Friday, July 24, 2015

"Black Lives Matter." Can You Say It Without Equivocation?

Last weekend, Democratic presidential candidate Martin O'Malley spoke at the progressive Netroot Nations conference. When dozens of Black activists all but took over the meeting, a flustered O'Malley tried to appear sympathetic and speak to their concerns. But he failed to understand the tenor of the moment. His declaration that “Black lives matter. White lives matter. All lives matter,” received a chorus of boos. O'Malley later apologized for his choice of words.

Yesterday, a reporter asked Jeb Bush if O'Malley should have apologized. Clearly exasperated, Bush rolled his eyes and declared, "No, for crying out loud." He went on, "We're so uptight and so politically correct now that we apologize for saying 'lives matter?' Life is precious. It's a gift from God. I frankly think that it's one of the most important values that we have. I know in the political context it's a slogan, I guess. Should he have apologized? No. If he believes that white lives matter, which I hope he does, then he shouldn't have apologized to a group that seemed to disagree with it. Gosh."

The tone of the two candidates (O'Malley contrite, Bush dismissive) reflects the differing political needs of their candidacies. As O'Malley tries to position himself as a viable challenger on Clinton's left, he can't afford to alienate the most significant progressive social movement of our era. In contrast, Bush can afford to be dismissive, knowing that a radical Black left is never going to be part of his coalition. More interesting than these partisan differences in coalition building is the common misunderstandings exhibited by the two candidates when confronted by the starkness of the phrase, "Black Lives Matter."

Had O'Malley possessed a cursory understanding of the movement and the rhetoric that has been deployed to resist it, he would have known that his generalizing statement would be received as an insult. In a vacuum, his words were literally true and unobjectionable. But meaning is always incomplete apart from context. O'Malley failed to read the context. For his part, Bush not only failed to read the context, but twisted the incident into a story of "political correctness." There was political correctness here, but it was in O'Malley's initial statement, not his apology. Bush failed to realize this. He assumed the worst possible interpretation of the phrase, claiming that Black protestors "seemed to disagree" with the idea that "white lives matter."

Let's assume that these candidates exemplify the misunderstandings of millions of ordinary Americans. These misconceptions expose people's prior notions of racism and American society. The controversy over the phrase "Black Lives Matter" is really a distillation of the broader debate between colorblind defenders of the status quo and those of us who want to tear down every form of systemic racism and White advantage. If you came into this past year believing that systemic racism is a real and urgent problem and Whiteness is advantaged in America, the phrase "Black Lives Matter" was intuitively understood. All you hear is an affirmation of human dignity and a positive stand against injustice.  But if you came into this year as a devotee of colorblindness and believe American society is basically fair, "Black Lives Matter" was either baffling or offensive. All you hear is an anachronistic affirmation of race-consciousness, or a statement that is demeaning to other groups.

I embraced the phrase because of its inherent righteousness. As an affirmation of the value of oppressed people, it is a deeply Christian phrase. I will continue to use it on that basis. But it is also useful in this respect: its blunt simplicity exposes people and takes them out of their comfort zones. When an explicitly Black-affirming message in response to anti-Black discrimination makes people uncomfortable, their strong attachment to colorblindness is revealed. (Why should we have a generalized colorblind response to specific racialized oppression?) When people cannot understand the phrase or perceive it as anti-white, they reveal their failure to understand the elementary facts about the structure of their society.

A lot of analogies have been thrown around in social media debates to try to help people who are confused by the phrase. But people are only confused about the phrase because they're confused about America. People who know a little bit about Myanmar would have little trouble understanding what it would mean for a Buddhist to declare, "Muslim Lives Matter." We intuitively understand that as a courageous and life-affirming statement. If an Iraqi Sunni stands up and declares, "Christian Lives Matter," we won't wonder if he still cares about Muslims. If a Rwandan Hutu says "Tutsi Lives Matter," we see reconciliation at work. If any of these oppressed groups themselves stand up and declare that their own lives matter, we do not think they are selfish or hateful toward other groups. In these contexts, we would recognize that an "All Lives Matter" response would range from irrelevant to reactionary.

