Traitor to My Race: The Abolition of White Privilege (September 4, 2015)
(Also posted in three parts on OpEdNews.Com, September, 2015)
“If it came to fighting, I’d fight for Mississippi against the United States even if it meant going out into the streets and shooting Negroes … I will go on in saying that the Southerners are wrong and their position is untenable.”
So which is it, Bill?
The foregoing is a self-contradictory quote from an interview that William Faulkner, slightly drunk at the time, gave in the middle of the civil rights battle over integration in the early 1960’s. I borrowed the quote from an op-ed article in The New York Times (6/21/15) written by Faulkner scholar Arnold Weinstein. To quote Weinstein himself, “It is this political ambiguity [on Faulkner’s part] that many people today find unfathomable.”
Which is, of course, the reaction of most readers to Harper Lee’s updated version of Scout’s father, Atticus Finch, portrayed in Go Set a Watchman (2015): could the loving, compassionate man depicted by Ms. Lee in To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) be the same racist member of the white Citizens’ Council that a now grown-up Scout encounters on her return home twenty years later?
The simple answer is “Yes, of course.” White supremacism, a term I find more accurate than racism, is bred in the bone. Faulkner and Harper Lee knew that. It’s been the core of the self-identity of all white Americans, particularly white American men, and was codified into law at the dawn of the Republic and the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1788. Remember the Constitution’s three-fifth rule: black slaves were classed as property, worth 3/5 of a white man in determining the population of each state and consequently the number of representatives in the lower House of the Congress to which State was entitled.
Can white Americans overcome this legacy? Can we wake up in the morning without ever questioning the advantages we have over Black Americans because of the accident of our white skins? To illustrate what I mean by this, white skin privilege enables those of us who are white to go to the head of the line – for jobs, schools, opportunity – without asking the permission of, without even acknowledging the presence of, those already in line, particularly if they’re persons of color. Unless we renounce or abolish this privilege, persons of color, principally Blacks, will never fully trust us and a political alliance or collaboration between whites and blacks to achieve mutually beneficial aims will be impossible to construct. Actually, it’s not so much Black mistrust of whites that’s the principle obstacle, but historically the opposite. Even before Reconstruction and the abolition of slavery, whites have feared and mistrusted blacks, the price of maintaining whites’ superordinate status. Accordingly and ever since Reconstruction, whites have viewed progress made by Blacks as a zero sum game, i.e., a threat, accomplished at our expense, and not as a way forward for all Americans. In short, so long as white privilege exists, so will white supremacism. In my estimation, they’re synonymous.
This essay seeks to answer the question posed at the outset of the preceding paragraph: essentially, can white Americans change their fundamental self-identity as the predominant ethnic group in this country? Can we form what Russell Banks terms a creole or mongrel nation comprised of individuals of disparate origins or will we continue to deny their presence and their place alongside us?
A little more history. First, back to the Constitution; which document, the country’s political keystone, explicitly contradicted the Declaration of Independence, which had declaimed that all men were created equal. That clause of the Declaration was a clarion call of freedom, one never before stated openly in a public document. It propelled all thirteen of the American colonies into revolt against the British Empire and underscored its animating ideology. By the end of the 1770’s, Massachusetts had abolished slavery as did New Hampshire’s new state constitution. Even Thomas Jefferson, at the Revolutionary War’s conclusion, raised the possibility of sending freed slaves to settle the Northwest territories ceded to the new United States by Great Britain in the Treaty of Paris of 1783.
The fervor for universal freedom didn’t outlast the decade. The national government of the thirteen new states, bound together by the Articles of Confederation, had no revenues, had no power to tax, had no power to enforce the laws passed by the national Congress. Having rid themselves of an oppressive Imperial government in London, most Americans and the individuals states in which they lived were leery of empowering a strong central government to run the country. The country appeared on the verge of falling apart, with each of the thirteen states going its own way. Then the political deal-making began, led by Hamilton and Madison for the central government faction or Federalists, as they became known, and Patrick Henry and Jefferson representing the Southern plantation owners.
In exchange for their support, the Southerners secured the Federalists’ pledge that the proposed new Constitution and the government it established would guarantee their property rights as slaveowners. The British government had protected their right to own slaves as property in perpetuity and they expected their own government to do no less.
