Once, I read about this group of sperm whales that was getting hunted by humans. The humans would go out on these big sailing ships into the middle of the ocean on voyages that could take years. When they got close to a family of whales, they would go out in small row boats to stab the whales to death with harpoons. This was very dangerous, because the whales would fight back and often destroy the little row boats the humans were in.
However, on one whaling voyage, one of the sperm whales figured out a deeper understanding of what was going on. A big, male sperm whale saw that the little row boats were coming from the big sailing boat, so instead of destroying the small boats, he started ramming into the big one. He realized that if he destroyed a small boat, more small boats would keep coming. But, if he destroyed the big boat, there would be no more small boats.
I think where we’re at with a lot of activism around police violence is destroying the small boats. Which is useful, you know? When you have a harpoon in your face, getting rid of the boat with the harpoon is the number one priority. Things like police body cameras, undoing the militarization of the police force, accountability for violence against people of color, etc. will help fewer people be killed in the immediate future. This is a necessary immediate priority.
However, there are longer running structural issues in society that lead to different types of racial injustices cropping up over and over again. From slavery, to Jim Crow, to mass incarceration we have failed to fix the underlying root of oppression. We have to look at this deeper root, at the big ship, to find a longer lasting solution.
Malcolm X once described the difference between house slaves and field slaves in speech at Michigan State University:
The house Negro usually lived close to his master. He dressed like his master. He wore his master’s second-hand clothes. He ate food that his master left on the table. And he lived in his master’s house — probably in the basement or the attic — but he still lived in the master’s house.
So whenever that house Negro identified himself, he always identified himself in the same sense that his master identified himself. When his master said, “We have good food,” the house Negro would say, “Yes, we have plenty of good food.” “We” have plenty of good food. When the master said that “we have a fine home here,” the house Negro said, “Yes, we have a fine home here.” When the master would be sick, the house Negro identified himself so much with his master he’d say, “What’s the matter boss, we sick?” His master’s pain was his pain. And it hurt him more for his master to be sick than for him to be sick himself. When the house started burning down, that type of Negro would fight harder to put the master’s house out than the master himself would.
But then you had another Negro out in the field. The house Negro was in the minority. The masses — the field Negroes were the masses. They were in the majority. When the master got sick, they prayed that he’d die. [Laughter] If his house caught on fire, they’d pray for a wind to come along and fan the breeze.
If someone came to the house Negro and said, “Let’s go, let’s separate,” naturally that Uncle Tom would say, “Go where? What could I do without boss? Where would I live? How would I dress? Who would look out for me?” That’s the house Negro. But if you went to the field Negro and said, “Let’s go, let’s separate,” he wouldn’t even ask you where or how. He’d say, “Yes, let’s go.” And that one ended right there.
A hallmark of well organized oppression is the use of the oppressed to maintain the structures oppression. House slaves were still slaves, but because they saw how much worse they could have it, because they were the chosen of the oppressed, they were emotionally motivated to perpetuate the oppressive structures. Field slaves had nothing to lose, so they were like “fuck it, let’s burn this motherfucker down.” But, white slave owners would keep enough house slaves on their side to keep the field slaves in check. If the house slaves had turned against their masters, the whole structure would have crumbled, but this rarely happened.
This isn’t just a feature of American slavery; in the concentration camps of the Holocaust, certain prisoners were given privileges over others. The Kapos were assigned by the German guards to oversee the forced labor of the other prisoners, and in exchange were given extra food, or cigarettes, or other advantages that they would lose if they lost their Kapo status. Because of this, the German guards rarely had to risk themselves by interacting with the prisoners directly; they pushed all the risk onto the Kapos, and were able to run camps with minimal German oversight.
You can see similar structures play out in more modern arenas: rich female movie stars, for instance, will perpetuate a culture of the objectification of women (by, say, posing scantily clad in advertisements) because they personally benefit from it. The Human Rights Campaign, a group organized primarily by wealthy white gay men, has spent a lot of time energy making connections with large corporate groups that are somewhat oppressive to more marginalized people (say, trans women of color) because white gay men are able to benefit from that increased social capitol.
This is not an unfortunate side effect, this is a key feature of large scale oppression. The small oligarchy can not maintain its power in large scale without help, and it gets this help by privileging one oppressed group slightly above the other.
“The police are the enemy,” one of my more radical friends told me — and I’m not going to argue that point either way. But I will say that unless you view the police as an oppressed group themselves, I think you’re going to miss the big boat.
An often overlooked point is that things may be going terribly for many black people in America, but things aren’t going super well for less affluent white people either. While the mortality rate for most people in the US has declined over recent years, the mortality rate for middle aged white Americans has been on the rise. I don’t want to divert from the significance of what is happening to black Americans, but rather to explain the underlying causes.
Effectively, the police are functioning as the “house slaves” and black Americans are functioning as the “field slaves.” Both groups are oppressed, however, the class of people who are making up the police receive enough privileges that they are going to dig in and try to perpetuate the system. The police are allotted some amount of dignity and immunity under the law, which would be denied to them otherwise, but they are not able to access the more sweeping socio-economic privileges of the ruling classes. The average police salary, for instance, is about 50k — enough to get by, but not enough to ever have the “economic freedom” of the wealthy. Black Americans, as the more highly oppressed group with no conditional privileges to lose and many privileges to gain, are willing to fight back against an unjust system. However, there is a larger system of oppression that benefits from the race war that is developing.
The presidential hopefuls, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, have far more in common with each other than they have with any of us. 5 policemen have been shot in a race related protest while everyone in that photo is surrounded by an army of body guards. The black majority, the police, the “normal people” of the world are playing out a system of violence from which the wealthy elite are insulated.
To break this cycle, we will need to ultimately form a bridge between the police and the communities they serve. While the wealthy elite may condemn race violence, while they may even believe their own condemnations, they also benefit from it. As long as the police and black Americans are fighting with each other, they are not looking up at the larger systems of oppression that have created the conditions for such violence. They are not looking at the 1% who have greater combined incomes than the bottom 90%. They are not seeing that the scarcity of dignity allowed to the masses. We need to stop fighting each other for the little bit of dignity the oligarchy has allotted us, but turn around together and demand a bigger slice of the pie.
One of the biggest fictions white Americans believe is that they have it so good. They don’t. Once they wake up to this, the only rational reaction will be to join with black Americans to fight the larger systems of oppression, and when that happens — if it ever does — the possibility of deep structural change opens up.