In addition to physical force, Dictionary.com defines violence as “an unjust or unwarranted exertion of force or power, as against rights or laws.” When black people carry “Stop killing us” signs, Kelley recently explained, they are demanding an end not only to police violence, but also “the violence of poverty, the violence of a health care system that has continued to ignore our health care crises and to reproduce inequality, the violence of dilapidated housing, the violence of economic strangulation.” This systemic violence acts as a chokehold on black lives, its effects documented in a wide range of indicators from higher rates of diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease, to higher maternal mortality, to higher death rates from asthma.
The latest data on the coronavirus show black and latinx people three times more likely to contract it and almost twice as likely to die from it. Black people get sick at younger ages, have more severe illnesses, and age more rapidly than whites, a phenomenon scientists call the “weathering effect,” due to the cumulative stress of being black in a racist society. Compounding the devastating consequences of mass incarceration on black men and their families, these conditions constitute an unjust and unwarranted exertion of power against their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and make a mockery of any claim to equality.
Americans of all races suffer under the current system
Despite the advantages white people enjoy courtesy of pale skin, we too are harmed in a racist society. Racism deforms and diminishes us all. We fail to be fully human until we open our hearts to the suffering of others. When our privilege depends on other people’s pain, we become constricted, warped versions of ourselves.
Teaching a class of white third-graders the day after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Elliott gave them a memorable lesson on racism by dividing them into groups according to eye color. On the first day, students with blue eyes were deemed superior, smarter and more deserving; they received extra recess and lunch time as well as exclusive access to the water fountain, while the brown-eyed children had to wear collars and drink from cups.
Children who had played happily together were instantly at odds. Children who had been sweet and cooperative, inflated by their privilege, became tribalistic little beasts, nastily insulting those designated as inferior, who performed much worse in class and became despondent. The next day the roles were reversed. Elliott continued this lesson for several years, believing that the children learned to see prejudice as baseless and arbitrary and, after their time cast as inferior, to feel empathy for those subject to it.
In response to criticism from parents, Elliott said, “We are worried about white children who experience a couple of hours of made-up racism for one day when children of color experience real racism every day of their lives. Why is no one outraged about that?”
In addition to the psychological damage wrought by the pathology of predatory racial capitalism, millions of white people suffer materially as well. The US’s majority-white population experiences high rates of poverty and other adverse conditions, such as lack of health insurance and unaffordable care. Though more than twice the percentage of blacks live in poverty than whites, in absolute numbers, far more whites fall below the poverty line.
In Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton analyze an unprecedented trend in developed nations, the rise in deaths among white people aged 45-54 in the US, notably white men without a college degree. The authors conclude that American capitalism is failing blue-collar men, who are – via drug overdoses, drink-induced liver disease and suicide – dying of despair.
In From #Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor observes that “there are 400 billionaires in the United States and 45 million people living in poverty. These are not parallel facts; they are intersecting facts. There are 400 American billionaires because there are 45 million people living in poverty. Profit comes at the expense of the living wage.”
During the pandemic, many of the people living in poverty have been deemed “essential workers,” but this label does nothing to guarantee that they earn a living wage or have access to health care, though they risk their lives continuing to supply and deliver provisions to the wealthy sheltering safely at home. As 27 million people lost their health insurance, health care industry CEOs paid themselves $2.4 billion. The federal government issued trillion-plus dollar bailouts for corporations, granted the legal rights of personhood, while failing to provide adequately for many citizens, actual people whose rights often amount to little more than labels. A New York Times headline on July 4 read, “European Workers Draw Paychecks. American Workers Scrounge for Food.”
This is economic violence, in which race and class have long been interlinked. Speaking to impoverished black sanitation workers on strike, Martin Luther King Jr. said: “Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality….What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?” Recently Jamelle Bouie wrote of these workers: “Their oppression as black Americans and subjugation as workers were tied together. Unraveling one could not be accomplished without unraveling the other.”
