Troy D. Smith
I wear a lot of different hats nowadays. But my main hat is that of historian, specifically historian of race in American history (with a focus on American Indian and African American interactions.) With that particular focus, there has been a lot going on in the news the last few months that touches on my field of research. I’ve been meaning to write a blog about these things for some time –I believe that historians should be public intellectuals, and should engage with people outside academia about major issues –but I’ve been pretty busy, and the items that need to be discussed have been piling up. So I’ve decided to take some time to lay out what’s on my mind, as best I can, so I can direct people to a website instead of engage them one at a time on social media.
For all those people (and I was definitely not one of them) who believed that the election of our first black president would lead the U.S.A. into a post-racial age and make discussion of race irrelevant –well, I bet you don’t think that anymore. And if you do, you haven’t been paying attention.
There have been several instances this summer of 2014 that have brought race to the forefront of our consciousness –even when many Americans would prefer to ignore the racial component of them. A black man accused of selling individual cigarettes on the streets of New York is wrestled to the ground in an illegal chokehold, and dies. Unarmed young black men are killed by police across the country (an old story, sadly), and one incident in particular leads to two weeks of protests in Ferguson, Missouri, that see local police arresting reporters, tear-gassing crowds, and rolling in armored vehicles and machine guns. This is on top of a string of highly publicized events over the past year, from the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin to a white Florida man shooting into a van filled with black teens because they wouldn’t turn down their music (killing one), to a young black woman in Detroit breaking down and going to a stranger’s house for help and being shot in the face by a shotgun, to another Florida white man chasing down and shooting to death a 21-year-old black man who happened to be running through his neighborhood. In all the cases I mentioned, the shooters claimed that they felt threatened and acted to protect themselves; sometimes they could produce circumstances that could be interpreted as vaguely suspicious to justify their fear-fueled actions, and when they could not their lawyers or supporters produced “evidence” from the victims’ pasts that seemed to indicate they were shady characters (or, more bluntly, “thugs.”) You know, things like the fact they were wearing a hoodie, or had Facebook pictures of them flashing gang signs or repeating rap lyrics, or the fact they had at some point smoked marijuana. (As one former student of mine put it, if you shot every American male under 25 who liked rap, smoked pot, wore hoodies, and thought it was cool to flash gang signs, there would be almost no American males of any race left alive.)
All of the events I listed above saddened me greatly –especially the fact that they just keep coming, so close together –but none of them surprised me. Which is a sad statement of affairs in itself. But there was one thing that happened in recent months that did surprise me. I am speaking of the backlash against Nelson Mandela after his death last December. I was born in 1968, and for my whole life Nelson Mandela has been framed in American public discourse as the symbol of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, and later of racial reconciliation. In short, as one of the big heroes of my generation. Of course, immediately after his death, there was a lot of talk along those lines. But among many conservatives –not just on Fox News but on my Facebook feed –the focus was on the actions that helped lead to Mandela’s arrest in the early 1960s, a time when the African National Congress (like a lot of groups in colonial or post-colonial African countries at mid-century) had turned to violent resistance (in some cases, allegedly, into the 1980s.) To my amazement, a huge portion of America was calling Mandela a terrorist, a violent and horrible man, conveniently ignoring his change in philosophy. And conveniently ignoring the fact that, if his name had been George Washington, they’d be calling him a freedom fighter; or that if he were part of a white group, many of these folks would be extolling his efforts to take arms against an oppressive government as a defense of liberty and, if it were in the U.S., as a right guaranteed by the Second Amendment. They were also linking him to this horrible thing (at least to hear them tell it) called “Anti-Colonialism,” you know, like those people in Kenya, when they fought the British. Again, this seemed to me either hypocritical or uninformed. After all, what could be more “anti-colonialist” than colonists raiding a government arsenal to gain weapons with which to rebel against the British Army (please see “Lexington and Concord, The Shot Heard ‘Round the World”)? Oh, but that was different.
I guess I have also been surprised, though I should not be, at just how many white Americans don’t see any of the things I have mentioned as racial issues. With the George Zimmerman verdict/Trayvon Martin killing, 78% of blacks surveyed thought the situation reflected major racial issues, while only 28% of white people thought so. On the other hand, 60% of white people thought too much attention was being paid to race in the case, while among blacks that number was only 13%. With the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, there was a similar divide. 80% of blacks believed the situation was racial, while only 37% of whites did. 47% of whites surveyed thought too much attention was being paid to race; 18% of blacks agreed. On one hand, it does seem that a substantially higher number of white people see racism in Ferguson than they did in George Zimmerman; on the other hand, the difference between black and white attitudes in both cases are highly disproportional.
