I’ve long been fascinated with how we as Americans remember our bygone political eras and with the stories we tell ourselves and accept about them. Sometimes we learn some of the right lessons, and in those variable cases we often forget just how exactly we came to see a given moral truth. I am hardly the first to point out that this precarious relationship with history has been encapsulated by white America’s memory of the civil rights era of the 1960s as well as its memory of its chief architects. White America seems to love to glorify Martin Luther King Jr. as the moral zenith of the black American while insisting that the civil rights era was one that ended — and certainly that the good guys won. Most of what white America remembers about the civil rights movement, from King himself, to Malcolm X, to Parks, to the tactics of nonviolence, and to all the allies they supposedly won over forevermore is only partly true at best and often an outright, calculated, mythological fabrication. This selective memory has been ringing out cacophonously with the lived realities of black, brown, and other communities for the better part of a century. With the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013, its evolution through the age of Trump and resistance, and its new climax this week, it has reached a deafening dissonance.
Like quite a few of my fellow Americans, I am a straight, white, Christian, male-presenting man. Call me a “neo-WASP” (white, anglo-saxon, progressive). Like many Americans who look like me, I have ancestors who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, ancestors that owned slaves themselves, and ancestors that directly benefited from Jim Crow and segregation. My parents are both white and in a traditional, heterosexual, Christian marriage. Both of my parents are high-income earners. They are both successful academics. Even with a large and cumbersome, albeit very well camouflaged, physical deformity, I was born into the luckiest .5% of the human race that has ever lived. It is to you — those of you with ancestry or skin at all akin to mine — that I speak.
For much of my life I was also taught that version of history in which the civil rights movement was triumphant, and the sainthood of the good Rev. Dr. King was canonized by white America in real time. So much of it was but propaganda, conscious and unconscious, to keep my attention from fixing too sharply on the continued brutalization of the black American body and mind.
Before I proceed to what will be the thesis of this piece, I must clearly and linearly explain what that continued brutalization is. I offer this in good faith to my fellow white people who are still either unclear about or ignorant of the righteousness of the Black Lives Matter movement. I invite you to read on with kindness and I will do my best to be brief, clear, and comprehensive. But be warned: once you finish this, there will be no more excuses. It begins with a concept I know that many of you already understand; in fact, it even excites most of you: the compounding growth of wealth.
I know that the most influential, knowledgeable, and powerful of you understand this because you have home ownership somewhere in your family line. Most of you have stock market holdings and retirement accounts; some of you have degrees from higher education and other forms of capital yourself and/or in your family. A massive portion of this current wealth, if you were to trace it back through time, first found its way to the path that would carry it to you because a black person was forced to build it for free, or very close to it. If you are somehow in the small minority of white people in America that are the exception to this legacy of slavery, I beg you to bear with me. We have barely begun.
You must understand the catastrophic failure of the era of Reconstruction after the Civil War. Then President Johnson, one of the worst presidents in U.S. history, believed that black Americans shouldn’t play any role at all in shaping the social order of the former confederacy, the very land that torturously enslaved them for years. Land ownership was the key to freedom to former slaves, and they were systematically denied it by all of white-reconstructed America. In the south, the land (the capital) was completely returned to the same people that owned it before the war ended. They were, nearly to a man, guilty of crimes against humanity, and their former slaves were paid almost nothing of the wages owed them. The south continued to be ruled by white terrorists and terrorist sympathizers, and, for decades, black Americans were systematically denied almost any opportunity at all to start building any kind of wealth remotely comparable to that of their white counterparts. “Black Codes” kept black Americans all but slaves for generations. The Ku Klux Klan became a full-throated terrorist insurrectionist movement, killing thousands of black Americans throughout the south. By intimidation, terror, and violence, black Americans were completely driven out of mainstream civic and economic society. This terrorism allowed for the ironclad codification of Jim Crow laws throughout America. Black Americans were denied once again the freedom to achieve any kind of meaningful economic or financial self sufficiency. Most of this history you already know (but don’t fully understand, for how can almost anyone…). What you may not know is what was happening at the same time: “Redlining.” This was the practice used by American governments to block entire black neighborhoods and communities from access to almost all financial and capital investment. More on this a bit later, for the economic ripple effects of this practice are to wreak havoc upon black lives through to this very day.
It’s 1944, and a new age is now dawning in America. We win World War II — and end the Great Depression at the same time. We launch what many consider to be the golden age of American capitalism. As millions of American servicemen return home from the war, the federal government takes dynamic action and passes the GI bill, allowing veterans of America’s “greatest generation” to buy homes, build wealth, get college educations, and expand their economic and civil freedoms. I am acutely aware of the role this bill played in my own life because the GI bill was what allowed my American veteran grandfather to get a degree that eventually got him a corporate job. My mother was able to get her PHD and eventually own her own home as a direct result of the wealth that flowed into my grandfather’s family because of the GI bill… the same GI bill which was, of course, structured so that it was systematically denied to 1.2 million black American veterans who returned home from defeating fascism abroad. Thus the “Greatest Generation” of black America can’t get degrees, good jobs, can’t buy homes, and is systematically barred from entering into the American middle class during one of the greatest periods of wealth creation in our history. All the while, the organized domestic terrorism of racists plague black America largely unchecked. If my grandfather — an American World War II veteran — had been black, I don’t get to grow up in a home my parents own. Who knows if my parents, my brother, or I even survive to see 2020. This is the mathematical and physical reality of white privilege.
