The ongoing reality of white privilege cannot be overemphasized and should never be minimized. Why? As the face of racism, white privilege perpetuates America’s foundational tenet, i.e., to control and oppress people on the basis of race or ethnicity. One of racism’s most insidious legacies is having conditioned Black people to internalize white’s values even though such values are contrary to their (Black’s) own best interests. Therefore, African Americans must constantly struggle to reclaim self-affirming values and principles.
The bogus claim that America is a post-racial society is fueled not only by conservatives but a mixed bag of others as well. (A post-racial America was one of Barack Obama’s themes in his first campaign, remember?) The unholy alliance consists of ideological opponents-staunch right-wingers, ambivalent liberals and so-called progressives. Some Blacks also embrace the notion of racial neutrality, albeit for vastly different reasons.
Whites downplay the primacy of race, but maintain race-based power under the mythical guise of America as a melting pot. And, for many Blacks, minimizing race remains a misguided attempt to assimilate. They neither understand, nor acknowledge, that on the color continuum, the closer to white, the better, thus rendering assimilation an exercise in futility. Race remains America’s top priority, post-racial rhetoric to the contrary, notwithstanding.
The late law professor Derrick Bell’s penetrating analysis is a primer on the implications of the continued significance of race and white privilege. His observations still shed light on seldom discussed aspects of this complex issue. Bell argued that racism is so ingrained in American life that no matter what Blacks do to better their lives, they will not succeed as long as the majority of whites do not see their own well-being threatened by the status quo. And he reminded us that Blacks in bondage managed to retain their humanity and faith that pain and suffering were not the extent of their destiny.
Bell’s writings stressed that America’s veiled dogma of race-based progress fails those who have been marginalized: Blacks, the poor and others whom the myth ignores who must call for national action that incorporates their experience. He intoned, “They must find inspiration in the lives of oppressed people who defied death as slaves and freed men, insisting on their humanity despite society’s consensus that they were an inferior people.” He passionately argued Blacks can only de-legitimatize racism by “accurately pinpointing it as the center, not the periphery, in not only their lives, but the lives of whites and all others.”
Bell firmly asserted Blacks must first recognize and acknowledge (at least to themselves) that their actions are not likely to lead to an immediate or transcendent change. He insisted that only then can that realization lead to public policy less likely to worsen their condition, and more likely to remind the nation that they are determined to constantly challenge its power.
Professor Adolph Reed (University of Pennsylvania) also raises provocative questions about the need for greater unity in combating racist policies, especially because of the devolving state of the Black community. He argues that a cohesive collective is a myth, necessary after the Civil War to present a semblance of unity. The leadership class defined specific Black interests, named themselves leaders and was assumed to be so by whites, a phenomenon that still exists.
According to Reed, egalitarianism appealed to both the civil rights movement and capitalists because it raised no hard questions about capitalism. Rather, it stressed the immorality of racism and segregation and how they were obstacles to economic progress. But Black opposition was integrated into the system in a way that strengthened, not challenged it. Reed’s suggestions for remedying the situation include: Breaking Black elites’ control over the ideas in the Black community; critiquing so-called Black agendas in order to counter Black leaders serving their own interests exclusively; and encouraging the diverse interests within Black communities.
Dr. Cornel West’s Nihilism in Black America is a corollary to his seminal essay, Race Matters. In it, he points out Blacks initially struggled against racism in the enslaved circumstances of a new world and argues that currently, the major enemy of Black survival in America is a loss of hope and absence of meaning in their lives. West maintains the genius of Blacks’ forbearers was to create powerful buffers to counter “the demons of helplessness, meaninglessness and lovelessness.” “Black people have always been in America’s wilderness, in search of a promised land……but many Blacks now reside in a jungle with a cut-throat mentality devoid of any faith in deliverance or hope.”
These three scholars forcefully articulate the need for Blacks to debunk internalized, debilitating myths that race is no longer a significant factor in their lives. They are part of a dwindling vanguard of intellectuals who focus on substantive issues-and solutions for the Black community.
Black unity is at the heart of all efforts to internalize the positive core values and strength of our forbearers. And despite society’s denial, Blacks know that race matters. Sadly however, many Blacks are complicit in reinforcing racism and white privilege and must shed the twin burdens of victimization and futile dependence on others. This requires renewed commitment and courage—prerequisites for the strength and determination needed to bring about sustainable change. If race really didn’t matter, Blacks could join the Donald Trump crowd and ride smugly off into the proverbial sunset.
Larry Aubry email: [email protected]