I’m reading Jemar Tisby’s new book, How to Fight Racism. I recommend it. It’s silly to write about the book before I’m quite done with it but I am getting excited and want to share some quick highlights. Here are three things I think Tisby does especially well.
–Moving past the racist/not racist dichotomy. Tisby reminds us we’re all on a journey. I like to tell people I think I’m a little less racist than I used to be. But it is absurd to suppose that I am not at all racist or that my actions are never racially harmful. How could I possibly grow up where and when I did, become socialized into whiteness, and not be racist? Tisby’s framing encourages us neither to despair nor feel self-righteous, but to move forward from whatever point we find ourselves.
Upon meeting me for the first time, a Black teenager once moved up close to me, looked me over, and asked, “Are you racist?” On one level, she was merely a rambunctious kid engaging in some deliberately provocative play. But on a deeper level she was very efficiently finding out crucial information about me. If I responded defensively or with anger, she would know I was not a safe adult and she should stay away. I don’t remember if I gave her “my less racist than I used to be” answer, but I do remember consciously letting go of any impulse to defend myself.
–Rejecting the personal/systemic false choice. A generation ago, there was a whole genre of Christian racial reconciliation books that said relationships were the key to racial progress. All too often, these books and their readers used this relationship focus as a weapon against structural critique. The liberals missed the point, they said. Systemic solutions didn’t deal with the human heart. Only relationships among Christians could create real racial progress.
Tisby rejects this simplistic prioritizing of the personal without losing sight of how important relationships are. He writes, “People need a personal motivation to disrupt the regular patterns of racism in their own lives and in society…It is difficult to pursue effective structural remedies to racism if you have little understanding of the personal experiences of marginalized people.” Instead of the personal and systemic being at odds, Tisby sees personal relationships as a way to galvanize system-level action while keeping that action rooted in the real experiences of ordinary people.
Tisby’s insistence that fighting racism is a both/and matter also carries a challenge for white liberals and leftists. If you’ve seen white liberals speaking the rote language of racial enlightenment, throwing around academic jargon with ideological inflexibility, then you know how important real relationships are. If you’ve seen white liberals imagining their own cities as a white archipelago surrounded by black and brown no-go zones, then you know how important personal action is. (On more than one occasion, people have “misheard” Alicia and I when we tell them where we live. It just doesn’t fit their mental map).
If you’ve seen white liberals speaking the language of pity, then you know how important real connections to black leaders are. Tisby insists that we shouldn’t just vote for people who might change systems. We can reject the narrow range of personal choices our segregated society tries to funnel us into. We can rethink where we send our kids to school, for example.
–Rejecting the politics of church primacy. You’ve heard this one before too: “The church is the only hope for racial progress. Only the gospel can change hearts.” This might be a plausible point of view coming from a radical Anabaptist envisioning an Acts 2 kind of primitive Christianity. But it reeks of excuses when it comes from mainstream American Christians who envision a role for the state in all sorts of important moral matters only to conspicuously assert the singular primacy of the church when it comes to race.
Tisby does not downplay the importance of the church at all. In fact, his chapter on doing reconciliation right is excellent on specific ways churches should take action to pursue racial justice. But he recognizes the rhetorical role defenses of the church can play in justifying inaction at the social and political level. If you think racial progress comes only through the church, you ought to explain how the church will level the racial wealth gap. While you’re at it, do tell how the church will abolish racist policing and end school segregation. Of course, no one actually has such a plan, because these problems extend so far beyond the church’s capacity. Too often, the rhetoric of church primacy is really just another way of saying that racial oppression isn’t a serious problem demanding a systemic response.
I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that is so invested in the personal and ecclesial battle against racism, yet completely refuses to play the either/or game and give short shrift to systemic change. There is no contradiction between praying for a spiritual awakening for your hard-hearted friend to finally see the reality of racism, and at the same time pressuring institutions to pay reparations. They go hand in hand.
Tisby has a talent, I think, for meeting us where we are–wherever that may be–and challenging us to go a little further. This is a very good book.
What did I get right and wrong about the Trump Presidency? The answer cannot be left only to the vagaries of memory, so I recently looked over some of my old blog posts and social media from 2016.
The short answer: I’m pretty sure I thought it was going to be even worse than it was. I’m convinced this was the right way to be wrong. Details below.
On March 2, 2016, while Trump was battling for the Republican nomination, I wrote this:
In my judgment, all of this more or less came to pass. I offered no hard benchmarks here but my impression is that I envisioned an even more extreme degradation of our civic fabric than the one we’ve seen. I thought there would be more violence. The day before the election, I wrote this:
In contrast to every other modern American president, Trump’s basic instincts are authoritarian. He does not believe in liberal democracy. He is a demagogue willing to stoke the most dangerous fault lines in our society in order to gain power for himself. We now must hope that his foolishness creates a presidency marked more by simple bungling than by a coherent plan of oppression….
So what should we expect from a Trump presidency? Start by assuming that Trump has generally been sincere and will try to govern roughly as he campaigned. He will continue to lie with impunity, and will seek to silence and bully the press to make his lies seem normal. He will continue to create a climate of hostility against nearly everyone who isn’t Christian, White, heterosexual, and male. Muslims and immigrants are likely to be targeted with special harshness.
