Tag Archives: #JamesBaldwin

Dear White People: Letter to Myself in the Wake of the Baltimore Uprising

April 28, 2015

12:40 AM (PT)

North Berkeley, CA

It’s late. Or early. My body’s fried. I want to sleep, but I can’t. I’m restless. My hometown of Baltimore is up in flames.

“Race riot.”

The term is a loaded one. For those dealing with white racial anxiety, it invokes fear of black uprising–a racialized, if not racist, backlash of panic and paranoia perpetuated by what the mainstream media has portrayed as a mob of rabid-animal black “thugs” (a racial epithet in its own right, which is wrong) who do not know what they are reacting to or against. In this way, corporate network coverage has diluted the strong message and disruptive purpose of such an uproar (yes, even in its chaos, there is a purpose), reducing it to silence; dehistoricizing its linkages to a history of economic disruption in this country (Boston Tea Party anyone?); and, ultimately, recuperating it into nothing more than an empty, innocuous signifier to be invoked nostalgically in future recollections of that day in 2015 when Baltimore burned because of “dem ‘ol race riots, hon.”

“Race riot.”

When understood as nothing more than a coded term for “angry black people breaking and stealing shit for no reason,” particularly in the racially biased imaginary of white America, the term renders an illusion and evades the reality of what so many whites in crisis across the city (and country) refuse to recognize within themselves: racism. I am not innocent.

“Race riot.”

What does that term actually mean? Might it signify on that buried body of Nat Turner, resurrected and burning with holy rage, breathing a furious and prophetic fire as he’s done before into Chicago, Detroit, LA, Newark, Southampton County and Watts? What would it mean to imbue the term with a memory of slave rebellion?

What if we were to in fact see that, yes, there is indeed a “race riot” as figuration on slave rebellion going on in Baltimore and elsewhere? A riot to end enslavement to the concept of race as we know it? A riot to end the slavery to whiteness as we know it? A riot and rebellion to abolish not whites, but whiteness, as a form of racial hegemony, itself?

While this series of questions are in no way meant to imply a justification or excuse for the violence now happening on the streets of the city in which I was raised, it is meant to call myself into an exacting awareness and analysis of the ways in which my own whiteness, specifically, and whiteness, in general, factors into reproducing the racist processes which have instigated such violence. That said, neither does this refusal to condone violent protest dismiss the rationale undergirding such social upheaval. For, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, a “riot is the language of the unheard”–those exhausted by systemic abuse, neglect, and brutality manifest through racial segregation in housing, education, and the workforce. It is most certainly, when it all boils down to it, not my place, as a white man, to judge how black people negotiate the politics of their pain and respond to decades upon decades of disenfranchisement.

The call to a self-critical investigation of whiteness for which I am advocating and a searing cross-examination of its collusion in racial oppression that the Baltimore race riots invite, demands a painstaking interrogation of my own white past and the ways in which I, a white male and the youngest son of a white Baltimore City police officer, was conditioned to equate blackness with criminality. It is an equation that has taken me years to unlearn–through formal study of race matters as dealt with in books and music as well as in conversation with friends, classmates, colleagues, church family, and protest comrades of color–so as to ultimately falsify (which is to say: abolish) it.

This kind of schooling is, in fact, an ongoing, self-implicating process of (inter)personal discovery which asks that we consciously awaken to the taken-for-grantedness of our respective social locations. That we dismantle those conditions which block us from seeing that what we take to be common sense is no less than a societal ruse–a way for the inequities and injustices of power relations in this country to simply reproduce themselves ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

This kind of work demands no less than a painstaking interrogation of my own white present/presenceI feel that particularly now as I go about the work, as would-be scholar-activist, of deconstructing  the whiteness by which I was conditioned as a child to fear the racialized other. I do so through the lens and lexicon of hip-hop, the cultural politics of which is rooted in a deeply felt sense of communal belonging across various color lines. Indeed, it is in answer to hip-hop’s call for “realness” that I must continually scrutinize my own relationship to blackness and black people, and what the experiences of my past bring to bear on those relationships.

