Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Why We Must Call White Supremacy By Its Name

For too long, we've discussed American history in grossly irresponsible terms. We hear about America's "race problem" and the need for better "race relations." What we have been slow to grasp is that these terms are euphemisms for White supremacy. In recent decades historians have become increasingly precise, but there remains much work to do within the profession, and it will be a herculean task to get a more accurate and moral presentation to the public at large. To speak of America's "race problem"--as a recent popular documentary on the history channel did--is a little bit like defining World War Two as a "violence problem." A language of the Second World War without Nazis and concentration camps does not equip us to make sense of our past or present.

Such vagueness applied to World War Two is so obviously inadequate that it is absurd on its face. Yet we have indulged similar levels of absurdity in our perception of the American past, and thus, our present. As I look back over my archives, I know I have indulged this absurdity. We have avoided and found ways to talk around the elemental fact of White supremacy in this country. We continue to do so. When we speak of a "race problem," White supremacy is not necessarily implied. Indeed, because of the peculiar dynamics of racial identity and perception in this country, the culpability can flow in precisely the opposite direction. Because many White Americans have little awareness of their own racial identity, and thus of their own particularity, to speak of race is to automatically call Blackness to mind. African Americans are "raced" in a way that Whites simply are not (I argue this subtly distorts academic histories too). As a result, America's "problem with race" is little more than the colorblind racial order's more polite framing of the prior order's "Negro problem." It diverts attention from the core problem and places it on the population that has borne the brunt of that problem. I don't see how we can talk around White supremacy without falling into an ugly tradition of scapegoating and distortion.

To talk through White supremacy, to name it, to watch it grow and change, to study its defenders and opponents, is to value understanding more than fables. It is not about assigning blame. If you're simply an empiricist, it is about being accurate and precise. If you're a Christian, as I am, it is an integral part of following Jesus. How can I die to myself without calling into question the greatest idol this country has ever produced? If I cannot surrender my investment in Whiteness, I am like the rich young ruler who left in despair when he heard the demands Jesus placed on him.

Our ability to discuss White supremacy cuts to the very heart of whether we are willing to know ourselves and our heritage. Yet the contemporary racial order of colorblindness has clouded our minds and made honest conversations in many circles extremely difficult. Colorblindness posits that a vast distance separates our racial past from our racial present. It takes in the centuries-long White supremacist project and seems to see only a sustained run of coincidences. This myopia is sustained, in part, by vague language that elides how power and oppression have operated in American history. We must think more about how our everyday language can unintentionally support colorblindness rather than challenging it.

My intent here is not to document the reality of White supremacy. That is an important discussion, but skeptics have to genuinely want to learn before that conversation can be useful. Rather, I simply want to emphasize that our racial language shapes our racial reality, and we need to be more attentive to it. Moreover, if more of us named White supremacy as a matter of course, perhaps fewer of us would be mired in myth and ignorance. Consistently naming White supremacy instead of talking in general terms about racial problems will be an important part of overthrowing our sinful contemporary racial order.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Police States and Terrorism in American History

The New York Times has a great article today on efforts to chronicle and memorialize the thousands of lynchings that occurred in the South in the 19th and 20th centuries. I only wish the project, and the accompanying map, was nationwide. Oklahoma isn't even included, where hundreds of African Americans were murdered in Tulsa in 1921 when the White section of the city invaded Greenwood and destroyed it. So this compilation is incomplete, but still drives home the scale of the terrorism in a way that many Americans are probably not familiar with.

It is only relatively recently that historians have begun to try to describe these and similar events with the kind of straightforward language that we would apply to them anywhere else in the world. As historians, it is our job to try to historicize just about everything, including nations. So we need not be bound by patriotic untruths. But I don't think this more straightforward accounting of the American past has filtered down to popular understanding. In contemporary reporting from around the world, we are accustomed to hearing phrases like "police state" and "state-sponsored terrorism" and "lawless regions." In fact, such terms usefully describe many times and places in American history.

In part because of the interests of patriotism and nationalism, we tend to have a softened vocabulary about these events that obscures what actually occurred. White Christian terrorists, for example, have killed far more Americans on American soil than Muslim terrorists have. This is viscerally upsetting for many Americans to hear, and understandably so, but that's no reason to lie about it.

The Tulsa massacre mentioned above is a good example. Whites launched an invasion of a whole town, destroying it and rendering thousands homeless, killing probably hundreds. The numbers are hard to pin down, precisely because there were no repercussions for their actions. No one was interested in investigating. No accounting was made. The federal government stood down. The president ignored it. In contemporary terms, if this took place in another country, the news would describe a massacre that occurred in "a lawless tribal region where the authority of the central government is tenuous." But because we have these blatant fictions about how the United States was a place where rule of law really did exist across the color line, we resort to half-truths and obfuscations.

It will be fascinating to see the resistance that emerges as the Equal Justice Initiative seeks to place historical markers in a lot of southern towns that have no physical memory of these events. People who think it's fine to remember the Alamo, Gettysburg, the Holocaust, suddenly opt for amnesia when Black people dare to remember their past. And in that way, the struggles over historical memory become another front in the ongoing battle against White supremacy.