The poisonous notion of white supremacy is the root from which many of our experiences of American culture grows. It is what successive generations of black Americans have risked their lives to eradicate. It is the refuge from fair competition that has unjustly privileged white Americans for two and a half centuries.
As complicated as we tend to make this subject, it is really quite straightforward. Black people are human. American society is predicated upon the idea that black people are less than human. This idea is enshrined in our Constitution. Our law, policies and institutions have overwhelmingly been built upon this premise. These principles have been woven into the fabric of American society for more than 200 years. No matter how post-racial we’d like to believe ourselves to be, at its foundation, America remains a society that fundamentally devalues black life.
For the majority of our history, white America has been unabashed in its expression of these principles. White supremacy has been normalized through law and custom, and enforced through unspeakable terror and violence. This is terror and violence perpetrated by the State, as well as by groups of individuals. As much as we might hope for change, much more than hope is necessary to bring forth meaningful change.
Whether or not we acknowledge it for what it is, the horror of our history is deeply embedded in each of our hearts and minds. (For example, it is why black people’s stomachs twist into knots when the police stop us, and why white police officers so often perceive an outsized threat when approaching black men and boys.) We have tinkered around for the past 50 years or so, changing law and policy to stimulate incremental progress—often slipping backward and losing our resolve.
In the final analysis, to kill this poisonous fruit at its root, it is our hearts and minds we most need to change. And, taking nothing away from the valiant struggles blacks have waged, protesting and marching and fighting and dying in the effort to dismantle the workings of white supremacy, this is really not black people’s work to do.
Race has been used in America to separate out and classify who belongs in the social space and who does not, who has rights that must be respected and who does not. It has been white society’s license to discriminate, to treat others unjustly.
I would like to suggest that anyone who is earnest in his or her desire to create a more just and equitable American society begin by making themselves ardent students of the history of the black experience in America (it doesn’t take long to get the full picture). Then, let your voice be heard loud and clear in every corridor of power or influence you inhabit, unequivocally and unrelentingly demanding justice, as if your own humanity is at stake. Because it is.