Friday, April 3, 2015

The Spectacle, the Ordinary, and the Stubborn Persistence of White Supremacy

From the 1940s to the 1970s, during the Black freedom movement, Americans grappled with what it meant to live in a White supremacist state. More than at any time before or since, people wrestled with what it meant to live amid a set of laws, institutions, customs, and systems that systematically advantaged Whiteness while systematically disadvantaging Blackness. People responded to it in thousands of different ways. Some among the Black middle class felt they had something invested in this system. Many African Americans joined the protests of these years; others just kept their heads down and pressed on as best they could. A minority of Whites violently resisted the movement. On the other end of the spectrum, a small number of Whites became allies and activists themselves. In the vast middle, millions of Whites went on with their lives much as they had done before. They were no more likely to examine the foundations of their society than we are ours.

So they put a down payment on that first house, not realizing they were getting the subsidized White price for it. They held down that good job, not realizing their Whiteness was one of their key qualifications. They sent their kids to school, not realizing that their Whiteness was, in part, paying for their children's education. They were utterly ordinary. They were not monsters. They lived in a system in which doing right by your kids and being a good neighbor usually meant embracing the wages of Whiteness rather than spurning them. Embracing what society said was your due wreaked existential violence on other human beings. But they didn't know that. They were normal people.

And so the Black freedom movement ran up against an insuperable obstacle. This obstacle was not the dogs and fire hoses and billy clubs that you have in your mind's eye. Sure, the Bull Connor's and Jim Clark's of the world were real enough, but they were not the true problem. In fact, their cartoonish violence played right into the movement's hands, generating sympathy from the nation. But the movement became reliant upon the spectacle, the violence, the iconic images coming out of places like Birmingham and Selma. In the process, many White Americans lost what little chance they might have had of understanding what White supremacy looked like. The Black freedom movement ran headlong into the sheer banality of White supremacy. The mundane ordinariness of it. The challenge the movement faced, and never figured out how to overcome, was simple: how could they get people who cared about this....
White supremacy defended, Birmingham Alabama, 1963.
To also care about this....
White supremacy practiced, Philadelphia, PA.
This is a Home Owner's Loan Corporation community rating map. The HOLC, like the Federal Housing Authority, was a new federal agency created in the 1930s by the New Deal. It made maps like this for every major city in the country. The federal government rated communities on a scale from A to D. Some of the factors considered made apparent sense: age of the housing stock, community infrastructure, etc. But the racial composition of neighborhoods was usually the determinative factor. African American communities, or communities perceived to be at risk of racial transition, invariably received bad ratings. Residents of a community with a D rating had extraordinary difficulty accessing mortgage financing.  Cut off from mainstream financing, African Americans and other minorities faced widespread predatory credit schemes. It was not unusual for Whites of similar status just blocks away to receive FHA mortgages. Through the FHA, the federal government created a new, subsidized, national mortgage market for White Americans that brought cheap mortgages to a broad working and middle class for the first time.

This boring and rather technical story was all but invisible to most White Americans (it still is) and besides, it didn't make for nearly as sexy headlines as dogs attacking peaceful protestors in Birmingham. Millions of Whites were genuinely upset about what they saw on their TV screens emanating from Birmingham, but it only seemed to reinforce their sense that White supremacy was a distant problem, the province of epithet-spewing southern sheriffs and the backward towns they led. White Americans didn't realize that the boring story of how they bought their house was far more damaging to African Americans than a few southern sheriffs and their petty tyranny.

The Black freedom movement could not overcome this disconnect. At the height of the movement in 1963, while Americans reeled in revulsion over the deaths of four little girls in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Gallup continued to report that the overwhelming majority of White Americans said they "might" or would "probably" move if significant numbers of African Americans moved into their neighborhood. Most Whites failed to realize that this quiet, unassuming sense of what their neighborhood should be was more murderous, in the aggregate, than a hundred church bombings could be.

And now I worry that we're doing it again. We can keep up a steady drumbeat of news about police shootings. Every day, or few, if we're granted a reprieve, comes another story of people being killed in circumstances that are questionable at best. But isn't that our generation's version of the spectacle? Isn't that our generation's way of avoiding the more intractable ordinariness of White supremacy? Communities all over the country, including many that pride themselves on their supposed progressivism, deliberately zone themselves to exclude the poor and people of color. In schools all over the country, we make a mockery of the plain text of Brown v. Board, and we brazenly honor the decision as if we still mean it. Black children routinely grow up in concentrated poverty, an experience that is exceptionally rare for any White children.

Don't get me wrong. I want the shootings to end. But they are embedded in a web of institutions and laws and customs that go deep. So we need to imagine more. I imagine a society where my Whiteness is no longer an advantage, and Blackness is no longer suspect. I imagine a society where the image of God is honored in every human being. If that's too utopian for your taste, I will settle for seeing it in the church first. Let's go.

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