As an added inducement to the anti-Federalist or Republican faction, Hamilton and Madison promised to addend to the Constitution a Bill of Rights to safeguard American citizens from the intrusions of a central government. Key to our discussion, “citizens” were defined as white male property owners twenty-one years old and older. Most importantly, a “citizen” was no longer a “subject” of a monarch or supra-authority, whose status in a hierarchical society determined the rights to which he was entitled. Rather, a “citizen” was entitled to full political and legal participation in his government and larger society. Only he could vote, hold political office, own property and enjoy the rights protected by the Constitution. Minority age males, Native Americans and women could not be citizens. It was not until the ratification of the 14th Amendment, the “equal rights” amendment, in 1868, that citizenship by birthright became law, and the ratification of the 15th Amendment two years later that gave all American men, black or white, property owners or not, the right to vote.
When I was a young man, during and after the height of the Civil Rights movement, I had marveled at the ferocity displayed by white Southerners in denying Black Southerners their civil rights. James McPherson, the Civil War historian helped me gain an understanding of that phenomenon in his book of essays published in 1992, Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution. White male Southerners’ self-identity, he wrote, was rooted in their understanding of citizenship as based on their historical ownership and hence subjugation of Blacks in a hierarchical, even feudal society. To be obliged to accept Blacks as political equals, as citizens, on a more level social field not only galled them but led them to question who they were. What Southerners popularly call their “heritage” and “way of life”, which had gone uninterrupted since Jamestown’s founding in 1607, save for the brief hiatus of post-Civil War Reconstruction, was being severely challenged. Many Southerners must have despaired. Yet, to quote Faulkner again, “When you have plenty of good strong hating you don’t need hope because the hating will be enough to nourish you.” (Absalom, Absalom!, 1936). More on this below.
The Constitution had ensured the political integration of slavery into the country’s fabric; Eli Whitney and the cotton gin he invented in 1793 ensured its economic integration and, with it, the financial well-being of the entire country. Cotton production had been a laborious process that required cotton seeds to be hand-picked from the cotton flower. The cotton gin could do that onerous work in only a fraction of the time. Cotton production boomed as did the slave trade and the number of African slaves imported to plant and pick cotton. By 1820, the South was producing 600,000 bales of cotton annually, which number grew to four million bales in 1850. By 1860, the South was producing 80% of the world’s cotton and had become the principal supplier of cotton to British textile manufacturers. The number of slaves in 1820 had grown to 1.7 million and doubled by 1860. Subsequent to the abolition of the slave trade by the British in 1807 and the prohibition of the importation of slaves by Congress in 1808, the internal slave trade boomed. Historians have estimated that as many as one million slaves were transported over state lines between 1820 and 1860. New York bankers accumulated fortunes trading in cotton and slaves, as did the Rhode Island ship owners whose ships carried them. Cotton and the slaves who picked it became the economic foundation of the country and remained so until 1861 and the onset of the Civil War. In short, cotton gave birth to American capitalism and America’s wealth on the backs of America’s Black slaves.
The Civil War ended King Cotton’s reign and replaced it with full-scale industrialization. The Transcontinental Railroad was built, and the conglomerates that would become U.S. Steel and Standard Oil began to be assembled by the Carnegies, Rockefellers and J.P. Morgans. Freed Blacks, however, despite the ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, which abolished slavery and granted black men full citizenship with all political rights thereto, remained a subjugated people. The “new birth of freedom” foreseen by Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address was betrayed by a renewed alliance of Northern capitalists, Southern plantation owners and their politician surrogates. The short ten years of Reconstruction, when Black men had been free to conduct themselves as citizens, were inexorably obliterated over the next twenty years by the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow and thousands of lynchings of Black men for any and for no good reason.
Blacks left the South in a mass exodus, termed the Great Migration, that began in the first two decades of the 20th Century and continued for the next fifty years, lured by the promise of jobs in the industrial cities of the North – Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, New York – and the opportunity to escape murderous Southern whites. Their continued segregation from whites in the cities to which they migrated was the price they were obliged to pay for the opportunity of living more prosperous lives and raising families in their own communities. Then came the Great Depression, which hit African-Americans hardest and shattered the illusions they had brought North with them. The post-World War II years brought new prosperity and well-paying jobs, but this, too, proved short-lived. By the late 1960’s and into the 70’s, the Midwestern U.S. had turned into an industrial wasteland, the infamous Rust Belt, as thousands of jobs in the auto, steel and heavy manufacturing sectors of the economy disappeared. Blacks were once again hardest hit, although white workers were not spared.
