When Barack Obama became the first African American president, the country believed it had made great progress in establishing “a more perfect union.” Why then, almost 12 years later, are Americans protesting in the streets as the nation undulates with waves of racial strife?
The shaky, grainy clips of white Los Angeles police officers pummeling Rodney King was, in 1991, many Americans’ introduction to the brutality people of color endure at the hands of law enforcement. It was an introduction not because King was the first victim of police brutality or because the King incident was a statistical outlier. King’s was just the first such incident captured so viscerally by modern technology.
Since then, smartphones have allowed taxpayers to record the perennial police abuse against people of color that’s historically gone unrecorded and unacknowledged. And which still goes largely unpunished.
It’s easy to illuminate and critique racism in America based on those examples of overt racism. Underlying these public spectacles of racial animus, however, is the scaffolding upon which racism endures generation after generation. That scaffolding has fostered the growth of populist right wing movements and their widespread, destructive effects on human culture.
Americans, from the beginning, have believed themselves to be better than other nations. A “shining city on the hill.” Principles and ideals mattered from the United States’ inception, and they still do. Civic ethics, like fairness and equality, are woven into the fabric of America’s character.
Shiny City, Filthy Sewers
In the early 1500s, the first enslaved Africans arrived in the Americas. A century later, 20 enslaved people arrived per year. This was long before the Pilgrims had even set foot on what would become the American colonies.
At the dawn of the American Civil War, 241 years later, the census recorded 3,953,762 enslaved people in the United States. Over the next 100 years, those formerly enslaved Americans, and their descendants, were in most ways excluded from participating in American civil society. Especially in the former Confederate states.
Black Codes forced black Americans into a new form of servitude. These laws required recently emancipated black people to either sign yearly labor contracts to work for their former enslavers, or be arrested, fined, and forced into unpaid labor.
Even after the passage of the 14th Amendment and the 15th Amendment, which undermined the Black Codes, newly freed black Americans continued to face deliberately-erected obstacles in their drive for economic and political independence.
An absence of real opportunities, including a dearth of federal assistance in the Reconstruction effort after Lincoln’s assassination, resulted in the rise of the sharecropping system. That dastardly institution effectively forced black freedmen to work for their former enslavers. Those who could not or would not pay the debts they incurred under the oppressive sharecropping regime were imprisoned and forced into hard, unpaid labor.
Jim Crow laws were passed by racist Southern legislatures in the 1880s. This legislation condemned black people in the American South to conditions comparable to South African apartheid. This system restricted African Americans’ voting rights, freedom of movement, and access to economic opportunity. It was a brand of de jure discrimination designed, deliberately, to reassert the Southern hierarchical order — a system of explicit white supremacy.
The Great Migration, during the early 20th century, was millions of black Americans’ attempt to escape Southern bigotry and settle in northern and midwestern cities. They created successful working-class neighborhoods in Chicago and New York City and elsewhere. But black people who made real advances often, as was the case in Tulsa, faced intense backlash from white racists including extensive property damage and outright massacre.
Separately, the post Civil War United States (including the Northwest and Midwest) stood by idly as white racists tortured and executed — lynched —more than 4,000 black people. The murders were mostly of young black men (a pattern had begun to emerge even back then). This racist terrorism was meant to dissuade patriotic black Americans from exercising their newly-acquired civil rights.
Still A Racist City
Nazism, the genocide of 11 million people, and the wide-spread devastation caused by WWII, awakened humanity to the dangers of explicit racial hierarchies. America’s Civil Rights Movement brought many citizenship rights to African Americans after a hard-fought struggle. And the Great Migration rekindled.
White Flight began to unfold, predictably, in response to that increasing urban diversity, particularly after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed racial segregation. As white Americans left urban centers for homogeneous suburbs, so did the jobs and the tax base. So began a spiral of decline and decay in black, urban communities. This preventable disaster was exacerbated later by the 1980s crack epidemic and the so-called “War on Drugs.”
White America deemed mass incarceration the solution to the increased crime associated with this decline. In fact, by the time the LA police brutalized Rodney King, more black men were in prison than had attended college.
