basis.  Movies about the exclusion of people of color – like Hidden Figures or Selma – do not accomplish this task.  Seeing how easily white men have dominated in the past may actually reinforce the normality of such a world order.  It takes a movie that offers a vastly different world order – one in which white men are evil, weak, ignorant and secondary – for white men to experience the discomfort we have so often created for others.

This is not the first time a Black Panther has made white men uncomfortable. Fifty years ago, hundreds of young black men organized as Black Panthers. They were condemned, harassed, arrested and killed.  Their movement was systemically destroyed because of its threat to white supremacy. Who would have guessed that fifty years later there would be a record breaking movie celebrating black power and reclaiming that title?  I find that hopeful.

Young black men are seeing themselves as super heroes and kings. Girls like my daughter are seeing themselves portrayed as never before.  White men, even though oblivious to the deeper storylines, may be affected.  Culture changes slowly and subtly.  Movies sometimes reveal tectonic shifts in the foundations of a culture, the shifting of assumptions and expectations.  What is being portrayed as fantasy is offered as possibility even though white men can’t see it.

One of the last scenes of the movie – one you only see if you sit through the initial credits – is that of a white man questioning how blacks from a poor African country can aid the world. It’s a laugh line, full of hope and irony.  The audience knows what that white man does not, that black men and women are capable of far more than he can imagine.  If given the opportunity, they can change the world.

I like that.

Anti-Family Values

Anti-Family Values

History has a way of repeating itself.

Two hundred years ago, white conservative Americans – while allegedly championing traditional family values – shamelessly devastated the families of people of color. Black fathers were systematically separated from their families, sold to plantation owners far away.  Black children were stripped from their mothers, auctioned off as commodities.  Whites justified this immoral behavior by defining black people as “property.”  Hiding behind legalities, we perpetrated depravities.  Though some whites saw the hypocrisy of this societal behavior, most whites – benefitting from the economic advantages of such a system – ignored the cruelties of slavery.

Sadly, this same hypocritical behavior is happening again. White conservative Americans – while allegedly championing traditional family values – are shamelessly devastating the families of people of color.  Immigrant fathers are being systematically separated from their families, deported after working in America for years.  Immigrant children are being stripped from their mothers, placed in foster care and even offered in adoption.  Whites are justifying this immoral behavior by defining many immigrants as “illegals.”  Hiding behind legalities, we are perpetrating depravities.  Again, though some whites see the hypocrisy of this societal behavior, most whites – benefitting from the economic advantages of such a system – are ignoring the cruelties of deportation.

Make no mistake. History will one day be as critical of what we are doing today as we are of what the proponents of slavery did in their day.  The arguments supporting mass deportation and family destruction will sound as false as those of the racist slave owners of the 1800s.  Remember, the cruelties of slavery were all done under the cloak of legality.  Agents of the government tracked down and arrested any slave who violated the system.  Those who gave sanctuary or protection to fleeing slaves could be prosecuted.  Judges were bound by the law to act immorally.  Government officials who found slavery abhorrent were pressured to support the national agenda. If this sounds strangely contemporary, it should.

More damning, history will once again question why many of the white people who recognized this immorality stood idly by, wringing their hands and posting memes, but largely allowing a great evil to go unchecked. There will incidents of white people who gave sanctuary to immigrant families, helping them avoid the authorities, but they will be rare.  There will be stories of individuals and movements who resisted, but they will have been ineffective.  Someday most Americans will be ashamed of this period of our history, wondering how it was possible that our nation elected a man who perpetrated such ugliness.

Make no mistake. The Republican Party is not the party of family values.  If their support of Donald Trump and Roy Moore is not evidence enough, their behavior toward the families of people of color should be conclusive.  Like the plantation owners of the 1800s, their commitment to family ends at their own door.  Indeed, they are perfectly willing to benefit from the labor of people of color with no concern for the families of those laborers.  They are happy to pit poor white families against poor families of color, but uninterested in addressing the common poverties and injustices that plague these families.  Indeed, in truth, the Republican Party is anti-family, unless that family is part of the American aristocracy.

Ironically, it is this very American aristocracy that has most encouraged “illegal” immigration. They were the ones who wanted people of color to work cheaply in their homes as nannies, cooks and gardeners. They were the ones who required cheap labor for their harvests and factories.  They have never really been against illegal immigration.  They are opposed to immigrants gaining citizenship, power and civil rights.  They support the deportation of immigrants precisely because they know they will be replaced by others with less power.  They want immigrants who do not dream of citizenship.  Separating them from their families is one way to discourage that dream.

