Tim Wise, one of the leading anti-racist writers and educators in the country, gave a stirring keynote presentation at the St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Burlington for a ceremony remembering the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Wise is the author of books such as White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son and Dear White America, Letter to a New Minority.
The event was sponsored by the Greater Burlington Multicultural Resource Center and was supported by Vermont Humanities as part of the Vermont Civics Collaborative.
Tim Wise: After January 6th, we hear it again, this is not our America, this is not the America that we know. But once again, who exactly didn’t know that this was possible? Who exactly didn’t know that a group of people who have had hegemonic control of the culture for hundreds of years and finally see that hegemony slipping in the face of multicultural, pluralistic democracy might decide to make their last stand for the old guard and for white male domination.
Welcome to the Portable Humanist, the podcast where you can listen to Vermont Humanities talks and learn when you’re on the go. I’m Ryan Newswanger.
Tim Wise is one of the leading anti-racist writers and educators in the United States. He is the author of books such as “White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son” and “Dear White America, Letter to a New Minority.”
On January 17, Wise gave a stirring keynote presentation at the St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Burlington for a ceremony remembering the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The event was sponsored by the Greater Burlington Multicultural Resource Center.
Wise’s talk was supported by Vermont Humanities for the Vermont Civics Collaborative, which is part of the nationwide “Why it Matters: Civics and Electoral Participation” initiative sponsored by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Federation of State Humanities Councils.
Here’s Tim Wise.
Tim Wise: Thank you very much. Appreciate the warm introduction in this lovely facility for the event. And I am glad to see everyone appropriately socially distanced. Some of you all are more appropriately distance than others. Some of you all are, you must know each other, you got to be here with family or friends or somebody you trust. Okay. Very good.
It’s good to be back. It has been, gosh, I don’t know exactly how many years but it’s been several, since I’ve been here. And I feel like every MLK event, and I’ve been doing those for probably 30 years, we’re always talking about the same issues because the issues don’t really change. The contours of where we are as a country, that does change. But the subject matter is the same as that which Dr. King was talking about during his life and during the movement of which he was apart. And those are the same things we continue to talk about today.
And 56 years ago, actually, in the pages of Ebony Magazine, James Baldwin told us something as a country that I’m sure we weren’t ready to hear then, it is every bit as prescient and true and important for us to hear today. And what he said was this he said, “The people who imagine that history flatters them, as it does indeed, since they wrote it, are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves or the world. This,” Baldwin went on to say, “is the place in which it seems most white Americans find themselves impaled. They are dimly or perhaps vividly aware that the history they have fed themselves is mostly a lie that they do not know how to be released from it and they suffer enormously from the resulting personal incoherence.”
In other words, Baldwin was saying our nation’s blinkered history of itself and particularly that understood by White Americans is one of the reasons that we continue to come back to these same topics, these same subjects, these same talks, year after year and decade after decade. And all around us, we see the evidence today of what Baldwin was talking about, a nation where the majority of our people and certainly the majority of those of us called White are dangerously naive about our past and as a result, unable to fully understand and appreciate why we are in the present moment, where we find ourselves. This is one of the reasons that we are shocked, and when I say we, once again, I mean White folks, because Black folks are never shocked. And Brown folks are never shocked by what happens in this country. But White folks are often shocked when tragedy strikes, and confronts us with the reality of racialized injustice.
We were shocked when Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in the city of New Orleans, a city I loved and where I lived for 10 years was emptied out, 350,000 to 400,000 people displaced by floodwaters because levees had been inadequately constructed to withhold even a category three storm. And when that happened, White folks cried out, for at least 48 hours there was empathy for about that long. And in that 48 hours White folks said, “This isn’t the America that we know. How is this happening in our country?” People stranded on rooftops, trying to motion to helicopters, many of which would never come.
This isn’t the America that we know. But it was the America that Black folks knew. Not only in New Orleans, but elsewhere. A nation where the displacement of Black bodies after all, is the only reason they’re here. And they know that. And were not stunned that a rich White man might get elected, telling not rich White people that their enemies were Black and Brown. That is not a move that was crafted in the bowels of the Trump organization, that is a long standing American play. It is the first play in the playbook of American politics and it goes back to the colonial period. Rich White men telling not rich White people that their enemies are Black and Brown. It is literally the first play.
So this is a man who opened up the playbook, he doesn’t like to read anyway, saw the first play and said, “Yeah, I think I’m going to go with that one. Why should I read any deeper into the book?” Because they don’t have a defense against this play yet. So Black folks were not shocked when Derek Chauvin ground his knee into the neck of George Floyd for eight minutes and 46 seconds last Memorial Day weekend. A lot of the same voices rose in anger and rage. My God, this is not the America that I know. But it is exactly, precisely the America that Black folks and not just George Floyd knew. A nation where law enforcement was crafted from the beginning for the sake of domination and control of Black bodies. That was the first iteration of law enforcement were slave patrols. Police called to dominate and subordinate Black bodies for the sake of order and law and Whiteness. And so Black folks were enraged, but they were not shocked.