Moreover, Southern states found new ways of suppressing the black vote. In the 2013 case of Shelby County vs. Holder, the United States Supreme Court, infamously, struck down key elements of the Voting Rights Act. This precipitated even more voter suppression.
In recent years, a series of images and videos of the ongoing, state-sponsored violence against black men has led to the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM). At least since George Floyd’s death, polls show that American society has widely embraced BLM. The marches and the protests display the multicultural flavor of the nation.
However, the American Right argues, vociferously, that the American Left deliberately overblows racism for political gain. These conservative Americans, at the same time, ostensibly believe in racial equality as principle. They generally come from communities of interest (the GOP) and geography (rural areas) that are overwhelmingly white. For them, the centuries-long legacy of racial oppression should not be part of the conversation, and they argue that BLM is unnecessary, counterproductive, and destructive.
Meanwhile, the American president has spearheaded a massive misinformation campaign that deliberately conflates these protests with the violent elements and petty criminal activity that predictably accompany large protest movements. As a result, peaceful protesters have been met by a harsh police reaction including unidentified federal troops dressed as soldiers. This hyped up rhetoric has mobilized racist, armed militias who now “patrol” the streets. The situation has escalated to cold blooded murder.
The Great White Dissonance
Americans of color overwhelmingly view BLM in positive terms. A white person who expresses belief in equality, and also believes that BLM in negative terms, is taking the position, consciously or unconsciously, that they themselves are better able to ascertain what’s good for people of color than are people of color.
It’s a state of cognitive dissonance which certainly appears contradictory on the surface. One would think that a well-meaning person, someone committed to the principles of the American Constitution and civil society, with even a cursory understanding of history, should be able to see that contradiction within himself or herself, and learn from it. If so, they may consider that people of color are better able to determine how to improve their lives than are white people. Someone who believes in the higher principles of fairness and equality should realize that thinking they know better is indicative of an internal attitude of superiority derived from a racist legacy.
Why then is it so difficult, if not impossible, for people to see and accept this puzzling internal conflict? Why is such a realization elusive for so many? This complexity of beliefs might seem a contradiction, but it has a sort of emotional logic.
This internal contradiction exists because Americans persistently deny the United States’ racist history — including the power of that legacy to affect the present.
Individuals’ inability to reflect honestly on race and culture isn’t a mere academic question. That “more perfect union,” toward which America strives, is impossible unless a large share of its citizens transcend, personally, the legacy of racism in American society. That transcendence demands unearthing and confronting beliefs around race that are mostly unconscious — internalized assumptions and denial.
To learn about racism, and its sordid history, is to confront aspects of oneself. It takes courage and it takes dedication. It’s a lifelong endeavor. It’s the core of anti-racism.
Too many believe that America’s racist past was put to rest with the election of the first black president. They were surprised when it was not. This misunderstanding has been exploited by bad (conservative) actors to stir up the fear and hate that leads to police brutality and other violence.
The human animal’s evolutionary history makes us all exceedingly vulnerable to many forms of tribalism. America, to rise above its bloody history and destructive impulses, must foster a civil society and an educational system that’s devoted to those very goals. We can become aware of this human vulnerability through good education. To create that more perfect union we must shape society in a way that promotes that understanding, in schools, in the arts, in all of our institutions of knowledge.
Modern history teaches us that authoritarians and fascists attack education and knowledge first on their march toward power. They seek to destroy institutions of learning in order to shape the battlefield. Once that education is undermined, despots create new narratives to fill that gap of understanding. These nefarious stories misdescribe the ills of society and then provide “solutions” which hark back to a time when humanity was more tribal. They exploit the very human suspicion of the other.
The strategies of the despot — suppression of universal education and new narratives of division — work in unison.
One such narrative is that social justice is extremist, destructive, and dangerous. The anti-racist idea that a white person’s perspective might be tainted by internalized racism elicits an immediate and emotional defensiveness, usually in the form of anger. This reaction is justified by the stories that paint the real problem in society as something other than racism itself. The threat is inverted. In these narratives, the harm derives not from structural or interpersonal racism but from the struggle against racism.
