Is George Floyd Our Harper’s Ferry Moment?
The national (and international) protests incited by the murder of George Floyd over the past two weeks seem a radical departure from all the Black Lives Matter actions since the Ferguson, Missouri inception of that group. The sustained energy of the civil disobedience --- combined with the violence from protestors (some with ulterior motives, we’re discovering) and the police --- “feels” different, particularly because of the diversity of citizens participating, as well as the public statements of support from universities, tech firms, political organizations, and even the NFL (too little, too late, of course). To put this in some kind of useful perspective, I think a look at our history --- clearly delineating how systemic racism, and its opposition, evolved since 1619 --- and how the George Floyd protests may well be our “Harper’s Ferry” moment.
We should clarify some terms first, since they are being bandied about and have brought confusion to the discussion at hand. It seems that some people confuse the term systemic racism with the concept of systematic. While racism in some parts of the country may have been systematic (“done or acting according to a fixed plan or system; methodical”), racism in this country is engrained in our basic social, cultural, and political systems --- and have been since the first Africans landed in Virginia in 1619. We need only look at our Constitution to see how slavery was institutionalized, how it was embedded in our system of government from its very inception. The 3/5th’s Compromise, required by Southern states to guarantee the ratification of the Constitution, gauged a slave’s worth as only that of three-fifths of a White Person (and only for counting slaves as part of the Southern states’ population to increase their number of Representatives in Congress). The South, of course, from 1619 until 1789, when the Constitution was ratified, had already instituted a rash of laws that de-humanized Black slaves and criminalized the race in a wide variety of ways. Combined with pseudo-science claiming Blacks (and other non-whites) were provably “less than” Whites intellectually and morally --- and then supporting these claims with citations from the Old Testament that seemingly endorsed slavery --- we can see how a system of racist behavior was embedded in the consciousness of White Americans. And that leads to another term that needs clarification: white privilege.
Too often those who try to dispel the concept of white privilege note that “they” are not “privileged” at all. Their narrow worldview (and definition) considers “privilege” to mean people who are “spoiled” or “well-off” and they (rightly) see themselves as “common” folk, “working-class” people --- therefore: not privileged. White privilege, however, is far more complex a concept. It begins with understanding that the “white race” is a socially constructed notion --- that “white” people really didn’t exist in the English lexicon until Black slavery was an integral part of Colonial American culture. We know that biologically, beyond melanin concentrations, humans are humans. Therefore, white/black/yellow/brown/red people were classifications created by those who controlled the society (white men). As noted in Race Traitor (edited by Noel Ignatiev and John Garvey – Routledge Press, 1996):
The white race is a club that enrolls certain people at birth, without their consent, and brings them up according to its rules. For the most part the members go through life accepting the benefits of membership, without thinking about the costs. When individuals question the rules, the officers are quick to remind them of all they owe to the club and warn them of the dangers if they leave it. (p. 10)
Because racial segregation --- particularly in neighborhoods and housing --- has been so pervasive, the “club” has been able to teach generation after generation of white people to “appreciate” their membership in this club --- and to buy into the prevailing systemic beliefs about the inferiority (intellectually, morally, etc.) of non-White people.
In 1984 James Baldwin wrote “No one was white before he/she came to America.” (“On Being White,” Essence, April 1984). In fact, “whiteness” needs to be reproduced with each new generation and we need look no further than the historical “assimilation” of immigrant groups to see how “whiteness” is reinforced culturally, politically, and socially --- at the expense of Black people. Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White is the most extensive description of how one immigrant group established their “white” citizenship, but we can see, time and again, in immigrant stories how a variety of Europeans (particularly Italians, Greeks, Armenians, Turks, et al), Russians, and Jews were “assimilated” into “American” society and became “white” citizens. And the entry to that “white club” provided those immigrants with privileges denied to Black citizens (even though those Black people are descendants of Africans who came to America long before many of the European, Russian, Jewish immigrants!).
One of the greatest privileges white people are granted, of course, is how they are treated by police. (I must note here that I am NOT “anti-police.” I could never bring myself to refer to police as “pigs” during the late-Sixties because I believed it was inappropriate and de-humanizing --- and still believe that. My father was a policeman for several years and I have had two New York City police cousins, a former student I am extremely proud of how is now on the NYPD, and one of my best friends in Rhode Island had been a police officer. This does not mean I don’t believe police can be racist and I do believe there is systemic racism in police departments.) Let me share another story from 1996’s Race Traitor:
Recently, one of our editors, unfamiliar with New York City traffic laws, made an illegal right turn there on a red light. He was stopped by two cops in a patrol car. After examining his license, they released him with a courteous admonition. Had he been Black, they probably would have ticketed him, and might even have taken him down to the station. A lot of history was embodied in that small exchange: the cops treated the miscreant leniently at least in part because they assumed, looking at him, that he was white and therefore loyal. Their courtesy was a habit meant to both reward good conduct and induce further cooperation.
Had the driver cursed them, or displayed a bumper sticker that said, “Black Lives Matter” (note: original text said “Avenge Rodney King”), the cops might have reacted differently. . . . if enough of those who looked white broke the rules of the club to make the cops doubt their ability to recognize a white person merely by looking at him or her, how would it affect the cops behavior? (pp. 12-13)
And this is where our story moves back to George Floyd and our Harper’s Ferry moment --- but that requires more context, which I’ll provide tomorrow. The point here is that the Protestors in the last two weeks have been a diverse lot, with many, many White people not acting like they belong to “the club” --- and often being treated accordingly by the police! And this is where we may now find ourselves, on the cusp of a tectonic shift historically. If more and more White people begin to act like “Race Traitors” and adopt the motto “Treason to Whiteness is Loyalty to Humanity” we may actually begin to unravel the centuries of embedded, systemic racism that has been United States History.
And a bit more historic context may convince more people that it is time, indeed, to declare our Loyalty to Humanity.