An Open Letter to White America
Friends, citizens, lend me your ears.
An evil shrouds this great land called America. It lurks behind doors and walks freely in every street and town. It whispers from our textbooks and it stalks us in our dreams. This specter is growing bolder with each passing day, and soon it will try to devour us all. The specter that I speak of is white supremacy, and it is slowly tearing the world apart, piece by piece, town by town, community by community. If nothing changes, I fear this land will once again be consumed by the fires of racial animosity and civil chaos. With every passing day this country moves one step closer to that bleak future. The time for white American to wake up cannot be delayed one moment more.
In his Nov 24 remarks following the Ferguson grand jury’s refusal to indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown, President Obama urged protesters to remain peaceful, noting that “we are a nation built on the rule of law.” But as anyone who has even a marginal knowledge of recent US history knows, the US ignores the rule of law as often as it upholds it, and the rule of law has come to mean for many people simply whatever US politicians or Presidents want it to mean at any given time. Unfortunately this ongoing American myth, besides being false, reflects a deeper problem in the American psyche. The official historical narrative of the US continues to whitewash the role of colonization, occupation, slavery and genocide in the founding of the nation, all of which was done in the guise of the rule of law and the civilizing mission of whites. This tidy narrative of the rule of law also ignores the fact that it took several small wars and a major revolution to found this nation. An honest recounting of our history would acknowledge this is what the “rule of law” has also meant since the founding of the republic–in other words white people using law as a weapon and a tool to get whatever they desired. To suggest the history of the US is otherwise is to continue to erase 500 years of history.
Yet erasing this history is precisely what is still happening today. The vast majority of white folks are in collective denial, whether we care to admit it or not. We deny this ugly past just as we continue to deny its legacy shapes us today. How else can you explain the white public’s embrace of “post-racial politics” while turning a blind eye to attacks on affirmative action and the rolling back of gains by people of color over the past century? How else can you explain TV pundits attacking critics of racism for “race-baiting” or “reverse racism”, while they openly display a complete lack of understanding about how institutional racism and white privilege operate? How else can you explain MSNBC’s Chris Hayes inviting Frank Ancona, head of the Traditionalist American Knights of the KKK (TAK-KKK) in St. Louis, to be a TV guest and “explain” why they were distributing leaflets in Ferguson threatening white supremacist violence against protesters?
For a major TV host (who is white) to not understand why inviting a KKK spokesman in the wake of a shooting of an unarmed black teen by a white cop might be problematic, to put it lightly, underscores the historical amnesia of white folks and the ongoing racial bias and indifference of mainstream white culture. If the point was to “get their side of the story,” why not invite the current leader of the Islamic States of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to explain why they are fighting against Americans in the Middle East and North Africa? I can assure you that Hayes, as well as MSNBC executives, would come up with a reason why that would be impossible. Yet inviting a leading spokesperson of a white supremacist organization to talk about attacking Blacks is ok? It is precisely this double standard, and the ability to impose it, which illustrates how institutionalized white supremacy and privilege continue to operate daily.
If you watch any of the recent news reports from the major networks, Fox, MSNBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, the reports covering events in Ferguson, New York, Cleveland and elsewhere inevitably bear out this truth. Here are just two random examples I ran across from this past week on ABC broadcasts covering events. Notice how the protests are framed, how police are described, and the lack of critical comment on a consistent pattern of police misconduct and abuse.
- ABC News (Dec 6th) “Protests Spread Over lack of Indictment in Eric Garner Death“
“We are now heading into a 4th night of protests over the decision not to indict the white officer whose apparent chokehold is said to have led to the death of an unarmed black man. Tonight reports this was not the first time this officer has been accused of mistreating black suspects.”
- ABC News (Dec 8th) “Samaria Rice Discusses Son’s Death at Hands of Cleveland Police“
“Another night of angry protests from coast to coast, turning violent in California over those grand jury decisions in New York and Ferguson over the weekend…new information comes to light about one of the officers, Timothy Lowman, who resigned from a nearby police department in 2012 after questions about his emotional stability led him to be declared unfit for duty.”