Unfortunately, as in the days of slavery, ending policies of family destruction and the deportation of people of color is unlikely. Even under the Obama administration, our nation was committed to the economic exploitation of immigrant people.  We sustained an economic system that needed their labor while ignoring their humanity and civil rights.  While Obama’s administration was less strident in its attack on families and offered temporary support to the Dreamers, it was unwilling to dismantle the infrastructure that Trump is using today.  As in the days of slavery, we are all complicit.  As with the compromises around slavery, they tend to preserve the status quo.

Democrats are right to resist the demand from Republicans that any relief for the Dreamers must include an end to “chain” immigration. Don’t be confused.  The term “chain” immigration is another hypocrisy.  What conservatives call “chain” immigration is simply family reunification.  This is what the party of family values is opposing.  They are willing to allow people with certain skills to immigrate to America.  They are willing to benefit from those people’s labor.  They are even willing to allow them to become citizens and pay taxes in certain circumstances.  They are unwilling to allow them to live with their own families.

Of course, this is not how white conservative Americans will frame this discussion. They will claim progressives want to throw open our borders and allow anyone to come to the United States.  This is not true.  What progressives demand is justice and compassion for those we have economically exploited.  This was a valid demand in 1860 and it is equally compelling today.  These people of color deserve our appreciation and consideration rather than our condemnation.  Destroying the families of these people is merely evidence of the depths of our depravity.

Don’t be confused. This is not an issue of legality.  Slavery was legal.  Dividing families is legal.  This is a question of morality.  If you believe it is moral to arrest a man who has worked in our country for over 30 years, separate him from his wife and children and exile him to a land thousands of miles from them, you and I have nothing further to discuss.  You are not just the enemy of people of color.  You are my enemy.

Color Blindness Is A Disability

Color Blindness Is A Disability

Note to my white self…

When it comes to race, color blindness is not now – nor has it ever been – an admirable goal for a white person. Color blindness, both physically and metaphorically, is a human deficiency.  It has a negative impact on a person’s ability to navigate in a world where recognizing and discriminating between colors is a necessary and valuable tool.  While you – and most other white people – were taught to strive for color blindness in your racial interactions, this is not commendable or helpful.  Color blindness is always a disability.

Think about it.

Where else in our culture is a lack or deficiency in sight considered preferable? Parents are rightly saddened by a child born blind.  A loss of vision in an adult is considered a tragedy.  The restoration of sight is thought miraculous.  When used as a metaphor, blindness is almost universally negative.  Acting, judging or loving blindly is irresponsible. To be blind to a condition of life is a cause for concern. In “Amazing Grace,” we do not sing that “I could see, but now I’m blind.”  To do so would be ridiculous.

Though physical color blindness is certainly less traumatic, it is hardly celebrated. When severe, color blindness is a dangerous condition causing many difficulties for those so afflicted.  An inability to discern between red and green makes every major street intersection challenging.  When it comes to identifying colors, discrimination is not a negative activity.  It is a positive attribute allowing the person to make better judgments and avoid mistakes.  That, when it comes to race, color blindness is upheld as noble should seem odd.   That, in a white dominated culture, color blindness is applauded should be suspicious.

Why, in this instance, has a white dominated culture used a lack of visual acuity as a positive metaphor?

You know why.

As with all things white, this practice is advantageous to white people. By extolling color blindness, you escape the responsibility of identifying, acknowledging and addressing real social, economic and political disparities between yourself and people of color.  You can pretend, though racial prejudice is deeply embedded in your psyche, that the color of someone’s skin does not influence your attitude, judgment or actions.  You can even use the exaltation of color blindness to further oppress people of color.  People of color who refuse to affirm the positives of color blindness can be accused of “reverse racism” and identified as morally deficient.  After all, good people are color blind.

Think about how absurd that sounds when applied to the physical condition of color blindness.

Can you imagine a culture that extoled the physical condition of color blindness as superior and condemned those who discriminated between red and green? How would you explain a culture where not being able to see differences in colors was considered admirable, as something to brag about?  What would you think of a culture where people were pressured, even if they could see the differences, to ignore this discernment and pretend that they couldn’t?  How would you judge such a culture?  Wouldn’t you assume something odd or unacknowledged was behind such an attitude and behavior?

