Black History and White Silence
by Brandon Fitzgerald, MSc, Executive Director of Salaam
There are Black chapters missing from American history and that is holding us all back.
While recently finishing my Master’s in International Relations, a US domestic event shocked the world’s conscience: The murder of George Floyd. I was horrified. I decided to restart my dissertation, a risk, but I realized I wanted to understand both our world and how people change it. In this mindset, I found good company with various Black thinkers across time. Some of these voices will be centered here as we look at (1) Black History, (2) a Black “sense of reality”, and (3) how those from outside the Black community can respond.
Along the way, we will use the revealing lens of Critical Theory, a body of thought that many Black thinkers (as well as Latino, Asian, Indigenous, and White) have added to over the last decades. Let’s be clear: not all Black people think one way or another. But many Black thinkers, writers, activists, and scholars do relate to one another under the broad umbrella of Critical Theory. Critical Theory is also heavily influential and related to Critical Race Theory (CRT), which has been in the news a lot recently since the right has had some success in banning CRT from schools. While a few “basic tenants of CRT” are touched on here in passing, we’re mostly looking at critical thought more generally here.
Critical Theory gets to the root causes of social issues
Critical Theory examines power and oppression. Perhaps it can feel threatening to the powers that be because it is. The main goal is not knowledge for the sake of knowing, but for emancipation.
Long a pillar of Sociology, it is now found across the social science and humanities, especially after the Civil Rights era. Critical Theory looks beyond the individual level to explain social problems. Blaming a poor person for their poverty doesn’t make a lot of sense to the critical theorist. Such a thinker would instead study and explain the powerful, oppressive structures that create and maintain poverty. Their findings make it easier (on purpose) for academics, activists, and the public to confront the status quo.
Many Civil Rights leaders were skilled at applying Critical Theory and Martin Luther King Jr. himself was increasingly counter-systemic and “radical” in his final years. (Angela Davis helpfully explained “radical” as in “grasping things at the root”.) Facing a white reporter with a loaded question, King famously remarked:
“… when white Americans tell the Negro to ‘lift himself by his own bootstraps’, they look over the legacy of slavery and segregation…. it’s a cruel jest to tell a bootless man to pick himself up by his bootstraps.”
To this day, it’s all too common to “blame the victim” instead of looking around them to understand things in context and at depth. It’s just easier, it feels safer. This happens often when Black people are killed by police. Many (very quickly and almost predictably) tell fantastical tales about how the murdered person was “high” or “a criminal” or “should not have resisted”. Instead of looking deeper, many automatically protect the status quo. Even when it’s deadly.
In a few quick, often unthinking remarks, Black lives don’t come across as much of a concern. We see this again when people take to the streets. “Destroying property is not the right way to protest” or “they are looters and thugs”. At that moment, such a person has had an incomplete reaction to the events unfolding. They are more worried about material things than Black life. They mishear “the language of the unheard” (MLK) as some kind of threat pointed to them personally, when in fact it’s pointed only at systemic injustice.
Today, like clockwork, when the murders and protests happen, many in America are more concerned about broken windows and stolen TVs, chairs, and food than broken families and stolen fathers, sons, mothers, and daughters. In doing so, they perpetuate some very old, false dichotomies about the world. To this perspective, it’s Black life/ liberty or White wealth, Black lives or “blue lives”. Of course, none is the case. There is no Black versus White dichotomy at all. That’s a social construct, modern critical scholars have noted. People of all kinds want safety, justice, and human rights. It’s only white-power systems threatened by that idea, not a single person. Although such systems do “serve important purposes, both psychic and material, for the dominate group”.
Only looking at the individual level shields unjust systems and helps them to continue unchecked. It also fails to explain what’s even going on.
Take a look: Even if one can explain a portion of police killings as being the deceased’s “fault”, it does not explain (1) the frequency of this crime, (2) the fact that it’s a long-enduring occurrence in America, or (3) the fact that white people are also frequently “high” or “criminal” or “resisting” (or have just finished a mass shooting) and yet they walk away with their lives. Trying to explain away select facts and individual events misses the main storyline: Black people are being killed by police at much higher rates nationwide. Even in these last years, when one might assume some police progress, the rate is still more than double for black people (5.9 killed per million) as it is for white people (2.3 per million) and deadly interactions with police may be on the rise.(See the Washington Post’s database)
It seems many have an American history book with whole chapters missing, which makes it hard to see and understand what is happening today. Something beyond the individual level is clearly afoot. As Black thinkers have been pointing out for decades: It’s systemic, institutionalized forms of racism. The “bad apples” excuse (where one or two bad officers are to blame, leaving policing itself unexamined) is a nice, easy-to-understand story, but when a tree produces so many bad apples so regularly, perhaps something is going on as deeply as the roots.
Seeing with new eyes
Using Critical Theory, various Black thinkers have been able to “see through” social phenomena. Take the example of a poor Black person again. While wearing a critical lens, one sees through the various historical lies and myths that claim to explain Black poverty. “Lazy” is the famous myth, as King touched on. And there may be many personal “failures” of various degrees, the poor Black person is human, after all. This is not very important. The better, bigger question is why are there disproportionately more poor Black people in America and on the planet. Both in the question and answers, Critical Theory starts to reveal the legacies of slavery, colonialism, imperialism, and the current structures we see today.
Another way to understand Critical Theory is that it gives us a “bird’s eye view” of the situation. Perhaps instinctively, Black critical scholars just knew that traditional, White-framed explanations of Black poverty, crime, joblessness, the rise in single-parent families, and many other social problems had very little to do with Black people themselves. A more complete explanation of the issues facing Black communities is a difficult history that’s especially hard for White people to hear about. Many mistakenly assume the Black experience could not have been or must not be very different from theirs. But it’s not so. Many Black experiences are very different from the reality White people have faced or do face whenever they see a police officer or try to vote or apply for a loan or interview for a job or interact with a public institution.