And now after January 6th we hear it again, “This is not our America. This is not the America that we know.” But once again, who exactly didn’t know that this was possible? Who exactly didn’t know that a group of people who have had hegemonic control of the culture for hundreds of years and finally see that hegemony slipping in the face of multicultural pluralistic democracy might decide to make their last stand for the old guard? And for White male domination? Why would anyone be shocked by that?
Carol Anderson, brilliant scholar at Emory University has written about this in her book, White Rage, that every point in American history where we’ve seen progress, particularly for Black peoples, any movement forward, whether it was reconstruction, whether it was the great migration, whether it was desegregation in the civil rights movement, whether it was affirmative action, whether it was the election of the first Black president, or whether it is this coming of multiracial democracy and the death of Trumpism, at least in its most blatant iteration, whenever Black folks and Brown folks are seen as having made progress, there is a concomitant backlash and White rage, it has always been so. There is nothing surprising about it, nor is there anything remotely shocking about the fact that that happened the very day after the state of Georgia elected a Black man and a Jew to the United States Senate. These bookends make perfect sense, action and reaction. That has been the history of the country.
But as Baldwin said, “White America has flattered itself, has written the history in such a way so as not to understand that Black people have no such luxury. Amnesia is a sacrament to some, but it is a deadly conceit, better not indulged by others.” So yes, Trumpism is perhaps a more extreme iteration of these long standing tendencies. But the fissures were always there, and they had been baked in for a very long time. And it’s important for us to start with that understanding, if we’re going to move forward and create real multiracial, multicultural, pluralistic democracy. We can’t do that on an edifice of falsehood and naivete, we can’t build that structure on the basis of lies, we have to be honest about ourselves if we’re going to become what we’re capable of becoming. That’s true, not only for nations, it’s true for individuals. We all know that, I don’t know about you, I’ve been in therapy for a couple of years, my therapist told me I should tell you that because it’s therapeutic apparently.
And in therapy, one of the things you learn, if you’re not truthful about yourself, if you’re not willing to be honest about your damage, you will never fix your damage, you will never get better, you will never be able to become the person that you’re trying to become. If that’s true for individuals seeking their own personal redemption, it’s true for nations and cultures seeking ours. But we don’t believe in the truth. We alight it at every turn.
And so we act as though these moments, George Floyd, Katrina, the election of Trump, Charlottesville in 2017, 400,000 people dead from an eminently preventable form of mass death had we responded differently as a society. When those things happen, so oftentimes, we act as though it’s this failure. The system is failing. You’ll hear that, people will say, “Well, the schools are failing. Well, the justice system is failing. Well, the job market is failing certain people.” It’s this rhetoric.
Even after Katrina, this happened. Spike Lee, who I have a lot of respect for as a filmmaker made this great film when the levees broke, fantastic film, but there’s one scene in there where Spike himself is actually being interviewed. It was an interview that he did at the time of the flooding in 2005. And he says something along the lines of, “What happened in New Orleans with Katrina is a system failure of monumental proportions.” And I remember when he said that, thinking that for the first time, I didn’t agree with Spike Lee about something because when he said it was a system failure, you see, I’d spent 10 years in that city. And I’d spent the previous two years, and actually I had been gone for nine. But I’d spent the last two years of the time that I was there living in the very neighborhoods that were most emptied out, and hit hardest by the floodwaters.
So when you say that the system had failed the people of New Orleans, your assumption is that the system was constructed with them in mind in the first place. The only way it could be a system failure, you see, is if you believe that the system was constructed for the purpose of benefiting poor and working class Black people. And if you believe that, you haven’t spent very much time in New Orleans. Because the system was never constructed for their benefit at all. And so if a system isn’t constructed for your benefit, and it proceeds not to serve your interest, is that system failure? Or is that system success? See, to me, that is the system doing exactly what it was intended to do, to take care of some and to hell with the rest, and especially if they’re the wrong color and the wrong class, and especially the wrong color and class.
And so it wasn’t a system failure. We have to change the way we think about these things, the system failing, and that’s why we have such inequality. That’s why we have such vast disparities of wealth. That’s why we have such disparities in educational outcomes or the criminal justice system. But that’s not true. It’s not because of a system failure. This is the system that we were given and that we have inherited and it was done deliberately from the beginning, the very first law that the Congress passed after the Constitution was ratified, before they did anything else. Before they tried to raise money, before they tried to do anything. The very first thing they did was pass the Naturalization Act of 1790. First thing on the books. And what did it say? It was so important to get this done first, you see, there was a reason it was done. For there was a reason it was a priority. And what the Naturalization Act of 1790 said was that all free White persons and only free White persons could be citizens of this country.
