In discussing the state of American race relations during a 2014 interview, comedian Chris Rock said, “To say that Black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before.” In that and other interviews Rock did during the Obama administration, Rock spoke up about how white people have become “nicer” and “less crazy.” Through the transition into the Trump administration, the cultural zeitgeist has synthesized the point that “Black people don’t need to change — white people need to change.” Polite neutrality isn’t enough, and in some spaces it’s a tactic to shut down anti-racist and anti-fascist voices.
Having worked and lived in Oakland, New York, Portland, and Seattle, I can attest that the “nice white person” is on full display in these and other “liberal” cities around America. But it’s also the trope of the “nice white liberal” which filmmaker Jordan Peele so brilliantly skewered in his 2017 film Get Out, personified by Bradley Whitford’s character saying “I would’ve voted for Obama a 3rd time” to his daughter’s Black boyfriend (Daniel Kaluuya) while (spoiler alert) plotting to enslave his Black body.
When we take a neutral stance on an issue that is doing harm, we must realize that we are actually taking the political position, as Bishop Desmond Tutu and others have said — of “siding with the oppressor.”
Insisting on neutral “niceness” in times of social unrest and danger is condescending, complicit, and patriarchal, and very purposefully “upholds whiteness”. While outsiders may expect this in supposedly “conservative” areas of America (foreign readers may envision a pastoral Southern scene of “polite” racists sipping tea), this culture also thrives in supposedly “liberal Democrat” cities where systemic progress is often squashed by wealthy and powerful gatekeepers preaching about “compromising” with thinly veiled proto-fascists. Nearly always, the political winner of these battles are the wealthy elite, who have always benefited from the neutrality and inaction of the white working class.
President Barack Obama’s American vision of measured reason and political compromise may have inspired “hope,” but in America’s cities, not much actually changed for Black Americans in the way of anti-racist policy. Obama’s discretionary budget, even with a Democratically controlled legislature, still perpetuated systemic oppression by pumping over 50% of its spending into the military. When systemic change was needed, as it has been for decades, vital community institutions like education, public health, infrastructure, and housing have been defunded at the expense of increased military spending and foolish tax cuts for the wealthy.
The Department of Homeland Security (just one of the groups currently shooting at protestors in Portland and Seattle) alone is commanding over $50bn at a time when schools are not being given adequate funding to keep our communities safe. Barack Obama, like Donald Trump, campaigned to end the wars in the Middle East. Neither did. Nothing defeats the US Military Industrial Complex, and we can’t say we weren’t warned.
As James Baldwin put it sharply: “I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.”
With recent polls showing nearly half of all white Americans still supporting Donald Trump, who is very clearly running his re-election campaign focused on racialized fear and the promise of a police state, far too many white people are staying silent. That needs to change if we are to survive as a democracy.
As a teacher, no matter the building, I’m typically surrounded by white educators who believe that ours is a neutral profession. It is not. How can I stay politically neutral when our schools are falling apart, when we’re being asked to risk our lives during COVID-19 without protection, and when many of our kids remain homeless or otherwise unsafe? How can educators preach neutrality when they plan their lessons with the sentiments of conservative white parents in mind? Even self-proclaimed “liberal” teachers and administrators plan their activities around the fear of whitelash. We must be braver than that, and if it makes us uncomfortable, we must reflect on our discomfort.
The American ethos of “thoughts and prayers” and “don’t rock the boat” in the face of historic suffering isn’t going to help anyone; historically and practically speaking, magical or naive thinking perpetuates harm. Even teaching hard history has somehow become an allegedly “radical” position that must be attacked in order to sustain the American myth of exceptionalism. If I were to “follow the textbook,” I’d be perpetuating numerous historical falsehoods that dehumanize and/or exclude many students. That is an actively harmful practice. It’s also “following orders,” “just doing your job,” or “not making a fuss.” History will look back at the neutral and complicit as cowards.
I’m writing this 3 blocks from the Portland protests, which sounds like a war zone every night until around 3am. Every single self-identified “liberal Democrat” in this country needs to speak up before we lose our liberty and democracy. I can’t advise spending time talking to Trump supporters anymore; they’ve accepted this version of autocracy as supportive of their worldview of sustained and increasing white/corporate/military power and in my experience have little interest in good-faith discourse. Likewise, most wealthy people are unlikely to change because this cycle of complacency benefits them personally.
We need to challenge those who consider themselves centrists or politically neutral, and immediately dispense with the idea that neutrality is a virtuous trait. Magical thinking isn’t going to work, aside from making some feel comforted in their faith that things will simply “get better” with “thoughts and prayers.” If you think “playing nice” to placate both sides will quell fascism, recognize that the Democrats have already tried centrist “civil discourse” and it’s working out for them as well as it did for Chamberlain and Europe.
Staying politically neutral behind the veil of “niceness” is a political position, and deserves to be interrogated with the following questions:
How does neutrality solve the climate crisis?
How does neutrality stop shootings?
How does neutrality end poverty?
How does neutrality stop the spread of fascism?
How does neutrality stop the spread of COVID-19?
How does neutrality end racism?
Who benefits from political neutrality in today’s America?
We urgently and collectively need to reflect on these questions and accept that these problems will continue unabated without strong, clear, and assertive political action.
If and when America returns to an alleged “middle ground”— if Joe Biden wins and keeps his campaign promise of “nothing will fundamentally change” — remember that he’d be the first to tell you that he would have voted for Obama a 3rd time. And that just isn’t enough.