America Has Always Been Burning with Racism: Who is the Enemy?

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Where to Start from?

A dear friend from Uganda wrote to me: “America is burning. Say something!” I am writing to say something, but not because I was asked to, but because I really have something to say. I am not an ambulance chaser, or one of those journalists in bed with power who, as perfectly described by the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, are like dogs, “whenever anything moves, they begin to bark.” I only say something when my words, like ripe fruit, can no longer hold onto the branch and must confront the hard and unforgiving ground they are about to encounter.

There is no doubt that the brutality against our Black brothers and sisters in America, which extends in different shapes and forms to many other marginalized and stigmatized people (Latinx, Arabs, etc.) has reached a boiling point. There is absolutely no doubt that the Black suffering perfectly captures the deformed spirit of our country. So, let me be clear: I stand unapologetically and firmly hand in hand with my Black brothers and sisters as I stand with all the wretched of this miserable earth. There is nothing more vivid in my imagination than the kind reception and support I have consistently received from Black and Latinx friends in America as a person who originates from the Middle East, specifically from Iraq, a country that has been burning for decades with the violent fires of America’s elite in charge of crafting and imposing its foreign policy on millions of people around the world.

I owe Black people not only the love, friendship, and support they have always bestowed upon me as I lived and frequently worked closely with them from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Virginia, and all the way to where I currently call home in North Carolina. I am equally indebted to the many great Black minds from America and other parts of the world who taught me so much about the art of living, striving, and becoming a fearless individual and intellectual. As such, I write about what is happening while drawing great inspiration from teachers like James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Malcolm X, Frantz Fanon, Zora Neale Hurston, Claudia Rankine, and many others beautiful minds I was fortunate to encounter while pursuing my education in literature and later in cultural anthropology at Duke.

So, without further due, going back to my friend’s remark, which captures the feelings of many people in America and worldwide, we need to zoom in on the notion of “America is burning.” To the superficial observers who can’t see things beyond their selfish interests; those who insist on keeping the status quo unchallenged, the picture they paint tells us that American is “burning” right now, Black people are “thugs” who are looting and using “violence”; Blacks are acting with “reverse racism”; that “all lives matter”, and on and on goes the narrative promoted by those who insist on denying Black people their dignity and absolute right to fight and stop this senseless and unjustifiable violence committed against them on daily basis. In the rest of this article, I would like to analyze the problematic aspects in these narratives and propose how we should think about what is happening on the ground.

America didn’t start burning right now, and it is not burning because Black people are “overreacting” or committing “violence”. America has always been burning for many people. If you haven’t felt that America has always been burning, then you are – consciously or unconsciously – part of the structural, systemic, and calculated racism and marginalization committed against Blacks and other marginalized people in America. If you haven’t always felt that America was burning, you are part of the problem and you may want to consider joining the camp of those looking for solution to put an end to this nightmarish reality. The burning did not start with the inhumane killing of George Floyd. Rather, Floyd’s heartbreaking death touched a deep wound that has been bleeding for a very long time. It simply made the volcano erupt. In Citizen: An American Lyric, Claudia Rankine painfully writes, “Then the voice in your head silently tells you to take your foot off your throat because just getting along shouldn’t be an ambition.” These words capture the way I feel the pain caused by Floyd’s death. By the time the police officer killed Floyd after keeping his knee on the side of his neck for almost nine minutes (while Floyd was handcuffed and lying face down), the demonstrators have decided to take their foot off their throats and scream loudly to stop the crimes committed against Black America. In the same book, Rankine captures this reality as she writes, “because white men can’t police their imagination/Black men are dying.” Rankine is right to say that getting along should no longer be the ambition. In fact, getting along is not only no longer the ambition, it never worked in the first place, even for those who wanted it to work. Floyd’s death marks an important moment that should lead to a real change. This time, we the American people should accept nothing less than an end to police brutality against everyone without exception.

Racism is a Method of Governance

It is equally important to reflect on the question of whether racist people – especially racist whites – are the enemy in all of this. Here, we must distinguish between racists that exist in our daily life and the system and structure in place that produce racists and even enable them to operate and practice racism with little or no consequences. In this sense, I argue that white racists, as many as we have these days emboldened by a president elected in their own image, should not be our focus. Rather, the focus should be on the system and the structures in place that are producing and enabling such individuals. Being of Middle Eastern background and observing how the entire system in place works hard to represent Middle Easterners as the “enemy” or as “terrorists”, I learned that people will practice racism and hate simply because they can or because they know that they can get away with it. They will think twice about it if there are serious legal protections that impose serious consequences on them for doing so. Apparently, for some reason, our system of governance insists on denying this protection for people of color and other marginalized folks, while we know it has been successful in granting it for other minorities who used to be discriminated against in America in the past. We need to ask why and how we can change this. Keeping our focus on racist individuals is not only futile, but it also spends a precious energy that we need to direct at changing the entire structure and the system in place as we have it.

