I am not sure what to do in this moment. In fact, I’ve had an extraordinarily difficult time just thinking about what to do, let alone finding answers. My unreadiness and accompanying indecision applies to everything; I am unsure what to do professionally, culturally, socially, or even physically, literally asking myself multiple times a day for the past few weeks what am I supposed to be doing with my body right now?
I dedicate at least 40% of my professional existence to nonprofit work centered around voter protection. Voter protection policy (protecting and expanding ballot box access, and fighting voter suppression) is where I have a foothold, credibility, presence, and real subject matter expertise. It’s where my best work, and my best self lives.
But something was restraining me from using this moment to jumpstart the voter protection work. I know I could have, still can, and still likely will. But for the past few weeks I just couldn’t. It felt like what I know and what I’m good at — protecting voting processes, procedures, and access — wasn’t enough for this moment. So I’ve sat. No TV appearances, no writing, no protesting…just sat. An inactive victim of analysis paralysis. Because, for the first time in my life of studying policy and solutions, it feels like voting isn’t enough.
First, if one believes that the entire system is corrupt, and police abuse is but one of many egregious manifestations of that corruption, then voting replaces the players in that system, but doesn’t overhaul or replace that corrupt system. Minimally, systemic overhaul is not only what this moment screams for, but is what the country has needed for generations now if we are to ever live up to the promise that the American experiment holds for everyone.
Second, in this moment, as a vehicle to address the fire this time, voting is simply not cathartic enough of an activity. It is not expressive enough of a remedy to the immediate, searing pain of the day.
I feel like something more is required. It’s time for the rage. Some form of outrage. Channeled into either intellectual activity or, to be frank, smashing things. I don’t judge those who have chosen to smash things. I understand and empathize with them. But my professional venue of choice — organized, academic, and policy based white collar rage — is the only thing in world history that has ever caused a revolution. And to be clear, it’s time for a revolution.
I have chosen not to engage with people of good faith of all political persuasions over the last few days, because I realize that most people lack the actual context, nuance, and depth of historical knowledge to have a conversation in a way that honors the magnitude of the topic. And humbly, I do not want to frustrate myself any further by having to explain or contend with opinions — even those I agree with — that are simply uninformed. History is important. Without a heavy dose of history, one is prima facia uninformed and therefore disqualified from seriously discussing the events of the last few days.
To point to America’s original sin as the start of so many of our current troubles is a pessimistic view. It implies that since the country was built on such a corrupt foundation of white supremacist patriarchy, there was no point at any stop in the American journey that we could have completely eradicated the permanency and stench of racism. That is not necessarily the case.
There was a moment in American history, brief yet magnificent, in which America decided that she would allow black people to participate in her fullness. This was the Reconstruction era, from 1865–1877, which was characterized by the passage of the civil rights amendments to the Constitution and federal troops occupying the former confederate states to enforce blacks’ newly granted freedoms. Today we joy over African-Americans even running for statewide office, and we celebrate those who hold the offices that they do. In Reconstruction, immediately after slavery, we had African-American senators, governors, lieutenant governors, and a legitimate black caucus, with sixteen freed blacks ascending to Congress during this period. The South Carolina state legislature was the first majority black legislative body in the western hemisphere. Public education finds its roots in Reconstruction. There was significant and undeniable black economic and civic progress.
Why did it end? The presidential election of 1876 yielded disputed returns from several southern states. As part of a brokered deal for southern electors (known as the Electoral Commission) to support Rutherford B. Hayes over Samuel Tilden, Hayes agreed to remove federal troops from the former confederate states. This effectively meant the end of the federal government taking responsibility to enforce the rights of the freed slaves and future generations of black Americans. History objectively reveals that physical enforcement — in the form of the United States military — was necessary to secure the first and maybe only real period of comprehensive peace, progress, and prosperity that blacks have ever enjoyed in America. In striking his deal with radical segregationist senators, Hayes and the federal government left a nascent generation of freedmen to fend for themselves.
The moment the enforcing troops left the south, whites restored the social order of total subordination of blacks. Charged with maintaining this order were various violent white supremacist terror movements which had festered beneath the surface since emancipation, most notably the Ku Klux Klan and its forbearers, the Sons of Malta. In fact these groups formed the basis of the proliferation of policing in the southern US. Decentralized, autonomous, locally based, independent law enforcement bodies primarily charged with enforcing the post-emancipation caste system, i.e. keeping the freed yet still savage negroes in their proper place. Police have always been a primary tool of white supremacist enforcement, often by the most brutal means possible.
Removal of federal troops and replacing them with enforcing white militias masquerading as social clubs and law enforcement was but the policy piece. But as every public affairs professional understands, policy needs a messaging component to cement it into the public psyche. DW Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” was the messaging piece, permanently locking white supremacy into the American conscience. Imagine being introduced to the magic of cinema with the first truly mainstream movie having a primary thesis of black people being immoral and sexually irrepressible animals guided by id alone, who should only be dealt with in the context of physically suppressing their dangerous natures. This was the unchallenged, consistent screen portrayal of black people through at least the early 1960s, with the only detour from strictly pernicious depiction being to occasionally portray blacks as servants and lazy but fun loving minstrels.
