One of the more heart-tugging racial arguments I hear from frustrated white people is something to the effect of “I didn’t enslave anybody, so why should I be forced to worry or feel bad about it?” On an emotional level that makes some relatable sense to me. Life IS hard and taxing. We all have our own problems, our own challenges, and our own personal baggage. Most of us are barely keeping up. Most of us are barely keeping it together. Most of us wake up wondering how in the world we’re going to handle all the things that are already on our plates. On the surface it does seem unfair to be tasked with constantly having to hear about some other group ostensibly complaining about what they *don’t* have or how you are benefiting from their deprivation when you are barely able to keep up with your own problems.
For a person who doesn’t fully understand the root of a complaint or empathize with the aggrieved, it is too easy and too common for the frustrated to interpret the person or people complaining about a problem as being the real problem. This doesn’t just happen along racial lines. This happens in relationships when one person breaks up, threatens to break up, or uses some other emotional manipulation to silence a partner’s complaint or punish them for it, in professional settings where the whistleblower is the focus of disciplinary or regulatory action instead of the source of malfeasance, and in undemocratic places like Russia where journalists and dissenters are killed and imprisoned to silence inconvenient calls for reform.
“The pride of the oppressed can be a powerful enabler for those who benefit and seek to benefit from injustice.”
America is constantly flirting with varying levels of victim-blaming and accountability politics that seek to produce compliant conformity that “just happens” to favor oppression by shaming and stigmatizing as weakness or inferior character any person or group that expresses dissatisfaction with systemic inequalities. The pride of the oppressed can be a powerful enabler for those who benefit and seek to benefit from injustice. Pride induces people to remain silent when they should not, and tolerate burdens that the shaming beneficiaries of injustice would never actually bear themselves were they in they in the same situation. The grievances for which too many white people have criticized minorities for voicing through protest are the same exact types of grievances over which bloody revolutions have been started, including the revolution that gave birth to this nation.
When it comes to the matter of white supremacy and the ripple effect of slavery, it is indeed easy to argue that it is unfair to hold the current generation of white supremacy beneficiaries accountable when so few of them are directly doing the heavy lifting of setting up white supremacy. But the easy argument is rarely the correct argument in matters of reason and conflict. Broad brushes paint imprecise pictures. Perhaps if the current generation of white supremacy beneficiaries were to take up residence in another country away from the reach of American white supremacy it might be easier to agree that so-called “white guilt” and invocations of the “race-card” are unfair and inappropriate. But as long as one stays on these shores and continues to benefit from a system descended from slavery, one is in-effect a recipient of stolen goods.
“…being born into the privileges of whiteness is not a simple matter of luck in America; it’s also a matter of inherited theft.”
A Facebook friend recently described being white and born into privilege as “luck”. He asked why should he be made to feel guilty all the time over a stroke of luck, something over which he had no control. Looked at strictly as a matter randomness, perhaps there is some truth to that question. Looked at with the full editorial meaning the word “luck” implies, being born into the privileges of whiteness is not a simple matter of luck in America; it’s also a matter of inherited theft.
Slavery existed in America from 1620 until 1865. White supremacy was used as the justification for chattel enslavement of Africans, a rationalization for settlers who aspired to live like gentlemen and raise families like gentlemen but lacked the patience for the work required to produce a gentleman’s wealth. They compensated for a lack of patience with an abundance of savagery. The savagery of the aspiring aristocracy and its peripheral support classes built an economic engine that helped grow a fledgling nation into a robust power. Time ran out on conventional mass savagery in 1865 at the cost of many lives, but white supremacy has still perpetuated the social hierarchy solidified by slavery from 1865 until today.
1620 to 1865. 1865 to today. That’s 245 years of actively violent, large scale stolen labor, trade equity in the form of ancillary profits from splitting up families, and sexual favors in the form of rape and forcible breeding. Another 152 years of passive and smaller scale physical and economic violence from stolen housing opportunities, stolen educational opportunities based on those housing opportunities, stolen employment and lending opportunities based on stolen educational opportunities and amorphous qualifying criteria, stolen domestic tranquility in the form of domestic terrorism, and stolen inalienable rights and lifespan courtesy of a profoundly skewed criminal justice system and police force.