William Julius Wilson, while at the U. of Chicago, documented what occurred in Chicago, particularly in the stockyards and meat-packing industry, in The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy (1987, 2012), and the adverse impact joblessness had on Black communities and families. August Wilson, in his series of nine plays set in Pittsburgh, similarly portrayed the deteriorating expectations and communities of his Black characters, many of whom worked in the steel mills in and around that city, over the course of the 20th Century. Whatever was lost was replaced not by jobs or resources to re-build communities but by increased social and economic marginalization, particularly for those who were poor and had lost everything.
The loss of those thousands of jobs marked the onset of unrelenting joblessness for African-Americans, particularly Black men, that has only increased over the years. In New York State, in 2014, the official unemployment rate for Black men stood at 17.4%, nearly quadruple the rate for white men. In a related survey published that same year, the Community Service Society of New York found that only 51% of all Black men in the State were actually working. Is this a case of increasingly shiftless Black men disinterested in work, as over 40% of whites believed (NY Times survey, 2012), or is it a consequence of what many critics have termed institutionalized racism, i.e., segregated housing, ineffective schools, discrimination in employment, an incarceration rate for Black men five times that of whites, and a free-market economy with a rapacious zeal for profits?
By the time of Reagan’s election in 1980, the liberal state, i.e., a government that saw itself obliged to provide resources to those of its citizens in need, as the Roosevelt governments did during the 1930’s and ‘40’s, was largely discredited. Lyndon Johnson, at the behest of his corporate sponsors and the Texas oilmen to whom he was politically beholden, had traded his Great Society and his War on Poverty for the war in Vietnam. The promise of a Second Reconstruction carried to the conclusion that had been abandoned in 1876, that would bring full citizenship to all persons of color in this country, actually to all poor persons, and that was grounded in the bedrock legislation that the Civil Rights movement had obliged Johnson to push through Congress, had once again been abandoned. So, too, was the possibility of putting a halt to America’s imperialist wars of aggression, of potential benefit to millions. I believe Martin Luther King was murdered because he had publicly made the connection between white supremacism, Viet Nam and U.S. imperialism in a speech he delivered in the Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his death, entitled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time To Break the Silence.”
Nixon followed Johnson as President, pitching his appeals to “the silent majority”, i.e., a white middle class eager to believe in privileged whites and black bogeymen as the causes of the country’s travails; overseeing the “Southern strategy” developed by his campaign consultant Kevin Philips, to induce white Southerners to forsake the Democrats and join the Republican Party; and authorizing the Watergate skullduggery employed by his chief of staff Haldeman to get elected twice. Early in his first term, as Haldeman recorded in a diary entry in 1970 (as published in The NY Times on 5/18/94), Nixon confided to him “that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to. Pointed out that there has never in history been an adequate black nation, and they are the only race of which this is true.”
While continuing U.S. involvement in Viet Nam until 1972, Nixon launched his misnamed War on Drugs, actually his war on Black American men, whose militancy and opposition to his domestic and foreign policies provoked great fear in him. Since I’ve written about these events and those that follow below in great detail in a book of essays that will be published some time next month entitled Nation of Killers — Guns, Violence, White Supremacism: the American Dream Become Delusion (in press), I’ll simply summarize what followed.
Michelle Alexander picks up the story in The New Jim Crow … (2012) and tells us how Black men, along with other persons of color, began to be incarcerated at an astounding rate, most for simple drug possession. At the time of her book’s publication, one in four Black men was under some form of criminal justice supervision – approximately four million men, equivalent to the number of Black slaves in this country at the outbreak of the civil war.
Nixon’s policy of removing Black men from society has had far-reaching and almost inevitable consequences. By October, 2103, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, the U.S. incarceration rate was the highest in the world, with 716 per 100,000 of the country’s residents in jail or prison. Further international comparisons reveal that the United States, which has about 4.4 percent of the world’s population, houses around 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. In 2007, criminal justice corrections, which includes prisons, jails, probation, and parole, had evolved into an industry with $74 billion in annual revenues.
