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Opinion: Beyond the Protests

Chris Sunami Chris Sunami Opinion: Beyond the ProtestsGeorge Floyd protests on June 6, 2020. Photo by Taijuan Moorman.
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There are two competing ways of understanding the “Black Lives Matter” movement:

The narrative from the left tells the story of ordinary people, driven by conscience, coming together, across racial lines, at great personal risk, to put an end to a brutal and hypocritical institution, one with a sustained and documented history of targeting black American citizens, and murdering them with impunity.

The narrative from the right paints a portrait of brave and selfless public servants — risking, and sometimes losing their own lives — against a frighteningly destructive uprising of rioters, looters and opportunists, whose real goal is to destroy or steal what others have spent their lives building.

Both frame the movement as a struggle between protesters and police, that can end only when one side wins, and the other loses. Yet the truth is that unilateral victory is not possible for either side. Either both sides win, or all of us lose.

In a functioning democracy; in an egalitarian society, where people are not assigned their place in life at birth; in a supposed meritocracy, where the claim is that people receive what they deserve; the police force — the tax-funded governmental monopoly on violence — cannot maintain its legitimacy when it demonstrably and systemically treats citizens inequitably. The protests remain unending because the conditions that demanded them have not been improved.

On Being “Black”

When communities are not just policed poorly, but harmfully, lawlessness is the inevitable result. This is what those shedding crocodile tears over “black-on-black crime” deliberately fail to acknowledge. Yes, life in a poor black urban neighborhood can be horrible, dangerous, and intolerable. This, however, is not a natural state of affairs, it is not independent of racial injustice, and it is not unconnected to police abuses.

Black people are “black,” to forbid us from being white: 

The category we now call “black” was invented to justify slavery. It lumped together people of many different cultures, national origins and languages. It specified that none of their descendants could escape that category, even if they had far more “white” ancestors than black ones.

This American conception of “black” defined us as less than human, establishing our lives as being of inferior value to white lives. It produced slavemasters who enslaved even their own children, treating them as objects rather than people. And it invented, as a paired and inseparable opposite, the category “white,” not as a skin color or a culture, but as a locus of privilege, in exclusion of, and in permanent, mandated dominance over the category black.

Black neighborhoods are black neighborhoods because black people have not been allowed to live elsewhere:

Contracts banning black ownership in white neighborhoods — in Upper Arlington, for example — were defended in court as late as the 1970s, and unofficially honored long after. To this day, there are neighborhoods where black residents are made to feel unwelcome, out of place, or, as in the cases of Trayvon Martin, and Ahmaud Arbery, in danger of being targeted and killed by their own neighbors, solely because of skin color.

Black poverty is black poverty because black people have been continually robbed of the fruits of our own labors:

American slavery may have been a long time ago, but the inherited wealth of many of the descendants of slaveholders is not unconnected to the inherited poverty of many of the descendants of the enslaved. Nor did theft from black people end with the Emancipation Proclamation. In the early part of the last century, prosperous black communities such as Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street” were burned to the ground by whites unwilling to take their chances at fair competition.

A few decades later, unscrupulous, fear-mongering real-estate deals inflated the values of suburban homes and deflated the value of urban homes, effectively stripping the black community, collectively, of over 158 billion dollars worth of housing value — a major cause of continuing black poverty and low rates of black home ownership. 

Such economic exploitation continues even today. As just one example, within the last few years, the video game Fortnite has reaped over a billion dollars in profits, largely by repackaging and selling dances created — in many cases — by uncredited and uncompensated black youth.

Black crime is black crime because black lives are not treated as valuable:

Black victims are typically invisible, their deaths unmarked and unmourned outside of their immediate families. Their killers, whatever their race or station, go under-punished and under-pursued. Black criminals are created in neighborhoods where there are no resources and no services, where education is savagely inequitable, where early institutionalization is a pathway to mass incarceration, and where law-abiding black citizens have as much or more to fear from the police as from the criminals.

The criminalization of black culture, the aggressive pursuit of petty crimes in black neighborhoods, and the differential sentencing that punishes black people far out of proportion to their white counterparts, are not unfortunate accidents. They are a core part of how our society actively maintains an unequal playing field, one that continues to prevent the majority of black people from competing effectively with those people designated as “white.” Black people are assumed guilty until proven innocent, regardless of age, regardless of education or socioeconomic status, and then tried, convicted and executed at the barrel of an officer’s gun.

