Race has a chokehold on the soul of America.
It is a cancer we refuse to treat, its deadly serum coursing through our nation’s bloodstream, often through social media. It was our nation’s original sin, and its virulent and variant viruses continue to infect and divide our nation. Americans, unwilling to apply the antibody, raise the question—what are the antibodies to racism?
As with election deniers, there are racism deniers, convinced America has shed itself of the cloak of bigotry. After all, didn’t we elect a black President and a black Vice-President? For some, those two elections cleansed the slate—no racism here.
“People who perceive that the social system discriminates against racial minorities are more likely to support policies to reduce that discrimination. Racists know this. That’s why denial of racism is a time-honored tactic.” Page 422 Sundown Towns, James Loewen
Turns out our nation is still knee-deep in bigotry, despite electing an Afro-American President. His presence simply poked the bear. Conversely, Trump excavated the cesspool of festering hate, no longer needing racist Republican dog whistles, unleashing a groundswell of hate and venom. Trump provided a safe harbor and legitimacy for white supremacists’ ascension. Just last week, he dined with a racist, Holocaust denier, Nick Fuentes, further normalizing and legitimizing hate and racism. The Southern Strategy, as articulated by Lee Atwater, the famous Republican strategist, no longer required filters. Bigotry and vitriol could be aired out loud, no subterfuge required. Trump elevated and legitimized racism in the mainstream. Incendiary bigotry, long buried, spewed out in a cauldron of hate and disinformation, boiling over into our politics and culture. Lee Atwater:
“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you, backfires so you say stuff like uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites…’We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.’”
The full glory and promise of America can never be achieved till we root out this malignancy. James Baldwin nailed it here:
“White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.” James Baldwin
So, what is the antibody? Can America afford to wait for white people to “learn how to accept and love themselves and each other?”
I see more urgency.
I have friends, good people, who insist they are not racist, but who support Trump, an avowed white supremacist. And I know if they worked with an Afro-American, or had a neighbor who was an Afro-American, they would treat them with dignity and respect. I’ve seen this. And they wouldn’t have a problem if an Afro-American wanted to marry their daughter or son. One-on-one, these people have no problem with people of color. And they insist they aren’t racist, but they still support a white supremacist.
So, what gives?
I do attempt to engage in conversations with these people, trying to pry open their reasons for their blind faith. But they withdraw, get uncomfortable with any mention of Trump, as if they were ashamed of their allegiance. The hardcore Trumpites love to send me links in place of dialogue, links that are brimming with disinformation and conspiracy theories.
A common theme emerged when I asked about Trump, wondering how they could support a compulsive liar, a man accused of twenty-four sexual assaults, a man with Russian mob connections that laundered money through Trump Towers, who stole top secret government documents, etc., etc.: the most I got out of them was that he was a strong leader, good for the economy. But it simply wasn’t true. Among other metrics, under the Trump Administration, the deficit went up every single year. Under President Biden, the deficit has fallen sharply – to the tune of $1.4 TRILLION this year alone.
Morality was never part of the equation. Of the last seven Presidents, Trump was last in GNP growth. And then there is the big lie that Trump was a great businessman: you can’t call yourself a great businessman if you declared bankruptcy six times. Their support seemed to hinge on—what’s in it for me? His supporters were convinced he had their backs, especially poor whites whose healthcare was constantly on the chopping block with no replacement on the horizon. They were not concerned about the wealth gap, children living in poverty, or global warming. It was all about what was in it for them.
But we still haven’t answered the question: why do non-racists support racists? The easy answer is, well, they’re racist and that’s why. But I think it goes deeper.
We have institutional racism in this country and this infrastructure breeds bigotry, divisiveness, and poverty. The maniacal mortar used to build these structures is designed to hide the true nature of their carnage on a community, on a country. If there is any pushback, or protest, people of color are deemed the problem, not the structures. The propaganda machine fingers people of color for any negative consequences such as decrepit schools, and rat-infested tenements owned by slumlords. Structural racism is constructed so white people can live in a cocoon of irresponsibility, and privilege, denying their gut that whispers: we are all our brother’s keepers.
I grew up in Maryland, in a town of working-class, middle-class residents, mostly white. Most of the people I knew grew up in a two-parent family, although who knows what occurred behind closed doors? In my family, my father’s alcoholism left scars on the entire family, and in every family I knew, drinking was part of the zeitgeist. We all went to decent schools, and most of us got a decent education. I personally was a horrible student, but I was exposed to books and became a voracious reader. George Wallace, an ardent segregationist received 14.7% of the Maryland vote in the 1968 Presidential election. There were a few Afro-Americans in the school. One Afro-American student, George I believe, was well-liked by the student body. He was personable, smart, engaging, and was generally part of the in-crowd. One day, George was seen walking arm in arm with a white girl and he went from being a great guy, one of the boys, to a nigger. And the girl was labeled a nigger-lover.