Expect some moments of calm. Expect the media to tell us about Trump’s surprising moderation. But four years is a long time. If Trump doesn’t launch a proactive campaign of oppression beginning January 20, it is likely to be only a matter of time. It’s not that Trump will have a coherent plan to subdue the Republic. Indeed, probably his only clear plan so far is to arrange his affairs to allow maximum corruption and profiteering. This he has already begun to do. If nothing else, he and and his children intend to become very rich. But recall, again, that Trump’s instincts are authoritarian and demagogic. There are going to be crises, both foreign and domestic, during the next four years. Trump will not respond well to any of them. Trump’s mercurial and vindictive character will come through. And the thought of men like Bannon and Sessions whispering in Trump’s ear is not comforting.
It is possible things will somehow turn out more or less alright. But the more likely scenario is that we are entering a very dangerous time….
After all we’ve seen, it now seems quaint that I was so worried about Bannon and Sessions, but I think much of this has stood the test of time. I remember sitting at the dinner table before the inauguration shaking my head and saying, “People are going to die. People are going to die.” It felt surreal to know it was coming and to have so little power to alter events. If Trump never in four years found his way to a coherent plan to end American democracy, he did in the end try to do just that.
Combining my faulty memory with facebook posts from the time and these blog entries, it seems I imagined a presidency even more disastrous than the one we got. Specifically, I thought crackdowns on Muslims, immigrants, and BLM protests would be more deadly than they turned out to be. I thought that at some point Trump would start a war abroad to boost his standing at home. I also thought there was a high possibility of economic disaster. In short, I was an alarmist.
I’m glad I was. This was a much better way to be wrong than those who were constantly caught flatfooted throughout these crazy years, surprised by the latest thing Trump had done, or naive about how racist and anti-democratic his movement truly was. I’m glad I wrote posts like this one throughout these past four years, refusing to mince words about Trump’s violence and the threat of white racism. As powerful political forces attempted to destroy our ability to imagine a common morality and a common connectedness as beloved children of God, many of us looked evil in the eye and kept our integrity. I am grateful.
To be sure, alarmism can go too far. It must remain flexible, and above all tethered to reality. We can probably all think of people whose opposition to Trump seems to have become an unwitting instrument of self-degradation.
My alarmism is why I woke the morning of January 6th wondering how many people were going to die in Washington D.C. that day. I didn’t have any special insight. I just wasn’t trying to deny what’s been right in front of us all along.
Being somewhat wrong as an alarmist is preferable to the alternative not just because it gave me a better read on events. I argue we alarmists constrained this presidency. We knew how bad it could be, so we acted to stop it. Our activism was one of the factors that prevented the worst from coming true.
From the first week of the Trump presidency we were on the streets. We showed up at airports in massive numbers to protest the Muslim ban. That set a tone. The Women’s March set a tone too. Then we were on the streets in 2017 and 2018 to defend health care for the sick and to protect immigrants at the border. We voted in huge numbers in 2018 and gained the House. In 2020 we marched for BLM and overwhelmed the racist forces with the highest voter turnout in over a century.
The Trump administration tried to create a culture of impunity. We didn’t allow it. Words and character matter. The Constitution is worth preserving. These fundamentally conservative intuitions became the stuff of liberal resistance in the Trump era.
The most important thing I got more wrong than right is captured in my 2016 preview of the Trump presidency:
We must engage Trump supporters with undiminished love and decency. Love is resistance. We must be open-hearted, lacking bitterness or animosity. We cannot rely on the usual norms of respectability that help us be kind to each other. We must love not because Trumpism is reasonable, but because the people who have put their faith in it are human beings made by God, and are infinitely valuable. And so, too, are all the people Trumpism will hurt. In the dark era we are entering, affirming the sacred worth of every person we encounter is an act of resistance.
I was right to try to live up to this code; wrong in how often I failed. All too often, I was more invested in my self-righteousness than in practical efforts to help people Trump was hurting. Christians are called to love our enemies, not obsess over them! Too often, I was obsessed over my posture toward Trump supporters rather than focusing on being in solidarity with oppressed people. I was often closed-hearted and bitter, preoccupied with being right, leaving very little room left for love or practical action.
Awareness is wasted without action. Indeed, “It is a sin when someone knows the right thing to do and doesn’t do it.” Too often, as I sat in self-absorption, this biblical rebuke could be leveled right at me.
But we can also be gentle with ourselves. My fellow alarmists, don’t be sheepish. Don’t doubt what you experienced and the pain it caused you. To live through moments of crisis is to be more fully aware of the frailty of the individual in the sweep of history. So often the public action I took was the leftovers—after the papers were written, the classes taught, the dinners made, the children put to bed. The biggest challenges of the era were not, after all, public. They were inside my own head and home.
I return again to one of my favorite apocryphal anecdotes. The little boy is learning about the civil rights struggle and asks, “Grandpa, were you in the Klan or the FBI?” (The boy didn’t have a clear grasp of who the good guys were but we’ll leave that to the side).
“Son,” his grandpa drawls, “I was just in Georgia.”
There is a welcome humility in recognizing that during this era of crisis, “I was just in Georgia.” And there’s a more positive spin we might put on this anecdote. The point of liberal democracy is precisely so that more of us can be “just in Georgia,” living simple lives at peace with ourselves and our neighbors, unburdened by the fear that our actions may be of great historical consequence.
