The finger points at us. If we actually do want the country to behave differently towards peoples of color here and abroad—it is “we,” who are white and content, who must change and do so radically. Anything less than the equivalent of real reparations and real political confrontation in the streets is simply more of the same.
By Jim Perkinson, long-time activist and educator from inner city Detroit & the author of White Theology: Outing Supremacy in Modernity (2004)
One of the great fears of white people in the early 19th century was that if slaves were given any quarter at all, whites would rapidly be enslaved by blacks. So much as one moment of unpunished black response to white domination—even as seemingly minor as merely looking the master in the eyes—would mean, in short order, that the tables would be turned. Thus the “necessary” brutality of the peculiar institution (portrayed, for even Hollywood audiences, in the recent filmic depiction, “Twelve Years a Slave”).
But beneath the white whip and shackle, a rebound effect took shape inevitably. Blackness grew gargantuan and terrifying, assuming proportions in white consciousness that could blot out the entire horizon of reason. The killings in Charleston last week reveal just how potent that particular bogey remains in the national psyche. But not in the ways we might immediately imagine. And not just in Dylann Storm Roof’s particular delusion. That “they” rape our women and are taking over our country—as he apparently asserted to one of his victims while reloading his gun—has been an organizing trope for social relations in this nation for most of its history.
If we would learn from the debacle at all, rather than just wring our hands because the shooting seems to defy our self-image, we must realize how profoundly Dylann Roof channels mainstream myth—our myth. At root, very few of us who look “white” (like me), do not secretly harbor a similar certainty and terror. Not because we are personally pathological, but because the system we inhabit and benefit from requires a basic presumption. One way or the other, we have to believe we are superior. Otherwise our clear advantage in every major aspect of life begins to signal something amiss. If we have more income on average than the black community, more wealth, better housing, greater educational opportunity, enjoy longer life and better health, end up in prison less and with lesser sentences, even though we break the law as often—how shall we justify ourselves?
And the research and statistics are very clear. We do have advantage, on average across the country, in every major life domain (for instance—white households have something like twenty times the median household net worth that black households have). What we are almost never taught is that such advantage has an underside. It is called “disadvantage.” Our prosperity and wealth come out of the possibilities and chances and resources of others. And not just “back then,” from the land of annihilated Native Americans and labor of enslaved Africans and the northern half of Mexico.
When FHA racialized the housing market in 1935 and after, the monies with which it secured bank loans were tax dollars drawn from everyone. They were made primarily available to one group: white folks. FHA “transferred” money and possibility out of darker communities into lighter ones. When banks refuse to make loans in communities from which they do draw out savings or mortgages, that net gain ends up stored not just in bank vaults but in largely white neighborhoods (where bank owners and managers live and in which banks do make loans). When banks manipulate practices to entangle communities of color in subprime loans—as they overwhelmingly and illegally and repeatedly have done in this new millennium—the financial “killing” accumulates somewhere. And it is not in black communities.
A similar linkage between white economic privilege and black and brown and red economic dis-privilege can be traced across every major bureaucracy controlling modern life. Every such institution has limited resources, and channels a disproportionate share to lighter hued folk from the pockets and communities of darker hued ones. How shall we justify such? Through a deep and typically unanalyzed certainty that “we” are entitled to such, that we deserve it, that we worked hard for it! Subtext: and “they” did not! That is to say, we are certain we are superior. More responsible. Harder working. Better citizens.
And if, by some chance of rumor, or reportage, or boardroom conversation, we were to hear of a concerted political effort to level the playing field by taking from our own stash of (immorally accumulated) goods and re-distribute it to the communities from which it was extracted as long overdue “reparations”—how cooperative would most of us be? The fact is, Dylann Roof lives in a state where the confederate flag flies flagrantly over the capitol and streets are named after generals who killed to maintain blacks as property. And none of us have acted with sufficient outrage to change that. And he lives in a country where all of the on-going re-arrangement of opportunities and assets and access on the basis of race continues apace. And none of us have acted with sufficient resolve to change that.
Yes, the advantage-taking is more hidden today. Yes, the death visited on communities of color is usually more gradual and prosaic, a matter of hypertension, and bad food, and brownfield exposure, and discriminatory healthcare (except when a white police officer channels a bit of the fear so many of us secretly harbor and another black body lies mute in a puddle of blood). Yes, huddled in suburban housing estates, or rural enclaves, or gentrified and heavily policed “urban pioneer” spaces, it is difficult to see. But our most taken-for-granted enjoyments and everyday choices enact a collective Dylann Roof in this land at every moment. And when an actual person named Roof carries out our common subtext, it will not do to point fingers and lament.
The finger points at us. If we actually do want the country to behave differently towards peoples of color here and abroad—it is “we,” who are white and content, who must change and do so radically. Anything less than the equivalent of real reparations and real political confrontation in the streets is simply more of the same. A big crocodile tear shed on top of a pile of stolen goods and lives. Dylann Roof mirrors the myth of America. It will not change until dominant white society is willing to confess that it is not “our country,” but a commonly held gift. So far, it has never so confessed–or lived.