Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The Joy that Awaits Us

I delivered a presentation on October 27, 2019, as part of a gathering oriented around the question of how local communities can be more intentional about engaging with and dismantling white supremacy. My reflections were made particularly with those in positions of relative privilege and power in mind, especially other White folk. The following is an excerpt and is lightly edited.

After reflecting on my own upbringing,noting how prevalent and casual racism was in my community in southwest Missouri, as well as how that dynamic fed into a long history of maintaining unjust systems of power and privilege: 
That it took so long for me to access that kind of learning, and that there were no people in my life growing up that both knew it and were willing to share it with me, should be shocking. But it isn’t shocking, it it? Because this kind of ignorance is part of the plan. ... Our history, and our economic power, is built on the bones (and intergenerational trauma) of enslaved Africans, displaced Native Americans, and exploited immigrants. Yet the majority of White people have, at best, remained oblivious to both the history and continued impacts of systemic racism - even while carrying, and passing on, the trauma of white supremacy. This has empowered those in power across all of US history, and not just the Trump administration, to continue on a course of exploiting the weakness of White folk for clinging to a view of the world that is not grounded at all in reality - that is, in the lived experiences of marginalized and oppressed people, especially BIPOC. ( )

The Myth of Reverse Racism

Take, for instance, the different perspectives between Black and White Americans. Michael Dawson, political scientist at the College at the University of Chicago and founding director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture, has studied and written extensively on the enduring gulf in our society. In a 2012 interview, Dawson was asked to comment on how 90% of Blacks, but only 38% of Whites, understood the Hurricane Katrina disaster to reflect racial inequality. He replied, “When I wrote these numbers into statistical equations, class disappears, region disappears, age and gender disappear, and the only thing that remains statistically significant is race. Controlling for all the things that sociologists, economists, and political scientists say you should control for, we find that what drives one's views [most significantly] is race.”

Dawson went on to describe “fundamentally different” ways people were viewing the world. For example, a “large majority of white people thought, as early as 2000, that black people had already achieved racial equality,” while “80 percent of black people” reported that they did not expect to see racial equality in their “lifetime or maybe never in the United States.” Similarly, a survey in the mid-1990s showed that “the majority of whites [… said] that black people had caught up in housing, healthcare, health outcomes, and unemployment,” while the data demonstrated that the opposite was actually true. And a study by the Harvard sociologist Larry Bobo discovered that a small majority of White people thought “that black people were intellectually inferior and a larger majority saying that black people were prone to crime and welfare.”
So on the one hand you have the view that black people had caught up or are doing better than white people overall (in fact, in another survey recorded over the last few months, many whites think they are the most discriminated against) and [on the other hand] there is the feeling that black people are whining [and are actually criminal and dependent on state handouts]. All this while black people are saying that ‘we're behind, that we have a lot of catching up to do, that this society still sorts by race.’ You couldn't have two more firmly different ways of viewing the world.” ( )
Most of the White people I’ve known that hold these kinds of views, though, would insist that this has nothing to do with prejudice and racism. In fact, they are convinced that they are simply standing up for what is right – because they believe that White people are now facing discrimination. In October 2017, NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health released the results of a poll that surveyed 3,453 adults. “More than half of whites — 55 percent — surveyed say that, generally speaking, they believe there is discrimination against white people in America today.” In the words of one of the respondents: “If you apply for a job, they seem to give the blacks the first crack at it, … and, basically, you know, if you want any help from the government, if you're white, you don't get it. If you're black, you get it." ( )

The Wrong Baseline

Just so there is no confusion, I’ll say it plainly: that perception is wrong. Plenty of bad things happen to people who are also White, but that is not the same as the systemic oppression experienced by BIPOC. Unfortunately, systemic racism is alive and well,and White people still receive advantages in the spheres of wealth, education, political power, and the criminal justice system. ( ) So, no, White people are not being oppressed. So why is that so difficult for us White folk to understand?

One of the important dynamics behind this defensiveness is what KimberlĂ© Crenshaw, who coined the term and described the dynamics of “intersectionality” back in 1989, has called “backlash politics.” I often talk about social norms and their importance in working for social change; if I understand her correctly, Crenshaw talks in a similar way about “baselines.” A baseline is the basic standard through which a person experiences and interprets, in this case, equality. And what we have seen in the United States is a collection of sociocultural movements that have trained people – especially White folk – to believe that American society has been a shining example of equality and justice, both historically and presently. As Crenshaw explains, 
“If your baseline is the status quo, if that is fair and just, you’re going to think that diversity, affirmative action, actions that are meant to address that inequality, are preferential and problematic” ( )
This is the reason why you can find people who are in positions of relative privilege and power who sincerely believe they are being wronged, that they are victims of injustice, and that they are standing up for equality when they oppose movements that, from a justice-minded point of view, are obviously good for our society and ourselves. Crenshaw explained that 
“The narratives we see suggest that even the softest, least confrontational, mostly symbolic efforts to address our continuing dimensions of our past have instead amounted to an assault on the dominant race and gender group in the country — those who are straight, cisgender, white and male, who purportedly represent what they call ‘the new pariah class’ … “ (ibid)

Collective Liberation

This is a ridiculous and terrible dilemma, because the result is that you have people – especially straight, cisgender, White men – who are objectively in positions of relative privilege and power, but who feel powerless. Speaking especially to other folks who experience White privilege, our society has trained us to believe that the status quo is just and equal, and that White privilege is earned, rather than the result of oppression and exploitation. And so we can easily experience marginalized communities’ efforts to achieve equality as a threat to the status quo – as, paradoxically, attacks on equality.