So when Richard Spencer and those White nationalists that were marching in Charlottesville, in 2017 on behalf of what they call the White ethnostate, say that that’s what America was intended to be, and the nice, White liberals say no, “That’s not my America,” it may not be yours, but it is the one that was created actually. Richard Spencer’s understanding of history is actually better than most of ours, sadly.
That doesn’t mean that he’s right in terms of the vision of what we ought to be fighting for, because I, for one, don’t much care what the founders thought about what country we ought to have. But he is correct, that that is what they intended, and it is what they created. When Thomas Jefferson wrote those pretty words that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights among these, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It’s not as if as he was moving his quill across the page, he forgot where his bank account came from. It’s not like he forgot that he owned over the course of his life, six or 700 human beings at the time he wrote those words, 200 to 300 of them, it’s not as if that had slipped his mind as he said, all men are created equal. He saw no contradiction in the ownership of other human beings and those pretty words, it was not hypocrisy to him. Because he simply wrote those humans out of humanity.
And so when you say all men are created equal, but these are not men, these are not people, these are not humans, they are not worthy of consideration, you don’t have to square the circle. You don’t have to explain away the contradiction because to you, there is none. That’s really who we are.
When the Dred Scott decision came down, when the Supreme Court handed down that decision in the late 1850s, right before the fracturing of the country into Civil War, you remember one of the things that the court said in Dred Scott was that Blacks had no rights which the White man was bound to respect. And the rationale that they used to issue that horrific declaration was the rationale that the framers by their own words had said very clearly that Black people were not to be citizens and were not to have rights. And so they were using the very language that so many jurists on the right today use, when they say they believe in strict construction and textualism and the framer’s intentionality, that’s exactly what the court did in the Dred Scott decision. From a textualist, literalist, originalist position, the Dred Scott decision was 100% correct.
Now it’s a moral abomination, but legalistically, that interpretation is true. The founders did not intend for Black people to have any rights. So if you’re guided by the notion that we should have the country that the framers intended, the Dred Scott decision makes perfect sense. And the civil rights movement makes none. And the legal decisions that throughout, separate but unequal make none. Brown v. Board makes no sense under a textualist interpretation. Because the founders exactly meant what the court said in Dred Scott they meant. Again, they were much more honest than we are.
Inequality in this country was designed into the structure. It is not a failing of the system. It’s not like, I have this smartphone, most of you probably have one, and when you wake up, sometimes you check your phone and you have a little app store, it’ll show you their updates. You get on your app store and you see, oh, there’s a bug fix. There’s a glitch in that app that you downloaded last week. But we’ve got a patch. And now you just got to download the patch, and everything will be fine. We got a fix for the bug. But see, this is the problem. Inequality is not a bug in the app, it’s designed into the app. It’s a feature. So there’s no update coming, unless you create it. You can’t just download the bug fix or the glitch fix, because it’s not a glitch. It’s built in.
And so one of the things that happened on the 6th that no one could understand, they said, “Well, this just doesn’t make any sense. We know that if these had been Black people storming the Capitol, they would have been shot en masse. This just doesn’t make sense.” But it makes perfect sense. Why weren’t they prepared? This is what the Congress is asking right now. Why was the police, why were they not prepared? Well, history gives you the answer to that. Why would you expect them to be prepared to stop angry White people? That’s never been the purpose of policing. Really, the purpose of policing has always been to guard Whiteness.
And so if the ultimate symbol of old school Whiteness, the President of the United States who appeals to that notion, of making America great again, the way it used to be when it was awesome, then of course, when people storm, the seat of government to defend that vision, there isn’t a perception of threat. Because that’s not what policing and law enforcement was constructed for. And this is not meant as a condemnation of every individual law enforcement officer, I’m talking about the culture of policing. The culture of law enforcement, the institution of law enforcement. I take for granted the idea that there are plenty of truly wonderful people who happen to be cops, just like there are plenty of awesome people who happen to be teachers, but they still do damage to people every day. Because the structures in which they operate are intentionally created to perpetuate inequality and injustice. And when it comes to law enforcement, to over police some and under police others.
And so what we see, in the case of George Floyd, though perhaps an extreme example is not truly aberrant. It’s only extreme in the sense that we got to see the full eight minutes and 46 seconds. But we’ve seen that film before, literally.
