For America’s Black mothers, the fear of loss and trauma is constantWhen photographer Jon Henry poses families as if in mourning, he’s calling out police violence that too often kills young Black men and terrifies their mothers.
James Baldwin, New York, September 17, 1946.Photograph by Richard Avedon / © the Richard Avedon FoundationT
Yet there was something deeper than these changes, and less definable, that frightened me. It was real in both the boys and the girls, but it was, somehow, more vivid in the boys. In the case of the girls, one watched them turning into matrons before they had become women. They began to manifest a curious and really rather terrifying single-mindedness. It is hard to say exactly how this was conveyed: something implacable in the set of the lips, something farseeing (seeing what?) in the eyes, some new and crushing determination in the walk, something peremptory in the voice. They did not tease us, the boys, any more; they reprimanded us sharply, saying, “You better be thinking about your soul!” For the girls also saw the evidence on the Avenue, knew what the price would be, for them, of one misstep, knew that they had to be protected and that we were the only protection there was. They understood that they must act as God’s decoys, saving the souls of the boys for Jesus and binding the bodies of the boys in marriage. For this was the beginning of our burning time, and “It is better,” said St. Paul—who elsewhere, with a most unusual and stunning exactness, described himself as a “wretched man”—“to marry than to burn.” And I began to feel in the boys a curious, wary, bewildered despair, as though they were now settling in for the long, hard winter of life. I did not know then what it was that I was reacting to; I put it to myself that they were letting themselves go. In the same way that the girls were destined to gain as much weight as their mothers, the boys, it was clear, would rise no higher than their fathers. School began to reveal itself, therefore, as a child’s game that one could not win, and boys dropped out of school and went to work. My father wanted me to do the same. I refused, even though I no longer had any illusions about what an education could do for me; I had already encountered too many college-graduate handymen. My friends were now “downtown,” busy, as they put it, “fighting the man.” They began to care less about the way they looked, the way they dressed, the things they did; presently, one found them in twos and threes and fours, in a hallway, sharing a jug of wine or a bottle of whiskey, talking, cursing, fighting, sometimes weeping: lost, and unable to say what it was that oppressed them, except that they knew it was “the man”—the white man. And there seemed to be no way whatever to remove this cloud that stood between them and the sun, between them and love and life and power, between them and whatever it was that they wanted. One did not have to be very bright to realize how little one could do to change one’s situation; one did not have to be abnormally sensitive to be worn down to a cutting edge by the incessant and gratuitous humiliation and danger one encountered every working day, all day long. The humiliation did not apply merely to working days, or workers; I was thirteen and was crossing Fifth Avenue on my way to the Forty-second Street library, and the cop in the middle of the street muttered as I passed him, “Why don’t you niggers stay uptown where you belong?” When I was ten, and didn’t look, certainly, any older, two policemen amused themselves with me by frisking me, making comic (and terrifying) speculations concerning my ancestry and probable sexual prowess, and, for good measure, leaving me flat on my back in one of Harlem’s empty lots. Just before and then during the Second World War, many of my friends fled into the service, all to be changed there, and rarely for the better, many to be ruined, and many to die. Others fled to other states and cities—that is, to other ghettos. Some went on wine or whiskey or the needle, and are still on it. And others, like me, fled into the church.
People more advantageously placed than we in Harlem were, and are, will no doubt find the psychology and the view of human nature sketched above dismal and shocking in the extreme. But the Negro’s experience of the white world cannot possibly create in him any respect for the standards by which the white world claims to live. His own condition is overwhelming proof that white people do not live by these standards. Negro servants have been smuggling odds and ends out of white homes for generations, and white people have been delighted to have them do it, because it has assuaged a dim guilt and testified to the intrinsic superiority of white people. Even the most doltish and servile Negro could scarcely fail to be impressed by the disparity between his situation and that of the people for whom he worked; Negroes who were neither doltish nor servile did not feel that they were doing anything wrong when they robbed white people. In spite of the Puritan-Yankee equation of virtue with well-being, Negroes had excellent reasons for doubting that money was made or kept by any very striking adherence to the Christian virtues; it certainly did not work that way for black Christians. In any case, white people, who had robbed black people of their liberty and who profited by this theft every hour that they lived, had no moral ground on which to stand. They had the judges, the juries, the shotguns, the law—in a word, power. But it was a criminal power, to be feared but not respected, and to be outwitted in any way whatever. And those virtues preached but not practiced by the white world were merely another means of holding Negroes in subjection.
It turned out, then, that summer, that the moral barriers that I had supposed to exist between me and the dangers of a criminal career were so tenuous as to be nearly nonexistent. I certainly could not discover any principled reason for not becoming a criminal, and it is not my poor, God-fearing parents who are to be indicted for the lack but this society. I was icily determined—more determined, really, than I then knew—never to make my peace with the ghetto but to die and go to Hell before I would let any white man spit on me, before I would accept my “place” in this republic. I did not intend to allow the white people of this country to tell me who I was, and limit me that way, and polish me off that way. And yet, of course, at the same time, I was being spat on and defined and described and limited, and could have been polished off with no effort whatever. Every Negro boy—in my situation during those years, at least—who reaches this point realizes, at once, profoundly, because he wants to live, that he stands in great peril and must find, with speed, a “thing,” a gimmick, to lift him out, to start him on his way. And it does not matter what the gimmick is. It was this last realization that terrified me and—since it revealed that the door opened on so many dangers—helped to hurl me into the church. And, by an unforeseeable paradox, it was my career in the church that turned out, precisely, to be my gimmick.
For when I tried to assess my capabilities, I realized that I had almost none. In order to achieve the life I wanted, I had been dealt, it seemed to me, the worst possible hand. I could not become a prizefighter—many of us tried but very few succeeded. I could not sing. I could not dance. I had been well conditioned by the world in which I grew up, so I did not yet dare take the idea of becoming a writer seriously. The only other possibility seemed to involve my becoming one of the sordid people on the Avenue, who were not really as sordid as I then imagined but who frightened me terribly, both because I did not want to live that life and because of what they made me feel. Everything inflamed me, and that was bad enough, but I myself had also become a source of fire and temptation. I had been far too well raised, alas, to suppose that any of the extremely explicit overtures made to me that summer, sometimes by boys and girls but also, more alarmingly, by older men and women, had anything to do with my attractiveness. On the contrary, since the Harlem idea of seduction is, to put it mildly, blunt, whatever these people saw in me merely confirmed my sense of my depravity.
It is certainly sad that the awakening of one’s senses should lead to such a merciless judgment of oneself—to say nothing of the time and anguish one spends in the effort to arrive at any other—but it is also inevitable that a literal attempt to mortify the flesh should be made among black people like those with whom I grew up. Negroes in this country—and Negroes do not, strictly or legally speaking, exist in any other—are taught really to despise themselves from the moment their eyes open on the world. This world is white and they are black. White people hold the power, which means that they are superior to blacks (intrinsically, that is: God decreed it so), and the world has innumerable ways of making this difference known and felt and feared. Long before the Negro child perceives this difference, and even longer before he understands it, he has begun to react to it, he has begun to be controlled by it. Every effort made by the child’s elders to prepare him for a fate from which they cannot protect him causes him secretly, in terror, to begin to await, without knowing that he is doing so, his mysterious and inexorable punishment. He must be “good” not only in order to please his parents and not only to avoid being punished by them; behind their authority stands another, nameless and impersonal, infinitely harder to please, and bottomlessly cruel. And this filters into the child’s consciousness through his parents’ tone of voice as he is being exhorted, punished, or loved; in the sudden, uncontrollable note of fear heard in his mother’s or his father’s voice when he has strayed beyond some particular boundary. He does not know what the boundary is, and he can get no explanation of it, which is frightening enough, but the fear he hears in the voices of his elders is more frightening still. The fear that I heard in my father’s voice, for example, when he realized that I really believed I could do anything a white boy could do, and had every intention of proving it, was not at all like the fear I heard when one of us was ill or had fallen down the stairs or strayed too far from the house. It was another fear, a fear that the child, in challenging the white world’s assumptions, was putting himself in the path of destruction. A child cannot, thank Heaven, know how vast and how merciless is the nature of power, with what unbelievable cruelty people treat each other. He reacts to the fear in his parents’ voices because his parents hold up the world for him and he has no protection without them. I defended myself, as I imagined, against the fear my father made me feel by remembering that he was very old-fashioned. Also, I prided myself on the fact that I already knew how to outwit him. To defend oneself against a fear is simply to insure that one will, one day, be conquered by it; fears must be faced. As for one’s wits, it is just not true that one can live by them—not, that is, if one wishes really to live. That summer, in any case, all the fears with which I had grown up, and which were now a part of me and controlled my vision of the world, rose up like a wall between the world and me, and drove me into the church.