We must understand that the system and the structure we have in place are created by the powerful 1% that clearly benefits from racism as a form of governance. Yes, make no mistake, racism (like sexism, patriotism, and ethnonationalism) is a form of governance in that it consistently prevents change and maintains the status quo by deflecting attention from the core issues; by pitting people against each other. In doing so, it blinds most people from seeing who the real enemy is. Racism as a form of governance makes people waste all their energy in the wrong places as well as channel all the hatred and bitterness against the wrong populations (Blacks, immigrants, foreigners, and so on). Howard Zinn succinctly captures this nuance in A People’s History of the United States where he writes:

“The Constitution. . . illustrates the complexity of the American system: that it serves the interests of a wealthy elite, but also does enough for small property owners, for middle-income mechanics and farmers, to build a broad base of support. The slightly prosperous people who make up this base of support are buffers against the Blacks, the Indians, the very poor whites. They enable the elite to keep control with a minimum of coercion, a maximum of law–all made palatable by the fanfare of patriotism and unity.”

These words are crucial to reflect on if we want to put our finger on the wound and understand the depth of the problem.

Unfortunately, this means that the middle class should be held accountable when it comes to its role in creating – and often defending – the elite by acting as a buffer zone that prevents a real and genuine change in society. I don’t have anything against the middle class. What I am drawing attention to – as many writers and intellectuals have done in different ways before me – is the fact that the middle class is a double-edged sword in that it at once can change things by standing against oppression and recognizing the real enemy (the 1%), or it can go to the other extreme by siding with injustice when it is duped into thinking that taxes are harvested from the “hardworking” people to feed the supposedly “lazy” the “poor” and all those who “don’t want to work”. Here, once again, Zinn provides an insightful reflection in A People’s History of the United States as he writes:

“How skillful to tax the middle class to pay for the relief of the poor, building resentment on top of humiliation! How adroit to bus poor Black youngsters into poor white neighborhoods, in a violent exchange of impoverished schools, while the schools of the rich remain untouched and the wealth of the nation, doled out carefully where children need free milk, is drained for billion-dollar aircraft carriers. How ingenious to meet the demands of Blacks and women for equality by giving them small special benefits and setting them in competition with everyone else for jobs made scares by an irrational, wasteful system. How wise to turn the fear and anger of the majority toward a class of criminals bred – by economic inequity – faster than they can be put away, deflecting attention from the huge thefts of national resources carried out within the law by men in executive offices.”

Holding the Education System Accountable

Interestingly, Zinn alludes to “impoverished schools”, which opens the door for another important discussion in all of this, namely: how the education system in America is designed to keep wealth and resources for the privileged and to keep the poor and the crushed folks at the bottom, with rare exceptions usually amplified and promoted for PR purposes. If education’s primary purpose is to save people through knowledge and social mobility, then the millions of Americans, including many Black people, who don’t have access to good education as do the rich and privileged children getting prepped up early on for ivy league schools, is a clear indication that the American education is a huge failure. Frantz Fanon understood this a long time ago when he wrote: “When a bachelor of philosophy from the Antilles refuses to apply for certification as a teacher on the grounds of his color I say that philosophy has never saved anyone. When someone else strives and strains to prove to me that Black men are as intelligent as white men I say that intelligence has never saved anyone, and that is true, for, if philosophy and intelligence are invoked to proclaim the equality of men, they have also been employed to justify the extermination of men.” Considering the way American education is going in the direction of commercialization and corporatization speaks volumes about how education is getting hijacked; it is being turned into a tool of oppression and creating wider gaps between the rich and the poor rather than fulfilling its purpose of setting minds and bodies free. Malcolm X reminds us, “And just because you have colleges and universities doesn’t mean you have education.” If it is true that education is the main foundation of any society, it follows that the state of race in today’s America mirrors its education system. Therefore, America’s education needs serious examination and even remaking. It is a system that uses Blacks (and other marginalized people) as mere tokens. You see a meager quota of Black people (as employees or students) here and there to give the false impression of equity. In this way, we cannot ignore the role of (mis)education in all of this.