Behind closed doors in my town, there was raging bigotry, easily ignited. It turned out that at the end of the day, they weren’t their brother’s keepers, unless your brother was white.
Being a member of the basketball team, we sometimes would play inner city D.C. schools, and I saw the contrast between my school and the D.C. schools. First, the facilities were old and run down, badly needing repairs and care. The library was sub-par, and you felt an overwhelming feeling of decay. It felt like the school had been abandoned, a warehouse for kids, learning an afterthought.
I realized later this was an example of systemic racism. This was a segregated school, in a segregated city, created by decisions based on race, bigotry and hate. Segregated cities aren’t created by chance. In his book, Sundown Towns, A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, James Loewen documented over a thousand towns that were intentionally kept white, segregated, some with explicit signs: “Don’t let the sun set on you in this town nigger.”
In his book, An American Dilemma, written as World War II wound down, Gunnar Myrdal noted that residential segregation has been a key factor accounting for the subordinate status of African-Americans. Separating people geographically makes it much easier to provide better city services to some than to others, to give some children better schooling than others, and indeed to label some people better than others. In Roosevelt, the black township in Long Island, “as tax money dried up, the schools withered.” Page 370
The underfunded city schools handicap its students from day one, releasing them into the world saddled with the imprint of inferior, segregated education, attendant with its psychological assault on their self-esteem. This structure is systemic, and institutional. As the famous 1954 ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling documented, segregated education produces psychologically damaged kids, whose self-esteem is trampled.
King also challenged the tendency to cast Black behavior as the problem, rather than investigating the structures of racism in the North.
“Many whites who oppose open housing would deny that they are racists. They turn to sociological arguments … [without realizing] that criminal responses are environmental, not racial.” Martin Luther King
Despite the ruling, schools continued to remain segregated as mobs threatened violence if school integration was implemented.
Segregated housing is another racist infrastructure. White people were fed the propaganda that having an Afro-American move into their neighborhood would destroy housing values, home ownership being the lever, the steppingstone for middle-class wealth. Afro-Americans purchasing a house in all white neighborhoods were subjected to multiple forms of violence, including murder and firebombing— in the South as well as in the North.
This is structural racism, and it persists today. This is an issue my white friends are oblivious to, often purposely. The playing field regarding education is not level, saturated in inequities, purposely designed. With my racist/non-racist white friends, this issue never enters into their consciousness as they cast their votes for politicians who not only perpetuate the inequities, but widen them. Systemic racism wasn’t talked about in school, especially now, where CRT (Critical Race Theory) is often banned from being taught. Critical Race Theory is simply history, and history is under attack. CRT is being banned in many school districts across the U.S. Systemic, racist infrastructures, once built, engage in a dizzying array of insidious maintenance to preserve their privilege.
Gaslighting history is a major instrument in keeping our citizens ignorant, which in turn dilutes their power, and their identity. Politicians rail that if white students were to study CRT, they might feel upset, feel bad about themselves. Here’s what history does: it empowers one because the study of history breeds understanding, which in turn breeds character; it brings one to understand the world, and oneself, on a deeper, richer level. Denying, altering, or whitewashing history, sabotages one’s growth, and one’s humanity. Understanding oneself and the world around us promotes connections. You start to realize there is a common humanity, that we are related, with similar hopes and dreams. You can’t legislate morality, so the question arises, how do you get good people to care, to abdicate their privilege, to be participants in equality, in justice? How do you get my friends to have systemic racism enter their consciousness? Because if it did, I believe they would no longer support a politician like Trump.
“…most people still do not turn first to history and social structure to explain why African-Americans have less wealth, lower test scores, and are concentrated in inner cities and a few suburbs.” Page 416 Sundown Towns, James Loewen
Housing segregation and discrimination is another systemic racist structure, many years in fabrication. Segregated neighborhoods are a direct consequence of ‘Red Lining’, a process whereby a circle is drawn on a map by bankers who then deny mortgages to people of color in that red-lined area, which in turn denies the one sure-fire route to generational wealth. If that wasn’t enough, unscrupulous speculators descended on these neighborhoods and financed homes for residents. This sleight of hand con got residents to pay finance companies to secure a house. Only problem was, they had no equity until the house was fully paid for. And if they missed a payment, the finance company had the right to seize back the house, leaving the potential homeowners bereft.
Predators prey upon poor communities, extracting blood money, symbolized by check cashing facilities and pay-day loans stores. There were also the ‘drive-by inspections’: a family would buy a house for ten thousand dollars, and after they moved in, they would discover the house required ten thousand worth of repairs, which they couldn’t afford, and ultimately were forced to abandon their house, leaving the finance company with another house to double-dip in.
