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. 

1 comment:

  1. You have a point, but I will only be comfortable humanizing them when they humanize me; I have not quite made it to Saint level in this game. ;-)