A decades-long process of redistribution from the 99% to the 1% has left American workers of all races with a tattered safety net, stagnant wages, fewer rights, weaker unions, and often inaccessible health care. “George Floyd’s alleged offense was passing a fake $20 bill at a convenience store,” wrote Chris Lebron. “Corporate barons rob the American people daily to the tune of millions, but it was Floyd who got a knee to the neck.” These are not parallel facts; they are intersecting facts. Corporations get away with murder, figurative and literal (see so-called externalities) because ordinary people lack the power to stop them.
The police, purportedly protecting and serving the populace, actually protect capital. In other words, inequality is not only an economic issue. One significant reason the US lags behind other nations in life expectancy and GDP per capita, David Leonhardt and Yaryna Serkez write in the New York Times, “is a lack of political power among the bulk of the population.” In our money-fueled politics, greater wealth equals greater power.
Political and economic power are more concentrated now than since the 1920s. Economic justice will require lifting people of all races out of poverty, and, crucially, the reduction of the wealth gap between black and white, itself a form of violence, an unjust exertion of power to deny black people equal opportunity. The average black family with children has just one cent of wealth for every dollar held by the average white family with children. Though some point to black celebrities as evidence of progress, in fact the magnitude of the racial wealth gap widens as black people earn more income.
But economic justice will remain out of reach until poor and working people develop interracial solidarity as a foundation for political power. The white elite has long fomented racial antagonism among working people in order to maintain power. “The purpose of racism is to control the behavior of white people, not black people. For blacks, guns and tanks are sufficient,” said the late Otis Madison, who was a black studies scholar at the University of California, Santa Barbara. White male members of the working class will continue to struggle with poverty and despair unless they see how racism keeps them divided and disempowered – and join their black, latinx, female, and immigrant peers in recognition of their shared fate.
Reality has rudely awakened those who were lulled into an Obama-era dream of a post-racial society, but many Americans have not yet emerged from the fantasy of unfettered social mobility in which we have cast off class hierarchy. In fact, we have quite low levels of social mobility, and much to learn from a class analysis. Blacks comprise a disproportionate percentage of the prison population not only because of their skin color, but also because they are disproportionately poor. The poor are most likely to be policed, arrested, and incarcerated. Because poor blacks are overpoliced, their mass incarceration is overdetermined in our racialized class structure.
A feature of systemic economic oppression, systemic racism will be eradicated only when we reduce the class divide and redistribute political and economic power from the 1% to the 99%. Not by burning down cities, but by taking down barriers to well-being, from redlines to individualism run amok, building better schools instead of barbaric prisons, creating an inclusive, participatory democracy that would preclude the violence – police and plutocrat – of the current system.
American violence abroad and at home are of a piece
This is a tall order, to be sure. American violence, though disproportionately inflicted on blacks and other people of color, permeates all of society. We have more guns per capita and more mass shootings than any other country. We consistently rank among the most militarized nations in the world, along with Israel, Russia, and North Korea.
According to the 2020 Global Peace Index, produced by the nonpartisan Institute for Economics and Peace, the United States is less peaceful than 120 of 163 countries, falling between Azerbaijan and Burkina Faso, far below such places as Haiti, Sierra Leone, and Cuba, and even further from European allies most Americans consider our closest societal peers. In many years the United States has received the worst possible score on indicators such as incarceration rates, external conflicts, and arms exports.
Our domestic and international violence are of a piece, racial injustice at home intertwined with imperialism abroad. Just as police expenditures exceed those for social services in cities across the county, the defense department budget is more than ten times that of the state department, a reflection of the primacy of militarism in US foreign policy. These are not parallel facts; they are intersecting facts. As if further evidence were needed, excess military hardware is routinely used by police.
Regarding the vaunted “American dream,” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor observes, “This mythology is not benign. It serves as the United States’ self-declared invitation to intervene militarily and economically around the globe.” We inhabit the land of the free white supremacist, free to exploit and extract all of Earth’s bounty. The same system that oppresses black Americans sends drones to kill Yemenis, Somalis, and others, sells fighter jets and bombs to tyrants in the Middle East and elsewhere, and separates children from their parents at our Southern border. Police brutality in Minneapolis is a domestic manifestation of the international military-industrial complex.
