Burn Down the Plantation

Searching for something else, I found these two short pieces I’d written a couple years ago, more relevant now:

The Myth and the Reality

When slavery was formally abolished in the US, the former owners felt aggrieved as if they were the victims of a terrible injustice. Many sought, and some even won, reparations for lost property—unlike the formerly enslaved workers (the former “property”) who instead of reparations got Black Codes, Jim Crow, regimes of lynch-mob terror, red-lining, mass incarceration, militarized occupying police forces, and more. For those who’d been blithely enjoying their privileges while riding on the backs of others, justice and fairness—equality—can always be made to feel like oppression. It’s not—it is instead a cruel if powerful illusion. But privilege works like that. Today young people are leading and building a broad and hopeful movement—the next step in the centuries-old Black Freedom Movement—demanding the end of militarized police targeting and occupying Black communities, an end to the state-sponsored serial assassinations of Black people, the creation of decent schools and good jobs, the abolition of mass incarceration, reparations for harm done, and simple justice going forward. Black Lives Matter! To some privileged people it’s as if a terrible injustice has once again befallen them—and of course it hasn’t. To proclaim that “Jewish Lives Matter” in Germany in the 1930s would have been a good thing—those were the lives being discounted and destroyed; to say that “Palestinian Lives Matter” in Israel now would be to stand on the side of the downtrodden and disposable. And to shout out that Black Lives Matter! in the US today is to take the side of humanity. Every City Hall and every police precinct should hang a large Black Lives Matter! banner over the front door, and then we should all mobilize to demand a society in which that slogan can be brought authentically to life.

Burn Down the Plantation

“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…

Let’s burn down the plantation!


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