Most indicative of the marginalization of Black men in America has been the killing of unarmed Black men at the hands of police officers throughout the country, compounded by the failure of local district attorneys, in the great majority of these instances, to issue indictments against the police officers who did the killings. In early August of this year, one year after an unarmed Michael Brown was shot to death in Ferguson by a Ferguson police officer against whom no charges were brought, The Washington Post reported that “So far this year, twenty-four unarmed black men have been shot and killed by police – one every nine days” (August 8, 2105). Mainstream and conservative commentators waxed ambiguous as the individual killings mounted, flipping between blaming the victim and holding the police and criminal justice system accountable. So did most white folks.
Charleston appeared to tip the balance and bring about a crisis of conscience for most Americans. First, it was shocking to contemplate a lone white supremacist gunman walking into a prayer meeting at an historic Black church in the heart of Charleston, calmly sitting there after being warmly welcomed, and then shooting and killing the nine Black congregants present, including their Black pastor, a member of the South Carolina state legislature. Even more astounding for Americans, whose response is such circumstances is usually vengeful, were the statements of forgiveness for the gunman by the family members of those whom he had killed. The response was immediate and supportive: the Confederate battle flag, a symbol of resistance and pride for most white Southerners and of slavery and brutality for Black and progressive Americans, was finally removed from the grounds of South Carolina’s capitol building. Rallies and prayer meetings of support and consolation were conducted across the nation. A consensus appeared to be emerging that racism and unfetttered hatred of Black Americans were at the root of the Charleston and even the police shootings.
In short, a nationwide response that promised hope, but, as The Washington Post article above illustrates, offered no guarantee of any lasting change on the part of the white political majority towards their Black countrymen, of an end to white supremacism. Which is what this article presumes to address, since lasting change will involve a change in white Americans’ self-identity, a daunting task and challenge. Given this country’s checkered history with race, it’s likely that this will turn out to be another opportunity lost, and that white supremacism will continue as the ideological root of American imperialism at home and abroad, as well as the bulwark of so-called free market capitalism and the huge inequality in income and opportunity it has produced between the classes.
Black Lives Matter, founded in the aftermath of the murder of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his accused murderer, is taking no chances. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont progressive and Socialist from Brooklyn, my home town, discovered this to his surprise when he was confronted by two women members of BLM who took over the podium and his microphone when he was about to address a campaign rally in Seattle on August 9. White progressives were shocked, myself included – why challenge the one candidate who would seem to be the most sympathetic to their cause? But as I later learned, Bernie, who had been expected to talk about the unwarranted shootings and killings of black men by police, had begun his speech with his usual spiel about income inequality, failing to mention that this phenomenon had most adversely affected poor Black Americans. The BLM women were having none of this and drove Bernie off the stage. The upshot? Bernie is talking to and learning from BLM organizers about the issues that are of principal concern to them. To summarize, from BLM’s website, their national demands:
- “form[ation] of a national policy specifically aimed at redressing the pattern of anti-black law enforcement violence in the U.S. …
- “discontin[uance by the Federal Government of ] its supply of military weaponry to local law enforcement …
- release by “the office of the US attorney general … [of] the names of all officers involved in killing black people within the last five years … so they can be brought to justice …
- “decrease in law enforcement spending … and a reinvestment of that budgeted money into the black communities most devastated by poverty in order to create jobs, housing and schools … “
Good Alinsky-style organizing: confront the principal actors, in this case, all those running for President, and don’t let them off the hook; create conflict and controversy, gain the public’s attention and obtain the moral high ground; promote a public conversation about your demands; secure a place and a voice for yourself and like-minded individuals and organizations in whatever discussion and resolution your actions foment. In short, Joe Hill’s mantra: Don’t mourn, organize!
