“White Americans finding easy comfort in nonviolence and the radical love of the civil rights movement must reckon with the unsettling fact that black people in this country achieved the rudiments of their freedom through the killing of whites.”
~~~Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power
Stay calm, white folks. Coates is referring to the bloodiest war in US history, the Civil War, a war begun by confederate traitors willing to blow up the whole house in defense of a single freedom: their assumed right to own other human beings. But still…
That war never ended, once and for all, and the afterlife of slavery included the infamous Black Codes, chain gangs, segregation and red-lining, Jim Crow, poll taxes, and the organized terrorism of lynchings and night rides. Now the afterlife of the afterlife abides in the serial murder of Black people by militarized police forces, the Thirteenth Amendment and mass incarceration, separate and unequal schools, disenfranchisement, the creation of ghettos and homelessness through law and public policy, and more.
Of course there’s also prejudice, racial bias, and all manner of backward stupidity, but the well-spring of that bigotry is the structure of inequality itself, not the other way around. That is, the reality of inequality baked into law and economic condition as well as history, custom and culture generates racist thoughts and feelings as justification, and those racist ideas keep regenerating as long as the structures of white supremacy and black oppression are in place. Race itself is, of course, both everywhere and nowhere at all—a social construction and massive fiction, and at the same time the hardest of hard-edged realities in everyday life.
To end the racial nightmare we’ll need more than body cameras or prison reform or sensitivity training or education—even if some reforms would be welcomed. The answer requires us to face reality and to courageously confront our history, tell the truth, and then destroy the entire edifice of white supremacy—metaphorically speaking, it means we must burn down the plantation.
And when the plantation is at last burned to the ground, people of European descent, or “those who believe they are white,” will find the easy privileges they’d taken for granted disappearing, and along with them their willful blindness and faux-innocence. Also gone: the fragile, precarious perch of superiority. White folks will have to give up their accumulated, unearned advantages, and yet they stand to gain something wonderful: a fuller personhood and a moral bearing. We face an urgent challenge, then, if we are to join humanity in the enormous task of creating a just and caring world, and it begins with rejecting white supremacy—despising and opposing bigotry and backwardness, of course, but spurning as well all those despicable structures and traditions. It extends to refusing to embrace optics over justice, “multiculturalism” or “diversity” over an honest reckoning with reality—to becoming race traitors as we learn the loving art of solidarity in practice.
There’s a similar challenge facing men at this moment, and it’s roiling the whole society and confronting us all—it too requires facing up to reality, examining history courageously and thoroughly, and noting the interaction of prejudice with the structures that uphold and spread the bias: sexism, and also the heteronormative patriarchal system of male supremacy. It, too, will demand that we burn down a plantation, and it, too, will mean the privileged—all men—will lose their comfortable and taken-for-granted advantages and also their shaky and inherently unstable place of dominance. Listen up: just as African Americans know white people well—they’ve had to as a matter of survival—women know men much better than we know ourselves.
Gender, too, is a social construction, a fiction—as De Beauvoir said long ago, “one is not born, but becomes a woman”—and once more, a harsh reality. Let’s work to assure that this is not just a cultural blip, a marginalized issue that encourages men to be more careful in their utterances and overt actions while the same contempt prevails (the way white folks have generally learned not to use the “n-word”). This moment should propel something deeper—a sea change. It’s a moment that challenges deeply held cultural practices that have held women as inferior human beings, shackled by dehumanizing myths, objectified and dominated by men. Women who’ve been manipulated and controlled, forced to see themselves as passive objects but never the active agents and subjects of history, are standing up and speaking out. Men who believe in freedom must listen up and stand up as well.
When male politicians and commentators, including Mitch McConnell, declare, “I believe the women,” let’s take responsibility for testing that hypothesis. Do they believe the women who do domestic work, or work for tips, and do they believe African-American women, poor women, and immigrant women? Do they believe that women should have control over their bodies, that their uteruses belong to them and them alone, and that women can express their sexuality in any way they choose? That women must receive equal pay, and have a living wage stipend where needed? That women should not be forced to be married in order to access basic needs like health insurance and decent housing, or free child care while attending school or job training or work?
Believe the women, yes. Believe that this constant barrage of sexual assaults is a reality they’ve had to live with, and that the sexism that cuts and controls women’s lives must end. But believe as well that the structures of inequality, patriarchy, and male supremacy that oppress and exploit women must be destroyed.
Let’s burn down the plantation!