In 1953 President Eisenhower, a five-star general and a Republican, declared: “every gun that is made, every warship launched” is “theft from those who hunger and are not fed—those who are cold and are not clothed.” It’s hard to imagine a president today uttering these words and supporting a budget that serves the people on Main Street instead of the profiteers on Wall Street. But we must do more than imagine; we must make it happen. Violence can secure power and squash dissent, but it cannot undergird a just society or enable human flourishing.
A politics of nonviolence means elevating an ethic of care
The alternative to the private despair chronicled in Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism is public solidarity. The current system creates a false sense of scarcity and pits workers against one another. Politicians warn against deficits to justify cutting social programs while the military budget remains bloated beyond reason. Material and ideological conditions push white workers to be racist and all workers to regard each other – rather than the plutocrats – with suspicion. Raising awareness of these dynamics is essential to galvanize the mass action required to move us from divisive violence to unifying nonviolence.
“Nonviolence demands that we understand relations to others as constituting who we are. Individualism is based on the denial of that relationality. If we impose regional, national, religious, racial, gendered limits on the relations by which we are defined, we adhere to group identifications that reproduce the exclusionary logic that nonviolence opposes. It has to be the stranger—the one I have never known, the one who lives at a great distance from where I live, who speaks another language I do not know—to whom I have an ethical obligation. An understanding of global interdependency, manifest now in acute forms in the pandemic world, brings to the fore these kinds of global obligations,” Judith Butler told The Nation, concluding that “an ethics and politics of nonviolence must be global in character.”
We must move from an ideology of individual insufficiency, where no amount of money is enough, competition is compulsory, and our acquisitive impulse is in perpetual overdrive, to a culture of shared abundance, where our conception of a good life is defined not by the size of our bank account but by the richness of our social bonds, the robustness of our compassion, our sense of belonging, purpose, and fulfillment.
In other words, we need what the philosopher Martin Hagglund calls a revaluation of value. The pandemic has laid bare all the ways our society devalues care, epitomized by nurses in garbage bags for lack of personal protective equipment – in telling contrast to the high-tech full-body armor of the military and police. We habitually treat the labor of care like garbage; the mostly women who perform home care, for example, are low-paid, low-status workers, many living in poverty. Teachers, to whom we entrust the education of our children, frequently struggle to make ends meet, as do childcare workers.
Our violent system of exploitation for profit depends on the devaluation of care — for people, for other species, and for the planet. Racism depends on dehumanization to justify violence to create and control labor. Maximization of profit depends on minimizing the cost of labor. The endless extraction of natural resources to produce commodities is a form of violence against the Earth. Racial, economic, and environmental injustice are not parallel facts, but intersecting ones. They result from treating people and places as disposable, of use only to be exploited until they are lifeless. All this is antithetical to care.
Even the pandemic may be the result of our lack of care for animals and their habitats. “There is a single species that is responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic – us. As with the climate and biodiversity crises, recent pandemics are a direct consequence of human activity – particularly our global financial and economic systems, based on a limited paradigm that prizes economic growth at any cost,” according to scientists from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, an independent body dedicated to sustainable biodiversity and long-term human well-being. “Rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species have created a ‘perfect storm’ for the spillover of diseases from wildlife to people,” they write.
We humans like to think of ourselves as standing apart from nature, but we belong to it no less than bats and polar bears, redwoods and rainforests. When we do violence to them, we imperil ourselves. When we treat them with care, which we can also call love, we enhance our own prospects.
A declaration of interdependence
As a Eurasian, I can endorse King’s claim that only love can drive out hate, but I have no right to insist that black people employ love to seek equality when we have them in a chokehold. “For people on the receiving end of racism, it’s hard to have to extend grace when you’re experiencing trauma,” the Reverend Leslie Copeland-Tune, the CEO of the National Council of Churches, told me.
Rather than ask more of black people, let’s ask more of ourselves. Let us practice love. Then nonviolence becomes our baseline. If we think of justice as love in the public sphere, there is room for debate as to the precise forms this love might take, but no one can credibly claim that love is manifest in rat-infested housing projects in redlined ghettos, food deserts with underfunded schools, underemployment, and overpolicing. “The safest neighborhoods aren’t the ones with the most prisons and the most police — they’re the ones with the best schools, the cleanest environment, and the most opportunities for young people and working people,” notes the homepage of The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.
