Race and Destruction in Black and White


I don’t know why these things amaze me, but for some reason they always do.

Before the ashes were even cool from the recent riots in Benton Harbor, Michigan, much of white America had decided that it knew what was behind all the mayhem; at least if the white folks who call into talk radio are at all representative.

It wasn’t the reason stated by the residents who had engaged in the destruction, of course: namely, a history of police racism, brutality and misconduct, which they saw symbolized most recently by a high-speed police chase from a neighboring township ending in the death of a black motorcyclist.

Of course not. That explanation, though not necessarily justifying mass violence, would still constitute a reason; and having a reason would mean that the rioters were something other than merely insane; and insane is how much of white America prefers to see our black and brown brothers and sisters.

To whites who were calling talk radio in the days following the riots, the violent actions by certain members of the Benton Harbor black community were indicative of cultural depravity, even a biological predisposition to violence: arguments that are never made when whites on college campuses riot, as they have done some three dozen times in the past several years.

In truth, the idea that blacks are more prone to violence and destruction than those of us who are white is so utterly incomprehensible as to boggle the imagination. After all, the people who incessantly wonder why blacks occasionally riot and wreak havoc in their own communities never ask why whites are so quick to wreak havoc in the communities of others.

Indeed, the history of white violence done to non-whites, to say nothing of white violence done to each other–think 1066, think the Holocaust, think Stalin’s purges–makes one wonder how anyone could believe persons of European descent were especially peaceful.

It wasn’t black people who destroyed one Indian village after another throughout this continent and wiped nearly 100 million people off the face of the planet in the process.

Black folks didn’t lynch themselves, or cut off their own ears for souvenirs after burning their own bodies, or hanging themselves from tree limbs.

It wasn’t black people who launched a war with Mexico in the name of Manifest Destiny, or conquered Hawaii, or laid siege to the Philippines at the turn of the last century, or planned, authorized, and carried out the terror bombings of Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, knowing full well that the victims in each case would invariably be innocent civilians. It wasn’t black people who created napalm, and then decided to drop it on Southeast Asians.

It wasn’t black people who drew up the war plans to bomb Baghdad’s electrical grid in the first Gulf War, thereby rendering water treatment facilities inoperable, even though it was acknowledged that doing so would result in widespread disease and death.

And with the exceptions of Colin Powell and Condi Rice–two black people who have long felt more at home in the presence of white elites than anyone who might actually look like them–it wasn’t black folks who lied about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction so as to launch another war on that nation, killing several thousand civilians and destroying what economic infrastructure remained after a decade of sanctions.

For that matter, even violence in American cities has been the work of whites far more than blacks. Oh sure, we may not think of it as violence, but the effects of white elite actions vis-A -vis our cities has been every bit as destructive as anything thought up by the residents of Watts, Miami, Cincinnati or Detroit, to say nothing of smaller towns like Benton Harbor.

When white political and corporate elites launched “urban renewa” in the 1960’s, the destruction wrought upon black peoples was immense. Hundreds of thousands of homes, representing one-fifth of all black housing in the U.S., were destroyed to make way for office buildings, shopping centers and parking lots. Afterward, only one-tenth of the property destroyed was replaced, so displaced families had to rely on crowded apartments, living with relatives, or run-down public housing projects. Interstates were built through the heart of black communities in city after city, impacting not only housing but economic vitality as well, and leaving a congested, loud, disorganized space in their wake.

It is doubtful that the combined amount of property destroyed by blacks in urban riots comes anywhere near the amount of property destroyed by urban renewal, for the benefit of whites.

When white-run banks redlined black communities, refusing to loan money to any businesses or individuals within the borders of those communities, no matter their individual credit worthiness, the effect was as destructive to neighborhood well-being as any riot.

When banks continue to refuse loans in such places, only to turn around and grant the very same loans through their subsidiaries known as sub-prime lenders, and in the process charge 3-5 times higher interest than would be allowed through the bank itself, the effect on black people is economic violence.

When two-thirds of black children in extreme poverty test positive for elevated levels of lead in their blood, thanks to exposure from lead paint in old, dilapidated buildings built by white folks, this is an act of violence.

In fact, white institutions have intentionally exposed black children to lead paint, as with recent revelations that Baltimore’s Kennedy Krieger Institute, with the approval of officials from Johns Hopkins University, essentially used black families as guinea pigs for a study on lead abatement in the 1990’s. The study, condemned by a Maryland Appeals Court judge, placed poor families of color in housing with varying levels of lead, without telling them the dangers of such exposure. Researchers used incentives like T-shirts, food stamps and payments of $5 each to encourage families to move into contaminated housing, and then after periodic testing of lead levels in the children’s blood, withheld information on the extent of their poisoning until it was too late to prevent serious health effects.

Indeed, if riots result in the burning of lead-infested buildings, or the places where such truly evil studies are concocted, we might more properly view such actions as the ultimate act of intra-racial charity, truth be told.

And it’s not only in the inner-city where white violence destroys the lives of people of color. When the government in concert with white-owned businesses strip mines uranium on Native American soil, thereby helping to inflate the cancer rate among Navajo exposed to radiation by 1600 percent above the national average, the result is death and destruction as severe as any low-level retail violence by the oppressed themselves.

When white doctors routinely underdiagnose patients of color with serious illnesses; or fail to recommend the same medical interventions as they do for white patients, even when they present the same symptoms, have the same kind of insurance, and come from the same economic background, black lives are lost in numbers that dwarf those lost in riots.

When companies that pollute in white communities receive fines from the EPA that are 500 percent higher than the fines received for polluting in black communities, the result is violence of an especially pernicious form.

In fact, studies have estimated that because African Americans–particularly those of low-income–have less access to wealth and high quality health care, and are more likely to be exposed to environmental pollutants, as many as 75,000 blacks die each year above the amount that would be expected to die if wealth, health care and pollutant exposure were equal to that of their white counterparts.

That most whites can’t conceive of these things as violence is testimony not to the veracity of the charge, but rather our unwillingness to understand systemic racism and the harm it does to people every day.

So in the white imagination, burning down a building out of anger at police brutality is violence, while destroying a building to make way for a mall is progress, as is chopping down old-growth forest, dumping toxic waste in streams and rivers, or burying it in communities of color.

That’s the difference between the violence of the powerful and that of the powerless. Those with power have the capacity to work out our existential crises on the bodies and property of others; those without have to make do torching their own stuff, because they know that the moment they turn their frustrations on those who have remained privileged and sheltered, the power of the state will be turned against them full-force.

And if that day ever came, most white folks wouldn’t bat an eye, because we have nothing against violence. We love it, in fact; we glorify it; so long as it’s being done by John Wayne, Rambo, Clint Eastwood, Tony Soprano, Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George Bush or his kid.

Body counts never bother us, and neither does destroying property, so long as the bodies and the properties are not ours.

TIM WISE is an antiracist essayist, activist and father. He can be reached at timjwise@msn.com

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