The state of Black America is unchanged since 20 Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. Admittedly, that assessment sounds incorrect to describe a nation that prides itself on being exceptional, Christian, colorblind, post-racial, and on its way to becoming a more perfect union. That assessment seems an even less accurate description for a people who have gone from the hulls of cargo ships to the halls of Congress, from chains to CEOs, from property to president, from builders of this nation’s wealth to ballers and shot callers in every field of endeavor. This twenty-first century observation reflects the one constant in the black experience—the downward white gaze upon blacks as nonhuman others who are to stay in some predetermined lane. After generations of presumed racial progress, we have made few interventions in this area of race and representation. (bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press, 1992.) As a result, we are still pejorative stereotyped and our very presence is routinely policed.
There have always been blacks who fared well comparatively despite the socio-political controls imposed upon us in this country that constitutional law scholar Ian López describes as ideologically white by design through naturalization and immigration laws. (Ian Haney López, White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race. New York: New York University, 2006, 82.) During the time of U.S. chattel slavery, there were blacks who had shoes, a dress, or an extra biscuit. Sally Hemings, for example, traveled abroad. During the time of legally sanctioned Jim/Jane Crow segregation and economic uncertainty, there were blacks who owned land rather than sharecropped on another’s farm. In other words, throughout U.S. history, blacks with a skill, trade, family ties, or education enjoyed more privileges, better working conditions, and a different quality of life than the black masses much like today between the haves, the have-nots, and the have-access-to. One thing, however, has remained unchanged in Black America despite any personal talent, the passage of time, and the passage of civil rights legislation, and that is the perception of sun-kissed flesh as “other” and, therefore, in need of white domination and control to stay in some predetermined place and to behave in a particular way while there.
Whites appointed themselves as the determiner of place and behavior of these othered black bodies. This self-appointing act created a normative white gaze whereby blacks are viewed through a lens of presumed white cultural superiority, which is nothing more than a socio-political construct for hegemonic profit and pleasure. Instances of white entitlement to control blackness abound on social media platforms and in broadcast news. White people have called the police on blacks for sitting in a coffee shop, sleeping in a university common room, mowing a neighbor’s lawn, moving into their own apartment, barbecuing in a park, and leaving an Airbnb without saying hello to some random strangers. These examples of microaggressions exemplify white privilege to control black presence and behavior in so-called “white spaces.”
Even the rich and famous among us do not escape this normative white gaze as evidenced by mocking comments made against Ayesha Curry for dancing in her own restaurant and Fox News host Laura Ingraham telling NBA champion LeBron James to “shut up and dribble” in response to his comments about some Trump administration policies. These high-profile examples evidence a white disdain for black autonomy, disrespect for black presence, and disregard for black intellect irrespective of name or fame and are reminiscent of the Black Codes of years past. These hegemonic responses to Curry and James demonstrate what Carol Anderson calls an anathema to the power structure that requires black subordination—black independence. (White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, New York: Bloomsbury, 2016, 21.)
This contemporary practice of controlling black presence is rooted in an unholy collaboration between colonial-minded faith leaders and legislators that yielded a theo-political dehumanization/disenfranchisement of blacks/blackness and privileged/protection of whites/whiteness. Adopting the racial realism philosophy articulated by critical race theorist and legal scholar Derrick Bell Jr. offers Black America a means of re-presenting ourselves by reclaiming our stolen humanity and thereby demanding our socio-political right to be any place at any time, even in a “white nation” hostile to our very existence. (Derrick Bell Jr., “Racial Realism.” Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement edited by K. Crenshaw, N. Gotanda, G. Peller, and K. Thomas. New York: The New Press, 1995.)
In short, Bell asserts that racial equality in U.S. society is not a realistic goal for black people to pursue. In fact, he says that it is unobtainable and leads only to frustration. He, therefore, suggests that blacks adopt what he calls racial realism, a mindset or philosophy where blacks acknowledge the permanence of a subordinate status in order to avoid despair and to free blacks to imagine and to implement racial strategies that can bring fulfillment and even triumph (Bell 1995, 306). At first glance, Bell’s racial realism sounds like surrender to the normative white gaze. However, on closer examination, his philosophy really offers Black America the opportunity to recapture black humanity from white normativity and to redefine black success on black terms and in ways that can subvert the current socio-political system, much like the participants of the Underground Railroad whose efforts did ultimately lead to a change in the state of Black America.
European colonizers of this developing nation theologically redefined black flesh as nonhuman other, claimed God granted them a divine birthright to determine both the proper place and the acceptable behavior of these newly “othered” beings, then instituted legal protections of these ethnocentric beliefs and practices. Euro-American faith leaders used Christian sacred texts to dehumanize and to justify the land grab and exploitation of darker hued people for capitalist gain. As all exploitation seeks validation with some biblical edict, as French West Indian psychiatrist Frantz Fanon notes (1967), proslavery advocates created the Curse of Ham to claim Africans, as the descendants of this son of Noah, were cursed after the flood to serve his brothers Shem and Japheth (Genesis 9:20–27).
Whites also used this text to make themselves the descendants of Shem and simultaneously proclaimed to have a God-ordained right to be served and to rule. In fact, enslaved blacks were taught that service to whites was mandated by God and that God and the white man were the same. (Jacqueline Grant, “The Sin of Servanthood,” in A Troubling in My Soul: Womanist Perspectives on Evil & Suffering edited by Emilie M. Townes. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1997.) This gross misinterpretation and misuse of the Judeo-Christian text theologically sanctioned blacks as nonhuman other, established whites as the divine ruler of this manmade social ordering, and made European beliefs and cultural practices the standard bearer against which the other is judged, expected to emulate, but can never achieve.
Religious studies scholar J. Kameron Carter suggests that whiteness actually functioned as a substitute for Christianity, thereby producing a reality into which all else must enter. (J. Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008, 5.) To preserve this theological misconception, falsely generated pseudo-science advanced the idea of inherent white superiority/black inferiority in beauty, intellect, and capability.
To further black dehumanization, local, state, and federal laws were instituted to complete the theo-political circle. These racially inspired laws disenfranchised blacks from the socio-political process by denying certain privileges, access, and opportunities otherwise guaranteed by law to persons of European descent whose theological anthropology as beings created “in the image of God” remained intact. According to the laws of the land, blacks were property, not persons, and enslaved with no civil rights in this colonial state. As chattel, blacks were not citizens; they could not vote, serve on juries, or testify in courts, especially against white folk. By contrast, whites were human, free from perpetual servitude with civil rights protected by these same laws. Whiteness actually became the quintessential property right of personhood. (Cheryl Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” in Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement, edited by Kimberle Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller, and Kendall Thomas, New York: The New Press, 1995, 281.)
Blacks continue to be characterized in terms (e.g., n-word, criminal, and thug) that advance the agenda of hegemonic elites and justify the self-appointed privilege to control black bodies. The unholy alliance from the nation’s colonizing past that created a theo-political racial distinction between whites and blacks prevails today in perceptions of whites as all things good and valuable, and blacks as nonhuman other and thus disposable. Media representations reinforce these racialized created differences through a normative white gaze that yields positive media representations of white/whiteness and pejorative media depictions of blacks/blackness as white/good black/bad stereotypes.
Accordingly, cultural critic bell hooks notes that there is a direct and abiding connection between the maintenance of white supremacist patriarchy in this society and the institutionalization via mass media of specific images and representations of race and of blackness that support and maintain the oppression, exploitation, and overall domination of all black people (1992, 2). The media perpetuates these representations even when whites and blacks are doing the same thing for the same reason—hunger. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, whites who took food from local stores were surviving; blacks who took food from local stores were looting.
The media reports white perpetuators of crime differently than black victims of crime. For example, white mass shooters and domestic terrorists who write “essays” and who are more likely to be arrested (e.g., James Holmes, Dylan Roof, Timothy McVeigh, and Patrick Crusius) than shot, unlike black men who have committed no such heinous act (e.g., Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Botham Shem Jean), are excused as having a mental defect or disorder. A hate-laced white supremacist “manifesto” is not an essay or mental defect! By comparison, pundits or perpetrators often disparage black victims in some pejorative term (e.g., thug, brutal bully, demon) to suggest they are somehow complicit in their own misfortune.
Statistical disparities exist between the races across a broad spectrum of experiences—health care, income, employment, education, mortality, imprisonment, wealth, individual and institutional racism, profiling, voter suppression, sentencing guidelines, and so forth. In fact, like frequent videos of microaggressions, multiple reports across multiple disciplines demonstrate the human worth and value of whiteness is perceived as greater than blackness. For example, in the field of medicine, recent University of Virginia research revealed that pain in black patients is routinely underestimated and therefore is undertreated by white physicians (Hoffman 2016). This finding suggests that the discrepancy in treatment is the result of a doctor bias that sees blacks as better able to withstand physical discomfort (translated: chattel) and also as more likely to abuse opioids (translated: criminal). This report did not suggest that blacks had a higher threshold for pain. Moreover, because opioids are prescribed less frequently for black patients, opioid abuse is a less likely scenario due, in part, to sheer lack of opportunity.