Queasy but Straight Knee’d

It is very hard to watch America these days. After repeated mass shootings, shootings in schools, scandal after scandal, it is hard to imagine things could get worse. But then they do. Again we watch as yet another black man is choked to death by a policeman, then follows the protesting, and then the orange haired buffoon manages to pour gasoline on a gathering fire by his incendiary comments. All of this occurs against a backdrop of failure of politicians to cooperate in the face of a deadly pandemic.

Some of the events are easy to understand in themselves. Police brutality is no surprise, nor is police murder, when you have a routinely armed police force. It is not surprising to see that these atrocious events repeat when previous police officers have walked away from crimes due to effective bending of the “qualified immunity” rules. The “war on drugs” often seems to be a war by the state on its own people. Not all of its people; but its young black people who it incarcerates at horrifying levels. In a war against their own it is not difficult to see how tragedies like this occur.

The country’s growing wealth inequality leads to ever widening gaps between the ‘have’s and the ‘have-not’s and this gap is increasingly split along lines of race. This fuels the racism that persists in the country’s history and amplifies the anger and grievance. It is no surprise that young and old black people think ‘enough is enough – this has to stop’. I might be surprised if there were not raging protests. I too would want to lash out at the symbols of wealth and power.

I can even understand some of Trump’s statements. It is not an accident that he promotes further division. He has calculated that he can play to the audience on one side of the American divide and ‘to hell’ with the rest. He knows that he will never gain support from some sections of the populace and he will happily cast them adrift and ride roughshod over their concerns. It may be wrong, it may be counterproductive, but it is not, alas, surprising.

However, I do find some of the response difficult to understand. The needs for protest and action are clear and the need to counter inequality and injustice stares us in the face. There may be disagreements about tactics, especially in the midst of a pandemic, but these are minor. However, to loose sight of racism as the evil we face seems a major problem.

To reframe the issue as a problem of “whiteness” is a grave error. It fails on two levels. Firstly it fails as it lets the culprits off the hook. Those with wealth and power, who foster division and inequality, love the focus on whiteness – it takes the focus away from the plundering of developing countries of their resources and puts in on some white (conveniently dead) historical folk. It takes the focus away from the number of black people in our prisons and how they got there and puts it on the concerns of white folk and their feelings. Every middle class white writer bewailing their whiteness, while doing nothing to change the inequality in our society, is using their shouts of woke awareness to disguise their prospering from all that is wrong. Big companies have quickly learnt a new skill. Instead of ‘greenwashing’ their problems away they can use this new whitewashing strategy – just posture something about ‘whiteness’ but go on shuttering your factories so as to pay lower wages to different groups (and often different coloured) workers.

It fails because it doesn’t address the problem. The problem doesn’t rest with someone’s colour. A person’s colour does not stop them learning and changing. Knowing a person’s colour does not mean you now know how they will behave, you don’t know just by a person’s colour if they are guilty or innocent. This is the kind of error that some police officers make; they see the skin colour and stop thinking, they see the skin colour and think they know who’s right and wrong. To think that somebody’s white skin means that they must be racist, must be privileged, must be biased is to make the same mistake as the bigot. To think you can reduce a problem or a person down to the issue of their race is simply racist and no amount of sophistry about power balances will negate this. Because Black Lives Matter we need to defeat racism. We are not born racist, we have to learn it, and it looks as if we are well on our way to teaching the next generation.