Looking back, moving forward

I love my dad. My father is a good man–dutiful and faithful to his family and his beloved Roman Catholic Church. His heart is pure gold and bigger than the life which he breathes. A traffic cop, mostly, he served 28 years in the Baltimore City Police Department (a timespan that includes the 1968 race riots) and never once lifted a finger against another man, woman, child, or animal. I’d imagine, in fact, that my dad is one of the kindest, most honest officers to have made it through a career in one of the more corrupt police agencies in the country. Though quick to temper, my dad is a gentle man who worked hard to get me and my two older brothers and two older sisters through school. He was a public servant who represented with highest honor and dignity the badge he wore with rightful and righteous pride on that crisp uniform that never failed to inspire in me a sense of admiration, trust, safety, and warmth.

By the same token, my dad is a product of his time. He grew up in a still-racist, racially segregated Baltimore, subjected to the same unconscious and unquestioned assumptions about black folk as “lesser than” by which I was reared whether my parents are/were aware of it or not—a conditioning in no small part reinforced in my dad and, subsequently, in me, by his negative experiences in dealing with blacks as the law enforcement officer for Baltimore City that he was.

Indeed, I can remember once in my childhood when some black folks were looking at a house for sale on the block where I grew up (a sleepy, predominantly white enclave on the outskirts of the City proper just South of Baltimore County).

Noticing this, my dad responded something to the effect of, “There goes the neighborhood.”

My dad, a good man, is not innocent–even in those moments, in those stories, in which he recounts experiences of cross-racial friendship in the context of his career as policeman, including those instances in which he was dealing specifically with people on the street. My father is not innocent, even in the ways in which I’ve witnessed him change and grow in his understanding of race and racism as he’s aged and gained more critical distance from police life in retirement. Given that growth, however, I have no doubt in my mind that my dad, as I know him today, would recoil at many, if not all, of his old and worn suspicions as he, too, continues to wrestle honestly with his false and unchecked assumptions about the racialized other.

On that note, and to reiterate:

I am not innocent.

For instance, it is not without remorse that I often think back on a time during my freshman year of college when I thought it would be funny to yell nigger at the top of my lungs as my white friends and I drove, windows rolled up, through the black section of Philly’s Germantown neighborhood on our way back to La Salle University from wherever we were coming on a seemingly insignificant night out (insignificant at least in my mind at that juncture of my life). I wonder about it in hindsight a lot these days, thinking about how I committed this cowardly act not as an explicitly malicious epithet directed at or against the black community, but because I was curious to play with social mores around the term in my own head and, more insidiously, curious about what effect this harmfully ludic gesture might have if heard by a member of the black community. Perhaps, too, I wanted to see how uncomfortable it made my white friends, or how it might amuse them as a jestering with my own and our whiteness in a predominately black space. Come to think of it, I’m really not quite sure what my motivations were for being so obnoxious. I can only piece them together in this ghostly fragment of a haunting, self-scrutinizing critical memory.

Point is, the act of verbal violence (against myself, my friends, and anyone who  may have been within earshot of the slur) was completely asinine, harmful, ignorant, juvenile, misguided, stupid and downright racist. It was, in a word, wrong–revelatory of a deep-seeded sickness that I inherited from a dis-eased genealogy of white anxieties in this country around the status of white racial identity vis-a-vis blacks and blackness.

It is a personally painful memory I hold close in heart and mind now as I engage more self-reflexively than I ever have in my life with all my anxieties, fears, and sorrows around inter- and intra-racial strife as it plays out nationally, transnationally, locally, and within my very own life. At the same time, I am invested in, hope for, have dreams of, and hold faith in racial reconciliation as it might take place in me, in my city, in my nation, and around the globe.

