Finding Your Position
Finding Your Position on the Racialized Battlefield: A Brief Examination of Racism, Silence, Fragility, Resistance, and Justice
Through unimaginable pain, grief, and disbelief she said, “My darling, my darling, I would have gone through a world of fire to get you.” “My darling, my darling, I know I was on your mind when you died” (p. 68). As captured in The Blood of Emmett Till (2017), these are just a few of the chilling words uttered by Mamie Till, as the body of her son arrived in a box from Mississippi to the Chicago twelfth street train station. Undertaker Chester Miller of the Century Burial Association in Greenwood said, “The crown of his head was just crushed out and in, and a piece of his skull just fell out there in the boat, maybe three inches long [and] maybe two and a half inches wide, something like that” (p. 64). Additionally “there was a hole perhaps half an inch square above the right ear, which Miller assumed was a bullet hole” (p. 64).
As Mamie Till prepared herself to view the body, she noted that he did not appear human, “But she recoiled in horror from the realization that ‘this body had once been my son.’ She held herself closely in check, trying hard to ‘steel [herself] like a forensic doctor’” (p. 71). “There were noticeable scars on the body, but the huge tongue seemed choked from his mouth. His right eyeball rested on his cheek, hanging by the optic nerve, and the left eye was gone altogether. The bridge of his nose seemed to have been chopped off with a meat cleaver, and the top of his head was split from ear to ear” (p.71). From 1619 (Jamestown, Virginia) through 2018, an American racialized timeline can be constructed, illustrating the force and machinery behind uninterrupted acts of white institutional racism that have yet to end.
Bloody Historical American Violence & Sexual Paranoia
The tragedy and dreadfulness of the Emmett Till brutality and lynching is an ever-present reminder of the vitriolic hatred white America incessantly launched toward Black America. The seething vibrations are still embedded within the textile of America. The 2017 work of Timothy B. Tyson, The Blood of Emmett Till, captivates and reminds America of our ugly past and currently crippled racialized reality. Emmett Till did not first encounter racism, bigoted hate, and violence in the South; it was present in Chicago long before his uncle convinced his mother to let him spend some of his 1955 summer days in Money, Mississippi.
The Blood of Emmett Till exposes and describes the deadly Jim Crow racist white mob violence that ruled the city of Chicago as early as 1910 and through the civil rights era. On July 27, 1919, seventeen-year-old Eugene Williams ended up in the segregated white waters of Lake Michigan. As a consequence, a white man launched rocks at him, striking him in the head, causing him to drown. As reported by Tyson (2017), instead of arresting the white man, police arrested “a black bystander who objected to their inaction” (p. 17). As if that was not enough “…carloads of white gunmen raced through the African American neighborhoods, spraying bullets. Black snipers returned fire. Mobs of both races roamed the streets, stoning, beating, and stabbing their victims. The riot raged for five days in that notorious Red Summer of 1919; police shot down seven African Americans, white mobs killed sixteen more, and black mobs killed fifteen whites” (p. 17).
The reality is, this was not a city in Mississippi; it was Chicago. Such episodes are often discussed as if they only occurred as a southern phenomenon. As depicted by Carol Anderson in White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (2016), what is at work in this American debacle is that the “Trigger for white rage, inevitably, is black advancement. It is not the mere presence of black people that is the problem; rather, it is blackness with ambition, with drive, with purpose, with aspiration, and with demands for full citizenship” (p. 3). So as we juxtapose the synergistic nexus of White Rage with The Blood of Emmett Till, we collide with the hard truth of the lingering racist psychology of white supremacy in America. The threat of Black freedom and liberation (educationally, the right to vote, and desegregation) ignited an outrageous fear in whiteness from the South to the North. Some have postulated that the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling set the climate and stage for the lynching of Emmett Till. The white venom was so toxic and misguided, it developed into a neurotic fixation over the perceived possibility of interracial sex. Desegregation was viewed through a lens of sexual engagement, thus the white male power structure was going to do and did all it could to prevent a concocted white innocence from being exposed to Black sexuality.
Thomas Pickens Brady, a racist Mississippi Circuit Court Judge, wrote the hate-filled piece entitled Black Monday, his deep dissent toward desegregation and the Brown v. Board of Education ruling. This speech was published as Black Monday: Segregation or Amalgamation. America Has Its Choice. This scathing lecture and publication capture the sentiment of a white innocence and a deep paranoia toward Black sexuality. In protection of white women and girls, Tyson labels the actus reus of Judge Brady as the result of his “pornographic political imagination” (p. 93). He said the white woman is “The loveliest and purest of God’s creatures, the nearest thing to an angelic being that treads this celestial ball of well-bred, cultured Southern white woman or her blue-eye, golden-haired little girl” (p.93).
