|“I will state flatly that the bulk of this country’s white population impresses me, and has so impressed me for a very long time, as being beyond any conceivable hope of moral rehabilitation. They have been white, if I may so put it, too long. They have been married to the lie of white supremacy too long. The effect in their personalities, their lives, their very grasp of realty, has been as devastating as the lava which so memorably immobilized the citizens of Pompeii. They are unable to conceive that their version of reality, which they want me to accept, is an insult to my history, a parody of theirs and an intolerable violation of myself.”
— James Baldwin
“Here’s the thing. When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserved what happened to them before.”
– Chris Rock
Back in the late ’80s, I signed up for a “creative writing” seminar at a prestigious Chicago university as led by a widely respected white, bow-tie-clad, fifty-ish author-professor. In the very first session, he asked the class of 15 students who our favorite American author was. The students responded with Faulkner, Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the like. The professor nodded approvingly at the mention of each of these literary giants’ name.
When my turn came, I responded with, “James Baldwin.” (Baldwin had just recently died).
“Baldwin?!” the prof practically shouted. “Hell….he was no goddamn writer. His one-trick pony is named racism.”
The teacher glared at me as his cheeks began to turn bright pink. He pointed an accusatory finger directly at me as I suddenly realized that I was the only black person in class. His neck veins began pulsing. I feared he might have a heart attack right there in class.
After taking a couple of deep breaths, this world renowned author-teacher lowered his finger and said in a more subdued, almost conspiratorial tone. “My God…ah…Mr. Dyer, is it?” he asked. I nodded. “That man Baldwin’s racism is shot right through every word he writes and it runs right off every single page.”
I sat frozen in open-mouthed shock — dumbfounded. With this little vignette playing over and over in my head after class, I realized that this was hostile territory. I actually ran to the registrar’s office and dropped the course.
One of the myriad ways that whites control the “race relations” conversation is to delegitimize or at the very least minimize analysis of their history of oppression. A favorite ploy in this exercise is to “flip the script,” as it were, so that all critiques – particularly by blacks – of historical or current white supremacy are immediately condemned and shut down as, at best irrelevant and at worst, oppressive to them. They thus not only obscure and deny white agency in black folks’ oppression, but position themselves as the true and still beleaguered victims of racism.
This is what my erstwhile professor was doing. Baldwin’s calling out of whites for their long and sordid history of black oppression was for him and Baldwin’s “bulk” of whites summed up in the cynically contrived catchphrase of “reverse racism.” What the good professor and the masses of white folk refuse to acknowledge is that whiteness, white supremacy, and their operative tool, white racism, determine and define what is “accurate,” “valuable” and “worthy” of review even about oppression that they do not face, including most especially racism.
White supremacy polices how black people are allowed to identify, speak and write about – and especially move against – past and continuing white oppression.
What Baldwin so eloquently identified is that whites have been so completely, so deeply, and for so long immersed in a white supremacist ethic and ethos that, like fish, they simply cannot understand that they swim in a sea, lake, stream or water-filled tank until and unless they are – usually forcibly — removed therefrom and begin to suffocate for lack of oxygen.
Why is it so absolutely essential, indeed necessary, that white people categorically and completely deny their self-evident, agency for the unconscionably bloody sin of white supremacy?
Here Chris Rock’s pithy dichotomy between “crazy” and not-as-crazy white folks is instructive.
White mental health professionals never address the psychic damage that white folks’ mass superiority complex has wrought among their them. The white supremacist roots of devastating black poverty, black crime, and any of the other countless maladies that afflict black people and people of color throughout the world are never even imagined let alone interrogated as the results of centuries – centuries – of Europeans’ and their North American cousins’ exploitation and degradation of entire putatively “dark” continents.
For example, white people have convinced themselves that they came into possession of this North American continent in a just and honorable manner. Its original inhabitants, when remembered at all, are mere afterthoughts or quaint place and mascot names. How does one mentally square the naming an entire state after the people you have just slaughtered – Indiana – “land of the Indian”?
Since the late 15th century, black, brown, red and yellow peoples have had to endure and cope with a belief system which has resulted in learned behaviors emanating from the mass anti-empathetic postures among whites as a self-identified group.
Among whites, acceptance, perpetuation, and especially denial of white supremacy, are of a piece – a mental defense mechanism. White supremacy is a means of coping with an ongoing “cognitive dissonance.” I have often wondered how white people can look themselves in the mirror each day knowing of their bloody historical legacy wherever they have trod on this earth. It’s easier, safer, I suppose – and keeps them relatively sane to either deny that that history occurred at all, or even if it did, they personally had nothing to do with it.
Therefore, because history doesn’t count, ongoing white advantage in every conceivable human endeavor has nothing to do with history.
As Chris Rock put it, this is crazy, this denial of history. But Rock’s description of “crazy” whites and not-so-crazy whites is both accurate and not quite kosher in its dirty details.
White supremacy is not merely a “mental” disorder. It is that, to be sure. Something has to be mentally awry among people who take obvious pleasure from the infliction of harm on black people.
This is more than a socially twisted, perverted worldview. White supremacy is also a mental disorder that robs its adherents of the ability to empathize with those whom it deems less than fully human. This social and mental disorder is most fully manifested in an anti-blackness and in a white supremacist system which not only defends but encourages modern killer cops and vigilantes, just as it did their lynch mob predecessors not so very long ago.
These disorders are manifested in daily interactions wherein collective and individually learned and embedded antipathy, resentment and even hatred have become “natural” among most white folks’ and their first response to the mere presence of a black body.
As a sociopathy, white supremacy is passed from generation to generation in the same sense that genes are passed from one generation to the next. To be sure, white supremacy need not be actively taught to young white children. On the contrary, white kids may be reared in outwardly “non-racist” homes and actually taught to see blacks as people after all. But, it is the entire social, political, cultural and economic “American” milieu outside the sheltered home into which people of all “races” are born and bred which normalizes, legitimizes and in fact requires the “natural” oppression of black people.
A word of caution for the young black protesters nationwide
In 1966, I was a 17-year-old freshman at Indiana University in Bloomington. That was the year when Stokely Carmichael first raised his black fist and demanded “Black Power!” The Black Panthers were just getting organized in Oakland. And campus protests were ramping up against the Vietnam War; the women’s liberation was in its infancy; and we black students were in the vanguard of each of these roiling currents.
The leader of IU’s black students was a political science grad student named “Rollo.” Rollo warned us often that we must be careful not to get too close to our white student allies. Why not? “Because,” he said, “When the going gets tough; when the police start cracking heads and locking us up, these white Hippies, Yippies, and ‘allies’ will abandon us like we have the Bubonic Plague.”
Rollo allowed that once things got “serious,” white students would cut their long hair, replace their tie-dyed jeans and blouses with suits and skirts, and return to their fathers’ and uncles’ firms, farms and businesses, leaving us to face the music and whatever throwaway jobs might be leftover.
Rollo was absolutely right. Millions of today’s white, aging rock-hard conservatives, liberals and “independents,” dare not regale their children and grandchildren of the “good old days” of yore.
Just as Rollo predicted, these people have metamorphosed or retrenched to white folks’ fall-back or default position of anti-blackness.
These are the folks who today seek to silence the truth about white supremacy and their role in its perpetuation. Many of their kids and grandkids are marching alongside you today.
Herbert Dyer, Jr. is a Chicago-based freelance writer.