Pundits and politicos are busy running their mouths full-time in the wake of Saturday’s white supremacist attack in Buffalo. They are saying such hate crimes must end, warning us about the growing threat of domestic terrorism and raising the issue of restrictive gun control yet again.
But within this stew of mainstream commentary and politicking, not a damn thing is happening to end anti-Black racism, and the weight of so much suffering again makes me want to scream, to bellow out all the cruelty that I continue to bear witness to within the United States and globally.
The only question that burns in my heart is: How do I go on from this tragedy, how do I continue? It is a question that must be burning even more painfully for the loved ones who lost those 10 Black precious souls who woke up in Buffalo to go shopping in a Tops supermarket and never came home.
But they and we must continue this struggle for the sake of those whose lives were violently taken from us; they would want us to.
In this moment my outrage and anger are overflowing specifically about the history of anti-Black racism — the white terrorism of Jim Crow segregation, white plantation dehumanization, the transatlantic slave trade, and the reality that the U.S. never meant for me to have rights that white people were bound to respect. As writer and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois said, “Chin up, and fight on but realize the American Negroes can’t win.”
Du Bois’s warning resonates with what I feel right now within the core of my soul: As Black people, we can protest, we can fight, we can help to bring about judicial reform, we can help elect the U.S.’s first Black president, but still Black people in the U.S. can’t win.
I can hear the naysayers. “He is a pessimist.” “He’s a prisoner of cynicism.” “He makes light of Black progress.” “He is a race baiter.” “He betrays what Black people have fought and died for.” “Black people are doing better than ever.” “Hell, what’s his problem? He has made it.”
Well, I’m prepared for the backlash. I know what it feels like and what it sounds like. I respond with the painful reality of the truth.
A murderer (whose name I refuse to dignify here) came to Buffalo specifically to murder Black people. He came outfitted in body armor with a semiautomatic rifle, a shotgun and a hunting rifle, and livestreamed the murders on Twitch with a helmet video camera. The N-word was written on the weapon used to murder the loved ones of all the Black families who are now grieving and in anguish, likely haunted both by the images of their loved ones’ deaths and simultaneously by the memory of historic photographs taken by white people of lynched Black bodies.
Everyone who loses a loved one in a mass shooting experiences the horror of not saying any special last words, any final goodbyes. In this case, the loved ones they lost were just going to the store, a public space where people gather, where people are vulnerable; just living their lives. It was an average day. The survivors must now be thinking of all the words they didn’t (and now can’t) say to their loving friends, relatives, your mother, your father, your children: “I love you.” “Forgive me for being upset with you.” “I’m sorry that I didn’t call you the other day.”
But given the reality of the horror of anti-Black racism in this case, the horror didn’t even end there. The appalling news took on a different meaning, a magnitude that makes the pain far more personal, far more historical: These loved ones were murdered by an 18-year-old male white supremacist, cold and calculating, intentional, willful, remorseless, hatred-filled. This is the stuff of real nightmares, the expression of white power.
After writing my recent Truthout article on why the state of the world makes me want to scream, historian Robin D.G. Kelley and I had a conversation about anti-Black racism, rage, hope and resistance, which I concluded with the following observation:
Ridding ourselves of hope doesn’t mean that we are morose; rather, it gestures toward the relinquishment of all cooperation with tomorrow’s promise, one that has proven repeatedly that there is only Black death that awaits us there. My aim is not to endorse a form of nihilism, but to interrogate the ethics of hope in the face of an anti-Black world that is relentlessly hell-bent on our destruction.
That piece was published on May 5 — just 10 days ago. There was nothing truly prophetic about what I wrote. It is just that sense of realism that refuses to forget; it is that deep understanding that what we’ve just witnessed in Buffalo is not new and does not signal anything inaugural about the reality of anti-Black racism.
It doesn’t take a white racist 18-year-old coward to write a 180-page manifesto to convince me that I was never wanted in a country apart from my enslavement and instrumental use toward the fulfillment of white racist capitalism. The white killer, allegedly traveling for over three hours, hell-bent on killing Black people, didn’t need to write the N-word on his weapon of Black mass destruction. I already know that I am perceived as a “n*****” in this country. So, writing it on the barrel of his rifle was redundant. It doesn’t teach me anything new about the doctrine of white replacement theory. The theory is predicated not just on white fear or hatred of Black people or the non-white “other,” but, more importantly, it is predicated upon the ideal of white “purity.” It is based upon the preservation of whiteness as “sacred,” “superior” and “destined” to rule the world.
Let’s be clear, white privilege, that sense of racial advantage that white people possess and are born with within the U.S., involves an investment in whiteness. White investment involves the obsessive and fanatic preservation of whiteness against all things Black — which are deemed “evil,” “sinister,” “dirty,” “immoral,” “uncivilized.” Hence, where the doctrine of white replacement theory ends and a white person’s investment in white privilege begins is not so clear. This is not to say that all white people are card-carrying white supremacists who will carry out such horrendous acts of anti-Black violence that we’ve just witnessed. That claim would be ridiculous. Yet, it is also ridiculous to assume that white anti-Black racism is something anomalous, rare, atypical.
Being Black and unarmed while gunned down by white police officers is what anti-Black racism looks like, and it relentlessly recurs and recurs. It is not anomalous in our current society.
Anti-Black racism takes hundreds of forms which exist on a spectrum that includes everything from the slurs uttered by those who supported former President Donald Trump’s claim about “shithole” countries to the microagressions-disguised-as-compliments uttered by white liberals who describe Black people as “articulate” as if this is an anomaly for a Black person.
White people choosing to reside within monochromatically white neighborhoods has traces of anti-Black white neighborhood covenants, and, hence, is an expression of anti-Black racism. Making it harder for Black people to vote is a manifestation of anti-Black racism.
White people using their white power to call the police on innocent Black people is also an act of anti-Black racism. White people never thinking about their own whiteness as a site of privilege is a site of anti-Black racism.
Being white and enthusiastically supporting liberal multiculturalism can function to preserve white power and thereby support anti-Black racism. Such white liberal perfunctory “wokeness” is an instance of anti-Black racism.
Being white without a care in the world within predominantly white academic spaces is an act of anti-Black racism. After all, the whiteness of the space secures the white student’s identity, the curricular materials underwrite their white importance, and the white professors engage in insidious forms of white pedagogical modeling, reflecting what the student can become.
What’s my point? I want to make sure to take this opportunity not to let the quotidian operations of whiteness off the hook. I say this as we will soon be inundated with dominant and narrow narratives about how horrible white supremacy and domestic terrorism are. We will be told just how “troubled” the young white man was.
Already President Joe Biden described the killing in Buffalo in terms of a “racially motivated act of white supremacy.”
He also made it clear that as a nation we need to “address the hate that remains a stain on the soul of America.”
But I would retort that the stain that is on the soul of America is the stain of whiteness, the kind that reveals itself also in non-hateful forms and non-overt forms.
This point is not meant to demonize white people. That is what this white nation has already done to Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color. My point is to bring to attention to the fact that if spectacular forms of white supremacy were to end tomorrow, whiteness as a structure of privilege, power and hegemony would continue. Hatred is not even a necessary requirement to keep whiteness as anti-Blackness in place.
I’m not only concerned about the “radicalization” of white people that occurs within xenophobic social media echo chambers. I’m also concerned about much more quotidian and ubiquitous white racist echo chambers — the ones that exist within white homes, white places of worship, predominantly white dorms, predominantly white schools, and within the context of white family dinner conversations. The toxicity of whiteness is bred within those everyday contexts where white life happens, where white people love each other, where they discuss the events of the day.
To get a sense of how mundane and yet toxic white racism works, consider this example. Years ago, over dinner, after I had given a lecture on racial embodiment at one university, a white colleague there argued that white children who are racially prejudiced must have had white racism crammed down their throats through direct and didactic racist instruction as they grow older, rather than absorbing racism through everyday life from the moment they are born.
My sense is that my white colleague wanted to maintain that young white children are blank slates who only later are inculcated to be racially prejudicial, filled with racist hate. Using the profoundly insightful book, The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism, by scholars Debra Van Ausdale and Joe Feagin, I provided an example of a 3-year-old white girl, Carla (a pseudonym), who was instructed to sleep next to a 4-year-old Black girl at a day care center. After being told this, Carla said that she did not want to “sleep next to a N*****.” When asked why by the teachers, she said, “N****** are stinky. I can’t sleep next to one.”
After I explained this, the same white colleague insisted that this must have happened in the 1960s. She was shocked when I said that it happened in a study that was conducted in the mid-to-late 1990s. Surely, this 3-year-old white child was not born believing such racist nonsense and vitriol. Moreover, she clearly didn’t spend hours absorbing white supremacist social media on the internet. Yet, there she was, fully knowledgeable of anti-Black racist discourse, along with a distinct white affective sense of anti-Black racism, using the N-word against an innocent Black child who, according to white racist beliefs, “smelled.”
Carla’s words were racially motivated, but I would be hard pressed to refer to her as a white supremacist. However, she does understand her own whiteness and just how “clean,” and valuable it is, and how it might be “sullied” when in close proximity to Black bodies. Where did Carla learn the lessons of anti-Black racism? I would look closer within the confines of her loving white home.
With the onslaught against critical race theory; the refusal to identify, call out and name white privilege; and the policing of a robust understanding of the history of systemic white racism in the U.S. and its continued formation, the white racist stain that is on the soul of the U.S. will remain indelibly fixed. There will be more Carlas born each day. Eager white children and white adults will learn the lie of what it means to be white.
That lie involves zero-sum logics, that there are non-white “others” out there whose sole purpose is to take stuff that “naturally” belongs to white people. White people, according to this logic, are the “winners,” the “virtuous” ones, the “finest” and the “fittest” in all of God’s creation. The lesson here is not to look too far. Whiteness-as-anti-Blackness is right there — perhaps sitting in class with you, perhaps sitting in church with you, perhaps on the same committee with you.
Why this warning? House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has already claimed that the views written in the white shooter’s manifesto are consistent with the right wing’s “philosophy in our country.” This is my worry. We need to keep in mind that whiteness, as a structure of power, also exists on the left and within the middle. Naming the U.S. as a Herrenvolk (“master-race”) democracy, political theorist Joel Olson, in The Abolition of White Democracy, writes, “The white citizen is one who enjoys the status and privilege of a racial polity. The political challenge is to eliminate these advantages in favor of more democratic forms of citizenship. The consequence of doing so, I maintain, would be the dissolution of white democracy.”
Hence, it is ordinary, “innocent” white citizens who need to rethink their whiteness and how it is complicit with structural anti-Blackness. To avoid locating anti-Blackness at the very heart of the U.S. white polity leads, as Olson argues, to a narrow emphasis on “hate rather than systemic racial oppression, prejudice rather than privilege, pathology rather than discrimination.”
Hence when President Biden refers to these overt anti-Black killings as “abhorrent to the very fabric of this nation,” he is incorrect. White-perpetrated, anti-Black murder is all too acceptable, consistent and inoffensive to the very fabric of this nation. So, again, we wait, and some will scream. The pundits will strut and fret and share their views, and more Black people will continue to be murdered tomorrow by the plague of anti-Black racism.
The real problem is not only whiteness as boisterous and blood-lusting. Rather, it is more perniciously whiteness as “innocence” that is the problem. As writer and activist James Baldwin writes, “It is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”