Whether people asked for it or not, the advantaged and even “standard” existence of rank-and-file white people has been built on almost 400 years of externally induced disadvantages for black people. It was all part of a great social mind game, a ploy to keep rank-and-file white people from joining up with minorities to come after the rich white people who were and still are exploiting everybody. For hundreds of years now the rank-and-file have been falling for it, mistaking the benefits of theft as their earnings and entitlements. A great portion of the American people are sleeping on a bed of stolen goods.
“…those who receive and benefit from theft help make theft possible.”
Section 2315 of Title 18 of United States Criminal Code holds that receipt of stolen goods is a felony, punishable by up to ten years in prison. The point of setting such a steep penalty is to deter theft. The law understands that those who receive and benefit from theft help make theft possible. They enable theft. They incentivize theft by creating a market for theft. In so doing, they tacitly ensure that theft will continue. In the eyes of the law, those who enable and incentivize theft are accessories to crime. An accessory is “a person who assists in the commission of a crime, but who does not actually participate in the commission of the crime as a joint principal.”
The law cuts you some slack if you genuinely didn’t know you were receiving stolen goods, but you’re still expected to discontinue possession of stolen goods. If for some reason you tried to keep what was stolen or started making excuses about how the rightful proprietor was somehow unworthy, in the eyes of the law you would revert back to being held as a recipient of stolen goods. Depending on the circumstances of attempts to evade forfeiture you might be considered or become a thief in your own right. Too often lately it seems that is what our generation’s America is in danger of becoming: yet another generation of willful, faux-oblivious accessories to a crime who are flirting with active thievery.
The ongoing debates about statues, the evils of white supremacy and the ideological leanings of the President have forced conversations highlighting the prolific role white supremacy has played in the buildup to the Civil War, the aftermath, and the institution of slavery, our nation’s “original sin”. “Original Sin”. Most Americans don’t seem to really be as religious or Christian anymore so it’s probably worth reviewing. Who better than a bishop’s grandson to help?
For those who’ve forgotten their Sunday School or who were lucky enough to miss Sunday School entirely, “Original Sin” is a concept derived from the “Fall of Man” story, where Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit and are expelled from the Garden of Eden. Because of Adam and Eve’s failure in the face of temptation, their descendants bear the burden of a state of diminished innocence, which we all assume at the moment of birth. We who are supposedly descended from Adam and Eve are born with a spiritual gulf between ourselves and our Creator. By the Christian canon, if we are to find true and eternal spiritual fulfillment, the gulf can only be bridged by admission and repentance for our intrinsic state of sinfulness and acceptance of sacrifice (in the context of Christianity the sacrifice is God’s only Son) as the price for our admission into the Heavenly Kingdom, represented as a state of spiritually unburdened rejoicing. That’s how “original sin” works.
Whoever first used the phrase “original sin” to describe America’s baggage regarding slavery had to understand the term well enough to know the phrase fits America’s situation. Any who exist in a state of original sin are born into it. The only way out is to “own” one’s sin and accept the process of sacrifice so that one may be both cleansed and made spiritually whole. The cost of failing to deal with our original sin is an eternity of torturous and spiritually empty damnation. Sounds fun.
So what exactly are we to do with white supremacy and the ripple effects of slavery, America’s “original sin”? I imagine we have work and fight to “own” it, to stop it from owning us. And make no mistake, it *is* owning us. We have to understand that just as our courts of law hold people accountable who receive stolen goods, it is necessary for us to hold ourselves accountable for our culture’s own ill-gotten gains. The gains to which so many have become accustomed and addicted through a normalized standard of living are our great temptation, seducing people to to take a bite, to turn their backs on that which we know to be moral choices and moral attitudes. When any of us bite of that fruit through excuse-making and victim-blaming, when we give into the seduction of normalizing immorality, the original sin we were born with becomes exacerbated as our our mortal sin, ensuring our generation’s moral death, and possibly that of our nation.