Such is the case with the use of color blindness as a positive metaphor in a white dominated culture. The something odd or unacknowledged is white privilege.  This privilege gives white people the power to demand that people ignore real disparities and inequities in how people of different skin colors are treated in our culture. According to the proponents of color blindness, if we refuse to see the differences, they will go way.  This claim that there are no real differences between black and white in America is as absurd as claiming red and green are the same.

Here is the truth.

Color blindness is not your goal.

Your goal as a white person is to see yourself and people of color as they truly are, to recognize how differences in skin tone continue to seriously impact the experiences of men, women and children in our society, that these differences privilege some and oppress others. To treat people equally, regardless of the color of their skin, isn’t inherently admirable or just.  When justice is blind to past injuries, this blindness is also negative.  When justice does not acknowledge the color of someone’s skin, it inevitably perpetuates rather than rectifies injustice.

Color blindness is not your goal.

To ignore the inequities that still exist because of differences in skin color is insulting and irresponsible. It is only in removing our blindfolds, that we become capable of seeing discrimination for what it is; the diminishment of some colors more than others.  The reason color blindness is metaphorically extoled and blackness is metaphorically maligned has the same ugly source – racism.

Stop claiming to be color blind.

It is not true.

It is not admirable.

It is not helpful.

On Super Bowl Sunday

On Super Bowl Sunday

Since I am sometimes accused of bringing race into everything, it seems fitting to bring my growing sensitivity to white privilege and racial discrimination to this high, holy day in American culture. It would seem unlikely that such a quintessential American event would be immune to the systemic racism that plagues the rest of our national institutions. What should we look for as we sit down this evening with our beer, chips and bean dip?

First, we should notice the composition of the teams. Though their helmets may obscure this – other than in the highly visible quarterbacks – there will be very few white faces on the field. About 70% of the players on the Super Bowl teams are black.  This, in and of itself, should be startling.  There is no other place in American society where black men are so over represented.  This even dwarfs the scandalous over representation of blacks in our prison system, which hovers at around 37%.

While some might suggest the presence of so many blacks on football fields is a sign of racial progress and equality, this would be a little like arguing the predominance of black faces in cotton fields of the 1850s suggested blacks had a special affinity for agriculture. In both instances, a more reasonable assumption is that we’ve created systems that either require or direct young black men in a specific direction. While the fields may have changed, the system has not.

Young black men are inundated with media images that predominantly show them as either sports stars, criminals, or sometimes both. While some will argue the media is simply mirroring our society, it seems ridiculous to argue that these images represent the true aspirations of black young people.  Even more troubling, since we know only 0.09% of all high school  football players ever play in the NFL, highlighting the success of black men in sports sets up thousands of young black men for failure and disappointment. While both white and black boys have unrealistic opinions of their athletic prowess, the alternatives for disappointed white athletes are far more obvious than for disappointed black athletes.

This leads me to the second thing to watch tonight. Watch the commercials carefully to see if and when blacks are portrayed.  While marketing firms have become more racially conscious, most of what we will see tonight in the highly synchronized commercials will reinforce rather than challenge racial prejudices or white privilege.  Notice what race of people will be shown with the high dollar items – cars, jewelry, etc.  Notice when blacks are represented and how.  While the Super Bowl is performed by a largely black cast, the programming will focus on white privilege and superiority.

Notice how many white faces will be represented in the quarterbacks, coaches, commentators, referees and owners. (There are no black owners.)  In nearly every decision making position in the professional football industry, blacks are seriously under represented.  They are trusted to guard the quarterback or carry and catch the ball, but they are seldom asked to lead or decide.  Indeed, the percentage of black players on defense is almost 85%.  Since the goal of football is ultimately to score touchdowns, even this highest of prizes is reserved more often for white players.

While some will point out the high salaries paid to black football players as evidence of racial equality, it should be noted that this affluence comes with certain demands by the white owners. As in the days of Jim Crow, black players are free to spend their money as they wish, to peddle merchandise and to garner a certain level of acclaim.  They are not, however, allowed to speak about the racism they encounter in their lives and in society. While they are often lifted up as representatives of their race, they are highly discouraged from modeling anything other than compliance with a racially discriminatory system.  When they violate this expectation, they don’t play football much longer.  Ask Colin Kaepernick.