The summer wore on, and things got worse. I became more guilty and more frightened, and kept all this bottled up inside me, and naturally, inescapably, one night, when this woman had finished preaching, everything came roaring, screaming, crying out, and I fell to the ground before the altar. It was the strangest sensation I have ever had in my life—up to that time, or since. I had not known that it was going to happen, or that it could happen. One moment I was on my feet, singing and clapping and, at the same time, working out in my head the plot of a play I was working on then; the next moment, with no transition, no sensation of falling, I was on my back, with the lights beating down into my face and all the vertical saints above me. I did not know what I was doing down so low, or how I had got there. And the anguish that filled me cannot be described. It moved in me like one of those floods that devastate counties, tearing everything down, tearing children from their parents and lovers from each other, and making everything an unrecognizable waste. All I really remember is the pain, the unspeakable pain; it was as though I were yelling up to Heaven and Heaven would not hear me. And if Heaven would not hear me, if love could not descend from Heaven—to wash me, to make me clean—then utter disaster was my portion. Yes, it does indeed mean something—something unspeakable—to be born, in a white country, an Anglo-Teutonic, antisexual country, black. You very soon, without knowing it, give up all hope of communion. Black people, mainly, look down or look up but do not look at each other, not at you, and white people, mainly, look away. And the universe is simply a sounding drum; there is no way, no way whatever, so it seemed then and has sometimes seemed since, to get through a life, to love your wife and children, or your friends, or your mother and father, or to be loved. The universe, which is not merely the stars and the moon and the planets, flowers, grass, and trees, but other people, has evolved no terms for your existence, has made no room for you, and if love will not swing wide the gates, no other power will or can. And if one despairs—as who has not?—of human love, God’s love alone is left. But God—and I felt this even then, so long ago, on that tremendous floor, unwillingly—is white. And if His love was so great, and if He loved all His children, why were we, the blacks, cast down so far? Why? In spite of all I said thereafter, I found no answer on the floor—not that answer, anyway—and I was on the floor all night. Over me, to bring me “through,” the saints sang and rejoiced and prayed. And in the morning, when they raised me, they told me that I was “save.”
Well, indeed I was, in a way, for I was utterly drained and exhausted, and released, for the first time, from all my guilty torment. I was aware then only of my relief. For many years, I could not ask myself why human relief had to be achieved in a fashion at once so pagan and so desperate—in a fashion at once so unspeakably old and so unutterably new. And by the time I was able to ask myself this question, I was also able to see that the principles governing the rites and customs of the churches in which I grew up did not differ from the principles governing the rites and customs of other churches, white. The principles were Blindness, Loneliness, and Terror, the first principle necessarily and actively cultivated in order to deny the two others. I would love to believe that the principles were Faith, Hope, and Charity, but this is clearly not so for most Christians, or for what we call the Christian world.
I was saved. But at the same time, out of a deep, adolescent cunning I do not pretend to understand, I realized immediately that I could not remain in the church merely as another worshipper. I would have to give myself something to do, in order not to be too bored and find myself among all the wretched unsaved of the Avenue. And I don’t doubt that I also intended to best my father on his own ground. Anyway, very shortly after I joined the church, I became a preacher—a Young Minister—and I remained in the pulpit for more than three years. My youth quickly made me a much bigger drawing card than my father. I pushed this advantage ruthlessly, for it was the most effective means I had found of breaking his hold over me. That was the most frightening time of my life, and quite the most dishonest, and the resulting hysteria lent great passion to my sermons—for a while. I relished the attention and the relative immunity from punishment that my new status gave me, and I relished, above all, the sudden right to privacy. It had to be recognized, after all, that I was still a schoolboy, with my schoolwork to do, and I was also expected to prepare at least one sermon a week. During what we may call my heyday, I preached much more often than that. This meant that there were hours and even whole days when I could not be interrupted—not even by my father. I had immobilized him. It took rather more time for me to realize that I had also immobilized myself, and had escaped from nothing whatever.
He failed his bargain. He was a much better Man than I took Him for. It happened, as things do, imperceptibly, in many ways at once. I date it—the slow crumbling of my faith, the pulverization of my fortress—from the time, about a year after I had begun to preach, when I began to read again. I justified this desire by the fact that I was still in school, and I began, fatally, with Dostoevski. By this time, I was in a high school that was predominantly Jewish. This meant that I was surrounded by people who were, by definition, beyond any hope of salvation, who laughed at the tracts and leaflets I brought to school, and who pointed out that the Gospels had been written long after the death of Christ. This might not have been so distressing if it had not forced me to read the tracts and leaflets myself, for they were indeed, unless one believed their message already, impossible to believe. I remember feeling dimly that there was a kind of blackmail in it. People, I felt, ought to love the Lord because they loved Him, and not because they were afraid of going to Hell. I was forced, reluctantly, to realize that the Bible itself had been written by men, and translated by men out of languages I could not read, and I was already, without quite admitting it to myself, terribly involved with the effort of putting words on paper. Of course, I had the rebuttal ready: These men had all been operating under divine inspiration. Had they? All of them? And I also knew by now, alas, far more about divine inspiration than I dared admit, for I knew how I worked myself up into my own visions, and how frequently—indeed, incessantly—the visions God granted to me differed from the visions He granted to my father. I did not understand the dreams I had at night, but I knew that they were not holy. For that matter, I knew that my waking hours were far from holy. I spent most of my time in a state of repentance for things I had vividly desired to do but had not done. The fact that I was dealing with Jews brought the whole question of color, which I had been desperately avoiding, into the terrified center of my mind. I realized that the Bible had been written by white men. I knew that, according to many Christians, I was a descendant of Ham, who had been cursed, and that I was therefore predestined to be a slave. This had nothing to do with anything I was, or contained, or could become; my fate had been sealed forever, from the beginning of time. And it seemed, indeed, when one looked out over Christendom, that this was what Christendom effectively believed. It was certainly the way it behaved. I remembered the Italian priests and bishops blessing Italian boys who were on their way to Ethiopia.
Again, the Jewish boys in high school were troubling because I could find no point of connection between them and the Jewish pawnbrokers and landlords and grocery-store owners in Harlem. I knew that these people were Jews—God knows I was told it often enough—but I thought of them only as white. Jews, as such, until I got to high school, were all incarcerated in the Old Testament, and their names were Abraham, Moses, Daniel, Ezekiel, and Job, and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. It was bewildering to find them so many miles and centuries out of Egypt, and so far from the fiery furnace. My best friend in high school was a Jew. He came to our house once, and afterward my father asked, as he asked about everyone, “Is he a Christian?”—by which he meant “Is he saved?” I really do not know whether my answer came out of innocence or venom, but I said, coldly, “No. He’s Jewish.” My father slammed me across the face with his great palm, and in that moment everything flooded back—all the hatred and all the fear, and the depth of a merciless resolve to kill my father rather than allow my father to kill me—and I knew that all those sermons and tears and all that repentance and rejoicing had changed nothing. I wondered if I was expected to be glad that a friend of mine, or anyone, was to be tormented forever in Hell, and I also thought, suddenly, of the Jews in another Christian nation, Germany. They were not so far from the fiery furnace after all, and my best friend might have been one of them. I told my father, “He’s a better Christian than you are,” and walked out of the house. The battle between us was in the open, but that was all right; it was almost a relief. A more deadly struggle had begun.