I was first confronted about my white skin privilege when I was twenty-four years old. (Yes, full disclosure: I’m white, from Brooklyn, and 72.) I had just returned from three years in the Peace Corps in Colombia and was newly enrolled in UCLA’s “grass-roots” community organizing sequence, the first and last time the school offered that course of study. Our C.O group – nine of us plus a faculty advisor – were on a field trip to South Central L.A. and were meeting with Maulana Karenga, a Black nationalist and advocate, who would eventually become Director of Africana Studies at Cal State Long Beach. Years later, Dr. Karenga would also originate and promote the pan-African holiday of Kwanzaa.
Since several of us would be doing field work in L.A.’s Black neighborhoods, the meeting was designed at giving us an overview of issues pertinent to the Black community. Holding no punches, Karenga told eight of the nine of us – one member of our group was a Black male student – that we had benefitted from having white skin. I remember looking at him incredulously and telling him he was totally mistaken: I had been raised on public assistance, gotten all my education via scholarships, and had worked for everything I had. The meeting ended shorty thereafter and I left unconvinced and uncomprehending. However, I never forgot what I had been told and have spent the rest of my life trying to figure out the practical, day-to-day application of that phrase.
My reaction is, I believe, a typical white American reaction. I have also come to appreciate that it is implicity a white supremacist response since, by implication, it means I worked for what I have and you didn’t, which is why you have nothing. It is also a self-deluding and isolative way of understanding material success and failure in this society: white supremacism obliges you to see both as individualized phenomena and to ignore them as systems phenomena dependent on your status in a presumably open and democratic society. In actuality, the higher your and your family’s status in this society — i.e., the greater your and their wealth and access to political and economic power — the greater the likelihood of your material success. Interestingly, the factor of social status has begun to be regarded as a key causative and iterative or self-repeating variable in understanding income equality, but is rarely labeled by economists as systems-determined. Accordingly, while income inequality is regarded as a threat to democracy, its systems-determined etiology is itself rarely considered anti-democratic.
Ultimately, failure to understand material success or failure as systems-determined stands as a huge barrier to addressing the systems at the heart of the problem. Consequently, it prevents political and economic collaboration within and across class and ethnic lines. How often did white Southern workers refuse to unionize because unionization would bring into the workplace on equal footing their black worker counterparts? Unfortunately, they accepted the admonitions of their bosses and anti-unionists that Blacks were inferior workers and would jeopardize rather than help safeguard their jobs.
Back again to the ultimate question of this discussion – how do white Americans discard culturally inbred notions of white supremacy and begin to change their self-identity?
To offer, again, some aspects of my own evolution. Even before I met Dr. Karenga, I had spent my childhood with Black kids. I was raised in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant section, in the late 1940’s and early ‘50’s a neighborhood in transition, with real estate speculators block-busting, frightened Italian families moving out to Bensonhurst, Black families beginning to buy the over-priced housing. It was a tough neighborhood, with lots of Black-white conflict, particularly between us kids. I had my share of fights but I also had friends. I was in similar situations later in life, first in East Los Angeles, where I lived and worked after I got my MSW from UCLA and later, when I moved back to New York City and lived and worked in Sunset Park in Brooklyn. Both were Latino neighborhoods, East L.A. Mexican-American, Sunset Park Puerto Rican and Dominican. Only small enclaves of whites lived there. I was fresh from Colombia, my Spanish was sharp, my love and comfort with people and things Latino high, so my family and I moved in.
I felt very welcome in Sunset Park and made many friends. East LA was different. I found myself in the middle of a political conflict between older Latino leftists and younger, nationalist proponents of La Raza, i.e., political and community organizations devoid of gringos. I had arrived in the barrio when the older guys were the activists. So long as I worked hard and deferred to them, they accepted me and mentored me, introducing me to East L.A., its several neighborhoods and its leaders. I had had a similar experience when I first got to Colombia, when the father of the family I lived with for a year mentored, I might even say adopted, me, as his well-meaning but naïve and ignorant gringo son. I thrived in both situations because the men who helped me, Latino men, wanted my respect and deference not my subservience. They wanted to see me grow and took pride in that. Back in East LA, even though I was good at what I did, the La Raza advocates wanted me out, so I left.