Racists are Prisoners of Indoctrination  

With this in mind, I want to go back for a moment to what I mentioned in the previous section in that the system in place not the racist individuals should be the focus of our attention and energy to create change. Some of you might rightly ask: what about the individuals committing racism? Aren’t they guilty, too? The answer is that they are, of course, guilty. But I suggest that rather than seeing them as the “enemy”, we need to see them as prisoners in a horrific system that enables them to commit crimes of racism and indoctrinates them to believe that they are superior to all others. A society or an education system that indoctrinates any group of people into believing that they are superior to all others; that they are the center of the universe is indeed doing that group of people (and those who have the misfortune of being around them or dealing with them) a huge disservice. This is precisely how American society and education system work, despite all the efforts and relative progress made in this regard, which I don’t intend to dismiss. James Baldwin accurately articulates this illness in the society when he writes: “Education is indoctrination if you’re white; subjugation if you’re black.” Baldwin’s words show that such an education system is really not serving anyone at the end of the day. Neither the indoctrinated nor the subjugated can be healthy citizens who can make meaningful contributions to their societies. Instead of indoctrinated and subjugated citizens, we need enlightened citizens. Racists, then, are indoctrinated citizens who think they are entitled and superior to all others, and therefore capable of committing racism and violence against them.

I contend that indoctrinated individuals are prisoners to the walls built around them that keep them indoctrinated. Therefore, instead of seeing them as “enemies”, we need to apply the same methods of reform some thinkers have suggested to the prison system in that rather than being purely punitive, prisons should aspire to rehabilitate prisoners in such ways that they may return to society with better attitude, understanding, and healthier minds and bodies (all things lacking in racist people, if you think about it deeply). Even more important is to build a society in such a way that there would be little need to have prison systems in the first place. Ironically, our prison systems as we have them today are full of Black people while racist criminals are all free and active! In You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Zinn writes:

“I am convinced that imprisonment is a way of pretending to solve the problem of crime. It does nothing for the victims of crime, but perpetuates the idea of retribution, thus maintaining the endless cycle of violence in our culture. It is a cruel and useless substitute for the elimination of those conditions–poverty, unemployment, homelessness, desperation, racism, greed–which are at the root of most punished crime. The crimes of the rich and powerful go mostly unpunished. It must surely be a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit that even a small number of those men and women in the hell of the prison system survive it and hold on to their humanity.”

It is within this context that I see racist individuals as prisoners who need their humanity rehabilitated, restored, and indeed rid of this indoctrination by holding the system and the structure in place accountable for producing them. Like many types of criminals who may often be a product of ills that exist in their society, racists are often products of similar ills – they are the uninformed hand pulling a trigger of a gun handed down to them by a vicious system of indoctrination.

A Language of Segregation

Now we come to unpacking the language used to describing the demonstrations and resistance to racism in America. As noted earlier, words like “thugs”, “violence”, “chaos”; comments like “all lives matter”, “they are racist, too”, and such language have been circulating all over the place. Here we need to understand that the first and foremost danger of using such a language is that the language itself serves as a tool to further segregate people. Drawing once again from Claudia Rankine’s insights, she intelligently captures this problematic issue as she writes, “Perhaps the most insidious and least understood form of segregation is that of the word.” In this sense, people using the language above are making a clear statement by segregating (and distancing) themselves from the protestors and their just causes. Precisely for that reason, we need to unpack the language by putting it under the microscope.

For example, are Blacks acting violently in their demonstrations? Here we need to ask: who started the violence? Wasn’t every incident of police brutality (they are too many to count here) an act of violence against Black people? Furthermore, here we need to go back to a very important lesson from Malcolm X where he honestly confronts the question of how could violence be wrong in America, yet America practices violence in many parts of the world? How could it be wrong for Americans to be trained to practice violence abroad but not in the US when needed? In his Message to the Grassroots, Malcolm X raises the most honest questions I have ever read about the hypocrisy and the double standards power uses to demonize or justify violence based on its interests. He states:

“If violence is wrong in America, violence is wrong abroad. If it is wrong to be violent defending Black women and Black children and Black babies and Black men, then it is wrong for America to draft us, and make us violent abroad in defense of her. And if it is right for America to draft us and teach us how to be violent in defense of her, then it is right for you and me to do whatever is necessary to defend our own people right here in this country.”

I am personally against violence in all its shapes, forms, and manifestations. Yet I find Malcolm X’s words crucial for exposing the hypocrisy and double standards applied in who is called “violent” and under what circumstances. In brief, the issue is quite simple: we need to either hold all violent actors accountable or stop applying the term selectively and conveniently in self-serving ways. Furthermore, we need to acknowledge that violence begets violence. There are no violent people who were not first violated. In this way, it is a big human failure for us to see Black demonstrators as “violent”. They are not. Claudia Rankine, in yet another insightful poem writes,

Nobody notices, only you’ve known
you’re not sick, not crazy
not angry, not sad–
It’s just this, you’re injured.

