“If you ain’t better than a n—-r, son, who are you better than?”
Gene Hackman’s Agent Anderson quoting his father in Mississippi Burning
The above sentence says it all. So much of the acrimony since Monday night’s announcement that Darren Wilson will not face justice, at least from a Missouri court, for his crime, so many of the cruel comments, posts, memes and tweets I have read all week, not just from strangers but from neighbors and family, can be summed up in the attitude of a fictional character based on an ugly reality of American life. The victim blaming, willful ignorance even in the face of Darren Wilson’s very disturbing testimony (more on that below,) the tut-totting of even supposed allies over riots (more on that too) are just symptoms of White America’s need, sometimes unacknowledged, some times very much acknowledged, to maintain a strict racial hierarchy
Since Tuesday morning (I was too exhausted to deal Monday night) I have witnessed White America, conservatives and liberals both, shaking their heads at the “bad behavior” of Ferguson protesters. They labor under the sometimes willful delusion that this is somehow about one killing, one boy, instead of one black body after another falling. They ask us why there was no rioting after the killing of an unarmed white man all while ignoring the very different set of circumstances in the two cases in question and the fact that a black man is 21 times as likely to be killed by a cop than a white one. We are told Black Americans should not riot over the murder of their young while the outrage over White Americans rioting over the dismissal of a man responsible for covering up child molestation was subdued to say the least.
Over and again White America tells Black America that it isn’t about race, but then will turn around and make it about race. Through cries of “what about black on black violence” one cannot hear a word about white on white violence. You certainly will not hear careful examination on how violence is dealt with across racial lines. A shove by one black man against another, and certainly against a white man will end with a black man in the back of a patrol car, while I have witnessed, often, white men bloodying each other with just a sigh and a “go home and cool off” from the cops. White kids can terrorize neighborhoods in the throes of ecstasy while partying after sporting events, for St. Patricks Day, for music festivals, but Black Americans exploding in rage and grief is not allowed.
This past week I have seen White America contort itself in a Houdiniesque fashion to get out of the trap of its privilege, to blame Black America for wrongs we have visited on them. The very best those white people outside the activist community can seem to muster is “it is everyone’s responsibility to undo the damage of racism” with an accusing accent on the “everyone” spat at their black neighbors. As if black people haven’t been dealing with racism on this continent for 400 years. As if to say “haven’t white people done enough” all while knowing that the opposite is true and that is the genesis of the all too understandable black rage and grief.
So instead we lie to ourselves. We make Mike Brown to be a thug that somehow deserved to die, ignoring the obvious question “why six bullets?” We believe Darren Wilson when he incredulously claims he remained polite even after being cussed out by two black youths. We somehow believe his testimony, right out of a comic book, that somehow Mike Brown was a superhuman beast (actually he said “demon” a word with a long, racial history in that part of America) who kept coming after taking multiple bullets. We ignore the fantastic account of a man striking another on the right side of his face, with his right fist, through a car window. I keep replaying that in my head, trying to make it work, and outside of throwing a blow in a way that would be completely unnatural, especially to a young man in a mindless rage, it does not work. But we believe it, because we have to.
White America does not want to think about it. They want to sweep it back into the closet and not have to acknowledge the simple, ugly fact of American racism: we all benefit to some degree. Yes, white people can be poor, can be victims of our rigged system. Instead of standing in solidarity with their black countrymen though they grasp their whiteness with both hands, because at the end of the day they can tell themselves no matter how bad it is, “at least I’m not black.” White America believes it is superior to Black America in every way, to the point of white conservatives who barely graduated high school claiming superior understanding of the US Constitution to a black President who taught about it. We desperately cling to the myth of our superiority because for too many of us it is what gets us through the day and for too many we lack the introspection and courage to face that.
We do this though it ultimately keeps us struggling. We do this in defiance of the need to find solidarity with our black neighbors in order to throw of the yoke placed on all of us by an increasingly brazen economic elite. We do this in conservative households, and we do it in liberal organizations. We do it to our detriment both as a community and as individuals whose emotional health would much be better served by holding out a hand to those who have been kicked, repeatedly by those who throw us their scraps than by grasping an illusory sense of superiority because they somehow are expected to behave better in the face of unrelenting oppression. We keep on doing this, and though we should stop because it is the right thing to do, we also should because eventually it will burn us. Every white person in this country has an obligation to honestly face their behavior regarding race, one to ourselves and to our long-suffering black neighbors.