A little over a year ago, Ta-Nehisi Coates surprised himself (and everyone else) when he told Ezra Klein that he had become uncharacteristically hopeful. Coates initially referred to his father's experience in Baltimore during the 1968 riots.
The idea that black folks in their struggle against the way the law is enforced in their neighborhoods would resonate with white folks in Des Moines, Iowa, in Salt Lake City, in Berlin, in London — that was unfathomable to him in ’68, when it was mostly black folks in their own communities registering their great anger and great pain.
I don’t want to overstate this, but there are significant swaths of people and communities that are not black, that to some extent have some perception of what that pain and that suffering is. I think that’s different.
The murder of George Floyd by police officers didn't just ignite the Black community. White people all over this country (and around the world) rose up to protest yet another example of injustice. That inspired hope - even for a pessimist like Coates.
But as has always been the case, that turn of events also inspired a backlash. The protesters (who were almost exclusively peaceful) were called "thugs" and referred to as "violent." Then came a right wing obsession with so-called "cancel culture" and attacks on the NYT's 1619 Project. As Ibram Kendi noted, all of that eventually came together in an obsession with critical race theory.
And now the Black Lives Matter demonstrators, cancel culture, the 1619 Project, American history, and anti-racist education are presented to the public as the many legs of the “monstrous evil” of critical race theory that’s purportedly coming to harm white children. The language echoes the rhetoric used to demonize desegregation after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, in 1954.
That is the context in which you should read a piece by Elie Mystal titled "My Black Generation Is Fighting Like Hell to Stop the Whitelash." He sums up both the good and bad news.
My Black generation is doing everything we can think of to stop this. Our activists have used every tool available to start entire movements, like Black Lives Matter, to halt this onslaught of white rage. Our thinkers and writers are on fire: People like Nikole Hannah-Jones, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Michelle Alexander, and so many others, are producing the works that leave the white supremacists so unable to compete in the marketplace of ideas that their only resort is to try to ban these Black intellectuals from the marketplace. Black voting power is so strong and energized that white Republicans have decided to turn their backs on democracy all together. We are fighting. But we are also losing, primarily because the mass of white Americans has become inured to shame.
That takes me back to what inspired Coates to feel hopeful last summer...the commitment of white people to the cause of equality.
Several years ago a friend of mine who went by the name Robinswing wrote a blog post titled "We Cant' Fix Ya!" The point she made has stuck with me for a long time.
The blackwoman has been thinking it might be time to seek out some solutions for eliminating racism. A more difficult project than I imagined.
Race is a problem for white people to solve. If black people or brown people could have made racism go away it would have long since disappeared back into the nothing-ness from which it came.
Nah, it’s on white folks to make the necessary moves to kill and bury, once and for all, the notion of race. I think in a generation or two this just might happen...We took what we could get...
White people have to come up with the solution to racism. Some of these folk are family. Some are neighbors. Some are friends. Talk to them. Don’t let them get away with the stereotypes. Challenge them on privilege. Point out that as long as this privilege exists, racism has a home.
If all else fails, remind them that they are soon to be the minority and that karma is a bitch.
The first civil rights battle in this country ended slavery. The second eliminated laws that enshrined inequality. As Robinswing suggested, the next step is going to require white people to listen, learn, and change. This might be the hardest step of all because a major part of white privilege is the assumption that our experience is normative, so we already know it all.
We are at this point because, as Mystal wrote, the Civil Rights laws of the 60's opened the doors of opportunity and his generation took full advantage. We even elected this country's first African American president and now have a woman of color as vice president. In pretty much every field imaginable, Black people are succeeding. That sets off something Jonathan Chait wrote in response to the movie 12 Years a Slave (emphasis mine).
Notably, the most horrific torture depicted in 12 Years a Slave is set in motion when the protagonist, Solomon Northup, offers up to his master engineering knowledge he acquired as a free man, thereby showing up his enraged white overseer. It was precisely Northup’s calm, dignified competence in the scene that so enraged his oppressor. The social system embedded within slavery as depicted in the film is one that survived long past the Emancipation Proclamation – the one that resulted in the murder of Emmett Till a century after Northup published his autobiography. It’s a system in which the most unforgivable crime was for an African-American to presume himself an equal to — or, heaven forbid, better than — a white person.
So when you see right wingers frothing at the mouth about things like critical race theory in an attempt to shut down the movement that began after the murder of George Floyd, remember that those folks are scarred shitless of the fact that a majority of people in this country might take the next step in realizing the promise of equality at the heart of our founding ideals. They're doing anything and everything they can to shut that whole thing down. Are we going to let them get away with that?