Though nonviolent, our love must be fierce and unrelenting. As power is no more likely to concede without a demand than in Frederick Douglass’ day, the 99% must demand not just an end to police brutality but to the system that enables it. More white people must show up in the streets, speak out at work and elsewhere, and mobilize fellow whites to do the same. “There is no neutral ground,” says anti-racist scholar Ibram Kendi. We are either racist or anti-racist. Living as a white person without taking anti-racist action means to be complicit with the systems and policies oppressing black people, in other words, to be racist.
That said, there are shades of white complicity. From the affluent, guilt-ridden Democrat who works harder to befriend her black nanny than for black equality, to the Republican who proudly considers himself colorblind, to MAGA-hatted gunmen protesting the “tyranny” of being asked to wear a mask at Costco, to Stephen Miller. Just as we should try to understand why oppressed people might loot, we need to consider what lies behind white ignorance in order to overcome it, if only because it’s either that or civil war.
If those of us committed to racial equality condescend to our white compatriots, we reinforce their sense of grievance and their determination to stand their well-armed ground. There may be whites unwilling to relinquish their racism, but we won’t know until we try to reach them. Those who deny responsibility for injustice by pointing out that they haven’t enslaved or oppressed anyone, we might ask to consider that black people too were born into a world not of their making.
While white people can’t be blamed for inheriting a racist culture in which people who look like us enjoy unearned privilege at the expense of black lives, we can hold ourselves accountable for allowing it to continue or changing it. To people who doubt that racism permeates our culture, we might ask whether they would want to wake up tomorrow with brown skin. When anti-racist educator Jane Elliott posed this question to a white audience, not a hand went up.
If you’re ready to become anti-racist, listen to and learn from black people, but don’t burden them with your guilt or confession or even questions. Instead, ask whites already committed to anti-racism such as those at Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ). Explore anti-racism resources for white people. To do this work, we have to get uncomfortable, to acknowledge our complicity without retreating into self-involved shame. Let’s embrace this discomfort as growing pain, for only when a critical mass of white people become active anti-racists will we achieve the momentum to make all lives matter equally.
If you are afraid to take a stand, remember that black people have no choice but to face the danger that confronts them in daily life, whether jogging or bird watching or having a barbeque. White parents don’t have to fear for their children when they go out to play or for Skittles; black parents do. White fear of speaking out may be understandable but it is not justifiable. We must not privilege our feelings over black lives.
Rather than tell black people how they should fight for rights we take for granted, let’s start practicing non-violence ourselves. Let’s declare our interdependence and expand our circle of compassion to include all Americans, from the single mother incarcerated because she can’t afford the fee for a broken taillight to the laid-off coal miner unable to support his family to the Karens victimizing as they fear victimization, to all people, and yet further to all sentient beings and all life on earth – what Canadian poet Stephen Collis has termed the biotariat, meaning not only workers, but animals, plants, land, and oceans, i.e., everything employed as a resource for the accumulation of wealth.
Echoing its forebear the proletariat, the biotariat entails the potential for revolutionary transformation. This will require solidarity not just with struggling workers, but also with other species and the Earth’s ecosystem on which we all depend. As we move from denial and indifference to care and revaluation, we must transcend historical divisions between black and white, native and immigrant, human and non-human. If we commit to love as our lodestar, we can realize the world of King’s dream, a society that values life more than property, gratitude more than guns, and compassion more than commodities.
Unless we practice love, we should expect violence. And if we practice love, we will not accept the oppression of others. American apartheid or authentic democracy. It’s up to us.
Pam Spritzer has written and edited for many publications and organizations, including the Huffington Post, the New York Observer, and the Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services.
The Violence of Racial Capitalism Hurts Us All
“Iwould burn down the damn city too,” declares a pregnant white woman’s sign of sympathy for black mothers whose sons have been killed by police, posted online by Occupy Democrats. Well-meaning as this white woman may be, there is no evidence for the implication that grieving black women have resorted to violence. Since Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, the vast majority of protesters have been peaceful, and the violence on display has often involved white people, notably police officers.
Rather than drawing attention to the widespread multiracial solidarity and mutual aid among the marchers, the corporate media have focused on the looting, which they condemn with more conviction than the lethal force that occasioned it. Unlike those who dismiss the demonstrators as “thugs” as soon as a storefront is shattered, at least the sign acknowledges that righteous rage can give rise to violent action.
We should ask ourselves why we deplore damage to commercial assets more readily than the destruction of black life. As historian Robin D.G. Kelley put it in the New York Times, “What kind of society values property over black life?”
An honest look at history reveals this inhumane valuation as a defining feature of the United States from its inception. Since then, in the prioritization of property and profit over black lives, white people have not hesitated to employ violence. Tim Wise comments on the irony of white America admonishing black people about the evils of violence, given that we have secured our privilege and prosperity using violence at every turn, from the founding fathers to the slave patrols to today’s police brutality (to say nothing of the long history of European colonialism).
Instead of casting yet more aspersions on black people, let’s pause to clarify and contextualize what we are saying when we insist on nonviolent resistance to violence.
Instead of casting yet more aspersions on black people, let’s pause to clarify and contextualize what we are saying when we insist on nonviolent resistance to violence. To people on whose necks our knees have been pressing since we dragged them here in chains we are saying, “Do as we say, not as we do.” Many are endorsing “law and order” – aka more police brutality – to stop people from protesting police brutality.
Considering the centuries of whips, nooses, clubs, hoses, guns, and chokeholds, along with the denial of rights and resources routinely granted to white people, it’s remarkable that there hasn’t been more black violence. Why is there no black Dylann Roof or Timothy McVeigh? The black equivalent of boogaloo and other far-right groups? Armed black men storming a statehouse? Among other possibilities, one answer is obvious: The black men not already behind bars or dead know that any such act would be suicide.
Meanwhile, white extremist violence abounds. From James Fields, who killed Heather Heyer with his car in Charlottesville, to Steven Carrillo, who murdered two Santa Cruz County deputies and scrawled the word “boog” and “I became unreasonable” in blood on the hood of a car. “Boog” is short for boogaloo, an anti-government movement that began on the extremist site 4chan and aims to start a second American civil war. “I became unreasonable” pays homage to Marvin Heemeyer, who, seeking revenge in a zoning dispute, bulldozed 13 buildings in Granby, Colorado.
If black people bulldozed buildings after every indignity, we would all be homeless. As Kimberly Jones notes in “How Can We Win,” the viral video in which she explains our history of racial injustice in terms of a rigged game of Monopoly, white people should be grateful that blacks seek only equality and not revenge.
Although gratitude is probably not the prevailing sentiment among whites toward blacks, this is a moment of greater white recognition of the reality of racism, a moment that holds the potential for an overdue reckoning with our past – and awareness of its profound imprint in our present – both necessary for a more humane future. Still, it’s easy to see the sickening wrong in Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, but harder for many white people to see the systemic violence against black people. When we think of violence only as physical aggression, we fail to understand the crucial role of institutional forms of violence in maintaining the status quo.
“The Real Provacateur is White Supremacy”
What Kind of Society Values Property Over Black Lives?
The hackneyed emphasis on “Why loot?” obscures the question, which black people have asked for centuries. By Robin D. G. Kelley, NY Times, June 18, 2020
“Why are they looting?”
It’s asked every time protests against police violence erupt into civil unrest.
We know the answers by now: Poverty, anger, age, rage and a sense of helplessness. For some, it is a form of political violence; for others, destructive opportunism. There appears to be no single motive. That white youth figured prominently among looters during the recent wave of unrest confounds easy explanations.
Often the catalyst is economic — grabbing necessities, stealing goods to sell, snatching luxury items few can afford or retaliating against merchants thought to be exploitative. Looting is theft; it violates the law. But stealing commodities isn’t senseless. Given that we are in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, looting should not surprise anyone.
Let me offer a more productive question instead: What is the effect of obsessing over looting?
It deflects from the core problem that brought people to the streets: The police keep killing us with impunity. Instead, once the burning and looting start, the media often shifts to the futility of “violence” as a legitimate path to justice. Crime becomes the story. Riots, we are told, cause harm by foreclosing constructive solutions. But such rebellions have not only shined a spotlight on American racism; they have also spawned investigations and limited reforms when traditional appeals have failed.
At the same time, looting has also been used as a pretext for expanding the police, which is what happened in Baltimore after the 1968 riots. By branding looters a criminal element in black communities, law enforcement officials could demand bigger budgets. And they were given a boost by President Lyndon Johnson, who increased federal funding for the police as part of his War on Poverty.
“Looter” often means “black,” as we saw in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when a photograph of a white couple “finding” necessities from a grocery store was compared with one of a black man whose search for similar items was deemed “looting.” Rarely do we read about the white people who looted during the Watts rebellion in 1965 and in Detroit in 1967. Indeed, white people, among them far-right provocateurs, have engaged in looting and destruction of property during the current protests; there is ample video evidence from across the country. There are also videos of black organizers asking them to stop because the police will “blame that on us.”
Our country was built on looting — the looting of Indigenous lands and African labor. African-Americans, in fact, have much more experience being looted than looting. The long history of “race riots” in America — in Cincinnati; Philadelphia; Detroit; New York; Memphis; Wilmington, N.C.; Atlanta; New Orleans; Springfield, Ill.; East St. Louis; Chicago; and Tulsa, Okla. — more closely resembled anti-black pogroms than ghetto rebellions. White mobs, often backed by the police, not only looted and burned black homes and businesses but also maimed and killed black people.
Our bodies were loot. The forced extraction of our labor was loot. A system of governance that suppressed our wages, relieved us of property and excluded black people from equal schools and public accommodations is a form of looting. We can speak of the looting of black property through redlining, slum clearance and more recently predatory lending.
Police departments and municipal courts engage in their own form of looting by issuing and collecting excessive fines and fees from vulnerable communities. A 2017 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that “municipalities that rely heavily on revenue from fines and fees have a higher than average percentage of African-American and Latino populations.” And cities rely on tax revenues not only to fund the police but also to pay the ballooning costs to settle police misconduct cases. Chicago shelled out more than $100 million to settle police misconduct suits in 2018 alone.
I found it ironic that the New York Stock Exchange went silent for 8 minutes 46 seconds during George Floyd’s funeral, even though Wall Street has profited from police misconduct. Cities and counties sometimes have to issue bonds to pay out these settlements; banks collect fees for their services and investors earn interest. Some of the beneficiaries of this arrangement include Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs and Bank of America, as well as smaller regional banks.
The hackneyed emphasis on “why loot?” obscures the critical question black people have been asking for centuries: What kind of society values property over black life? Should the theft of sneakers and computers, or shattered windows, graffiti or broken locks become our obsession when black people are being killed before our eyes, when the police are bashing the heads of protesters and tear-gassing people during a viral pandemic that can cause respiratory illness?
Philonise Floyd put it eloquently when he spoke about his brother’s killing before the House Judiciary Committee: “Is that what a black man’s worth? Twenty dollars?” The architects of Black Lives Matter have drilled down on this question since the movement’s inception during the uprisings in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore. As a Black Lives Matter co-founder, Opal Tometi, said in a recent interview: “I just don’t equate the loss of life and the loss of property. I can’t even hold those two in the same regard, and I think for far too long we have seen that happen.” She added, “We are really focused on how to get our demands out and stay focused on the main thing, which is people, and we want to value our love of people over property.”
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. understood the vexed relationship between black people and property. While his phrase that riots are the “language of the unheard” is always trotted out in times like these, he made a more powerful statement in an address to the American Psychological Association about a month after the Detroit rebellion in 1967.
“Alienated from society and knowing that this society cherishes property above people, [the looter] is shocking it by abusing property rights,” he said. The real provocateur of the riots, he argued, was white supremacy. Racism is responsible for the slum conditions that were the breeding grounds of rebellion. He added, “if the violations of law by the white man in the slums over the years were calculated and compared with the lawbreaking of a few days of riots, the hardened criminal would be the white man.”
What to do? Dr. King was unequivocal: full employment and decent housing, paid for by defunding the war in Vietnam.
Robin D. G. Kelley is a professor of American history at U.C.L.A. and the author of “Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination.”
The moralizing has begun.
Those who have rarely been the target of organized police gangsterism are once again lecturing those who have about how best to respond to it.
Be peaceful, they implore, as protesters rise up in Minneapolis and across the country in response to the killing of George Floyd. This, coming from the same people who melted down when Colin Kaepernick took a knee — a decidedly peaceful type of protest. Because apparently, when white folks say, “protest peacefully,” we mean “stop protesting.”
Everything is fine, nothing to see here.
It is telling that much of white America sees fit to lecture black people about the evils of violence, even as we enjoy the national bounty over which we claim possession solely as a result of the same. I beg to remind you, George Washington was not a practitioner of passive resistance. Neither the early colonists nor the nation’s founders fit within the Gandhian tradition. There were no sit-ins at King George’s palace, no horseback freedom rides to affect change. There were just guns, lots and lots of guns.
We are here because of blood, and mostly that of others. We are here because of our insatiable desire to take by force the land and labor of others. We are the last people on Earth with a right to ruminate upon the superior morality of peaceful protest. We have never believed in it and rarely practiced it. Instead, we have always taken what we desire, and when denied it, we have turned to means utterly genocidal to make it so.
Even in the modern era, the notion that we believe in non-violence or have some well-nurtured opposition to rioting is belied by the evidence. Indeed, white folks riot for far less legitimate reasons than those for which African Americans might decide to hoist a brick, a rock, or a bottle.
We have done so in the wake of Final Four games, or because of something called Pumpkin Festival in Keene, New Hampshire. We did it because of $10 veggie burritos at Woodstock ’99, and because there weren’t enough Porta-Potties after the Limp Bizkit set.
We did it when we couldn’t get enough beer at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake, and because Penn State fired Joe Paterno.
We did it because what else do a bunch of Huntington Beach surfers have to do? We did it because a “kegs and eggs” riot sounds like a perfectly legitimate way to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in Albany.
Far from amateur hooliganism, our riots are violent affairs that have been known to endanger the safety and lives of police, as with the infamous 1998 riot at Washington State University. According to a report at the time:
The crowd then attacked the officers from all sides for two hours with rocks, beer bottles, signposts, chairs, and pieces of concrete, allegedly cheering whenever an officer was struck and injured. Twenty-three officers were injured, some suffering concussions and broken bones.
Twenty-two years later, we wait for academics to ruminate about the pathologies of these whites in Pullman, whose culture of dysfunction was taught to them by their rural families and symbolized by the recognizable gang attire of Carhartt work coats and backward baseball caps.
Back to the present: To speak of violence done by black people without uttering so much as a word about the violence done to them is perverse. And by violence, I don’t mean merely that of police brutality. I mean the structural violence that flies under the radar of most white folks but which has created the broader conditions in black communities against which those who live there are now rebelling.
Let us remember, those places to which we refer as “ghettos” were created, and not by the people who live in them. They were designed as holding pens — concentration camps were we to insist upon plain language — within which impoverished persons of color would be contained. Generations of housing discrimination created them, as did decade after decade of white riots against black people whenever they would move into white neighborhoods. They were created by deindustrialization and the flight of good-paying manufacturing jobs overseas.
And all of that is violence too. It is the kind of violence that the powerful, and only they, can manifest. One needn’t throw a Molotov cocktail through a window when one can knock down the building using a bulldozer or crane operated with public money. Zoning laws, redlining, predatory lending, stop-and-frisk: all are violence, however much we fail to understand that.
As I was saying, it is bad enough that we think it appropriate to admonish persons of color about violence or to say that it “never works,” especially when it does. We are, after all, here, which serves as rather convincing proof that violence works quite well. What is worse is our insistence that we bear no responsibility for the conditions that have caused the current crisis and that we need not even know about those conditions. It brings to mind something James Baldwin tried to explain many years ago:
…this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it…but it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.
White America has a long and storied tradition of not knowing, and I don’t mean this in the sense of genuinely blameless ignorance. This ignorance is nothing if not cultivated by the larger workings of the culture. We have come by this obliviousness honestly, but in a way for which we cannot escape culpability. It’s not as if the truth hasn’t been out there all along.
