Jonathan Chait’s recent New York Magazine piece on race in the Obama years is controversial, to say the least. Chait argues that race has become the “primal grievance in our politics,” as part of a “narrative of persecution” that liberals and conservatives alike use for political purposes. To put Chait’s argument bluntly, Democrats exploit racial tensions by accusing Republicans of being racist, and Republicans exploit racial tensions to rile up their predominantly white base. But there is cause for hope that American politics will return to a state of racial tranquility, as Chait argues that “the near-certain election of our 44th non-black [President] will likely ease the mutual suspicion.” In short, if you’re tired of this whole race thing that started in 2008, you only have to wait two more years before you get to the promised land.
Make what you will of Chait’s argument. Personally, I agree with the critique, expressed by Jamelle Bouie, that “[Chait] treats race as an intellectual exercise-a low-stakes cocktail party argument between white liberals and white conservatives over their respective racial innocence.” Ta-Nehisi Coates, responding to a different piece Chait wrote, says something similar: “For black people, this conversation is not an abstract thought experiment nor merely a stimulating debate, after which we may repair to our lounge and exchange quips over martinis…these are our lives.” Chait’s defense, which is basically that he wasn’t writing about race itself, but rather the politics of race, essentially proves Bouie’s point, and is itself a manifestation of the structural privilege that allows white writers to ignore racism in the first place. In the critiques of Chait’s piece lies a simple, yet important point: racism is a real thing, and it does real harm to real people.
It has become fashionable to say, perhaps hopefully, perhaps ignorantly, that we are living in a post-racial society. Racism, and more accurately, white supremacy, is talked about as an embarrassing but aberrant moment in American history, long since disposed of by Brown, the Civil Rights Act, and the election of the first black President. I would suggest that this conclusion can only be reached by completely ignoring the perspectives and experiences of non-white Americans. For instance, take a look at mass incarceration in America. The “War on Drugs” has spectacularly failed to decrease the rate of drug addiction, but has been wildly successful at incarcerating black men. Tupac said it back in 1991: “The war on drugs is a war on you and me.” Today, as Michelle Alexander writes, “America imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.” Though white students are much more likely to both use and sell drugs, the cumulative lifetime probability of a black person going to prison is more than 7 times higher. And as if a prison sentence weren’t punishment enough, 1 in 13 African Americans are disenfranchised because of prior felony convictions. In my home state of Florida, which almost never restores the voting rights of those convicted of felonies, more than 1 in 5 African Americans are barred from participating in the democratic process. Again, Tupac provides prophetic indictment of the violence of criminal “justice” system: “It ain’t a secret, don’t conceal the fact/The penitentiary’s packed/And it’s filled with blacks.”
It’s important to bear in mind that “race” does not exist as a natural phenomenon. What we call “race” is entirely constructed by what Barbara Fields has termed “racecraft”. Racecraft is, as Fields puts it, “the process by which racism becomes race.” In other words, race is a tool of social control that serves the interests of the powerful by justifying oppression of the “uncivilized” other. America was born out of racecraft, when white colonizers justified their genocide of native peoples, was built by racecraft, when plantation owners justified keeping black people as chattel, and thrives on racecraft today, as millions of black men are incarcerated and disenfranchised and murdered. None of these systems of violence can be justified except by designating certain people, and certain bodies, as aberrant in relation to the norm of whiteness, and therefore pathologically marked for death. As J. Kameron Carter says (in a video worth watching in its entirety), “the logic of race is a logic of violence.” Put another way, the logic of race is the logic of white supremacy.
This logic is reproduced in the most common defense of white racist ideology: “I don’t have a racist bone in my body,” as Paul Ryan put it. In other words, I don’t hate black people, so calm down. This defense perpetuates the myth that race is natural in order to excuse the individual white person from the necessity of naming and combatting hegemonic whiteness. Moreover, it validates whiteness as a fundamentally innocent state, and thus reifies unearned white privilege as natural (or even providential). As such, our societal understanding of racism itself reflects white supremacist attitudes by implying that anything short of outright animus is racially neutral. In fact, racism has little to do with individual feelings of prejudice (though prejudice is also shamefully widespread), and everything to do with modes of social organization that systematically privilege some at the expense of others.
All that said, how should white people respond to all of this? To be honest, I’m not sure what a “proper response” looks like for white Americans. White supremacy is a complicated and powerful force, and 1,000 words are insufficient to analyze and respond to it. Moreover, my own whiteness certainly limits the extent to which I have had to see and name the oppression I perpetuate, and these blind spots undoubtedly impact my analysis here. At a minimum, though, we must hear and affirm the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates: “I view white supremacy as one of the central organizing forces in American life, whose vestiges and practices…will likely afflict black people until this country passes away into the dust.” White people must refuse to accept the myth of American innocence. Rather, we must recognize the ways in which we have benefited and continue to benefit from the subjugation of non-white people.
The theologian Jon Sobrino writes that the scandal of the cross is not simply that Jesus was crucified, but that we crucified him. Similarly, white Americans must name the systematic manner in which we have participated in the “murder of the righteous” by validating and perpetuating white supremacist ideology. This recognition should not take the form of a one-and-done confession, but rather (to stay with the metaphor of Catholic sacramentality) demands penance. White supremacy is the original sin of America and its purgation requires, as the catechism says, “a radical reorientation of our whole life…with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed.” But the metaphor stops there, because it’s possible, and even plausible, that our sins are unforgiveable. Maybe that’s the way it should be. But that should not blunt the moral imperative for white Americans to participate (appropriately) in the struggle for liberation, the words of Langston Hughes always on our lips as a prayer: “O, let America be America again/the land that never has been yet/and yet must be.”