Black dysfunction is black dysfunction because the sins and vices of our society are displaced onto black people:

White America takes the traits it cannot tolerate in itself — its violence, its sexual abuses, its addictions, its materialism, its crudeness, its undeserved prosperity — and attributes them to black people, at least as we exist in the white American imagination. The black man is portrayed, in white-dominated media, as an ignorant, violent, gun-toting, feral, drug-addicted rapist, spewing curse words, draped in gold chains and living the good life on unearned welfare checks. That is the reflection we see of ourselves in movies, on “reality” shows such as COPS, and in “gangsta”-themed songs whose largest customer base is white suburbanites. How could that fail to harm our own self-images?

Consider instead Donald Trump, the living embodiment of undeserved white privilege. Is it not he who is willfully ignorant of basic facts, whose violence was revealed in his deployment of soldiers against peaceful protesters, who has been credibly accused of sexual abuses, and boasted about them in the rawest possible language on camera, whose appetites are uncontrolled, whose home is gilded, and whose vaunted wealth was inherited? 

In him, we see how, instead of solving its own problems, the institution of “whiteness” displaces them onto the black community. It then equates the fight against those problems with the oppression of that community. It then responds with disingenuous helplessness and confusion as those problems grow only ever worse. This is why the protests started, this is why they continue. This is why they have begun to turn sour. In them, we see the frustration of those who have been repeatedly denied every legitimate recourse.

On Being “White”

Systemic racism damages and poisons even its supposed beneficiaries. The long litany of the sins of whiteness may be distasteful, but confronting it is not merely an occasion for the discomfort of feelings of guilt. Rather, it is an opportunity for those born into whiteness to escape a prison they may have failed to realize they were held within. Defending injustice, enforcing injustice, or even merely passively benefiting from injustice, are all deeply corrosive to the soul. Yet this moment in history offers the chance to no longer be complicit in that system.

Beyond the Protests

The dangerous, necessary and vital work of the protests must be celebrated. Yet, the time approaches to dream further than the momentary solidarity of the streets.

“White” people, you have much work ahead of you. You may have laid down white privilege for hours, days or weeks on the front lines of the Black Lives Matter protests; experiencing, for that span of time, life as black Americans do; as the target of the hostility and hatred of your own government; and of its representatives whose salaries you pay out of your own tax dollars.

Protests, however, are the voice of the powerless, and you are not without power.

Laws must be rewritten; institutions restructured or shuttered; people voted out of office; and their successors held to account. False histories must be retired and true ones uncovered. Resegregated school systems must be reintegrated. Resegregated communities must be desegregated. Structural change must take place. This is work you are better situated to accomplish than we are, because it begins in your own communities, and among your own neighbors.

Your bravest work, however, begins even closer to home. Turn your courage, that stood unafraid against tear gas and batons in the streets, towards that long avoided conversation with your beloved grandparent “set in their ways and ideas,” or in gentle-but-firm resistance to your favorite cousin’s casual racism. Loud arguments with strangers are easy; real communication is difficult. That, however, is the place where all genuine change starts, and these are the people that none but you can hope to reach. Have those conversations today, because tomorrow may well be too late. Trust that they are making a difference, even if its not one you can see. All real change happens at the individual level.

People of color, conversely, must resist the urge to retreat into our own communities. Our work is not at home, either in the pursuit of a fictitious black purity, or in obedience to that old inculcated training that we must blame ourselves (or our “wild youth,” or our “absent fathers”) for not lifting ourselves up high enough by our own bootstraps to escape our problems. It is our time, rather, to engage the larger world, speaking boldly and honestly, even when it is not what our audience demands to hear.

Most importantly, we must do what we have never been allowed, nor encouraged to do: We must lead. Ours the vision, and ours the dream –not of “black” on top, and “white” on the bottom, but of unity beyond skin color, and merit unfettered by prejudice. Our task is to make visible the strength and the joy that is diversity. We must live the truth that a world where black lives matter is the best world for all people’s lives –a better world than one that judges, excludes, and discards.

This Moment in History

This may be a grim time in our collective life, but it is not a hopeless one. The near-death being experienced by the American democracy is also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to re-dream this nation into new and better life. The voices on one side may preach authoritarian retreat into the false unity of a colorless past, and the voices on the other may promise a fractious mosaic of conflicting futures. But here, in this moment, in front of us, is a portrait of ourselves as a diverse, inclusive and equitable nation, waiting only for us to paint it into full and beautiful color. 

And now is no time to get weary.

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