Tonight, there is one thing we are unlikely to see. We are unlikely to see one of Donald Trump’s “sons of bitches” kneel during the national anthem.  And if they should do so and if the television networks broadcast their act of protest, we can expect to see a myriad of criticisms and condemnations of their unpatriotic and ungrateful behavior. Someone will inevitably say, “If they don’t like America, why don’t they go back to Africa?”  They will imply that the solution to injustice in America is not to resolve it, but to send those who are victims of that injustice away…from football, into prisons, and even to Africa.

Oddly, white people never consider the possibility that Africa might actually be preferable for a black person, that those “shithole countries” have at least one thing that America does not. They are countries where black faces are represented in every occupation and field of endeavor, where the options for a young black boy or girl are not limited to sports or jail.  They are places where black people lead and make decisions.  While African countries have their imperfections and challenges, they far exceed America in giving black people an equal opportunity to succeed.

On Super Bowl Sunday, it seems appropriate to ask this simple question. What would it take to create a system where black people were over represented in the halls of Congress, at hospitals, on universities and in corporations?  Would we think it odd if 70% of congress people, doctors, professors or CEOs were people of color?  I suspect white people would find this disturbing, even threatening.  That this same level of over representation on football fields seems perfectly normal and acceptable is evidence of our inability to see the deep racial dimensions of everything in our society.

Even the Super Bowl.


Why White Americans Fear Black Americans

Why White Americans Fear Black Americans

Recently, a friend asked me, “Why has there been such an increase in unarmed black people being killed by the police?” While my friend was genuinely curious, let me unpack the problem with that question. It naively implies that racial tensions have somehow escalated, that there have been more incidents of violence towards blacks in recent years, and that there was a time when the killing of unarmed blacks was rare. These assumptions couldn’t be further from the truth. In actuality, what has changed is not the number of unarmed black people being killed, but the number of killings caught on video. Sadly, in America, the killing of unarmed black people by the police has been fairly commonplace for two hundred years.

In the past, these killings were nearly always justified with the blame laid at the feet of the dead black person. However, even in recent years and with damning video evidence, public outrage, long investigations and occasional trials, most police officers are cleared and acquitted. The officer gets away with murder. Each time this happens, people shake their heads in bewilderment, confused about how killings we’ve watched on video could prove justifiable. Yet the explanation for these exonerations isn’t mysterious. It is the expected outcome of a system designed to justify the killing of black people.

Let me explain. In justifying the police shootings of unarmed black people, courts have consistently set a low bar. Based on rulings by the United States Supreme Court, if the police officer was threatened, using their weapon to defend themselves or others is considered legally justifiable. Unfortunately, a primary factor in determining the legitimacy of a threat is the state of mind of the officer.  If the officer says they felt threatened, this is usually accepted as compelling evidence of a threat and justification for their actions.

In other words, using your weapon to defend yourself and kill an unarmed black person is only justifiable if there is a legitimate threat. How do we test the legitimacy of a threat?  We ask the officer who used their weapon to kill an unarmed black person if they perceived a threat.  If they say they felt threatened, most courts conclude their use of their weapon was defensible.  Once we understand this circular logic, we can see why so few police officers are found guilty of murder or manslaughter. Unless the judge and jury find the perception of threat unreasonable, the police officer is absolved of any crime.

Here is where the flaws in the system should be obvious. Most of the review boards, prosecutors, judges and juries being asked to determine if “the perception of threat was reasonable” are predominantly white.  They are people, who whether they acknowledge it or not, also feel threatened by the presence of black people. When a black person approaches them, knocks on their door, steps into the elevator or otherwise enters their normally white world, they too respond with fear and anxiety. Having experienced many of these moments of perceived threat, white people are predisposed to believe that the officer felt threatened. They can sympathize with the officer and not with the victim.

Almost instinctively, most white Americans fear black Americans.

This wasn’t always the case. In the 1700s, white people did not see black people as a threat.  They saw them as property.  They bought and sold them.  Raped, whipped and killed them.  They forced them to work long hours.  Black people were no more threatening than farm animals.  As long as they were disciplined and domesticated, black people weren’t dangerous.  A single white person could keep dozens of black people cowed and docile.  If one slave misbehaved, they were quickly and severely punished.  If they ran away, their family paid the consequences.  If black slaves had been considered threatening, people wouldn’t have purchased them by the millions.

Indeed, in the late 1700s, whites were so confident of black inferiority and submissiveness that the French colony of Saint Dominigue had 40,000 white people controlling, enslaving and brutalizing nearly 500,000 black people on sugar plantations. In those years, the lands we now call Haiti were considered some of the richest real estate in the world.  The French economy, like the American economy, was built upon this foundation of safe and free labor.  That all changed in 1791.