And so the question for us now is, how do we confront all of this truth amid this White rage, this backlash at the loss or the diminution of White hegemony? How do we sustain the momentum of this movement that began in the wake of the killing of George Floyd? Because that’s an important question. In the last nine or 10 months, I guess, really eight months, there had been about 10,000 to 12,000, depending on how you count them, racial justice protest demonstrations, rallies, events, the largest sustained racial justice uprising in the history of our country involving some 23 million individuals. And that is an amazing feat, amazing accomplishment, particularly to have been able to do that in the midst of a pandemic. Especially extraordinary.
But how do we sustain that energy? Because it’s like, if you ever have a bonfire, and it burns really, really hot, it tends to consume its fuel source very quickly. If you take one of those drag racing road cars or whatever, that go zero to 100 in four and a half seconds, after you go down the road in one of those, in one of those races, you can’t just hop in that car and then drive down and get some eggs and milk at the market. You got to fix some stuff because it tends to blow some things when you go that fast, that quickly. It’s not intended to do that on a regular basis. The same is true with social movements, you can’t necessarily sustain that energy, and my concern, I think it’s the concern of many, is that the movement burns so fast and so hot for several months, and the energy of that movement burns so hot and so fast we may be, or at least some perceive us to be in a low. I don’t really feel that we are but I worry that others might think we are. You’ll hear people say, “Well, we haven’t had any good… There hasn’t been a protest in six weeks. We haven’t really had any major demonstrations.”
But keep in mind, that when the sit-ins hit Nashville, which is where I live, in February of 1960, after they began on February 1 in Greensboro, by the end of March, they had spread to city after city all across the south. That was the beginning of something or the next step in a longer movement really. And to all of a sudden, eight months after this uprising began, to think to ourselves, “Oh, my God, what’s happening? The energy is slagging, the movement is dying.” That would be like getting to about September or October of 1960, and starting to think the movement was dead. It’s okay. People are still doing the work, the work continues and 90% of the work isn’t going to make the news. 90% of the work is not going to be in the streets. It’s not going to be just protests and rallies and demonstrations. That’s the exciting stuff. That’s the stuff that makes the history books, that’s the stuff that gets the headlines, that’s the stuff that we talk about, even with regard to previous iterations of this movement.
But 90% of it, like the iceberg, 90% of it is beneath the waterline. It’s the stuff that we do in our schools, it’s the stuff that we do in our homes, it’s what we do in our communities. It’s what we do in our churches and synagogues and mosques. It’s what we do in our, and with our neighbors in our communities and in our neighborhoods. Those are the times and the places where most of the work gets done.
So how are we going to sustain this movement and keep the legacy not only of Dr. King on this holiday weekend alive, but also the larger movement for racial justice alive? Well, I don’t think we can do it. In fact, I know we can’t, on the basis of shame or guilt. One of the things that, you heard some from White folks who were starting to discover racial injustice last summer, was there was a lot of what seemed to me like shame that they didn’t know. “Oh, my God, I can’t believe I didn’t know. I feel so bad.” And it was just self flagellation.
It was just beating themselves up for this stuff that the schools didn’t teach them and that their parents didn’t teach them, because their parents weren’t taught in the schools. This ignorance, we’ve come by it, honestly, there’s no reason to beat yourself up not knowing this stuff you weren’t supposed to know. But White folks got very… Because this is part of what privilege does. Privilege says you’re supposed to know everything. You’re supposed to always be on top of stuff. So when you find out the world didn’t work the way that you thought it worked, it knocks you off stride, because, “What do you mean, I don’t really understand the world?”
And so folks got very, I don’t know, self effacing in an unproductive way. Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe it. I feel so bad. Shame and guilt has never liberated a single victim of oppression. So we don’t have time for that. We don’t have time to feel guilty, we don’t have time to feel shame, we have to feel resolved to doing something. And you don’t usually act on the basis of shame and guilt. That’s another thing I learned in therapy. Shame and guilt will kill you. Spiritually and emotionally, if not physically. It eats you alive. We tend to seek absolution for shame and guilt, and the best way to get absolution for our shame and guilt is to turn away from the thing that’s making us feel bad. Well, if we need to be doing this work, we have to turn toward the thing that’s hurting, we can’t turn away from it. But if you’re feeling shame and guilt, you will turn away from it just for self preservation. So we can’t afford that.
But I’ll tell you what else wants to stay in the movement, rage won’t either. Rage won’t either. I understand the outrage at racial injustice, certainly Black folks and Brown folks have felt it a very long time, but they’ll tell you. They’ll tell any White person willing to listen, they know that rage alone is not going to liberate them from White supremacy. You have to have the cool reflection of movement building and strategizing and tactical considerations that rage can’t always allow us to find. And so White folks who get very angry, very quickly about the injustice that we’ve just discovered are also not going to be able to be very good allies or collaborators or co conspirators or whatever term you prefer. It makes no difference to me.