This difference in attitudes is usually not a matter of white people saying “black people are inferior, lazy animals who deserve what they get.” Although, sadly, there do seem to be a lot of people out there saying such outright racist things (reading the comments sections has become a very depressing thing.) I have seen slightly less outright racism (but only slightly less) on comment threads on Facebook, with people saying “this behavior (looting) is so TYPICAL of the blacks.”
No, it usually goes more like this: “We need to wait and get all the facts about fill-in-the-blank incident, and give the shooter the benefit of the doubt (innocent until proven guilty) and not immediately jump to conclusions about race. In fact, race isn’t nearly as big a problem as a lot of minorities and bleeding heart liberals claim it is; we’ve made huge strides, there is a black president, so there can’t be racism. In fact, if anyone suffers from racism it is white people, who are constantly being accused of things and having their rights curtailed and their opportunities limited by race-baiting troublemakers who want to keep stirring the pot to bring attention to themselves because most of them are lazy and looking for a handout instead of going out and working.”
Of course, everyone doesn’t say ALL those things (though some do), it is kind of a spectrum. A lot of white folks only say the first one or two clauses, they don’t run the whole gamut. And in fact, if you just look at the first half of that paragraph –ending with “so there can’t be racism” –it seems kind of reasonable, especially the part about getting all the facts. This is usually coupled with appeals to reason –stop reacting with pure emotion, just look at the facts, they’ll say. And this portion of white Americans –which seems to be somewhere around two-thirds to three-quarters of us –cannot for the life of them understand why those people so worked up on the other side don’t just understand what they’re saying.
But the fact is, most black folks see things differently, because they have a very different lived experience. If you go through life expecting to be stopped and frisked because you are, very often; if you know that you might get arrested instead of helped by the nice officer when you’re trying to get into your accidentally locked car or house; if you have to drill it into your teenaged son that if he is rude to the cops there is a good chance he will be arrested or shot (rather than “if you’re rude to the cops it will make us look bad as parents”), why, then, odds are you’re going to suspect something is going on there. If it happens frequently, sometimes to people you know, you expect it to happen and assume it to be the way things tend to work (even though they’re not supposed to.) And you’re going to get a little angrier every time it happens to you, or someone you know, or someone who looks like you, because it is not fair.
Most white people are going to say you are overreacting, being emotional and paranoid or even whiny. Often they won’t even believe you when you say it happens –because it never happens to them, and because it is not supposed to happen, therefore they assume it does not (because to assume otherwise would be to admit that racism is not only still real but still powerful, and they don’t want to believe that- the legacy of slavery and segregation makes them ashamed and uncomfortable and they wish it would just go away.) So they don’t understand, or validate, your anger. “Be reasonable.”
However, if one were to look at the big picture reasonably, logically, and rationally, the facts would be inescapable. I’m not going to bog you down with a bunch of numbers and specifics, because recent studies show that people’s minds shut down when you throw a bunch of pure facts at them –but they are out there, and I will provide links at the end of this piece. So let’s just stick with the broader facts. A higher percentage of white youths use drugs than black youths –and since their raw numbers are much higher to begin with, this means that there are far more white people using drugs than black people. Yet black people are three times more likely to be arrested on drug charges. Of all the people in prison on drug charges in 2011, 45% were black and 30% were white. If there are far more white people using drugs than black people, how can those numbers be accurate? Because it is the black people who disproportionately get searched for drugs, so you’re a lot more likely to get caught. And the more you get caught, the more “strikes” you have on your record and the more likely you are to go to prison.
Let’s take a look at Ferguson, where the population is 68% black and 30% white. But blacks have 87% of the traffic stops, and 93% of the arrests. And here’s the kicker- about 22% of the blacks stopped have drugs on them. Of the much smaller number of whites who are stopped, 34% have drugs on them. So, statistically, white people are more likely to have drugs, yet very few are arrested because most of the stops are of black people. A lot of young black men are in and out of jail, and many have been to prison and are no longer allowed to vote. Guess what? In this town that is almost 70% black, almost all the local government and police are white.
If your eyes are starting to glaze over because we’ve been saying numbers, you need to wake the hell up. This is important.