There was a fright that Black boys would sexually harass, molest, and assault white girls. Judge Brady said in another version of Black Monday, “School integration is the first step toward racial intermarriage…” “Wherever white men infused their blood with the Negroes, white intellect and white culture perished. It happened tragically in Egypt, Babylon, Greece, Rome, India, Spain, and Portugal” (p. 96). In subtle ways, this racial psychology is still at work as manifested through white flight when Black families move into white neighborhoods, enroll in mostly white schools, link to predominantly white churches, etc.
Chicago Violence in Perspective & the Mississippi Nexus
Not only did the thought of interracial sexual relationships disturb white America, it was acted out with vehement viciousness. This was true in Mississippi and a reality in Chicago. We cannot critique current Chicago violence without investigating and exposing inherent and historical white Chicago violence. In addition to the Red Summer of 1919, violence continued to grow during twentieth-century decades. As reported by Tyson from a Mississippi NAACP investigative report, on October 12, 1942, Charlie Lang and Ernest Green (both 14), were found playing with a white girl and were arrested and charged with rape. “A mob seized them from the jail in Quitman, cut off the boys’ penises, and pulled chunks of flesh from their bodies with pliers. One of the boys had a screwdriver shoved down his throat until it protruded from his neck. The mob then hanged the boys from the bridge, a traditional lynching site in Clarke County” (p. 69).
Mississippi racism and that of the South is not Southern history, it is American history. Every region within this American assimilation project can opine its shameful stories, couched under the conditions and structures of white supremacy. After the 1919 bloodshed in Chicago, territorial conflicts intensified and continual efforts were mustered aggressively and politically to keep the African diaspora away from whiteness. The Southside became Black and the North Side white. Tyson reported that:
“…Racially motivated residential bombings were one preferred method in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In 1949 a mob of two thousand whites attacked a small apartment building in Park Manor, a white neighborhood on the South Side, after a black couple had purchased the building. Violence flared again in 1951, when five thousand whites spent several days firebombing and looting a building in a suburban Cicero after the owners rented a single unit to a black family” (pp. 19-20).
Current Chicago violence cannot be divorced from the conditions of terror created in the early to middle nineteenth century. “In 1954 the Chicago Housing Authority acknowledged that ‘bombings are a nightly’ occurrence where African American families had moved into neighborhoods that white people regarded as their own” (Tyson, p. 20). Additionally, The Blood of Emmett Till captures that, “In 1948 the Chicago Urban League reported that 375,000 Black residents of the South Side lived in an area that could legally accommodate 110,000. The overpopulation led to abysmal sanitary and health conditions, and many of the buildings were firetraps” (p. 20).
The brutality and torture of Emmett Till was the foaming indignation that filled many white hearts and souls during the Reconstruction era. It was another wave and layer of violence that traced its American DNA through a Rebel Confederacy. Anderson (2016) points out in White Rage, as exposed by Carl Schurz in his Southern travels, “African American women who had been ‘scalped,’ had their ‘ears cut off,’ or had been thrown into a river and drowned amid chants for them to swim to the ‘damned Yankees.’ Young black boys and men were routinely stabbed, clubbed, and shot. Some were even ‘chained to a tree and burned to death’” (p. 17). He continued to report regarding his journeying that there was a, “sickening unbearable stench of decomposing black bodies hanging from limbs, rotting in ditches, and clogging the roadways” (p. 17). White violence has always been the plaguing leaven of America. Why is historical whiteness obsessed with an ethos of Eurocentric hegemony and structural/racial dominance? This question requires critical attention and examination.
As explained by Manning Marable in the introduction to Darkwater: Voices From Within The Veil, “Du Bois demands freedom for the Negro: ‘freedom from insult, from segregation, from poverty and physical slavery, and if the attitude of the European and American worlds is in the future going to be based essentially upon the same policies as in the past, then there is but one thing for the trained man of darker blood to do, and that is definitely, and as openly as possible, to organize his world for war against Europe’” (p. vii). We find ourselves in a perplexing condition when statements almost one hundred years old are still relevant in the twenty-first century. The fight is not against Europe or white people; it is against the spirit of white supremacy and Eurocentric imperialism.
