“The Race Question”
My parents transitioned away from spankings pretty early in my brother’s and my lives. But instead of just assigning chores or taking away privileges, they often made an evening of talking to us whenever we did something wrong or needed a serious sit down. I took to calling those evenings “The Three” because the talk usually extended from whenever we got home at 6 or 7 p.m. until homework or bedtime at 9 or 10. God help you if you earned yourself a “Three”. God help whoever was in the house.
Aside from the hellish deterrent of losing an evening, “The Three” was often a profound experience because in that amount of time you’re usually going to make at least some progress on the root cause of almost any behavioral issue. I don’t know whether it was brainwashing, but I rarely repeated any behaviors that warranted a “Three” for very long. Clowning in class just wasn’t worth it. Thinking and acting like the world revolved around me wasn’t worth it. Lying wasn’t worth it. Losing a sweater or being careless with my books wasn’t worth it. Calling a female classmate a “bitch” wasn’t worth it. Bullying Johnny H. and throwing his eyeglasses into a pile of leaves wasn’t worth it. Even if he did sit in front of you every day smelling like rotting sausage links and pee.
“The Three” wasn’t always just fire and brimstone. It wasn’t just for when I did something bad. Most of the time it was just about growing or staying sane. Basic lessons older people have the luxury of taking for granted now, but can’t be communicated in a passing “hey-how-was-school-today” conversation. Real topics take longer to break past the superficial artifice and our own rationalizations for doing what we want. It takes longer to do the real work of learning how to be a person. Like finding the courage to stand up to my own bullies. Figuring out what about my words or actions made people more or less likely to want to be around me. Learning that if there is a Hell, I’m probably not going to go just for masturbating or saying bad words. Learning that if there is a God then that God probably cares much more about how we love God, ourselves and each other than any measure of legalistic servile obedience. Learning that fairness in all things even when it hurts you personally is more important simply winning, as fairness is the only way friends, strangers, or rivals can ever come to trust you. Learning that without trust, there can be nothing. Learning the importance of acting decisively when you want to talk to a girl. That in all things there are times to persist and times to let go. That it’s ok when someone doesn’t like you back. That sometimes people just won’t like you even though you did nothing wrong. That sometimes you won’t like someone even though there’s nothing wrong with them. That one should always take pride in oneself, and while that pride must always be tempered by humility, neither humility nor delusion-driven endurance should beguile any self-respecting person to willingly settle for any sustained dynamic or relationship where one is not wanted, appreciated, or respected. That life is frustrating, and you can’t get out of it alive, so stop worrying about keeping the bottoms of your shoes clean. That no one becomes a great batter in the dugout; you’ve got to swing big, swing often and be willing to miss. That strikeouts and losses will pile up no matter what you do, but the world still turns and tomorrow is another day. That the difference maker between the greats and the forgotten is that the great kept swinging.
If I wasn’t in the mood I sometimes hated “The Three” more than any beatings. It just took so damned long. But stacking enough of those jam sessions got me graduating high school ranked seventh in my class. “The Three” helped me get a full scholarship to college and graduate school. “The Three” has so far helped keep me alive, free of legal problems, and free of a lot of problems that tripped up a lot of the people I grew up with. “The Three” helped me keep marbles together that otherwise might’ve been scattered and lost long ago. Sometimes the best way to show someone you believe in them and remind them to believe in themselves is to invest a little time, show that you’re willing to go the distance.
America seems to have more than a few problems right now. Maybe it’s time America sat down and had a “Three”.
A train of thought has been barreling forward on a journey in my mind these last few days, weeks and months. It feels like I’m starting to close in on some insights as to how American racism and hate works on a very basic level. I’m not going to get into that part at just this moment because I’m not yet convinced that conversation would be productive. Perhaps “the mechanics of racism” will make a useful topic for a future essay.
All that really matters for the purposes of this essay is that racism exists, that it is deeply woven into our behavior patterns, our entertainment and the fabric of our society. All that really matters is the common knowledge that if we continue to leave racism unchecked, it may not be going anywhere for a very long time. We are not going to “grow out of it”. The younger generation is not necessarily the answer to racism; they’ve just had less practice. We all know that by now, or at least we should. God help me if I’m breaking news to anyone.
What seems new or at least new to me is that people here and around the world are now openly voting based on their prejudices.