Being in the pulpit was like being in the theatre; I was behind the scenes and knew how the illusion was worked. I knew the other ministers and knew the quality of their lives. And I don’t mean to suggest by this the “Elmer Gantry” sort of hypocrisy concerning sensuality; it was a deeper, deadlier, and more subtle hypocrisy than that, and a little honest sensuality, or a lot, would have been like water in an extremely bitter desert. I knew how to work on a congregation until the last dime was surrendered—it was not very hard to do—and I knew where the money for “the Lord’s work” went. I knew, though I did not wish to know it, that I had no respect for the people with whom I worked. I could not have said it then, but I also knew that if I continued I would soon have no respect for myself. And the fact that I was “the young Brother Baldwin” increased my value with those same pimps and racketeers who had helped to stampede me into the church in the first place. They still saw the little boy they intended to take over. They were waiting for me to come to my senses and realize that I was in a very lucrative business. They knew that I did not yet realize this, and also that I had not yet begun to suspect where my own needs, coming up (they were very patient), could drive me. They themselves did know the score, and they knew that the odds were in their favor. And, really, I knew it, too. I was even lonelier and more vulnerable than I had been before. And the blood of the Lamb had not cleansed me in any way whatever. I was just as black as I had been the day that I was born. Therefore, when I faced a congregation, it began to take all the strength I had not to stammer, not to curse, not to tell them to throw away their Bibles and get off their knees and go home and organize, for example, a rent strike. When I watched all the children, their copper, brown, and beige faces staring up at me as I taught Sunday school, I felt that I was committing a crime in talking about the gentle Jesus, in telling them to reconcile themselves to their misery on earth in order to gain the crown of eternal life. Were only Negroes to gain this crown? Was Heaven, then, to be merely another ghetto? Perhaps I might have been able to reconcile myself even to this if I had been able to believe that there was any loving-kindness to be found in the haven I represented. But I had been in the pulpit too long and I had seen too many monstrous things. I don’t refer merely to the glaring fact that the minister eventually acquires houses and Cadillacs while the faithful continue to scrub floors and drop their dimes and quarters and dollars into the plate. I really mean that there was no love in the church. It was a mask for hatred and self-hatred and despair. The transfiguring power of the Holy Ghost ended when the service ended, and salvation stopped at the church door. When we were told to love everybody, I had thought that that meant every body. But no. It applied only to those who believed as we did, and it did not apply to white people at all. I was told by a minister, for example, that I should never, on any public conveyance, under any circumstances, rise and give my seat to a white woman. White men never rose for Negro women. Well, that was true enough, in the main—I saw his point. But what was the point, the purpose, of my salvation if it did not permit me to behave with love toward others, no matter how they behaved toward me? What others did was their responsibility, for which they would answer when the judgment trumpet sounded. But what I did was my responsibility, and I would have to answer, too—unless, of course, there was also in Heaven a special dispensation for the benighted black, who was not to be judged in the same way as other human beings, or angels. It probably occurred to me around this time that the vision people hold of the world to come is but a reflection, with predictable wishful distortions, of the world in which they live. And this did not apply only to Negroes, who were no more “simple” or “spontaneous” or “Christian” than anybody else—who were merely more oppressed. In the same way that we, for white people, were the descendants of Ham, and were cursed forever, white people were, for us, the descendants of Cain. And the passion with which we loved the Lord was a measure of how deeply we feared and distrusted and, in the end, hated almost all strangers, always, and avoided and despised ourselves.
The word backlash gained popularity in the summer of 1963, when, after dallying on the issue for the first two years of his presidency, President John F. Kennedy proposed significant civil-rights legislation. In response, the word, which had primarily denoted the recoil of a fishing line, was repurposed, usually as “white backlash,” to refer to opposition to the increased pace of African American civil-rights activism or the Kennedy (and, after his assassination in November 1963, the Lyndon B. Johnson) administration’s legislative proposals and executive actions, or both.
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In 1966, a commentator, speaking of “the grand new word, backlash,” claimed without much exaggeration that “just about everything that happened could be (and was) attributed to some form of backlash.” The word came to stand for a topsy-turvy rebellion in which white people with relative societal power perceived themselves as victimized by what they described as overly aggressive African Americans demanding equal rights. Backlash, as the New York Times columnist Tom Wicker wrote, “is nothing more nor less than white resentment of Negroes.”
Moving beyond an opposition to civil rights, the word backlash—less frequently qualified as “white”—quickly became a synonym for a new and growing conservative force, signifying a virulent counterreaction to all manner of social movements and cultural transformations that became central to American politics. Over time, observers noted manifestations of this reaction in a “Southern backlash,” a “male backlash,” a “heterosexual backlash,” a “property tax backlash” and a “backlash against environmentalists.” Just a month after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, a journalist described the United States as being in the midst of “a multitude of backlashes.” But as one commentator pointed out, “The word which gave rise to all sorts of other ‘lashes’ was coined in reference to white opposition to Negro gains.”
Since then, such framing has done more than merely shape the politics of reaction in the United States; it has also constrained putatively supportive political leaders, who live in fear of setting off backlashes. Responding to a moderate plan to enfranchise only free blacks in Louisiana in 1864, the Union general Nathaniel P. Banks, worrying about a negative response from the state’s whites, who were being defeated in the Civil War, said, “Revolutions which are not controlled and held within reasonable limits produce counter-revolution.” That obeisance to a defeated group in 1864 was an extreme version of a general pattern that has remained a hallmark of backlashes ever since: solicitousness to white fears.
For many white backlashers in the 1960s, the era of what the historian C. Vann Woodward called the “second Reconstruction,” the first Reconstruction remained a negative model. They viewed its reform as overly fast-paced, and felt that it foregrounded black civil rights at the cost of white people’s peace of mind. They associated civil-rights activism with what popular historians and commentators of the day called the “excesses” of Reconstruction, by which they meant a combination of “militant” African American demands for basic equality with overweening, aggressive, and hasty federal action in support of interracial democracy. Thurman Sensing of the Southern States Industrial Council, a conservative business group, described the civil-rights movement in 1966 as an effort to force “the Reconstruction of American customs,” showing the degree to which the post–Civil War campaign for racial equality remained a central metaphor for white backlashers. The journalist in December 1963 who noted the political power of those opposed to “Negro pressure for equal opportunity and the Federal Government’s pace on the Civil Rights front,” could just as easily have been describing the origins of the counterrevolution of the 1870s.
Since reconstruction, many backlash campaigns have imposed a politics of white fragility and frustration onto racial-equality struggles. Reporting on the “hate vote” in The Saturday Evening Post, in October 1964, one month before the presidential election, Ben H. Bagdikian highlighted the “churning, emotional conflict within each voter,” by which he meant white people. He noted that the backlashers “are not against a better life for the Negro, but they are strongly against this being achieved at the cost of white tranquility.” The elevation of “tranquility” over equal justice for all was a hallmark of backlash discourse, which ranked white feelings over black rights.
Backlashers understood civil rights as zero-sum, and therefore treated campaigns for African American equality as an inexcusable undermining of what they saw as deserved white privileges and prerogatives. A New York Times poll revealed, in condensed form, the emotional landscape of the white backlash: “Northern white urbanites have no sympathy for the Negro’s plight, and believe the Civil Rights movement has gone too far, while a considerable percentage believes Negroes ‘don’t appreciate what we’re doing for them.’” The extension of sympathy, such as being in favor of a “better life for the Negro,” was, then, conditional on personal convenience and easily withdrawn. “In general, the persons interviewed were mildly in favor of a better break for Negroes—as long as it wouldn’t affect them personally,” the reporter Dave Allbaugh observed in 1963.
White backlashers did not just wallow in their fear, anger, and resentment. In broadcasting these feelings widely, they shaped the limits of acceptable reform. Recommending a “go-slow course,” they could extend sympathy or not, and sought to determine when equal rights crossed the line into “special privileges.” A reporter noted “the apprehension of suburbanites and others in white neighborhoods that their residential areas will face an influx of Negroes.” In this worldview, whites presented themselves as victims, the crimes perpetrated against them by campaigns for equality were anxiety, inconvenience, and fear. Long before the passage of the Civil Rights Act, a politician told the Post’s Roberts in October 1963, “For the first time, I’m getting mail from white people saying, ‘Wait a minute, we’ve got rights too.’” The “too” was especially telling because at that time a large number of African Americans still lacked federal protection for basic civil and voting rights.
Throughout what we might call the “backlash era,” African Americans offered a clear-eyed analysis and robust critique of backlashes and white defenses of them, taking them to be, as the ex-baseball star and longtime activist Jackie Robinson put it in a 1966 New York Amsterdam News article, “a great big fat alibi for bigotry.” Whereas many white observers in the early 1960s highlighted the novelty of white backlash, Martin Luther King Jr. more accurately called it “a new name for an old phenomenon” that “had always existed underneath and sometimes on the surface of American life.” Langston Hughes wrote a poem, “The Backlash Blues,” which Nina Simone later set to music and recorded.
Perhaps Lorraine Hansberry most directly put her finger on the issue in a June 1964 talk titled “The Black Revolution and the White Backlash,” which she gave at the Town Hall in New York City. She spoke during an event organized by the Association of Artists for Freedom, a group of African American artists and intellectuals, about two weeks before the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Pointing to the long history of the black-liberation struggle, Hansberry said, “The charge of impatience is simply unbearable.” Her request to the “white liberal to stop being a liberal and to become a radical” was largely a call for those liberals to recognize that the true victims of racism were not resentful white Americans but African Americans demanding equality.
Using the same phrase that General Banks had employed a century earlier, but to different purposes, a columnist wrote that the proper way to understand white backlash was as “a counter-revolution against the black man.” Counterrevolution is a phrase that Americans rarely use to describe our politics. But it is not unfair or inaccurate to apply this label to white backlash, whose explicit goal was to slow or halt the civil-rights revolution.
The backlashers lost a number of key political battles in the 1960s, the decade in which they got their name. From Reconstruction to the New Deal, they had been vanquished before, and they’ve been defeated more recently, too, in a variety of areas—LBGTQ rights, for example. But both before and since, the preemptive politics of grievance and anti-egalitarianism they championed, whereby the psychology of privilege takes center stage while the needs of the oppressed are forced to wait in the wings, has left a deforming and reactionary imprint on our political culture. It has done so not just by emboldening reactionaries but by making the fear of setting off backlashes a standard element of the political conversation.