In that year, the slaves of Saint Dominigue, led by Toussaint Louverture, overthrew their enslavers in a bloody revolution that killed thousands of whites and blacks and established the first black democracy in the world. Though Louverture’s accomplishments have been largely ignored by white historians, what he created at the close of the 18th century is as historically significant as the French and American revolutions. Over the course of the next ten years, he and his armies would defeat one British and two French armies – the very crème of the European white society.

While few white Americans know of Louverture and the Haitian revolution, this event from two hundred years ago is directly connected to the present day fears of white Americans. In the years following the Haitian revolution, many of the white people who escaped from Haiti came to Charleston and New Orleans with their stories of black retribution. They came to a nation where many Southern counties had more black residents than white residents.  Their message that black slaves were dangerous resonated deeply.

The events in Haiti led to two very different responses by white people. In Europe, white people moved to end the slave trade and eventually outlaw slavery.  In America, white people passed draconian laws to control and punish the slightest act of disobedience or resistance on the part of black slaves.  White Americans, rather than seeing the similarities between their revolution from European dominance and the revolution of the Haitian blacks, responded to the righteous retribution of black slaves with even more brutalization.

This is the irony. White fear of black people is rooted in the real fears of 19th century white Americans.  While the white American ethos celebrates the throwing off of British shackles to demand equality and justice, our national history is much different. In the 1800s, in response to the Haitian revolution, Americans doubled down on injustice and oppression.  In this moment of existential reckoning, white Americans ignored what we held to be self-evident and – for the next sixty years – responded to the injustice of slavery with increased violence and exploitation.  No wonder our fears increased.  If the French enslavers in Haiti deserved their fate, what did we deserve?

In many ways, the history of racial relations in America has been a continuation of the vicious cycle that began in the early 1800s. White Americans, knowing what they were doing was evil, continued to oppress black people.  Afraid of the consequences of this evil behavior, they attempted to alleviate their fears by rigidly controlling, intimidating, diminishing, discriminating and – when all else failed – eliminating black people.  All of which increased the guilt and fears of white Americans.  This is the story of American slavery, of the KKK, of Jim Crow laws, of lynching, of the mass incarceration of black men and our present plague of unarmed black people being killed by police officers.  At some deep level, white Americans fear a long delayed retribution.

This is why many police officers feel threatened, but it is also why most of us are fearful and anxious when a black person approaches us, knocks on our door, steps into the elevator or otherwise enters our normally white world. We are afraid of them because they are evidence that we are not who we claim to be, that our highest principles have been fraudulent, that we did not hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  There is no greater fear than having your hypocrisy exposed.

Unfortunately, until white Americans are prepared to fully acknowledge the truth of our history, the depth of the injury we have done to black people and our continued fearful and violent response to the slightest perceived threat, our fears will remain. The only way to truly alleviate our fear is to end the behaviors that make those fears inevitable.

This is why we quake when black women stand before us and call out the names of those who have been killed. This is why we tremble when blacks take to the streets to protest that Black Lives Matter.  This is why we respond to the protestors in Ferguson with police officers in armored cars and riot gear.  It is not because black people are doing us violence.  It is because we know – if black people did – it would be justified.

This is where we are. After hundreds of years of enslavement, brutalization, oppression, discrimination and wanton violence, when a police officer kills an unarmed black person, we justify it as the legitimate response to a perceived threat.  We seldom acknowledge that the perceived threat might not be rooted in the actions of the black person, but rooted in our deepest guilt and fear.  Instead, as we have done for centuries, white Americans continue to blame the black people we brutalize for the fears we have. about them.

In Defense of Identity Politics

In Defense of Identity Politics

Since the election of Donald Trump, scholars and pundits have been debating the causes of his unexpected victory. While the obvious suspects – racism and sexism – get their due, some critics – even in progressive circles – have argued identity politics led to both the election of Trump and the rise of white nationalism.  In a recent article, Anis Shivani, has gone so far as to argue, “Identity politics is in fact the father, or the Great Mother, of white nationalism, rather than white nationalism being an independent force that has arisen from quite different sources.”

Since identity politics is a concept mostly discussed in ivory towers, let me summarize its meaning. Identity politics is usually defined as the formation of political alliances around a particular gender, race, social or religious background. In other words, groups of people organize together based on common characteristics and challenges rather than broad philosophical and political positions. Instead of being for political ideals like economic opportunity, they become focused on economic opportunity for women, or people of color, or the LGBTQ.

