A constant struggle for American people of color engaged with race issues has been inspiring empathy and action from largely unaffected whites. The lethal combination of institutional power and racial prejudice does not not follow white footsteps nor hang in the back of white minds. For white Americans, racism remains something we at most witness, our experience limited to the merely vicarious. Even dedicated white allies have the luxury of forgetting about racism when it becomes overwhelming or inconvenient. There is no immediacy of impact, and for many of us, that means no pressing reason to care.
This is not the space to give a sociology lesson about the brutality of racialized power in 21st-century America, but a Sparknotes version is necessary. The mythology of American social progress holds that a giant named Martin Luther King, Jr., whose deeds we can deify and legacy we can control, tore down segregation before a new era of meritocratic equality. His pacifism toward white police is made his heroism while his pacifism toward yellow Viet Cong is quietly ignored; his socialism and his anger are too inconvenient to retell. More inconvenient is the abandoned scaffolding around his unfinished dream. Two generations since of black and brown people have faced mounting assault by disproportionate crime enforcement (by which I mean drug, by which I mean “crime,” enforcement) through a cycle of violence and deprivation that continually creates the conditions of its own justifications. The bull’s eye painted across the painted Others in our midst brands a terrifying number of them with handcuff imprints and a paper trail. The handcuffs push the psyche into war with itself and the social order that clicked them shut; the paper trail prevents that war from ever being forgotten. The construction of the black male as a symbol of crime in turn feeds the ever-hungry white fear that made him a criminal. I here describe only the most visible form of racist savagery; violence is a specter with translucent tendrils snaring its favorite prey with segregated housing, discriminatory toxic waste disposal, and rejected job applications. The relative discretion of brutality makes it no less devastating.
This “cycle of violence” is not a white fist and then a black fist and a white fist and then a black fist, pummeling each other ad nauseum until a brave follower of Christ and Dr. King refuses to hit back. Rather, a white fist swung by white fear turns the wheel round and round. Fear of otherness, which brings poverty; fear of poverty and those who dwell there; fear of poverty’s anger, lest — God forbid — the people in it realize that they are not poor people but people made poor. It is a fear we pass on through a barrage of assumptions and behaviors and thoughts we never think about. It is a fear built from tiny influences molding us from all sides, from how we tell our history to holding our children’s hands tightly as we skirt scary-looking homeless people to showing through repetition how to spot the bad guy in a Disney movie (hint: they tend to be the dark-looking ones).
My case that racism should matter to all of us is first and foremost a moral one. Fear and prejudice must end because they hurt people. They break real human lives and bring real human pain. This is the form and content of the only moral charge I will make. Hopefully it will inform not just compassion but a compassionate fury in the face of racial struggle.
Many, however, have been socialized not only to be comfortable with their status, but to expect it. And no person insists so earnestly on their privileges as the one who never learns they exist. This earnestness can push and has pushed our humanity aside. Fortunately, American political identity for many relies on our collective self-vision as liberal: as democratic, equal, free. Ignoring the ingroup obsession characterizing other aspects of American nationalism, a widely distributed belief in these guiding principles forms the foundation of what we think we mean by “Americanness.”
This approach whites may take to caring about racism is what I would call idealistic grappling: the struggle made by those who take little issue with the effects of racism but still identify with political enlightenment. The battle of this contradiction is as personal as it is societal. It was this part of the American psyche that Dr. King appealed to when he claimed that our country had “given the Negro people a bad check, which had come back marked ‘insufficient funds’” with respect to “honoring this sacred obligation.” Simply put, if White America wants to believe it is not simply White but also America, it must be willing to take a stand for Black America and Asian America and Native America and Latino America and everything in between. This wrestling match is the task of every settler nation, for whose colonial projects racialism and violent power form the very bedrock, that would call itself democratic. The integrity of this identity rests on purging our societies of the white colonial mentality. Anything short of this is ideological contradiction, a self torn in two.
Anti-racism born of this logic is rooted in principles. It is the reasoning of the American constitutionalist for whom “ideals of the Founders” (whose enlightened affinity for shackles and weaponized smallpox somehow ends up erased) are of more direct import than the joy and anguish of real human beings. It is the path for the upper middle class white who knows nothing of suffering but thinks of himself or herself as vaguely progressive. It is what must bring other idealistic patriots with a keener eye for moral consistency into the anti-racism camp, motivating those who love equality and freedom because belief in those ideas is part of who they are.
