The Crime of Innocence: White Denial, Black Rebellion and the Cost of American Obliviousness

Though perhaps overused, there are few statements that so thoroughly burrow to the heart of the nation’s racial condition as the following, written fifty-three years ago by James Baldwin:

…this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it…but it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime

Indeed, and in the wake of the Baltimore uprising that began last week after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, they are words worth remembering.

It is bad enough that much of white America sees fit to lecture black people about the proper response to police brutality, economic devastation and perpetual marginality, having ourselves rarely been the targets of any of these. It is bad enough that we deign to instruct black people whose lives we have not lived, whose terrors we have not faced, and whose gauntlets we have not run, about violence; this, even as we enjoy the national bounty over which we currently claim possession solely as a result of violence. I beg to remind you, George Washington was not a practitioner of passive resistance. Neither the early colonists nor the nation’s founders fit within the Gandhian tradition. There were no sit-ins at King George’s palace, no horseback freedom rides to affect change. There were just guns, lots and lots of guns.

We are here because of blood, and mostly that of others; here because of our insatiable and rapacious desire to take by force the land and labor of those others. We are the last people on Earth with a right to ruminate upon the superior morality of peaceful protest. We have never believed in it and rarely practiced it. Rather, we have always taken what we desire, and when denied it we have turned to means utterly genocidal to make it so.

Which is why it always strikes me as precious the way so many white Americans insist (as if preening for a morality contest of some sorts) that “we don’t burn down our own neighborhoods when we get angry.” This, in supposed contrast to black and brown folks who engage in such presumptively self-destructive irrationality as this. On the one hand, it simply isn’t true. We do burn our own communities, we do riot, and for far less valid reasons than any for which persons of color have ever hoisted a brick, a rock, or a bottle.We do so when our teams lose the big game or win the big game; or because of something called Pumpkin Festival; or because veggie burritos cost $10 at Woodstock ’99 and there weren’t enough Porta-Potties by the time of the Limp Bizkit set; or because folks couldn’t get enough beer at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake; or because surfers (natch); or St. Patty’s Day in Albany; or because Penn State fired Joe Paterno; or because it’s a Sunday afternoon in Ames, Iowa; and we do it over and over and over again. Far from mere amateur hooliganism, our riots are indeed violent affairs that have been known to endanger the safety and lives of police, as with the infamous 1998 riot at Washington State University. To wit:

The crowd then attacked the officers from all sides for two hours with rocks, beer bottles, signposts, chairs, and pieces of concrete, allegedly cheering whenever an officer was struck and injured. Twenty-three officers were injured, some suffering concussions and broken bones.

Seventeen years later, one still waits for the avalanche of conservative ruminations regarding the pathologies of whites in Pullman, whose disrespect for authority suggests a larger culture of dysfunction, no doubt taught to them by their rural, corn-fed families and symbolized by the easily recognizable gang attire of Carhartt work coats and backwards baseball caps.

On the other hand, it is undeniably true that when it comes to our political anger and frustration (as contrasted with that brought on by alcohol and athletics) we white folks are pretty good at not torching our own communities. This is mostly because we are too busy eviscerating the communities of others—those against whom our anger is aimed. In Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Panama, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Manila, and on down the line.

When you have the power you can take out your hatreds and frustrations directly upon the bodies of others. This is what we have done, not only in the above mentioned examples but right here at home. The so-called ghetto was created and not accidentally. It was designed as a virtual holding pen—a concentration camp were we to insist upon honest language—within which impoverished persons of color would be contained. It was created by generations of housing discrimination, which limited where its residents could live. It was created by decade after decade of white riots against black people whenever they would move into white neighborhoods. It was created by deindustrialization and the flight of good-paying manufacturing jobs overseas.