My first Black American mentor was a woman, a professional social worker from Philadelphia, and a pioneer in developing curricula to teach mental health professionals the importance of their own and their clients’ ethnic identities. I eventually led workshops for her on identifying key characteristics of Irish- and Italian-American families. She was also an expert and leading proponent of Intensive Case Management for persons who had been diagnosed as having severe mental illnesses, and was serving as lead consultant to the ICM program that the New York City Department of Health was developing. This was in 1988. I had just been hired by the Hunter College School of Social Work, which had the contract to train the new Intensive Case Managers, to write the training curricula and oversee its implementation. Anita took the job of showing me the ropes, teaching me the in’s and out’s of municipal and state government and how to argue a point without antagonizing the higher-ups in the room. I was a trained community organizer and provocateur and instinctively viewed those in authority as adversaries and barriers to change.
Anita recognized me as an ideal advocate and teacher, but also saw me as the proverbial bull in the china shop. While she was prone to patronizing me, Anita resisted any authoritarian impulses she might have had and patiently taught me – we would de-brief after every meeting with city or state officials we attended; and, after, a time trusted me sufficiently to engage me in in-depth discussions– I was a systems thinker and quick to analyze the power struggles and alliances constantly taking place before us. It took me several years – my views invariably differed from those in positions of authority – but I learned to effectively negotiate systems and situations akin to minefields, a skill which stood me in good stead when I founded and directed a new ICM program for a large New York City non-profit.
It was there that I took the next and perhaps most important step towards discarding my sense of white privilege, of white entitlement – establishing and maintaining an egalitarian workplace with mental health workers, a majority of whom were women of color. My mentors were my staff members, including the supervisors, who taught me that my leadership and teaching skills were appreciated, but my often harsh criticisms of staff when clients were not served as I believed they should be were experienced as insensitive and disheartening. To many of my staff, I was another white man who thought little of them and was too ready to disrespect them.
In 1993, I had become director of the program, which was charged with working with parolees presumed to be seriously mentally ill and with individuals diagnosed with substance abuse disorders. We had a rough few years, but had established an effective program by 1997. Not too long thereafter, the several members of my staff who had been most disappointed by me, filed a complaint of racial insensitivity against me with our HR Department. An investigation essentially corroborated their complaint, and I was obliged to apologize to the entire staff, which I did willingly. I have never had great difficulty in taking responsibility for mistakes and anticipated that an honest apology would clean the slate and allow for a fresh start; which, fortunately, it did. By the time I retired in 2010, I can safely say I was a man who was regarded as pro-staff as well as pro-client; a director who treated everyone fairly, who had my staff members’ backs; who encouraged and supported their efforts to pursue advanced degrees and further their careers. As a good director and mentor should. In short, my staff taught me how to be an effective and caring leader.
I’ve always been a systems outsider, always assessing when and how I should enter that system to effect change. My mother was also an outsider who taught me about equal treatment and social justice for all, who nurtured in my inclination towards empathy. I have never sought mentoring from white men in any system: in my youth, I had to associate with Irish-Catholic men, mostly priests and teachers, whom I found too impatient and too authoritarian. I suppose I was a skeptic from birth. I invariably found persons of color, Latinos and Blacks, more helpful to me and more validating of me. After all, they, too, were outsiders. I guess it takes one to know one. As I trust is apparent, Dr. Karenga’s comment to me about white privilege has had a lasting impact on my life. I’ve sought to understand its meaning for me by examining the impact of white privilege, a polite term for white supremacism, on those most adversely affected by it, persons of color, and have turned to them for help. Their generosity towards me, when I examine it as I do here, is breathtaking, particularly when you consider, to extemporize on Dr. DuBois, that the problem of the color line is a white problem since it was we who drew it.
The lesson here for whites who still bridle at the term white privilege is that they, too, are outsiders, persons with little or no control over the decisions made by those who make them, the eponymous ruling class, the folks whom I refer to as the one-percenters. We’ve been gulled into thinking that we, unlike Black Americans, can readily participate in the wealth that the one percenters continue to accumulate; but the travails suffered by Blacks since Reconstruction that I described above have also been experienced by many white folks, albeit to a less extreme degree. Promises are made and broken; the official white unemployment rate might have dipped under 5% since the Great Recession of 2008, but the new jobs developed by the corporate one percenters are, in the low main, low-paying and dead end. Once you’re over fifty and get laid off, you’re screwed. Our natural allies, dear friends, are our fellow outsiders, persons of color and women. Since white privilege is the myth on which white supremacy rests, we must join with them to abolish it.