After many years, the anti-social justice narrative has morphed into a self-reinforcing story of white grievance infused with racial animus. All social justice efforts now appear extreme to those entrapped by this spell. The more this anti-social justice narrative penetrates society, the harder it becomes for individuals to embark upon the journey of understanding how race plays out in American culture and in the American psyche. The opportunity to grow and evolve as a people diminishes. In the long run, as we are seeing, growing overt racism and racial strife are the effects.
Toward A More Perfect Union
Insight into ourselves and the world is the real value the humanities provide. These disciplines — history, sociology, philosophy, anthropology, art, and literature — excavate the human experience. People who have studied the humanities can see the world in nuanced ways and are able to critique themselves and the societies in which they live.
Relatedly, to learn about racism, and its sordid history, is to confront aspects of oneself. It takes courage and it takes dedication. It’s a lifelong endeavor. It’s the core of anti-racism. And it’s a process that should begin early in one’s life.
The Trump phenomenon is possible in large part because so many Americans are unable to confront the truth about the country’s past and how a long, racist history intervenes so destructively in the present.
The term anti-racism has itself become particularly triggering for those who have internalized the social justice extremism narrative. Much of the culture wars are experienced at this level.
The efforts to stop social progress, however, go far beyond these popular narratives on social media and in society at large. Justice is often undermined in far more nuanced ways. Ways which fly under the radar.
For example, teaching children the history of slavery, and race, and racism in America has become a political issue. Trump wants kids to have a “patriotic” education that purges American history of its warts; this, in a society which has consistently exalted myth and hierarchy over truth and democracy.
The conservative deniers of progress have, for decades, targeted education, across the board, as a bastion of liberalism — from pre-K to twelfth grade, and from college (particularly the humanities departments) to graduate schools. These conservatives have assaulted the news media, as an institution of knowledge, harder than any other.
Trump recently issued an executive order to curb the ability to teach racial sensitivity and racial history and replace it with a “patriotic education.” This order extends to institutions that receive federal funding, e.g., public universities and colleges. Included in this directive is a prohibition on the teaching of the decades old, established, empirically derived consensus that race is a socially constructed phenomenon.
As this example shows, the established facts — outright reality — do not support the modern conservative worldview. Modern conservatism is (finally after far too many years) facing the reality that confronts any movement that values ideology and dogma over policy based on empirical truth.
These deeper, long-term strategies of denial and deflection buttress the scaffolding of racism. They create the very threads of denial by which racist resistance can endure and erupt.
To deny the social and historical dimensions that shape racism opens a Pandora’s box of bad faith ideas. The lower status of people of color in society can then be justified through biological racial differences. Social programs and remedies for social disparities can be seen as the cause of racial inequalities. The grievances of people of color, their struggles for justice such as BLM, can be dismissed and vilified. White nationalism, rejected after the atrocities of WWII, and after the triumphs of the Civil Rights, can reenter the mainstream of American thought.
A New Scaffolding
We are a nation of contradictions, a land of high ideals alongside a brutal history of racial oppression. We are a nation of overt racists, of the indifferent, of the many who pursue the course of social justice.
We are also a nation of fair-minded and well-meaning denialists. The trump phenomenon is possible, in large part, because so many Americans are unable to confront the truth about the country’s past and how a long racist history intervenes so destructively, and so directly, in the present.
America must work towards a renewed civil society that acknowledges and learns from the past, as Germany has done. America will transcend this historic impulse of hate and violence only after it’s gotten clear about what it’s been, what it is, and what it strives to become. In the end, only that long and sustained effort of truth and reconciliation will lead America to a better place. That’s impossible without confronting the anti-social justice narratives that have grown so powerful.
To stand against these narratives will require innovative cultural and institutional strategies, coalition-building, and a better, more peaceful and compassionate vision for America — a narrative of hope, truth, and moral principle.
To achieve that more perfect union, we must dismantle the scaffolding of racism: denial of the past, denial of the atrocities, and denial of the living power of a racist history.