Since there are those who seek to establish a post-racial colorblind ideology, manifesting a disposition that claims colorized discrimination is a thing of America’s past, we must pose the question: In what year and month did racism and white supremacy end in America? Recovery from racialized assaults cannot commence while such attacks are still at play. Some make the calculated mistake of attempting to muddy the waters by retreating and deflecting when they hear the term white supremacy. To that end, many people emotionally and psychologically shut down at the concept. In part, it is because the simple hearing of the term conjures the imagery of skinheads, Neo-Nazi groups, swastikas, and Klansmen in white hoods. The aforementioned is the essence of confusing a white supremacist with the invisible tone, spirit, and institution of white supremacy. The obscure structure of white supremacy and whiteness makes it possible for a white supremacist to have a protected platform. A person does not have to be racist to benefit from white supremacy racism and a person does not have to be white to occasionally partake in the profits of whiteness. Dr. Joyce DeGruy said in Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing (2005), “We need to tell our children the truth and prepare them to thrive in the real America. We need to replace America’s racist socialization with racial socialization” (p. 193). Without explicitly engaging in anti-racist actions, critical dialogue, critique, educational praxis, and organizing—racist socialization remains firmly positioned as the unspoken standard practice.
The Black violence in Chicago is often analyzed myopically and through a lens of racist socialization. Yet, when we investigate the depths of white violence and the division that resulted in the current population of a segregated Chicago, we can make the claim that it is the essence of acting white and historically learned behaviors. As depicted in White Rage and the resulting combustions of Ferguson and the Michael Brown killing, “With so much attention focused on the flames, everyone had ignored the logs, the kindling. In some ways, it is easy to see why. White rage is not about visible violence, but rather it works its way through the courts, the legislatures, and a range of government bureaucracies. It wreaks havoc subtly, almost imperceptibly” (p. 3). With Neo-Nazi and Alt-right groups revived and emboldened, we have returned to the days where white violence was on aggressive display, both physically and judicially. One does not have to return to the epoch of Jim Crow to dream about the road they would have traveled; we are still in the same struggle today as Emmitt Till in the 1950s. Everyone must find their position in this battle for social and racial justice. Positions must be established and determined educationally, legally, environmentally, religiously, economically, and more.
Silence, White Fragility, & the Role of White Supremacy
American silence in the presence of blatant bias, discrimination, oppression, and racism remains deeply perplexing. African American people, regardless of political affiliation, voted Barack Obama into office and then found healthy ways to critique his policies and governance. Despite Black love for President Obama, it did not transcend into a form of African American silence, blindness, or denial. To this very day, the African American community offers a critique of the Obama régime, yet maintaining love. However, with President Trump, even before his election, he was hailed by people like Dr. Lance Wallnau in God’s Chaos Candidate: Donald J. Trump and the American Unraveling (2016), as a type of King Cyrus in the Bible. Before his election, he was depicted as a type of anointed white savior, divinely commissioned to liberate America. In reference to President Trump, Wallnau quotes Isaiah 45:1KJV, “Thus saith the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden…” (p. 22). After his election, many white Republicans still refuse to critique the actions and comments of President Trump. Under the construct of whiteness President Obama was unremittingly criticized, but with Trump white silence is practiced and protected.
Shaun King wrote in The Intercept blog, The White Privilege of the “Lone Wolf” Shooter (10/2/17):
“Just consider President Donald Trump. This morning, Trump tweeted, ‘My warmest condolences and sympathies to the victims and families of the terrible Las Vegas shooting. God bless you!’ That’s fine, but Trump doesn’t even seem angry. It’s peculiar that he didn’t call the shooter a ‘Son of a bitch,’ like he did the NFL players who took a knee during the national anthem. He didn’t create an insulting nickname for Paddock or make an immediate push for a policy proposal.”
The NFL players were demeaned by President Trump for peacefully protesting, but Paddock went without one commonplace disparaging remark from the White House. The situational silence of President Trump toward whiteness and the privileged is the prevalent American pattern. However, with the October 31, 2017, New York terrorist attack Trump broke silence and tweeted, “Looks like another attack by a very sick and deranged person.” Examine and reflect on the account below:
Because a white person MAY, for the first time, feel a small percentage of unrest, dis-ease, outright hatred and trepidation that oppressed people of color live and die in every day, it is still an expectation that the white person (the person most taken care of and valued since Columbus’ arrival) becomes the most taken care of and valued in the race discourse. (Stacy Gibson – p. 43)
The above quote is from the 2011 work of Dr. Lee Mun Wah, Let’s Get Real: What People of Color Can’t Say and Whites Won’t Ask About Racism. The quote eloquently captures the crippling effect of what Dr. Robin DiAngelo coined as White Fragility, the ingredient that hinders actions and dialogue surrounding the racist constructs of America. Silence is the pervasive practice of racism in America because there is a conscious and unconscious substratum that strives to protect the institution of whiteness. Thus despite America operating under a daily reality of racist socialization, anti-racist actions and dialogues falter in fear of offending white people. In her 2011 article White Fragility, Dr. DiAngelo reports “White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress” (p. 54).