It was there in 1965 when most white Californians responded to the rebellion in the Watts section of Los Angeles by insisting it was the fault of a “lack of respect for law and order” or the work of “outside agitators.”
The truth was there, but invisible to most whites when we told pollsters in the mid-1960s — within mere months of the time that formal apartheid had been lifted with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — that the present situation of black Americans was mostly their own fault. Only one in four thought white racism, past or present, or some combination of the two, might be the culprit.
Even before the passage of civil rights laws in the 1960s, whites thought there was nothing wrong. In 1962, 85 percent of whites told Gallup that black children had just as good a chance as white children to get a good education. By 1969, a mere year after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., 44 percent of whites told a Newsweek/Gallup survey that blacks had a better chance than they did to get a good-paying job. In the same poll, eighty percent of whites said blacks had an equal or better opportunity for a good education than whites did.
Even in the 1850s, during a period when black bodies were enslaved on forced labor camps known as plantations by the moral equivalent of kidnappers, respected white voices saw no issue worth addressing.
According to Dr. Samuel Cartwright, a well-respected physician of the 19th century, enslavement was such a benign institution that any black person who tried to escape its loving embrace must be suffering from mental illness. In this case, Cartwright called it “Drapetomania,” a malady that could be cured by keeping the enslaved in a “child-like state,” and by regularly employing “mild whipping.”
In short, most white Americans are like that friend you have, who never went to medical school, but went to Google this morning and now feels confident he or she is qualified to diagnose your every pain. As with your friend and the med school to which they never gained entry, most white folks never took classes on the history of racial domination and subordination, but are sure we know more about it than those who did. Indeed, we suspect we know more about the subject than those who, more than merely taking the class, actually lived the subject matter.
When white folks ask, “Why are they so angry, and why do some among them loot?” we betray no real interest in knowing the answers to those questions. Instead, we reveal our intellectual nakedness, our disdain for truth, our utterly ahistorical understanding of our society. We query as if history did not happen because, for us, it did not. We needn’t know anything about the forces that have destroyed so many black lives, and long before anyone in Minneapolis decided to attack a liquor store or a police precinct.
For instance, University of Alabama History Professor Raymond Mohl has noted that by the early 1960s, nearly 40,000 housing units per year were being demolished in urban communities (mostly of color) to make way for interstate highways. Another 40,000 were being knocked down annually as part of so-called urban “renewal,” which facilitated the creation of parking lots, office parks, and shopping centers in working-class and low-income residential spaces. By the late 1960s, the annual toll would rise to nearly 70,000 houses or apartments destroyed every year for the interstate effort alone.
Three-fourths of persons displaced from their homes were black, and a disproportionate share of the rest were Latino. Less than ten percent of persons displaced by urban renewal and interstate construction had new single-resident or family housing to go to afterward, as cities rarely built new housing to take the place of that which had been destroyed. Instead, displaced families had to rely on crowded apartments, double up with relatives, or move into run-down public housing projects. In all, about one-fifth of African American housing in the nation was destroyed by the forces of so-called economic development.
And then, at the same time that black and brown housing was being destroyed, millions of white families were procuring government-guaranteed loans (through the FHA and VA loan programs) that were almost entirely off-limits to people of color, and which allowed us to hustle it out to the suburbs where only we were allowed to go. But we can know nothing about any of that and still be called educated. We can live in the very houses obtained with those government-backed loans, denied to others based solely on race, or inherit the proceeds from their sale, and still believe ourselves unsullied and unimplicated in the pain of the nation’s black and brown communities.
As much of the country burns, literally or metaphorically, it is time to face our history. Time to stop asking others to fight for their lives on our terms, and remember that it is their collective jugular vein being compressed. It is their windpipe being crushed. It is their sons and daughters being choked out and shot and beaten and profiled and harassed.
It is their liberty and freedom at stake.
But by all means, white people, please tell us all the one again about how having to wear the mask at Costco is tyranny.
More articles by:TIM WISE
Tim Wise is the author of: White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son, Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White and “Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama.” His latest book is Dispatches From the Race War (City Lights). He can be reached at: email@example.com