As I came of age in the mid-60’s during the thick of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, great debates raged over when, whether, and how so-called “white liberals” could or should contribute to our cause. White clergy held prominent positions during many of the demonstrations and marches led by Dr. King. At times, white liberals outnumbered Black “Freedom Riders” on those tortuous bus trips throughout the South. And a not insignificant number of whites were actually injured or killed during many such protests.
And when I finally matriculated at Indiana University in ’66, there was already a robust Black and white anti-Vietnam War and Women’s Liberation Movement confronting IU’s intransigent Administration. But after Dr. King’s murder in ’68, things began to rapidly – radically – change. Over 110 cities exploded into revolutionary fires immediately following that assassination. “Black Power” as espoused by Kwame Toure (nee Stokely Carmichael), and Huey P. Newton’s Black Panther Party came to the fore and swept across this nation-state with a hurricane-force cleansing wind.
On campus we began to suspect that our white allies were not quite as committed to Black empowerment as they claimed to be. One of our leaders, “Rollo”, began to not just notice this phenomenon, but condemned it. “When the going gets tough,” he declared, “they (the Hippies, Yippies, and other assorted white friends) will cut their long hair, put on skirts, suits and ties and go home to their fathers’ and uncles’ firms, businesses and farms, while we will still be in the ghetto competing with each other for janitor jobs.” And you know what? He was absolutely right. When the crackdown came in the guise of “Law and Order, ” as proclaimed by President Nixon, our “white liberal” friends abandoned us as though we had the Bubonic Plague. And today? They will not even talk about their “youthful indiscretions” and certainly do not regale their children and grandchildren with stories of Black/white unity from “the good old days.”
It is impossible to come of age as a so-called “white” person in this nation-state and not be afflicted with the scourge of white supremacy. Each and every social, political, economic and cultural practice, policy and process is skewed to protect, maintain and grow white power and white privilege over and above everybody else. This is not news to Black folks, white supremacy’s second most beleaguered victims. But so-called “white liberals” always seem to struggle with the very idea that they, by their conscious or unconscious acceptance and practice of “white privilege”, bolster white supremacy’s death-grip on this nation-state and rest of the world.
The foremost reality that white liberals must understand and then deal with is that every square inch of land, every lake, river and stream, every mountain, field, every blade of grass or grain of desert sand that they proudly refer to as the “United States of America” is stolen property – stolen from a people who rarely, if ever, warrant even a back-handed mention in today’s socio-economic and political discourse. This terrible reality lies at the bottom of a continent-wide and unimaginably deep sea of red blood which separates the two blue eastern and western oceans. By now they must be aware of the magnitude and meaning of such an unconscionable atrocity. Hell, at some level they’ve always known; but do they care?
White liberals must go further, though. They must understand that the reason Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia, Houston, San Francisco, New Orleans, St. Louis, etc., ad infinitum, sport such high and gleaming alters to capitalism is because the raw materials and laborers used in their construction were ripped from the soil and souls of Black, Brown, Red and Yellow peoples not only here but from throughout the world. The white liberal must understand that those villages, countries, nations and nation-states are labeled and defined by them as “Third World”, “underdeveloped”, “developing” because it was and remains white supremacy and their embrace thereof that put and keep them there.
Appalling numbers of white liberals are in deep denial of the unfathomable pain, suffering, and death that the pursuit of white supremacy has wrought. Yes, their denial is appalling but completely understandable. They labor under a grand form of “cognitive dissonance” which exquisitely defines the term. I have wondered often that had I been born “white”, how utterly impossible it would be, must be, to simply look into a mirror knowing how much innocent blood lay behind my reflection, my history. Absolute denial and rejection of that blood, of that reflection and history would be the only means of maintaining even a semblance of sanity.
On another level, though, many, perhaps a majority, of white liberals appreciate quite clearly what they have done. Indeed, they celebrate and gleefully swim in that bloody sea of denial, ever thankful for their whiteness and their conscientious and well-meaning liberalism. This set of white liberals eagerly embraces their unearned privileges and power and protect themselves and their whiteness behind world-destroying weapons, multi-million-man armies – or “gated” enclaves. Their fear is understandable as well for they have much to fear, going all the way back to, and starting with, Indian attack and slave revolt.
Black folks know very well that all white people are not knowingly white supremacist in their worldview and daily lives. That is, there are now and always have been some “good” white folks – those few who fought and died alongside Blacks at various stages of history against white supremacy. The problem is, however, that the good have never outnumbered the bad. The “good” white people have never constituted the majority of white people. And, somehow it seems that when it comes to Black folks, some sort of “compromise” must always be made in order that white supremacy remains supreme.
Finally, what can and must white liberals do to redeem themselves, their people? The time has long passed for any more perfunctory “national discussion of race” between whites and Blacks. There is nothing more to talk about. White people, including white liberals, invented “race”, racism and white supremacy. They must begin the redemption process by disavowing and denouncing the validity, legitimacy of each of these self-serving and pernicious concepts and ideologies.
They must first acknowledge, recognize and accept their guilt.
Then repent. Repentance can take many forms, but it must be holistic, all encompassing, just as holistic and encompassing as the past 500 years of white supremacy have been. White liberals must teach each other and their children the unvarnished history of this nation-state. They must begin and see through to the end the hard work of dismantling all of the covert and overt institutional structures and scaffolds which have framed and perpetuated a white racial consciousness and its attendant white supremacist practices for the last 25 generations.
They must teach themselves and their children that the number one problem in the world has been, is, and remains Europe’s and America’s Original Sin: white supremacy – not global warming nor environmental degradation, not the national debt/deficit, not gay rights, not the energy crisis, and not women’s liberation – but white supremacy. In doing so, they will discover that these other “issues” are but symptoms and byproducts of the most debilitating disease that has afflicted the whole of mankind since those first Europeans began rampaging across the seas circa 1444.
And, yes, white liberals must undertake permanent, sweeping, demonstrative and affirmative actions to repair the damage white supremacy has done to all “nonwhite” people, but especially Black and African people. This will require discussions with Black people – discussion not negotiation.
But if history is any guide, white supremacy will not die a quiet death. White liberals (and white folks generally) have shown themselves incapable of just living and let live; of accepting their place as just another group of people among the masses of humanity. My mother used to wonder just under her breath why do white people think they must have or are entitled to the lion’s share of everything, leaving the crumbs for the rest of us. There is no good or logical or reasonable answer to her question. Thus, the entire world of variously colored peoples will have to someday face down and then take down this damnable doctrine, and set the world aright again.