This corruption, this predatory assault on red-lined, vulnerable, communities, gutted these neighborhoods, depressing not only the property values, property that most of the residents couldn’t own, given the red lining that ran rampant throughout the cities; but this purposeful segregation, predatory assault, doubled up as a psychological assault on the soul of a community. This is another structure of institutional racism, a structure with far-reaching consequences for people of color.
“Focusing on black crime, he said, was a way to avoid looking at the much greater crime of ghettoizing people in communities with insufficient schools, jobs and city services.” Martin Luther King
Should I go on? Yes! The Prison Industrial Complex, is a money-making structure using people of color as fodder for the money-making pillaging. We’ve all seen the statistics:
“African Americans represent 12.7% of the US population, 15% of US drug users (72% of all users are white), 36.8% of those arrested for a drug-related crime, 48.2% of American adults in state, and federal prisons and local jails and 42.5% of prisoners under sentence of death.” Statistical Abstract of the United States (1999), Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics, (1998), National Household Survey of Drug Abuse (1998) and Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin: Prisoners and Jail Inmates at Midyear 1999.
Private industry entered the incarceration business in the early 1970s. In order for this fledgling enterprise to be profitable, beds needed to be filled with inmates. States would contract with these companies guaranteeing inmates in order to fulfill their contractual obligations.
“One in three black men between the ages of 20 and 29 live under some form of correctional supervision or control.” Maurer, M. & Hurling, T., Young Black Americans and the Criminal Justice System: Five Years Later (Washington DC: The Sentencing Project, 1995).
The Prison Industrial Complex was a ravenous beast that needed to be fed so it could produce its blood money, usually on the backs of people of color, and the powerless. President’s Johnson War on Poverty, morphed into the War on Drugs, which was the smokescreen for the War on the Powerless, the Voiceless. This out-of-control juggernaut devastated disenfranchised communities, taking dead aim at the family structure by incarcerating a disproportional amount of Afro-American males.
These are just three institutional racist structures. There are many more, including voter suppression. But having established these structures, how are they maintained?
“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” George Orwell
How do you maintain systemic, racist structures? One way is to deny history, deny these structures exist. Books are being banned—70% of them seem to be by authors of color. There was even a book burning in Tennessee. School boards flip out on three words: Critical Race Theory. As I mentioned before, Critical Race Theory is simple history. Knowing one’s history is empowering, transformative, and that lever of power is under attack. Systemic racism would collapse under the glare of our true history, which isn’t often pleasant, but it is inspirational. Our history of people of color is saturated with unspeakable horrors, but is coupled with stories of triumph, courage, and resistance.
Let’s get back to my racist/non-racist friends. Like I said, most would treat people of color with dignity and respect on an individual basis, but they have no clue as to American history, no clue to the systemic racist structures that exist. Why is that important? Knowing one’s history, knowing American history, humanizes one; it breeds empathy. Unless you are evil, learning about other cultures, their histories, makes one realize our common humanity. It cultivates connections and understanding. My friends are not invested in our true American story, and that’s the problem.
“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present, controls the past.” George Orwell
America is great because of its diversity. The beauty, the culture, the heroes, and the history that have emerged from our unique gumbo is the envy of the world. On my Instagram account there are these very young, Japanese girl dancers, probably teenagers, dressed in what looks like Japanese kimonos, dancing to a James Brown song, “Get Up”. It was mesmerizing: the creative choreography, the rhythm, a sacred tribute to a giant on the opposite side of the globe. The genius of James Brown could only happen in America. It’s why a Guatemalan woman, with two small children, will walk 400 miles to the American border, all for the sacred promise of a new life in America.
But immigrants arrive here and they quickly find out it is not a meritocracy, that hard work is not necessarily rewarded, and that they are easily given scapegoat status by politicians who seek office by demonizing people of color and immigrants.
Despite the scapegoating, this country breeds greatness and innovation.
Book burning, book banning, history denial, racism, homophobia, misogamy, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim, are all cut from the same cloth and serve to sabotage the glory and honor of America. These isms, this fear, all stem from a hidden fear of others, flamed by politicians and right-wing media. These are the mechanisms that solidify and maintain systemic racist structures. Trump’s Big Lie is part of the mechanism used to divide us, to denigrate others, to offer up scapegoats for manufactured grievances.
South Africa had Truth and Reconciliation Hearings to confront and heal from Apartheid. It served as a forum for their sins, which in turn led to healing and subsequent redemption. Our country can never achieve its full promise till we confront our sins, the first step to redemption, to renewed glory, which will lead us to healing and grace.