When I think back on this era I will be glad for the times I was on the street marching with others, doing what little I could to link my fate with my neighbors. I will be glad for the small practical things I tried to do here and there. I won’t miss, and I regret, the time I wasted doomscrolling on twitter.
We’ve come through a dark time, and none of us can know with certainty whether the dawn or still greater darkness lies just ahead.
Lord, have mercy, and teach us to love with action.
Earlier this year the city council of the picturesque town of Golden, Colorado, passed resolutions committing to “listening, learning, and acting to advance racial equity and improve the quality of life and health for all,” as well as the erection of a prominent banner in town declaring, “Golden Stands with Black Lives.” Notably absent from the agenda of this middle class Denver suburb was any practical plan to expand housing access so that more poor people (disproportionally people of color) might enjoy the benefits of this progressive city. But by golly Golden sure did “stand with” the 1.8% of its residents who are black. What a wonderful display of good intentions.
Welcome to the world of symbolic anti-racism. It’s not just towns and corporations playing this symbolic game. We as individuals risk playing it too. We need to recognize the game for what it is and insist on something more.
We’re living in an age of renewed anti-racist activism. We must press this activism with all the vigor we can. Yet we’re also living in an era of symbolic anti-racism. Symbolic anti-racism focuses on thoughts, intentions, words, and representation, while de-emphasizing practical steps that would improve the material circumstances of ordinary peoples’ lives. White people especially must resist the pull to make anti-racism a statement of who we are rather than a program of practical action to liberate others.
My thoughts turned in this direction after reading Adolph Reed’s recent piece this morning. For decades, Reed has been critiquing, from the left, the black political establishment. In the aftermath of the civil rights movement, African Americans got elite representation, taking mayor’s offices in major cities and ultimately the presidency itself, but too often they seemed to be merely new faces doing the bidding of the same old power structures. Reed stands for a kind of politics that is more focused on the material needs of the working class.
The limits of representation were on vivid display just this week as we found out Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration had tried to keep a video of police abuse from reaching the public. It unmistakably recalled Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s attempts to cover up Laquan McDonald’s murder. Chicago now has a black mayor, but how much difference will it make for ordinary black Chicagoans? (To be fair to Lightfoot, she says she was not aware city lawyers tried to suppress the video. We’ll see if another shoe drops in this story).
Representation matters, but the point of getting on the field is to play and win the game. Our relentless enthusiasm for black “firsts” in positions of power is a little too much like celebrating before the kickoff.
Symbolic anti-racists have learned the lingo. They know that they should invoke systemic racism and gentrification and mass incarceration. But the moralizing and posturing that is so evident in our time actually takes us back to the same old pathologies of white racial blindness. We look inward for unconscious bias, we put up outward displays of allyship, we say all the right things, and somehow this ends up being little different from the old saw that racial progress is a matter of changing our hearts and cleansing ourselves of personal prejudice.
In this respect it is telling that gentrification, a localized symptom of much more widespread and systemic housing exclusion, seems to take up as much “anti-racist” oxygen as the systemic exclusion itself.
You really can put a BLM sign on your lawn and oppose the low-income housing development down the street. You really can march for black lives and dismiss out of hand the possibility of sending your kids to a low-income public school. You really can post a lot on social media and never get around to donating a substantial portion of your income to black-led organizations. You really can mistake your anger at white racists for practical concern for black lives. You really can go on an ego trip and call it social justice activism. Believe me, I ought to know.
Look, I’m not saying symbols and words and representation don’t matter. They do matter, a lot. But the fact that the most powerful institutions in our society would rather hold an anti-racism seminar than a workers’ rights information meeting ought to give us a clue! Symbolic anti-racism is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. We must not only be passionate, but analytical; not only well-intentioned, but practical. We must demand concrete results for ordinary people. Otherwise, what’s the point?
James H. Madison is Emeritus Professor of History, Indiana University Bloomington, and author of The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland. I recently asked him a few questions about his important new book.
What’s the argument of The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland?
The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland places the hooded order of the 1920s squarely in the mainstream of American history. Klan members were neither marginal nor weird but mostly ordinary Americans, middle-class, white, and native-born. They saw themselves as the “good” people and as superior to immigrants, Catholics, Jews, and African Americans, those “others” who were causing the downfall of the nation.
What were the thorniest questions you had to figure out while writing this book?
Of course, I abhor the Klan’s ideals, but I also wanted to be fair to those who joined the Klan. I walked a tight line to avoid a simple condemnation and to avoid defending them.
As you mention in the book, in the newspapers of the 1920s there are numerous reports of robed Klansmen silently interrupting church services to present a donation. Can you talk more about how you interpret those events? What do you think was their significance in a local community?
Religious belief and organization were central. The Klan joined with Protestant churches and church members in a tight alliance. Klansmen interrupting a Sunday service was one of many illustrations of the alliance.
Why does this history matter now?
Klan voices ring into the twenty-first century even if the tones have changed. More than any other part of our history, Klan-like beliefs connect our past and present with a venomous tenacity. Today’s heirs don’t appear in robes and hoods and their words are more coded, but the message of us/them, of exclusion, of white racial superiority is clear.
Madison is also the author of the definitive account of the story behind one of the most infamous lynching images in American history. See that book here.
This is an optimist’s case for the following proposition: one of the dumbest and deadliest inventions humans have ever devised is getting its butt kicked. Folks, the racists are losing.
