My concern with racism and white supremacy in America began long before the recent election. It has been present in American society and government since the beginning. It is something that the U.S. government, on the face of it anyway, during my lifetime, has mostly always been against. Now, that has changed. Officially, on the day of the inauguration, in January 2017, we will be a white supremacist racist nation.
White supremacy goes beyond what many people mean by the word racism, that is, when one group of people doesn’t like another group of people. White supremacy is not just white people not liking black/brown people. Many groups of people don’t like each other, and many cultural groups like to stick together. That’s natural. I don’t even worry about that.
White supremacy, what I call racism, is a belief that people with white skin, and the system created by people with white skin, own everyone else. It was white people (although Africans and descendants of Africans have been slave owners) who believed that enslaved human beings from Africa could be owned—literally bought and sold. Columbus believed that the indigenous people he “discovered” living in the land that he named America belonged to him and his backers. This history is not over. And I do worry about this.
How can one person own another? Slavery is one way, and sometimes it happens in marriage. He thinks she is property that he needs to take care of, that is, maintain, like a car or a boat. Not only does he own her, he owns the marriage itself, which he bought with an expensive courtship. He is in charge and is responsible for everything. She wants to buy a new car. “Honey, what do you think about getting a new car? I mean, it doesn’t have to be a new one, just a better one that doesn’t break down all the time.” He says, “I can’t buy you a car.” He doesn’t punish her for wanting a new car. But as far as he is concerned, it’s up to him to decide, she has no voice. A car is not something they would buy together.
In the U.S., there is a certain group in charge. White people. The white system. It’s up to the white system to decide. The white system says, “I can’t give you freedom just yet,” to the enslaved people. “I can’t let you roam the countryside hunting for buffalo,” to the indigenous people. “You can basically do what I allow you to do. You won’t have a place at the table unless I invite you. And even then, you will still be my guest. We won’t be putting on the party together.” It could be that in 500 years, people of all races and backgrounds will be putting on the party together.
In my 20s I worked for a disgusting man at a job in Madrid, Spain. I only lasted about four months—four months too many. My job was to use a dictaphone to type out his spoken translations from Spanish into English of telephone repair manuals. Whenever he wanted to indicate “continued,” he would say “cunt.”
More offensive than his abbreviation, though, was what he said, over and over, in social conversations: White people were clearly superior to other races because they had the capacity to dominate other races. They were stronger and smarter and could crush anyone they chose. “Might is right.” This boss, born and raised in Hollywood, Calif., cited the example of the Spanish Empire in South America and the British Empire in Africa and India. (At that time, I don’t think people had yet started thinking of the United States as the U.S. Empire.) As a white male, and member of the ruling class, he seemed completely confident in the truth of his analysis. I had never met anyone who expressed such ideas. I don’t know how common it was for U.S. citizens at that time to openly assert the kinds of claims he was making. (Maybe he was only talking like that because we were living under Franco in Spain’s fascist dictatorship and he wanted to be on the good side of the dictator in case Franco was listening.)
It’s almost as though if you drink the water in the U.S., you turn into a white supremacist. It’s the story everyone believes, even if they are not white. It’s a totally fascist story. It’s the story of a superior race, a superior color even. How crazy is that? When I hear about friends of a friend of mine from the Democratic Republic of Congo using bleach to whiten their skin, I am appalled and deeply saddened that they feel they’re inferior the way they are.
Around 6,000 young black men are murdered every year, mostly by other black men. Do they also adopt the national belief system, that they are inferior and don’t deserve anything better than to die from a bullet at a young age?
My friend Nick Boswell, an Ojibwe elder who has been active on behalf of Native Americans for many years, holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology and master’s degrees in human services and Adlerian psychology; is a wounded and decorated veteran of the wars in Korea and Vietnam; and is an upstanding Muslim, has written a paper called “Historical Trauma of the American Indian People.” He writes, “Our American Indian experience is the psycho-social impact, depending upon a particular tribe’s geographic location and historical experience, of from one to five hundred years of the most brutal genocide, ethnocide and forced acculturation the world has ever seen. The effect of this holocaustic experience for both the individual and the tribal group is, of course, trauma. The result of this trauma is a condition that has come to be known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).”
He describes the coping patterns created by PTSD that are passed down from one generation to the next. There is a terrible self-destructive strain that has developed within the Native community and expresses itself as alcoholism. Boswell cites the statistic that of all American Indian deaths in Minnesota from 2000 to 2007, 42% were related to alcohol. He’s describing the collective, understandable despair brought on by domination, not some natural inferiority.
I wrote an article in Southside Pride (Phillips/Powderhorn edition, December 2002) called “Violence against Indians is illegal.” The title is sarcastic. It’s a statement that shouldn’t have to be said. It should go without saying that violence against Indians is illegal. That’s how I hear Black Lives Matter. It should be a fact that goes without saying, but, tragically, it is not. That’s why it has to be said: “Black lives matter.” Where there’s the owner and the owned, the owner assumes he/she matters more than those who are owned. In the U.S. where white supremacy reigns supreme, those in power still believe they own, and control, African Americans and Indigenous people. According to the national narrative of white supremacy, “Violence against Indians is legal,” and “Black lives don’t matter.”
