Racial masochism has become a passport to credibility among American leftists.  Denouncing “whiteness” is a reliable means by which we (white American leftists) become “allies” of the BlackLivesMatter movement.  Often, these criticisms involve identifying a mundane aspect of American culture as representative of white supremacy.  Recently, I learned that C. Vann Woodward and W.J. Cash, two of my favorite historians of American race relations are, sadly, no longer suitable for advancing our understanding of that topic:

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Both scholars profoundly impacted how we understand race in the United States.  Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow discredited the notion that racial segregation was a natural development in the Reconstruction-era South, providing critical intellectual credibility to the Civil Rights Movement.  Cash’s The Mind of the South was a personally influential book, as it helped me understand the contradictory social values and biases I’d internalized growing up in South Carolina.

Refer all questions on American race relations to this man.
Refer all questions on American race relations to this man.

As you might infer, Bacchus’s literary prohibition… hurt my feelings.  I have benefited immensely from reading what white men and others had to say about race.  I felt this Social Justice Starlet’s prohibition was reflexive, ignorant, and cynical.  Not only did I suspect he was unfamiliar with the historiography of American racism, but that his overarching concern in issuing this dictat was maintaining his status as a tier-one ally of BlackLivesMatter.  My argument against his prohibition is academic, but my motivation is emotional.  It insulted me.

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His ‘stache is weak, as is his ideology.

BlackLivesMatter has succeeded because it doesn’t care about my feelings. The movement is a stark departure from the conciliatory approach to race relations.  American politicians typically downplay the severity of conflicts and emphasize the need for racial “understanding.”  In specific incidents, this message may be delivered at a “joint press conference” attended by “community leaders” representing the two or more pissed off racial communities.  I don’t know if this approach actually neutralizes conflicts, but it’s nevertheless part of our standard playbook.

This approach is so popular because it’s the most comfortable option for the leaders themselves.  Nobody assigns fault.  Nobody identifies dysfunction.  Questions of responsibility and accountability are conveniently rolled into those of criminal guilt which, regretfully, we cannot speculate on, “pending the results of the investigation.” That investigation, of course, will be released several months after everybody ceases to care.  Immediate tension dissipates while failed societies continue failing.  Contempt grows, and the United States becomes less united.

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“…that, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just power from the consent of the governed.”

BlackLivesMatter has flourished because it discarded that premium on courtesy.  The movement’s leaders recognized that reflexive calls for unity had effectively become guarantees of inaction.  Relentless protests and provocative rhetoric (“We Will Shoot Back”) made police violence an unavoidable issue on the American political landscape.  It’s also made significant progress in uniting once-complacent communities and inaugurating a new generation of American civil rights leaders.

The problem is that it pisses off white people.  Open, honest discussion of systemic racism is often received as indictments of personal accomplishments and moral character.  Centrists and moderate leftists, typically sympathetic to issues of racial inequality, are alienated by seemingly implacable demands for radical change.  This alliance is further strained by those genuinely unconcerned with affecting social change, such as the pugnacious “Mr. Shay Don’t Play”:

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You’re dismissed from this conversation.

I’ve had this discussion several times online.  Each time, it’s stalled at one of two impasses: A) BlackLivesMatter will fail as it distances itself further from white allies, or B) In pursuit of white allies, BlackLivesMatter will be co-opted into mainstream American politics, and will die from inertia shortly thereafter.  Assuming my characterization of this dynamic is accurate, I’m left with these questions:

  • Does BlackLivesMatter need the support of white liberals?
  • Should BlackLivesMatter require an acknowledgement of pervasive white privilege?
  • Can BlackLivesMatter maintain momentum without continuing to alienate mainstream white liberals?
  • In its current form, can BlackLivesMatter achieve substantive changes in legislation and policy? If not, what form should the movement take?

I should make it clear that I don’t claim to have remotely credible answers to these questions.  BlackLivesMatter has brought an inexcusable and long-denied problem to the forefront of our national consciousness.  The movement is critical and overdue.  Nation-States fail quickly and violently when citizens lose confidence in a government’s investment in their welfare.  BlackLivesMatter has forced us to address a question of government legitimacy.  Our success or failure in answering it will significantly impact our continued viability as a nation.

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Awaiting our response…
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7 thoughts on “Questions of Black Lives and White Feelings

  1. As with many things it is not about ideology and flamewars on the internet or violent protests in the street. It’s about right and wrong and the development and advocacy of policies to change what is wrong. BlackLivesMatter does need white liberals as well as Hispanics and other ethnic groups. The issue is one not only of race but of police brutality towards anyone the police sees as unworthy of human respect or as someone who is a potential threat to the police. We have police institutions who act more like criminal gangs then professional policing agencies. I don’t know if BlackLivesMatter movement will stall over time but what should be of concern is that all lives matter and it doesn’t matter your color if you live in a neighborhood that is considered “high crime” or “gang infested”. We need to get back to the policies and methods of people like Martin Luther King and Lyndon B. Johnson, instead of believingin radical black feminist movie propaganda from somebody who wasn’t there. It was white journalists who were also marching that took the photos that showed the truth about police brutality at Selma and for all of LBJ’s dirty and hawkish politics he truly was a confidant of MLK and had been fighting for Voting Rights and better educational opportunities for blacks long before he was President. People need to learn the real history of the Long Memory not the false flag bullshit that people are often led into by pathological nutcases. This is the same reason why Trump is getting so much buzz because people are much too easily led and find it far too easy to follow. They want to feel justified in their resentments towards others and scapegoat all the wrong people for what is wrong in the world. You can’t remove all the “bad apples” in society without procedural and structural changes to the institutions within society. To do that you have to show compassion, even to your enemies. You have to look at all facets in society not just race and do so in a responsible, peaceful and logical way that provides moral and ethical authority to your arguments.
    Instead of going to watch Selma or make stupidly ignorant posts maybe people should actually read about MLK and his movement and the people who made up that movement(not all of them were black). We need to get beyond this intersectionalism in society where we believe that our own personal pain as it relates to some matrix of oppression is the only valid view. We need to move back to the value pluralism of philosophers like William James, Will Durant and Isaiah Berlin and get beyond the petty ideological arguments of the left and right. The world is full of grey and there are some values that are incommensurable, which if anything means that societies must find a common ethos that a majority accept and that a minority will self exclude from. When people do not hold to the common ethos in a society we call them criminals and they must be dealt with accordingly. But, we do not do that to take retribution on evil punitive measures and exclusion from general society is something done to protect one’s society and even the excluded must be given the right to live a dignified life and have a chance at restorative justice and rehabilitation. To lose oneself to emotion is to lose one’s faculties for reason, think before you leap and do not make knee-jerk policies would be my advice. I think the BlackLivesMatter movement has been pretty responsible in their development of policy, but I would like to see even more ideas for change floated. For instance when incidents like this happen we need to put the hurt on police departments to change their policies for the better by engaging in Truth Commissions like they had in South Africa instead of endless protests. In other words take legal action to investigate violations and engage in class action suits. Make PSA’s and public announcements of your findings in the media, but do it in a responsible and accurate way. Have the police agencies, government and victims involved in mediated dialogue, the review of findings and development of new policy. Yes, that may mean very slow change while more victims die but one must endure such suffering if one wishes to make meaningful change in a society. Otherwise, radicals on both sides will only continue to undermine the legitimacy of “the government” when it is not the legitimacy of “the government of the political elite” we should be worrying about but the legitimacy of government by the people, for the people at the grassroots level that we should be worried about. For if that does not maintain the moral high ground such grassroots movements will only become puppets for political machines, elites and special interests.

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  2. I think tweeting to ‘White Folk’ is a bit Racist as well as trying to convince people they have nothing to say on a matter just because of their skin color.
    the #BLM is based on well founded concern and even anger within the community, but it’s starting to turn ‘Racist Ugly’.

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  3. Can white people write powerful, honest books about racism? Yes. In doing so do they inherently contribute to racism? Yes. Look at the world, look at studies. There are gender, social, and racial divides. People in general take things most seriously when they come out of the mouth of a rich, white man. Ignoring that doesn’t help anyone. Listening to the people oppressed by sexism, racism, and classism does help.

    The Black Lives Matter movement is not about giving credit to white allies. It is not about making white liberals (or anyone else) comfortable with our world’s racial biases. It is about standing up and being heard. It is about the pervasive racism that exists in America and around the world. It is about not sitting down and being quiet until things actually change.

    PoC cannot by definition be racist toward white people. They can be prejudiced, but not racist. Racism comes from the social power arrangement. It punches down, not up.

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    1. First, I apologize for not replying to your comment earlier.

      I’m familiar with the position that being part of the historically dominant race is a necessary condition for being racist. I don’t hold it myself, but I understand the rationale. If we accept that definition, I feel, the term “racist” loses much of the negative, pejorative connotations it’s acquired over the past half century or so. In effect, it just becomes a more narrowly defined term, as it describes only a specific group of people who subscribe to a bigoted worldview. If we were to say black Americans can’t be racist, I’d suggest we need to begin using “bigoted” more often to describe PoC who hold opinions of white people (…as well as different PoC ethnicities) that mirror those held by white racists.