An obvious step in getting free from this is to change the baseline. We need, if I dare to use a biblical word, to repent. There’s a lot that needs to go into this, but my modest goal this morning is just to stress this importance of changing the baseline, of shifting the social norms, when it comes to racial justice. Our baseline cannot be the status quo. If our baseline is the way things are or have been, there will always be a reason to be defensive. We cannot cling to a system that is literally built on systemic oppression, and simply add some equality on top. Instead, we need to work from the insight of solidarity, the conviction that our well-being and freedom are linked. As Chris Crass has put it,

“My work isn’t primarily to convince white people that they have white privilege. My work is to awaken the hearts and minds of white people to the reality that white supremacy devours our humanity, and turns us into monsters against communities of color, and that racial justice is key to all getting free.” ( )
This is a baseline that can carry us forward: “that white supremacy devours our humanity, and turns us into monsters against communities of color, and that racial justice is key to all getting free.” This honesty is essential, because the reality is that it is likely impossible for a White person in the United States to not benefit from White supremacy in at least some ways. That I don’t like it, and that I am trying to eradicate it, doesn’t make it less true. Feeling bad about it also doesn’t change it, and thinking that I am the one who can step in and make it all better just falls into “White savior” trap. Our justice movements are not in need of saviors, but rather learners and partners. We move forward with the insight that, as Fannie Lou Hamer famously put it, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” (

Redistribution of Wealth and Power

But what does this mean in our everyday lives? One of the most basic steps that we, especially White folks, should be engaging in, if we are serious about moving from White supremacy to collective liberation, is taking our lead from and supporting racial justice movements led by BIPOC with our time, money, and efforts. So let’s take a glance at one issue that often gets a lot of argument: reparations.

At the heart of reparations is the commitment to repair harm. This can be seen in The Movement for Black Lives’ introduction to their policy positions on this issue:

We demand reparations for past and continuing harms. The government, responsible corporations and other institutions that have profited off of the harm they have inflicted on Black people — from colonialism to slavery through food and housing redlining, mass incarceration, and surveillance — must repair the harm done.” ( )
This is straight forward, and you would think it would elicit widespread support. After all, making things right after harming someone is one the cornerstones of healthy community. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. The most recent poll, from September 2019 by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, asked this question: “Do you think the U.S. federal government should or should not pay reparations for slavery and racial discrimination in this country by making cash payments to the descendants of enslaved people?” 74% of Black respondents said yes, 44% of Hispanic respondents said yes, and only 15% of White respondents said yes. For that matter, only 35% of White respondents believed the government should “officially apologize for the history of slavery in this country,” which is a pretty astounding refusal. ( )

But if we frame this in terms of Crenshaw’s “backlash politics,” we can get a better idea of what is going on. If you are convinced that the status quo is just, there is nothing to apologize for. And if you are convinced the playing field is already level, then reparations would only give the recipients an unfair advantage. As one White respondent put it, 
“None of the black people in America today are under the slavery issue, … . It’s over with. … [Paying reparations] would be unfair to me, … . My ancestors came to this country, worked hard to become Americans and never asked for anything.” ( ) 
 I can't imagine this being accurate in the slightest, but if that’s the kind of baseline that is out there, it’s no surprise that 85% of White respondents opposed reparations.

So what if we change the baseline? What would happen if we actually listen to the leaders of movements working for racial justice? Let’s return to The Movement for Black Lives’ platform. The actual policies they demand are that all Black people will have access to: 
1) universal free education, 
2) “a guaranteed minimum livable income,”
3) “reparations focused on healing ongoing physical and mental trauma, and ensuring our access and control of food sources, housing and land,”
4) education in school curriculum and public monuments that preserve and honor Black history, including the ongoing struggle against racism, and
5) passage of “H.R.40 - Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act.” ( )

The Joy that Awaits Us

This is one practical example of a policy of reparations, and the full platform goes into a lot of detail into what is involved in accomplishing these goals. I, for one, am happily and enthusiastically on board with all of this. Education, a basic income and/or guaranteed employment and a truly living wage, healthcare for all, secure food and housing, inclusive education, and a willingness to honestly engage with mistakes: all of these are simply basic human rights and decency. None of this should be controversial. Our task, in this moment of history, is to work together so that all of it is the normal expectation, the minimum level of human decency, and an essential step in our ongoing commitment to creating a society that is truly healthy, compassionate, equal, and just.

If it were easy, we would have already accomplished it. We have hard work to do. “Imperialist, capitalist, white supremacist patriarchy,” as bell hooks has helpfully named it, exploits racial and other divides in order to perpetuate terrible injustices that make life worse for all but the very few. The system was designed to profit from oppression and exploitation, but it requires the complicity of the masses to maintain its power. The powers that be are counting on our willingness to accept our own level of oppression in exchange for certain privileges and conveniences, and at the cost of the suffering of others.

But we can say no to the way things are, and we can say yes to the way things could be, to making the changes in our lives, communities, and government policies that finally embody solidarity, justice, equality, and love. Any discomfort we may feel, any risks we may take to oppose and replace it, are nothing compared to the suffering we have been content to let BIPOC absorb for centuries. We need to act out of commitment to the freedom, well-being, and joy that await us all when we live in truly just and equitable communities. It is our anger and grief at the terrors of racial injustice, it is our growing love for one another as interdependent members of the human community, and it is our shared vision for another way, that will see us through. That’s the baseline.

Because “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”