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January 06, 2020 HUMAN RIGHTS

Unchained, but Unchanged: In Need of a Revolution

by Barbara A. Fears

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.)

Color Struck

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.

By seeing ourselves through a different lens, we are thereby empowered to work differently toward ensuring justice.

By seeing ourselves through a different lens, we are thereby empowered to work differently toward ensuring justice.

A Georgetown Law report also found differences in human perception between white versus black youth, namely adultification, which adversely impacts education and quality of life. Per the report, black male children are perceived as older, more likely to be guilty, and thus police violence against them is justified, whereas black girls are viewed as loud, imbued with adult-like aspirations, and thus perceived as a threat. (Rebecca Epstein, Jamilia Blake & Thalia González, Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood, Washington: Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, 2017, 2.) These pejorative perceptions of and policing behavior toward black youth resulted in more frequent and severe disciplinary actions, namely suspensions, in public schools, as compared to whites of the same age and for comparable classroom behavior. Of course, this racial representation of black youth has long-term psychological, physical, even deadly implications for our youth. Repeated suspension can adversely affect academic performance because of days and assignments missed, which in turn can affect graduation rates, college acceptance, and subsequent employability, health, and possible imprisonment. More importantly, these research results as well as the reality reveal that our children are not allowed to be children—that is to play games without risk (Tamir Rice), to listen to music with friends, attend a pool party (Jordan Davis or Dajerria Becton), or to mature into adulthood at a normal pace (Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown).

By comparison, according to this same Georgetown report, white children are estimated to be younger than their actual ages (2017, 2). In addition, excuses are given for white males well into their 20s guilty of youthful indiscretions, unwise choices, and otherwise unacceptable and even criminal behavior. Oklahoma SAE members caught singing about excluding blacks from fraternity membership were just young and immature. A prison sentence for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman would have a severe impact upon Stanford swimmer and white male Brock Turner, according to Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky. Blacks are incarcerated at six times the rate of whites. I wonder what Persky thinks a prison sentence does to these black men, particularly innocent black men like the Brian Banks and the Exonerated Five (a.k.a. Central Park Five)—all of whom served prison time for rapes they did not commit.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2018 median income for whites was $907 and for blacks was $683. Yet, sociologist Robin DiAngelo reports that whites see themselves as the new oppressed group. (Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. Boston: Beacon Press, 2018, 3.) Yet racial animus was reportedly a factor in the 2016 presidential election. Charles Gallagher reports that a majority of his white students felt contemporary affirmative action measures were unfair because issues of overt racism, discrimination, and equal opportunity had been addressed in the 1960s (1997, 10).

López records a story in his 1996 version of White by Law from Andrew Hacker’s book, Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal, where white college students were asked what compensation they expected to endure if they were suddenly a black person. These students responded $50 million, $1 million for each coming black year, suggesting whites do attach extreme value to their racial identity (López, 140). This exercise also suggests that whites recognize that the racial disparities in this country exist in their favor. This recognition should come as no surprise, as hegemonic elites work to ensure white privilege is maintained.

Reclaiming Our Blackness

According to Bell, employing racial realism leads to developing realistic rather than idealist plans for lasting socio-political change. The rationale informing Bell’s position is statistical data regarding black life. He too notes that blacks suffer disproportionately higher rates of poverty, joblessness, and insufficient health care as compared to other ethnic populations in the United States (Bell 1995, 308). Bell suggests that black reliance on racial remedies have prevented recognition that legal rights could do little more than bring about the cessation of one form of discriminatory conduct, for another no less discriminatory form (Bell 1995, 307).

A cursory glance at U.S. history demonstrates merit in his observation. There has been a hegemonic legislative or rhetorical counter-response to any real or imagined civil rights advancement or perceived threat/challenge to the privileged status quo. As I frequently point out, whites created sharecropping exploitation and Jim/Jane Crow segregation in response to the Thirteenth Amendment that freed the enslaved. In response to the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century intended to right the wrongs of the colonial past, hegemonic whites advanced a colorblind rhetoric to suggest that a presidential signature on civil rights legislation so altered the socio-political landscape such that race no longer mattered in gaining access to employment, education, housing, and so forth. Such access was now all about merit, and whites, of course, were judged most meritorious for these positions, but, if not, they sued for law school admission or lamented affirmative action as though there were no qualified persons of color.