Progressive circles who study of human behavior often discuss the effects of generational trauma on black people, hereditarily passed down from the initial trauma of slavery. If that is the case, then certainly the converse is true: generationally, whites receive the gift of inherent superiority, entitlement, and its concomitant irrational confidence. And that’s why Ahmaud Arbery is dead. Three troglodyte maniacs in Georgia saw him running, and, because the racist history of their socialization told them via life experiences and via their very DNA — that Ahmaud had no rights, generational or at that moment, to be in the same spaces that they occupied. Conversely, they had the absolute right to view him as chattel property, and they also had the right to restore him to his proper place of chattel. And finally, should he resist or even if not, they have the right to destroy him. This is the generational entitlement that Ahmaud’s killers felt.
This same white supremacist birthright, bewildering in its raw audacity and unchecked scope, is why George Zimmerman, a phenotypically white man who embraced a confederate ideology and bears the white entitlement of pseudopolicing (much like Arbery’s killers), felt empowered to attack and murder Trayvon Martin extrajudicially. It is why police in Louisville outright knew they had no qualms about blasting indiscriminately into Breonna Taylor’s apartment, killing whomever their bullets would devour. It is why Amy Cooper felt that she could sic the police on Christian Cooper without ramification.
It is why Derek Chauvin knew he was entitled to choke a man to death with his knee in front of a camera, while maintaining a sickly nonchalant visage. And sadly, it is why Chauvin’s accompanying black and Asian American officers watched him asphyxiate Floyd and didn’t deem it appropriate to interrupt. Because who are they to stand between a white man and his birthright to create or destroy?
This is the generational, white supremacist absolute entitlement that Ahmaud’s killers, Breonna’s killers, George’s killer, and so many other killers felt. This is their birthright. Not only the ability to destroy, and not be held accountable. But the right to have their actions sanctioned, sponsored, and facilitated by the state, who in each of these cases and thousands more throughout our history conspired as white citizens councils to not arrest, to suppress evidence, to fail to charge the killers with any wrongdoing, and lie to the world about why. To acquit the killers should these backstops somehow inexplicably fail. To excuse, to encourage, and even to incentivize the destruction of black life.
I was born in 1979 and grew up in the 80s. Consider the era in which I came up: Who did we celebrate? Gordon Gecko. Lee Iacocca. Carl Icahn. Mike Milliken. Unfathomable wealth achieved by actual looting of public markets. Actual pillaging of quantities that make a real difference, not a $20 allegedly counterfeit bill.
Who did we vilify in my era? Welfare queens. Jheri curled, black women with cigarettes in their mouths who used federal benefits to simply subsist, not get ahead or thrive. What message about who America celebrates and why — what lives we value and why — did that embed in the minds of my generation as we settle into leadership positions today?
There will be a moment 100 or more years from now in which the tellers of the history of our times will see that the people who survived and grew rich during this time, and the families that exist atop the social order in that future time are directly tied to those who received the benefits of the massive transfers of wealth when the world exploded in 2020. And the industrial titans of that future day, the legacy families of that future time will be those who had access to capital and participated in finance in private equity markets beginning in the early 2000s through the strange blowup year.
What those chroniclers will likely not say — if the way we describe our history currently has any instructive merit — is that the wealth was achieved primarily or exclusively with the assistance if not complete facilitation of an extraordinarily robust government subsidy.
Any economic recovery requires a powerful, kickstarting government subsidy. But that is not the story that we tell ourselves about why certain people are successful in our country. We believe in the myths of individual responsibility, and meritorious advancement. When in reality, the PPP and other forms of pandemic related subsidy, and their immediate cousins the G.I. Bill, farm aid, land assemblage grants, countless niche tax breaks, higher education admissions, inequitable public education, labor pensions of organizations and employers that denied membership to black people, and several other immediate support mechanisms created a system of wealth redistribution that did not pretend to concern itself with inclusive growth opportunities for everyone.
Our deep and ingrained history of direct government subsidy that not only sustains but enhances real outcomes has always been “equally accessible” in theory, but in practice is entirely subject to manipulation by the same racist institutions and individual whims that have defined every aspect of American life and American progress from Jamestown until today.
Indeed these socially architecting subsidies date all the way back to the original government-granted social benefit: which people received the opportunity to live free.
Over the next few weeks, as markets recover and the world reopens, inequality will actually grow worse as corporations maintain their leaner postures, and COVID-19 continues to ravage the communities that were most vulnerable at the beginning of the collapse. The gap between the haves and the have nots will literally widen, as the minority of us who have participation and investment in the business sector resume profiteering, and so many masses continue to search for a way back to simply treading water.
This is the basis for economic disaster. And economic disaster, coupled with persistent social unrest stemming from a real and painful and deeply historic inequality, is the undefeated alchemy for the end of an empire.
Perhaps I am pessimistic. But I believe that we are far closer to receding from civil society and descending into anarchy or other suboptimal state of human community than any of us either realize, or are willing to admit.
I do not know what I am called to do in this moment. But I do know that I am obligated to participate in some form of righteous revolutionary activity. The way things are — the American system that currently exists — cannot stand. For any of us.