WHY do black people get stopped, frisked, and arrested in substantially higher numbers than whites? WHY are unarmed black men more likely to be shot by the police than unarmed white men, and sometimes it seems even than armed white men? WHY do white gun owners feel threatened enough by the presence of young black men that they will shoot them for something as innocuous as running through their yard or playing loud music?
Let’s go a few steps further.
WHY do some people consider Nelson Mandela or other anti-colonialists as terrorist thugs for using the same tactics many white “freedom fighters” have used?
In the late 60s and early 70s, the American Indian Movement adopted some of the methods of the Black Power movement –and yes, the Black Panthers –arming themselves and occupying federal buildings, engaging in pitched battles with the FBI and local police. In doing so they gained a lot of recognition for their people’s struggles for liberty, and a lot of national support for their cause. Many of the leaders of that movement have gone on to be considered public heroes, and many Americans still believe they were right in what they did (though the country was a lot more divided at the time.) Do people feel that way about the Black Panthers, or their leaders? The answer is obviously no. I once asked a student why that was, and she answered “Well, the Indians didn’t carry guns and advocate violence.” “Yes they did,” I answered, “but, like the Panthers, they called it self-defense.” So why are they not viewed through the same lens by most white people?
In fact, in the late 60s Black Panthers were carrying shotguns and rifles in public in California –which was perfectly legal, as long as you didn’t point them directly at anybody. And California’s conservative Republican governor, the Sainted Ronald Reagan, signed a law prohibiting the open carrying of firearms in public (there is no question about his motivations.) Even the revered Second Amendment (or, more accurately, the conservative interpretation of it) went out the window when it came to arming black men.
Why is that?
All these things are connected, and they are all part of the legacy of race and slavery that this country was founded on. You’ve probably never thought of it that way; that’s why you need to stop and think about it now.
For 250 years, the vast majority of people of African descent who lived in this country (for much of that time British colonies) were in bondage. There were slaves in the north for most of that time, but they were concentrated on the plantations of the south. Some colonies/states had more black slaves than white citizens. And those white citizens lived in fear (especially after the successful slave revolt that established the nation of Haiti.) They feared the large-scale slave revolt; they feared the smaller revolts of individuals or small groups. There were a few attempted uprisings that were suppressed, some with a lot of deaths on the white side and a lot more on the black one, but there were a lot of small acts of defiance (including escapes, sabotage, and even murder –not a small act to the victim, to be sure.) THEREFORE: hale and fit young black men needed to be controlled, and controlled tightly. With every instance of rebellion, slave laws got tighter (most people don’t realize that slavery was far stricter in the 1850s than it had been in the early 1600s.) Slave patrols –often made up of volunteers, like a militia –kept watch on the roads at night.
If you were a black man, and you were caught out on the roads without your papers, especially at night –you were going to be punished. And if you didn’t mind your manners, you might not make it home alive. Because that’s what this antebellum world was built on- a power structure, in which it was absolutely imperative that those on the bottom know their place and keep it. And this did not end with slavery- in fact, it got worse. Historians call the period from the end of Reconstruction (1877) to the 1920s as the nadir, or low point, of African American history. Now, you see, angry white people no longer even had to worry about getting in trouble for damaging some rich man’s property if they killed an uppity Negro, and lynchings became commonplace. Not the kind of lynching you used to see on Bonanza or Gunsmoke; the kind that involved torture, castration, being cut into pieces, being burned alive, and maybe all of the above. And it wasn’t confined to the South. Black life was cheaper than ever. And up until the 1920s and 1930s whole communities would turn out for these events, treating them like the county fair. They were still going on in the 1960s, just no longer in public.
“There you go again,” you might be saying. “Bringing up slavery- in the distant past, which I had nothing to do with.” You might even be able to say that your family had nothing to do with it. Some people who don’t like this kind of conversation will say “Race will go away if people like you will just quit talking about it. Let the past stay in the past.”
Except that’s not how it works. The past, as Faulkner famously said, is never really dead –in fact it isn’t even past. You see this racialized structure I speak of –in the distant past –is what this country was founded on, and we are still in the (very gradual) process of changing it. There’s a long way to go, because all the echoes of that past still reverberate into the present. Saying we should ignore it or just get over it is like having an open wound and believing if you stop looking at it, it will be better. Or it’s like building your house on a fault line, and every time there is a tremor saying “Yeah, I know we built it on a fault line, would you for petesake quit dragging up the past and just get over it!” Instead of, you know, doing something about it.