Two famous doctrines are behind the belief in white supremacy: the doctrine of discovery and the doctrine of manifest destiny. The first was an international law based on a papal bull of the 15th century that said anyone who wasn’t Christian and anything belonging to anyone who wasn’t Christian belonged to whichever Christian discovered them. So when Columbus “discovered” “America” the people already here were not Christian and were instantly claimed by Columbus. Then, even though Thomas Jefferson was against it, and even though the U.S. theoretically believed in separation of church and state, the doctrine of discovery was incorporated into U.S. law and therefore gave legal justification for the breaking of all treaties established with indigenous people—because they weren’t Christian.
The second doctrine was manifest destiny, a more complicated concept and more disputed. Generally it held that American democracy (created by white men) was exceptional and should be spread throughout the western part of the U.S. There was some notion of divine destiny involved, too, which justified all expansion. Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant and John Quincy Adams were not great supporters of the idea, according to Wikipedia.
Maintaining the Story
The notion of black criminality and inferiority has been well-developed by the white power structure in the U.S. to justify slavery—denigrate the victim and justify the crime of slavery. I have heard about this process from Dr. Joy DeGruy, and it’s also in her book “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing (PTSS).”
Not only does vilifying the victim protect the perpetrator from acknowledging their own guilt, which is a psychological, internal spiritual problem for perpetrators who want to think well of themselves, but keeping the victim powerless is a solution to the more practical problem of expected retaliation. Whenever one group of people does excessive damage to another group of people, the perpetrator group is always afraid of the victim group. That’s a natural reaction. The perpetrator knows that revenge would be justified, so in order to prevent retaliation and stay in control, the perpetrators need to paint the victims in the worst possible light—to keep them down, to keep them from justifiably lashing back.
The press, in collusion with the U.S. government, has contributed to the negative image of black/brown people. Juan Gonzalez, in “News for all the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American media,” writes in the introduction and goes on to demonstrate throughout the book: “It is our contention that newspapers, radio and television played a pivotal role in perpetuating racist views among the general population. They did so by routinely portraying non-white minorities as threats to white society and by reinforcing racial ignorance, group hatred and discriminatory government policies. The news media thus assumed primary authorship of a deeply flawed national narrative: the creation myth of heroic European settlers battling an array of backward and violent non-white peoples to forge the world’s greatest democratic republic.”
In Johann Hari’s book “Chasing the Scream,” about the war on drugs, he describes the work of Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics, in the early 1900s, who used his power to promote fear of racial minorities as he worked to stamp out drugs. Hari documents the crucial role played by Anslinger in killing Billie Holiday.
Hari shows how the war on drugs is carried out and how it contributes to the perception of black people as criminals. The fact is that of all the dealers, 19% are African American. Of all the dealers arrested for dealing, 64% are African American.
Hari says it’s not racist cops (he spends a lot of time describing how un-racist cops can be as individuals), rather, it’s a racist system. It arrests people least able to defend themselves (socially and legally) in order to meet a quota.
Clearly, white supremacy didn’t go away with emancipation. There was a brief period between 1863 and 1877 when the Reconstruction Era, designed by Lincoln, permitted a striking climate of opportunity for equality, integration and enfranchisement, despite much controversy. But then with the overthrow of Reconstruction, in 1877, white supremacy and racism became the official, sanctioned mode of operation.
In her book, “The Family Tree,” Karen Branan, who was born in the South in 1941, talks about how white supremacy was maintained there. “Early in life I was aware of the contradiction between what I was taught about black people and what I knew about the few who were in my life, such as Edna [her maid], other friends’ maids, and our yard man, Roosevelt, all of whom I liked and trusted. Edna, I loved. But it would take years before I learned all the ways white people had constructed and then taught one another a caricature of blackness in order to stay in charge.”
A veteran journalist, Branan also talks about the Lost Cause movement, “at the heart of which was the eternal crusade for white superiority.” It was designed to unite poor and rich white people. I learned from her book that, “Since the early 1900s, mainstream, even liberal, magazines like Harpers, the Atlantic Monthly and Good Housekeeping often played their tune [white superiority attitudes of the Lost Cause movement].”
An article from November 1921 in a magazine called Scientific Monthly (the word “scientific” always suggests credibility) is called “Intelligence of Negroes as Compared with Whites.” An unnamed writer discusses a study by Dr. George Oscar Ferguson Jr. of the University of Virginia. The writer says the conclusion of Dr. Ferguson’s study is that “psychological study of the negro indicates that he will never be the mental equal of the white race.” Although at the end of the article his remarks about African Americans’ talent for imitation seem positive—“The negro has to make many adjustments. This must be remembered in any comparative estimate of his intelligence. How many white men would reveal so high an order of talent if they had to act, to dress and to talk like the black man in Africa?”—, it was a common perception in white circles of the past that “Negroes” were good at imitation, but not at thinking (hence they should not be allowed to vote).