      “Prejudiced” isn’t a severe enough term in the English language to accurately describe, say, the men who nearly killed Reginald Denny during the 1992 L.A. Riots. We can absolutely say they were prejudiced, in that made assumptions about Denny based off this ethnicity. However, we’ve only described their thought process; how they know what’s true about the world. Beating an innocent so viciously wasn’t just the result of conclusions about the behavior and characteristics of other people – it resulted from a very genuine devaluation of his life, of his experience as a sentient being.

      I do understand that BlackLivesMatter is not “about” making white people feel good about ourselves. It shouldn’t be. However, if the movement is going to achieve its objectives, activists must understand that expressing pure outrage and anger is helpful only insofar as it raises consciousness of your issue and makes it a social/political priority. BlackLivesMatter has absolutely been successful in making police violence against PoC a leading national issue. I aimed to identify the ways in which the egos and sensibilities of white Americans do pertain to achieving the objectives of BlackLivesMatter. I tried to discuss pragmatic strategy, as opposed to the political identity of a movement. There’s only a very limited segment of white America that’ll be able/willing to suspend their own racial/cultural defensiveness to help achieve the objectives of BlackLivesMatter. Most white Americans, in fact, will simply not respond, or not respond negatively, to “Dear White People” addresses, or to unceasing references to white supremacy. We can certainly make judgements as to whether or not that defensiveness is valid, but it’s unarguably relevant if our objective is to affect the most change in the shortest period of time.

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      1. I think I can agree with you that there are situations where ‘prejudiced’ is an insufficient word. Bigot may work in those cases.

        I think it takes all types of personalities and viewpoints to make a difference, especially for something as huge as institutional racism. We need people who are mad and people who are calm and everything in between. While there are some ‘wrong’ ways to make a point, there are a multitude of ‘right’ ways. There was only a “limited segment” of white America that agreed with desegregation, equal voting rights, marriage equality, etc. Any successful social justice movement has started with a small group of people. Margaret Mead said it best, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

        Everyone jumped down the throats of the women who interrupted Bernie Sanders, but as a direct result of that moment, both he and Hillary are meeting with BLM leaders. Personally, I would never have suggested such a route, but it worked. Like I said, it takes all types. As an ally, my job is to listen and support. There are enough people in the movement who hold different opinions. It will work itself out. If it doesn’t, something else will come and I’ll support that to the best of my abilities.

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      2. I agree that effective social movements require both intellectual and tactical “depth.” A pragmatic balance between in-the-streets activism and traditional, “smoky room” politics was a winning strategy for both the Women’s Suffrage and LGBT Rights movement. Loud, pugnacious activism breaks apathy and creates a sense of urgency; traditional political engagement translates that urgency into concrete changes in public policy.

        I can’t argue that the Seattle Stunt wasn’t a relevant event: it clearly was, and it did command attention. However, I also feel much of that attention will not advance the objectives of BlackLivesMatter. At severe risk of speculating what another person is thinking, I suspect Senator Sanders just moved BlackLivesMatter from the “Allies Whose Ideas I Need to Take Seriously” file over to the “Bullshit Histrionic Drama Queens I Need to Placate and Co-Opt” file. Senator Sanders and Secretary Clinton are meeting with BLM leaders to neutralize what they see as a distracting problem before it worsens.

        I really do believe that either Democratic candidate really would make police violence and racism a no-joke Oval Office priority, *especially* Senator Sanders. However, that would be largely consistent with his ideology and political history over the past half-century. The man didn’t need to be bullied out of his own campaign event to know that Black Live Matter.

        The only point you raised that I fully disagree with is the assumption that “(BlackLivesMatter) will work itself out.” I don’t see that as a foregone conclusion at this point. The success or failure of the movement isn’t a matter of political destiny. Success will be the result of wise and purpose-focused decisions on the part of specific leaders and thinkers. Conversely, failure will be the result of arrogant, foolish, and/or impulsive decisions on the part of the same activists.

        This is clearly an important issue for both of us, and I do appreciate you taking the time to discuss it with me.

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      3. I don’t think that the movement’s fate will be decided so easily, because it has been building for so long, but perhaps I’m wrong.

        I don’t think their success is a foregone conclusion. As I said, it will either succeed or not. If it fails, I will be ready to give my support to whatever takes its place. The torch has been lit and I don’t see it going out anytime soon.

        I appreciate being able to discuss this with you, as well. The internet isn’t the easiest place to find nuanced discussions about important topics.

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