Even under Obama, white America haunted by racist pathologies
A rogue’s gallery of racist phantasms, imaginary and even ghoulish constructions of the souls and bodies of black and other people of color haunt white American culture. The souls of white folks are deeply afflicted. Even with the historic achievement of having a black family in the White House, a structure built by black slaves, white Americans by and large appear stubbornly committed to seeing things in their melanin-rich fellow citizens that just aren’t there. Coloring the perceptions and dialogue surrounding the death of Michael Brown and the recent exoneration of his murderer, Officer Darren Wilson, are age-old ideas about how the “culture” of poor, ghettoized black people govern and compel them to barbarism. The tropes ought to be familiar to us now: the “thug,” the “welfare queen,” the “broken” families, a culture of violent criminality and a “culture of poverty.”
Although these myths are often conjured up by tone-deaf conservatives to deflect criticisms of a white supremacist and capitalist society and thus to blame this society’s victims, you’ll find it in the mouths of too many liberals as well. The New York Times added insult to injury by declaring that Brown was “no angel,” that he sometimes stole things from the local convenience store, smoked weed or got into arguments with his family. Now, as a close observer of white people — an expert, if you will — I can tell you that this kind of stuff happens all of the time. What Rutgers student, white or of color, hasn’t stolen a cup of coffee from the convenience store, yelled to their parents about their life choices or gotten entirely too faded at a party? Indeed, drug use is even statistically more prevalent amongst white Americans. Yet, simply by virtue of race, these relatively commonplace and mundane activities are transmogrified into something threatening. White kids smoking weed, stealing Skittles from the bodega and arguing with their parents warrants a shrug — black kids doing the same could easily warrant their death. In the eyes of white people, blacks often appear non-human, even demonic. Despite years of study and withering criticism by scholars, these myths still haunt this country and condemn millions to a metaphorical and literal death. White supremacy projects illusions and myths unto the bodies of its victims. Black bodies are the solvent of our republic’s cherished ideals, the screen on which the republic’s unconscious plays out.
It is said that the black underclass takes pride its own criminality, that the masses of its young men and women who are incarcerated return home as heroes, survivors who are upheld by their communities. What sociologist Donald Braman has discovered in his ethnography, “Doing Time on the Outside,” is that the formerly incarcerated are instead stigmatized, burdened with the negative consequences and legal barriers that ex-cons are slapped with. As a person who has members of my extended family who have been incarcerated, I can attest to this. I can also attest to the well-supported claim that black families tend to place a greater emphasis on obeying authority than white families do. Faced with the often wildly disproportionate effects black youth encounter for anything from walking down the street in a neighborhood too nice for them or raising their voices in the classroom to a condescending teacher, authoritarian, even abusive parenting in black families makes some sort of twisted, tragic sense. Black students are also more likely to take pride in educational success and ambition, as demonstrated by Ivory A. Toldson of the Journal of Negro Education in a Root.com article. The research ought to dispel the bootstrapist, “acting white” trope preached to black students by conservatives — and even Obama himself — who say and do next to nothing to relieve these people of the structural barriers that frustrate these students’ aspirations.
And yet, few anti-black myths have quite the cache as the myth of the pathological, fragmented and declining black family. Researchers of familial structures and attitudes such as Herbert Gutman, author of “The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom,” have found that, absent institutional pressures such as the mass unemployment and incarceration that disproportionately affect black families and communities, blacks and whites are generally identical in most instances. In others, blacks actually surpass whites. For example, black fathers practice greater interaction with their kids more than white dads, whether they’re cohabitating or not. Indeed, if people really cared about the stability of black families as a way to uplift them socio-economically, they’d stop locking up and shooting down black sons and fathers and leaving their mothers and wives with the receipts.
I don’t have the space here to continue taking down these myths one by one, but what I will say is that in light of the evidence we have, all these ideas are just zombies. They don’t explain other peoples’ reality, but they can salve people of their guilty consciences. Seeing how last summer’s murder of Michael Brown seems to coincide with Israel’s assault on Gaza or the continued crisis of rape on college campuses, it’s important to see that the myths surrounding black people are part of a genus of racist, Orientalist and other illusions and fantasies that condemn marginalized people to subjugation and death. Brown’s murderer referred to his teenage victim as a “demon,” despite there being an inch in height difference between them both. White supremacy twisted and transmogrified a “gentle giant” like Brown into a demonic, hulking monster worthy of being gunned down in the August sun and left to rot. All of this is not to say that every white person is subject to this phantasmagoria. I myself have white people in my life that I’d die for. But will they defend my humanity and the humanity of my people at the dinner table with their families? At their churches and in their neighborhoods? Will I see them at the march as allies? If we are to form a more perfect Union as the president once urged us to, I’m afraid white America needs to wake up, wipe the sleep from their eyes and get rid of these nightmares that are afflicting them.
José Sanchez is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in history and political science. His column, “The Champagne Socialist,” normally runs on alternate Tuesdays. You can follow him on Twitter @comradesanchez.