This is only confusing in the United States because so many White Americans are in denial about the most basic contours of oppression and advantage in our country.  It ought not be hard to understand that people need to say Back Lives Matter for the same reason the civil rights generation had to say, "I am a man" and their children had to say "Black is beautiful." Statements that were banal on their surface became powerful and life affirming in the context of a White supremacist society that didn't acknowledge their truth.

In our America, where a majority of Whites continue to believe blatantly false claims about the supposed fairness of our country, we still need to say "Black Lives Matter." Those who are unwilling to join us are unlikely to be convinced, but at least they can be exposed.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

To Fight White Supremacy, Humanize White Supremacists

This week the Equal Justice Initiative released a compelling video tracing the history of racial oppression in the United States from slavery to mass incarceration. Vox passed it along yesterday with the headline, "Next time someone questions America's history of racism, show them this video." 

Actually, no, please don't. Besides the simplistic interpretations that are likely to give any historian heartburn, the video's artwork conveys a problematic message that is at cross-purposes with the Equal Justice Initiative's goals. (The art is otherwise extraordinary.)

Here are some screenshots from the video:

Black figures are rendered fully human, while most White figures range from cartoonish to animalistic. Ordinary White Americans do not see themselves in these figures, and there's no reason they should. The spoken message of the video (continuities in oppression across time) is completely undercut by the visual message. The images reinforce the essential myth of post-civil rights era America: that there is a vast gulf between the Jim Crow racial order and the colorblind racial order. Popular memory casts the years around 1964 not only as a transformative moment, but as an almost magical disjuncture--a point of rupture so profound that what came before no longer casts a shadow on what came after.

This myth rests on simple morality tales of Black heroes and White villains, as if oppression automatically ennobled Black people and turned White people into sadists. We don't remember the White supremacists who were brilliant thinkers with winsome personalities. In fact, we feel so threatened by history that we assume that last sentence is a contradiction in terms. We'd rather remember Ben Tillman and Bull Connor. It's easier that way; it shows how horrible things used to be and how far we've come.

But if we want to expose continuities in the history of White supremacy, we must dare to render White supremacists as fully human as the people they oppressed. If we don't do this, we implicitly accept the notion that people in the past were inexplicably monstrous. By definition, they become objects of merely academic interest, for we know that we are not monsters.

As long as we think that segregation didn't make sense--that White Americans were uniquely bad or foolish, that Jim Crow was absurd--we haven't understood our past and can't understand our place in the present. Racism has operated in American history less as an irrational prejudice than as a currency to access the hard stuff of houses, schools, health care, power, and money. It makes eminent sense; it is at once utterly ordinary and evil.

It is true that there are heroic and villainous figures in history. That's part of what makes history so compelling. But most of us are not heroic. Most of us are not unusually bad. Yet our popular memory has little room for ordinary people caught up in processes bigger than themselves. As Ta-Nehisi Coates said last week on twitter, focusing on whether ordinary White Confederates owned slaves is a little bit like our descendants asking us if we were oil drillers. Probably not, but we liked our cars. When it comes to the most profound forces shaping our lives, there's rarely an opt-out clause. From the beginning White supremacy has been written into American law. From the Naturalization Act of 1790 to the Dred Scott decision, from the Chinese Exclusion Act to Plessy v. Ferguson, to the Immigration Act of 1924. White supremacy in American history has not been a mysterious accident, nor the result of the nefarious actions of a few malevolent people. Hundreds of millions of ordinary people have tried to function as best they could in a system of White supremacy. For many, that system was as unremarkable as is our stop at the gas station or use of oil-based plastics.

When we speak of the evil of the past, we can do so in a way that implicates us or comforts us. For those who seek justice in the present, the right choice is clear.