Consider, as examples, when last year the economist Larry Summers tweeted about the dangers of a wealth tax “boomerang,” and David Brooks warned about the “ugly backlash” that would likely follow an impeachment trial. Or, in a similar vein, when the columnist Ross Douthat wrote that if the Democrats adopt the Green New Deal, it “will empower climate-change skeptics, weaken the hand of would-be compromisers in the GOP” and “possibly help Donald Trump win re-election.” In this way, backlash politics has become a constraint on modern liberalism.
“Please don’t be too nice,” Donald Trump told an audience of police officers on Long Island in 2017, in a speech largely focused on the MS-13 gang. The audience laughed. “When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in, rough. I said, ‘Please don’t be too nice.’”
Floyd’s killing has sparked nationwide protests, despite the fact that the coronavirus outbreak, which has killed more than 100,000 Americans and left 40 million without work, is still killing about 1,000 people a day in the United States. Those Americans who were disproportionately dying from a plague came out in force to protest being murdered by their government. Trump, who ran as the “law and order” candidate, now presides over the very “American carnage” he vowed to end.
A different president might have tried to quell the unrest and unify the nation, but Trump is incapable of that. He cannot rally Americans around a common identity or interest, because his presidency is a rejection of the concept, an affirmation of the conviction that America’s traditional social hierarchies are good and just. He is hardly the first president to embrace those hierarchies as unassailably virtuous, but he is the first in decades to do so openly. Law and order, for this president, simply means that he and his ideological allies are above the law, while others, such as Floyd, are merely subject to it. The chaos sweeping across the United States has many causes, but the one over which the president has the most control is the culture of lawlessness and impunity he has cultivated and embraced. When you attempt to impose “law and order” without justice, you get chaos.
The moral core of the protests is a simple demand: that police who abuse their authority be held accountable, that black Americans be able to live free lives without fearing that they will be cut short by a chance encounter with law enforcement. This demand clashes with the history of the United States, in which the ideal of equal justice coexists uneasily with the tacit understanding of many Americans that guarding the color line is one of law enforcement’s obligations, a commitment that has existed from slavery to the beating of marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, Ronald Reagan blamed the activist for his own murder, hissing that King’s death was the kind of “great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order.”
When a white dog-walker in Central Park threatened to call the police on a black bird-watcher and tell them that “an African American man is threatening my life,” she was leveraging their mutual understanding that the police exist to protect white people from black people. This is why Chauvin and his fellow officers thought nothing of him being videotaped as he dug his knee into Floyd’s neck, and why authorities in Georgia saw no crime in the stalking and killing of Ahmaud Arbery. Integrating police departments was meant to help align law enforcement with its stated ideals, but as in every other area of public policy, correcting centuries of tradition is an arduous task, even if one is sincerely committed to it.
The president, a man who once called for the execution of five black and Hispanic teenagers for a crime they did not commit, is not just skeptical of reform. He views the violent enforcement of the color line as an honorable calling, and one that police officers should embrace rather than reject. Decades after taking out a newspaper ad demanding that New York “Bring back the death penalty and bring back our police!” the president still refuses to acknowledge the innocence of the Central Park Five. If they were not guilty of the actual crime, they were guilty of being the kind of people he wanted the police to crack down on.
Trump has few ideological convictions as consistent as his belief in the redemptive power of state violence against religious and ethnic minorities. During the 2016 campaign, Trump regaled audiences with tales of apocryphal war crimes against Muslims by American service members, then he pardoned service members who engaged in actual war crimes. He vowed to disregard the constitutional rights of anyone suspected of being an undocumented immigrant, then he pardoned Joe Arpaio, an Arizona sheriff famous for violating those rights.
Remarks like those the president made on Long Island are often dismissed by the president’s defenders as just an artifact of his brash personality. Hardly. The Trump administration has worked diligently to turn the president’s affection for extralegal cruelty against religious and ethnic minorities into public policy, from the Trump-era toddler jails for migrants to his anti-Muslim travel ban. As with the prior examples, Trump’s encouragement of police brutality is far more than bluster.
During the Obama administration, the civil-rights division of the Justice Department undertook an aggressive effort to root out unconstitutional policing practices, initiating more such investigations than any prior administration. The authority it relied on was authored by police reformers and tucked into the now-disfavored 1994 crime bill, drafted in part by the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden. Its inclusion in the bill was a response to the beating of Rodney King and the riots that followed the acquittal of the officers who attacked him. In other words, in 2017, the Trump administration took a provision of the law passed to prevent police brutality and the unrest it sparks, crumpled it up, and threw it in the trash.
In Miami, Obama-era investigators found “egregiously long delays in concluding administrative investigations of officer-involved shootings.” In Chicago, they found a widespread pattern of abuses hidden by “police officers’ code of silence,” which included lying and “affirmative efforts to conceal evidence.” In Baltimore, which was rocked by riots following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in 2015, investigators discovered “repeated violations of … constitutional and statutory rights, further eroding the community’s trust in the police.” In Ferguson, Missouri, an investigation following the protests and riots sparked by the killing of Michael Brown found that local police had set “maximizing revenue as the priority,” not solving crime, leading to officers crushing the town’s impoverished black residents with fines and fees designed to finance the local government. If the Trump administration had not abandoned any effort at police oversight, it might have discovered that Minnesota police had rendered dozens of suspects unconscious with the same knee restraint that killed Floyd.
Among the police forces investigated was the Suffolk County Police Department, the jurisdiction where Trump gave his speech extolling the virtues of police brutality. The department entered into a federal-supervision agreement in 2014 to take measures to avoid discriminating against Hispanic residents.
The Justice Department’s probes were not criminal investigations. Their purpose was to curb police abuses and, by doing so, to improve local law-enforcement agencies’ relationships with their communities and reduce crime. When a local community lives in fear of the police, its members will minimize their interactions with cops as much as possible, lest they end up like Floyd.
Ideally, overseeing police misconduct would be the job of local elected officials. But what appears to be a public-policy problem is also a problem of political power. Local leaders cower in fear of the power of police unions, whose political interests include not just securing higher wages and benefits or better equipment and overtime pay, but impunity for criminal behavior.
“Many of these unions have pushed collective bargaining agreements that make it all but impossible for departments to punish, much less fire, officers,” as BuzzFeed News’ Melissa Segura has written. “These agreements defang civilian review boards and police internal affairs departments, and they even prevent police chiefs from providing meaningful oversight, according to community activists and civil rights lawyers. Meanwhile, the unions have set up legal slush funds to defend officers sued for misconduct.”
The approach of many police unions both reinforces the code of silence for police abuse and makes officers whose consciences are troubled less likely to intervene, because the social costs of speaking out are so much greater than the possibility that a corrupt officer will face justice for breaking the law.
“It’s tough when somebody witnesses something and they want to speak up against it. You feel like if you do speak up, you’ll end up looking like the bad guy. Now people don’t want to talk to you,” Michael Baysmore, a black former cop in Baltimore, told BuzzFeed News in 2016. “And if nothing even happens to the person you spoke up against, it’s almost like, what’s the point?”
The extent of police unions’ power was illustrated this weekend, when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, elected as a police reformer, defended cops plowing through protesters with cars even as the local sergeants’ union doxxed his daughter for participating in the protests.
The Obama administration’s reform efforts, although ultimately aimed at improving policing, were seen by the police unions as a “war on cops,” because they threatened the impunity to which their organizations aspired. By 2015, the ubiquity of cellphone cameras and their ability to document for white audiences the shocking regularity of lethal encounters between police and black Americans had led some police-union officials to reconsider their approach. But the rise of Donald Trump, and his unqualified embrace of both racial discrimination and official impunity for law enforcement, offered new political possibilities.
Police departments themselves are not monolithic—some actually rejected Sessions’s offer to rescind federal-oversight agreements—and some law-enforcement organizations, those run by black officers in particular, have tried to rectify the profession’s history of discrimination. But the political power of police unions, the impunity granted by police contracts, and the culture of silence enforced by both leave little room for dissent, with isolation and ignominy as a reward for those who do. The entrenched legal doctrine of qualified immunity ensures that the most egregious violations of the Constitution cannot be addressed in civil court. A system that so efficiently stifles accountability cannot be overcome by the good intentions of individual officers. It is a system that ensures, as a matter of design, that bad apples remain to spoil the batch. And that was before the president encouraged police to engage in brutality for its own sake.
