Ten days ago it was James Baldwin’s birthday. I posted the picture you see to your right on Twitter. There are so many good quotes of his that I love, but this one stood out to me for my own personal reasons of life upheaval and related impacts. But with Baldwin, I find, you can read the same thing on a different day and come away with a much different perspective. Rereading it today, it has taken on a whole new meaning in light of events in Charlottesville.
I haven’t done much this morning but look at the #Charlottesville Twitter feed. It’s impossible to state how devastated I feel over the events that I watched taking place there in the past 48 hours. I need words today, and I can’t think of many that can express what I’m feeling better than Baldwin. Unfortunately, much of what he said about America’s racism is still applicable.
“White people are trapped in a history they don’t understand.”
Photos of yesterday’s violence side-by-side with violence against Freedom Riders in 1961. Video of a car speeding into a crowd of people, killing Heather Heyer and injuring others there to protest against bigotry and hatred. Images and events like these shocked our conscience 50 years ago, but will they change our current trajectory? Not unless we all accept our share of the responsibility for what has happened and is STILL happening. This requires us to learn our history, which lets us see how systemic racism is still alive and well.
Michelle Obama said that the presidency “reveals who you are.” Trump purposely didn’t call out the cause of the violence, instead saying it’s from “many sides.” This is bullshit and we should all call it that. White supremacy has never gone away, but it is now thriving in the daylight, given a place of legitimacy by the administration. Not just that its presence is accepted, but by the fact that 45 has condoned violence on many occasions, emboldening those people who think hateful rhetoric and protesting with swastikas, guns and shields at a “rally” is just another form of free speech. Which brings us to the next quote.
“Ignorance allied with power is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”
The new white supremacist uniform is no longer a white robe and a pointy hat with holes for eyes, but khaki pants and a white polo shirt. Don’t forget the MAGA red hat. The evening accessory is still blazing wood held aloft, only this time they’re holding up tiki torches. The images are both scary and ridiculous, but one thing is clear – all the symbols of the KKK and their hate were on full display and nobody was trying to hide it. The fact that they were dressed like one of Trump’s 49 golf outings since inauguration (at a cost of $58 million of your tax dollars, thank goodness for small government) shows you these guys understand what 45 really believes.
“I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.”
Some Republicans have come out to condemn the violence and even a few have named it for what it is – but it’s not remotely enough. This is the same party that is actively trying to pass voter suppression laws all over the country. Words don’t mean anything if your actions say the opposite. Voting laws are about one thing – disenfranchising non-white voters, so a party (of mostly white men) can stay in power, and continue the long tradition of making rules to benefit whites and hurt people of color.
“Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
White people, myself included, need to own up to and speak out against all the ways we’ve allowed a system that benefits us to continue unchecked. It’s easy to hide in whiteness, a place of comfort and safety. This is our identity, and we need to start breaking it up, giving up the power we hold. I know I can’t understand what it feels like to be a person of color, but I can sure as hell learn my country’s history, listen to and learn from people of color, call out injustice when I see it, and ask other white people to do the same.
I’m not shocked by what is happening in Charlottesville and other places. I’m angry. I’m sad. The flagrant hatred on display is horrifying but it isn’t nearly as dangerous as all the ways in which systemic racism is weaved into the fabric of our country, in education, housing, inherited wealth, criminal (in)justice and myriad other strands. It is incredibly hard to untangle, but we have to start, or things will never change. We will no doubt see more days like yesterday as we continue this fight, but we must keep fighting.