“It’s not the racist white person who is in the Ku Klux Klan that we have to worry about. It’s the white, liberal Hillary Clinton supporter walking her dog in Central Park who would tell you right now, ‘Oh I don’t see race, race is no big deal to me, I see all people the same, I give to charities,’ but the minute she sees a black man who she does not respect, or who she has a slight thought against, she weaponized race like she had been trained by the Aryan Nation.”
– Van Jones
“There seems to be a very powerful inertia pushing us back to normal. I’m skeptical of those who think this ….is going to change everything.”
– Historian Eric Foner, quoted in Washington Post
In Utica, NY, where I live, we are far from pandemic epicenters and from the epicenters of racial unrest. Most of us are not frontline responders, working in ambulances and emergency rooms dealing with the illness and the deaths. And, since the killing of George Floyd and the ensuing protests are events mediated through our screens, they too – due to distance, for most of us, from any poor, dominantly black and ethnic urban neighborhoods – do not enlist our full frontline involvement. As citizens during pandemic, we try to remember we do our part by sacrificing our social needs and our freedom to prevent spread of the virus. What role can we play – do we have one? – in relation to the justified outrage at the plague of racism in our country? In a late May briefing, Governor Cuomo suggested that racism be considered a contagion that, like covid-19, calls us to act on behalf of the good for all. But how?
We can make specific demands of legislators to change laws regarding police abuse and oversight. We can change our historic commemorations. But can we not now all see that the change needed is at the deepest level of our society, in the very souls of white people? Is it time for white people, in particular anti-racist liberals, to consider fundamental changes in our life ways that contribute – however unintentionally – to the ongoing pestilence and perpetuation of racism, rather than to its containment? After all, it is we who must be moved, not them! People change when we’re provoked personally; as long as black people and white people live separately, in separate and disparate realities, the provocation that transforms will never come. Living distant from the lives and the reality of black people keeps racism their problem rather than our problem. It allows the black reality to remain forever other, while we remain perpetually innocent and concerned good white people. But, in response to the covid pandemic, we ordinary citizens – in the spirit of unity rather than division, of mutuality rather than self-interest – submitted to wearing masks and social distancing for the good for all. May it not be time for white advantaged citizens to take off our masks of innocence and move closer to black brothers and sisters?
Certainly no aspect of American life has been so susceptible to Foner’s “inertia” than our historic racism. The virus “hotspots,” dominantly black and Latino areas, populated with poor people, are further proof of the ongoing “disparity and inequality” in American society. They are due to historical, man-made reasons, not to nature, not to some congenital racial defect. Surely many, many people can see that a “return to normal” after the pandemic and following the current protests, even if it were possible, would not be in the interests of the people in the viral hotspots.
Recently a letter-writer to the Utica Observer-Dispatch suggested reasonably that, in the wake of pandemic-caused mass unemployment and suffering, Congresspersons should take a cut in salary. But how about, in order to defy that “powerful law of inertia” that keeps injustice normalized, if middle class white Americans were to take a cut in our way of life? What if we were to see the disparities and inequalities are perpetuated through the allegiance of white people to the private “American Dream” that we can live where we want to – the Dream in turn founded in unquestioned faith in Progress and (material) “betterment?” Though that Dream is unattainable for many Americans – and thus, has injustice (and unsustainability!) built into it – it has shaped and delimited our white imaginations; without it we are lost. With it, we are trapped inside white supremacy.
This of course is a preposterous suggestion! Some people, their liberal consciences pricked, may ask is such a drastic change really necessary? People sympathetic to the protesters, such as Cornel West and Michelle Alexander, point out that less drastic changes have been tried, over and over, and failed. Even getting black faces into high offices has not changed racial disparities in America.
For those who truly want justice in America, top-down changes requiring government intervention will never go far enough. They inflame resentments and increase divisiveness. How about, instead, we anti-racists walk our talk? We who are free to sacrifice our white supremacy can take on change as individual citizens. Who would argue with this? It’s a free country! In freedom, we can let go of the private, exclusive dream that informs the meaning of our bourgeois lives. Instead, we who “want to help” can re-link up to the powerful dream of unity and mutuality. With the sacrifice of our most precious, but inherently unjust (as well as unsustainable) freedom – to live where we want to – we can help.
Not as terrible and drastic as it may at first sound, my suggestion doesn’t include (yet) cutting out the dream of a well-paying job with health and retirement benefits. Rather, it affects the most alluring image of the American Dream, a down-grading of our expectations to have some version of the single-family-house-on-a-quiet-street aesthetic, well-spaced from neighbors, in a “good” school district with solid re-sale value. To instead, go back to the cities – not to the lofts and gentrified housing prepared for high-paid tech workers, but, while the infrastructure still stands, to the inner cities abandoned a generation or two ago for the suburbs, in the “white flight” that ghettoized them in the first place. (To be clear, I’m not suggesting someone who has never lived in any place but an all-white world should up and move to the meanest possible streets. Many inner city neighborhoods, like my street, are dilapidated but struggling; here the addition of an owner-occupied house makes a huge difference.)