This concept must be further explored; we are living in racially tumultuous times that cannot be ignored. It is imperative that every person find their place of advocacy during this battle for multiple forms of racial and social justice. What is happening with racialized discussions in educational settings is akin to what transpires when such topics surface in churches, religious centers, the office, the National Football League, etc. It is difficult and perhaps frightening for people to name race, racism, and whiteness. DiAngelo (2011) expresses it this way, “White Fragility doesn’t always manifest in overt ways; silence and withdrawal are also functions of fragility. Who speaks, who doesn’t speak, when, for how long, and with what emotional valence are all keys to understanding the relational patterns that hold oppression in place” (p. 67). Under a context of interracial justice and dialogue, we must get to a place where conversations can be sustained so applicable actions and strategies can be developed and implemented.
An examination of the life and surrounding circumstances of Emmett Till provides us with a scaffold to utilize–for the purpose of addressing the spirit of white supremacy–that presently permeates and the resistance thereto. Bold honesty, naming, and discussion is the first step in this continuous process, but as DiAngelo (2011) points out, some refuse or fail to be explicit because of “the overall pressure from management to keep the content comfortable and palatable for whites” (p. 55). Although true in multiple settings where race becomes a topic of discussion DiAngelo also stated:
…If and when an educational program does directly address racism and the privileging of whites, common white responses include anger, withdrawal, emotional incapacitation, guilt, argumentation, and cognitive dissonance (all of which reinforce the pressure on facilitators to avoid directly addressing racism). So-called progressive whites may not respond with anger, but may still insulate themselves via claims that they are beyond the need for engaging with the content because they “already had a class on this” or “already know this. (p. 55)
It is critical to note the pervasive tendencies of White Fragility within and without educational settings. As both Tyson and Anderson exclaim in their most recent books, America has its genesis in racial division, hatred, vitriol, violence, rape, and murder. As a result, conversations are hard and as a white woman DiAngelo posits, “Whites often confuse comfort with safety and state that we don’t feel safe when what we really mean is that we don’t feel comfortable. This trivializes our history of brutality towards people of color and perverts the reality of that history” (p. 61). I have personally watched this play out on many levels, especially when it relates to a Black person speaking truth to power. Suddenly safety is injected into the equation.
DiAngelo also addresses the nexus between a lack of understanding versus agreement: “…They confuse not understanding with not agreeing. This racial arrogance, coupled with the need for racial comfort, also has whites insisting that people of color explain white racism in the ‘right’ way” (p. 61). With reference to resistance, it is hard for many to remain on the playing-field of racially explicit dialogue and DiAngelo labels “…this lack of racial stamina “White Fragility.” (p. 56). The resistance is embedded and manifests as a survival tactic for European shifting, balance, and equilibrium because:
Everywhere we look, we see our own racial image reflected back to us – in our heroes and heroines, in standards of beauty, in our role-models and teachers, in our textbooks and historical memory, in the media, in religious iconography including the image of god himself, etc. In virtually any situation or image deemed valuable in dominant society, whites belong. Indeed, it is rare for most whites to experience a sense of not belonging, and such experiences are usually very temporary, easily avoidable situations. Racial belonging becomes deeply internalized and taken for granted. In dominant society, interruption of racial belonging is rare and thus destabilizing and frightening to whites. (DiAngelo, p. 62)
As stated before, interracial justice dialogue is crucial to the transformative and healing process of pain and trauma, inflicted by the invisible hands of white supremacy, racial superiority, and coloniality. Eric Yamamoto (2000), in Interracial Justice: Conflict and Reconciliation In Post-Civil Rights America states, “Relationships cannot move forward without the healing dynamic of repentance and forgiveness. ‘The debris [of the past] will never get cleaned up and animosity will never drain away until forgiveness enters these relationships’” (p. 170).