So rage won’t do it, shame won’t do it, charity certainly won’t do it. There were a lot of people in the midst of the uprising who were walking around with signs that said, I don’t know what I’m doing. But I’m here to help. Or I want to help with this problem. And there were companies that came out of the woodwork who’d never done anything in the area of racial justice suddenly wanting to do workshops and talk to their employees about this stuff because they wanted to help. I appreciate the interest all of a sudden, but I do worry about the mentality of helping others with their problem. Because the minute that we as White folks decide that racial injustice is their problem, that is to say Black folks’ problem and Brown folks’ problem, then it becomes just like whatever other cause we give money to every year. Oh, I give $20 to this, and I give $50 to this, and I give $100 to this. And then maybe next year, I find a whole different issue that I care about even more. And now I’m off to work on that.
As long as you think it’s somebody else’s issue, you won’t stay in the fight, you have to understand this is our issue. And if it hadn’t been something that those of us called White had created hundreds of years ago, it wouldn’t now be an issue for Black and Brown folks. So it isn’t enough to say, “I’m here to help you,” or, “I’m here just to follow your leadership.” Yes, you must absolutely listen to Black and Brown peoples and follow Black and Brown leadership, but you have to also be willing to get your hands dirty in this work. Not to save other people, but to save yourself and to save the culture that you claim to love.
And so what this leaves me with, if it’s not shame and guilt, if it’s not rage and if it’s not charity, it leaves me with what the late great Derek Bell, law professor at Harvard, and then at NYU, and one of the founders of critical legal theory, talked about in his writing. He talked about what he called interest convergence. And his argument, which was not always liked during his life, not always understood during his life. One of the things he argued was, if you look at the history of America, the only progress that has really ever been made in this country toward racial justice has happened in those moments where the interest of Black people happen to converge with others, and the interest of the country as a whole. It’s never happened because of a great moral awakening, it just hasn’t.
That doesn’t mean we don’t hope for a great moral awakening, it doesn’t mean that we don’t push for that, but we cannot rely on it. And Derrick Bell was saying, as a Black man, he simply could not cast all of his hope on a White moral awakening about the evils of White supremacy. That was just too big a hope to have. To put all the eggs in that basket seemed a very bad bet.
And so he said, “Look, if you look at the history, when have we made progress?” Emancipation was done not because Abraham Lincoln woke up one day with a great understanding of the equality of all mankind, but because he had to save the union. That was interest convergence. Why did desegregation happen? the Brown v. Board decision, look at the history of that whole movement, and that history of the civil rights struggle. Why did that succeed as much as it did in a relatively short period of time, during the 1950s and the 1960s?
Well, as he documents in his writing, Professor Bell explains that you have to understand the backdrop of what was going on in America at the time that all of these demands were being put forth. What was going on in the background, internationally? Well, we were in the middle of a cold war with the Soviet Union, a propaganda battle as much as anything else. And this was also the very moment where the colonial world, the colonized nations and peoples of the world were coming out from under the heel of colonialism, throwing off the shackles of colonialism and gaining independence. And these were nations where? In Africa and in Asia, these were peoples of color in quote unquote, non White parts of the globe, coming out from under the heel of imperialism and colonialism, looking around for a model to follow, who were they going to follow? Is it going to be the western capitalistic, quote unquote, democratic path? Is it going to be the eastern Soviet socialist or communist model? In the midst of that propaganda battle, it does not pay very well for you to be oppressing people who look just like the people you’re trying to convince to follow your model.
And so as Professor Bell explained, in that moment, the civil rights movement, both in a legal sense and in a movement sense was more effective, because the country needed to have those reforms in order to put on a pretty face to the world. You’re not going to be able to convince those nations in Africa and those nations in Asia to follow your model and to become part of your orbit of influence if you have your heel on the neck, your boot on the neck of people who look just like them. He didn’t mean to be completely cynical with that argument, by the way. He wasn’t suggesting that there hadn’t been real progress. He accepted that there had been real progress. He was simply saying, every time we see it happen, it’s because of a larger national interest, including the interest of White people. “It’s never been enough for us as Black people,” he said, “to be in pain.”
Now, we might not like to hear that, we might like to believe that people are capable of doing the right thing for the right reason. And some are. Some people who certainly joined the movement, joined it for that reason. Because of the moral vision that it inspired. But that was always a minority of Americans. Let’s remember that all throughout the course of Dr. King’s life, we may view him as a secular saint now, but he was hated and he was hunted all of his professional life. And when he died in 1968, there were just as many people in a poll that was taken shortly after his death who said he had brought it on himself, as said that it had been a great loss for the country.
