Can White America forgo the comforts of a racist legacy?

September 6, 2017

Condemning the events in Charlottesville is an easy act for a society that wants to believe it is post-racial. While shock may result as a natural reaction, this event, and others like it, should not come as a surprise. Astonishment at what occurred is a failure to understand the ways in which white supremacy is perennially maintained.

To the white supremacist, what must American society look like? White people today enjoy the spoils of a tireless and steadfast, violent and destructive effort – an effort that spans the entire history of this country – to install a system designed to injure, isolate, and destroy black life for white advantage. The white supremacist that looks upon this must not understand what all the fuss is about.

Across the country, the presence of nearly all-white neighborhoods stands as the physical realization of white supremacy at work – the scars of a racist societal order partitioning black and white existence. Can this be the vision of integration for liberal whites who celebrate America’s "multiculturalism?" Willfully ignoring the history of governance by the notion of black inferiority safeguards white advantage won by such a system and deepens the wounds of racial disparity. This past was intended as a favor to whites today. But for those who saw Charlottesville as a wake-up call, was it disturbing enough to act, or a fleeting interruption to the slumber of the status-quo?

Black America, meanwhile, remembers its history. Blacks remember being denied mortgages that were federally subsidized for white families. They remember property deeds that barred the sale of homes to anyone who was not white. They remember these restrictive covenants being enforced by their country’s government. They recall that when the one or two black families, against all odds, overcame these barriers and bought a home in a segregated neighborhood, white mobs mobilized, set their furniture ablaze, and firebombed their homes. Aggressive and dangerous hordes assembled outside and terrorized them night and day until they packed up and left. Not that any of this would be easy to forget, but these images resurface every time those folks who cling to the notion of a post-racial society virulently oppose proposals for affordable housing in their communities.

As young professionals who flock to major metropolitan centers chasing opportunity survey the country, they either don’t see, or do not care to see, the destitute conditions of urban confinement barricading black communities within a cycle of poverty. The lack of amenities and jobs, health clinics and public transportation; the polluted skies and deteriorating sections of town derelict of public dollars and attention are conveniently cropped out of their imagery to maintain a rosy picture, like a doctored social media post.

The romance of serene and vibrant cityscapes endures only by the willful denial of harsh realities like blockbusting or rent gouging. White America happily accepts today’s status quo, too preoccupied with the comforts of life to notice how zoning ordinances placed smokestacks in black neighborhoods or how an occupying police presence traces its origins to practices like convict leasing that criminalized blackness. Whether the cause is the disproportionately higher risk of contracting asthma or a police chokehold, a condition of being black in America is that one may find theirself fighting for the right to breathe. Yet the idyllic city experience – very much the product of this black social control – is just too precious to spare a breath in defense of fellow citizens professed to be equals.

Black people cannot ignore how this societal arrangement is upkept. Ringing in the ears of black folks are calls to maintain order, are fears of plummeting housing prices and diminishing school quality. Echoing loudly are the same exact words hurled at them that were once lobbed by people who proclaimed their desire for segregation. These are the actions of the beneficiaries of the favors bestowed by their forebears. Generations past looked upon their progeny and contrived to grace them with a superior stance in society and an innocence that would allow them to never question it. And what a sweet gift it was. Even as most whites rebuke overt displays of racism, the embedded nature of this gift obscures the process of its procurement.

But black people do remember this history and grasp this current reality. And, as a matter of fact, white supremacists do too. It is this very awareness that emboldens them to march proudly, and openly in the streets of a self-purported liberal college town. White nationalists see the majority of white Americans enjoying the benefits of white supremacists’ hard work. They must look at the callous disregard of people displaced by gentrification, the hostile backlash to racial justice policy, the vociferous expression of “all lives matter” to shout down black voices, and think to themselves, "we’re almost there."

The only people who were shocked by what took place in Charlottesville are those who do not see that the white supremacist vision is the logical progression of the country’s current social order. If those who so desperately cry "this is not us" truly mean it, and wish to prove it, then the comfort granted by the gifts of the past must be relinquished and the daily struggle for justice embraced.

---------

Editor's note: The ideas expressed in this blog post are not necessarily those of the Haas Institute or UC Berkeley, but belong to the author.