By Lawrence Ware | @Law_Ware | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)
September 2, 2015.
My uncle blamed everything on
the white man.
Global warming? It was the white man. Drugs
destroying the community? Blame the white man. Football team lost? The white
man was at fault.
Uncle John was the kind of ghetto philosopher
you'd find dropping knowledge in the barbershop while waiting for a chair
to open. He'd probably walked in without an appointment. People would listen
half heartedly, passively allowing the words to wash over them.
Intermittently the listener would mumble an obligatory "that's deep,”
meant to acknowledge the passing of time.
He would talk about the way the white man
invented AIDS as a way to rid the country of homosexuals. He was convinced that
the white man flooded the black community with drugs to undermine the Black
Panthers. He thought billiards was a game invented to teach ‘red, black, and
yellow’ people to accept oppression. (The game ends when the WHITE ball knocks
the BLACK ball off the GREEN table.) He was convinced he was right.
He wasn't wrong.
While my uncle was incorrect in his assessment
that there was a singular white man behind all of these ills, he was right to
think that there was something nefarious afoot. He was neither a trained
philosopher nor an academic historian, but he had good intuitions. He was
unable to name it, but he was talking about white supremacy. bell hooks prefers
the term white supremacy over racism because:
…racism in and of itself did not really allow
for a discourse of colonization and decolonization, the recognition of the
internalized racism within people of color and it was always in a sense keeping
things at the level at which whiteness and white people remained at the center
of the discussion….In my classroom I might say to students that you know that
when we use the term white supremacy it doesn’t just evoke
white people, it evokes a political world that we can all frame ourselves in
White supremacy is not an indictment of any one
person, but, rather, it is an indictment of a system that permeates all of life
in the West. It is as ubiquitous and invisible as the air we breathe—especially
in America. In this country there was a relinquishing of white
ethnic identity during the Civil War. Wealthy
slave owners needed working class European-Americans to be united in their
support of the Confederacy, so whiteness as a homogeneous, ontological racial
identity was emphasized. It worked brilliantly. Even today this conceptual
frame is so strong that many white working class Americans vote against their
political and economic interests in an attempt to combat the encroachment of
black and brown people upon what their white privilege tells them they deserve.
It is because of this white supremacy and white privilege that I understand
why, like Lupe Fiasco, a black person might eschew the notion of patriotism. We
know too much.
How can I be patriotic when at the time of this
country’s founding I would have been considered 3/5ths of a human being? How am
I supposed to get teary eyed when someone sings America the Beautiful with
lynching on my mind? Black people were enslaved longer than we have been free
in this country, and upon our release from that evil institution, many white
people did all they could to institute Slavery By Another Name. Patriotic
Americans intent on keeping freed slaves full of fear founded the KKK.
The American government instituted policies that
economically, educationally, and politically disenfranchised black people.
Then, after the civil rights movement, different policies that were just as
racist, but slightly less overt, were enacted that put us in the position we are
Now, we have Donald Trump gaining support from
Republicans by spewing racist, misogynistic comments and harkening back to an
alleged great time in America’s past…I’m just not sure which great past deed he
wants to revisit. Maybe he wants to reinstitute slavery or revisit
implementing Jim Crow laws in the south. Perhaps he wants to give new blankets
tainted with smallpox to Native Americans. It could be that he wants to throw
new Japanese Americans in internment camps. I’m looking forward to his policy
papers telling us what he has on mind.
If nothing else, this summer has taught black
Americans one thing: there is no refuge.
If you thought you were safe by embracing
respectability and moving to the political right, Trump and his supporters are
reminders of what awaits. Wear the suit. Play the game. Republicans will use
your smiling black face to cover up policies that set the clock back on voting
rights and fair housing. The police will kill your children, and many of your
political allies will donate money ensuring the killers get out on bond.
If you thought you could find safety from racism
by moving to the left, white progressive Democrats have shown us what happens
if you step out of line. Raise your voice, they say. Speak up for
yourself, they declare—but you must do so respectfully. The same progressives
that cried crocodile tears while holding #BlackLivesMatter signs have shown
their true colors by trying to silence black women they feel have stepped out
of line. White progressives that police black political activity are still
operating as agents of white supremacy. On the right and on the left—white
supremacy is still at work. Black America, you are not safe. Your political allies
will not save you.
Uncle John was wrong about a singular white man
intent on disenfranchising black people in America. It is not the ‘white man’
we should be concerned about. White supremacy is the culprit. We must dismantle
any system that refuses to see our humanity. Neither political party will solve
the problems facing black people in America. We must solve them ourselves. It
is time to wake up and #StayWoke.
Lawrence Ware is a
professor of philosophy and diversity coordinator for Oklahoma State
University’s Ethics Center. A frequent contributor to the publication The Democratic Left and
contributing editor of the progressive publication RS: The Religious Left, he has
also been a commentator on race for the HuffPost Live, CNN, and NPR.