I’m watching white supremacy work.
This is what it looks like: if you’re murdered by a police officer–who, you know, is supposed to protect and serve–and the state prosecutor wilfully neglects his duty; perverts his duty by overwhelming the grand jury with information and promoting the testimony of the officer he’s supposedly prosecuting, and allows someone who wasn’t at the scene to lie in testimony supporting the officer’s story, well, your civil rights haven’t been violated.
If you’re black. If you’re white, you don’t get murdered. You get to openly carry a gun in Kroger and not be shot. You get to shoot a police chief four times, not be shot, and have no charges brought against you. You get to assault an African-American 19 years your senior because he’s legally carrying a gun, and not be shot.
This is what white supremacy looks like: if you’re a white colonist in the 18th century, you can become righteously indignant over taxation without representation and wage revolution. If you’re an African-American in the 21st century, you can protest against extrajudicial executions, but you may get arrested, and you’ll most likely be disrespected by mainstream white society. And, of course, you may be extrajudicially killed and posthumously vilified by media, police, and the general population.
But hold on a minute. There are similarities between 18th century colonists who waged revolution against Britain and 21st century activists calling for a revolution of values in America. Sidney Lens opened his his 1966 book Radicalism in America with the following two sentences:
The role of the radical throughout the ages has been as an antidote to privilege. Whatever his failings and ineptitudes, he has tried to repair the balance between those who have too much and those who have too little.
He goes on to argue that the colonists who waged revolution against British injustice were radicals and that their ideals were co-opted and revised in the transformation of the 13 colonies into the United States of America. The narrative he creates is one of idealistic and moralistic men who were driven by notions of equality and social democracy that are in striking contrast to the corporate capitalism that dominates 21st century America. The democracy that they practiced and advocated was participatory and opposed to the aristocratic tyranny of feudal Britain.
In 1772, Samuel Adams revived his Committee of Correspondence in Boston to speak out against the tightening of British control in Massachusetts. This action spread throughout Massachusetts in the following months, and eighty towns held public meetings to discuss what they perceived as British abuses.
Similarly, the decentralized and participatory protests that began in Ferguson, Missouri in August of 2014 have spread throughout the nation, and many organizations are meeting to discuss structural racism and the failures of elected representatives, public policies, and institutions to provide equal treatment to all Americans.
This past weekend, many Americans came together to discuss and act on the radical legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. These groups dismissed the sanitized, static image of King sanctified by the national holiday and embraced the radical that King had become before his death. King’s radicalization led to his murder by the forces of white supremacy in a society that feared the moral truth he preached when he spoke out against the “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism”. King was calling on people to hold America accountable for its crimes and terror overseas as well as its crimes and terror at home.
Nearly fifty years after Martin Luther King was assassinated by the forces of white supremacy, white supremacy continues to perpetuate crimes and terror at home and abroad. American history is violent, racist, and intolerant. If we accept that revolutionary colonists were motivated by ideals of equality and participatory democracy, we must also accept that they were embedded in a culture of violence, racism, and intolerance. That culture persists due to the value of reactionary self-interest, which is also an American value, though not one that is openly professed.
We live in a society of contradictions, a complex society of individuals attempting to practice democracy. If we are sincere about practicing democracy, we must practice it on a deeper level than watching television news and voting. Democracy requires participation, just as progress and justice require action.
I don’t want to watch white supremacy work. I want to take it apart. We must engage with each other and enter into uncomfortable conversations in order to dismantle white supremacy. And we must go further than conversation. We must make ourselves uncomfortable by taking action against injustice. It’s likely to be frightening. We have to do it anyway.