This radical project is not an unaccompanied dialectic activity for people of color alone, it requires the vulnerability, love, and honesty of all. As Dr. Michelle Alexander exposed in her (2010) book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, “Du Bois got it right a century ago: ‘the burden belongs to the nation, and the hands of none of us are clean if we bend not our energies to righting these great wrongs’” (p. 217). It must be owned as a collective, for DiAngelo (2011) said, “…whites are usually more receptive to validating white racism if that racism is constructed as residing in individual white people other than themselves” (p. 61). The data and historicity of the brutalization are mind-altering, emotional, and traumatic, but it cannot be avoided or placated. She also said:
“White people often believe that multicultural/anti-racist education is only necessary for those who interact with ‘minorities’ or in ‘diverse’ environments. However, the dynamics discussed here suggest that it is critical that all white people build the stamina to sustain conscious and explicit engagement with race” (DiAngelo, 2011, p. 66).
Racial Codes & Selected Metaphoric Applications to the Emmett Till Lynching
As for Dr. Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility is one of the inhibitors to authentic racialized dialogue, progress, and healing. We must continually assess the racist tentacles, ripples, and devastating tsunami-like destruction that continues to hemorrhage. Examination of a Eurocentric historical thirst for dominance and hegemonic patterns therein is vital to aid in applying the necessary balm to induce the birth of repentance, healing, restoration, and justice. Three episodes in The Blood of Emmett Till remain etched in my psyche and I believe they serve as allegorical touchstones that speak to a portion of the current postmodern racial codes and ethos of white supremacy. First, each encounter (Episode) will be shared, followed by their current metaphorical implications. We now move to those stated experiences as captured by Tyson:
- Episode One: At about 2:00 AM on Sunday, August 28, 1955, in an absolutely terrifying and ultimately deadly encounter, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam entered the home of Reverend Moses Wright, looking for his nephew, Emmett Till. As an alternative to the men taking Emmett from the home, Mr. Wright said to them, “Why not just give the boy a good whipping and leave it at that? He’s only fourteen and he’s from up North” (p. 11). For codification purposes, this encounter stands as Episode One.
- Episode Two: Episode Two is extracted from the encounter where the mother of Emmett Till provided education to him regarding the needed decorum and understanding of racialized codes for Black survival and navigation in the South. She said “If a white woman should walk toward you on the sidewalk, take to the street and lower your eyes. Should any dispute arise with any white person whatsoever, humble yourself and agree with them” (p. 33). Upon reflection, the Late Mamie Till said, “After all, how do you give a crash course in hatred to a boy who has only known love?” (p. 34).
- Episode Three: In Episode Three, Ruthie Mae Crawford watched the actions of Emmett Till in the store and saw him at the counter with Carolyn Bryant. Ruthie Mae “…Insisted that the only mistake he made was to place his candy money directly in Carolyn’s hand rather than put it on the counter, as was common practice between whites and blacks. This alone would have violated Mississippi’s racial etiquette” (p. 53). Before creating a metaphoric bridge and scaffold to what I am referring to as the three episodes above, muse over the comments regarding racial codes and the Mississippi force and machinery designed to keep emancipated Black folk suppressed and oppressed, as captured by Anderson in White Rage:
In the fall of 1865, the state passed a series of laws targeted and applicable only to African Americans (free and newly emancipated) that undercut any chance or hope for civil rights, economic independence, or even the reestablishment of families that had been ripped apart by slavery. As noted by Du Bois, the notorious Black Codes “were an astonishing affront to emancipation” and made “plain and indisputable” the “attempt on the part of the Southern states to make Negroes slaves in everything but name.” (p. 19)
Although not as overt, there are still Black Codes and racialized mores today. DiAngelo developed the concept of White Fragility and I am introducing the condition and phrase, Black Unconscious Reinforcement. I will discuss it in more detail later, but the words of uncle and reverend Moses Wright, “Why not just give the boy a good whipping,” speaks to the deep dehumanization daily negotiated as a result of the brutal trauma enslaved Africans faced in America and that Black descendants still grapple with today. Dr. DeGruy identified it as Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome. The racialized imagery of a white man whipping/beating a Black child is dreadfully unbearable, but based upon the hate-filled cruelty of Roy Bryant, J.W. Milam, and the South, Mr. Wright knew the evil those men could inflict upon his nephew, thus he pleaded for a whipping, assuming that form of torture would, although permanently scar the precious teenage body of Emmett Till, it might spare his life. Under a racially coded America, all too often is the Black family forced to negotiate such allegorical malevolence, selecting from a lesser-of-two-evils menu.