Here’s how it works.
When my daughter was about three or four years old –this would have been circa 1994 –she was crying because she wanted to go to some shop or other with her mom. One of my aunts happened to be over –she was probably in her early 50s –and she was trying (sincerely) to help.
“You don’t want to go to that dirty old store!” she said. “Them niggers’ll get you!”
Obviously, this required an immediate intervention, and much counter-education (with my daughter.) I am immensely proud to know that my daughter shares my beliefs and convictions where this stuff is concerned, and if anything has been more vocal about it the last couple of weeks than I have. But that doesn’t change the fact that she heard that stuff at a tender, impressionable age, and a hundred (if not hundreds) of other, more subtle ones. So did my aunt when she was little, and her parents, and their parents, and on and on. And this stuff gets passed on, it becomes the fabric of our national identity –although, depending on race, we experience it differently.
Hence we have some people looting in Ferguson, and I have friends of friends on Facebook saying “This behavior is so typical of the blacks.”
Hence we have a lot of white people desperately trying to find a way to believe (and in many cases finding it) that the young black man who was shot did something to deserve it. (“Oh, he was dressed like a thug, and may have smoked a joint in the past few days? Well, then.”)
Hence we have George Zimmerman out on his “community patrol” seeing a young black man and assuming the worst (“These assholes always get away with it!”) We have a guy in a convenience store parking lot yelling at some black kids to turn their music down, and when some of them yell back he feels threatened enough to open fire on them. We have a black man running through a neighborhood –nothing nefarious, no crime committed –and a frightened homeowner chases him down and kills him. In all those cases, I believe the shooters DID feel threatened. Who would be threatened by a guy running down the street, a teenager with a bag of Skittles, some teenaged boys listening to music?
They were young black men- and our culture has taught us, for centuries, that a young black man out after dark is up to no good. Is probably up to no good in broad daylight. Is a clear and imminent danger.
A cop sees a black youth jimmying a car-door or climbing in a window, and he doesn’t ask the kid what he’s up to- he knows in his gut what he is up to. Do you want to make some arrests? Then stop and frisk some black people, everyone knows they’re the ones who have the drugs.
It is not always conscious (although it sometimes is.) It is usually not a matter of someone who is a white supremacist looking for a chance to teach a darkey a lesson –though sometimes, under pressure, true colors do come out. As one Ferguson cop so eloquently said before a camera, “bring it on, you fucking animals.”
But no, it is usually not something the person in question would even recognize in themselves. It is systemic, institutional racism, that you may not even be aware you have. Sometimes the cop in question could even be black –it doesn’t mean he hasn’t been affected by stereotypes. A sociological study once famously found that when little girls were given baby dolls of various skin tones, and told to pick which ones were dumb and ugly and bad, they chose the black dolls. Even the black children. Which helped convince the Supreme Court to overturn school segregation and “separate but equal.” (read about it here)
Some white folks, when they hear charges of racism leveled in incidents like the ones this summer, think the accuser is saying the people involved actively and passionately hate black people, and the listener just finds that unlikely. But that’s not all it takes to be a racist, that’s only the most obvious kind. Many of us are unintentional racists every day, and just don’t recognize it –because we are part of a system designed to make us that way.
A black person hears of such an incident, and of course they assume it’s probably just one more in a long line of abuses. And of course it makes them angry. It makes them even angrier when clueless white people tell them they have nothing to be angry about, and they should just get over it –or at least, be reasonable and rational.
To put it in a different perspective, this would be kind of like an Indian tribe being offered a treaty by the U.S. government, and immediately assuming it was all a lie and an excuse to take their land due to past experience, and being told to “just let go of the past and trust people, for petesake. Wait and see how it turns out before you get mad.”
This brings us to a subject most white people don’t like to talk about: white privilege. Many of us get insulted by it- “how dare you say I have privilege? Do you have any idea how poor I was when I grew up, and how hard I’ve worked?” But they are not understanding the term.
If you want a detailed discussion of how race developed in this country, and how the structure works, look HERE. For our present conversation, suffice it to say that whiteness is at the top of that structure, and if you are part of that dominant group you have certain automatic advantages that others don’t have –you just don’t know they’re privileges, because they seem so normal to you that you assume everyone else has them, too. But they don’t. Here's a good discussion of that topic and how it works.
