In recent years, the United States has once again begun to face a reckoning over its history and practice of white supremacy. In 2020, this reckoning became a raging fire that burned across the nation after Minneapolis police killed a Black man by choking him to death. This latest firestorm led to numerous commissions being formed in cities and states across the land by liberal politicians and an angry outcry from police departments reacting to well-deserved criticism. These commissions seem to have a couple different tasks. The first is to make it look like officials are doing something; the second is to come up with an analysis that acknowledges racism exists, but can be eradicated without changing the system it is the foundation of. This approach is not only advocated by white-skinned liberal Democrats and Progressives, but also by many Black Lives Matter activists and their allies of all skin tones. While their faith in the system is certainly something to behold (and yes, some progress will probably be made), history tells us that it will likely be too little and is already too late for millions.
Naturally, the liberal city of Burlington, Vermont set up such a commission. After a summer of protests against the city’s police department and a couple of its overtly racist officers, Democratic mayor Miro Weinberger spoke the right words at the commission’s founding. His plan had the support of his constituency and most of the citizens to his left. This was in spite of the fact that the study would be outsourced to a company that profits from such things. Then, in what is almost a perfect example of how so many Americans really don’t understand racism in the US, he chose a white-skinned bureaucrat over a Black woman to oversee the study. When challenged, he told critics it was to make sure it was neutral, as if a white man would somehow be more neutral then a Black woman. The mayor was quickly challenged and reversed his decision, calling it a “mistake.” If there is one thing it wasn’t, that would be a mistake. A more accurate definition would be that it is one more proof of how racism works among white people in the USA. It is so pervasive and such a part of the mindset, neutrality is identified with whiteness despite the obvious contradiction. There are now those calling for his resignation. Personally, I don’t think that does a damn thing to address the racism of Burlington’s establishment. The mayor can go and nothing will change except for the face at the top. The issue is much deeper than one politician. The fact that he was forced to reverse his decision puts the anti-racist movement in a good place if they play it right.
Racism in the United States is white people’s problem. They constructed it and they benefit from it. The assumed supremacy of the white-skinned European settler is essential to this nation’s philosophical founding and is the historical foundation of its economy. The mass murder of the indigenous peoples and the destruction of their traditional livelihood and culture was crucial to the early accumulation of wealth by those who colonized what we know as the United States. Likewise, the importation, breeding, and selling of African slaves intensified that accumulation exponentially, even for those who opposed slavery and owned no other human beings. This history and the political decisions that both strengthened and resulted from it are why the US continues to be a racist nation.
It is also why white supremacists still walk this land, parading their symbols of hate, infiltrating law enforcement and the military, and serving in legislatures across the nation. It is indeed true that this country is not as openly racist as it was forty or fifty years ago. Unfortunately, this fact means very little to those who were not alive then. For those US residents who were born after legal segregation was outlawed across the country, the fact that it is illegal to discriminate against people because of their skin color means very little. Why? Because they know—especially those who deal with it every day of their lives—that they are still locked out of many places in US society because of their skin color. One can see this in voter suppression laws in many states that are clearly designed to prevent non-white citizens from voting. One can see it also when they examine the public school systems that find most majority Black, indigenous and Latino being taught in conditions where it’s almost impossible to learn. One can also see the racist nature of the system in the way in which the police enforce the laws. The statistics are clear. Higher percentages of Blacks and Latinos incarcerated; higher percentages of unarmed Black men killed by police, and so on. The reason for this isn’t necessarily because white-skinned people commit fewer crimes, but because the police don’t look as hard for crime in mostly white and non-poor neighborhoods. Indeed, their primary task appears to be keeping Blacks and Latinos contained in their own communities.
We don’t just need to get white supremacists out of power—whether they are in law enforcement, Congress or somewhere in between—we need to change an economy and political system whose founding was informed by white supremacy and whose continued existence assumes it. As this piece points out, that means a reckoning not just with individuals who (consciously or otherwise) maintain and enforce the systems of power, but with the system itself.