In Episode Two the mother of Emmett Till engaged in the talk. She schooled him in how to engage and disengage with white people. The talk is still a reality in Black America. With absolute consternation and fear, Black mothers, fathers, grandparents, guardians, clergy, etc., initiate navigational conversations about how to stay alive and safe in America. A post-racial America is a facade because racist socialization is still at play. Because of the tenor and texture of white supremacy, no one is immune to or free from this socialization. In 1955, Emmett Till was 14 years of age when he was lynched, and on November 22, 2014, Tamir Rice was just 12 years old when he was shot, while playing in the park, by Cleveland Police Department Officer, Timothy Loehmann. Tamir died in the hospital the next day. Even when families have the talk with their beloved children, it is often still not enough to overcome the sinister underbelly of American unconscious racism and implicit bias. Even innocent Black youth have the unintentional potential of evoking fear in America. Notice the evidence as detailed in an American Psychological Association (2014) report:
Black boys as young as 10 may not be viewed in the same light of childhood innocence as their white peers, but are instead more likely to be mistaken as older, be perceived as guilty and face police violence if accused of a crime, according to new research published by the American Psychological Association.
While we struggle to have systemic and sustained racialized dialogue, the imprint of America continues to unleash its embedded personality. Mamie Till had the talk with Emmett; it still was not enough. In addition to Emmett Till, reflect upon Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, etc. According to the stated UCLA research, in terms of Black and Latino boys ages 10-17, undergraduate “…students overestimated the age of blacks by an average of 4.5 years and found them more culpable than whites or Latinos.” This form of perceived childhood lethality is perpetually manifested in public education racially disaggregated data, referencing all forms of school discipline. Across the nation, the harshest types of punishment and consequences are exacted upon Black youth. If we do nothing to address racist socialization, the status quo is that Black youth are viewed as the most dangerous students inside the protective walls of the schoolhouse and as they walk home through the community. Addressing the perceived lethality of adult Black men and women would require an additional essay. In the same American Psychological Association (2014) report it concluded the following:
“The evidence shows that perceptions of the essential nature of children can be affected by race, and for black children, this can mean they lose the protection afforded by assumed childhood innocence well before they become adults,” said co-author Matthew Jackson, PhD, also of UCLA. “With the average age overestimation for black boys exceeding four-and-a-half years, in some cases, black children may be viewed as adults when they are just 13 years old.”
In analyzing the current applications from Episode Three, Ruthie Mae said about Emmett Till, “…the only mistake he made was to place his candy money directly in Carolyn’s hand rather than put it on the counter.” How often are Black children and adults mislabeled and mistreated because of the codes? Not only was Emmett supposed to cross the street and lower his head if he encountered a white man or woman, he was not supposed to touch the hand of a white woman, even if from the depths of his soul he was being authentically kind and respectful. Although this code may not be at play with the same level of force today, we must ask if there are any lingering influences from this deeply coded era. Today it might not be a physical touch; it could be the new Black family moving into the neighborhood or school. Perhaps it was Black or other people of color speaking truth to power in an assembly filled with white people. As DiAngelo eloquently eludes through the premise of White Fragility, it is no longer about an obvious physical touch; resistance is speedily launched when the emotions of whiteness are stirred by Black intellectualism, challenge, experience, and a push for racial justice. Despite the fact that Emmett Till was lynched in Money, Mississippi more than sixty years ago, many of the racial codes are seductively still in place. This is true educationally, religiously, economically, culturally, and relationally.
Black Unconscious Reinforcement
Based on the struggle for healing, racial justice, economic reciprocity, culturally relevant and transformative public educational pedagogy, and true democratic governance, everyone must find their position on the American battlefield of advocacy. There is no time for passive positions, inaction, silence, or a search for neutrality and appeasement. Sitting on the fence and watching as a silent spectator or as a vocal cheerleader with no true engagement is toxic. Not only must we contend with White Rage and White Fragility, we must name and fight through Black Unconscious Reinforcement.
Black Unconscious Reinforcement surfaces when African Americans assume a fleeting position of racial transcendence and/or refusal to discuss episodes of Black oppression in white spaces, for fear of upsetting current structures of white dominance and superiority. Primarily this is done unconsciously, yet there are some who sport and flaunt formations of Black Unconscious Reinforcement with a level of explicit arrogance. They treat it as a form of advanced intellectualism and humble peacekeeping. Of course not on the same level of White Fragility, but Black Unconscious Reinforcement stifles racialized dialogue in the presence of white dialectic spaces, adding an extra layer of difficulty to Black folks and other people of color who are trying to break through with honest and brave interracial dialogue.
