First published on The Big Smoke.
October 29, 2020
I grew up in the U.S. “south” and experienced explicit racism firsthand, both as an observer of how Black and other people of color were treated, and as a victim for not being white enough and not practicing christianity. I have spent most of my adult life in the U.S. “north” where the racism was always implicit, but no less systemic.
I always speak out against bigotry and intolerance in all its many forms: racism, misogyny, homomisia, transmisia, xenomisia, etc.; step up when and where I can to defend victims; use my words in an effort to explain harm and persuade change.
But, during my lifetime I have watched the animus and bitterness of the reaction to small gains in civil rights for Black, Indigenous, and other people of color; freedoms for Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, and other Queers; acceptance for people who are transgender; and independence for women grow rapidly in the United States, far out of proportion to the relatively minor advances that were made. The acrimony comes couched in pious but authoritarian terms: “law and order,” “America first,” “religious freedom,” “pro-life,” “border protection,” “individual liberty,” etc.
When the Civil Rights movement made open racism more unpopular and awareness curtailed racist speech, the evangelical crusade — started before the U.S. Civil War to fight the growing movement to abolish slavery — shifted gears. Inspired by women’s access to hormonal birth control and the U.S. Supreme Court Roe v Wade decision, which combined gave women in the U.S. unprecedented control over their own bodies, evangelicals transferred their focus from keeping “coloreds” out of their schools, jobs, unions, and neighborhoods to “saving” the lives of “unborn children”. This campaign flourished despite biblical declarations that life begins at first breath, specification that a fetus has a lower value than a person, inclusion of an abortifacient formula (for unfaithful wives), and the fact that no statement against pregnancy termination was even once attributed to Jesus in the text.
Meanwhile, U.S. legislation and practices that prevented non-whites from owning homes, obtaining a quality education, earning equivalent income and benefits, and securing access to political influence, continued. The 1994 crime bill (sponsored by then U.S. Senator Joe Biden and signed by then U.S. President Bill Clinton), combined with the zero tolerance policies enabled in the Gun-Free Schools Act signed the same year, exacerbated the impact of the school-to-prison pipeline sending people of color, especially young Black men, into the for-profit carceral system built and codified after the Civil War to replace slave labor.
Still, white, especially male, resentment simmered, albeit below the surface in “polite” circles. It emerged as the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-Jewish, anti-LGBQ, anti-Trans, anti-reproductive health care biases spread by right-wing organizations across the globe. Attempts to address harm done to BIPOC, LGBTQ, women, and non-christian populations through affirmative action met with fierce backlash and ludicrous accusations of reverse discrimination.
Straight, white, cis, male entitlements — the pillars of systemic racism and patriarchy — allow mediocre heteronormative people with lighter skin tones to continue reaping the rewards of advantages bestowed those who fit within privileged classes. And that, more than anything else, is what the melanin challenged refuse to give up, whether they are willing to admit it or not.
While they may claim to abhor racism; express regret and anger about the deaths of BIPOC routinely slaughtered by police, especially but not exclusively in the U.S.; berate and ridicule those who call the cops to report folks who are just trying to work, deliver packages, drive, park, picnic, swim, play, bird watch, or even just exist while Black; there is a limit to how much they are willing to personally sacrifice for the necessary changes to end systemic racism and patriarchy.
Once upon a time, I labeled myself a Democrat. But, as the Democrats moved to the center-right to fill up the void left by Republicans’ radical shift to the authoritarian right, I renamed myself a liberal, even though my views did not seem to have changed all that much. But then, more and more, I encountered only neo-liberals and hypocrites branding themselves with the “liberal” label. So, I switched my identification to progressive.
But now, five months into world-wide protests against police brutality that have been met with even more egregious police savagery, while media constantly equate protester vandalism with police violence, so-called officers of the law continue to kill Black and other people of color, district attorneys continue refusing to charge police with any of the crimes they commit, and elected officials across the United States and in other countries continue ignoring the public outcries demanding they strip funding from police departments.
And yet, I still hear “liberals” and even “progressives” enthusiastically embrace a tough-on-crime ticket for U.S. president and vice president, rallying behind the man who helped create the school-to-prison pipeline that has swallowed so many Black lives and communities, voicing their ardent support for the pro-cop/pro-prison woman who locked up and terrorized BIPOC and trans Californians because she has dark skin. That back-the-blue endorsement spits in the face of the millions in the U.S. who took to the streets, at the risk of arrest, injury, and even death, to demand abolition of the carceral system.