Hegemonic elites also suggested that the nation instantaneously became a post-racial state, where race does not matter with the election of the first black president, Barack Hussein Obama, despite the rise of birtherism challenging his birthplace, the take my country back (from whom) Tea Party, and the Make America Great Again (as compared to when) campaign of his successor. Moreover, when we say Black Lives Matter, whites counter with All Lives Matter. These hegemonic responses demonstrate an attempt to protect white privilege. When former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the playing of the National Anthem at the suggestion of a former veteran to draw attention to racial injustice, whites co-opted the protest with charges that this black man was being ungrateful, disrespectful, and unpatriotic (translated: Know your place).

These hegemonic countermoves are but morphing manifestations of white supremacy employed to maintain power, domination, and privilege over the nonhuman other. Blacks have responded courageously and creatively to these morphing manifestations of white racial oppression via folktales, the Invisible Institution, the Black Church, black music, the Underground Railroad, the civil rights movement, Liberation Theologies, and Critical Race Theory. Now is the time for another underground movement, and this one is not to be televised on social media, which gives the hegemony advance notice to show up to counter punch.

According to Bell, accepting a racial realism mindset does not mean taking no action to challenge racist ideologies or racist practices. Rather, it means preparing for hegemonic counter measures that will surely rise to maintain the status quo. In fact, Bell says continued struggle can bring about unexpected benefits and gains that in themselves justify continuing the endeavor; thus, the fight itself has meaning and gives us hope for the future (Bell 1995, 308). Bell ultimately likens the fight against racism to that of enslaved blacks—that is a manifestation of black humanity which survives and grows stronger through resistance to oppression, even if that oppression is never overcome (Bell 1995, 308).

Relating Bell’s mindset to the state of Black America means reclaiming black humanity as not defined in terms of whiteness, white gaze, white culture, white privilege, and so forth. Instead, we must abandon what Albert Memmi calls the first ambition of the colonized, which is to become equal to that splendid model (the colonizer). (The Colonizer and the Colonized, Boston: Beacon Press, 1965, 120.) Similarly Brazilian educator Paulo Freire observed, for the oppressor to be is to have, having is an inalienable right. (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, New York: Continuum, 2006, 45.) So by contrast, blacks must recognize our own strength as living, critical thinking human beings capable of distinguishing fact from fiction. In fact, black identity must be seen as totally independent from white racial identity and seen instead in terms of a spiritual connectedness to a Divine Being (for the spiritually/religiously minded), and as being endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights according to the U.S. Constitution in this nation of laws.

By employing racial realism, blacks fundamentally reject identification as nonhuman other and no longer see being equal to whites as a goal to be achieved. In fact, according to hooks, it is only as we collectively change the way we look at ourselves and the world are we able to change how we are seen (1992, 6). By seeing ourselves through a different lens, meaning other than through the revisionist history of a stolen humanity and normative white gaze, we are thereby empowered to work differently toward ensuring justice as were black participants in the Underground Railroad (UGRR). We are emboldened by our identity transformation, like UGRR participants, to take personal responsibility and accountability for our beliefs and practices in the public square and to name and use places of privilege(s) to counter oppressive hegemonic practices.

Blacks have been conditioned to believe whites only have privilege when in fact black people are far more powerful than we realize—so much so that people down through the years have sought to control our very presence and belief in self. Blacks who participated in the UGRR heard the same dehumanizing rhetoric yet resisted white challenges to black intellect, beauty, and capability and subversively ushered in a shift in Black America that freed thousands before the final revolution. Blacks today can begin to usher in the next great movement that alters the perception of black as nonhuman other, even if only for our black selves. Let the revolution begin!

Barbara A. Fears is an assistant professor of religious education at Howard University School of Divinity in Washington, D.C., where she teaches courses in the history, theory, and practice of ministry. Her research focuses primarily on race, gender, and critical pedagogy in spiritual formation and praxis of faith.