Current Events

The soul of the nation

Today’s post is written by regular BGIM contributor Teddy Burrage, a Portland, Maine, native and local activist and organizer. When he’s not writing or working, you can usually find him exploring Maine’s vast interior and coastline.
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The events that took place in Charlottesville and the days after laid bare the soul of the United States. No matter how hard this nation tries, we cannot rid ourselves of the seemingly everlasting scourge of white supremacy. Early movements for civil rights sought to change our institutions in favor of more equitable policies and that tradition continues today through the efforts of those who advocate for criminal justice reform, for example. But even though it’s been proven possible to effect change in institutions, the notion of white supremacy persists in the attitudes of many white people—whether they are stanch white nationalists or oblivious liberals.

Recently, the president of the United States compared the two sides who clashed at the Charlottesville rally, making a moral equivalence between white supremacists and anti-racists. And even though his assessment rightly offended many people, in some ways it is representative of national tradition. Our country has a rich history of contemplating the humanity of Black people as matter of acceptable public discourse.

In 1787 after a contentious debate, it was decided that that Black slaves were three-fifths a person. Seventy-four years later, the nation entered civil war over the humanity of slaves. The following decades were defined by battles against the KKK, a fight for voting rights, and tensions associated with a segregated South. Today, the nation grapples with the morality of mass incarceration and the extrajudicial killings of Black people. The worthiness of Black lives has always been up for debate in the United States. What is unique about the modern era is the ever-present idea that we are a post-racial society.

There is a perception that George Wallace was the last segregationist to exist, that Martin Luther King Jr. healed all the nation’s racist attitudes, and that Lyndon Johnson rid our institutions of racism and discrimination. Many believe that these acts of social sorcery ushered in an era in which our racist past was no longer relevant.

A brief exercise in critical thought exposes how absurd these assumptions are. But nevertheless, such perceptions serve as a point of departure for many debates surrounding race in America today.

Most Americans are familiar with the images of the Birmingham Campaign in 1963 when non-violent Black protesters were blasted with fire hoses and attacked by German shepherds. Similarly, images of the sit-in at Woolworth’s lunch counter continue to be emblematic of the Civil Rights Movement. But somehow, despite these historic scenes, people believe that they were just an isolated moments in time.

But where are those people now who dowsed Anne Moody in condiments at the lunch counter or the cops who released attack dogs on Black men, women, and children? Were those people, and their community of like minds, suddenly washed over with feelings of compassion and equality with a swipe Lyndon Johnson pen? The events that took place in Charlottesville prove that is unlikely.

It cannot be underestimated the amount of people who carry the torch of hate and bigotry into the 21st century. Many people look at Donald Trump and say that he is the creator of these attitudes. But that is an error in thinking. Donald Trump is just a purveyor of hate looking to capitalize on an already abundant resource. He now serves as an umbrella under which cowards can hide from the rains of reality.

Even though these white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists tend to align with the political right, white liberals and moderates, too, have some ownership to take when it comes to dismantling racist notions in their own backyards. Simply announcing one’s allegiance to a certain political affiliation or ideology doesn’t automatically make them immune to being part of the problem. Of course liberals do not thrust their hands out into a Nazi salute; oftentimes, though, they meet communities of color with only lip service, apathy, and silence. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail:

“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”

Just as feelings of hate and ignorance have been inherited by people on the right, apathetic and blasé attitudes have been handed-down to the white liberals and moderates who stand to the left of them. Colorblind-ism is likely the most pervasive viewpoint that liberals hold which serves to invalidate and undermine Black folks and their experiences. (For more information on the problem with saying you don’t see race, see here.)

Racism is a system and depends on many different moving parts. Right wing extremism may represent the pistons that drive the engine, but ineffectual and shallow support from liberals serves as lubrication. It all works together.

Even though we have a long history of deliberating whether Black people are deserving of respect and humanity, it does not mean that we need to further that tradition. Though our nation has gone through even harsher social and political unrest, the level of regression we are facing now is unparalleled. Emboldened white supremacists who now feel safe to slither out of the shadows have been legitimized by the so-called Leader of the Free World.

In these uncertain times, it is important for people who are committed to justice to review what Karl Popper called the Paradox of Tolerance. The philosopher theorized in 1945 that societies could be tolerant to a fault. Liberalism says that tolerance is an unbreakable virtue but Popper said this was a misstep in thinking. He said that there is one thing that we should not be tolerant of and that is intolerance itself.

“Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.   In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.”

Even though the theory is an exercise in reading comprehension, the concept is quite simple: be tolerant to all people but reject those who hold intolerant ideologies such as white supremacy.