The head of the police union in Minneapolis, Bob Kroll, decried the Obama administration’s “handcuffing and oppression of the police” at a Trump rally in 2019. On Monday, Kroll released a letter complaining that the four police officers who had been fired over Floyd’s death had been denied “due process.” Floyd, who was being detained on suspicion of forgery, was to blame for his own death, because of his “violent criminal history.” This is a worldview that is consonant with Trumpism, in that it imagines being democratically accountable to those you regard as beneath you as tyranny, and the unquestioned authority to impose your will on those people as freedom. But amidst the president’s vocal encouragement of police brutality, his administration’s conscious abdication of oversight, and the police unions’ fanatical resistance to accountability, the condemnations of Floyd’s killing from Trump and his allies ring hollow.
This agenda of impunity for police who break the law has merged flawlessly with President Trump’s belief in impunity for himself and his allies. Both political philosophies envision a line drawn between those who are protected by the law and those who are subject to it. As Trump’s second attorney general, William Barr, articulated with chilling clarity, communities that protest police abuses “might find themselves without the police protection they need.” This principle does not apply to the president or other members of the ruling party in good standing—merely to Americans whose rights have historically been easily revocable, and occasionally to those who express solidarity with them.
As the historian Rick Perlstein recounts in Nixonland, when asked by a black reporter what law and order meant, Nixon replied, “To me law and order must be combined with justice. Now that’s what I want for America. I want the kind of law and order that deserves respect.” Reporters today do not bother asking Trump what law and order means, because everyone already understands that it simply means violence.
Trump has dispensed with any pretense of seeking justice, and the Trump-era Republican Party has closed every possible path for reforming the police. Federal oversight of police is oppression. Elected officials who seek police reform have “blood on their hands.” The exercise of prosecutorial discretion by district attorneys is “anti-law enforcement” when it involves “seeking sentences that are pathetically lenient,” in the words of Barr, who has meanwhile busied himself with bailing out the president’s criminal associates. Those who challenge police abuses are not even allowed the dignity of protesting in silence. This is not the rule of law; it is the rule of might, and it is devoid of anything resembling justice.
After Floyd’s death, Minneapolis erupted in protests, including riots that began last Wednesday night and lasted through the weekend. The protests spread across the country, and in some cases so did the violence. In an atmosphere of lawlessness, opportunists looking to harm others, cause destruction, vandalize, or steal will attach themselves to whatever legitimate cause they can find. Those acting out of rage or grief may do the same. But whether motivated by rage, greed, or outright malice, such criminal acts cannot discredit demands for police accountability, or justify police brutality. They cannot repeal the Constitution.
Many police departments across the country seem determined to escalate rather than prevent violence. Videos of protests have shown “police officers in recent nights using batons, tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets on protesters, bystanders and journalists, often without warning or seemingly unprovoked,” as The New York Times reported. This was Barr’s prophecy: an ungrateful public, protesting the unjust taking of human lives by law enforcement, punished for the foolish belief that their rights were inalienable. A First Amendment that guarantees the freedom to criticize the government only when you do not criticize the government is meaningless.
For a century, such riots in America have followed a familiar script—there is an incident of police brutality that goes unpunished, a protest, an escalation by police, and then a riot. These incidents are icebergs—the precipitating event and the destruction that follows are merely what can be seen above the surface. Underneath lie years of anger, abuse, and neglect. We do not know how the president’s encouragement of such abuse has shaped policing in the cities now rocked by protests, because his Justice Department has willingly blinded itself to the answer.
There is no romance in the destruction. Riots are, for the communities in which they occur, desperate acts of self-immolation, with consequences that can last for decades. Yet the historical record shows that the authorities often avoid taking the grievances of such communities seriously until buildings start burning. Only then do those who previously dismissed nonviolent protests against police brutality, or participated in belittling or silencing them, begin to pay attention and ask what would move such people to violence.
Such riots are, in the long run, devastating for all involved. But a legal and political system that sees no crime in the murder of black Americans by police until things are set on fire leaves black Americans with two terrible options: acquiescing to a system in which your life does not matter, or engaging in acts of destruction and self-destruction that persuade authorities to treat the needless taking of a life by police officers as a crime worth investigating, let alone punishing.
To say that a grievance is justified is not to justify every action taken by the aggrieved. But as a nation, we bear particular responsibility for the violence committed by police. We do not pay civilian rioters and looters with taxpayer dollars and empower them with the authority to use lethal force to protect our rights and our persons, as we do with police officers. That authority is a power granted by the people, and if it is abused, it must be withdrawn.
Most of Trump’s predecessors in the 20th century, including Nixon, who believed black people unfit for self-government, preoccupied themselves with preserving the credibility of an unequal justice system. By forswearing even that, by publicly reveling in the idea that state violence should be used to affirm America’s traditional social hierarchies, by denying the very legitimacy of both private protest and social reform, the Trump administration has undermined respect for the law more than any radical left-wing professor or hotheaded activist. The president sees the law as a thing of mere violence, a matter of who has enough guns to enforce their will. You can make people fear the law at gunpoint, but you cannot make them respect it.
Editor’s note: On Wednesday, June 3 at 1 p.m., the author will co-host Justice and Equity in a Time of National Racial Crisis: A Community Conversation. Sign up and join here.
American cities are in upheaval, awakened by the duel pandemics of COVID-19 and white supremacy, which has resulted in 40 million people out of work and the spectacle of George Floyd’s death at the hands of the Minneapolis police.
Dozens of American cities are experiencing a scale of protests, clashes between police and demonstrators, and National Guard deployments not seen since the “long hot summers” of racial discontent and crisis that characterized much of the 1960s. Sympathy protests in Berlin and London’s Trafalgar Square outside the U.S. Embassy have drawn thousands of demonstrators who not only insist that “Black Lives Matter!” but reflect widespread global resistance against racial injustice manifested in the criminal justice system.
We are witnessing a level of national civil unrest that recalls the aftermath of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968, when 125 cities exploded in protest and violence. From peaceful demonstrations to clashes between protesters and Secret Service agents outside the White House, a national racial crisis is unfurling before our very eyes.
The public execution of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, by Minneapolis police last week has sparked national protests that have, in some instances, evolved into open political rebellion contoured by violent skirmishes between police and demonstrators and the destruction of property. Racial unrest gripping major American cities, against the backdrop of the global COVID-19 pandemic, reflects the contemporary magnitude of racial injustice.
A national tragedy should be turned into a generational opportunity
The inhumanity of Floyd’s death heaped further indignity on African American communities suffering disproportionately from the brutal effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Black folk have been diagnosed with, and died from, COVID-19 at alarming rates. The killing of George Floyd represents a national tragedy that should be turned into a generational opportunity.
Black death at the hands of the police is not new. Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests erupted in 2014, turning a hashtag commemorating the mounting number of African Americans killed, assaulted, and brutalized by the police and displayed in social media, into a social movement that combined the non-violent civil disobedience of the civil rights era with Black Power’s structural critique of white supremacy and anti-Black racism.
BLM activists argued that America’s criminal justice system represents a gateway to panoramic systems of racial and economic oppression. The criminalization of poverty has long roots, but the past four decades have institutionalized systems of punishment that have deepened and exacerbated racial inequality. During the 1980s and 1990s, as violence, crime, and poverty raged against the backdrop of the crack cocaine explosion, both Democrats and Republicans competed with each other over how best to criminalize black inner city residents. Ronald Reagan’s tough on crime rhetoric and policies begat George H.W. Bush’s use of Willie Horton and Bill Clinton’s crime and welfare “reforms” that further criminalized black communities and made it virtually impossible to successfully re-enter society by blocking avenues to employment, education, and housing after release.
The eruption of the BLM movement during the second term of Barack Obama, America’s first black president, illustrates how deeply entrenched the issues related to George Floyd’s death are. Donald J. Trump’s open embrace of white supremacists—from Charlottesville, Virginia’s 2017 demonstrations that left one woman dead to anti-government militias that marched to the Michigan state house in defiance of shelter-in-place orders armed with semi-automatic weapons—has fanned the flames of racial intolerance, police violence against black communities, and racially inflammatory.
Austin is implicated in America’s tragic racial history
Austin is implicated in America’s tragic racial history, from the 1928 “Master Plan” that institutionalized racial segregation as citywide policy, to the decades-long efforts to fully integrate the University of Texas, to the gentrification of the historic East Side neighborhood at the cost of longstanding black residents, businesses, and communities. Racial integration in Austin has since proceeded in fits and starts, with segregated public schools and neighborhoods remaining the comfortable norm. Gentrification along the city’s East Side has largely displaced Austin’s historic black residents who find themselves compelled to depart neighborhoods just as they are flooded with the kind of investment that attracts white families, creates high achieving schools, increases home owner values, and thriving communities.
As if to acknowledge this history, activists blocked Interstate-35 on Saturday, the highway serving as a barrier between black and white Austin by design, locking Austin’s African American communities from access to white spaces, properties, and power.