As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his August 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, where he was imprisoned after he defied a state court’s injunction and led a march of Black protesters without a permit, in response to a statement, published in The Birmingham News, written by eight moderate white clergymen criticizing the march and other demonstrations:
“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.'”
Martin Luther King Jr.’s “white moderate” is today’s liberal and progressive. And, personally, I just cannot identify with those who find it acceptable to support two people who have done so much harm to communities of color and LBGTQ people. Bigotry and white supremacy behind a polite, civil, congenial facade is still bigotry and white supremacy.
So, now, I apparently am a radical abolitionist. I already had come to accept the utter impossibility of reforming a police force of racist white supremacist bullies who do not believe the law applies to them, whose organizations began as slave patrols and whose progenitors were protectors of property that belonged to well-to-do white men and union busting thugs. But even though I have always been well left of center, “radical” seemed too far, especially as a senior citizen.
Is believing that all people — whatever their skin color, sexuality, gender, faith, ethnicity, nationality, financial status, age, mental acuity, ability, etc. — are entitled to the same protections under the law, the same civil rights, the same access to basic needs such housing, food, and medical care, really that radical?
In an epiphany-inspiring article she wrote about how whiteness dilutes voices of color at public radio stations for The American Prospect, Laura Garbes, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, wrote:”Public radio and the broader academic world are liberal or progressive in their thinking, but are not radical. They are not about to jeopardize their own comfortable situations by fostering fundamental change” (boldface emphasis is mine).
And therein lies the crux of the difference between liberals/progressives and radicals. It is fine to talk about equality and police reform, but liberals and progressives are not willing to do the necessary heavy lifting of completely rebuilding a system that was designed to create “equality” only for straight, white, cis, property-owning men, a Republic that built slave patrols into its Bill of “Rights” (what that “well-regulated Militia” in the Second Amendment refers to).
Many liberals and progressives are not even willing to confront their fanatically white supremacist, homomisiat, transmisiat, and/or xenomisiat friends and relatives because that might mean giving up the pleasures of a weekend brunch or the comfort of a holiday dinner. They are certainly not inclined to support zoning changes that would provide more houseless people places to live if that would also allow apartment complexes in the neighborhoods of their single-family homes; services for the mentally ill in the same building as their fancy, high-rise apartments; or tent camping in their church parking lot. They won’t support defunding the police because then who would they call if someone stole a lawn ornament or took shelter in their doorway or painted anti-fascist graffiti across the street?
Fundamental change requires extensive sacrifices. And most people who identify as progressives and liberals are only willing to make small efforts toward the illusion they are working to offset the injustices that fuel their privilege: making commensurately small donations to crowd-funding campaigns, food banks and/or social justice organizations; recycling paper and cans; giving up plastic straws; signing meaningless petitions; adding a Black Lives Matter border to their social media profile picture; and maybe even writing a letter to the editor or showing up for a night of protest or two. However, they are not ready to sacrifice any of their own comforts, even to save someone’s life (unless it is someone they know personally, but sometimes not even then). They are not willing to recognize that the planet cannot sustain a capitalist lifestyle, that the privilege that allows them to own a home or condominium and one or more personal vehicles (even electric ones) is killing BIPOC around the world.
The liberals and progressives reveal themselves when they fervently urge you to vote blue, as if that would result in any substantial changes, and explain how they firmly believe that peaceful protests are perfectly acceptable and should be permitted, but they draw the line at looting, graffiti, setting fires, pulling down statues of colonizers, and other acts of vandalism. That translates to the colonialist concept that “white people’s property has more value than Black lives”. The excruciatingly brutal police response: bloody beatings with night sticks and arrests for “disorderly conduct” and “interfering with a peace officer” echo across centuries of violent oppression.
Although liberals and the progressives, especially in the U.S., know, and quickly recite or post, every MLK quote about non-violence, they conveniently forget that he was assassinated because agencies of the United States government considered him a dangerous radical. And they never quote from his April 14, 1967 speech, “The Other America”, given at Stanford University one of the many times he referred to rioting:
“I will always continue to say, that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. … But at the same time, it is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities, as it is for me to condemn riots. I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. So in a real sense, our nation’s summer’s riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”