We may come to remember the Trump presidency as a pathetically weak attempt to roll back the cultural, demographic, and ideological change that is rising to a nearly inexorable force. The effort to Make America Racist Again has already failed miserably. Give it another four years and it will still fail.
To drive home the point that my optimism does not rest in this year’s election results, I’m posting this before knowing whether or not Trump has been defeated. My case for optimism certainly doesn’t rest in the election of a longtime moderate Democrat with a habit of cozying up to white supremacist senators back in the day. My hope does not depend on whether this Trump interlude proves to be of the four or eight year variety. My optimism rests in a broader global-historical sweep of the twentieth century.
At the dawn of that century, Senator Ben Tillman stood on the floor of the United States Senate and said this: “We took the government away. We stuffed the ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of it. The Senator from Wisconsin would have done the same thing. I see it in his eye right now. He would have done it…The brotherhood of man exists no longer, because you shoot negroes [sic] in Illinois, when they come in competition with your labor, as we shoot them in South Carolina when they come in competition with us in the matter of elections. You do not love them any better than we do.” Some might have deplored Senator Tillman’s candor but, as the kids say these days, where was the lie?
A century ago, racism was the coordinating principle of global affairs. W.E.B. Du Bois indulged no idle speculation when he wrote, “Are we not coming more and more, day by day, to making the statement ‘I am white,’ the one fundamental tenet of our practical morality?” The world-embracing hubris of it is what most stood out to Du Bois. People had found reasons to dominate each other since the dawn of time. But now, Europeans and their settler state descendants had not only come up with a bizarre conspiracy theory called whiteness, they used it to organize society and politics across the globe!
The ideology of whiteness fueled ecstatic visions of earthly conquest as divine calling. From Afrikaner ministers in the Dutch Reformed Church to prominent social gospelers in the United States, many white Protestants eagerly awaited the consummation of God’s plan, when their divinely chosen white race would fulfill its mission. Josiah Strong supposed that “God, with infinite wisdom and skill,” was “training the Anglo-Saxon race” for the day it would “spread itself over the earth.” In that glorious day the “inferior tribes” would be revealed as “only precursors of a superior race, voices in the wilderness crying: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!” These days, the Christians imagined as white are more likely to be embarrassed and uneasy about it than to be carried away by fanciful flights of eschatological genocide.
Horror at the depths to which racism could take humanity in the Holocaust, and even more important, the challenge of anti-racist and independence movements all across the Global South in the second half of the twentieth century, dealt a body blow to white supremacy from which it has never recovered. Henceforth, denial moved more than ever before to the very center of racist ideology. As the late George Fredrickson pointed out, the Holocaust was so discrediting that the classic racist position is not to defend it, but to deny it had ever happened!
To be sure, denial has always been part of any racial order, even the most brutal ones. The paternalist defense of slavery, for example, provided the planter a psychological shield when his brutalized conscience accused him. And Germans carried out their genocide more in a spirit of fear than hatred. Indeed one might say racism is denial. As Frederick Douglass put it in one of the great speeches of American history, “Man is man, the world over. This fact is affirmed and admitted in any effort to deny it. The sentiments we exhibit, whether love or hate, confidence or fear, respect or contempt, will always imply a like humanity.”
Our case for optimism, then, must not ultimately rest in the perennially confused psychology of the racist. But the centrality of denial, its organizing role both on the level of psychology and systems, seems to me relatively new. And, crucially, it suggests an exhausted ideology. Racism is losing its power to inspire, much less organize coherent political projects.
The idea that the horrors of the Holocaust discredited racist ideology has often been overdrawn (indeed, I’ve made this case myself elsewhere). If racism was no longer fashionable, a disturbingly large number of Europeans missed the memo. In the 1960s, during my parents’ lifetime, the Portuguese dictatorship busily sent tens of thousands of white settlers to Angola in a classic case of racist settler colonial domination. In the 1980s, during my lifetime, racist South African security forces and commando units wreaked havoc across southern Africa. A British Commonwealth committee estimated they contributed to 1 million deaths and made 3 million people homeless. But these political projects have been so thoroughly discredited that people are shocked to discover they even existed in a world so close to our own.
Even in the most obvious state of exception in a decolonizing world, South Africa, denial ruled the day. The regime not only portrayed itself as a bulwark against communism. It established native “homelands” and granted them fictive “independence” in an elaborate bid to deny and obfuscate the essentially racist character of the apartheid state. Even the prototypical exemplars of modern racist social organization did not want to admit what they were doing.
And so this stark fact remains: racism crested in the era of global war and has receded through the era of decolonization, civil rights movements, and the rise of global human rights.
Against this sweeping historical change, what do the racists offer? In 2017 a motley crew of a few hundred demonstrated in Charlottesville before one of their number launched a terrorist attack and killed Heather Heyer. Organizers promptly retreated, concluding they had made a strategic error because the American public was so revolted. Trump’s equivocations about the terrorists became a political albatross rather than a source of strength. He and his enablers quickly spun new tales of denial to try to bury the episode.