So many people talk about what they would have done if they were there during the Civil Rights Movement. Well, that opportunity has presented itself again and this era will be defined by who stands up for justice and humanity.
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Calling all white people, part 19: Chuck white feelings in the wake of Charlottesville

Calling All White People, Part 19

(A periodic attempt to mobilize white people for something other than supporting just other melanin-deficient folks and maintaining a status quo of a nation geared toward whiteness as the baseline and the norm)

By An Average White Guy

TODAY’S EPISODE: Get real about what Charlottesville means, and get out of your feelings  

[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

Look, I’m not going to tell you what’s been happening in Charlottesville, Virginia, the past couple days. If you’re deep enough under a rock that you haven’t heard about it all, get online and hit up Google search, OK?

But I have some feelings about what’s happening in Charlottesville and in particular how my fellow white people are feeling about it. And I have some words for those who are experiencing fear, dismay, outrage, guilt or affront (or anything else) with regard to said feelings.

Fuck my feelings.

Fuck your feelings.

Fuck all of our white people feelings.

I’m not saying we can’t have feelings about the way racists of all stripes straight-up decided to instigate a race riot and declare that white supremacy is willing to harm and kill Blacks and other non-whites to survive and prosper. I’m not saying you can’t be emotionally wrought by this horrific set of events.

But we white people love to get in our feelings, especially when we want to make sure people know we aren’t like “those white people.”

But instead of getting *in* your feelings, get *out* of them.

What are you going to *do* about all of this?

Again, not saying you can’t share tweets and Facebook posts; I sure have. But what are you going to do beyond that? What will you do to demonstrate that you won’t tolerate racism and white supremacy in this country?

You can declare all the outrage you want online or among friends about the racists in Charlottesville but what are you going to do about them and the system that both props them up and that they are trying to preserve? A system that, by the way, nurtures all of us white people at the expense of people of color, especially Black people…and which was built on the blood and backs of Native Americans and Black people.

What are you going to do about the white people around you who feel attacked by the Black people who point to Charlottesville and say, “See, white supremacy at work again, in plain sight and unchallenged by authorities” or will you remain silent because you don’t want to have uncomfortable feelings or don’t what those other white people to feel a certain way about you?

Screw your feelings and theirs.

When they say “The Ferguson, Missouri, situation and all the BLM protests were just as bad,” don’t let them get away with it. It’s not the same. Tell them that. Don’t allow them to have a dissenting opinion that is patently untrue. Don’t let them be entitled to feelings of sympathy for racists that are entirely misplaced and undeserved.

Ferguson was a place where Black people protested an injustice and had shrines and memorials with candles and such that were vandalized, and when they marched they were met with police and they were accused of burning down their neighbors when in fact there were more protesters putting out fires than outsiders or people negligently setting them. And yet they were met with tear gas and tanks and had to deal with being occupied in a military fashion.

Meanwhile, in Charlottesville, you have white people carrying not candles but torches, surrounding a church and being threatening toward people conducting vigils, while other racists dressed in fatigues and armed themselves and helped spur on actual assaults of counter-protesters and one guy drove a fucking car into a crowd of them…and the white people even threw tear gas at the people of color…and the police did nothing. No tanks. No sweeping show of force among the white people.

It isn’t the same and no matter how much Trump wants to say there is hate and violence on multiple sides, that isn’t the case.

The hate and the violence is overwhelmingly on the side of white people, used against Black people and other POC in overt ways like Charlottesville and in subtle ways with daily discrimination.

Fuck. Your. Feelings. And mine.

It’s time to change, and change will begin by standing up clearly for what you believe in. If you believe racism is wrong, stop hiding that from the people it will bother. Stop allowing non-white people around you to be misused or actually harmed and say or do nothing. Do *something* damn it. Something to show you’re on the right side instead of just saying you are. Something to support or protect people of color instead of hoping someone else will be there for them.

This isn’t, as BGIM and others have pointed out online recently, a “both sides” thing. This is a thing where racists are openly using violence and intimidation to ensure that white supremacy not only remains alive and well but shoves people of color down even harder than it has been for decades even with civil rights legislation in place.

You need to stop worrying so much about feelings and start worrying about which side you are on. Because being in the middle essentially makes you a supporter of the villains who will do anything and everything to harm people of color in order to make sure oppression remains the norm and becomes so normalized that it doesn’t even need to be done subtly anymore at all.
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White folks and affirmative action: The 101 real-deal lesson

The most dangerous White supremacists wear suits and smiles, not hoods. They kill with respectable debate and marching orders, not weapons. – Ju-Hyun Park

I am a Black woman from Chicago living in Maine who writes and talks about race pretty regularly. Then, to ensure that I really never stop talking about racism, my day job is heading up an anti-racism organization. That means that my small-talk game in social settings leads to some pretty interesting moments. If you want to kill the vibe at the local watering hole or social gathering, try talking about a job like mine in the era of Trump. I am what some might consider a buzzkill. Hey, it’s a living and someone has to do it.

Seriously though, what happens far too often is that some white person, upon hearing what I do for a living, wants to engage me on race and generally starts feeding me the “I don’t see race line”…“We are all the same”…or some other line of deflection that reveals that the speaker has never thought deeply or critically about race. Someone who rarely or never understands that to be white in America (and, frankly, most of the world) is to exist in a bubble of privilege.

As I said in my TEDx talk last fall, America is a nation built on stolen land that was built with the bodies of stolen and enslaved people. In choosing that course of action, we set in place a country where possession of white skin has meant inclusion into the family of humanity and anything less than white skin has meant a struggle to be viewed as fully human.

What’s interesting is that since the Obama presidency, there has been a shift in perception that white folks are becoming a minority and that anti-white bias/discrimination is an issue. Funny how the first non-white president out of the previous 43 white male presidents brought about this shift in mindset. I guess when you don’t see yourselves occupying the highest seat in the land, it causes one to feel some kind of way.

Well, fast-forward past the Obama years to the Trump months and we have Trump to the rescue, making America great again by putting those Blacks and other non-white, non-cisgendered, non-heterosexual, non-Christians back in their place. Under the thumb of the straight white man.

Given how fast things move in Trumpland (in the span of a Scaramucci perhaps, or maybe a Scaramouche?), I have tried to avoid writing about Trump directly because by the time I pen my thoughts and post, we will be on to the next calamity or stunt. However as news broke that the Trump regime planned to investigate anti-white bias in affirmative action admissions policies, I had to say something.

For decades now, there has been this fixed false belief that Black people and other minorities and immigrants were getting all the goodies once reserved for white people and thus displacing white folks from their “proper” place of entitlement. When you are used to having all the candy in the treat bowl, sharing does feel uncomfortable but that is how we achieve racial equity.

The real deal is that white folks and specifically white women are the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action. Let’s go back several decades and talk about how the great middle class in America was created. After World War II, soldiers came home and took advantage of the GI Bill, the reward for serving your country and coming home alive.

The GI bill allowed soldiers to come home and to have access to housing loans and education, as my friend and colleague Debby Irving writes about in her pivotal book Waking Up White. Debby talks about how her parent’s first home was subsidized by the government and her father was able to attend law school for free. Debby’s family was not alone. Millions of white folks had access to the American Dream and the GI Bill was the great equalizer. At the same time that white GI’s were starting to climb the ladder of the American Dream, Black GI’s were blocked thanks to the racial inequity embedded in the higher education, finance and housing systems. In the end, only 4 percent of Black GI’s were able to access the bill’s offer of free education.

Why does this matter in 2017? Well today’s white folks are the direct beneficiaries of those GI’s in the 1940s and 1950s. That means if your folks were able to get an education, buy a home and start building wealth, chances are high that you were raised with real access to the tools for upward mobility. Our homes are our largest biggest wealth builders and where you live matters even more given how we fund schools and other resources. All schools are not created equal.

Back on the other side, the FHA created a set of policies that would come to be known as redlining that essentially pushed Blacks into less favorable homes and neighborhoods. These policies had a trickle-down effect and Black folks were often relegated to communities with declining home values thus little chance to build equity and create wealth while their white counterparts were creating wealth in their homes. Moving to a better neighborhood wasn’t exactly an option since the better areas were associated with whiteness and Black folks were essentially blocked from accessing those areas thanks to the federal government. And when Black people have moved into such neighborhoods, white people have often moved out (no matter how professional or wonderful those Black people) and those neighborhoods were seen as less desirable and home values went down.

I am not about to give a full history lesson here but if any of this is news to you, a great place to learn more is watching PBS’s Race: The Power of an Illusion.

The same white folks who ballyhoo about non-white people getting great stuff for free or getting more benefits (both of which are very, very rarely the case) are often the same folks who refuse to see all what whiteness has bequeathed to white folks. To go even further, they often refuse to see whiteness at all. To be white for many white folks is to be “normal.” Thus, everything that white folks do is the norm or the “proper” way and everyone else is “other” or “wrong.”

So, when a country starts to racially and ethnically shift, it feels like a seismic shift of epic proportions to white people, even if it really isn’t. The thing is that even with the very real racial and ethnic shifts happening in America, that won’t necessarily change the power dynamics. And, ultimately, it is those dynamics that must shift for true equity and equal opportunity. After all, majority-minority locales (places where whites are the minority, that is) where almost all the power and wealth still resides with white people are not an aberration; it’s typically the rule.

There is a certain irony that the Trump cabinet is overwhelmingly filled with rich, white people and yet it feels the need to take on this almost entirely mythical anti-white bias. Truth is that this is nothing more than a wink and a nod at Trump’s base of disaffected white folks who have been left behind in a changing world. The problem is that it will do little at all to help his base (because they have been left behind by factors other than racial shifts) but it has the potential to create a world of hurt for Black, Brown and other non-white people who are participating in an unfair race that is tilted towards white success.

The only way we will move past this is to start having honest discussions on whiteness, but I suspect that conversation will not be held by the current regime.
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If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

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