People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.—James Baldwin, Notes Of A Native Son (1955)
Our collective past, Baldwin argues, is carried over into the present through each moment of our lives and attempts to escape it only show its enduring weight.
This echoes a major theme of contemporary racial discourse: that our unwillingness to grapple with the brutal history of white racism and black subjugation in America is inextricably linked to racial inequality today. When commentators point to the steady decline in racist attitudes since the 1960s or the successes of a two-term black president, they often meet the rejoinder that the ongoing impacts of historical racism manifest as persistent racial disparities in group outcomes. History, according to the anti-racist narrative, is very much alive.
This was the thrust of a recent long essay in the New York Times magazine by 1619 Project founder, Nikole Hannah-Jones. Written in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests following the police killing of George Floyd, the piece—entitled “What Is Owed”—argues that now is the time to consider reimbursing black Americans for the harms wrought by historical white supremacy.
The essay reiterates the idea that the past is never really past when it comes to race in America and argues for the moral necessity of reparations to close the yawning racial wealth gap. Hannah-Jones guides us through the history of black oppression and white advantage—from the dawn of slavery to the failures of Reconstruction; from the birth of Jim Crow laws to the rise of ritualistic lynchings; from the exclusion of blacks from vital New Deal policies to the advent of discriminatory housing loans in the aftermath of the Great Migration—and shows that the compounding effects of all these phenomena effectively prevented blacks from accruing generational wealth, as their white counterparts were able to.
The point is not simply to illustrate the horrors of our racist history, but to show how whites continue to benefit from these policies and practices at the expense of blacks. Worse still, many whites are in denial about that history and the privileges it has afforded them, and their stubborn complacency is an impediment to true justice. The piece is interspersed with pictures of protest movements of the past juxtaposed with those of the present, as if to drive the message home that nothing has changed:
The nonchalant look on Officer Derek Chauvin’s face—as, hand in pocket, for 8 minutes 46 seconds, he pressed his knee against the neck of a facedown black man begging for his life—reminds me of every callous white face captured in the grisly photos taken in the 1900s to mark the gleeful spectacle of the public killings of black men and women.
This case has been made before by Ta-Nehisi Coates and other prominent anti-racists. The intergenerational effects of historical racism preclude the ability of race-neutral policies to make up for the deficit black Americans find themselves facing as a group. Monetary remuneration for the moral and material injury of racism is therefore the only path toward equality. We must face our history in all of its ugliness before we can move forward as a nation.
Yet a curious observer surely can’t help but notice the irony in the fact of an award-winning journalist at the newspaper of record, declaring with no resistance whatsoever, that we have yet to come to terms with America’s racial sins while simultaneously recounting those sins in gory detail. We are meant to believe that a society in which virtually every mainstream institution, media outlet and major corporation has come out in support of the George Floyd protests—in the midst of a global pandemic—is also antiblack to its very core. If this is a systemically racist country, what would a systemically non-racist country look like?
Every step toward racial progress is met by many progressives with an expanded definition of what progress is, downplaying everything that hasn’t yet achieved the unattainable goal of perfect racial equality of outcome. James Baldwin, the godfather of modern anti-racism, would often point to the unwillingness of whites to have relationships with blacks as evidence that we have yet to make real progress: “Up to today we are set at a division, so that he [the black man] may not marry our daughters or our sisters, nor may he—for the most part—eat at our tables or live in our houses.” I wonder what he would make of the astounding leap in intermarriage rates and the widespread acceptance of interracial couples in contemporary America.
There are other realities to consider. For one, the exceptionally high rates of immigration from non-white countries over the past few decades have fundamentally transformed the ethnic composition of our population and made America one of the most racially and culturally diverse countries in the world—the precise opposite of what we’d expect from a society founded on exclusion. This supposedly white supremacist nation—with racism running through its very DNA, according to Hannah-Jones—has oddly failed to reserve the highest economic and cultural status for its own racial group. Asian-Americans significantly outearn whites and have done for decades. And perhaps the most popular American cultural export is hip-hop: a uniquely black creation. Moreover, African immigrants from the West Indies and Nigeria enjoy incomes significantly in excess of the US national average, despite those countries’ brutal histories of enslavement and the colourism they may experience once arriving here. This casts doubt on the notion that blackness itself prevents upward mobility. Finally, the US college admissions system has instituted racial preferences that have heavily favored black applicants for decades. These facts are rarely included in the conversation on history, racism, and inequality.
But the problems with the anti-racist narrative are not merely descriptive, but also prescriptive. If the argument for reparations and other race-conscious policies is that blacks are disproportionately represented at the lower end of various socio-economic measures, then why wouldn’t policies intended to help the poor, the unjustly incarcerated, the geographically displaced and the educationally deprived—regardless of color—be enough to remedy those injustices? In other words, why is race the proxy for these other metrics, which are far more accurate and predictive of disadvantage?
Our country has no shortage of broad systemic problems that impact all racial groups: the majority of Americans live paycheck to paycheck; average life expectancy is declining; we have vastly more gun violence and more homicides than other comparable countries; we have entrenched geographical, economic and cultural inequalities; our healthcare system leaves millions under- and uninsured; our university system is unaffordable; our public school system has embarrassingly low standards. So why is it so crucial to focus almost exclusively on race when diagnosing our societal ills?
There is more than one way for history to remain trapped within us.