To most of us this means buying “down,” not “up.” It suspends the dominant criteria of “nicer.” As one who has made this move, I can testify this is a painful sacrifice to make; the adjustment is never completed. And it has an added cost: because such personal sacrifice is unimaginable for most people accustomed to letting government take care of the poor, it will go utterly unrecognized in liberal reality. Even the city officials whom one would think might laud such relocations as good for the city, cannot say so.
Liberals follow the American Dream because this is “the good life” as its been given us to imagine it. Consensus “common sense” makes a downward move plain stupid. However, while the downward move requires sacrificing the ideal of the private American Dream home and the “better” school, it substitutes with alignment with the bigger, more inclusive Dream of interdependence, of justice, peace, and brother/sisterhood. It demands a different understanding of home “worth” than re-sale value alone. It demands a different valuation of self worth than one that depends on our being “smart” consumers protecting our investments but “stupid” human beings leaving our humanity defenseless. It demands a different idea of the parental role than solely getting one’s children into “safe” white schools with high SAT scores, a good college and a good position in class-stratified and racist society. That bigger inclusive dream will never be realized as long as our communities and neighborhoods are separated by race and class. It will never be realized until we challenge an entire system in which self-worth depends on obedience to neoliberal reality and the private American Dream.
Anybody who has read this far can see such a downscale move is not so much a practical impossibility, as an imaginative one. Who can be so powerfully inspired by an idealistic dream that she could sacrifice the cherished personal dream to which, as white Americans we are entitled? Unaccustomed as we are to aligning our lives with utopian ideals, such a “vow of poverty” is outside the bounds of our reduced imaginations. The fears aroused by such a suggestion will suffice to keep most people in their white supremacist comfort zones.
Among liberals, whose fear of otherness is just as powerful a source of the inertia “pushing back to normal” as the conservative’s fearful clinging to tradition, the imaginative task of bridging othernesses – i.e., differences that disturb, like the black man bird-watching in Central Park – is not demanded of us. Thus we are less and less capable of it. In separation, it’s not fondness that grows, but fear of otherness. The reduced liberal imagination is unaware it is not functioning as it should; no one taught us the imaginative function is not just for amusement, but a matter of life and death!
In the Jack London short story “To Build A Fire,” the protagonist, alone in the frigid Yukon wilderness except for his dog companion, fails to imagine the fact that nature – entirely “other!” – is indifferent to his personal survival. In horror, we accompany him as gradually he loses all means of warming himself and saving his life. Chief among the many causes behind the collapse of our imaginations in liberal society, is atrophy from disuse. Our way of life, with its unquestioning faith in upward movement to “better,” supplants inspiration with ambition. It allows us to pretend that nature’s “otherness” is essentially benign, inert, leaving us free to go about our thousand and one “real” things. We can forget the larger, impersonal, “Yukonic” context. This is a false lulling and a sleep from which today Nature, in the guise of pandemic, climate collapse and race protests is attempting to wake us!
The socially downscale move, I’m suggesting, brings the problem of nature and imagination – the reality of “otherness” – to the forefront of consciousness; one has to face the difference one cannot change by wishful thinking or by one’s own efforts. White liberal failure to actively and consciously imagine a relationship with otherness is inevitably fatal. The downscale move activates imagination by bringing one to the crisis of otherness as if one has to learn this. It initiates a lifetime, self-transformational process of continuous learning, not a neatly contained unit with introductory chapter, final chapter, and facts to be regurgitated on a final exam. The downscale move, unlike all of our contemporary expressions of relatedness in liberal society, all of them servile to the promise of Progress, is one of permanence, commitment, in-place living. It is putting oneself in the way of community such that – as community is ever more degraded in our sketchily cohesive American context – it can find you. It provides you no guarantee that you will see “little black boys and girls holding hands with little white boys and girls,” etc. All it does is remove the wall between yourself and the otherness of black lives such that nothing you do is without awareness that another reality – another America – exists. You can never again be part of the “one mind” of bourgeois liberal reality and its lethal innocence.
The George Floyd lynching-inspired protests have caused me to think about the strange move Orin and I made with our children 29 years ago to a house in a struggling city neighborhood. I’m not ready to call our move to Grant St. prophetic; there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to the divisive racism that has poisoned our society for 400 years. Changes in law, in education, in raising consciousnesses, all can help. But surely it is time for white fascism-fearing people to consider what we might personally sacrifice in order to walk our talk? Though it cannot replace traditional forms of organization and activism, this bottom-up life-way change has some “advantages;” for one thing, arguably, just our being here has made a difference. After many touch-and-go years, our now multi-ethnic street appears saved as a borderland neighborhood that people can aspire to who want something better for their children than Utica’s higher-crime, hopelessness-breeding neighborhoods.
Moreover, for anti-racist people wary of activism and possible arrest and/or violence, the choice to downscale makes a difference whether or not one “hits the streets!” For those wary of living too closely with other people, of losing autonomy, it is not joining a commune. It is, rather, bringing the middle-class reality to the inner city, mixing it in, the way communities ought to be mixed. As people learn growing up in multicultural NYC, people can be different, even aggressively different, living side-by-side, cooperating when and as needed. No longer need white liberal guilt be a factor in interracial relationships; white supremacy having been sacrificed, friendship can happen or not at its own pace, depending not on reassuring middle-class “sameness,” but on regard for otherness.