White People Have Work to Do

Whats in this story

To understand that white supremacy is as harmful to white Americans as it is to nonwhite Americans, you need look no further than the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, this past week. The white supremacists who descended upon the city, while seemingly finding strength in their numbers, appeared to be some of the most fearful, most miserable people I’ve ever seen.

Seeing the images from Charlottesville, I was reminded, as I often am, of the words of James Baldwin. In a piece titled “American Dream and the Negro,” he discusses the effect of racism on white people’s minds:


They have been raised to believe, and by now they helplessly believe, that no matter how terrible some of their lives may be and no matter what disaster overtakes them, there is one consolation like a heavenly revelation—at least they are not black. I suggest that of all the terrible things that could happen to a human being, that is one of the worst.   


Of the notoriously violent Sheriff Jim Clark of Selma, Alabama, Baldwin writes,

I am sure he loves his wife and children and likes to get drunk. One has to assume that he is a man like me. But he does not know what drives him to use the club, to menace with the gun, and to use the cattle prod. Something awful must have happened to a human being to be able to put a cattle prod against a woman’s breast. What happens to the woman is ghastly. What happens to the man who does it in some ways much, much worse. Their moral lives have been destroyed by the plague called color.

With Baldwin’s analysis in mind, I came to view the torch-wielding white mob in Charlottesville not as monsters from some other dimension, but as people from my country who have had something terrible happen to them, whose moral lives have been corrupted by the delusion of their imagined supremacy.

And they learned this belief right here, in the United States of America.

Since Charlottesville, much time has been spent discussing the appropriate way to respond to white supremacist and neo-Nazi demonstrations. Questions about the left’s tactics have become more pressing in light of the president’s moral equivocating on the matter. But such questions are really confusing symptoms and conditions. The condition is white supremacy, enshrined in law and practice and in the workings of millions of minds. White Americans have a serious problem. And until this reality is confronted, interrogated, and changed, we can expect more Charlottesvilles, and worse.

And even then, God knows, there will be more work to do. People, as a rule, don’t build perfect societies. But wouldn’t it be something if, right now, we could actually talk about the realest, most obvious problem that afflicts our national life?

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote shortly after the election, “Now is the time to talk about what we are actually talking about.”

It may be the case that the white supremacists in Charlottesville can’t be persuaded; they are clearly invested in a certain vision of the world, and are willing to put their bodies where their politics are.

But the way forward for this country, it seems to me, is for white people generally to take responsibility for the perpetuation of any and all ideas or behaviors that normalize the views of white extremists. Consider this recent New York Times op-ed by the son of a white nationalist. His father advised him that white nationalists aren’t looking to recruit people on the fringe of American society, but rather the people who say things like, “I’m not a racist, but…”It is a good time for white Americans across the political spectrum to think about the ways in which we are complicit in perpetuating a narrative of racial difference.

Whiteness has, for too long, and for too many, provided the false comfort Baldwin described: “At least I am not black.” The results of this belief are clear across history: otherwise average human beings can become monstrous. We have paid for our illusions in blood, most recently on a Charlottesville street. What more will it take?

I’m out of words. It’s time to work.

Take a few minutes to let the great Toni Morrison spell it out: