It’s always easier to be thought of as a hero, I suppose. The adulation, the uncritical praise, the unadorned love and devotion of millions must be nice; and especially when you’ve grown rather used to it. In the wake of 9/11 — after which tragic day millions of Americans began donning NYPD caps and shirts — such was the life of police officers in America.
So it must be difficult, being brought back to Earth from that place in the nation’s moral stratosphere to which you had been previously elevated, forced to breathe regular air rather than the rarefied form to which you had grown accustomed. It must be jarring to confront the fact that for millions of others, who never bought the caps or shirts, police are not perceived as their friends or protectors, let alone as heroes. Indeed, for millions of those others, they never were; the image never fit with their lived reality, their own experiences attesting to a very different history: one in which law enforcement was typically the first line of mistreatment and oppression. As memory reminds us and as Jill Nelson’s anthology on past and present police brutality documents in painstaking detail:
Police enforced the infamous Black Codes and every aspect of segregation. They were the ones pulling peaceful protesters off of lunch counter stools, turning vicious dogs on the same, and even murdering civil rights workers who dared stand up for justice.
Police participated openly in the brutal lynching of black men and women as well as community-wide pogroms — white-on-black race riots — throughout the first several decades of the twentieth century.
Police assassinated activists fighting for liberation and black self-determination, including at least twenty-seven members of the Black Panther Party, often with the open collaboration of federal agents.
Sometimes the act of denial is the thing that condemns you. It simply gives away too much, suggesting that it was intended more to convince the one issuing it than the one to whom it was offered. And so, when addicts insist to their interventionists that they haven’t a drug or alcohol problem, we generally know where things are headed. So too, we can tell by the ferocity of the proclamation that the addict isn’t much concerned about whether others believe them. The thing is to reassure oneself. Perhaps it is demanded out of shame or guilt—a glimmer of recognition that indeed one has a problem and really should get help—or perhaps the speaker truly believes it. But whatever the case, it is nothing if not wholly unconvincing.
The same dynamic is readily visible in the case of white Americans who insist that we “haven’t a racist bone in our bodies,” even as we proceed to cut loose with any number of vile and demeaning statements about people of color. As if one can call black culture pathological and defective and yet remain something other than a racist. As if one can insist that “most Mexican immigrants” are rapists and murderers and yet avoid the label “bigot” in the process. Racial stereotypes and generalizations—like black tar heroin to the junkie—remain so ubiquitous as to give the game away, no matter the earnest disclaimers of the prejudiced.
This morning offered yet another glimpse into the Alice-in-Wonderland thinking of such folks, embodied by an e-mail sent from someone who, despite echoing Donald Trump’s exhortations against Latinos and Bill O’Reilly’s claims about the cultural depravity of African Americans, promised me he wasn’t racist.
To wit, his penultimate paragraph (right before the part where he told me to go to hell):
“And just so you know, I’m no racist! I support Ben Carson and would vote for Allen West in a heartbeat!”
Although altogether unoriginal in its proclamation of cross-racial conservative unity, it’s the kind of statement I’ve heard often from white folks on the right: their very own version of “some of my best friends are black.” It’s not unlike the iteration offered by white liberals, to the effect that somehow a vote for Barack Obama proves their own antiracist bonafides.
Amid tension between white progressive supporters of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign and activists from #BlackLivesMatter — the latter of whom have disrupted two of his presentations to highlight racial injustices they feel are often given short shrift by the former — many commentators have weighed in on the simmering beef.
Some in the Sanders camp have blamed #BlackLivesMatter for their tactics and methods, even while claiming to support their larger goals. Others in that camp have engaged in rather blatantly racist dismissals of #BlackLivesMatter, implying that because activists interrupted their hero, the movement for racial justice and an end to brutal policing was all but dead in their eyes.
On the other side, some have pointed out the way in which the disruptions of Sanders’ speeches ultimately moved the needle forward considerably within his own statements and policy pronouncements, elevating racial justice to a place previously untouched within his campaign. Some have suggested that any criticism of #BlackLivesMatter by whites is by definition racist, and that whites who are not facing the disproportionate brunt of police violence have no right to lecture those who are.
As someone whose entire life’s work has been about confronting racism and white supremacy — and its interrelationship to issues of economic injustice across the board — I am intuitively attracted to the #BlackLivesMatter camp and their position here. I know first hand, and even from my own history, how white progressives can and do often subordinate matters of racial justice to concerns about which we are frankly more comfortable speaking: class matters, the environment, or militarism among them. Despite how obviously connected these issues are to matters of racism (or maybe that’s not obvious to some, and perhaps that is the problem), it is indisputable that white leftists and liberals are far too quick, both historically and today, to minimize black and brown concerns about racism. I won’t recount or even try and document that history here, but if you need persuading as to the claim’s veracity, suffice it to say that either you know nothing about the history of the white left — from the labor movement to the antiwar movement to white feminism to the dominant LGBT liberation movement — or you have only been a leftist for about three weeks, or perhaps both. I’ve written about this elsewhere, notably, here, so feel free to take a read if you’re interested.
Having said that, I also understand the frustration of some within the Sanders camp, including folks of color there who feel, rightly or wrongly, that the tactics of some within #BlackLivesMatter might backfire, or split the movement for social justice, within which we need all kinds of folks, focused on all kinds of issues, including the economic inequality ones upon which white activists are often concentrating. I get it. I do. And personally, I too have questions about tactics and strategy (on both sides), and I suspect that as with most things, there is plenty of legitimate feedback and even criticism to go around, for folks on all sides.
But there is one thing about which I am crystal clear: the place to air those concerns, and to have those discussions is not out here, in the wide and very public world of the interwebs. This is one of the things that sticks out most to me about the white leftie backlash to #BlackLivesMatter: precisely because those folks are not involved in BLM or the larger movement for racial justice, they don’t have anyone in their personal circles or activist circles to whom they can turn and have real heart-to-heart discussions about these things. Precisely because white lefties are so often cut off from the struggles being led by people of color, they (we) lack the insights, the narratives, the humility and the opportunities to hash this stuff out as friends and comrades behind closed doors. So instead, they (we) end up doing dirt in public, completely oblivious to the way in which truly reactionary forces and the dominant media will try and take advantage of those disagreements to drive a wedge in our movements.
That is the problem. The issue is not about being white, and therefore “unable” to criticize black people. Jesus, how anyone could believe that in a culture where white critique of black people is a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute pastime is beyond me. Rather the issue is, are you connected enough to black and brown leadership to actually sit in struggle with them, listen to them, learn from them, and then offer your feedback from a place of solidarity, comradeship and love? Because if the answer to that last question is no, then you shouldn’t be surprised when the black and brown peoples you criticize think you’re full of shit. If they haven’t seen your face in their place, working on the issues that they prioritize as if their lives depended on it – because they do — then why in God’s name should they presume your commitment to the cause? On the other hand, if the answer to the question above were yes, my guess is you wouldn’t be losing your mind about what #BlackLivesMatter folks are doing, even if you had some strategic differences with them. You would take that shit to them, because you would be part of them, or because you actually knew them, and you’d work it the hell out.
And if you don’t know where those circles are, within which you could have those discussions productively, then that is the problem. It isn’t that white folks have to agree with everything black people do. Rather, it is this: until we show ourselves to be folks who are down for the eradication of white supremacy as a primary concern (and not something we’ll get to later, after we address the corporate oligarchy or climate change or Wall Street criminality), then we cannot expect to be taken seriously by those whose ability to put matters of racial justice on the back burner is constrained by this thing we call breathing.
My opening comments during the “White in America” panel on SiriuxXM with Karen Hunter. The full program will be available soon, but here is my first statement during the discussion. The conversation took place, June 30th in NYC.
Here’s a fascinating story, indicating the inherently fucked up nature of the company known as Facebook…
So, a few days ago I posted the below commentary on my Facebook friends page and Facebook fan page. It was a relatively sober-minded defense of the struggle for LGBT liberation, and a critique of those who have sought to minimize the importance of that struggle, in comparison to the struggle against racism. For some reason, some idiot complained to Facebook like a little 3-year old, apparently offended by my comments, and claiming that they violated Facebook’s community standards, even though they did not. But some precious little soul can’t stand having their homophobic worldview challenged so they decided to report me to Facebook…sadly, rather than actually reading the “offending” post, FB just believed the word of the precious little pathetic nobody who complained and as a result my ability to post on Facebook was suspended for 24 hours, with no chance for appeal; and my prior post was removed. Here is the post. Judge for yourself how any remotely rational person could believe this post violated any standard of decency.
Here we go, and I’ma lose some folks over this. And I can hardly find even two shits to give…
Lately, I’ve come across many folks on FB and elsewhere, whose race politics are largely impeccable, but whose views on sexism/patriarchy and straight supremacy/heterosexism are retrograde nonsense. They play “oppression olympics” insisting that those fighting for LGBT equality are fighting for lesser important causes, or that until people of color are fully liberated from white supremacy (well, at least black men–not necessarily black women) all others should wait (including, presumably LGBT people of color!) or that since LGBT folks can supposedly “conceal” their identity, they are not really oppressed the way POC are. All of this is puerile, ignorant bullshit, not quite as bad as the views of some that homosexuality is just something foisted upon black people by whites as a way to destroy black men–a view believed by some otherwise educated people despite the fact that homosexuality has been observed in literally hundreds of species, not likely influenced by whitey–but not much better. To this, I have the following to say. Too short for an essay, but perhaps appropriate here. Make of it what you will. I am not interested in debating it, by the way, so don’t bother. I won’t be trolled on this. Trust. Just like I won’t listen to stupidity from white LGBT folk who say things like “Gay is the New Black,” and for the same reasons: ignorance deserves to get smacked down from whatever source.
To those who insist there are fundamental differences between the oppression of people of color, as people of color, under white supremacy and the oppression of LGBT folks, as LGBT folks, under heterosexism/straight supremacy/cis-supremacy, take note: just because two things are not precisely the same does not mean they are not similar enough to both warrant concern and protection. And the claim that LGBT folks can “conceal” their identity and thus have one up on people of color who cannot is putrid: poor people can “cover up” their poverty but they are oppressed under capitalism and deserve to be protected from oppression on that basis. Jews can lie about being Jewish — and many have, through history, so as to protect ourselves from anti-semitism — but that doesn’t mean it isn’t important to challenge that form of bias and prevent it…light skinned black folks could conceal their blackness and “pass” but having to do so was soul murder, and if found out…well, we know what happened. Those who claim that LGBT folks can conceal who they are — and who likely wish they would do this for reasons having to do with the claimants’ own sexual insecurities more than anything else — are engaged in a ridiculous and oppressive conceit, just as monstrous as telling light skinned POC that they could or should conceal their identities. No one should ever have to lie about who they are to make YOU comfortable or to gain full and equal treatment. And if they do anyway, this should not be seen as a privilege or advantage, but a testament to the evil of the society in which they live. The closet is no Get Out of Jail Free card. The closet IS a form of jail, mental if not physical. And yes, it kills. And if you don’t know, now ya know…
Freedom and liberty are all or nothing deals. Anything else is bigotry and cannot be dressed up as anything else. And the dichotomy of “people of color OR LGBT folks” as victims of mistreatment reinforces the notion that LGBT folks are all white, thereby ignoring the dual reality of LGBT folks of color who live with BOTH oppressions, and likely don’t appreciate the idea that their reality can be ranked in terms of some oppression olympics. It’s moments like this in which I wish James Baldwin or Audre Lorde or Bayard Rustin could come back and kick some folks full-on in the ass. Such comparisons are unproductive, and would allow indigenous people to tell black folks to stop complaining, I suppose — which would also be unjust — simply because 98% of the indigenous were wiped out in the Americas, which is a far higher body count than that imposed upon African Americans. But if that argument would offend you (and it certainly offends me) then so too must these comparisons between anti-LGBT oppression and anti-POC oppression be seen as offensive. Oppression must be resisted because it is wrong, and for all reasons and against all persons. Notions of comparative suffering are inherently ridiculous: they would allow segregationists during early Jim Crow to say stupid shit like, “well black folks, count your lucky stars that you aren’t in the Belgian Congo, where King Leopold is killing 10 million blacks–God Bless America,” or telling Japanese Americans to stop complaining about internment camps because they could have been in Tokyo when we firebombed it, or Hiroshima or Nagasaki when we dropped atomic bombs…it’s all just nonsense meant to avoid the fact that the person who says shit like this is seeking to rationalize oppression…
Sometimes racism isn’t about vicious bigotry and hatred towards those with different skin color than your own, let alone a willingness to walk into a church and massacre nine of those others because you think they’re “taking over your country.” Sometimes, racism is manifested in the subtle way a person can dismiss the lived experiences of those racial others as if they were nothing, utterly erasing those experiences, consigning them to the ashbin of history like so much irrelevant refuse. In the last few days, since Dylann Roof’s terrorist rampage in Charleston, we’ve seen some of that on the part of those who steadfastly defend the confederate flag, which Roof dearly loved, from its critics. As the flag has come down in Alabama and is poised for removal from the statehouse grounds in South Carolina, its supporters have insisted that the flag is not a sign of racism, even if the government whose Army deployed it made clear that its only purposes at the time were the protection of slavery and white supremacy.
Those who defend the flag consider the black experience irrelevant, a trifle, hardly worthy of their concern. Who cares if the flag represented a government that sought to consign them to permanent servitude? Who cares if segregationists used that flag as a blatant symbol of racist defiance during the civil rights movement? Remembering the courageous heroics of one’s great-great-great-grandpappy Cooter by waving that flag or seeing it on public property is more important than black people’s lived experience of it. That such dismissiveness is intrinsically racist should be obvious. But what of less blatant examples?
For instance, what are we to make of certain comments by Congressman Louis Gohmert, Senator Ted Cruz and conservative media personality Sean Hannity in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing marriage equality nationwide? While those comments were not about race per se, it is hard to deny that their implicit subtext demonstrates a worldview entirely shaped by a white racial frame, viewed through a white racial lens, and one that takes as its starting point a profound disregard for the lives of persons of color: in short, a worldview that is (whether consciously or not), white supremacist to the core.
My appearance on “To the Point” (KCRW/Public Radio International), June 24, 2015 to discuss racism in America in the wake of the Charleston Massacre. An excellent discussion with journalist Jonathan Capehart, author Joshua DuBois, and Janai Nelson, Associate Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Or, if the above player doesn’t work, you can listen on Soundcloud here:
A short clip of my appearance on CNNs New Day, to discuss the “controversy” over the President’s use of the n-word in a recent podcast, in which has was discussing the issue of racism. Here, I respond to those whites who still can’t understand why black folks are able to say the word, while we can’t (or shouldn’t). It’s a point I’ve made before, but is worth making again, since many people still don’t get it