America has cracks at its foundation. This has been the case for centuries and Black critics and abolitionists have been telling us from Fredrick Douglas (1818-1985) to W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) to Angela Davis (1944- ) and many others. And there has been progress. Do not think that I am denying the hard-fought and long-awaited progress Black people won. But since White and Black still does not mean the same outcomes when interacting at the bank, or the university, or with the police officer or the judge, we still have very far to go.
Suppose one would like to understand what went wrong in America. In that case, Critical Theory (and CRT) reveals the problematic institutions and systems that have played a significant role in creating and maintaining Black issues. It’ll have us look at the jobs not offered to Black candidates because they are not as likely to have the same grades or degrees from the same school as White candidates. Of course, this has nothing to do with intellect. Historically Black neighborhoods often feature underfunded schools. Gang activity often presents the only legitimate means of economic advancement. The police circle Black streets and yet there is no clear number to call, no 911, for big-dollar, white-collar crimes in the financial districts. Black critical scholarship has detailed, for decades, how the police, courts, and prison systems disproportionately target and affect Black communities. These systems — known as the “prison-industrial complex” — disproportionately pull apart Black families, hauling away black fathers especially, and may even functionally “train” Black communities to not trust, interact with, or have confidence in key American institutions, like democratic institutions, universities, banks, and on and on.
A Black CEO, employee, student, or politician had to work perhaps twice as hard to get ahead, speak twice as clearly to be heard, be late half as often, and all while being twice as careful with where their hands while being pulled over. There is a lot of scholarship and experiences to unpack, but it’s only overwhelming at first. As we listen to and trust our Black neighbors and read the missing Black chapters of American history, it all starts to click, we get new eyes and even hearts. I really do think along the same lines as Baldwin and others: When White people wake up, we humanize others and ourselves as well, not that White people are the leaders of this “historical and humanistic” movement.
In short: we need to realize that there can be many realities in one country at one time. Even if we wish that was not the case. Even if a teacher, book, or news pundit told us that the work was done after “the emancipation” or MLK or Obama, we clearly weren’t told the whole, painful, action-inspiring truth.
While Critical Theory can reveal what went wrong, it can also help explain what went right in America — i.e. incredible economic gains over the last centuries, becoming the wealthiest nation in human history — we find another good, albeit uncomfortable answer. Slavery. Cheap Black labor. James Baldwin discussed this in a fascinating, empowered debate at Cambridge University:
“Let me put it this way, that from a very literal point of view, the harbors and the ports, and the railroads of the country – the economy, especially of the Southern states – could not conceivably be what it has become, if they had not had, and do not still have, indeed for so long, for many generations, cheap labor.
I am stating very seriously, and this is not an overstatement: *I* picked the cotton, *I* carried it to the market, and *I* built the railroads under someone else’s whip for nothing. For nothing.
The Southern oligarchy, which has still today so very much power in Washington, and therefore some power in the world, was created by my labor and my sweat, and the violation of my women and the murder of my children. This, in the land of the free, and the home of the brave. And no one can challenge that statement. It is a matter of historical record.”
We must respond to the Black historical record. But even very liberal and progressive-minded White America has displayed a tendency towards silence, inactivity, and/or “neutrality”. This is far from enough. Actually, it’s a major part of the problem. Many nonwhite, Critical thinkers have remarked that a “neutral” stance actually means to stand with the oppressors, not with the oppressed. As MLK put it, the “silence of our friends” is more disturbing than the harsh words of enemies. White America is very late in understanding this.
While our “silent” and “neutral” legacy is our responsibility, it does not have to be our response to this moment.
We have work to do
Every critical Black thinker quoted here, you may have noticed, dates back to the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s. And still, we wrestle, not knowing a great deal about how nonwhite neighbors have experienced America historically or do experience America today. Largely, many have concluded, this is because of our failures in education.
We need to teach and practice real critical thinking at school and read Black perspectives and historical accounts. Once Americans leave High School, for example, it would be possible for them to understand what we’ve discussed here. Black critical thought and Black history aren’t impossibly confusing, it’s just challenging because it makes the work ahead clear.
A call to action
And what are White people supposed to do with Black experiences and Black history? In my view: take it seriously, study it, talk about it, and defend it. Don’t believe in comfortable lies, stand up for truth and justice instead. You may realize one day that it was much harder to live divorced from the oppressed than it is to listen, trust, and follow their lead. We may not have been given a complete education at school, but whether or not we educate and activate ourselves is our choice.
Here are a few ideas to get started:
- Salaam has a ground-breaking program ready to go along these lines. Taught and co-created with various BIPOC educators and community leaders, our “Critical Awareness and Activation” program will get San Diego locals up to speed on the specific realities facing nonwhite communities and train participants to become committed, informed allies to these communities. From local border and immigration systems to specific Black issues and Kumeyaay topics, we aim to get White people ready to stand up to injustice in solidarity. To join us at our next action, protest, or event email us directly. We’ve been busy.
- Take a closer look at a Black thinker or two that caught your attention here. We’ve covered plenty of great resources to read or watch as you continue to open to Others.
- Sign your name to this petition created by the Lakota People’s Law Project Action Center, an Indigenous group deeply concerned about white-washing in American public schools and would like Critical Race Theory to be taught. I also recommend sending a similar letter and getting connected to your local school district, since the fight for a balanced, liberating education will continue these next weeks and years.
All photos from unsplash. Photographer credit and rights information are available there.