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:
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.
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.
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.
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”:
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.