Terrorists used to be able to take over whole states and defy the federal government to do anything about it. Now their would-be sympathizers recoil in disgust. I know the headlines often seem scary today, reading of proud boys and boogaloos and militias. But these lonely cosplayers can only dream of the power and acclaim racists like themselves used to amass a short time ago. Social media is not our friend in our efforts to achieve perspective. A Florida man yelling “white power!” as he rides by on his golf cart is not the stuff of which racist revolutions are made. For racists, times are hard, even with one of their own in the oval office.
Trump’s invocations of racism have often been startlingly old-fashioned. This is, I admit, infuriating. From the blood and soil nationalism evoked in the “send her back” chants, to playing on stereotypical racist fears of racial pollution through rape and housing integration, to crafting an immigration policy of which even the Dillingham commission could be proud, it often seemed as if Trump was trying to play racism’s greatest hits. Yet even as his fans got a thrill out of it, they experienced this pleasure within a carefully maintained framework of denial. Not only did they deny the fact that they had joined a racist movement, they continued to imagine that they didn’t like racism at all.
Anti-racists often treat this stunning blindness as a sign of racism’s entrenched position in American life. From one vantage point that’s true. This “colorblind racism” often feels intractable, and it really does cause profound pain and suffering for people of color, not to mention psychological strain for white people. But from another vantage point, this denial is a flashing red light declaring that racism as an ideological project is exhausted. These folks aren’t even good at hating people anymore. Their heart isn’t all the way in it.
A century ago—far less, in fact—populist demagogues could mobilize a crowd with a proud message of white supremacy till kingdom come. Now, even Trump’s most loyal mass constituency—white evangelical Christians—declares an avowed belief in a brand of Christian universalism. Christ died for all and anyone who accepts Jesus as savior is headed to the same heavenly destination. The doors of the church are open to all, regardless of color. Believe me, I’ll be the first to say this Christian universalism tends to be remarkably immune to practical ethical content, but I argue it does make these white Christians feel cross-pressured. Their racism makes them uncomfortable. This is not a confident ideology ready to make new converts. It’s a tired and fearful perspective on the world, and the demographic groups most likely to cling to it are shrinking.
My students at Temple University are black and white, Asian and Hispanic. Their families come from India and Vietnam, Cameroon and Armenia. They tell me they’re prepared to disrupt racism. The historian in me says this is the conceit of the young. But then, maybe I’m not thinking historically enough. Is it really so hard to believe that the most diverse and racially integrated generation in American history will turn out to be the most anti-racist generation?
I’ve been skeptical that the massive black lives matter protests of this summer signify much. But let’s at least stipulate this: never in American history have so many people of such diverse backgrounds come together to demand racial justice. It remains to be seen how much this will matter in the long run, but for now, let’s take a moment to be grateful this good thing has happened.
The burden of an optimist’s case is that it must not become another species of the denial it claims to critique. It must not descend to that point of wishful nonsense where, as Kimberlé Crenshaw has put it, “sober assessments of how far we have come” are replaced “by congratulatory declarations that we have arrived.”
From racist policing to a yawning wealth gap that shows no sign of closing, racism remains an urgent burden that is a matter of life and death in the present day. Most worryingly for the future, these material forces are reproducing race as we speak. The future will belong to the anti-racists insofar as we put a wrench directly into these systems of power and finally interrupt the reproduction of their ideological justification. This is what freedom movements across the global south did. They didn’t wait around for Europeans to have a change of heart. They served notice the old systems of power weren’t coming back and they ushered the racists off the stage to the margins of history. Many a racist settler died embittered and resentful. For the world’s future it didn’t matter if they never learned their lesson. What mattered is that they were pushed to the sidelines where their racism no longer commanded armies and bureaucracies.
The racists are losing. This is a case for optimism, not complacency. The only thing that ever moved the world toward freedom was people acting together to make power, take power, and use it to free human beings from domination. In the fog of war it can be hard to tell if one is fighting a depleted enemy in a rear-guard action, or a well-supplied force waging the next phase of a long campaign. Trumpism is a desperate defense of an exhausted and pathetic ideology. In its heyday, racism killed millions and held the globe in its thrall. Today, it’s the succor of a lonely man and his feeble hangers-on. They, too, will be ushered off the stage of history.
In November 1922, the Pentecostal publication Gospel Trumpet published this observation:
Notice how familiar the frames of argument are to you. They’re all there:
–It’s not really about race in the end.
–If you don’t break the law you probably don’t have anything to worry about.
–Of course [fill in the blank] is bad, but we’ve made so much progress and most people are trying to help.
–Only in the U.S. would these people have such opportunities in the first place.
And they’re talking about lynching. The white Christian gaze could make even the most horrific atrocities seem like merely regrettable mishaps on the road of progress in the good ol’ USA. Defenders of contemporary American policing are just as blind as these white Christians were a century ago.
The police killed George Floyd and are not being held accountable for their actions. The core fact from which all events flow is George Floyd’s precious life senselessly snuffed out on the pavement. It is a galling and egregious example of the world African Americans live in every day under the suspicion of the militarized state. Black communities face a policing system utterly unlike the one most white Americans experience. It is punitive, intrusive, and harsh; yet for all that, does not protect.
The death of George Floyd once again raises in the national consciousness the urgency of black liberation and the need for wholesale policing reform. The abolitionists, too, must be heard. They expand our imaginations and help us think anew about the restorative communities and systems we might build together.
But now we’re in a cycle we’ve seen many times before. Police violence, with almost inexorable logic, produces a community response. When that white moderate slips into our newsfeed and says, “Sadly, all this rioting and looting is undercutting the legitimate concerns people have,” what should we do?