Black Unconscious Reinforcement shows up on at least two fronts. The first layer is manifested through fleeting Black racial transcendence. This is when a Black person has achieved a certain level of educational, financial, or parental success, blaming/shaming other Black people who have not excelled as they have for not working hard enough. For this group of people, a discussion or highlight about racism is viewed as an excuse. They ignore the impact of race and oppression in America and globally. Such persons reinforce institutions of white supremacy and superiority because they seek to opine a dangerous and myopic narrative that racism and oppression are elements of the past, evidenced by their success. They refuse to examine or embrace racial dominance and white privilege as systemic institutions that are always churning. Conversely, Black Unconscious Reinforcement can also be an adopted disposition by Black people who have not experienced success, they simply subscribe to such a false reality because they have been overwhelmed and overcome by the weight of racial dehumanization, pigmentocracy, and even colorism.
The second layer of Black Unconscious Reinforcement is manifested when a Black person or persons denies or refuses to speak to or acknowledge the existence of racism and white supremacy, arrested by fear, additionally exhibiting a false form of piety, couched as not wanting to offend white people. Through this kind of behavior, they will sacrifice and suppress their pain, suffrage, anxiety, and needs for those in the class of privilege and power. This is often on classic display in Christian churches. Despite the deeply first-century African influences on the spread of Christianity throughout the world, many predominantly Black and even racially diverse churches today are astoundingly stale and silent in the face of social and racial justice causes. Sadly many churches have mastered the art of Black Unconscious Reinforcement. And like the first layer of fleeting racial transcendence, some flaunt this ideal within Christendom with staunch arrogance. Unless issues of whiteness and white supremacy are strategically and wisely confronted, most churches in America, despite their racial composition, operate under a Eurocentric paradigm and ethos.
This level of silence, apathy, and passivity in some churches is embraced despite passages such as “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly” (Leviticus 19:15NIV). King Solomon said “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern” (Proverbs 9:24NIV). “There are those who turn justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground” (Amos 5:7NIV). Even freedom fighter Dr. King Jr. quoted from the wellspring of Amos in his August 28, 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech: “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24NIV). Despite deep biblical edicts that promote and demand a radical love, equity and justice, many under a Christian motif remain silent in the face of injustice. Operating with such callused inaction prevents the church from proclaiming a revolutionary gospel and fulfilling the premise of Ecclesiastes 12:13.
The reality is, Black Unconscious Reinforcement, is not only practiced by some people of the African diaspora in America, there are people from every group of color that practice this unconscious reinforcement. As an example, not only is there Black, but there are also formations of Brown, Asian, Pacific Islander, Filipino, and East Indian Unconscious Reinforcement. White supremacy is such a strong and pervasive institution, in one configuration or another, every non-white group has engaged in practices, discussions, behaviors, relationships, and interactions that intentionally, subliminally, or unconsciously reinforce the imperialistic institution of white supremacy. The question remains: Where are you in this American and global battlefield for racialized advocacy, equity, and social justice?
Finding Your Position on the Battlefield
Have you found and firmly positioned yourself on the battlefield of advocacy, as has been custom since the days of chattel slavery, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement? The chains of silence and ambivalence must be smashed. The nomination of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States freshly opened for some and reopened for others, racial and oppressive lacerations. There are those who lived through the tragic and triumphant times of the civil rights era, and today feel like they have been thrust back in time. In the 2017 Spike Lee Netflix series, She’s Gotta Have It, he brilliantly illuminates and captures the grief-stricken emotions of many Americans in episode 8, regarding the presidential election of #45.
I heard Robin DiAngelo say in a speech or interview, something to the effect of, “We are all swimming in the waters of white supremacy.” Since the inception of this nation that sits atop indigenous blood and soil, this has been an American truth. President Trump did not create white supremacy, but the platform for its bold and unhinged display is powerfully present. Despite some of our national and international American hypocrisy, the Declaration of Independence speaks to the type of resistance that must be engaged in the face injustice.