The problems of racial segregation, poverty, and criminal justice that have scarred Minneapolis are national, impact Austin and other major cities around the country and, indeed, the world.
Austin, one of the nation’s fastest growing, wealthiest, and well positioned urban cities, has a unique opportunity to emerge as a national leader on the issue of racial justice.
The University of Texas at Austin, with the motto that “what happens here changes the world,” can be a major part of the city’s much needed transition from its current status as an enviable hub of technology, education, venture capital, and music into a national incubator of social justice, equity, inclusion, and full citizenship for all Austinites.
On this score the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, a center devoted to research, study, and social policy impact at the intersection of civil rights, race, and democracy, will be sponsoring an event designed to build community, forge networks, and problem-solve around issues of racial injustice that reverberate from Minneapolis to Austin and beyond. Justice and Equity in a Time of National Racial Crisis: A Community Conversation will feature Mayor Steve Adler, Councilwoman Natasha Harper-Madison, Councilwoman Alison Alter and be moderated by myself and Jeremi Suri, my colleague at the LBJ School of Public Affairs.
The protests erupting around the nation attest to a dearth of national leadership on race matters and the very meaning of American democracy. In times of national crisis—from the Great Depression to the Second World War to Civil Rights and 9-11—we come to better understand ourselves as Americans.
The fact that George Floyd could outlive the COVID-19 pandemic only to run into the even deadlier virus of white supremacy is both a national tragedy and a generational opportunity.
An opportunity to confront deep-seated racial inequities plaguing Austin
All of us can and must do more. From civil rights and faith communities to education, political, and business leaders, we must seize the combined tragedies of a pandemic that has killed more than 100,000 Americans and the tragedy of another unjustified killing of a black person at the hands of our justice system as an opportunity to finally confront deep-seated racial inequities that plague this city as much as any other.
Austin can turn this national moment of grief and mourning into a marker of public shame or a symbol of American renewal, with the knowledge that our city led the way in recognizing that a full commitment to anti-racist public policy and racial justice would allow us to achieve the community and nation we dream about.
How does an anti-racist Austin look? We can start by acknowledging the stubborn persistence of racial segregation in our city’s public schools and neighborhoods, a fact that amplifies opportunity gaps in education, employment, and housing and helps to create a feedback loop of racial disparities in rates of poverty, treatment before the criminal justice system, access to electoral politics, small business loans, venture capital and so much more. We must identify and understand negative disparities as part of systemic racism rather than behavior deficiencies in black people. We must root out injustice and inequities based on race in our policies, forging a community where racial equity centers our public conversation about the larger political good. So many Austinites of good will recognize aspects of the problem, but are unsure of where to begin, what organization to join, what would be the best use of their resources.
The Center for the Study of Race and Democracy’s Justice and Equity event is the first step in what we hope will be a socially impactful, politically relevant, and politically transformative movement in Austin to not only redress past mistakes but to acknowledge, repair, and build a future Austin worthy of our citizens.
Peniel E. Joseph is an American scholar, teacher, and leading public voice on race issues who holds a joint professorship appointment at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the History Department in the College of Liberal Arts at The University of Texas at Austin.
America’s willful ignorance about Black lives
This could be a watershed moment for the threats that Black Americans face, but only if political leaders and citizens refuse to accept anything less than real reform.
“The reason that Black people are in the streets,” the acclaimed American writer James Baldwin said in 1968, “has to do with the lives they are forced to lead in this country. And they are forced to lead these lives by the indifference and the apathy and a certain kind of ignorance, a very willful ignorance, on the part of their co-citizens.” A half century later, Baldwin’s wrenching words reverberate in an America where thousands of protesters across dozens of cities have taken to the streets over the past three days despite a deadly pandemic. The country they are objecting to is one where a police officer kneels on the neck of a Black man until he dies, knowing it is all being caught on camera; the country where, after a Black jogger in a white neighborhood is shot to death in broad daylight, the killers go weeks without facing charges; the country where police officers can shoot a young Black woman eight times in her own apartment after entering unannounced with a warrant for someone who did not live there.
In this America, the president tweets out dog whistles to white supremacists and threatens protesters with violence. Never mind that the same president encouraged protests just a few weeks ago that culminated in the storming of the Michigan Capitol by armed white vigilantes.
“Everybody knows, no matter what they do not know, that they wouldn’t like to be a Black man in this country,” Baldwin said in 1968. The ills he spoke of remain; some have even worsened. Stark income and wealth gaps persist along racial lines, failing schools and paltry social services put a giant foot on the scale against Black youth, biased judges and juries disproportionately imprison Black men, and the severe health disparities suffered by Black Americans now include a higher death rate from COVID-19. But the most poignant picture of racial injustice in America is repainted in blood whenever a police officer, armed and sanctioned by the state and wearing the uniform of the law, kills a Black citizen with impunity. With the video of the death of George Floyd under the knee of white Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin, Black Americans once again relive a brutal nightmare that dates back to the country’s founding. Their lives are deemed dispensable, even and sometimes especially by those whose job it is to enforce the law.
And on Tuesday, the day after the incident, it took civil unrest in the streets to spur his arrest and murder charges on Friday. The three officers who helped him during the arrest, who either held George Floyd down or stood by as he said he could not breathe and cried out for his mother, have not faced charges. The camera footage shows a group of officers who acted as if they knew they would not be punished.
It is a form of Baldwin’s “willful ignorance” that the country’s politicians, policy makers, prosecutors, and police departments have not done more to prevent and punish acts of violence against Black people on the part of police and it is a form of willful ignorance that more citizens are not outraged. Piecemeal reforms to diversify police forces, train officers to de-escalate conflict, and require body cameras have fallen abysmally short in protecting Black people from errant law enforcement officers. Derek Chauvin had nearly 20 complaints and two letters of reprimand filed against him and had opened fire on two people before he knelt on the neck of George Floyd. Across the country, there is still too little accountability for police, including here in Boston, where the city has stopped releasing stop-and-frisk data.
It is striking that chiefs of police around the nation quickly condemned the incident that led to George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. But over the past few days, what has followed such political statements are violent confrontations between police and protesters and between police and journalists in many cities. Law enforcement officers have driven vehicles through crowds, tear-gassed protesters, and opened fire with rubber bullets on journalists. For the people on the streets who are exploiting the unrest and endangering others, arrests are justified. But numerous accounts point to acts of disproportionate police violence in response to peaceful protests.
That more and more Americans are refusing to accept the violence against Black Americans presents political leaders and law enforcement agencies around the nation with an imperative to act. State and federal lawmakers must use this moment to enact bolder policy reforms than those to date to reduce sentencing disparities, raise juvenile justice ages to keep young people out of the prison system, reform civil service laws that make it hard to hold cops accountable for wrongdoing, and strengthen civilian police-oversight boards. Police departments across the nation should press for the authority to remove officers who have any history of racial violence or aggression toward citizens; police chiefs should show that they have zero tolerance for such acts. They must send a loud and clear message that the era of sanctioned police violence against Black citizens is over.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.
A Minneapolis police officer knelt on the neck of an African-American man named George Floyd for several minutes on Monday, as Floyd begged the officer to stop, said, “I can’t breathe,” and eventually lost consciousness. Floyd, who was forty-six, was pronounced dead at a hospital that evening. After video footage of Floyd’s asphyxiation, which was taken by bystanders, circulated online, the mayor of Minneapolis, Jacob Frey, announced on Tuesday that the four officers who had been at the scene had been fired. “This is the right call,” Frey said on Twitter. “Being Black in America should not be a death sentence.” The police had responded to a call that Floyd had used a forged check at a nearby deli and, in their first statement about the incident, noted only that he appeared to be “suffering medical distress.”
On Tuesday, the F.B.I. joined Minnesota’s criminal investigation of the incident, as Floyd’s family called for the four officers to be charged with murder. That afternoon, thousands of people gathered for protests in the streets of Minneapolis, which were followed that evening by clashes between riot police and protesters outside a precinct station. Protesters chanted “I can’t breathe,” which became a Black Lives Matter slogan after the death of Eric Garner, in New York, in 2014. The Minneapolis area has been the site of several contested police shootings and Black Lives Matter protests—most notably, after Philando Castile was pulled over and fatally shot by police in a suburb of Saint Paul, in 2016. The officer who killed Castile was fired from the police department but acquitted of manslaughter.
On Wednesday, I spoke by phone with Leslie Redmond, who, at twenty-eight, is an attorney and the president of the Minneapolis chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we talked about racial inequities in Minneapolis, how activists are thinking about protests in the midst of a pandemic, and what steps she wants authorities to take regarding Floyd’s death.
What have the past couple days been like in the Minneapolis area?