If my many words here have impacted you similarly to the few words Dr. Karenga said to me so many years ago, seek opportunities to meet Black Americans in ordinary social situations. We all fear what or whom we don’t know; and our understanding of Black folks usually comes courtesy of corporate-controlled media who are eager to demonize our fellow Black citizens. Remember the several rallies held in Ferguson to memorialize the one year anniversary of the death of Michael Brown – peaceful, save for one incident, seized upon and featured on the front page of The New York Times (August 10, 2015): the alleged and apparently unverified shot fired at police by a bystander. How easy to depict peacefully protesting Black Americans as treacherous thugs.
Broaden your mainstream media options. The Guardian in Great Britain, the newspaper that collaborated with Snowden to break the story of NSA snooping, is a reasonably honest newspaper, not as heavily laden with the burdens imposed by the one-percenters’
corporate interests and the Federal Government’s censorship.
Read the essays and books of literate, informed, even beloved writers who can give you a more nuanced account of white supremacism and its various manifestations. I remember reading, while still in college, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963), the beginning of my education regarding the pain of racism. To quote Baldwin from the book: “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”
More recently, I’ve been reading Ta-Nehisi Coates, who caused a stir with his long essay published in the June, 2014, issue of The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations.” His article’s brief abstract, published just below the title, reads as follows: “Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.” Don’t rely on the rabid response that Fox News propagated among its viewers. Read the honest words of an informed and sincere young Black author who makes a strong case for his proposition. Inform yourself of a Black man’s perspective. On my bookshelf, waiting to be read once I finish this article, is Mr. Coates’s new book, Between the World and Me (2015), written as a letter to his adolescent son wherein he attempts to respond to questions about race he believes his son might even now be grappling with. No, my education isn’t yet complete.
Many of you who are reading this might be familiar with much of what I’ve written. If so, you’re members of the choir. You are also prospective successors to anti-racist white Americans who, in the 1990’s, termed themselves “race traitors” and called for the abolition of white privilege. Accordingly, our collective responsibility is to expose white Americans who might be burdened with a self-defeating understanding of white privilege, persons who are your friends, family members and acquaintances, to the information and analysis detailed here. In exhortation to them and to you, let me quote the final words of Martin Luther King’s 1967 speech at Riverside Church referenced by me above. He was speaking about the war in Viet Nam, but he was addressing the entire country and his words appear applicable here:
“ … If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight…”
To elaborate on the apocryphal words of the iconic Joe Hill, “Don’t mourn, organize” and help build a movement to abolish a privilege that has brought shame and harm to us all.
Allen, Reniqua, “For Black Men, A Permanent Recession, http://america.aljazeera.com/features/2014/10/for-black-men-a-permanentrecession.html, October 9, 2014
Baldwin, James, The Fire Next Time, Vintage International, 1963, 1992.
Black Lives Matter, “National Demands” , http://blacklivesmatter.com
Carney, Jack, Nation of Killers: Guns, Violence, White Supremacism and the American Dream Become Delusion, in press
Coates, Ta-Nehisi, “The Case For Reparations,” The Atlantic, June, 2014
DuVal, Kathleen, Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution, Random House, New York, 2015
Kakutani, Michiko, “Kind Hero of ‘Mockingbird’ Is Cast as Racist in New Book,” The New York Times, July 11, 2015
Kelley, Robin, “The Abolition of Whiteness and Black Freedom Movement,” speech delivered at a conference convened by the editors of Race Traitor: Journal of the New Abolitionism, May, 1997
King, Martin Luther, “Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence,” April 4, 1967, http://www.correntewire.com/mlks_1967_message_imperialist_america_“somehow_madness_must_cease, posted 1/16/2011
The New York Times, “Haldeman Diary Shows Nixon Was Wary of Blacks and Jews,” May 18, 1994
Painter, Nell Irvin, “What is Whiteness?”, The New York Times, June 20, 2015, http://nyti.ms/1BDbShv
Weinstein, Arnold, “Closed Minds, Great Books,” The New York Times, June 21, 2015, http://nyti.ms/1GAODUc
Wilkerson, Isabel, “Our Racial Moment of Truth, The New York Times, July 19, 2015