My uncle blamed everything on the white man.
Global warming? It was the white man. Drugs destroying the community? Blame the white man. Football team lost? The white man was at fault.
Uncle John was the kind of ghetto philosopher you’d find dropping knowledge in the barbershop. He’d walk in without an appointment and spit knowledge while waiting for a chair to open.
He talked about the way the white man invented AIDS as a way to rid the country of homosexuals. He was convinced that the white man flooded the black community with drugs to undermine the Black Panthers. He thought billiards was a game invented to teach ‘red, black, and yellow’ people to accept oppression. (The game ends when the WHITE ball knocks the BLACK ball off the GREEN table.)
He was convinced he was right. He wasn’t wrong.
While my uncle was incorrect in his assessment that there was a singular white man behind all of these ills, he was right to think that there was something nefarious afoot. He was neither a trained philosopher nor an academic historian, but he had good intuitions. He was unable to name it, but he was talking about white supremacy.
Uncle John said that racism would never go away. It would be here forever. The best we could do was find joy in life and blackness despite the existence of perpetual subjugation. We should fight, he said, but with no expectation of ridding the world of that social evil.
I wonder if Ta-Nehisi Coates spoke to my uncle.
When Between the World and Me was published, many called Coates hopeless. Consider the following passage:
You must struggle to truly remember this past in all its nuance, error, and humanity. You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. . . . Our triumphs can never compensate for this. Perhaps our triumphs are not even the point. Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about this world is meant to be. So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.
He says it at the end: “struggle over hope.” Coates is not hopeful about the possibility of racial progress in America—but the real question is: why should he be?
When agents of the state kill an unarmed black man or woman, the reaction is predictable: first, there will be outrage. CNN and other media outlets will host town hall meetings (on Fox News it will be all white men with Stacy dash—which means all white), and activists and scholars will answer questions like: “what can be done?” They will then have a conversation about how we need to have a conversation about race. Finally, life will move on until there is another moment of crisis and the pattern will begin anew. We’ve seen this before. We know how the story ends—that is to say, it will never end..
Like well meaning people who want answers to the question “What can be done about race in America?” many expected Coates to end with hope. They wanted a reason to be optimistic. He was accused of being reduced to the pain inflicted upon black life—that his analysis was insufficient because it deconstructed the reality of race in America without offering solutions. To these objections, I disagree. I think his approach was appropriate.
There has been marginal racial progress in America. And because of this marginal progress, black Americans are expected to rejoice and be optimistic. Slavery was abolished, yes, but the abolition of slavery was never the goal. Jim Crow was defeated legislatively, but the end of Jim Crow was not the goal. The goal is, and has always been, equality. That’s it. As Malcolm X said:
You don’t stick a knife in a man’s back nine inches and then pull it out six inches and say you’re making progress … No matter how much respect, no matter how much recognition, whites show towards me, as far as I am concerned, as long as it is not shown to everyone of our people in this country, it doesn’t exist for me.
‘Better’ is not equality, and reform is not revolution. America is a country founded on the notion that whiteness is superior to all other racial categories and that blackness is the nadir of existence to such a degree that those who inhabit skin kissed by the sun share more with animals than they do with the idea of humanity.
Is it possible for things to get marginally better? Yes, of course. But will those who embody and enjoy the privileges whiteness affords willingly make room for those they have been socialized to see as inferior? Will America come to terms with the fact that reparations and a fundamental change to the structures in this country are needed to right the historical injustices inflicted upon native and black people in this country?
Nah. That’s not happening. There is a better chance of me picking Jiffy over Hotwater Cornbread at Thanksgiving.
Reform of social programs will not correct the racial ills of America in particular and Western Civilization in general. Only revolution will do that, but I am not optimistic about the possibility of that.
There is beauty in the struggle for equality. There is beauty in building community with those who are like-minded. There is beauty in time spent with family and friends. There is beauty in liberating the mind from the chains of white supremacy.
Black people have learned to take what was ugly and find the beauty therein. Give us scraps, and we will make soul food. Enslave us, we will sing Spirituals. Subject us to Jim Crow, and we will invent the blues. Take away funding for the arts in the inner city, we will invent hip-hop.
There is beauty in this world. There is no need for despair, but to fight with the eradication of institutional racism and a fundamental dismantling of white supremacy in mind is a fool’s errand. White folks would have to commit to that task, and black people cannot afford to be naïve.