The first abolition struggle arose to oppose slavery. For the most part, it did not challenge the idea of white supremacy. It did not advocate for racial equality. It sought the end of chattel slavery. Period. The second developed to abolish the Jim Crow version of apartheid that replaced slavery.
Despite the heroic efforts of blacks and whites to end slavery and Jim Crow, the system of racism and white privilege kept right on going. Like a virus, it evolved and adapted. How do we know that? Racially measured inequality in health, income, wealth, education, incarceration, housing and other measures still define our society. Many disparities are as big now, or worse, than they have been in the past.
Never yet has there been a movement to abolish racism itself. Now is the time, not just because there is a crisis. Surely there is a crisis. But while it might not seem obvious, there is also new opportunity.
Many whites continue to believe that racial disparities persist because African-Americans are inferior and therefore deserving of their “second-class” status. That view is racist pure and simple. The more “liberal” perspective is that inequalities persist because of the “legacy” of slavery. That’s not accurate either.
Why? Global race-based capitalism is not a system of the past with lingering effects. It is a living, breathing organism of the present. White racism is as much a part of our structure in 2014 as “free markets,” private property, the jury system, cable TV, Major League Baseball, representative democracy and the Second Amendment.
Thanks to the work of historian Gerald Horne, especially his most recent book, The Counter-Revolution of 1776, we have a much better understanding of how thoroughly the creation of the “first apartheid state” set the course we are still on more than 200 years later. Well beyond the nefarious “three-fifths of a man” so-called compromise language in the Constitution, the nation’s core document institutionalized white privilege.
White racism will not just “wither away.” It surely will not disappear just because whites become a minority. It cannot be dismissed into oblivion by calling any discussion of it “playing the race card,” or repeating loudly and frequently that it is “in the past.”
Neither will it be eliminated in the course of achieving liberal political objectives such as the Affordable Care Act or “comprehensive immigration reform,” the decriminalization of marijuana or a reduction in the size of the prison population. Indeed it is the other way around. Until racism is addressed a more humane social contract is unattainable.
“Talking” About Race versus Opposing Racism
It’s amusing to hear recurring calls to “talk” about race. Don’t we already do that a lot? How could it be otherwise given that our society has spent the last 500 years perfecting the concept of “whiteness.”
So it’s no wonder that the identity difference between white and black is more evident today than ever. It is in music, dress, how people name their children, politics and everything else. Extensive research verifies that we register skin color in all of our interactions, silly claims to being “post-racial” notwithstanding.
Race is intrinsic to the way the brains of US citizens are conditioned by schools, media and custom to mentally organize the world. Otherwise, why would it even matter to call Barack Obama our “first black president.” Why would there be a Black Entertainment Network? Why would anyone care that Fox News or Duck Dynasty or Donald Sterling or Cliven Bundy were there to express and reinforce the stereotypes that are essential ingredients of white privilege and white supremacy?
Talking about race is itself part of the systemic reproduction of racism. Columnist Charles Pierce put it this way, “Maybe we should admit it to ourselves…the racial divide is something essential to holding our idea of the country together. It may be that we cannot unify ourselves without fashioning every fifty years or so a new suit of clothes for old Jim Crow.”
Consider this recent post-Ferguson, MO headline, “Deep Racial Divide Remains Under Obama.” About the words “racial divide.” Like “racial tensions” and other weasel euphemisms, the issue becomes framed as something other than racism, even though racism is discussed in the story. The headline implies that whites and black share equal responsibility for tensions and divisions. And for good measure it suggests that it’s somehow all Obama’s fault. (Not that he has displayed any serious anti-racist leadership. He hasn’t.)
There is no denying that racism mostly appears to be as bad as ever. But there is an emerging counter-narrative. Hidden behind the heat and noise generated by the machine that is constantly reinventing racism, there are more points of light than you might realize. Were we to deliberately, extensively and strategically promulgate this emerging understanding, we could put ourselves in a new era of change.