Back to my Trump acolytes. Here’s an insight as to why they embrace a white supremacist. Walter Johnson, The Broken Heart of America.
“And importantly, thus has it been possible to make poor and working-class white people believe that their interest lie in making common cause with their political leaders and economic betters, common cause in whiteness: the idea that they might eventually share in the spoils, and the understanding that the discomforts and anxieties of their own precarious lives are due to-are due to-those below them, rather than those above them.”
The “idea that they might eventually share in the spoils” is a sure sign they are victims, lacking character, unable to navigate life to achieve a future, and waiting for the spoils to rain down from their masters.
Addressing systemic racism is the opposite of hoping to share in the spoils. Systemic racism is locked in, perpetuated by disinformation, the use of scapegoats, denial of history, and by intentional segregation. Systemic racism is built to last, but it can be unraveled. I believe that if my friends understood the true history of this country, its horrors and its ascension, that would be a first step in dismantling the insidious structures of infrastructure racism. This act alone, I believe, would start to chisel away their heartlessness, and help to reboot their humanity.
The truth of the matter is, we are our brother’s keepers. We can never be free until we are all free.
But the question remains: how do you create empathy, understanding? Unless you are part of the 21/2 percent who are truly evil, truthful history would be a first step in restoring empathy and humanity in our citizens. Here’s the deal: if you deny that Institutional racism exists, then it makes sense you would support a white supremacist. Denying that fact enables you to blame the victim and not the system, and enables you to deny that the system even exists. It also constructs a wall which screams out: I am not my brother’s keeper.
So, I think James Baldwin was onto something. “White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other…” In other words, white people have work to do. White people are the ones storming the capital, brandishing Confederate Flags or wearing Auschwitz tee shirts, all symbols of hate and suppression.
Our children don’t need to be protected from the truth; they relish the truth because it empowers them, and builds character. Truth is empowering; it breeds empathy, compassion, and courage.
The second thing that needs to be done is for the systemic racist architecture to be revealed and dismantled. Taking down statues is symbolic but does nothing about the infrastructure.
And third, we must keep the dialogue flowing, no matter how difficult these conversations can become. We can’t afford to retreat to our bunkers, lobbing grievances, because our Democracy is built upon the full participation of its citizens. It won’t work any other way.
“Being taught to avoid talking about politics and religion has led to a lack of understanding of politics and religion. What we should have been taught was how to have a civil conversation about a difficult topic.” Ryan Fournier
If my white friends understood systemic racism, and all its machinations, I believe their innate goodness, their humanity, would manifest itself; but right now there persists an intentional effort that has endured for over four hundred years to bury the truth, to ensure the electors remain ignorant, (a vital ingredient for the implementation of fascism), to unleash disinformation that only serves to separate Americans, to bury history, and in the more egregious cases, to alter history.
All these efforts are designed to divide and separate us, but connections are America’s superpower. Our breaking down the barriers to connections, will save the union.
Three years ago I underwent a double-lung transplant. Among other things, the operation forces you to confront your mortality, and as part of that process; you realize you are all alone, even while surrounded by the love of family and friends. It was a chilling realization, and I wasn’t sure how to process it.
And I wondered, what is the antibody to this gut punch? And then it struck me: the antibody was to connect, to recognize our common humanity. Connections are what keep at bay the feelings of stark loneliness that impending mortality injects into your consciousness.
But then I realized there’s a superpower that is even more powerful than connections, that slays loneliness. It is HELP.
We are at our best when we help. Helping people takes us out of ourselves. And the ironic truth is that the helper often benefits more than the helpee. Years ago, Ann Devere Smith, the famous actor, and writer, known for her one-woman shows, had a student come in and tell her he was suicidal. Instead of sending him to a counselor, who might prescribe drugs, she sent him to work in a homeless shelter. Guess what: no longer suicidal.
Helping is one of the most powerful tools we have. It can restore our being, our pride, in addition to dissipating our loneliness.
Here’s the point: structural racism endeavors to sever connections by labeling people ‘other’, or different, or dangerous, etc. Their power derives from separation, denying our common humanity, creating hierarchies of class, of acceptance.
Racism is an artificial construct used to maintain power by offering up scapegoats to suppress and separate people. Racism would melt if we started connecting with each other. Removing structural racism would be a giant step in ushering in a new era of peace, reconciliation, and hope. My white friends could finally realize James Baldwin’s prayer:
“White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”
And the promise of our founding fathers can finally be realized.
In the end, goodness always wins out.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Martin Luther King Jr.
“The fundamental litmus test for American democracy—its economy, government, criminal justice system, education, mass media, and culture—remains: how broad and intense are the arbitrary powers used and deployed against black people. In this sense, the problem of the twenty-first century remains the problem of the color line.” Cornell West