More White People Need to Support Black Lives Matter – posted 10/2/2016
As the nation contemplates the latest round of police shootings of Black men, insightful analysis of racism is at a minimum. There is a dishonesty and shallowness in how race issues are typically covered in the United States.
Racism is often superficially defined as some spoken bad words – not institutional structures.
I was struck by this when I saw the recent comments by Governor Mike Pence, the Republican vice-presidential nominee, in reaction to the shootings in Tulsa and Charlotte. Pence felt there should be less focus on institutional racism and institutional bias.
These comments are quite in line with the dominant paradigm of colorblindness. Even though racism is our national plague, we will pretend it is a thing of the past. Understanding is replaced by a desire that we ignore the history of white supremacy and its current outgrowths.
The absence of explicit racism in the law and some genuine progress on race matters allow for the fraudulent argument that there is no more racial harm going on.
Possibly older readers will remember the Kerner Commission report. President Lyndon Johnson established the Kerner Commission to investigate race riots that happened in the 1960’s. The report concluded:
“We have visited the riot cities; we have heard many witnesses…This is our basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal. Segregation and poverty have created …a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans. What white Americans have never fully understood – but what the Negro can never forget – is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it. White institutions maintain it and white society condones it. Social and economic conditions in the riot cities constituted a clear pattern of severe disadvantage for Negroes compared with whites, whether the Negroes lived in the area where the riots took place or outside it.”
While Governor Pence wants to discourage looking more into institutional racism, I would suggest that is key to understanding how racism operates in the United States now. Almost 50 years ago, we produced the Kerner Commission report but then we went on to ignore its findings. At the time Martin Luther King Jr. pronounced the report “a physician’s warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life”.
Although we have an African American president, an important symbolic accomplishment, the legacies of slavery and segregation run deep. Our efforts to eradicate structural racism have been grossly inadequate.
Ghettoes continue to exist in all our major cities. In public education, contrary to the spirit of Brown v Board of Education, we have re-segregated. Black unemployment remains disproportionately high. Unpunished, unjustified killings by police of young black men are all too common and seem almost routine. Since the 1990’s mass incarceration of black people for non-violent drug offenses has been huge. Honest efforts, however flawed, to address racism, like affirmative action, have withered. The racism behind all the items I cited is not accidental. It is systemic and deeply rooted.
Part of the dishonesty around race is the failure to connect current problems to the history of slavery and segregation. There is an underestimation of the impact slavery and segregation still has. As a society, we remain unwilling to look at it honestly. Slavery remains a distant abstraction, disconnected from our present.
After the Civil War, although slavery was outlawed by the13th Amendment to the Constitution, black people continued to face rampant discrimination in employment, housing, health care, and every area of life. This was true in the whole United States, not just the South. The forms of racial oppression changed but racial inequality remained a major fact of life.
When federal troops were removed from the South in 1877, Reconstruction ended and so did hopes for racial justice. Jim Crow ruled. Hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan enforced the dominant white supremacy through lynchings and terror.
After Reconstruction, it was not until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s that white supremacy was massively challenged. I would be wrong not to acknowledge the gains made since the 1960’s but those gains have to be ultimately recognized as very modest.
Coming out of the1960’s there was a recognition that there needed to be enormous infrastructural investment to revive cities. Such a tremendous investment would benefit workers of all races but it had the potential to strike a significant blow against racism. There is no doubt that dismantling ghettoes will not come cheap.
To date, we have refused to make such a public investment. As far as attacking institutional racism, as a society, we have been in retreat since at least the Reagan era.
In our current historical period, Black Lives Matter is an essential social movement expressing the legitimate feelings, needs and aspirations of African Americans. We have all experienced Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott and Laquan McDonald , to name a few. Then there are the non-shooting situations like Eric Garner and Sandra Bland. The reactions of African Americans, expressed in a movement like Black Lives Matter are totally understandable.
To say black lives matter does not mean that white lives are not equally important too. However, because of the history of unjustified killings perpetrated by poorly trained and likely racist law enforcement officers, it is necessary to put emphasis on protecting black lives. The police have an extremely difficult job but that cannot be an excuse for the “shoot first, ask questions later” behavior which is too common.
Those opposed to racial justice have put forward many excuses and explanations for our racial disparities. Usually the explanation blames the victim. Think code words like states’ rights, culture of poverty and personal responsibility. It is tragic that some white working people buy into the fear, ignorance and hate promoted by white nationalists. They are being snookered.
Love of justice is a mighty force. The struggle for equality and against white supremacy is a just struggle. Down through American history there have always been white people who courageously sided with African Americans. Some 19th century names come to mind: William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Lucretia Mott, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Thaddeus Stevens, and Charles Sumner. More recently, Viola Liuzzo, Anne Braden, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.
More white people need to support Black Lives Matter now.