And all of that is violence too. It is the kind of violence that the powerful, and only they, can manifest. One needn’t throw a Molotov cocktail through a window when one can knock down the building using a bulldozer or crane operated with public money. One need not loot a store when one can loot the residents of the community as happened in Ferguson—giving out tickets to black folks for minor infractions so as to rack up huge fines and fees, thereby funding city government on the backs of the poor. Zoning laws, eminent domain, redlining, predatory lending, stop-and-frisk: all of these are forms of violence, however much white America fails to understand that. They do violence to the opportunities and dreams of millions, living in neighborhoods most of us have never visited. Indeed, in neighborhoods we consider so God-forsaken that we even have a phone app now to help us avoid them.

As I was saying, it is bad enough that we think it appropriate to admonish persons of color about violence or to say that it “never works”—especially when in fact it does. We are, after all, here, are we not? Living proof that violence works and quite well at that, thank you very much. What is worse, as per Baldwin, is our insistence that we bear no responsibility for the conditions that have brought about the current crisis, and that indeed we need not even know about those conditions. That innocence, as Baldwin expressed it, was the crime, because it betrays a non-chalance that ensures the perpetuation of all the injustices against which those presumed to be uncivilized are rebelling.

White America, as it turns out, has a long and storied tradition of not knowing, and I don’t mean this in the sense of truly blameless ignorance, for this ignorance is nothing if not cultivated by the larger workings of the culture. We have come by this obliviousness honestly, but yet in a way for which we cannot escape culpability. It’s not as if the truth hasn’t been out there all along. It was there in 1965, for instance, when the majority of white Californians responded to the rebellion in the Watts section of Los Angeles by insisting that it was the fault of a “lack of respect for law and order” or the work of “outside agitators,” while only one in five believed it was due to persistent unemployment and the economic conditions of the community. The truth was there, but apparently imperceptible to most whites when we said in the mid-1960s—within mere months of the time that formal apartheid had been lifted with the Civil Rights Act of 1964—that the present situation of black Americans was mostly their own fault, while only one in four thought white racism, past or present or some combination of the two, might be the culprit (1).

Even before the passage of national civil rights laws in the 1960s, whites were convinced there was nothing wrong. In 1962, eighty-five percent of whites said black children had just as good a chance as white children to get a good education in their communities—a claim so self-evidently absurd in retrospect that it calls into question the ability of whites to perceive even the most elemental realities of the country in which they lived. And by 1969, a mere year after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., forty-four percent of whites told a Newsweek/Gallup National Opinion Survey that blacks had a better chance than they did to get a good paying job—two times as many as said they would have a worse chance. In the same poll, eighty percent of whites said blacks had an equal or better chance for a good education than whites did, while only seventeen percent said they would have a worse opportunity (2).

The history of feigned white “innocence” actually goes back quite a ways before that of course. Even in the 1850s, during a period when black bodies were enslaved on forced labor camps known as plantations by the moral equivalent of kidnappers, respected white voices saw no issue worth addressing. Indeed, according to Dr. Samuel Cartwright, a well-respected physician of the 19th century, enslavement was such a benign institution that any black person who tried to escape its loving embrace must clearly be suffering from a mental illness. In this case, Cartwright called it “Drapetomania,” a malady that could be cured by keeping the enslaved in a “child-like state,” and by regularly employing “mild whipping” (3).

In short, most white Americans are like that friend you have, or perhaps relative, who never went to medical school, but went to Google this morning and now feels certain he or she is perfectly qualified to diagnose your every pain and discomfort. As with your friend and the med school to which they never gained entry, most white folks never took classes on the history of racial domination and subordination, but are sure we know more about it than those who actually did—who more than merely taking the class actually lived the subject matter—and whose very lives have depended upon something far greater than a mere pass-fail arrangement. One wonders (or perhaps most don’t and that is the problem) how a person can attain the age of adulthood and be viewed as educated, as remotely competent to engage with their society, to vote, to participate in the lifeblood of American democracy while knowing nothing of the lived experiences of their fellow countrymen and countrywomen?

When white folks ask “why are they so angry, why do they run from police, and why do some among them loot?” we betray no real interest in knowing the answers to those questions—which answers we could have found on the same internet we so often use to bash black people on Twitter—but rather, reveal our own intellectual nakedness, our hatred for truth, our utterly ahistorical understanding of our own society. We query as if history did not happen, because for us it did not.

And so we need know nothing, apparently, about the forces that really destroyed urban America, and long before anyone in Baltimore decided to attack a CVS or a liquor store. For instance, University of Alabama History Professor Raymond Mohl has noted that by the early 1960s, nearly 40,000 housing units per year were being demolished in urban communities (mostly of color) to make way for interstate highway construction, begun under the Eisenhower Administration. Another 40,000 were being knocked down annually as part of so-called urban “renewal,” which facilitated the creation of parking lots, office parks and shopping centers in working class and low-income residential spaces. By the late 1960s, the annual toll would rise to nearly 70,000 houses or apartments destroyed every year for the interstate effort alone. Three-fourths of persons displaced from their homes were black, and a disproportionate share of the rest were Latino (4). Less than ten percent of persons displaced by urban renewal and interstate construction had new single-resident or family housing to go to afterward, as cities rarely built new housing to take the place of that which had been destroyed. Instead, displaced families had to rely on crowded apartments, double up with relatives, or move into run-down public housing projects (5). In all, about one-fifth of all African American housing in the nation was destroyed by the forces of so-called economic development.

Importantly, this displacement of impoverished persons of color was no unintended consequence of the highway program. To the contrary, it was foreseen and accepted as a legitimate cost of progress. In 1965, a congressional committee acknowledged that the highway system was likely to displace a million people before it was finished. But due to racial discrimination in suburban and outlying areas, persons of color displaced had nowhere to turn for housing. Certainly the white developers weren’t thinking of challenging the blatant racism in lending or zoning that was keeping their suburban spaces all-white. In fact, at the same time black and brown housing was being destroyed, millions of white families were procuring government guaranteed loans (through the FHA and VA loan programs) that were almost entirely off-limits to people of color (6). So, ironically, the government was reducing the housing stock for people of color at the same time it was expanding it for whites. In fact, since the interstate program made “white flight” easier and cheaper than ever before, it can even be said that white middle-class housing access was made possible because of the destruction of housing for African American and Latino communities (7).

The destruction of urban residential space prompted citizen protests across the nation, including a substantial movement in Baltimore where the impacts of highway construction, urban renewal and ghettoization were among the most extreme. In fact, opposition to many of the proposed interstate routes forced the government to pass new regulation in the late ’60s, ostensibly ensuring relocation assistance or new housing construction to replace units destroyed: a promise that would go largely unfulfilled in each and every community affected. Given the government’s steadfast refusal to offer relocation assistance in the face of intentional housing stock reduction—indeed the head of Eisenhower’s Office of Economic Advisors admitted relocation help was rejected for being too costly—it can be said that the interstate program operated as a mechanism of racial apartheid and oppression for millions of people

But we can know nothing about any of that and still be called educated.

So too, we need know nothing about the blatant ways in which race-based housing discrimination created the so-called ghetto, in cities like Baltimore and elsewhere. In addition to redlining—a practice that involved banks literally drawing red lines on neighborhood maps, signaling which neighborhoods would be denied mortgage loans, no matter the creditworthiness of individual residents—and discrimination in suburbs limiting where blacks could move, other more intricate methods of economic marginalization were deployed as well. One of the most pernicious was the practice of “contract” home sales, in which black homebuyers were essentially roped into buying their property “on time,” the way you might a television or dishwasher: making payments (at inflated rates of interest), until the entire “loan” (far larger than the actual value of the house) had been paid off. Even one late or missed payment would typically cause the borrower to be considered in default, and the holder of the contract would then take the property back from the borrower, reselling it to some other unlucky customer. Last year in the pages of The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates discussed how such practices created and sustained the ghetto in mid-century Chicago, but make no mistake, the practice was a nationwide one. And whereas whites in the cities—who were rarely conned into these kinds of loans—could leave for more pastoral settings, often using government-guaranteed FHA loans for the purpose, blacks could not. Not only were FHA loans largely off-limits to persons of color during that time, but more to the point, if they left the cities before their contracts were paid off (which could take several decades), they would lose every dollar of equity they had thus far, theoretically, accumulated. In this way, white flight and black entrapment in the poorest neighborhoods were intimately linked. Which is to say that our opportunities, our advancement, our greener pastures and what accumulated property we possess is the flipside of black and brown oppression. They are two sides of one coin, not separate and unrelated historical processes.

But we can know nothing about that and still be thought educated. We can live in the very houses obtained with those government-backed loans that were denied to others based solely on race, or inherit the proceeds from their sale, and still believe ourselves unsullied and unimplicated in the pain of the nation’s black and brown communities.

And surely we need know nothing about the systematic violence experienced by thousands of Baltimore families subjected to lead poisoning in their run-down apartments, many of them with the approval of government-funded medical researchers.

In the 1990s, The Johns Hopkins-affiliated Kennedy Krieger Institute knowingly exposed children and families—most of them black—to potentially dangerous levels of lead, as part of a study to determine the most cost-effective methods for removing lead paint from older buildings in poor neighborhoods. Their research entailed recruiting poor families to move into apartments and houses where three different levels of lead abatement had been utilized (telling them little or nothing about the risks involved) and then observing the lead levels in the children’s blood over time. Although most children saw reductions in the levels of lead in their blood, some of the kids in homes where the less expensive and thorough method of lead abatement had been used were exposed to lead levels high enough to have significant effects on brain development. Rather than simply eliminate the lead entirely, regardless of the cost, or knock down lead-infested buildings and start over again with new and non-toxic housing for Baltimore’s poor, prominent and respected researchers used low-income black families as guinea pigs. That I could reference here Tuskegee and most white folks would have no idea to what I was referring speaks volumes. And no, I won’t hyperlink it. If you have to look it up you have proved my point.

Others in Baltimore, not part of the Kennedy Krieger study, were similarly subjected to lead paint, often without even the pretense of attempted abatement or removal. One such family settled a lawsuit against slumlord Stanley Rochkind in 2010, he having been previously fined $90,000 by the Maryland Department of the Environment, and forced to remove lead paint in nearly 500 rental units he owned in the city. As regards that family for whom the 2010 settlement was obtained, one of the sons in that family, when tested, had levels of lead in his blood that were 2-4 times what the Centers for Disease Control considers cause for concern, and as much as twice what the state of Maryland deems official lead poisoning.

That son’s name? Freddie Gray. Perhaps you’ve heard of him.

May his story—and not just the way he died in the custody of Baltimore police, but also the way in which his life was stolen years earlier by institutional racism, neglect and a vicious class system—never be forgotten.


(1) John David Skrentny, The Ironies of Affirmative Action: Politics, Culture and Justice in America (University of Chicago Press, 1996), 83.

(2) Newsweek/Gallup Organization, National Opinion Survey, August 19, 1969.

(3) Cartwright, Samuel. “Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race,” DeBow’s Review. (Southern and Western States: New Orleans), 1851. Volume XI.

(4) Micaela di Leonardo, “‘Why Can’t They be Like Our Grandparents?’ and Other Racial Fairytales,” in Without Justice For All, Adolph Reed Jr., ed. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1999), 42.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Rudolph Alexander, Jr. Racism, African Americans and Social Justice (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005), 85.

(7) George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness. (Temple University, 1998), 6-7; Jill Quadagno, The Color of Welfare. (Oxford University Press, 1994); Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro, Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality. (NY: Routledge, 1995); Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, American Apartheid. (Harvard University Press, 1993).

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