“Guilt can be its own kind of shackle…”
Guilt is a natural phenomenon in the aftermath of wrongdoing. Only the weak-willed can be made to feel guilt when they are in fact innocent, and only the morally comatose can make themselves feel innocent when they are in fact guilty. Are we morally comatose? Dead? Not yet. And so we have guilt. When you find yourself feeling guilty or abhorring people and conversations that remind you of your guilt, that’s a sign that your psyche knows wrongdoing is occurring of which you are a part. That’s a sign that deep inside you know you’re not doing enough, that you’re not getting it done. Guilt can be its own kind of shackle, more confounding that most because it is the chained who often hold the keys to their own emancipation. What keeps the guilty shackled is their refusal to acknowledge that the shackle exists, that the guilt exists, because to do that they would first have to acknowledge that wrongdoing exists and own the wrongdoing. Enough of these chains. It’s time to set yourselves and all of us free.
We have the means to turn the key, and the page; if we demand it. If we demand criminal justice reform to end mass incarceration we can turn the key on slavery in all its forms. If we demand an end to voter suppression and racial gerrymandering, we can turn the key on political disenfranchisement and establish a truly representative government. If we demand police reform to end uniformed executions and harassment of unarmed citizens and bring to justice domestic terrorists who target minorities we can turn the key on lynchings and intimidation through violence and abuse of power. If we demand a change in our housing and lending practices and the trend of “white flight” we can turn the key on segregation. If we demand a turning of the key in housing and lending segregation we will also turn the key on our segregated and disparate public education system, which will filter into our higher education system and employment opportunities. We have that power, if we demand it, if we demand not to be given stolen goods, if we demand not to have our life stories rendered fraudulent by building them on a foundation of ill-gotten gains. We can demand to tear down the architecture of white supremacy, if only we have the courage to first admit we have been using it for shelter. We can demand the right to take our chances against the elements, with a possibly lesser but truer, more egalitarian and more honorable life, instead of one defined by lies, theft and defensive excuses gas-lighting people about theft.
Or we can keep doing what we’re doing. We can confirm the hollowness of our words of sympathy for racism by doing nothing to stop it, because doing something to stop it might eventually inconvenience us. In finding excuses to do nothing or asking why “we can’t all just come together?” we can admit to ourselves that want we really want for nothing to change. We can find an excuse to stay in the shackle, because we like it, because it gives us things. We can confirm that we might be the kind of gullible, unthinking people who are willing like anyone or anything that simply gives us things. We can stay in denial in order to cleave to the familiar and comfortable, even as the architecture of what we cleave to crumbles under the weight of its own hypocrisy. We can cleave to that crumbling structure, watching as ourselves, our lifestyles and our the remains of our innocence are crushed under the weight of it.
Or we can step out and be free. Altogether. I’m getting tired of talking and thinking about this stuff. I’m getting tired of trying to convince people of something they must surely already know is right. Our conversations are becoming a lie. We’re lying by pretending the conversation can go anywhere by conventional persuasive means. I’m trying to tell you about a shackle and you don’t want to acknowledge the shackle because once you acknowledge it that means now you have to either try to get free or admit you’re a slave, in this case a slave to evil. But your denial is a lie. Your excuses are lies. And by my participating in these conversations, pretending like you don’t know what I’m talking about, I am joining you in the lie. I am joining you in the lie when I pretend you don’t have the same sense of moral intuition and birthright common sense to tell you right from wrong, when I pretend that logic can tell you what you don’t want to hear but already know, that it’s immoral for fellow citizens and human beings to be treated inequitably for your benefit. The lies are getting heavy. The excuses are weighing all of us down. I have so much other stuff I want to do and think about with this life but I am getting hindered and wearied by this burden. Aren’t you?
Enough of these chains.