On Dollars and Racial Sense

The two brothers who the city of Philadelphia’s Police Department arrested a few weeks back after a white Starbucks barista called the police for waiting and daring to use the bathroom while black settled their claims with the city of Philadelphia for $1 and a grant of $200,000 to a program for entrepreneurial high school students. They also settled with Starbucks, apparently for an undisclosed amount and the ability to complete their undergraduate degrees free of charge.

Some, including what seems to be most white people (of the white people who have shared their thoughts) praise these men for their willingness to reconcile, seemingly transcending anger and disappointment for a more “productive” resolution. Black people did too; on Twitter, acclaimed filmmaker Ava DuVernay, commenting on the news of the settlement, hailed these men as “heroes.”

While I do not dare to dictate to these men who experienced the humiliation of a racist arrest, I wonder why we, black people living under the veil of white supremacy and racism, are constantly expected to forgive.

Are white people are so incapable of taking full and absolute responsibility that when we, as black people, are harmed, we must show them what a sensible, humanistic response looks like?  

I wrote a few years back, in response to the black victims of the Charleston, SC church shooting by a white supremacist, that constantly forgiving white racism allows White Supremacy to have an equal seat at God’s table.  I argued that we need to stop forgiving White Supremacy as if we forgive someone who accidentally hurt us and who promises not to do it again. But White Supremacy will always do it again. Always. Forgiving it makes us like women suffering from brutal abuse at the hands of someone who claims to love us. White Supremacy does not love us.

This battering, always doing it again, that is the nature of the beast. Systemic racism pervades all of our institutions, from the police to schools to our local, state, and federal government. Our president is the very embodiment of white supremacist systemic racism as a man who has zero political experience and who trafficked and reveled in white supremacy, whose “base” were not afraid of economic losses but rather the loss of white privilege.

Despite the evidence of systemic White Supremacy, its most genius manifestation is convincing us that it exists only in hearts and minds. That there are something called Racist People out there who harbor hate in their hearts and that as soon as those people die out we will become an ideally post-racial society where opportunity is equal. Even liberals embrace a version of this argument, pointing to implicit bias as the science of White Supremacy. Thus we praise places like Starbucks, who will close its stores for one day this month to engage in anti-racist bias training, for taking a seemingly systemic look at its policies, even though it is widely known that these trainings often have no effect or can be actually detrimental.

Michelle Obama famously implored us, as progressive minded folks against racism and bigotry and hate, to “go high” when they “go low.” Perhaps she is right, but we need to reevaluate what “low” is. At the time of the 2016 election, “low” actually had a pretty low bar: folks openly deriding President Obama with vile, racist language, calling on the other candidate to be locked up and championing draconian measures to keep America white. It was easy to go high there.

But low is more than overt racism and racists. Low is systemic, pervasive, White Supremacy that will not correct itself by us going high. Low is where a white woman can claim fear and use the most coercive power of the state to do her White Supremacist bidding. We do not owe White Supremacy anything, nor should we continually rise above it as it continually inflicts its everyday pain and oppression. We are worth more than $1. We cannot go high with White Supremacy around our necks, or we’ll strangle ourselves.

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