I personally really wanted to believe the economy and a flawed/hobbled Democratic candidate/campaign was the real issue in the last election. In general I don’t think it’s good politics to call people “racist” or any kind of names. I am typically disinclined to do so without credible evidence to back up such a charge. In the whole of my life, I can’t remember ever considering voting for or with any person or group who called me a name I considered pejorative. I can’t remember buying a product or hiring a service provider, patronizing an artist or even visiting a restaurant once I heard that person or organization was in the business of calling me names or looking down on me.
I personally don’t always live up to my own standard in my more frustrated rhetoric. Sometimes one has to choose telling the truth about how they see a situation over the feelings of the antagonists described. It often feels preposterous to try to maintain civil dialogue when you feel people are doing uncivil things, like responding to a punch in the face by asking the assailant how *they* felt about the punch how their day is going. Yes, you’ve technically stopped the fistfight but you’ve also taken a wrecking ball to your own human dignity.
I have and will continue to point out when I think people are being stupid or dishonest or immoral or racist. But even if I know I’m right in the content of my rhetoric, if I’m being honest and fair I can’t imagine why any voters across the aisle would respond any differently to name-calling than I would myself. This is such a strange and confounding Chinese finger trap we find ourselves in; perpetually feeling like we need to choose between being true to our morality and winning votes that will actually change our fates. Unfortunately for our ever polarizing national dialogue, whatever the “correct” answer is, it seems to still be very much a work in progress.
Beyond simple name-calling and any potential political ramifications, it has now been empirically established several times over that being white and having racial animus were the most consistent corollaries behind the vote for the President. White voters, male and female of multiple economic classes, overwhelmingly supported the President. The President’s voters have been statistically assessed as roughly twice as likely to harbor racial resentment as white voters who supported Hillary Clinton. As rousing as I find Bernie Sanders’ and Elizabeth Warren’s middle class populist rhetoric, they risk forfeiting their credibility by pretending everything in this country would be healed simply by addressing the class divide. The United States is facing a massive race divide. The race divide drove the vote. We can’t flank the race divide by focusing solely on class, basically bribing people to be civil to each other. We have to deal with race.
Whatever any of us would prefer to believe about the world or each other, if we are to survive this world or each other, we have to acknowledge reality. Sometimes solving problems and ultimate survival means eating our words and stepping up to truths that may make us personally unhappy or disappointed. In light of the current body of evidence it can no more be unfair to describe votes for the President as “driven by racial animus” than it would be to call a tiger’s behavior “predatory”.
The people that voters elected to office are now trying to legislate and govern based on the animus that elected them. I lose sleep thinking about what Jeff Sessions means for my life and the lives of others. Why am I scared of my attorney general the way my grandparents were scared of the Klan? I feel more anxiety at the sight of police officers today that I felt at the thought of terrorists after 9/11. Why am I so unnerved by people who supposedly work for me? Why are so many people ok with so many of us living under such a lopsided arrangement in a supposedly free society?
A disappointing yet victorious segment of the American people voted Jeff Sessions and his terrifying police vision into power when they voted for a man who openly telegraphed his racist intentions. A man who campaigned on “law & order” even though crime has been at a multi-decade low, with only a recent uptick that is still too new to statistically indicate anything. Trying to cherry pick Chicago’s crime challenges to justify sweeping policies for an entire nation makes about as much sense as injecting an entire school with insulin because one person is diabetic. Any reasonable person knows that. Law & order campaign promises weren’t innocent mistakes based on clerical error; they were racist policy announcements based on lies. Claiming a group of people are murderous rapists when they’re not is a racist lie meant to justify racist deportations. Claiming a group of people were cheering 9/11 when they weren’t is a racist lie meant to justify racist immigration bans. Claiming millions of people voted illegally when they didn’t is a racist lie meant to justify racist voter suppression. And yet only 2 percent of the President’s voters regret their vote. The President’s racism reveals the racism of his supporters, in the way they aren’t irreconcilably put off by his past and ongoing racism.
Newspapers report that a lot of people held their nose and voted for the President. I can believe that. I’ve been there. I held my nose and voted for Bernie in the primary even though I have strong distrust of single-issue candidates. But just because you hold your nose to eat a meal that doesn’t mean you didn’t knowingly order it. Just because you hold your nose that doesn’t mean didn’t just eat it. Just because you hold your nose to eat a meal that doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay the bill. The cat is well out of the bag on 21st Century American racism. The cat is out of the bag and has ripped up the bag. There’s no going back and pretending like American racism is a thing of the past. The only path to daylight is forward. It’s going to be a long, ugly slog.
We must acknowledge that at least some substantial degree of heightened racism is likely to be structurally integrated into our government as a result of the current presidency. A great deal of structural racism exists already. Ok. Fine. …Well, it’s not really fine but I’m not in the mood to debate that part right now. My mind more distracted by what I see as the more important and more deeply unsettling question.
Here we go.
III. A Contract Question
“If oppression and discrimination in the United States is allowed to persist by and within our government in any form, exactly why should those who are oppressed and discriminated against keep supporting the mechanisms of our oppression with our taxes, compliance and civic participation?”
Every time my eyes review the words of that question, the contents of my stomach gurgle and my heart skips a beat. Surely that question is an emotional overreaction and the logic of the question is fatally flawed. Maybe the question will get more palatable if we walk through it slowly and soberly. Maybe if we’re lucky and patient and “use our words” the question will debunk itself.
Let’s start with the Constitution. We can all agree on the Constitution as a real thing, the existence of which is not in question, right? Let’s start there.
The preamble of the U.S. Constitution is worded as follows:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America “
The Constitution is a social contract. A social contract is “an implicit agreement among the members of a society to cooperate for social benefits, for example by sacrificing some individual freedom for state protection”.
We all tacitly sign on for the Constitution’s social contract when we are born here, when we become citizens. Non-citizens sign on at least partially and we who are citizens actively confirm our signatures when we pay taxes and conform to laws. Conformity is often annoying inconvenient work. Paying taxes is an displeasing bit of self-extraction; we are basically giving the government pieces of our lifespan on a regular basis, in the form of dollars we had toil at jobs to earn. In exchange for our tax money and any measures of “absolute” freedom forfeited to comply with laws negotiated by our elected representatives (past, present, and future), we are supposed to receive state protection, of our persons and our fundamental rights as persons.
Funding and the obedience necessary for peaceful coexistence, are exchanged for protection and representation; that’s supposed to be the deal. Beyond simple social contracts, that’s how popular sovereignty works; the power to govern stems from the consent of the governed, the populace. The governed give their consent in exchange for protection and representation within that government. Popular sovereignty is a core concept of the Declaration of Independence.
I can’t help but question how the deal laid out in the Constitution is working out right now. Are minorities being protected by the state where it concerns their persons or their rights? Are minorities being represented justly? Are minorities structurally enabled to pursue their happiness and protect their interests through the mechanisms of government?
IV. State of the Union
I think almost daily about the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court. That seat was stolen from a minority president who represented broad interests that also included the interests of various types of minorities and oppressed peoples of all backgrounds. The seat was stolen and given to Neil Gorsuch, an enthusiastic selection by the dubiously named “Heritage Foundation” (whose heritage?). Gorsuch just got in office and he’s already using his power to kill inmates in Arkansas. Gorsuch is killing people in a way that will set a precedent for killing many more minorities who may have been chewed up in the American criminal justice system. I lose sleep over our criminal justice system even though I have broken no laws. I lose sleep over a system that is supposed to protect people who have broken no laws, not frighten them.
The confirmation of the stolen Merrick Garland Supreme Court seat was forced, rammed through over the objections of the minority party. It was rammed through even though the citizens of the minority party outnumbered the majority by almost three million votes in the last election. No deference whatsoever was given to those sixty-six million in the supposed minority. Both the Senate and the Supreme Court now appear to be governing without the true consent of the governed.
The current House of Representatives seems to consider it absolutely blasphemous to negotiate with Democrats in any way, beyond repeated attempts to use funding of the Affordable Care Act to strong-arm them politically. Aside from said strong-arming, the minority party does not appear to be even a remote factor in the crafting of any legislation. I honestly have no idea what Democratic Representatives do all day, beyond answering emails, shaking a tin cup wherever they can, and maybe watching Maxine Waters clips on YouTube.
Minority party powerlessness would perhaps be tolerable if House seats were obtained fairly, if Democrats lost fair and square. But even without the suspected shenanigans involved in taking the White House, gerrymandering and voter suppression have rigged the game and usurped the consent of the governed. The majority have disproportionately slashed the power and number of minorities’ representation in the legislature, but strangely they have not slashed minorities’ taxes or the expectation of our unconditional compliance with the law.
V. Terms and Conditions
Without consequential and proportionate representation, the mechanisms of our government do not appear to be functioning adequately for many of us who give more than adequately to make its existence possible. Is this what the Preamble had in mind? Lets look at the specific phrases of the Preamble, the terms and conditions of our social contract.
“We the people” sounds pretty good, except current rhetoric suggests minorities of various types are consistently not counted among “the People”. The President’s Inauguration speech certainly didn’t seem to count minorities as “the People”. If minorities are not counted as “the People”, then what exactly are we?
“In order to form a more perfect union” is an inspiring and aspirational promise, but does our union seem more perfect? Does our Union seem like it’s even aspiring to be more perfect? I’m encouraged by the sight and energy from so many good hearted people who are genuinely trying and reaching for that more perfect Union, but they alone cannot carry the portion of the load shirked by sixty-three million.
The Constitution is supposed to “establish justice”, but instead we have mass incarceration and a highly skewed criminal justice system that willfully refuses to check itself in spite of well documented inequities. In some cases the criminal justice system is doubling down. I see a system where one group of people are treated as “innocent until proven guilty” while other groups are openly and unrepentantly treated as “guilty until proven innocent”. Minority groups are treated as guilty even when they are the victim(s). Beyond minorities, even the victimization of women is ignored unless a large number of women come together to make the same exact complaint about the same exact culprit. That’s not Justice. Why doesn’t Justice for everyone matter to “the People”?
The Constitution aims to “insure domestic tranquility”, but how can tranquility be ensured when there is no justice? If Justice is not on the menu then the only remaining paths to tranquility are either “voluntary” submission by the oppressed or forcible subjugation by the oppressors. Is that how this government is to treat her people?
Our government was established to “provide for the common defence”, but where minorities are concerned not only is our government ignoring the defenseless, in many cases our government and its agents seem to be what the defenseless need defending from.
The preamble speaks of the need to “promote the general welfare”, but the interests of certain already-privileged groups are being further promoted, at the expense of other vulnerable groups. The very science that secures and advances our welfare in every way is being undermined and underfunded for partisan purposes. Stacking the deck and turning a blind eye to science doesn’t sound like “general welfare” to me.
The Constitution promises to “secure the blessings of Liberty for ourselves and our posterity”.
“The blessings of Liberty…”
Last week I got into a heated debate with my brother because he wanted to wear a breathing mask for pollen while he jogs to protect him from an asthma attack. It looked a little military and I felt the need to warn him that the cops might assess a black man running while wearing that type of mask as a threat. I had to remind my brother, a taxpaying American, a lawyer and small-business owner, a homeowner, a father, and a grown man that the police were likely escalate with him, on sight. I had to explain to him that they may feel inclined to use serious, possibly deadly force before he had a chance to explain himself or deescalate the situation. I had to show him a video of a young man getting slammed to the ground and punched repeatedly because he was jaywalking a residential street while have dreadlocks, as though everyone in America doesn’t walk in residential streets sometimes. I had to remind him that a social worker got shot while literally lying on the ground, with his hands up. We tabled the discussion for the time being, but my brother was not happy.
My brother was furious at the thought of forfeiting such a basic freedom on the basis of other people’s fear, especially people he pays to protect him. He was furious at feeling like he had to choose between one of his favorite ways to exercise and potentially orphaning his daughter. He’s damned right to be furious.
I felt like I needed to warn him as his brother, I felt like I would never forgive myself if something happened to him because I sat on a warning, but I totally agree with his fury and support whatever he decides. I hate that a choice like whether or not to jog feels like a life or death decision. This is supposed to be our home, not territory occupied by an enemy’s standing army. It doesn’t seem like we are all “blessed” with equal levels of “Liberty”, even though we are equally obligated to obey the same laws and pay into the same tax system.
It would be nice if agents of this government and the society it serves focused on our humanity first instead of our blackness. I would be nice if our blackness didn’t come with an assumption of guilt that we have to constantly disprove but can never fully debunk. We’ll get into that more a little later. To be a black American is to be in the most conditional of all possible relationships.
It doesn’t seem like this Constitution and the society it supports is doing what it promised to do. The Constitution does not seem to be holding up its end of the bargain for a lot a people. A lot of people who have been paying taxes and obeying laws. Why should we continue?
VI. Our Origin Story
Our own Declaration of Independence was written for eerily similar offenses to what face American minority citizens today. Most people either don’t remember or don’t care to discuss England’s offenses against the Colonies with much regularity. I invite any who are inclined to review the Declaration of Independence’s charges against England. Many of the claimed “rights” the Founders supposedly felt were irreconcilably infringed are rights that minorities and oppressed peoples still do not enjoy to this day.
Are we properly and consistently recognized under the law?
Do we have legally equality and autonomy in comparison to other citizens within the society?
Has our representation in government been compromised or rendered meaningless?
In the case of a possibly illegitimate executive branch, is Justice not currently being obstructed along majority party lines to the detriment of the minority party and minorities?
Has the police force not been militarized and rendered superior to the civil power of minority citizens?
Are police not protected by mock investigations and mock trials from punishment for any murders they should commit on minority citizens? The riots that rocked Los Angeles were sparked by a not-guilty verdict for officers who were video recorded beating a motorist. Twenty-five years later another officer was just saved by a hung jury even though there was video of the officer shooting a fleeing man in the back and possibly planting a weapon on the body after the fact.
Are minorities not transported against their will to be held or tried for pretend offenses? What exactly is “failure to comply”?
Has our government not abdicated by declaring us out of its protection and waging war against us?
Have our communities not been plundered and our people’s lives destroyed?
Are taxes and fines not being levied against us without our consent? Read the Department of Justice report on the monetary municipal abuses at Ferguson.
Has our society not been directing and allowing outsiders like police, banks, businesses, and drug enterprises to operate as mercenaries, to complete works of death, desolation and tyranny in minority communities?
Have we not been petitioning for redress in the most humble terms?
Have our petitions not been answered by repeated injury?
If the above grievances rightly justified the Founders declaring their Independence, why aren’t similar and often equivalent grievances taken more seriously where minorities are concerned? Does the answer always have to be that lots of people have to be willing to die before rights and equality will be recognized? What is the point of trying to talk through our differences if at the end of the day shed blood is to be the only recognized difference maker?
VII. Down the Rabbit Hole
The question will not leave me alone.
“If oppression and discrimination in the United States is allowed to persist by and within our government in any form, exactly why should those who are oppressed and discriminated against keep supporting the mechanisms of our oppression with our taxes, compliance and civic participation?”
Other than the possibility of there not being a Hereafter, I can recall no question disturbing me so deeply as this variation of the Race Question. It scares me because the thoughts that follow the Race Question tell me more about American racism in particular than I really want to believe or think about with any regularity. But the double standard is simply becoming too blatant to ignore.
One of our very best came forward to be President, served eight years with honor and without scandal, and you still are tempted to believe felony charges against him without seeing the slightest bit of proof. You gave us one of your worst to replace him, and are extending him every benefit of the doubt in spite of a damning number of ethical red flags, in spite of every dishonorable display and failure, in spite of circumstantial evidence of high crimes that would make a black suspect want to flee the country. A black suspect would barely get a trial with that much circumstantial evidence. Black men have been lynched on rumor. We’ve been besmirched and had careers pummeled purely on doubt. We don’t know anything about benefit of the doubt, never heard of the stuff. For other Americans, benefit of the doubt is assumed, even when those Americans actually kill, victimize and terrorize people.
Many days there seems to be no way to win. When we dress and adjust our behavior to to blend into the ghettoes and peripheral cultures to which we have systemically been confined, when we drive with hip-hop beats booming from our cars, people act scared, describe and treat us as though we were animals. When we speak the King’s English, tuck our shirts in and hold our heads high, when we crank Brahms instead of Kendrick, then people want to call us “uppity” or suggest we’re somehow not being “real”. They want to question the authenticity of our blackness. As though the only real types blackness are the types you’ve already stated you see negatively. When we come up with a new twist or style of music you tell us we’re lacking “crossover appeal”, we don’t have “it”. When one of your own “discovers” what we’ve done and integrates an often less virtuosic version of the exact same thing into their style, they become the next big sensation. What exactly do you want, world? How exactly should we dress, talk, sing, and date so you’ll be happy and let us be happy too? When will you admit that there is no way for us to win this game straight up? That you were always looking for an excuse to scoop up our chips, that the cards in our hands never mattered, that the cards were just a distraction so we wouldn’t notice your accomplices slipping their hands in our pockets?
We don’t really care what other people are inclined to think of us, until what they think starts affecting voting decisions, policing decisions, housing decision, admissions decisions, lending decisions, hiring decisions, and social decisions that lead to opportunities. The fact that so many of those decision are in your hands and rarely our speaks to the loaded nature of these dice. Then because you structurally have the ability to make those decisions that affect our lives, suddenly we very much need to worry about what you think. Our lives literally depends on our playing this game, your game, dice be damned. Often our lives depend on holding our tongues when the game is treating us unfairly. Even though it’s a game where few but our most exceptional outliers are able to win, you’re still constantly goading and daring us to play in spite of the fact that we can’t win.
How much more could my people get done with our lives and our minds if we had a truly level playing field? If we did not have to spend so much daily energy reassuring people we are not threats or imposters? If we did not have to worry about people making decisions that hurt us for being something we’re not, and trying to punish us for innocent things that we are. If we did not start every single day having to dig ourselves out of a perpetual perceptual hole, an assumption of villainy?
The double standard illuminated by the Race Question paints minorities and all oppressed peoples into a corner, where we are externally obstructed from pursuing any happiness dependent on the basic liberties that come with equal personhood. That cannot stand indefinitely.
VIII. Ain’t That “Peculiar”
It should be common knowledge by now that whenever minorities try to peacefully protest or question the status quo, we are regularly scorned and told “if you don’t like it then go back to your country”. But this *is* our country. We were born here, we came here and became citizens, my people were brought here against our will. What differentiates you from me to the point where I should leave if I don’t like the way things are, but the government and political parties should bend over backwards to evolve if *you* don’t like the way things are?
Obtuse contrarians keep trying to gloss over slavery or just give it lip service but we need to keep hammering the following message: my ancestors built this country. Many of the most beautiful places in this nation simply would not exist without slavery and the revenue generated from not paying lots and lots of people who were stolen from their original homeland. Without “our peculiar institution”, what we now know as a country would likely have folded while it was all still colonies.
I cannot emphasize slavery enough if any of us are ever to have an honest conversation. History’s “bricks” such as our Founding Fathers may get all the attention, but my people and the labor that was extracted from us are the mortar. What we were forced to give is enmeshed in everything. That toil gave everything we all stand on today its foundational strength and stability. We have been here a very long time, and the country has been standing on a our subjugated shoulders the entire time we’ve been here. If this country’s economic success were a piece of evidence it would be inadmissible, because the procedural chain of custody documenting how it got from the crime scene to where we are today has been completely tainted. Too many non-white hands have touched the American success story for anyone to ever build a credible case for white supremacy around it.
George Washington may have been the father of our nation, but he wouldn’t have been invited to Independence Hall or made general of the Army if he wasn’t absurdly rich. He wouldn’t have been rich if he had been working his farms with his own hands, and if he hadn’t married into wealth in the form of land and a lot of slaves. He knew slavery was wrong, but didn’t want to free his slaves until after he and his wife died. He wouldn’t have had the resources to buy more and more land or lobby for the eventual location of the nation’s capital if he had needed to pay wages to laborers.
The Father of our Nation built his economic and political fortune on something he personally knew was immoral. George Washington could not tell a lie but he could keep over a hundred slaves; slaves were just too good to pass up. The same goes for the most of the other Founding Fathers. Jefferson. Madison. Even the Northerners who made their fortunes trading and doing other professions were still peripherally participating in an economic ecosystem that would not have been sustainable without the massive windfall that comes with massive amounts of free labor. Northerners and even all but the most die-hard abolitionists may have resented Southern slavers but they still wore the cotton on their backs, smoked the tobacco in their pipes, and did business with slavers to earn at least part of their living and move up the socio-political ladder. They were not necessarily morally complicit, but the tentacles of slavery’s evil did reach into their economic lives. A little humility is in order. Without slaves, colonist may not have made it much past “The Starving Time”, where Virginians were literally eating each other that first winter in Jamestown because so few of them had the knowledge or inclination to farm or hunt. The Colonies would have been abandoned if they had not found a way to make enduring early hardships work for colonists financially. We were that way. Angela Rye speaks the truth on the matter of slavery. We built this joint for free.
I don’t say any of that to boast. The accomplishments stemming from America’s original sin are no more mine to claim than the guilt is other people of this generation’s to bear. No sane person brags about being victimized. And supposedly being able to “play the race card” is no sane solace for a legacy of systemic oppression. Guilt is not the point. Guilt is useless without change.