As we have been seeing highlighted the past few months, this denial comes with a huge price paid in blood and fear. Civil rights attorney Connie Rice was on CNN recently talking about exactly this issue. She suggested, based on her extensive interviews with police in California, that the root problem is fear, especially white cops fearing people of color, which in turn leads to a heightened state of fear and anxiety, and with it, an increased likelihood of white police violence against Black bodies, especially Black men. Sadly, this concept is not a new one. Already in 1952, Afro-Carribean writer Franz Fanon, in his book Black Skin, White Masks, referred to this problem as Negro-phobogenesis, where the “Negro is a phobogenic object, a stimulus to anxiety” for whites. Sadly this issue of racialized fear has not improved since his time, and many would argue–and I think rightly so–that in certain regards things have actually gotten worse, at least in the US. Racial injustice may have changed some of its outward appearances, but the deeper and underlying institutional structures of white supremacy and white power remain in place. The growth of civil rights has been dwarfed by the expansion of a massive carceral police state, increasingly racially-segregated neighborhoods, and a growing gap between excellent private and failing public schools. Scholar Michelle Alexander argues we are living in a New Jim Crow era in the US.
Fighting Fear With Action
But the problem is deeper than just denial or fear. Today it seems many whites are not content with simple denial or indifference. Instead, we have come to accept and defend a morally and spiritually corrupt status quo state of affairs. The cost of maintaining this is a widening trail of dead bodies and broken communities across the nation, all of which are getting fed up and beginning to rise up and push back. It’s hard to not see this as a civil war, albeit a one-sided one where poor people of color are overwhelmingly the targets of state-sanctioned violence in the name of white middle class security. I’m not just talking about physical violence of the kind we saw in Ferguson or New York, but also the economic, emotional and spiritual violence that is required to maintain such a system while turning a blind eye to its operations.
As former LA Lakers star turned political commentator Kareem Abdul-Jabbar noted in a recent Time Magazine post, what we should be talking about in Ferguson and elsewhere is racialized class warfare. It is a war being waged with Homeland Security funded APCs and weapons as much as it is by Wall Street dollars and elite controlled media defending and upholding the legitimacy of the status quo.
The middle class has to join the poor and whites have to join African-Americans in mass demonstrations, in ousting corrupt politicians, in boycotting exploitative businesses, in passing legislation that promotes economic equality and opportunity, and in punishing those who gamble with our financial future.
The events in Ferguson, New York and Cleveland are just the latest in a long line of systemic violence legitimated and defended in the name of “law and order” or “homeland security”, as anyone who remembers Nixon’s election platform of “Law and Order” politics can tell you.
The current ideology ruling this country is an economic and racial order that needs dismantled. We live in a society where the laws no longer serve the people, but instead they protect a shrinking class of elites at the expense of everyone else. This is as true for poor Blacks as it is for poor whites, even with their added white racial privileges. If we are serious about making the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Gardner, Tamir Rice and the hundreds of other people of color and poor people who have died at the hands of police brutality more than just another set of names to chant while marching in the streets, or tweeting #blacklivesmatter while we “unfriend” our racist white friends, standing around and hoping someone else will change things won’t cut it. White folks are going to have to give up their power and privilege for good. And for most whites, that scares the shit out of them.
So what do white folks need to do? The first thing is to think seriously about how far we are really willing to go to stop the operations of this system, and whether we are willing to risk our lives, and not just our words, in the fight for justice? This is where it gets really difficult for middle class white America, no matter how progressive we think our politics may be. If we’re not willing to consider the plight of our neighbor as our own, and act to improve it, then what grounds do we have to declare we are part of the solution, rather than part of the problem?
As a student of history, I have learned a few things about how the world works. One of those lessons is that if the status quo is not willing to change voluntarily, it must be forced to change. This force can be internal or external, and sometimes both. It can also be more or less violent, but it will never be peaceful, and it will always disrupt the status quo laws and its associated order. I think the great philosopher and abolitionist Frederick Douglass said it best in his 1857 speech in Canandaigua, New York on the topic of the anniversary of the West Indian Emancipation:
“Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.“
We are faced with a similar choice between fighting for justice or fighting for nothing. When the day comes when we are forced to choose, and make no mistake it is coming, we are all going to have to decide how we will answer that question. Our answer will determine where white Americans truly stands on “freedom and justice for all.” Will we stand up for racial justice and a better world, or will we continue to defend the status quo and fight for injustice and oppression?
It’s a conversation most whites have been putting off for 500 years, but it’s not a question we can put off indefinitely. People are dying while we wait. The sooner we can face that hard conversation, the better.
Until next time…take a look at yourself in the mirror, it’s time to make a change.