It has been crazy. People on the ground are very upset and sad and disheartened, and rightfully so. I think about our young people, and how hard they are taking this. If people put it into perspective, for young people, they have grown up their entire lives watching black bodies murdered on social media, in real time, with no grief counsellors, with no therapy, with no one to help them make sense of it. And, to be honest, I don’t even know if we could make sense of it if we wanted to, because we are all just outraged and trying to figure it out.
What I have also seen, though, is black leaders coming together, and I am super thankful for Medaria Arradondo, who is the first African-American police chief we have ever had in Minneapolis. The way that he stepped up and brought us together during this time is just so honorable, and I know we wouldn’t be having the progress we are having if he wasn’t the police chief. And I think about five years ago—in the fall before Philando Castile, there was Jamar Clark, who was killed by police officers in Minneapolis. We had a completely different police chief, a woman named Janeé Harteau, and it was horrible. It was a completely different response. You didn’t see any action or accountability. [The Minneapolis Police Department conducted an internal investigation of Clark’s shooting and determined that the officers had not violated its use-of-force policy.] So for Chief Arradondo to do the right thing and fire all four of those officers, and for the mayor to support him, was a major step in the right direction. It doesn’t take away from the pain and hurt people are feeling on the ground, but it moves us in the right direction of getting some justice for Mr. Floyd.
What is your level of trust in the mayor on these issues?
I am thankful for Mayor Frey. I think he has been showing good leadership. But it is not just about what happens in this specific situation and this moment. It is about what follows it. Minnesota has some of the worst racial disparities in the nation. I tell people that even before covid-19 we were in a state of emergency, and then that put us into a state of emergency times two. And now imagine having to deal with a black man being murdered by the government, by police officers, during this global pandemic. And so the burden has just been added to African-American communities, but the resources and the support have not been added. There has been no big lump sum that was poured into the community for us to pour into ourselves. And so that’s what I mean about it not just being about this moment—it’s about the moment that will follow, and the resources and communication that will follow this moment.
There were some demonstrations last night, but how do you think about organizing and marching and protests when there is a pandemic going on?
Protests are essential, and they have always been a part of the strategy. They are a tactic. But we are protesting to build power, and that is what people have to understand. A lot of people don’t really understand what goes on before and after. Black leadership was in communication with Chief Arradondo and in physical meetings with Chief Arradondo since 10 a.m. that morning. The protests didn’t start until 5 p.m. And so there was a lot of work being done before and after.
At the protests, for people who were on the ground originally, there was a really good effort and intent to push people back. And not only did most of the people in the crowd have masks on, but there were community organizations passing out masks, as they were already doing because of covid-19. People asked why I didn’t have one on. Because of the tear gas, a lot of us had to remove our masks, but it wasn’t people blatantly trying to not social-distance and protect themselves.
Protesting feels generally like a much harder thing to do, with so many additional complications now.
It’s very complicated, and the reality of the situation is that we shouldn’t be in it. That is the biggest issue here. Had even one of these officers stepped up to say, “Hey, this man is in handcuffs already. He is down on the ground. He doesn’t need officers on his neck and back for over three minutes, with bystanders pleading, and telling you he is bleeding and that he can’t breathe.”
And, you know, Isaac, one of my biggest things is that this is not just a civil-rights issue—this is a human-rights issue, and the fact is that black people’s humanity is being denied constantly. And I worry about the humanity of individuals, and not just the police, because we know a lot of black people are dying at the hands of non-police officers. But specifically police officers—how can they turn off their humanity and kill black people in cold blood for what a lot of the time seems like nothing? It reminds you of much of the history of lynching in America. And now we are just being lynched without the ropes.
Following several nationally publicized police killings of unarmed Black Americans in the United States, Eva L., a fitness instructor who identifies as Black, started to experience what she describes as “immense paranoia.” She would often call in sick, because she feared risking an encounter with police upon leaving her house. She also started to second-guess her and her husband’s decision to have children. “Seeing Black bodies murdered and physical/emotional violence online and on the news” was a trauma she could no longer bear, Eva says. “I was terrified of bringing a child into the world we live in and experience as Black people. I thought not having kids was a truer sign of love than risk them being harmed by this world.”
A recent study sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania—released just before the anniversaries of the deaths of Eric Garner (2014), Michael Brown (2014), John Crawford (2014), and Philando Castile (2016)—found that there could be millions like Eva, for whom these killings have been a mental health trigger. Research included data from the Mapping Police Violence Project database for police killings between 2013 and 2016 and information from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System of over 103,000 Black Americans. The results indicate that police killings of unarmed Black Americans are having a population-level impact on the mental health of Black Americans.
According to researchers, the incidents may contribute to 1.7 additional poor mental health days per person every year, or 55 million more poor mental health days every year among Black Americans across the United States. That means the mental health burden for African Americans caused by police killings of unarmed Black victims is nearly as great as the mental health burden associated with diabetes. African Americans have some of the highest rates of the disease, which contributes annually to 75 million days of poor mental health among them.
African Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population but they accounted for 26 percent of people fatally shot by police in 2015 and 2016. While the death of a loved one can be tragic for the family and community of any police-shooting victim regardless of race, the study reveals that there is a deeper trauma for African Americans, related to the victim or not. Eva started seeing a therapist who diagnosed her as having generalized anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s been two years now, and she admits that her progress toward healing has been slow, yet steady. Jacob Bor, co-author of the study and assistant professor at the Boston University School of Public Health, says the responses in his social circle to police killings of unarmed Black victims is what interested him in conducting this study. Bor noticed that White people were able to comprehend “the injustice on an intellectual level but did not experience the same level of trauma.”
The study findings confirmed Bor’s personal observations. The research team did not observe spillover mental health effects in White respondents from police killings. It should also be noted that among respondents of either race, there were no spillover effects for police killings of unarmed White people or killings of armed Black people. The research is essential in considering our own personal experiences, says Bor, adding that the findings speak to the overall “value of different people’s lives.” This society “has a long history of state-sanctioned violence” toward racially marginalized groups, he says. The mental health sector is only now researching the impact of police brutality, a concern that has affected African Americans for decades. “Clinicians can go through medical school without [gaining] any experience in treating the effects of racism,” Bor says. Studies like his, he adds, can help to create long overdue critical mainstream discussions about the effects of racism on mental health, such as, “How do we in public health, society, and among the clinical and mental health services support people when these incidents occur?” and “Can a profession dominated by White providers effectively treat the emotional struggles of ‘living while Black’ in this country?” According to Bor, these discussions are needed to implement change. “Among many White Americans, there is an empathy gap … and a failure to believe when people of color say ‘this hurts me,’” he says.
“Mental health is the ultimate intersectional concern.”
Adding to the deficiency of culturally competent therapists, poverty and other formidable socio-economic challenges—also stemming from structural racism—remain steadfast barriers to African Americans accessing mental health care, according to the American Psychological Association. New York City’s first lady, Chirlane McCray, has also become a passionate advocate for what she describes as a movement for “culturally competent mental health care.” “When you talk about people of color, who are obviously facing discrimination and legacy of racism and poverty in huge numbers, you are talking about something that is really tough to overcome,” McCray says. Inadequate care undermines benefits from policies and resources designed to mitigate the burdens of systemic oppression. “Mental illness along with substance abuse disorders are hardship multipliers,” she says. Struggling unsupported with “mental illness can make everything that much harder.” For example, holding on to affordable housing, staying enrolled in college, and even surviving encounters with law enforcement can be extremely more difficult for those suffering from mental illness or trauma, McCray says. In fact, the most recent annual numbers from the Washington Post’s database of fatal police-shooting victims indicate that “nearly 1 in 4 of those shot was described as experiencing some form of mental distress at the time of the encounter with police.” “Mental health is the ultimate intersectional concern,” McCray says. “It is reflected in all of our policies … education, housing, school, relationships.” In 2015, she and her spouse, Mayor Bill de Blasio, launched Thrive NYC, a $850 million mental health program that incorporates 54 initiatives. Among the program’s several core objectives is the aim to address the stigma around mental illness and increase access to treatment across the city. McCray believes that ThriveNYC’s community focused approach is one of several necessary steps toward reaching historically underserved groups. “Culturally competent care to me is all about trust,” McCray says. “It improves early identification, accessibility, and outcomes.” Also, she says, “People have to be seen.” From her advocacy experience she has observed that “people have to feel that they can turn to someone that they trust.” Connecting people with the appropriate resources, however, means surmounting many challenges. “There is great deal of work to be done to eliminate the stigma,” McCray says. There is also the matter of affordability and infrastructure. “We’ve never had a well-coordinated mental health system in our country—ever. People who have the money find ways to manage.” She says she wants to fight for everyone to get the resources they need to cope. Eva recognizes that her path to healing has taken a significant amount of work and support beyond the means of many African Americans. “Access to therapy is a privilege,” she says. “I know that most people can’t afford weekly sessions at $150-plus.” Yet, she adds, “[going through therapy] is the only reason why I’m OK planning for kids at 32.”
