“White Americans finding easy comfort in nonviolence and the radical love of the civil rights movement must reckon with the unsettling fact that black people in this country achieved the rudiments of their freedom through the killing of whites.”
— Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power
In the quote above, Coates is referring to the bloodiest war in US history, the Civil War, a war begun by Confederate traitors willing to blow up the whole house in defense of a single freedom: their assumed right to own other human beings.
That war never ended, as the afterlife of slavery included the infamous Black Codes, chain gangs, segregation and red-lining, Jim Crow laws, and the organized terrorism of lynching and night rides. Now the afterlife of the afterlife abides in the serial murder of Black people by militarized police forces, the Thirteenth Amendment and mass incarceration, separate and unequal schools, and the creation and perpetuation of ghettos through law and public policy, just to name a few atrocities.
Of course, there’s also prejudice and racial bias, but the well-spring of that bigotry is the structure of inequality itself, not the other way around. That is, the reality of inequality baked into law and economic condition as well as history, custom and culture generates racist thoughts and feelings as justification, and those racist ideas keep regenerating as long as the structures of white supremacy and Black oppression are in place. Race itself is, of course, both everywhere and nowhere at all — a social construction and massive fiction, and at the same time, the hardest of hard-edged realities.
Body cameras and prison reform and sensitivity training and education will not end the racial nightmare — even if some reforms would be welcomed. Instead, we must face reality and courageously confront history, tell the truth, and then destroy the entire edifice of white supremacy: metaphorically speaking, it means burning down the plantation.
And when the plantation is at last burned to the ground, people of European descent, or “those who believe they are white,” will find the easy privileges we have taken for granted disappearing, and along with them, our willful blindness and faux innocence. Also gone must be the fragile, precarious perch of superiority. White folks will have to give up our accumulated, unearned advantages, and yet, they stand to gain something wonderful: a fuller personhood and a moral bearing. We face an urgent challenge, then, if we are to join humanity in the enormous task of creating a just and caring world, and it begins with rejecting white supremacy — not simply despising bigotry and backwardness, but spurning as well all those despicable structures and traditions. It extends to refusing to embrace optics over justice, “multiculturalism” or “diversity” over an honest reckoning with reality — to becoming race traitors as we learn the loving art of solidarity in practice.
There’s a somewhat similar challenge facing those of us who identify as men right this minute, and it’s roiling the whole society and confronting all of us. It, too, requires facing up to reality, examining history courageously and thoroughly, and noting the interaction of prejudice with the structures that uphold and spread the bias: sexism and the heteronormative patriarchal system of male supremacy. It, too, will demand that we burn down a plantation of sorts, and it, too, will mean the privileged — all men — will lose their comfortable and taken-for-granted advantages, as well as their shaky and inherently unstable place of dominance. Just as African Americans know white people well — they’ve had to, as a matter of survival — women and nonbinary people know men much better than we know ourselves.
Gender, too, is a social construction, a fiction that has very real implications for people’s lives. As Simone de Beauvoir observed long ago, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” — and once more, a harsh reality. This moment challenges the deeply embedded cultural practices that have held women as inferior human beings, shackled by dehumanizing myths, objectified and dominated by others. Women who’ve been manipulated and controlled, forced to see themselves as passive objects but not the active agents and subjects of history, are standing up and speaking out. Men who believe in freedom must stand up as well.
When male politicians and commentators, including Mitch McConnell, declare, “I believe the women,” let’s take responsibility for testing that hypothesis. Do they believe that women, nonbinary people and trans people should have control over their bodies, and should be able to make their own reproductive choices freely and express their sexuality in any way they choose? That people of all genders must receive equal pay, and have a living wage/stipend where needed? That no one should be forced to be married in order to access basic needs like health insurance and decent housing, as well as free child care while attending school or job training or work?
If we are to “believe the women,” we must acknowledge these structures of inequality that oppress and exploit them. Even as we fight against individual acts of sexism. Let’s work to end the patriarchy and the structures of male supremacy.