Remembering who we are for the well-being of all
Listen to Part III Here or Read Below
In The Strange Career of Jim Crow, C. Vann Woodward tells us that Jim Crow was not immediate or inevitable following the Reconstruction period but rather a response to divide and conquer the Populist Party, a multiracial political organization that rose to prominence in the south in the 1880’s and 90’s. The party fought against both white supremacy and the domination of corporate, plantation, industrial, and railroad interests. Leaders built a coalition of newly freed black people and poor whites, telling the latter, “You are deceived and blinded that you may not see how this race antagonism perpetuates a monetary system which beggars you both.” In Georgia in 1892 when a black Populist organizer was threatened with lynching, “Two thousand armed white farmers, some of whom rode all night, responded to [a] call for aid and remained on guard for two nights at his home to avert the threat of violence.” These people knew that responding to this call was not only moral, but that they would never maintain a political coalition strong enough to achieve their own economic security without deeply sacrificing to defend the human rights of their neighbors of color.
Through the more than three hundred years since the passage of the first slave codes and the birth of white racial identity in North America, these populists do not stand alone among whites who have sprung to action in pursuit of the same genuine multiracial democracy where the human rights of all are met. Activist and Reverend Dr. William Barber reminds us that “the movement for justice has always been biracial… sometimes tri-racial.” The movement for the abolition of slavery, this populist movement of the late nineteenth century, certain multiracial labor rights and communist political campaigns of the early twentieth, the civil rights movement, Fred Hampton’s Rainbow Coalition, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign and more, all included white people. Though far from perfect, they carried out this activism despite the recurring efforts of the powerful to separate them from their allies. It is also in the spirit of these ancestors that we as white Americans must rise to the challenges of today.
Forty years ago, following gains in income and wealth equality from decades of New Deal legislation and recent civil rights laws that finally began to allow greater access for people of color to this economic opportunity, many US business leaders and their political representatives launched an effort to reassert their economic dominance. They mobilized millions of white voters with the message, whether stated directly or spoken in code, that people of color were threats to white safety and financial wellbeing. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander shows us that it was the use of imagery of black female welfare queens, black male predators, and other racial stereotypes that allowed Presidents Reagan, Bush Sr., and even Clinton, as well as politicians at all levels of government, to gain and maintain power. Each would go on to promote the mass incarceration of people of color, mass inequality for all, and unchecked corporate pollution of communities and the climate. The centuries-old strategy of using racial scapegoating as a tool to divide and rule was put to work again. Communities of color were hit with the harshest effects. Yet as white folks fell for this trick, the white middle class itself, born of a New Deal that elevated us far more than black and brown Americans, began to disintegrate as well.
Today 140 million people in the U.S. are poor or low-income, a group that contains a disproportionately high percentage of people of color but also includes 66 million whites. The current White House administration does not represent some new movement to legitimately uplift this white working class, but rather the same centuries-old tradition of divisive politics to enrich a privileged few. Day by day, as brown-skinned immigrants and religious minorities are attacked, nearly all of us are threatened by continued attempts to cut Medicare and Social Security as well as a refusal to address skyrocketing costs of housing, higher education and healthcare amidst four decades of stagnant wages.
While in college I studied for a short time in Chile and supported a youth activism program in a poor community there. Students studied their history to identify the causes of injustice in their lives and to gain greater self esteem by seeing that their people had a rich heritage beyond their present suffering. It was called “Nuestra Historia Nos Protege.” In English this means “Our History Protects Us.” It is from this lens that I began to see how my own people, those who were carefully socialized with what Alexander calls “the racial bribe” of whiteness, could also be protected by a deeper understanding of our own.
Reconnecting to this history, to our roots that are deeper than whiteness, allows us to quell feelings of shame with meaningful self-understanding. It also allows us to recognize that our survival in this increasingly unequal and polluted world depends on our ability to ally ourselves with indigenous people and people of color. From this grounded place, we have the opportunity to re-enter multiracial community, witness the wounds of racism with open hearts, and take collective action to both mend these wounds and replace corporate domination with an economic system based on sustainability and care. Our emergence as genuine partners in such a revolution is made possible with the wholeness and self-love that comes when we remember who we are.
New Orleans Saints take a knee (2017) / Anne Braden interviews Rosa Parks (1960) / U.S. Veteran kneels before Lakota elder Leonard Crow Dog during a forgiveness ceremony on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation (2016)
Acknowledgements: My gratitude goes out to Eleanor Hancock for being a thought-partner in processing this history, consistently pushing me to persist with this piece when I felt blocked, encouraging me to deepen the analysis presented here, offering editorial support, and providing a platform – through White Awake – upon which to further develop the ideas in this article. I would also like to thank labor organizer Andy Banks for his emphasis on the importance of highlighting the intersection of racism and capitalism, as well as Dave Belden and Alison Espinosa-Setchko for offering their wisdom when it was needed.
"One of the things that most afflicts this country is that white people don't know who they are or where they come from."