Perspective is the point. We must regularly cultivate and nurture a proper appreciation for reality, past and present, as a launchpad for changing our future. Perspective informs outlook. Outlook informs choices. If we want change we need to make better choices, choices guided by a better perspective. A better perspective starts with honest acknowledgement of reality and moral common sense.
Common sense tells us that if you are sharing a house with someone and a housemate points out a mess you made, the rational answer is not to suggest that person move out. If you keep telling a person to move out every time they bring up a grievance, the person could rightly conclude you have no interest in a productive house sharing arrangement. A person could rightly conclude you might be trying to drive them out of the house so you can bring in a different housemate or have the house all to yourself. The person would not be paranoid to suspect that if the opportunity arises you may be secretly willing to harm them to get what you want. Whether harm is on your mind or not, you are telegraphing that you have no intention of dealing fairly with them or anyone like them. That if we are interested in being treated fairly it’s more efficient if we just leave, because treating us fairly is simply not an option in your mind. This is an irrational and dangerous mindset.
You can’t run a “if you don’t like it then leave” gambit on a person when they are the one who built the house you live in. It’s absolute nonsense, as in it makes no sense by any stretch of a sane imagination. Until and unless you pay that person who built your house for their time and labor, the house is as much their house as yours. By legal standards, the person who built the house has more rights to the house than you do. If anything they are within their rights to demand that *you* leave, and if you haven’t paid your bill then any just court would have to side with the builder.
No one I know wants anyone to leave nor do we want to be paid. We don’t want “free stuff”, we don’t want you walking around the house on eggshells. But we do want to know why our housemates don’t seem to side more with us on an equal basis. We want to know why anyone thinks we would leave a house we helped build, a house we were forced to build. We want more people to think about that, to remember regularly and constructively without having to be told. We want for us both to be able to enjoy the house equally, not at each other’s expense. Right now, minorities are not being treated as equal parties in the eyes of the social contract. We are signed on for a bad deal.
IX. Just My Imagination
The double standard gets deeper. And deadlier.
Imagine what would happen if minorities started revolting the way so-called “normal” people all throughout human history and Western folklore have done. Imagine if minorities decided to rise up like William Wallace or Robin Hood or the Boston Tea Party. Imagine if we suddenly stopped paying taxes. Imagine if we stopped obeying laws or recognizing the authority of judges. Imagine if we tarred and feathered agents of the courts and “ran them out of town on a rail”. Imagine if we “took a stand”, the way our Founders did. Would pop culture make movies about our heroism woven into a love story, or would people tell stories about the valiant troops who put down the “ungrateful savages” and “brigands”?
Imagine if minorities suggested overthrowing the government and starting over, just like Benjamin Franklin and the Founders did. The Founders didn’t just do that once; they arguably did it at second time with the usurping of the Articles of Confederation. To my knowledge they were only supposed to revise the Articles, not establish an entirely new system of government.
Four score and five years later, half the states living under that Constitution decided they were getting a deal they didn’t like and they tried to leave. Not only were the secessionists not penalized in spite of the casualties caused by their insurrection, their descendants were allowed to erect monuments to the traitors who tried to forcibly break apart our nation. They still fly the flag and put it on memorabilia, as though treachery and losing a war to sustain an immoral economy was somehow something to celebrate.
Confederate talk invariably involves invocations of a “proud heritage”, but what exactly are people proud of? That their ancestors were willing to die rather than acknowledge someone with darker skin is just as human as someone with lighter skin? That they are still forcing us to have this ridiculous conversation today, that a hundred and fifty years later I still have to spend lifespan explaining and proclaiming “I am a person, just like you”? What is this “proud heritage”, that their ancestors thought calling humans property over and over again meant they really were property and not human? That their ancestors were willing to march into bullets rather than pay people for their labor? That they were willing to take a bayoneted death in the gut rather than a thankless life in the cotton fields?
Tim Wise rightly observed it’s hard to tell what’s more ridiculous, being willing to die so you don’t have to work or pay laborers, or being willing to die even though you’re poor and have no slaves, all so some rich people you don’t even kick it with might be spared the indignity of working or paying for labor like everyone else. And we celebrate that “heritage”, because they held true to their principles? Does no one care that the principle is disgusting, or evil, or just really really stupid?