Don’t get upset with them or get sucked into a big argument. If you’re debating the merits of rioting, you’re losing.
Instead, shift the focus to George Floyd’s invaluable life and the injustice his death exposes. The state started this, and only the state can stop it. Indeed, the DA has it within his power to deescalate the situation whenever he chooses. He only needs to do the right thing and arrest the officers. But even if and when that happens, we will see the same cycles of violence play out in the future unless this country gets serious about changing its whole idea of policing. This is urgent.
If you’re a black resident of Minneapolis and you want to burn some shit down—especially a police station!—I’m not here to quibble with you. But if, like me, you’re a random white person watching events unfold from the comfort of your living room, I implore you to resist the urge to treat the life and death struggle of black liberation as an abstract moral debate. We need to speak and act strategically. This uprising is not here to serve your emotional catharsis or sense of moral superiority.
I’m seeing lots of people on social media resorting to this familiar brand of commentary: “If you’re more concerned about looting of property than the murder of a person then…” This line of argument is obviously correct. It rightly points out the racism, dehumanization, double standards, and hypocrisy in American ideas of violence, national myth, capitalism, and so on. But here’s the thing: if you’re debating the merits of rioting you’re losing.
You’ve no doubt also seen the famous Dr. King quote about riots being the language of the unheard. Even more provocatively, Dr. King said on another occasion that he was “not sad that black Americans are rebelling.” Why, then, did he work so tirelessly to prevent riots? Why did he meet with gang leaders, coerce and cajole and constantly seek to defuse violence? Because he understood that the uprisings harmed the cause more than they helped.
During the civil rights movement, the side perceived as being more violent was invariably losing. This was such common knowledge that it was bedrock strategy for the movement. Why did smart racists, from police chief Pritchett in Albany to Mayor Daley in Chicago, seek to hide the violence of white supremacy? Because they well understood the same calculus.
Anyone who has read movement speeches and writings knows that activists were constantly exposing the double standards of American life, including around questions of violence. But most of them also possessed a hard-headed sense of strategic purpose. Unless your plan was a pie in the sky vision of an armed revolution and black separatist republic, you needed to take actions that enhanced your movement’s political power, not weakened it.
The urgent necessity today is black liberation. What if, in fact, violent uprisings are harmful to that cause? There is strong evidence that they are. The self-satisfaction of being in the right and knowing white Americans are hypocrites is little consolation then. Omar Wasow has done important work showing that in the 1960s, nonviolent protest activity was associated with increases in Democratic vote share, while violent protest activity correlated with increasing support for law and order politics.
One way white people can be productive on social media in these days is to resist the urge to follow every rabbit trail in the predictable cycle of argument and recrimination that follows in the wake of state violence. We want justice for George Floyd. We want to change American policing. We want black freedom. That’s the message to hammer home again and again.
While working on my dissertation this afternoon I was wrestling with a little question in the back of my mind and I realized I had written something years ago that addressed it. When I went back to find it, I was surprised at how well it held up. So, here it is in it’s entirety, from November 28, 2014.
What is The Investment in Whiteness?
A few days ago I posted this on Facebook:
Where are the White Christians who will join me in confessing our
investment in whiteness? Who will join me in repentance? Who will seek
to learn more if these questions confuse you?
Well, some have kindly asked questions seeking to learn more.
What in the world do I mean by the phrase “investment in whiteness”?
For me, this phrase has become a useful shorthand to sum up the problem
that White people face in American society. I think the phrase emerged
for me from Cheryl Harris’s 1993 Harvard Law Review article, “Whiteness as Property,” and more directly from George Lipsitz’s 1998 book, The Possessive Investment In Whiteness.
To have an investment in something means that we have a stake in it. If
we make a business investment, we expect to get a monetary return. We
“invest” in relationships, and hope to receive companionship and support
as a result. We invest in our children, expecting them to grow up to be
responsible adults. In a very similar way, most White Americans have an
investment in Whiteness.
It is important to understand that this investment in Whiteness is almost always unconscious.
That might sound strange at first, but when we think about it, we
realize that unconscious investments are quite normal. I, for example,
claim that my identity is rooted in my relation to Jesus Christ. Yet I
have gradually begun to realize that I unconsciously use my daily work
as a way to make myself feel like a worthwhile person. If I haven’t
performed a lot of tasks in a given day, I subconsciously feel less
valuable as a human being. This is a deep and harmful “investment” in
work that has only gradually begun to become conscious to me. As
Christians we can all relate to the times we’ve been convicted of
putting our faith and hope and identity in things that we should not.
And at the moment of conviction we might say, “Wow, why couldn’t I see
Our investment in Whiteness works a lot like that.
Ok, so we’ve gotten this far: people have all sorts of “investments,” it
is quite normal for some of these investments to be unconscious, and
some of them are harmful. It remains to be seen what this investment in
Whiteness consists of. The most basic thing about the investment in
Whiteness is that Whiteness is seen as neutral and normative, and
thereby protects the advantages White people have by making it appear
that these advantages have nothing to do with being White. For example:
It often blinds us to the limitations and quirks of our own point of
view. Instead of realizing that our views are just as biased,
particular, and racial as those of other groups, we often subconsciously
think that the White view is not White at all, but is actually just
normal, neutral, or obvious.