In the present debate, Democrats have been criticized for building a party of such alliances – blacks, feminists, Muslims, Latinos, LGBTQ, transgender – and abandoning a broader commitment to justice, equality and economic opportunity FOR ALL. According to this critique, by abandoning these broader commitments, the Democrats betrayed struggling white people who had no option but to turn to Trump for relief.  Or, to state this critique more bluntly, black people and their like are to blame for Trump and white nationalism. They had it coming.

If this seems absurd, remember this is a classic and highly successful trope. If unarmed black men weren’t so threatening, police wouldn’t shoot them.  If women didn’t dress so provocatively, men wouldn’t rape them.  If Muslims didn’t wear scarves and speak Arabic, people wouldn’t be frightened of them. If LGBTQ people would have remained in the closet, people wouldn’t harass them. In this formulation, the normative person – most often defined as white male – is actually the victim of some offense by the non-normative person and a response is justified.  White people had no choice but to vote for Trump.  He was the only one inviting them to the table.

Of course, to argue such nonsense requires a significant rewriting of American history. First, white nationalism did not begin in the 1970s when marginalized people began to create alliances.  White nationalism was enshrined in our constitution when it upheld slavery and claimed black people were 3/5 of a human.  Trump and his like are simply the most recent manifestation of a long history of white supremacy movements.  While they certainly see identity politics as a threat to their power, it is hardly the cause of their existence.

Second, our nation has always been built on identity politics. To suggest identity politics is some kind of new and aberrant development is to completely misunderstand political history. The Republican Party is as committed to identity politics as the Democrats. They have simply aligned themselves most closely with the single identity that has ruled our nation for so long – white men.  The problem is, that where other identity groups are fighting for rights, white identity politics has always been about reserving advantages for white people.

Finally, to argue that Trump was appealing to whites who felt excluded from the political and economic decision tables misunderstands the last fifty years. Until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, only one group of people was allowed at the decision tables – white men.  All other groups either meet in dark closets or organized their own clandestine and informal tables.  Women had auxiliary organizations.  Blacks organized their churches and communities understanding their power ended as soon as they walked into white society.

In 1964, while the laws of the land changed, white men did not. White men continued to defend their seats at the head of decision tables.  Women and people of color were grudgingly offered seats at the foot of the table, where they were last served and seldom heard.  Other marginalized groups – gays, non-Christians, atheists – were allowed at the table as long as they hid their identity.  Gradually, many women and minorities grew frustrated with this tokenism and left the table.  Thus emerged the identity politics of today, where people other than white men organized to seek status, rights and benefits that had been exclusively white and male.

For this reason, it is the height of hypocrisy, for white men to suddenly criticize people sitting at other tables for a lack of unity and for the political tensions today. The problem in America is NOT that white men are being excluded from decision making and forced to align with someone like Trump.  The threat to our democracy is from white men who would prefer a white male autocracy to real democracy.  They loved a democracy that wasn’t, a democracy where only their votes counted.

Identity politics is not to blame for our present divisiveness. It is not an abandonment of our deepest shared values. Indeed, it is precisely the opposite. Identity politics is the recognition that our nation is only truly democratic when every type of American has an equal seat at a round table, that justice, equality and opportunity are not gifts to be bestowed by white men. They are rights to be demanded by all people. Identity politics deeply values one of our most basic beliefs, that all people – not solely white men – deserve equal access and opportunity.

The solution to our present crisis is not to demand identity groups disband and return to broader and more traditional tables. They know what those tables look like and will rightly reject them. Nor is the solution in placating angry and resentful white men.  If anyone is to blame for our present divisions, it is them. They had this coming.  If they truly want people to return to their tables, they must first acknowledge that the system has been rigged by them.  As long as white men play the victim, the truly victimized will not want to sit with them.

If white men truly believe identity politics is counterproductive to our society, they can easily demonstrate this conviction.  Instead of resisting every attempt by marginalized groups to level the playing field, they could make it their mission to eliminate unfair advantages for white people in our political and economic system.  If they truly want justice and economic equality FOR ALL, demonstrate that commitment.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration and its supporters have made is exceedingly evident that this was and is not their desire.  They yearn for a day before other identity groups were organized, when America systemically excluded those who were not white and male.  For this reason, the marginalized must continue to identify their challenges and organize in opposition.  Sadly, for the foreseeable future, identity politics is not a detriment to democracy, but its best hope.