Continuing our chronological march through systemic racism in America, we remind ourselves that throughout the entire later half of the 20th century, in a jaw-dropping failure of free-market capitalism, black Americans simply living in or owning homes and apartments causes them to decline and depreciate in value. Not only did this deprive black Americans further from wealth creation afforded to white Americans, but it had direct and catastrophic effects on the educational opportunities available to black Americans. How are school systems mostly funded in America? You guessed it… through the property and real-estate taxes on the homes and buildings in surrounding neighborhoods. Remember “Redlining” from earlier? This compounds the economic horror. While these racist real-estate practices are wreaking havoc on the economic foothold of black Americans, and while they are devastating the budgets of school districts in black communities, banks are still widely using these “Redlining Maps” to systematically deny loans (and deny favorable interest rates in the loans they do grant) to black Americans. It’s devastating; black Americans are, again, predatorily barred from ways that white Americans most commonly built wealth for their families throughout the twentieth century: home ownership and college degrees. In fact, research on the housing market has revealed that, as late as the 1980s, American banks were more likely to lend to poor white families than they were to lend to middle-income black families, and that Redlining has continued to depress whole markets of property for black Americans all the way to the present day. All of this had, and continues to have, a direct and massive impact on the wealth disparity between black and white Americans for today the wealth of the average white family is 20 times that of the average black family. Black Americans make up 13% of the American population, but they have only 2% of the wealth owned by the median white family, and their wealth is shrinking. One final note on the socio-economic prison in which black Americans are forced to live: they do not even get anywhere close to the same employment opportunities that white people do, as studies have repeatedly shown that resumes with white sounding names get twice as many callbacks and interviews as equivalent resumes with black sounding names. The black life in America is ever-caged. This has been but a brief summary.
We arrive at the current moral front lines of the civil rights movement: Black Lives Matter and their protests against systemic, racist police brutality. They are right. Their “side” is right. Their cause is right and just. Black Lives Matter is the perfectly predictable, logical, and ethical extension of the civil rights era of the 60s at which white America loves to point as progress. MLK and his “non-violent” allies were demonstrating to America that they were being systematically denied their rights as Americans as protected by the 5th and 14th amendments. The civil rights movement never ended. With the economic context I laid out above fresh in your mind, hear this:
Police kill thousands of Americans. Black Americans are 24% of those killed by police while making up only 13% of the US population. This is not because they are more dangerous, for they are 30% more likely to be unarmed than their white counterparts killed by police. It is absolutely not because they are more prone to crime. We know this because research shows that there is no correlation whatsoever between a city’s rate of violent crime and their police department’s rate of killings. We know these killings are preventable as we have research that shows us at least eight different policies that departments can implement that will reduce killings from 5%-25% each. We know that it is about the systemic economic and civic segregation of the last 155 years because the research shows us that the more racially segregated a city is, the higher its rate of police shootings. We know that white people are 30–45% more likely than black people to deal drugs, but black people are more likely to get arrested for it. Furthermore, black Americans are nearly four times as likely to get arrested for using drugs even though the use rate is virtually equal. We know that the loophole written into the constitutional abolition of slavery — that institutional slavery can be used as a punishment for crime — was exploited almost immediately by white America. Black Americans are not more prone to crime; they are deliberately locked into socio-economic cycles of poverty and desperation. They are policed at higher rates, convicted at higher rates, arrested at higher rates, charged at higher rates, and punished more harshly — all purposefully — by white policy. There is perhaps no better way of understanding this as true than to absorb the words of Nixon Domestic Affairs Adviser John Ehrlichman:
“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be against the war or black but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them, night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
He said that in a published interview in 1994. There are, perhaps, exceptions to this extensive and intentional systemic racist persecution. They prove the rule. If you somehow think you have compelling, competing data points that account for all the arguments you’ve read here, thoroughly question those data. They are probably a result of deeply flawed methodology.
The list of atrocities above are procured from just a cursory glance through history all the way to today. They are tantamount to “a long train of abuses and usurpations pursuing invariably the same Object…,” that object being a clear “design to reduce them under absolute Despotism….” After all the “patient suffering” of black Americans throughout our land “it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and provide new Guards for their future security.” Those words from our Declaration of Independence — written, in the greatest irony, by a slave holder — have proved prophetic in more ways than one, for black America is asking us quite literally for new and better guards. After all of this, all that we have done to them, you simply can no longer look them in the eye and tell them with a clear conscience the thesis of the All Lives Matter reaction: we owe you nothing.
With the exact same metric by which white America retroactively deemed the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s just — that due process of law under the 5th amendment and equal protection of the law by the 14th amendment was being systematically denied — Black Lives Matter is proving, over and over again, that their people are being oppressed. Our nationwide network of police departments is one of the chief ways we as a people come into contact with the laws of our republic. The Black Lives Matter movement is demonstrating to America that black Americans today are being systematically denied their 5th and 14th constitutional rights in their collective and communal interaction with that network. If you are wondering why this time — meaning since the finally inescapable audacity of the public, legal lynching of George Floyd — feels different it’s because we of the Black Lives Matter movement have been right all along. It’s because social movements that are just and eventually successful routinely have watershed moments or points of inflection that turn the tide of their societies. For the Civil Rights era of the 60s, there were two: Bloody Sunday, televised for both the white north and the white south to see in 1965, and the Holy Week Uprising — the riots in nearly 200 American cities for six straight days following the slaying of King in 1968 — that forced the federal government to expand the civil rights act on the seventh day. For the Black Lives Matter movement, the natural and just offspring of the Civil Rights era of the 60s, this moment — the murder of Breonna Taylor in her own home and subsequent coverup, the filmed extra-judicial lynching of Ahmaud Arbery, and the public corrupt-judicial lynching of George Floyd — is its first, and hopefully only, inflection point. It is why, just a few days before this was written, both the Marine Corps and NASCAR instituted bans on the confederate flag, why conservative, former presidential candidate Mitt Romney said the words and is marching with us himself, and why the NFL itself has finally bent the knee. “Black Lives Matter,” indeed….
One of the most fascinating and underrated phenomena in the history of American politics is how consistently wrong the conservative faction of America has been about pretty much everything in the long-form view of our political history and to how little account they are ever held as an ideology for this spectacular record of failure. This is a controversial and debatable claim, and if you can suspend your intellectual defensiveness for a few minutes more (which I will both beg of you and appreciate), it’s also where you come in, my fellow white people. I hope to spend many more years of my life exploring this political phenomenon in deeper detail, and you are free to meet me there, but I need us to focus the lens of the aforementioned phenomenon and apply it only to the plight of the black American throughout our history. You cannot afford to wait any longer to do this, for you, and the rest white America, are in the depths of a grievous moment of reckoning. The time to choose is right now. You can no longer oppose the Black Lives Matter movement, or support the misleading and insidious “all lives matter’’ reaction, and continue to claim even the remotest intellectual, moral, or spiritual kinship with Dr. King or the “benevolent” Civil Rights era of the 60s. The reason this is so absolute is because, as we forget, Dr. King himself was loathed by white America while he was alive. We know from polling data that white Americans overwhelmingly disapproved of him personally and of all of his most iconic and influential tactics of nonviolent action and that disapproval and disdain persisted for years after his death. MLK Day was first observed in the nation in 1986. My grandfather, the same one whose prosperity was afforded him by legislation that was systematically denied to black Americans, the same one who was a direct descendent of slave owners and traitors who fought for the south in the Civil War, hated Dr. King for the entirety of the Civil Rights Movement and all the way through the early 1990s.
This is your direct political and intellectual ancestry. It is immortalized to the left and elsewhere throughout the visual history of the Civil Rights Era in the photographs of screaming, swearing, white, racist faces. As you continue to keep their moral company, you will be held to account for it by history and by your own descendants just as I will hold to account my grandfather for the rest of my life. You cannot, with any moral or intellectual consistency, sanctify King’s movement while turning your back on its succession. Black Lives Matter, (a movement which has been almost identically as nonviolent as King’s), with marches in over 2,000 cities and towns in all 50 American states and 18 countries around the world, has been now solidified as one of if not the largest civil rights movements in world history. King’s spirit embodies it totally. As if all of that weren’t enough… its very actions have triggered confirmation of its thesis as the protests since Floyd’s death have sparked an unprecedented breakout of police violence.
You yourself might not be racist, but if you are now on the side upon which the racists are also, you would have been on the side of the racists, segregationists, terrorists, and terrorist sympathizers committing crimes against humanity then. That is your political parentage. The “all lives matter” reaction is the offspring of the worst face of America. This political moment — of the militarization of America’s law enforcement against American citizens peacefully exercising their constitutional rights, of that law enforcement instigating violence, of under-cover white-nationalists and anarchists instigating much of the violence to undermine and criminalize this Civil Rights movement — is a crystallization of that damning political reality. You can turn away from it still. But it’s got to be right now. There are simply no more excuses.
If you refuse after today… then you will be remembered for it forever. The legacy of your political mind will be one of cruelty, teargas-fire, blood, and death. You will be justly vilified by future generations of Americans, and your own family. 2045 — the God-blessed year during which the white majority in America will finally disappear forever — is coming. We will inherit this nation; we will write its history. Both will be the true American birthright of her beautifully colored sons and daughters, and I will be marking your cold, disapproving, white faces on the streets of unrest to come.
I am begging you, my fellow white Americans, by all that is good and holy, and in the name of the God in which both of us are likely to believe, join us now, at last.
It is not too late for you… but you are out of time.