It prevents us from seeing that our theology is not a neutral
restatement of Christianity or a simple adherence to biblical teaching.
It is shaped by our culture. It is White theology.This theology is
extremely individualistic. We often think this is because the Bible is
individualistic, but White theology goes far beyond the Bible’s
insistence that every individual needs the salvation of Jesus. White
theology adds on a radical American individualism that insists
individuals are basically innocent of the corporate and collective sins
around them. White theology focuses on individual improvement, and
changing the world “one heart at a time.” The Old Testament vision of
shalom and the New Testament vision of the Kingdom of God go against
this radical individualism, but White theology consistently downplays or
even ignores the communal and systemic aspects of sin and redemption
that the Bible emphasizes.
Our investment in Whiteness causes us to insist on racial innocence and
individualized racism. Because White theology downplays the biblical
view of sin as both personal and corporate, individual and systemic, we
tend to assume that racism is a personal sin, and therefore one that we
have nothing to do with. The investment in Whiteness causes us to insist
that we can’t possibly be racist. We feel a deep need to not be racist.
This need comes not from the humility of Christianity that would cause
us to assume that we probably do share the sin of the society around us.
It comes from the pride of our culture that doesn’t really believe that
human beings are depraved.
The investment in Whiteness causes us to evade personal responsibility
for the systemic racial oppression that is constant in American society.
Because we are protecting our own innocence, we feel compelled to blame
other people or things for the suffering and oppression racial
minorities experience. Some blame the “culture” of the disadvantaged
group or emphasize family breakdown; others focus on the damage of
government welfare programs. These views downplay or even ignore the
severity and scale of racial oppression past and present, but they
accomplish something important: they make the individual White person
innocent. Often, when discussing racial controversies, Whites reveal
their investment when they focus not on questions of how best to remove
injustice against racial minorities, but rather on defending things such
as political conservatism, small government, American patriotism, or
radical individualism. Others focus on the importance of civil
discussion and even-handedness, not realizing that their Whiteness makes
it easy to focus on these comparatively trivial qualities since they
don’t have to bear the brunt of racial oppression.
Indeed, one of the most obvious aspects of investment in Whiteness that I
should have mentioned by now is that most White Americans do not know
basic facts about American history and American society. Many Whites
don’t know that the United States was founded as a White supremacist
state, and that for much of our history being White was a qualification
for being an American citizen. Many don’t know that racial oppression
was a vital part of the creation of the modern American middle class
after World War Two. This basic ignorance of American history and of the
reality of the present oppression by the United States is very
important to those who are invested in Whiteness. (My purpose here is
not to prove the racial oppression of the American past and present. The
burden of proof is on those who deny it. They need to find some
evidence to support their position. I’m happy to provide reading lists
for anyone who’d like to learn more about the reality of American
Acknowledging the facts of American history is extremely threatening to
those who are invested in Whiteness. Many of us have ancestors who have
passed wealth down to us. When we realize that this wealth was produced
from opportunities that the American state deliberately provided only to
White people, we are disturbed. It doesn’t reflect poorly on our
ancestors. They were just normal human beings. They, like us, often had
no idea they were benefiting from injustice. When we realize what has
actually occurred, there is no getting around the fact that much of our
success owes itself to our identity as White people. It is even more
disturbing when we realize that in the present day the oppression is
ongoing. We begin to realize that the White environments many of us are
in (White neighborhoods, White schools, White churches) are not natural
or accidental outcomes, but are the result of our deliberate
choices–choices that have protected our investment in Whiteness. As
Christians, we begin to realize that the simple acts of our daily lives
as we go along with the flow of American society inevitably entrap us in
the sinful systems of a broken world.
What, then, am I repenting for?
This is where people get especially confused. We can’t grasp the
repentance part without remembering that a radical, unbiblical
individualism is a part of our investment in Whiteness. So let’s do our
best not to bring that individualism to our repentance. We’re not
wringing our hands with a sense of White liberal guilt. We’re not
pretending we’re to blame for everything that’s wrong with the world.
We’re not pretending that we ever wanted our society to be broken like
this. We’re not even repenting of being racists.
We’re simply confessing our participation in systems of racial
oppression. We’re confessing our blindness. We’re humbly acknowledging
that one of the key reasons we live where we do, have the jobs we do,
send our kids to the school we do, is because we are White. We’re
confessing that we hadn’t realized it before. We’re humbly admitting
that the oppressed know more about their oppression and how best to
respond to it than we do. We’re repenting of going along with systems of
racial oppression and accepting them as normal. From now on, we will
begin to try to figure out what it will mean to be people that weaken
those systems rather than being just another cog in them.
Hopefully some of this makes sense. In the end, it is impossible to know
how strong the investment in Whiteness is until you’ve actually begun
to go against it.
I am not comparing the conditions of the United States today to these monstrous crimes (not yet…). But the psychology is remarkably similar.
It’s a psychology of fear. It involves a sense of threat out of all proportion to real events. In each case, key segments of society resort to lies and euphemism in a conscious bid to construct a fictive reality.
Here’s what I think people really don’t understand about the psychology of mass murder: It’s not “I hate you.” It’s “You’ve left me with no choice.”
I wish I had time this morning to rustle up some compelling quotes and examples from these eras. I think any historian of these periods can testify to the ubiquity of feelings of fear and victimization on the part of the killers.