Our textbook authors specifically wrote textbooks whitewashing the reasons behind their treachery just to avoid offending Southern school boards they wanted to sell their books to. We were too polite to remind them that they lost, and we were too polite to remind them why they fought. In so doing, we allowed too many of them to forgot both and then start selling a new revisionism back to us. We voluntarily allowed secessionists to gaslight us about what they did. We invited half the country to diminish something horrible that should never be diminished. All because we wanted peace and to extend an olive branch. I’m a big believer in olive branches but did we really have to give up the whole tree?
Imagine if minorities tried any of what the secessionists did. Imagine if minorities tried to claim some land as theirs and secede from the Union. Imagine if we tried to set up our own President and army on a whim. Imagine if minorities opened fire on a federal fort because they didn’t like who was elected president. They wouldn’t be able to build prisons big enough. They wouldn’t be able make bullets fast enough. They would be able to dig mass graves deep enough. Textbook authors wouldn’t need to worry about whitewashing history to fit a narrative that minorities like. There’d be no minorities left here to read it.
Minorities have no real ability to force a equal-party good faith negotiation right now. Our options appear to be to either shut up and cope, get enough white people to join our cause to sway elections and pursue change extremely gradually even as our people die and are mistreated, or risk prison/death in a vain quixotic attempt at Revolution.
Minorities in America appear to be getting a very bad deal right now. If our only options in reacting to this bad deal are to either accept it, get help from the outside, or lose more life and freedom, then basically we are giving our obedience and tax money with no real expectation of actually receiving the agreed-upon service in exchange. We are being threatened with force or imprisonment if we don’t like the deal or the execution of the deal. That’s not an exchange; that’s extortion.
Some of the less literate and more defensive readers will reflexively wish to cherry-pick or interpret some of my words as anti-white hate speech or anti-American rabble rousing. But pointing out divisions is not the same thing as dividing. The defensive reflex further confirms the embedded nature of our racism. The only way advocating for fairness towards minorities could be construed as anti-white is if one is willing to at least subconsciously concede that recognizing the truth about the past is counterproductive to white happiness and being fair to minorities is antithetical to what makes white lives as they know it possible. The only way these remarks could be categorized as anti-American would be to tacitly suggest that oppression of minorities is critical to making America function. God have mercy on us all if either of those statements ring true.
I know there is something more beautiful that we can attain. Something more beautiful and real than these lies and abuses. But we have to fight and grind through the ugliness of these painful truths first. We have to repeatedly ask ourselves uncomfortable questions and wrestle with uncomfortable answers, about ourselves and our country.
Is the American social contract a joke, a scornfully absurd lie told at our expense? If so, is the solution that a) the enforcement of the contract needs to change, b) the contract itself needs to change, or c) our perception of the country established by that contract needs to change? I don’t know what a good and fair and honest answer looks like yet. The question can wait indefinitely. Change cannot.
I hope we find the courage to step up to change before change steps up to us. No person or people can get away with living a lie forever. We as a unified nation need to step up and work to make things right, on our own terms, the terms we already agreed to.
The United Nations has condemned American racism as a “human rights CRISIS”. They felt so appalled at what they see they condemned our racism even though they depend on the United States for a lot of their operational resources. Doesn’t that make us a little ashamed? Don’t we all want better, if not for ourselves then our Posterity? Don’t we want better for the memory of our ancestors and current compatriots who have risked and bled and died fighting for all this “Liberty”? Don’t we want better, if only to avoid making a mockery of their sacrifice?
We don’t wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night thinking our country is a joke. Our country has stood up to remarkably immoral evils at least five different times and won: first to a tyrannical king who denied our rights of self-determination, next to a divided society that was economically and socially addicted to slave labor of human beings, then to a regressive society set on denying women their voices as citizens, then to a Nazi tyrant who tried to take over the world, and once more to members of our own populace who had tied their society’s structural delights to the perpetual repression of vulnerable people’s civil rights. We have never run away from a fight or the chance to stand up to evils where we find it. We haven’t shied away when the fight took a long time, nor when it looked unwinnable. We should not start now by pretending this problem is overblown, a figment of outrage addicts’ imaginations.
It’s been twenty-five years since the Rodney King L.A. Riots.
We should have made more progress by now.
Whatever failures trouble us, the noble idea of this country deserves to be more than a joke, more than just elementary school propaganda. We should work and fight together for what that idea is supposed to be, the same way people have been doing for the last two hundred and forty years. I hope we get there. I hope more of us get back to being the best of who we can be. Our country is not a joke. Our country is a house, one that cannot stand while divided against itself. Our country is our home. All of ours.