Wednesday, December 10, 2014

In America, White Supremacy Hides in Plain Sight

As we protest the systemic racism of the American criminal justice system, we must be conscious of the ideologies that sustain it. We must attack them at their roots. And we must have a positive vision for the changes that need to occur in the systems that shape life opportunities--education, housing, employment, healthcare--long before encounters with the police and justice system occur. Otherwise, I fear, the American state will never gain the capacity to respond to new circumstances and challenges in justice-producing ways. Mass incarceration and the war on drugs have not been, in my view, deliberately racist policies designed to replace the old Jim Crow with the new. They are, rather, a function of the United States' inability to develop policy solutions to pressing challenges without reinscribing White supremacy through those solutions.

As protests continue and, we pray, grow larger, we must come to understand that there is no carceral solution to the consequences of White supremacy. Punitive policies and "law and order" rhetoric will not get us any closer to justice and healing. I fear that many Americans don't realize this.

The sick  brilliance of White supremacy is in its ability to hide in plain sight. We see its shape-shifting work, for example, in the way its most devastating consequences are held up as evidence that it does not exist. You know the drill, the tired litany of complaints: Black illegitimacy, Black family breakdown, Black crime. All of these are framed as functions of Blackness itself, even if presented now in the more respectable  guise of cultural traits rather biological essence. As often as I've heard these complaints, I've yet to find a serious explanation for the certainty with which they're delivered. The basic claim that Black failure produces Black disadvantage is an ideological leap of faith with nothing to support it beyond the a priori assumption that the world works just so. 

This is rooted deep folks. In the decades after the Civil War, White scientists and intellectuals were eagerly speculating about when African Americans would literally die out. Now that they were no longer under the tutelage of slavery, they would obviously revert to a state of savagery. It followed that crime committed by African Americans was not an American social problem; it was just Blackness expressing itself. Meanwhile, sociologists took it for granted that White crime was not White as such, and could readily be alleviated by education and social programs. When we talk about "black on black" crime without any sense of irony or absurdity, we place ourselves in this intellectual tradition.

In the United States of White supremacy, White problems are social, Black problems are racial. It is considered unnecessary to explain or quantify how, precisely, a group that has been systematically plundered and oppressed for hundreds of years could possibly be expected to have the same amount of wealth and educational attainment as the plunderers. As this question is silenced, the fervent faith that there is somehow something wrong with Black people that is not wrong with America rushes in to fill the void.

The family breakdown thesis, in particular, is important for White Americans because it explains Black disadvantage without reference to the larger society, and does so in a way that upholds conservative religious value about the importance of the family. Americans are not wrong to stress the importance of strong families; they are wrong, however, in the application they think it has to this discussion. The family breakdown thesis locates disadvantage and cause alike within the Black community. For it to have any explanatory power at all, then, this view necessarily contrasts the contemporary Black family with a prior era in which the Black family was strong and stable, illegitimacy rates were low, and the norms of the White middle class prevailed. There was no such period. 

The family breakdown thesis gazes at the problems racism has produced, and flippantly turns consequence into cause. The Black family in the United States has always been under tremendous pressure. Emancipation was a boon, and many African Americans desperately searched around the country for their spouses and children that had been separated by enslavers.  But sharecropping in the shadow of Jim Crow, lynching, and convict leasing was a precarious existence for any family. In the twentieth century, as mechanization of agriculture proceeded, the traditional occupation of the vast majority of African Americans was rendered obsolete. They responded as human people do: they moved en masse, eagerly looking for work. For a brief moment they found it in the nation’s burgeoning industrial cities. Yet even as mechanization foreclosed traditional Black agricultural occupations, by the 1960s and 1970s globalization and deindustrialization began to cause a sustained hemorrhaging of industrial jobs, beginning with those at the bottom of the ladder: African Americans.

Dr. King recognized how devastating these changing economic conditions were. In "A Testament of Hope," published posthumously, he wrote:
Before 1964, things were getting better economically for the Negro; but after that year, things began to take a turn for the worse. In particular, automation began to cut into our jobs very badly, and this snuffed out the few sparks of hope the black people had begun to nurture.
The people who stress the importance of strong families should not need much convincing that being shut out of gainful employment makes it hard to sustain stable families.

Whites responded to the influx of Black migrants looking for work and housing with their own mass migration—out of city centers to new, federally subsidized White suburbs. Business and government investment followed the movement of the White population, leaving little to no work for African Americans. Concurrently, federal housing and education programs that excluded African Americans began to build the modern White middle class. Buffeted by discrimination in housing and employment, unequal education, globalization and deindustrialization, discriminatory government programs and poorly designed federal assistance programs, many Black families splintered. Rather than addressing the problem, federal and state governments launched massive punitive operations, building a mass incarceration state that ripped men from their families for petty offenses and exacerbated the persecution of the Black family. By the end of the twentieth century, the Black family had passed through what was, in some ways, the most sustained and multi-pronged assault on it since enslavers had broken up a third of their families by sale the century before. 

This is an extraordinarily brief overview of the story that complainers from afar want to reduce to a tale of Black irresponsibility, with a little "big government welfare" thrown in for good measure.  As we continue to protest, we must fight these simplistic morality tales. We must fight the pervasive assumption that the message Americans of all backgrounds convey to their children in the quiet of their homes--work hard, take responsibility--is somehow an answer to the problem of white supremacy. The moral instruction we instill in our children is no substitute for reform of systems, laws, and institutions.

White supremacy is continually rendered invisible as we glance at the devastation it creates and then resolutely turn away. We change the subject from causes and solutions to scapegoating. American problems become racial problems. Social sins become individual sins. In a lot of ways, Americans hate our own history. We really do. We can't stand it. If we're ever going to become a country that works for all of us, we must gain the courage to look at our history, and this time, not turn away.

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