I cannot but look at myself in the mirror to really and truly do this kind of inner and outer work. Work which requires a close examination of how racism manifests and has manifested in our, my, individual behavior (i.e. through micro- or outright aggression) and, further, how that behavior is reflective of an unquestioned/unquestioning loyalty to the racial/racist status quo, reinforced daily at the level of institution (i.e. macro-aggression), including that of church, school, family, and state.

Indeed, this critical self-inquiry–a forthright examination of conscience–is necessary if I am to learn the art of loving in myself what it is I have been socialized to fear, envy, desire in the darker-skinned other. That other who, throughout American history, has been dehumanized by the white normative gaze which has willfully misrepresented the phenotypically different other in its mind’s eye, subtracting this other to the status of zero sum, to abject, to a commodified object to be exploited economically and subjugated politically under a structurally racist logic in which hatred is so circuitously hardwired that, more often than not, we whites are blind to how it operates as a function of an unexamined whiteness.

I say this as one who has acquired gains from the legal, material, political and social benefits of a socioeconomic system that privileges my maleness and whiteness—social constructs that have been used to fortify a hierarchy of being which casts the non-white other into the lowest class of the social ladder. White America has a history of inhumanity, of crimes against black humanity, to evidence this reality which coalesces at the intersection of class, gender, race and sexuality.

It does not take a specialist in American history to recognize that the failures of Reconstruction following the Civil War and the legacies of Jim Crow still haunt us today in a post-industrial predicament that has left America’s cities destitute and its inhabitants, most of whom are racial minorities, desperate. So desperate that many among them have resorted to underground economies, sanctioned by the government and its underhanded ties to global drug- and sex-trafficking ventures, which turn them against themselves and put them in a disciplining and punishing relationship to those public servants who are meant to serve and protect. Not only an intra-communal problem, this system turns whites against blacks as well. It is a problem in which all of us are implicated, most especially those (whites) who hold the most political power, secured in no small part by a police state.

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As historical irony would have it, the police force in this country, derivative of an inhumane trade of slave catching, has more often than not been part of the problem rather than the solution. Meanwhile, society’s most vulnerable individuals have been criminalized and processed as numbers in a contemporary variation on a salve system that profits off the free labor the subjugated black/brown body provides for a financially, morally, and politically bankrupt “free market” economy.

This is what we whites have on our hands: the blood of those whose blackness scares us. So convinced by our own fear of it that, with the threat of black-led mutiny in our minds, we would altogether dismiss the overriding peaceful pleas for justice–coming from so many black mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters who have lost loved ones in a war that is at once inter- and intra-racial–rather than consider what might be inciting such fire in the first place: white reign itself. 

If anything the history of race relations in Baltimore, let alone America, teaches us, especially now as we all stare at what’s happening on the streets from the safe distance of our laptops, it is that racism is alive and strong.

As a Baldwinian “fire next time,” the unrest we are witnessing in Baltimore–a bastion of racially motivated police brutality on and economic neglect of black bodies and souls–is a purgatorial flame singed into our collective memory that just might reorient how we remember the story of (white) American progress. It might just call us to ask ourselves in a manner of sincere, thorough and searching moral inventory:

Why are “these people” so angry? What, in Baltimore’s fraught history of race relations, has lead to this point of volcanic eruption on the part of some fed-up black Americans in Baltimore?

Upon whose backs was this country built? Who was written out of the American imaginary in the narrative unfolding of our Founding Fathers’s dreams (cum nightmare)? How does my whiteness factor into this American nightmare? How does it factor into the violence I see on the streets? What am I to do with my whiteness when I realize that I am not innocent? That my whiteness is not innocent?

What of the justice, freedom and peace we hold so dear to our understanding of American well-being? How will our understanding of justice, freedom, and peace change when we realize that our whiteness has substituted injustice, slavery, and war for those ideals throughout the history of this torn nation?

What are we to do with what cultural theorist George Lipsitz calls our “possessive investment in whiteness” the moment we realize that it is this possessiveness of/possession by a demon whiteness which is enslaving ALL of us to the forgetfulness of fear, the historical amnesia of deaf, dumb and blind white patriotism?

What are those of us who are scared of what we see on TV to do with the kind of whiteness which teaches us to be scared? What might it mean for us to reinscribe that whiteness with love and put down those shields and weapons of an old whiteness—arrogance, pride, suspicion, fear—which would have us deny the trauma of American racism as tangled in the hearts, minds, and bodies of those who throw stones? Especially those who throw stones!

How might we be better able to accomplish the peace we wish to see in Baltimore and cities across the country simply by loving each other into the justice of reconciliation across the color line?

There is in fact a “race riot” in Baltimore and we cannot hold this term “race riot” lightly or use it too loosely.

We must be deliberate in how we deploy it in remembering what is happening in Baltimore and what has happened throughout North American cities in the history of race relations in the United Sates. Indeed, the real race riot began 500 years ago when essentialist racism became an institutional practice manifest in the slave trade and continually showing up through history in the failures of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, racial profiling, backlash at affirmative action, and police brutality.

The most recent race riot in Baltimore is not the first one there, nor elsewhere, in this country. We can hope that it will be the last one. Indeed, that is my hope. But it will only be so if we ourselves work to put the old armor of our defensive and anxious whiteness down and simply listen to those most affected by a system of white heteropatriarchy. Not only to listen, in fact, but also to walk with black lives–arm-in-arm.

It will only happen if we make that existential, ideological, moral, and spiritual choice within ourselves to work together and across the color line to abolish the kind of whiteness which Marxist labor historian and neo-abolitionist David Roediger calls “nothing but oppressive and false” and, in a spirit of co-conspiratorial partnership with the black struggle for racial justice, reclaim whiteness as nothing but liberative and true.roediger_abolition

Let it be known. This is not a self-induced guilt trip, which would be counterproductive to the cause, but a call to (inter)personal responsibility to stare down white supremacy as it gazes back at each of us in the mirror which is dominant society.

With that long, hard look in the mirror at my own reflection, I welcome a crisis in (my/our) white identity/ies that the Baltimore uprising incites. I offer this reflection as a cultural move geared toward doing away with the old racist whiteness that has left us cold and donning the new neo-abolitionist whiteness of anti-racism. Let this be, I tell myself, a gesture toward reparation and a conscious relinquishing of any falsely conceived white paternalism toward the black and brown other in favor of something much more constructive of, committed to, and co-conspiratorial with the struggle of my/our black and brown brothers and sisters for universal liberation. It is an invitation to to stand in solidarity with the oppressed, our brothers and sisters of darker hue, whose chains are our chains and vice versa, whose freedom is tied up in our freedom and vice versa.

This is the dream of reconciliation… that we may all one day be free of that ignorance which deafens us to the sounds of each other’s moans and shouts and which blinds us from seeing the experiences we share simply by dint of being human, together.

Those of us who are white must come to leverage what privilege we have to dismantle whiteness as we presently know it. This cannot happen until we reorient our entire understanding of history according to/from the perspective of those most silenced by old, white ways of telling it.

As a good friend of mine reminded himself in his own, critically white self-reflection I read on Facebook recently, we must break out of our own apathy and silence, afforded as it is by the lazy privilege to which we resort every time we tell ourselves, “This doesn’t affect me.”

Leaders in the #BlackLivesMatter movement have made it clear to us that white silence = consent. When we, as white co-conspirators (as Alicia Garza would call self-professed allies), do speak, however, we must not speak for the other. Rather, we must speak with the other, holding ourselves accountable to and amplifying black and brown voices by way of our own prophetically white witness to the possibilities for and creation of that “beloved community” which awaits us at the end of Dr. King’s arc of the universe, bending always and ever toward justice.

Let us not rest, then, until that day of reckoning as racial reconciliation comes.

And even then, we must keep going, rewriting history as we go along, birthing anew the miracle of life’s triumph over death each day in our own and each other’s lives.

One love.

#BlackLivesMatter

8:40 PM (PT)