It involves the sense that a certain group or groups are a fundamental threat to the nation or the governing ideological project. A contamination. Therefore, how we treat those groups is excusable. As the historian Timothy Snyder recently wrote, we should always be concerned when zones of lawlessness, however limited, are carved out. They allow the domain of the excusable to grow.
[I]n what conditions would I or my compatriots do things that, in normal life, would be deemed unacceptable? It is here that we should ask where working in legally gray places like our detention centers leads. They are not the entirely lawless zones of the concentration camps, but they have routinized obvious abuses of human rights and are demoralizing some of our fellow Americans, or at least putting them into situations where their worst impulses can thrive. Some of these men, for instance, seem to think that our elected representatives should be raped. Apart from anything else, this is an early sign of how lawless action within a confined zone encourages lawlessness as a way of seeing the world.
I can’t emphasize this enough: a society will go all the way to mass murder saying all the while to the victims, “You made me do it.”
The conditions of mass murder are not here (yet). The psychology is. I don’t know how to tell the truth in our age without sounding shrill. So I will tell the truth and let it fall where it may. I know that most Americans don’t understand how thin, how fungible, is the line between “send her back” and “eliminate her kind.” I know people don’t understand, and fear keeps them from understanding, because they couldn’t bear consciously to support such evil.
What we saw at the Trump rally last night was evil. It was dangerous. White evangelicals, you might be able to get a sense of how you ought to feel about it if you imagine a crowd of Democrats enthusiastically chanting, “Kill the babies! Kill the babies!” It’s like that, ok? It’s a murderous psychology.
The future memory of this moment plays out in one of two ways. In scenario one, Trumpism is defeated over the next 20 years or so, and future generations will learn about last night’s rally like we learn today about the American Nazi party at Madison Square Garden. In that scenario, white evangelical Trumpists, your grandkids will ask you what you did when such evil ran rampant in the land, and you will want to lie. But in the second scenario, white evangelical Trumpists, you win. Last night’s rally is celebrated as a marker of the rise of a white Christian state ruled by a strong leader. Interracial democracy and pluralism was tried, but it was weak and it didn’t work.
White evangelicals, is this really what you want? How has fear blinded you so thoroughly to truth, to love, to Jesus himself? I know you have no understanding of the disgrace you’ve brought to his name. I know, because I know you, and I know that you don’t want to do that. Yet you make your heart hard. When you are afraid, you cannot love. I feel like I must say, as Stephen did to his own people, you always resist the Holy Spirit!
And what of all the white evangelicals who know Trumpism is wrong and are afraid to say so? I pray for their courage. I do not pretend they are in an easy position. If they say the truth, if they follow Jesus, they could lose their entire social network and spiritual support system. Many pastors cannot obey their consciences without losing their jobs. I am not here to judge them. But I pray that God will give them courage. The stakes are higher than most of us realize.
Against all odds, busing for school integration is a live issue in a 2019 Democratic Primary. In this week’s debate Kamala Harris hit Biden hard on his opposition to court-ordered busing in the 1970s. How should we think about this?
School desegregation policy is a labyrinth of court cases that I still can’t keep straight in my head. I’m not an expert on this. But there are a few things that I’m fairly certain about. So I’ll share those thoughts below.
It’s true that busing students to integrate schools was extraordinarily unpopular. It divided opinion among African Americans while uniting whites in opposition in a way few issues ever have.
But when we just limit ourselves to this narrow frame we fundamentally misdiagnose the problem. Busing is not an example of liberal big-government overreach. It wasn’t politically unsustainable because it was poorly conceived or unworkable or ineffective. It was unpopular because equal rights and opportunities for black people were unpopular.
This is still the case. Busing has all but disappeared. Nothing replaced it. The white American public did not say, “we disagree with busing as the means of implementing Brown v. Board. Instead, let’s redraw school district lines or aggressively enforce housing integration. Or let’s do a comprehensive program of reparations.” The white American public said “we disagree with the fundamental logic of racial integration put forth in Brown and we’re not willing to do anything to bring it about.”
Brown v Board held that segregated schools were unconstitutional and socially harmful not because of their quality, but because they were segregated. But in the decades after Brown, white-ruled local governments nationwide did everything to avoid integration. Busing was a response to a white American public militantly hostile to equal rights for African Americans.
Though the Supreme Court had held that segregation was inherently harmful, both the public and the courts came to accept de facto vs de jure distinctions as deeply meaningful. “We’re not really segregated because our laws are facially neutral.” Historians have exploded this mythology and shown how deliberately segregation has been constructed nationwide. But even if you do accept the spurious de facto vs de jure distinction for legal purposes, it ought to be clear that for black children attending segregated schools today, why they are segregated is the least consequential thing about their experience. If you don’t think that we should launch new efforts to integrate schools, now in 2019, you must suppose that Brown v Board was wrong.
An interlocutor on twitter told me, “busing was unsustainable politically.” True enough, I suppose. But that’s just another way of saying the United States is a grotesquely racist society. Decades of inferior and segregated schools for black children–right up to the present moment–has done little to trouble the American conscience. Harming black children has turned out to be very sustainable politics, even in the twenty-first century. If Democrats truly make a push for school integration, the resistance to it will show us how much or how little has changed in the past 50 years.