From White Supremacy to White Guilt to Anti-Racism
On the heels of the great civil rights victories of the early 60s, which established racial equality under the law, there quickly arose an impulse to dissociate ourselves from the shames of our past in order to maintain our place on the right side of history. As Shelby Steele has written, the failure to collectively acknowledge the historic wrongs produced by racism opened up a massive void of moral legitimacy, which came to be filled by white guilt and black power politics. Society cannot recognize its wrongs without losing some of its credibility, so justifying America’s continuing power in the world meant cultivating a new identity that explicitly defined itself in opposition to racial oppression.
As Steele puts it:
What is white guilt? It is not a personal sense of remorse over past wrongs. White guilt is literally a vacuum of moral authority in matters of race, equality and opportunity that comes from the association of mere white skin with America’s historical racism. It is the stigmatization of whites and, more importantly, American institutions with the sin of racism. Under this stigma white individuals and American institutions must perpetually prove a negative—that they are not racist—to gain enough authority to function in matters of race, equality and opportunity. If they fail to prove the negative, they will be seen as racists. Political correctness, diversity policies and multiculturalism are forms of deference that give whites and institutions a way to prove the negative and win reprieve from the racist stigma.
Although not every citizen has fully adopted this approach, it has been able to penetrate elite institutions and transform counterculture into mainstream culture. The birth of this new social morality in America marked the shift from the era of institutional white supremacy to the era of institutional white guilt. President Lyndon Johnson inaugurated the War On Poverty in 1965 with a speech to the all-black Howard University:
“You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, “You are free to compete with all the others,” and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”
Nothing could more perfectly depict the moral logic of white guilt. Who is this you who is doing the liberating? Johnson was talking to white people. The responsibility of whites to fix racial oppression and the absent role of blacks to achieve equality is the basis of post-civil rights liberalism. This is why Ta-Nehisi Coates declared, in a debate about gun violence in predominantly black inner city communities, that “there’s nothing wrong with black people that ending white supremacy won’t fix.”
The result of this arrangement is an exaggeration of and fixation on claims of racism in the presence of any interracial conflict. Downplaying the role of racism, on the other hand, just makes you look like an asshole. This is the perfectly natural outgrowth of an identity that is contingent on the continuing existence of racism, from which it gains its sense of innocence and therefore its power. If all white people collectively stopped being racist, the white anti-racist identity would lose its meaning.
With the killing of George Floyd, the resurgence of Black Lives Matter and the growing phenomenon referred to as the Great Awokening, whereby white progressives have moved to the far left on race issues, the era of white guilt has produced the era of institutional anti-racism. In this new epoch, simply proving that one is not racist isn’t enough. We must be overtly anti-racist, which means stigmatizing any views that dissent from the prevailing narrative.
As defined by bestselling author Ibram X Kendi, anti-racism involves supporting policies and ideas that level racial disparities of outcome, while racism refers to any explanation of disparity that points toward black responsibility rather than white racism. This redefinition of racism from identifiable prejudice to disparity of outcomes represents the expansion of a propriety into what Antonio Gramsci calls a cultural hegemony: a power construct that cuts reality down to size and squashes any voice that questions its moral authority. While suggesting that black Americans bear some responsibility for their own outcomes was once considered merely in poor taste, it is now considered racist and therefore utterly beyond the pale in progressive circles.
To better grasp how white guilt gave way to anti-racism, let’s look at the event that activated this historical transformation.
It’s almost impossible not to have a visceral reaction to the video of George Floyd being slowly suffocated for eight plus minutes under the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin, but the reflexive assumption that the racial optics of this event were its defining element is a byproduct of our conditioned response to see racism everywhere. As other commentators have noted, the eerily similar 2016 death of Tony Timpa—a white man suffocated by a police officer, who knelt on his back, while other officers laughed and cracked jokes—didn’t garner widespread outrage because it lacked a racial component and all of the moral weight that comes along with that. The bias that compels us to elevate incidences of interracial violence only when blacks are the victims is a historical overcorrection that is the psychological and cultural result of America’s legacy of antiblack racism—a strange inversion of white supremacy and of past Americans’ intuitive tendency to ascribe innocence to white people and guilt to blacks. Were it not for the entrenched proclivity to actively seek out racism as a causal explanation, the Black Lives Matter protests would never have occurred and we would not be treating racism as we once treated communism during the Red Scare.
Letting the Past be Past
We are indeed trapped in history—but not because of our unwillingness to acknowledge the existence of racism. Quite the opposite. The obsession with race and racism in American culture is a karmic result of historical racism and a holdover from the past. The need to morally distance ourselves from history has conditioned us into accepting a doctrine that will in all likelihood keep us trapped in history for even longer—while our country is ripped apart at the seams.
This explains why we are unwilling to appreciate the stark reality of racial progress over the past 60 years. This explains why mainstream journalists can lament America’s denial of racism while at the same time cataloguing racism from the perches of power and influence. This explains why we only ever discuss racial gaps between blacks and whites, while ignoring the plethora of disparities between other ethnic groups. This explains why we can’t simply look at inequality and injustice in all their forms, without using race as a shorthand. This explains why we have been unable to have an honest conversation about the causes of racial disparity without blaming one racial group or another. And this explains why the country is descending into what the writer Coleman Hughes has called a “balkanized hotbed of racial and political tribalism,” while our greatest social problems remain largely unaddressed.
If we are truly concerned with remedying the tragedy of racism and taking steps toward a society that views our racial identities as insignificant, we need to let the past be past. We can accept the reality of historical racism without creating an identity out of it that keeps us eternally suspicious of each other. We cannot change our past, but we can change how we make sense of it as we move towards an increasingly multi-ethnic future.