At no point was he popular. At no point was he loved. It’s easy to love a man who’s been dead for decades, because he doesn’t rise out of the grave to correct your misunderstanding of him. So we can graft our own interpretations of him onto him. But at the time, he was hated. The only reason that that movement was successful, yes, there was genius among he and his organizers, there was strategic brilliance. But what they really understood most was the appeal to this America, this American mythos of who we wanted to be, and who we weren’t yet, what better way to appeal to that notion of interest convergence, but to use that rhetoric? That was the rhetorical genius of the movement, to appeal to that very notion of interest convergence at a time of intense global propaganda between East and West. That’s one of the key reasons why they were able to be successful.
And so we in our own moment, and in our own time, have to look for those moments of interest convergence and see where we can find them. Because I for one, I’m not really ready to put all my eggs in the basket of moral revolution, at least not yet, and I don’t think Black and Brown folks have the luxury of waiting for that either.
And so where is the interest convergence in 2021? Well, look around. We have 400,000 people dead as a result of COVID-19. About 220,000 of those are White and the other 180,000, approximately are Black and Brown, of course, disproportionately, Black and Brown death, the mortality rates were two and a half to three and a half times higher for Black and Brown folks, Indigenous people and Black folks in particular. And in certain communities, Latinx folks as well, very high, disproportionate rates of mortality.
400,000 dead. 220,000, approximately of those are White. Now, why did this happen? How did this happen? See, it’s easy to just put it on the plate of the president. And he certainly has his part of the blame and should be assigned it. But that’s not all that happened here. It’s a much deeper cultural problem at its root than that. Because the only way that a nation allows 400,000 people to die, rather than do the right thing to keep them alive, rather than do the thing that so many other countries did. Nations like Denmark that literally shut down their economy and just paid people to stay home until the crisis passed, and said, “We’re going to nationalize payrolls, we’re going to take care of this. You’re not going to lose your job, you’re not going to lose your house, we’re going to freeze mortgage payments, we’re going to freeze rents, we’re going to make sure everybody’s got health care, go home.” So it’s not like it wasn’t feasible. It’s not like there wasn’t an alternative here. But see, America can’t do that. America can’t guarantee people’s income and can’t guarantee people’s health care and can’t guarantee people paid leave. And why not?
Well, because we, A, have this society that believes in this rugged individualism myth, yes. And so we tend to bristle at the thought of state intervention on behalf of those that need. But why do we do that? One of the principal reasons we have such a commitment to limited safety nets, one of the reasons that we don’t construct the kind of safety nets that are needed to get people through, not just a pandemic, but just an economic downturn during normal times, is precisely because of the racialization of need in this country. The fact that we look at Black and Brown folks as the ones who quote unquote, take from government and so to have strong safety nets is to do too much for them. In other words, it is our racialized notion of poverty, our racialized notions of welfare, our racialized notions of public, anything. Public health, public education, public income support, nutrition support, housing support, it’s our racialized notions of those things, which results in such a Swiss cheese pattern of safety nets.
And so not only do Black and Brown folks hurt as a result of that, but now 220,000 White folks are dead, too. Because we as a country don’t believe in doing what was necessary to keep them alive. And the reason we don’t is because we’ve decided that when the government intervenes to help people, it helps the undeserving and they look like that. So in other words, racism, the racialized notion of those who were in need has actually limited the help that even White folks need. Interest convergence.
When you create a society on the basis of the notion that there’s a human hierarchy of value, with some people more valuable than others, you might think that you can contain that mentality in that little container that you put it in, and that container is marked White supremacy. And so you construct a society on the basis of the idea that Black life really doesn’t matter. And that Indigenous life really doesn’t matter. That folks of color really don’t matter, at least not as much as White folks, but that container leaks. And if you allow a society to be constructed on the basis of the idea that some life is more valuable than other life, don’t be surprised when it comes back to bite you.
And when all of a sudden we have people saying things, as they have, during this pandemic like this, you’ve heard this said, “Well, I mean, I know lots of people are dying, but I mean, they were old. I mean, they were like 80.” Like Ben Shapiro, who supposedly is the smart one on that side, actually said during the height of the pandemic, he said, “Well, I mean, it’s different if an 81 year old dies of COVID as opposed to a 30 year old. You know what I mean? It’s sad, but I mean, average life expectancy is just 80 anyway, so what are you going to do?”
So once you construct a society that says some life is more valuable than other life, it isn’t just White folk over Black and Brown folk, now it’s young over old. And now it’s healthy over non healthy. Because that’s the other thing people say, “Well, they had a preexisting condition. I mean, they weren’t healthy, were they? I mean, they had diabetes or high blood pressure, they were overweight, they had asthma.” I mean, what does that even mean? 40% of the American public have one of those things that I just mentioned. And when you add some of the other pre existing conditions that put you at high risk for COVID, it’s over half of the American public. So what does it even mean to say, “Well, they were sick anyway.”? Here’s what it means, we live in a society that doesn’t value the lives of the ill. That’s ableism.
