Black Bodies & White Souls
“People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.” — James Baldwin
On Monday afternoon, George Floyd became the latest victim in a long legacy of white supremacy in Minneapolis. Of course, white supremacy isn’t new to Minnesota. In 1920, three black men were brutally lynched in Duluth, and the dozens of complicit onlookers posed for a picture with the hanging bodies of the victims. The image of dozens of white men with their three victims was then sold as a postcard for tourists in the state of Minnesota.
In the 1920s, Minneapolis itself was home to thousands of Klan members. In the 1930s, the city had one of the nation’s largest chapters of the “Silver Shirts”, a fascist organization that aspired to deport all Jews and non-white people. Their leader even ran for president in 1936 on a platform of creating an ethnostate modeled off of Hitler’s Germany.
Through the first half of the 20th century, the pro-KKK film “Birth of a Nation” was repeatedly re-released to sold-out crowds at Shubert Theater, on 7th Street downtown. The superintendent of the Minneapolis City Schools remarked “The educational value of ‘Birth of A Nation’ cannot be overestimated.”
In the 1930s, the Home Owners Loan Corporation divided the city into different zones, which determined where the city would encourage investment. The corporation decided that white families should abandon the neighborhood that George Floyd would be murdered in 90 years later, because of what they called the “gradual infiltration of negroes.” The New Deal, and later the GI Bill, created avenues for white families to get home loans in all-white neighborhoods. The city then directed its budgets to invest in those areas, and encouraged local businesses to open there. As a result, two different Minneapolis’s began to emerge. South and northwest Minneapolis became the only places that non-white people had access to live. Meanwhile, white families fled those areas for the all-white, surrounding neighborhoods.
These decisions had devastating and longterm effects on Minneapolis’s black communities. Not only did the cycle, built by the government and reinforced through tax investment, lead to white residents becoming drastically wealthier than black residents, but also significantly wealthier than average Americans nationally. Today, stunning inequality is a defining feature of the city. 43% of the city’s black residents live under the poverty line today, a rate that is 4 times higher than white residents. Many of their children go to failing schools that rely on outside funding, because segregated neighborhoods depress property values. This leads to two diverging tracks, defined by race.
In 1972, the Supreme Court finally ordered Minneapolis to desegregate their schools. The result was white flight, en masse. In the 40 years since the desegregation order, there has been a steadily decreasing percentage of white students attending public schools in Minneapolis. Today, only 35% of the students in Minneapolis Public Schools are white, despite the fact that the city is almost 65% white. The median property value in the city is now an astounding $269,000, despite black poverty rates being almost double the national average.
Minneapolis is not unique in its callous inability to address its racial injustice. White supremacy is the status quo nationally. It shaped our communities and now goes largely unchallenged by the masses of white people it benefits.
In America today, the average net worth of white families is ten times that of black families. Black kids are three times more likely to grow up in poverty, and 11 times more likely to grow up in an impoverished community even if they themselves are not in poverty.
The distribution of wealth in America and the deeply segregated public school system are a product of white supremacy. The segregated schools that we built through racial terror, housing covenants, and red-lining now serve to prevent black communities from gaining wealth while simultaneously allowing white families to hand wealth down generationally. That wealth gap reinforces the racist lie that “blackness” can be measured by one’s proximity to poverty and crime. Every time a black kid in the suburbs is told they’re “not really black”, we reinforce this racist lie. This racist lie embeds in the pathology of white families who become afraid of black men, who justify the impoverished communities with odes to personal responsibility, who reflexively respond “Blue Lives Matter” so that they don’t have to interrogate their own complicity in a murderous system, who insist that their wealth has not been built upon the very people they go out of their way to ensure their white children don’t have to go to school with.
Acknowledging all of this does not change the fact that George Floyd is dead. No article or petition or tweet can change that fact. He is dead and the nation watched him die, and yet some white people will still try to explain away this most recent murder as an anomaly. We wake up, and we watch another video of a black man being murdered, and then we go on with our day. What is happening inside our souls each time this happens? Complicity with racial terror is our tradition. The white families that move into gentrifying neighborhoods and then send their children to private schools are complicit. The white families that flee to the suburbs as black families are gentrified out of the inner-city are complicit. The white families that protest the building of affordable housing in their suburb are complicit.
The consequences of racism fall on black bodies, but they implicate white souls. What pieces of our humanity do we exchange in order to close our eyes to reality? How do we love our kids and support our churches, but then make decisions that further housing segregation? What is happening inside of us when we support policies that prevent black liberation? Why is it so easy for us to turn our eyes, just like our ancestors did?
George Floyd died with a knee on his neck, but it got there under the weight of our apathy. Every white American has to ask themselves what decisions they are making that protect this barbaric system. How and where do we spend our money? What inequitable policies do we protect through our votes? Do the places we choose to live and send our kids to school reinforce existing segregation? Have we abandoned our embarrassing, stammering insistence that we’re “not racist” long enough to reflect on what prejudices we carry so deeply within us that we don’t even notice them?
Black Americans will live or die based off the answers to those questions.