Just as I was shocked to learn in my 20s there were people who believed white people were superior because they were able to dominate other peoples, I was shocked the other day to learn from a friend who listens to talk radio 24/7 and reads the Drudge website daily that he believes Black Lives Matter and any kind of protest from minority groups asking to be heard and asking for civil rights and equality are nefarious plots encouraged by outside agitators (such as George Soros) and are designed to keep oppressed peoples disgruntled. So, with this belief system, there’s no way the injustice perpetrated by the system against black people and Native people will ever be acknowledged or understood or grasped by the ruling class. Oppressed people can never be heard if they are seen as powerful enemies to be crushed. And, as long as white culture wants to maintain a good opinion of itself, the concerns of the victims will always be delegitimized.
Challenging the Story
My neighbor Isak Douah, 17, has been impacted by the racist national narrative. His physical appearance consists of black skin, very dark eyes and thick, African-looking hair. You can’t tell by looking that culturally he’s a unique mixture: His father is from Ivory Coast and his mother is from Iceland. But in American society he is simply a young black male and everything that that means.
Growing up in Minnesota, Isak has always been aware of his color. When Isak was in middle school, he was blamed for marijuana use, even though he was one of the few not smoking marijuana. He was removed from a bus about to leave for an out of town overnight field trip and searched. He felt he was suddenly regarded differently when he was no longer a little black boy. He realized he had grown into a big, “scary-looking black man,” perceived as threatening and dangerous. They thought he was a “kingpin” that other kids would imitate. Somewhere I read that a black male of age 12 will usually be seen by a white person as 15 or 16.
The incident scarred him and he feels it affected his academic performance—he said it undermined his confidence too much.
The 2015 non-indictment of Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., produced a “social awakening.” At South High, where Isak is now a senior, he has learned from his friends that violence against black people is systemic in this country and has a long history.
When Isak heard about the shooting of unarmed Michael Brown, he thought, “That could have been me.”
When Jamar Clark was killed in Minneapolis, the injustice really hit home. It wasn’t just “something to scroll past on Facebook.” Isak got involved in Black Lives Matter. He went to the 4th Precinct every other day, sharing the anger and pain of people who live on the north side.
Isak’s mother is afraid he will be killed because of his color—at a protest, being stopped by the police or being mistaken for a gang member. And he is afraid, too. As all black people in this country, he would like to be safe.
A very articulate young man, Isak suggested that the way to alter the national narrative is through the use of statistics—by getting correct information out there. His emphasis is what pushed me to seek out the false images that have been disseminated in the culture to cement white supremacy in place.
Is there an end in sight?
There’s no doubt that the national white supremacist narrative has undermined the health and well-being of non-white groups in this country. While we do need a lot more correct information, the other part of the solution might be a change in values.
Our nation needs to make official statements of lament for practicing slavery in this country and for the thousands of broken treaties. And going further than repenting of historical acts, the fact that slavery is evil should be officially acknowledged publicly, and the fact that the destruction of indigenous cultures is evil should also be acknowledged publicly. It should be acknowledged publicly that the perpetuation of ongoing white supremacy is just plain wrong. In addition, official statements of gratitude and appreciation for the part of our economy built by enslaved people need to be spoken. Appreciation for the tenacious regard for and protection of the natural world that Native people have practiced must be spoken. Words are not enough, of course; ideally, an attitude of lament and appreciation would run throughout the country. And if such attitudes were converted into the abolition of the metabolic-level existence of white supremacy, and consequently justice and fairness (no redlining, for example; return of land, for example) and equal opportunity would prevail, then we might get somewhere. I think there’s a long road ahead.
Hopefully a change in the perception of African Americans in the national consciousness will come about since the opening, on Sept. 24, 2016, of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. From its initial conception in 1915 to its establishment in 2003, it will be the 19th museum in the Smithsonian Institution next to the Washington Monument and will feature layers of galleries focused on slavery, segregation and the civil rights movement as well as African-American achievement in music, entertainment, sports and politics.
The latest book by social justice evangelical leader Jim Wallis, “America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America,” provides the statistics Isak is talking about—the information that could change the way people think, and could possibly change their values.
People’s values need to change in order for information to have an impact, and, actually, I don’t know what makes people change their values. I read most of Wallis’ new book. It says some beautiful, theological things that would almost make people want to be Christian. He defines the problem that we have: “The unspoken but everyday assumption is that America is still a white society and that it has minorities who have problems in regard to race.”
We have overt systemic racism in housing, money lending and access to opportunities, but the law, when it is on the side of civil rights, could address those things. What the law can’t do is change hearts and minds. Conservative columnist David Brooks describes the extent of the problem: “The serious discrimination is implicit, subtle and nearly universal.”
Wallis writes, “Whiteness is an idol of lies, arrogance, and violence. This idol blinds us to our true identity as the children of God …” So what he’s saying is that it is inner transformation that is ultimately necessary to overcome racism and white supremacy. He says we need to listen and learn. I’m trying.
If there were a God, whose essence was love, then all people of all ethnicities would be equally valuable in the eyes of this God. And this God would have sent Jesus to show people how to live on this earth together in harmony without any one group having power over any other group.
Merry Christmas, anybody?