So now we’re not just talking about racism and agism, we’re talking about ableism as well. That says these lives are not as valuable as these other lives. Now, if you want to know why we don’t have universal health care, that truly is universal and affordable for all, that’s why. Because bottom line, we don’t really believe in covering sick people and taking care of sick people. As a society, we reject the idea that we have any obligation to be our brother’s keeper, so to speak. And part of the reason that we reject that notion is because we don’t see everybody as our brother.
And so when you create that hierarchy of human value, that taxonomy of humanity, eventually it will come back to get you, because here’s the irony, if we live long enough, all of us are going to be in a high risk group. You live long enough, everybody’s going to end up in a high risk group, either on the basis of age or infirmity, at which point apparently, some folks are ready to put you in the morgue. Because your life doesn’t matter. That’s interest convergence. This is why we have to reject this mentality of White supremacy. Because the mentality of White supremacy then feeds the system of classism and it feeds the system of ableism, and it feeds the system of agism. It allows us to divide and to sub divide humanity into the blessed and the damned. And eventually, it touches all of us.
So when Derek Bell said the only progress we’ve had, had been in moments of interest convergence, he passed, of course, before the current pandemic, but this pandemic tells us what he was saying is true. This is our opportunity. This has been a horrible tragedy. And it’s hard to even think in terms of trying to teach something positive out of a horrific pandemic like this. But now that we have lost 400,000 lives and God knows how many more we’ll lose before it’s over with, let’s at least try to redeem them. And let’s at least try to learn something from it and to move forward with an understanding of how inequality doesn’t serve any of us. Yes, some people may be its first victims and maybe its intended victims, but the rot will spread.
This is why we have an opioid crisis in rural White America, because we didn’t care about the crack epidemic, and we didn’t care about the first opioid crisis heroin in the 1970s because those things were disproportionately ravaging Black and Brown communities. And what did we do? We said, “We don’t need rehabilitation, we don’t need treatment, we don’t need drug education. What we need are jail cells, lock them up.” And the very same people whose little cousin, Jimmy, John or whatever, is now strung out on fentanyl or heroin or whatever it is or Oxy. And they can’t find rehab and they can’t find treatment. And they’ve had to bury family members and entire communities are dying because of this thing. Those are the same people that voted for the politicians who locked the folks away when they were Black and Brown for doing drugs, now they want to know why there’s no rehab. There’s no rehab because you voted for people who didn’t believe in it because you didn’t believe in it. Now you need it. Interest convergence.
A friend of mine, Jonathan Metzl, who’s a professor at Vanderbilt, down the road from where I live in Nashville did a book a few years ago called Dying of Whiteness. I highly recommend it. He went out and spoke with White folks in Tennessee and Missouri and Kansas. And he was asking all kinds of questions about health care and schools and guns mostly. He was just curious about some things. He was talking to this group of White men who were living in subsidized housing in Franklin, Tennessee, which is just 15, 20 minutes down the road from Nashville. So all White group of men living in Section 8 public housing. And this one White guy, about 40 years old, 41, who is dying of liver failure, horrible, horrible health, but didn’t have health care. And Jonathan was talking to him about that and he said, “Why don’t you get on Obamacare? Why didn’t you sign up for that? Or why did you get on that?” And his response was that he would rather die than go on Obamacare, because that’s for welfare cheats and illegal immigrants. He’s now dead. Because he would rather die than be associated with those people. You see. Whose interest is that serving?
You have White folks who are literally willing to die, rather than to lose their caste status. We talk a lot about class status, but this is caste status. This is the ability, and Isabel Wilkerson talks about this in her new book, which is also a brilliant volume you should read, I mean, this idea that Whiteness is this thing that we cling to at all costs, even when it’s killing us as it did that man who would have been better off joining in solidarity with Black and Brown folks to push for better health care for everybody. But no, he’d rather die, now he did.
Then Metzl went and talked to folks in Missouri about guns. And he was talking to people that were at bereavement meetings where they had lost loved ones to suicide. I don’t know if you know this, but 80% of all gun suicides in this country are committed by White men. And when he was talking to these White people about their cousin, or their uncle, or their father, or whoever it was, their son that had killed themselves, and talking about their attachment to guns and gun culture and talking about the fact that in Missouri, there had been a big huge bump in gun sales after Ferguson. Why? Because all these White folks out in the suburbs and in the small towns, were worried that Black folk were going to come up from Florissant Ave and attack them in their home. “So I got to get a gun, I got to get some guns to protect me. That’s why we’re buying all these guns because there’s going to be a home invasion.” And you know who’s going to do it, you know who’s going to do it.