Although it was written during a time African people in America were enslaved, the tenets of the document can be exploited for current facilitation. It is critical to restate that the declaration was written to King George III of Great Britain under the context of justice. The founding fathers and specifically Thomas Jefferson wrote the declaration to announce the separation of the united colonies from Great Britain rule and taxation. In this form of a white-toward-white battle for justice and independence, White Fragility was not an issue. However, today as Black people and other groups of color seek justice, fair treatment, and forms of independence, the resilience from the bold days of publishing the Declaration of Independence disappears. Briefly, reconnect to the assertive push for European-American justice below. Observe and witness how unapologetic, brassy, and forthright they were in their quest for justice, equity, freedom, and independence. A few excerpts are provided with applicable highlights that manifest a crystalized focus on current American efforts:
“When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
“That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.
The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
Time will not permit analysis of each excerpt above from of the Declaration of Independence, but the implication and irony should be clear. Under a 21st century framework, this is not about overthrowing the government; it is about acknowledging the truth that these United States of America were founded upon struggle, justice, advocacy, and confrontation. Thus when organizations like Black Lives Matter and other groups/individuals rise up in the spirit and action of American protest, demonstration, resistance, organizing, and marching, it should not be labeled anti-American, but unapologetically and resolutely American.
What makes America a great nation is that there are still people herein willing to stand, struggle, and fight for justice. Despite their racial blindness toward enslaved, indigenous, and colorized people, the founding fathers, and colonists, for their own cause, boldly confronted King George III, of Great Britain. Yet when Black people, people of color in general, activists, and the marginalized began challenging racist and tyrannical systems of American mendacity, injustice, bloodthirstiness, and vicious barbarism, we were (and are) lynched, assaulted, arrested, fired, locked-out, bombed, evicted, expelled, suspended, failed, maligned, and excluded. Colin Kaepernick, the former quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, is one of many classic examples of the cognitive dissonance and hypocrisy all of America must urgently identify, expose, disrupt, dismantle, and address with sustained fidelity.
This brief narrative is designed to highlight the notion that American oppression and racist practices have not ceased; they have morphed. As a result, everyone must strategically break silence and find their place on the battlefield toward sustained and comprehensive advocacy for racial, social, educational, and economic justice and equity. As a solution, the goal is for all of America, in every setting and institution, to continually create conditions where racialized dialogue is normalized, compassionately reaching through White Fragility and various forms of Unconscious Reinforcement of white supremacy.
Many people today want to operate as if racism or a discussion about it is an antiquated process because of alleged cultural and racial American progress. People firmly positioned on the racialized battlefield are branded as disruptive, acrimonious, and sometimes militant. White Fragility and forms of Unconscious Reinforcement by people of color are designed to block racial dialogue and stop people from finding their place in anti-racist and anti-bias leadership and praxis. This position smacks cognitive dissonance because The Blood of Emmett Till was published in 2017, and White Rage in 2016. If racial discussions are to be silenced, as if solutions to American racism, whiteness, and white supremacy have been perfectly applied and resolved, why are fresh discoveries and insights still being advanced? American racism, discrimination, and oppression are not dead.
Connected to a Pennsylvania school district, “Combating Hatred Among Us”, an article in the November 2017 edition of the School Administrator, chronicles the racist actions and ensuing crisis “after racially charged text messages between the superintendent and the district’s athletic director surfaced” (p. 42). The email communication included language such as “Good hangings” and repeated use of the n-word. “The ongoing exchange contained sexually explicit remarks regarding interracial sex acts as well as offensive racial, ethnic and sexual comments against blacks, Jews, Arabs and women and continued over several days” (p. 42). Some superintendents interviewed at statewide conferences about the exchange “expressed shock and disbelief at the hateful messages. Others, however, indicated the texts should be viewed as little more than casual locker-room banter” (p.44). Racism is not dead and White Fragility is fully activated.
“Becoming an Ally in the Battle for Social Justice”, from the same magazine edition, discusses the educational importance of systemically addressing the issues of white privilege, educational equity, and cultural understanding. This work is difficult. “There is no scope and sequence to equity work. Different contexts demand different responses” (p. 48).
We shall close with the Manning Marble quote, captured in the introduction of the (1999) edition of Du Bois’ plea in Darkwater. After almost one-hundred years later, the words, spirit, and advocacy of Du Bois are just as ripe today as they were in nineteenth and twentieth centuries:
In a sense, what Du Bois wants to achieve is the deconstruction of whiteness as a social category, and of its hierarchies of oppression. For this to be accomplished, Du Bois contends that white Americans must come to a new understanding and an appreciation of what it means to be black. (p. vi)
Ammar Saheli, Ed.D, MS, PPSC
Saheli7 Educational Consulting
West Oakland Church of Christ
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