Ta-nehisi Coates’ Atlantic Monthly essay on the heretofore taboo for white people subject of reparations is an example. Whatever you think about the role reparations might play in creating a truly fair society, it puts information and perspective in front of whites that most have never heard of. The willingness of a bastion of mainstream media to publish it is significant.
Seen in the context of the works of other writers and activists cited at the end of this article, it is akin to popularizing the research that definitively established the connection between smoking and lung cancer. It represents a new kind of soft Black Power.
Some whites welcome greater black power as progress. For many, however, even a vague awareness that blacks have new found clout plays into deep racial fears. Others remain oblivious to the reality of systemic, institutional racism and therefore participate, consciously or not, in the perpetuation of standard issue white narratives.
The Old Narrative And The New
The movie Lincoln offers a stark example of how racist perceptions are perpetuated. Lincoln is a triumph of filmmaking, as one would expect of Stephen Spielberg. It also is deeply flawed because it preserves a common misrepresentation of the civil war by ignoring the extent to which it was the slaves who freed the slaves. Script writer Tony Kushner could easily have added one or two lines of dialogue acknowledging that slaves defecting from their masters directly precipitated the crisis that led to Lincoln’s issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. Alas, he did not. So, history was not fully told and once again white people give white people more credit than they deserve for ending slavery.
(Assuming that Spielberg and/or Kushner read the New York Times, they would surely be aware of this. Adam Goodheart’s April 1, 2011How Slavery Really Ended in America, in the New York Times Magazine addresses this very point.)
A more current example would be the underreporting of the role played by LeBron James and other African American basketball players in the changes that followed revelations of racist remarks by Los Angles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Yet the white media gives most of the credit to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.
In recent months red-hot attention has been paid to inequality. Overwhelmingly, though, most white pundits, including the much venerated Paul Krugman, avoid any mention of race whatsoever when discussing the topic. Incredible.
Ignorance is not bliss. Unless we openly and consciously want another 500 years of strife and racial inequality, these examples cry out for a deliberate, organized and strategic effort to monitor and address these kinds of misrepresentations and omissions. White racism is organic to our system. Anti-racism must be taught. This is one arena in which a new abolition movement could make a difference.
Language is another. Thanks to the efforts of blacks and whites during and since the civil rights movement, it is no longer socially acceptable for whites to use racial slurs when talking about blacks. The common usage of the term African-American is another positive change. The downside is that now many whites speak in code. But that code can be exposed and challenged. Doing so in a systematic way would be one of the tasks of a new abolition movement. It could help to shift the debate from often dead-end arguments about the “intent” of whites to a focus on the effects of actions and policies. It could strategically disrupt the relentless drumbeat of whites who are extremely confident in their expertise at knowing what racism is not and yet never are able to recognize what it is.
Are there whites ready willing and able to contribute to this process? Certainly. They stand in the proud tradition of original Abolitionists such as William Wilberforce, William Lloyd Garrison, Sarah and Angelina Grimke, John Brown and others.
A fascinating example comes from Marshalltown, Iowa. There the publisher of the Marshalltown Times Republican, Mike Schlesinger and Abigail Pelzer, the managing editor, decided some time ago to stop printing comments on their news stories and editorials. Why? Because they concluded that the comments were primarily serving as a hothouse for racist animosity and other forms of hate speech.
On the other side of the coin, a shamelessly racist review of a new book about slavery in a recent issue of the Economist drew scores of scathing rebukes and rebuttals from commenters. Presumably most of them were white.
In England, white lawyers are representing a coalition of Caribbean nations in a serious effort to win reparations for slavery in former European colonies. The number of whites arrested in the protests organized over the last year by the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina significantly exceeds the number of African-Americans arrested. Many whites are outraged at Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder’s crusade to defend the racist name of his football team.
When Robert Copeland, the Police Commissioner of Wolfeboro, New Hampshire made overtly racist remarks about President Obama, Jane O’Toole, a white woman, filed a complaint. After Copeland doubled down on his comment, his fellow Wolfeboro citizens, virtually all of them white, spoke out eloquently and vigorously against him. He was ultimately forced to resign.
In Grosse Pointe Park, MI an affluent, predominately white, suburb of Detroit, whites are playing a prominent role in a coalition fighting to reopen a thoroughfare to overwhelmingly black Detroit. The road was closed by city officials to create a gated-community like barrier to “outsiders” seeking to enter the city by car. The codes used to justify the barrier they erected included “stopping blight” and “creating a pedestrian friendly environment.”
Hollywood has certainly played a role in perpetuating racist memes over the years. Recently however there has been a surge in counter-examples. The films Twelve Years a Slaveand Fruitvale Station provided a wake up call to millions, including many whites. The white director Quentin Tarantino made the antiracist filmDjango Unchained. Hollywood powers have green lighted a movie to be called Dear White Peoplewhich promises to be a stereotype busting send-up of the racial attitudes and behaviors of whites. Oprah Winfrey is set to make a film of Sue Monk Kidd’s extraordinary anti-racist historical novel, The Invention of Wings.
The stranglehold of residential segregation is the foundation for much institutional racism over many decades. It is still the dominant housing pattern. Yet anecdotally it is clear that many communities are becoming more racially diverse. As a result, more and more genuine interaction in schools and neighborhoods is taking place from PTA meetings to block parties.
Hope is assuredly not a strategy. Examples like these will not magically cohere into an effective movement. White supremacy in thought and deed has been part of the fabric of life in the United States for 500 years. It is understandable that most would assume it is not just “normal,” but immutable as well.
But that attitude is both self-defeating and self-perpetuating. It is hopeless. We have arrived at a “which-side-are-you-on” time to make clear as forcefully as we can that the definition of a racist is anyone who is not an anti-racist.
Race and Identity
White racism in the US is at a turning point because the world is at a turning point. The global economy created by 500 years of race-based capitalism is facing skepticism, dysfunction and opposition as never before. Furthermore, identity divisions, whether based on “race,” gender, religion, sexual identity, tribe, nationality or ethnicity are in flux.
The reasons are evolutionary rather than revolutionary. But to use one of the trendy words of the day, current economic, technological and social trends are profoundly disruptive. At the risk of sounding for a moment like the white-western-elites-always-know-best pundit Tom Friedman, fast, cheap global communication and economic intercourse arecreating a sense of world consciousness and identity. The threat of ecocatastrophe is also a powerful game-changer.
Never has it been easier, more compelling or more valuable to think of oneself first and foremost as human. History tells us that the hierarchy of identity can and does change. It happens more often than we might think. For example, as slavery and colonialism evolved, the identity of “whiteness” triumphed over religion, language and nationality. Sure white people think of themselves as Baptists or Irish–Americans, Texans, Boston Red Sox fans or Ohio State graduates. Identity is a multi-layered thing. But consciously or not, in our culture, even if it’s not proper to say so out loud, white comes at the top of the hierarchy.
Must that always be so? No. It wasn’t always true in the past and it needn’t be true in the future. Today financial, economic and cultural global elites often place corporations higher on their identity “ladder” than loyalty to a nation state. These things change. The late civil rights leader Vincent Harding used to describe himself as “a resident of a country that does not yet exist.”
Neuroscience and social science are also raising profound challenges to old ideas about identity, unconscious bias, violence and hate. By asking questions about the relationships between humans and animals, activists and academics are opening new ways to think about human behavior, especially human-on-human violence. Is it true as Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson argues in Beasts that humans first created the brutality we routinely visit upon each other by “domesticating” and, of necessity, concurrently mistreating and demonizing animals? Is it intrinsically in our nature to be violent? Maybe not—at least not in the way that conventional wisdom assumes it is.
The prospect of apocalyptic ecocatastrophe also gives these issues enormous urgency and relevance. Simply put, saving the planet makes many forms of human-on-human hostility and conflict, including systemic white racism, luxuries we can no longer afford.
White Power Ain’t What It Used To Be
The politics and economics of white privilege have changed significantly. Lyndon Johnson famously predicted that the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 would produce a major political realignment within the two party-system. He was right. The “Dixiecrat” segregationists of both the southern and northern variety became Republicans. The Democratic Party slowly came to accept African-Americans. Thus, the Republican Party is now the party of white people, especially white men. The Democrats are more diverse.
Some people think that is the whole story. But it isn’t. Because as that drama has played out over the last 50 years, both parties became increasingly irrelevant as instruments of meaningful power and protections for the 99%. One good example is the thirty year decline of trade unions, regardless of whether Democrats or Republicans had their hands on the levers of government power.
Another consequence of the post Jim Crow era is the anger and resentment of many whites, especially men, at changes they perceive as displacing the “natural order” of advantages they enjoyed for generations. But was that “old order” as beneficial as we have been led to believe? And even if it was, can it even be restored or is it gone forever?
There is both a “left-wing” and a right-wing version of the cry, “I want my America back.” Both positions reflect pathological nostalgia. Both are unrealistic insofar as the world has moved on in so many ways. But perhaps most importantly neither embodies a vision of a better future.
Just as Gerald Horne’s scholarship strips away shibboleths about the founding of the United States, Fear Itself by Ira Katznelson demythologizes the New Deal. Horne’s work illuminates the creation of the first ever apartheid state to protect chattel slavery (along with other white, male property rights). In essence the American Revolution and the ensuing constitutional process made a grand bargain legalizing white advantage.
With meticulous scholarship Katznelson demonstrates that the New Deal was essentially another grand bargain between lofty ideals and segregationist power that reinvented institutional racism to adapt to the economic changes of the industrial revolution. He shows that again and again, “compromises” with Dixiecrats were necessary to pass legislation that strengthened the economic leverage of whites at the expense of the economic, social and political power of blacks. (Douglas Blackman’s Slavery By Another Namedoes the same thing for the post reconstruction era.)
The racism of it all aside, is the New Deal really the best that we can do? Indeed, does it have much relevance at all to a global economy that is very different from what existed 70 years ago thanks to automation, globalization, environmental degradation and the mass migration from farms to cities?
Wages for whites have now been stagnant for nearly 40 years, especially so for white men. The system just isn’t delivering the way it used to. To be sure, social status advantage still provides some psychic income in the minds of many whites. But stripped of the connection to rising real wages, as occurred from 1950-1980, the privilege loses considerable value.
Looked at in a visionary way, the decline in the value of economic advantage for whites as codified in the New Deal era could contribute to forming a new social contract that need not rest on a foundation of white privilege.
US foreign and military policy is of course no less a creation of race-based-capitalism than domestic policy. White privilege isn’t worth what it used to be in that realm either.
First, the outcome of the Viet Nam war seriously dented the nation’s sense of unbroken imperial triumph. Then 9/11 came along to obliterate exemption from foreign attack on our own soil. The exorbitant costs of global domination continue to go up. The benefits are trending inexorably downward.
Again, it’s time to challenge whites to do some serious arithmetic on the actual returns from our investment in white privilege. This is anything but a purely economic calculation. The moral price whites play for their role in creating and maintaining a rigged system is immense. So too is the legacy of brutality, meanness and addiction to violence that so infests our entire society.
Is Change Possible?
For some time now we have witnessed rapidly shifting attitudes and social policy on sexual identity and gender roles. Patriarchy and, by some measures, homophobia are thousands of years old. Racism as defined by the invention of “whiteness” as an essential component of creating, justifying and protecting slavery is only 500 years old.
So, how come racism seems so entrenched and patriarchy and homophobia are at least for the moment receding in the Untied States? Why has the LGBTQ movement made so much progress in such a short time while disparities measured by race in income, wealth, education, incarceration, health and other criteria are getting worse? My friend Dave Marsh answered that question this way, “Dick Cheney never had a black son-in-law.” Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recently made essentially the same point.
Yes, personal experience can be a powerful motivator for change. But lasting social and institutional change requires organization, strategy and resources. The women’s movement and the LGBTQ movement deserve enormous credit for their success in challenging patriarchy and homophobia. Of course there is still much to be done. Efforts to undo those hard won advances could succeed. But dramatic gains clearly have been made.
Which brings us back to the beginning. When all is said and done, racism is not just white people with bad attitudes. It is, to say it again, a living, breathing complex system that encompasses our economy, our social structures and customs and the way we are governed.
To look at the polling data on how whites as opposed to blacks view events like Ferguson or to read the racist and just plain ignorant comments on websites on racial topics is to assume that the “minds” of whites are closed forever. That view is too static. Minds were changed about slavery and Jim Crow. Minds were changed about gay marriage. Minds were changed about smoking tobacco cigarettes. Once upon a time, humans even came to accept the wrenching realization that the sun does not revolve around the earth.
Minds and policies can be changed about racism and white supremacy. The point is not just to persuade whites to “help” blacks. It is to make clear that racism has outlived the usefulness that it may once have had to whites. The “white-man’s-burden” is not blacks. The white people’s burden is racism itself.
The whole idea and architecture of whiteness and white privilege is vulnerable as never before. The danger of doing nothing is also as greater than it has ever been.
So, let’s figure out a plan.
Following is a working list of possible invitees to a “summit” on creating a new anti-racist movement. This is obviously not a complete list. It is especially weak in names of those working on racism directed at Hispanics and First Nation people.
But it does represent a “map” of some of those who by their writing, scholarship and activism are already creating a better understanding of how racism works and a starting point for considering how it might be dismantled. Those named and many more, have something to offer in imagining and creating a new abolition movement. All have access to platforms that can impact the national dialogue.
Would such a gathering be a conference? Would it be the founding convention of a new organization? Even if there is a compelling case for the why, what’s needed to get to the how? The best way to answer these questions is to get the conversation started.
In alphabetical order: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Michelle Alexander, Simon Balto, Russell Banks, Rev. William Barber, Beth Tompkins Bates, Douglas Blackmon, Charles Blow, Grace Boggs, Lundy Braun, Paul Bucheit, Ta-nehisi Coates, The Honorable John Conyers, Brittany Cooper, Joan Countryman, Mathew Countryman, Chauncy de Vega, Laura Flanders, Glenn Ford, Ruth Fowler, Carl Gibson, The Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Adam Goodheart, Greg Grandin, Heather Gray, Kevin Gray, Karl Gregory, Peter Hammer, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Melissa Harris-Perry, Bob Herbert, Gerald Horne, Adam Hochschild, Robert Jensen, Nelson Johnson, Joyce Johnson, Marilynn Katz, Ira Katznelson, Sue Monk Kidd, The Honorable Damon Kieth, Nancy Kurshan, Paul Lee, Nicholas Lemann, Leon Litwack, Philip Longman, The Honorable John Lewis, Amanda Marcotte, Dave Marsh, Edward McClleland, James Oakes, Patrice O’Niell, Andrew O’Hehir, Charles Pierce, Leonard Pitts, John Powell, Daria Roithmayr, Richard Rothstein, Fran Shor, Deborah Small, The Honorable Sonia Sotomayor, John Steppling, Bill Strickland, Quentin Tarantino, Ann Kidd Taylor, Chris Tomlinson, Tim Tyson, Joan Walsh, Stephen Ward, Peter Werbe, Cornell West, Craig Steven Wilder, Oprah Winfrey, Tim Wise, Gary Younge, Bob Zellner.
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