But there was no spike in home invasions, and they weren’t using their guns to ward off intruders. They were using their guns to kill themselves. There was a huge spike in suicides after this huge spike in gun purchases, not self defense usage, but self destruction usage. And so our racialized notions of fear. And the playing upon those racialized fears is now contributing to a suicide crisis, because it leads to this huge upsurge in gun availability, gun ownership and gun usage. But not against the other, against one self. Interest convergence.
So we have to be thinking in that way. And there’s one more thing we have to do, and this is in all of our interests as well, because right now, as we clearly so misunderstand our country and it’s one of the reasons we’re shocked, as I said, whenever something else bad happens, it’s very obvious, we have to do a far better job in our schools. And I worry that right now, you hear a lot of people talk about, STEM education. Science, technology, engineering, and math. All of that’s very important. I’m glad that there are people who study STEM subjects, I was not one of those people. So I’m glad others do it. I like my bridges to stay up. I don’t understand aviation, but I do fly fairly regularly. So I’m glad it works. And I’m glad that folks know how to keep a plane in the air.
So we need STEM, but let me suggest to you, I worry about a country that places so much emphasis on STEM and so little emphasis on understanding how to maintain multicultural, pluralistic democracy. So little emphasis on civics education, so little emphasis on what I call MESH subjects. M for media literacy, E for ethics, S for sociology and H for history. Because if we don’t do those things with our young people, if we don’t teach young people, and honestly, sometimes young people are better at it than older folks, if we don’t have our young folks learning from an early age how to discern truth from fiction in media, and I don’t just mean political media, I mean, commercial product media, the way that they’re being sold every single day product after product, told that this is the product that’s going to make you happy, just like so many other generations have, but then also political messaging based often, so often rooted in misinformation. If we don’t teach that, if we don’t actually have young people confronting ethical dilemmas in school at an early age, how are they going to resolve some of the conflicts that we currently have?
Normally, you never really study ethics, unless maybe it’s in a Sunday school class, or maybe you’re a philosophy major or something. But most people don’t ever really talk about that. But think about the ethical dilemmas that we’re confronted with every day. This pandemic has confronted us with one, how do we balance the needs of public health with the needs of the economy? That’s an ethical discussion. And it’s a discussion that young people need to be engaged in, but if we just have them learning how to code, because that’s the jobs of the future. It might or might not be the jobs of the future, but there will be no future in which to have a job if our country doesn’t survive as the multicultural, multiracial, pluralistic democracy it was intended to be.
And so we have to learn that. We have to learn the S for sociology. What is sociology? It’s the study of organization and human groups and power dynamics between them. It explains why things are the way they are. Because children are curious. They look around, they can see inequality, they can see it with their own eyes. You don’t have to be an anthropologist or a sociologist to see it, you just have to be awake. And if you see inequality, but you haven’t been given the sociological imagination to understand why it is the way it is, why these folks live over there and these folks live over here. Why these folks go to that school and these folks go to that school. Why these kind of people work this kind of job and these kind of people work this. If you don’t have the sociological imagination to understand what you’re seeing, you will default to the national ethos, which is what?
Our mythology as a country is this notion of rugged individualism that says, well, anybody can make it if they try. The notion of meritocracy. Well, if I say anyone can make it if they try, and then I look around, and I see some folk definitely not making it, and they disproportionately happen to be Black and Brown, it becomes very logical, doesn’t it? To assume that they just must be inferior. All of a sudden racism becomes a default position. I don’t have to have a bigot for a father or a mother to teach me that stuff. All I got to do is pay attention to what the culture told me. That you get out what you put in. So if you didn’t get out what you wanted to get out, you must not have worked hard enough. You must not have the right values, you must have made bad decisions. You must have bad culture, bad DNA, bad mama, bad whatever.
And so you have to have the sociological imagination or else you’ll fall into that. Not just racism, but sexism as well, because you’ll rationalize gender inequity. Classism, because you’ll rationalize socio economic injustice, including that which affects the White poor too. And so the S becomes necessary.
And God knows the H for history. We still live in a country where more people, I gather, still believe that George Washington chopped down a cherry tree as a child but told his daddy, because he was just so gosh, darn honest. We still teach that I gather. People still know that story. But it’s of course entirely concocted, it didn’t happen. George Washington may or may not have cut down a cherry tree, but he certainly didn’t go running to tell his father out of a feeling of moral compunction. But we’re more likely to know about that than the fact that George Washington was a particularly depraved owner of other human beings, who used to hunt down the people that ran away from his plantation. And offer money for anyone that would drag them back violently. That’s a much more important story than the cherry tree story. But we like that history. We like the history that makes us feel better, the history that is, as Baldwin said allows us to remember ourselves as innocent. But as he made it very clear about White folks and we need to recognize it to be true today. “These innocent people,” Baldwin said, “are trapped in a history they do not understand. And until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.”
Thank you all so very much for having me here today. I appreciate your time.