If you are one of those people who thinks that race has been blown way out of proportion in Ferguson –who thinks that every one of those incidents I’ve mentioned was due to the individual circumstances of each one exclusively, and they would have turned out the same way regardless of race –ask two or three of your black friends what they think, and honestly listen. You’ll almost surely get a different answer from them than you would have given, based on their personal experiences. And know that they have to teach their sons very different lessons about survival than you teach yours- even if they’re a celebrity like LeVar Burton.
Wow, you may be thinking, what a depressing version of reality you offer me. Why, you’re telling me that this country was founded on racism and it seeps into practically everything we do- that the Civil War and emancipation didn’t fix it, and the Civil Rights movement didn’t completely fix it, and the election of a black president didn’t fix it. MLK’s greatest speech didn’t fix it. Heck, The Cosby Show didn’t even fix it. How pessimistic, you may think, I like my version –where racism ended somewhere around 1969 and never existed again, except among a few scattered crackpots –so much better.
Well, I guess I am saying those things –the truth hurts –but I am not being a pessimist. I’m not saying “it can’t be fixed,” I’m saying “it ain’t fixed yet, and we have to keep working on it.”
How do we fix it? By dismantling that power structure and refusing to operate within it, to the best of our ability. And the first step –just like recovering from alcoholism –is to admit you still have a problem. You. Me. Us. To recognize that there is such a thing as white privilege, and if you’re white you have it. To listen- really, really listen –to people of color, and try to stop making everything about yourself (“you saying racism exists makes me feel guilty and hurts my feelings!”) and make an earnest, sincere effort to see things from other people’s point of view. White privilege means: they’ve always had to worry about your point of view, you’ve never felt the need to worry about theirs. Change that. Stop spending so much energy defending yourself.
If you’re one of those white folks calling for black folks to be reasonable and rational, consider this: the very ability to be reasonable and rational about race is a form of white privilege. You can be rational rather than emotional because you are not the one experiencing the oppression, you do not have a personal stake. It is the height of paternalism for someone who has never experienced something to tell someone who has to be reasonable about it. Actually, I believe that those who call for reason and logic about racism are refusing to see what is right before their faces, and are therefore actually being emotional rather than logical, and those who DO look at racism rationally recognize how insidious it is, and get royally pissed off by it.
Here’s a term I hate: white guilt. Oh, you nasty liberals, always making me feel guilty, wanting to just wallow in it 24/7. I admit, a lot of liberals do that. And they need to quit it, because it is a self-absorbed effort to get people of color to grant them dispensation so they don’t have to feel bad anymore. Or else they kick against it: don’t try to make me feel guilty, I had nothing to do with any of this.
Another concept I hate: the White Savior Syndrome, wherein a noble white person is taught a valuable lesson about humanity by those minority people, gets involved, and leads them in a fight for freedom, showing them the right way to do it and winning their admiration and acceptance. And gratitude. Stuff like that is why so many people don’t like movies like The Help and Blindside. (As Chris Rock said, if you make a movie about the Civil Rights struggle and most white people feel comfortable watching it, you're doing it wrong.)
Here’s a concept I love: white responsibility. Not white guilt. Sure, I had nothing to do with the establishment of this system; I never asked for it, I don’t think that I personally should be punished for it. But you know what? I benefit from it. I was raised very poor, and I’ve had to work very hard to get where I am –but I still benefited, and continue to benefit from, my place on the racial hierarchy. I have learned how it works –it was my responsibility to take the time and trouble to learn that –and I know it is wrong. Therefore it is now my responsibility to struggle against it, any and every way I can. Oddly enough, sometimes that means taking advantage of my white privilege for leverage to work against it from the inside. By speaking up, every chance I can. By trying to educate people –which is what I do –and get them to think about things they’ve never thought about before, and urge them to do the same with others. To work alongside people of color as a determined ally –but not to tell them how to experience their struggle. And again –not to gain the gratitude of those allies, in some condescending, narcissistic fashion, and not to expiate the sins of my forefathers or alleviate my guilty conscience.
Because it’s the right damned thing to do.
By the way, a very dear friend of mine who leans toward the conservative side (as many of my friends do) sent me a private message, asking me to step back from this subject as they were fearful I might lose my job (maybe they heard about what recently happened at the University of Illinois) I assured my friend that was not something to be worried about in this case, although I was sincerely touched by their concern. But taking on this subject IS my job, and it is why I trained for said job.
And it's your job, too.
Some of my own past blogs on similar subjects:
Other links related to this blog: