I am often asked to participate in panels about race. This usually happens in February because Black History Month is the only time universities are interested in talking about what ails black people on their campuses. At the end of almost every panel I’ve attended, there will inevitably be a question from a well meaning, if not naïve, person asking for solutions. After hearing us lay out the complexity and intractability of white supremacy in America, this person will usually ask, “So…what can be done?”
This question comes from a place of optimism about the ability of America to overcome the race-based inequity that is foundational to its existence. The person wants a succinct, easy answer that will allow them to walk out the door feeling a sense of hope. I never give them a hopeful answer. I can’t. I don’t think race based inequality will get substantially better in this country. I don’t have hope.
Sure, I think that I can give my children a good life. I think that I will be able to provide for my family. I will be able to keep them from living on the streets. I think that my Steelers will eventually win a Super Bowl, and that I’ll make it to NYC soon to watch my beloved Yanks play. I have hope for my life, but I do not have hope that white supremacy will be overthrown in this country and around the world.
Ta-Nehisi Coates was heavily criticized when Between the World and Me was published. Many criticized him for being hopeless. Consider the following passage:
You must struggle to truly remember this past in all its nuance, error, and humanity. You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. They were people turned to fuel for the American machine. . . . Our triumphs can never compensate for this. Perhaps our triumphs are not even the point. Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about this world is meant to be. So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.
He says it at the end: “struggle over hope.” No, Coates is not hopeful. Why should he be? Anyone who is a student of history can see where this current fascination with racial justice will end.
First, there will be outrage. Then, there may be policy implementation. Finally, there will be complacency while the policy that was enacted is quietly rolled back. Eventually, there will be another moment of crisis, and the process will begin anew. It’s happened before. Slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow, segregation, civil rights, then Nixon and Reagan—we’ve seen this before. We know how the story ends.
Like the well meaning person who asks, “What can be done?” many expected Coates to end with hope. They wanted a reason to be optimistic. He was accused of being reduced to the pain inflicted upon black life. I disagree. I think he was just being honest about what he sees happening because he is informed by historical patterns. That’s why, despite being billed as representing a political revolution, I don’t think Bernie Sanders represents anything that is revolutionary in any meaningful way.
Yes, Sanders is a progressive running for president. Yes, the crowds he attracts have certainly been surprising. But I would not call his presidential candidacy or the energy surrounding his possible nomination a political revolution…at least not for black people in America.
There would not be crowds numbering in the tens of thousands if Sanders were telling real truths about the plight of black and brown people in America. If he started talking about dismantling white supremacy, his presidential candidacy would come to a swift end. White liberals have no problem with trickle down justice, but they are fundamentally opposed to relinquishing white privilege. As Nikole Hanna-Jones reports, school segregation is still an intractable feature of American life—even among liberal whites in northern cities. Yes, you could make the argument that this is a class-based problem, but as discussed on This American Life, race and class are intertwined, as they have always been.
There has been marginal racial progress in America. And because of this marginal progress, black Americans are expected to rejoice and be optimistic. Slavery was abolished, yes, but the abolition of slavery was never the goal. Jim Crow was defeated legislatively, but the end of Jim Crow was not the goal. The goal is, and has always been, equality. That’s it. As Malcolm X said:
You don’t stick a knife in a man’s back nine inches and then pull it out six inches and say you’re making progress … No matter how much respect, no matter how much recognition, whites show towards me, as far as I am concerned, as long as it is not shown to everyone of our people in this country, it doesn’t exist for me.
‘Better’ is not equality. Black people in America want equality. The question is not is it possible for things to get marginally better. Of course they can, but will those in power strip themselves of the privilege whiteness affords them? No. I’m not optimistic about that.
There is beauty in the struggle for equality. There is beauty in building community with those who are like-minded. There is beauty in time spent with family and friends. There is beauty in liberating the mind from the chains of internalized white supremacy. There is beauty in this world. There is no need for despair, but to fight with the eradication of institutional racism in mind is a fool’s errand. Black people cannot afford to be naïve.
Don’t lecture Coates on his lack of optimism, don’t ask panelists to give you easy solutions to the plague of white supremacy, and don’t be surprised if Black Americans don’t #FeelTheBern. While I support him, I understand that a vote for Bernie Sanders is not a vote against white supremacy. He may be the lesser of two evils, but he is not going to bring about the kind of political revolution black people need for the actualization of full equality.
White supremacy is fundamentally a white problem; it has been compared to a mental illness. Black and brown people are the victims of racism, but it is not our responsibility to fix it. I have seen very little in the past that gives me confidence that institutional racism can be fixed. White middle class Americans are too comfortable in their privilege … even if they carry a #BlackLivesMatter sign or attend a rally featuring the Independent Senator from Vermont.