When we start seeing people as wounded rather than violent – this applies to racists – the entire approach to solving the problem will change. We will learn how to honor rather than insult each other’s humanity.

Same applies to the use of the word “thug”, which, interestingly, is defined in the dictionary as “a violent person, especially a criminal.” Moreover, the etymology of the word has a colonial origin as it was first used by the British colonizers in India and has since been appropriated and used in many contexts in which people around the world resisted colonial powers. Indeed, in many cases, whenever colonizers didn’t approve of a resistance movement or revolution, they called its members “thugs”. Megan Garber writes on the problematic use of this epithet and the way in which it has “undergone the classic cycle of de- and re- and re-re-appropriation appropriated since it was first coined.” She goes on to write how to “dismiss someone as a ‘thug’ is also to dismiss his or her claims to outrage.” This is precisely how the word is being applied in the context of the Black rage America is witnessing these days. Likewise, protesters are being accused of creating “chaos”. It is important for us to be critical about the malice the use of this word carries. First, it denies protestors their right to express outrage and seek justice. Second, implied in it is that those who don’t approve of the protesters – the racists and those who love the status quo – are actually the holders to the keys to law and order. In reality, if we think critically, this could be totally reversed in that those using the word are people who refuse to see any order in place other than that created and imposed by them. They are people for whom anything that is not under their control is considered chaotic. It is perhaps quite sobering to realize how some philosophers have thought about “chaos”. Two notable examples that come to mind are the Spanish philosopher, George Santayana, who wrote “Chaos is a name for any order that produces confusion in our minds.” In other words, just because my mind can’t see the order in something, that doesn’t necessarily make it chaotic. The second comes from the exiled Romanian philosopher, Emil Cioran, who wrote, “Chaos is rejecting all you have learned. Chaos is being yourself.” I wish to think of the demonstrations as rejecting everything we have been taught and starting a new chapter; indeed, starting to write a new book!

There are similar problematic aspects to the use of phrases like “all lives matter” or “reverse racism”. Such phrases are in fact linguistically and historically false. Don’t all lives matter? The response to that misleading question is, excuse my language: no shit, Sherlock! Nobody has suggested that all lives don’t matter. What Black lives matter is trying raise awareness about is why is it that some lives always matter and others (e.g. Black lives) always don’t matter? So, instead of being, again excuse my language, a smart ass and saying that all lives matter, we need to seriously think: why the lives of many marginalized and demonized peoples in America have been treated without dignity and respect (i.e. don’t matter)? This is the point of Black lives matter. Reverse racism? No, it is not reverse racism that Black people (and other non-white people in America) intend to do or convey. What they mean to do is to resist, to defend their human dignity, and to stand in solidarity with each other to protect themselves from further racism and death. This is what in fact happens on the ground and which many racists conveniently interpret as “reverse racism”.

Blacks are not Burning America

So, my friends, for those asking whether Black people are burning America, the answer is: no! Rather, Blacks have been burning in America for a very long time with very little that has been done to protect them. This cannot go on any further. Blacks are not burning any place; they are striving to protect themselves from a burning house. We need to ask, as James Baldwin insightfully asked in The Fire Next Time, “Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?” The answer is clear: no! We need to put out the fire of racism and make the house habitable for all with love, dignity, and respect. For those asking whether Black people – or any protestors – are at war with America? The answer is, going back to Baldwin’s wisdom: “Precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience you must find yourself at war with your society.” The answer is how can we be conscientious and not be outraged by all that has been done to our Black brothers and sisters? Our silence towards what is happening is definitely not the answer. Perhaps Zora Neale Hurston had a point when she wrote: “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” To see people demonstrating in rage in the streets despite the epidemic is not a sign of naivety or irresponsibility. It is a sign that a day has come when the risk of staying silent about this structural racism governing America far outweighs the risk of the pandemic. It is a sign that racism is a pandemic more dangerous and unbearable. The house has been burning for many marginalized people a long time ago and now they want to build a new home that can truly accommodate them as equal humans and citizens. Toni Morrison succinctly articulated how America has been treating its “othered” folks as she wrote: “In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” And here I ask: Isn’t it time to remove hyphens once and for all?


Louis Yako, PhD, is an independent Iraqi-American anthropologist, writer, poet, and journalist.