However, many white Americans across class and era, diverging as wildly as more racially explicit Tea Partiers and our own Woodrow Wilson, are actually quite adept at this cognitive jiu-jitsu. Their efforts to maintain a stubborn entitlement to racialized class advantage, unconsciously or deliberately, have led many — myself sometimes included — to dismiss them as a hopeless sidecar dragging against an otherwise tolerant, free society. But these views are not confined to a crotchety, aging, and hateful minority — and in any case, leaving any man or woman behind is simply un-American. To keep these last ambivalent or reactionary stragglers (by which I mean many of us) from falling through the cracks, my proposal is to confront white Americans with the simple fact that their demographic majority is in jeopardy. According to the US Census Bureau, 2011 was the first year in modern American history that non-white births outnumbered white births. The white majority’s end is predicted for 2043. Demographic transformation is the harbinger of American racism’s consumptive death.
The United States is not Israel, where the privileged ethnic class may resort to further repression to maintain its status when Palestinian birth rates push it again into the minority. The character of Israeli institutions is first (claimed to be) Jewish and second (claimed to be) democratic; ours are first (claimed to be) democratic and second (never admitted in polite company) white. Despite my anger, I cannot believe that white power will survive the transfer of demographic weight to the many shades of black, yellow, and brown. Even the whitest of American liberalisms can no longer countenance blatant disenfranchisement of people of color. A commitment to basic democratic principles is so central to the American sense of self that majority rule will defeat systematized white dominance. Even its more veiled forms — stripping political rights from felons, “cleaning up the streets,” enforcing “border security” — will crumble as the relationship between white privilege and white majority status ceases to be complementary and drifts into the realm of structural contradiction.
The logic of cultural discourse and political representation will bow to the looming juggernaut of the demographic shift. The fear of white racists, no matter how heartfelt, cannot stop this. A new apartheid of discourse is nearly unimaginable, whereby a frightened minority maintains a cultural and social power more tenable in an ivory golden age past. And when that steady giant of non-white majority lifts its head in thirty years, the white fist will have to come back out of the comfort of its shadows or die. It will not, cannot, reveal itself openly without first surrendering itself as American, as liberal, as free.
There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. White privilege and white power are unsustainable — not in the wishy-washy liberal sense of “we shouldn’t do this anymore,” but because of simple architecture. The social structures that maintain them rely on facts on the ground that are changing rapidly, morphing the very relations of power. I don’t mean the color of the president’s skin. I mean social power in a more radically thorough sense: the bodies funneling public resources and commanding law enforcement, the relative weights of media and cultural communication, the symbols and norms of our collective imagination. And if there is anything white elites should have learned in their half-millennium of pillage, it is that being on the wrong side of racialized power is a dangerous and frightening position.
We whites will be able to cling to the remnants of our colonialism for perhaps another generation, but no more. There will be no flimsy apartheid for us. Even those among us who could only do so bitterly would do best to burn these structures to the ground before feeling their bite. We face a real, self-interested necessity of psychological decolonization. The task of challenging white power, white privilege, and white history may fall in part to communities of color, but true deconstruction must also take root in white minds and institutions. That means deracializing our thinking and taking apart, brick by brick, the legacies of our racism and our violence and what we have taught our children. Decolonization is an unlearning process.
As anyone who has spent their lives fighting the particularly stupid and cruel excesses of American (or any) society can tell you, this kind of change is tumultuously slow. The danger we face is that white efforts to prolong what is dying may preserve the skeleton of racism so that power relations remain something to compete over instead of something to abolish. The landscape is changing before our eyes, and prejudiced, fearful whites will only have themselves to blame if they bury their heads in the sand and wake up in thirty years as a minority in a racialized world of their own design. Never before in American history has prejudice against whites been linked to systemic power, but that may change, and soon. One day, the transformation of race — not as racial and cultural difference but as a class structure — will not be a product of enlightened, white benefactors. It is our job to ensure that this is amounts to a breakdown rather than an inversion. But if at that time, remnants of race as power still exist, the tables may turn.
Racism should not and cannot remain an issue only for its victims and a handful of social crusaders. Questions of culture as a communal product demand a concerted devotion from American whites that simply does not exist. The first step, no matter what motivates us, is to align our outlooks and actions with our morals, political ideals, or the realization that the times are a-changin’. That means abandoning fuzzy, general opinions of “tolerance over hatred” and making an unqualified commitment to the death of racism. Because this is everyone’s struggle.