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As America is enveloped in the most expansive protests and uprisings that the nation has experienced since the 1960s, one central reality revealed is the divided state of white people in this country. It is a division that calls into question the future of this nation.
Since its founding, there have been divergent ways of practicing whiteness in the United States. Whiteness does not determine one’s ideological position or political commitments — these are personal choices.
At the same time that many white people advocated a theory of Black inferiority — that those brought from the shores of Africa and bred on the soil of this nation were 3/5 of a human being, thus treated as livestock and enslaved — there were other white people who were abolitionists and rejected this horrific national founding principle. At the same time as the former Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court Roger B. Taney compared Black people to animals, stating we were not a part of the human family and “so far inferior” that we had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” John Brown led an armed revolt to free human beings in bondage. The segregationist ideology of the 20th century was countered by Black revolt, organizing and litigation — and white allies stood with us. As government policies excluded Black people from protection and restricted Black access to wealth, housing and benefits — limiting the development of Black capital — a multiethnic labor movement was born, some of whose members and leaders, many of whom were socialists, worked for labor protections that benefited all.
As protest continue to sweep the nation, we are confronted with several manifestations of whiteness.
Donald Trump ran a campaign based on white nationalism and racism. Using the language of demonization of immigrants, Latinos, Black people and Muslims; he celebrated anti-Semitic and anti-Black protests in Virginia and has appealed to a white nationalist viewpoint at every turn. There are white nationalist and white supremacist elements — joining the protests across the nation, seeking to keep their involvement clandestine as they further a goal of destruction and racial conflict — fermenting violence, burning and looting, as they believe this will help Trump in his election.
There are white elected officials, many who identify as Democrats — some even claim to be progressive — who have governed for their entire terms with a deadly form of politics that has resulted in a racist carceral state, imprisoning over 2 million in this nation — most held in state, and city jails and prisons — a number that can be achieved only through racially disparate policing. These elected officials have refused to stand up to police brutality all the while supporting militarized policing, grossly inflated police budgets, and supporting the use of policing as a response to socio-economic conditions — and now act surprised that police are brutalizing people in their states and in their cities around this nation. They created, funded and defended a system of police brutality.
Another group of white people, mostly young and self described as radical, have joined the protests and feel that through their actions, they are standing with us. Many are, but some of them are engaging in burning, looting and destroying — their own white privilege blinding them to the fact that they are protected by the very cloak of whiteness they claim to reject. Their actions will reverberate on us, the Black people to whom they claim allegiance. Black organizers across the nation have been confronting these often misguided white youth by telling them this will not be done in our name. For we know well that as the stories are being written on burning and looting, it is Black faces being shown as the sole authors of these actions. When police departments are further militarized, it will be our communities that are suffocated. The wealth of America was created from looting — human beings looted from Africa, this land looted from those already here, the greatest economic power ever created built on the backs of looted labor. But, in America, the face of looting disseminated by the media and written into most history books is Black.
Yet, one of the beautiful aspects of these protests has been the diversity of those marching. Across the nation, white allies have marched and organized with us — they too enraged by racism and white supremacy, they too demanding that this nation finally confront its horrific history and its continuing vicious present. This group of white people are our allies — those who know that this nation will no longer be theirs alone, that no matter who is elected president, that no matter how many acts of state sanctioned murder occur, this nation is ours, together, and that we will have a say in what this nation must look like. They know as well that they must lose some of the protection of their whiteness for us as Black people to be fully protected.
The long, constantly growing list of Black lives taken — this exhausting, debilitating and rage-inducing list of names that has spanned generations — has brought us into the streets across this nation. Eric Garner’s last words were “I can’t breathe.” George Floyd’s last words were “I can’t breathe.” When I asked my father once what it was like to grow up in the 1940s and 1950s in southern segregation, a legally state sanctioned and implemented racial caste system, he replied, “It was like your dreams and opportunities were suffocated. It wasn’t one act – but just a heavy weight all the time, always present, constricting you.” It is the very air of America that we protest — it is everywhere. If we do not finally confront whiteness in America, it will suffocate the nation.
Khary Lazarre-White is a writer, the author of the novel Passage, and co-founder and Executive Director of the The Brotherhood/Sister Sol, a social justice youth development organization.