Lesson #1: “You black (and that’s a problem).”
Historian and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois also discovered his blackness — and its undesirability — at school. After a white girl refused to accept his greeting card during a class-wide exchange, “it dawned on me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others… shut out from their world by a vast veil.” There’s a beautiful, melancholy animation of this passage in CNN’s video “The First Time I Realized I Was Black,” a compilation of black people recalling how they discovered they were black, and what exactly that meant. The stories range from darkly comic — Baratunde Thurston swimming at a campsite and not realizing the white kid shouting, “There’s n — s in the water!” was referring to him and his friend — to heartbreaking, like news commentator Van Jones’ raw account of finding out that his white classmates, who he considered friends, had all spit into his Coke when he wasn’t looking. A common theme throughout these stories is the cavalcade of emotions that this new knowledge elicits: dawning realization, confusion, anger, sadness, discomfort.
White spaces can be defined as having an “overwhelming presence of white people and… absence of black people,” writes sociologist Elijah Anderson, though most are no longer explicitly anti-black. They are, however, fluid. Everything from desegregation and civil rights to upward social mobility and media portrayals of black people have recast the borders of white spaces and, in doing so, defined new ways that blackness is unacceptable within them.
That brings us to lesson two, in which we learn the myriad ways blackness can be undesirable. This is painful but essential to the Art of performing in white spaces. It took me considerably longer to learn than the first lesson, but hey — white folks are nothing if not patient when teaching this stuff.
I tell a white boy in church that I don’t want to sit by a boy; he counters with, “Well, I don’t want to sit by a black person,” and runs away. I confess to a friend that I have a crush on her brother and she explains that, in her family, they don’t date outside their race. A kid from youth group who has never seen anything remotely resembling an actual ghetto proclaims my suburban apartment complex “the ghetto,” presumably because black and Latinx people are present and single-family homes are not. I attend a party at some random guy’s house with a coworker, and the host explains race to me by quoting Chris Rock: “There’s black people, and there’s n — — s.” Twenty years later, I still panic and urgently want to flee when white people reference stand-up or start telling jokes.
Backhanded compliments, often about my hair, prove another effective teaching tool. I straighten my hair before work. “You look so professional today,” my boss says enthusiastically. “You finally found someone to do your hair,” a colleague at my seasonal side hustle says when I show up with braids.
But the really fucked-up “compliments” come from white people who love you. My dad and I have both had close friends tell us some version of, “You’re not like the other black people,” or, with laughing approval, “You may be black on the outside, but you’re as white as me on the inside.” Because whiteness is aspirational and we are the black exceptions that prove their racist rule.
In some ways, Dad and I are lucky. We generally talk the “right way.” We have advanced degrees. We like stuff white people like, such as NPR, Mad Men, and expensive sandwiches. This means we have fewer hoops to jump through before white people feel safe around us. And make no mistake: The primary purpose of the Art is to make white people feel safe. Because when white people feel unsafe, they are unsafe for black people to be around.
Black Americans have always had to perform this balancing act: staying true to their identity while prioritizing the comfort of white people. In 1896, poet Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote of “the mask that grins and lies,” which black people don to conceal the pain of their lived experience from white people. Later, Du Bois spoke about the “double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.” Anderson, in his 2015 article “The White Space,” refers to the “dance” and being “on” to describe assimilating to white expectations of appearance and conduct.
Being black in white spaces is a subtle and imprecise Art: performative, yet largely invisible to its intended audience. And code-switching is its bread-and-butter. Originally a linguistic term to describe how polyglots mix and match languages according to context, today, code-switching is more about changing appearance, behavior, and speech to accommodate the social norms of a specific setting. (Note: when white Americans do this, say, by living overseas or volunteering someplace poor, it’s an empathy-building, cross-cultural experience they can use to spice up college essays and wow in job interviews. Black and brown people spend a lifetime doing exactly the same thing and precisely no one is impressed, much less hiring us because of it. But I digress…)
Now I know that unless I switch up my code, keep my voice low and calm, I come off as the Angry Black Woman.
Black people code-switch to keep white people from associating us with negative stereotypes they absorbed from the news, pop culture, other white people, or their own imaginations. It’s how we avoid coming off “too black.” I first observed this with my dad. He talked differently when we visited Grandmommy’s house in D.C. than when he was with his graduate school colleagues. The way he talked at home was somewhere in between.
In addition to avoiding AAVE, black women are required to code-switch their tone and appearance, particularly in white workplaces. For years, I didn’t understand why white women in particular thought I was combative and argumentative, responding to me as though I were overreacting about everything. Now I know that unless I switch up my code, keep my voice low and calm, I come off as the Angry Black Woman.
Successful code-switching is a double-edged sword. On the plus side, it affords access and opportunities to advance in white spaces, and white people are less likely to call the cops on you. The downsides: other black folks think you’re too white. Just ask Obama, Kamala, and Drake, whose “black enough” status is always under fire. More seriously, research associates constant code-switching with negative psychological effects, including performance anxiety, embarrassment when you get it wrong, and the stress of reconciling dual identities. This is especially problematic at work, because at work you have other shit to do besides fitting in.
I personally don’t find code-switching that draining. My personality is wired for variety, and I’m comfortable embodying different versions of myself. Also, apart from the odd in-person, part-time gig, I freelance, so I don’t feel the pressure to code-switch for acceptance or advancement. Ever since Trump got elected, the real emotional labor for me has come from maintaining non-professional relationships with white women, which any black woman will tell you is an Art in and of itself.
White people of the progressive persuasion seem to be talking about race more, and in different ways, than they did pre-Trump. Many are absolutely doing the hard work of examining their privilege and implicit bias. But there’s also this panicked, self-serving need to disassociate from the racism and bigotry displayed by the people running the country.
They’re terrified of being called racists, which results in virtue signaling — particularly on social media: hashtags like #notallwhitewomen and posts about cutting off racist friends and family abound. (Good thinking, white person! Cut them off and save yourself the discomfort of ever having to talk to them about race! I’m sure they’ll probably stop being racist on their own!)
I keep finding myself in conversations where white people denounce racists without actually embracing anti-racism. When I bring up elements of my lived experience or an opinion that diverges from theirs, I’m met with blank stares, dismissal, or defensiveness. If I share about a time I felt othered because of my skin color or hair, white women tell me about when they had “the same experience,” completely ignoring the fact that black bodies have been othered for centuries while their European features are nearly universally prized. Anti-racism requires white people to de-center their own thoughts and feelings — including their sadness and discomfort — and prioritize those of POC. Instead, POC are increasingly asked to be “racial confessors” and unpaid educators for well-meaning white folks trying to work through their own whiteness, unfair asks that force us to relive trauma for white people’s benefit.
Igrew up in white neighborhoods, went to white churches, worked in white offices and, later, joined the expat community, a rarified white space made up primarily of North Americans and Europeans who choose to live outside of their country of origin. My dad is the only consistent black presence in my life, and we’ve never really discussed race, identity, and privilege in terms of our lived experience. As a result, I’ve only recently developed a vocabulary to unpack what it’s like to be black in white spaces. Isolated incidents that “just didn’t sit right” — e.g. casual use of the word “lynching” in conversation, my dental hygienist touching my hair while cleaning my teeth — were actually microaggressions. I got an art history degree without studying a single black (or POC) artist not because there weren’t any, but because white supremacy keeps our images and stories from being considered universal. (That’s erasure!)
White people feel safe around me. But I never learned how to be safe around them.
I can finally honor the truth that I live with trauma inflicted upon me by white people because of my blackness — as do all black people in America. Some have experienced blatant and immediate trauma, old-school racism like police brutality or violent hate crimes. My privilege is that I’ve mostly encountered #21stCenturyRacism like implicit bias, microaggressions, and white fragility. Still, these everyday injustices have cumulative psychological and emotional effects, especially in combination with intergenerational trauma. Sometimes, I’m drawn in and repulsed by the exact same white person who, in a single conversation, will follow a random act of wokeness with the n-word (yep, even inside quotes, it’s still problematic) or their thoughts on black poverty. This creates a push-pull dynamic that makes me feel brittle and tired.
I aced the lessons about not being “too black” for white people and turning microaggressions into humorous-yet-teachable moments. White people feel safe around me. But I never learned how to be safe around them. So now I’m teaching myself. I’m giving myself permission to say “no,” without explanation, to people and activities that sap my emotional bandwidth. I’m seeking out other WOC to confide in and gobbling up content by black writers and artists to counteract over-exposure to whiteness, particularly the unacknowledged privilege wielded by so-called allies. I’m challenging myself to unabashedly tell my truth, because it is my truth. This is radical self-care, and I’m learning that it is the real Art of being black in white spaces.