You cannot lynch me and keep me in ghettos without becoming something monstrous yourselves. And, furthermore, you give me a terrifying advantage. You never had to look at me. I had to look at you. I know more about you than you know about me. Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. – James Baldwin
White Americans need to interrogate ourselves and our deepest-held values. We will never begin to find healing until we understand why police everywhere in America apparently feel free to murder POC in broad daylight – knowing full well that their actions are being recorded by bystanders with cell phones. In 2014, as I was considering the terrible possibility of state-sanctioned human sacrifice, people everywhere were chanting “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” We don’t hear those words anymore; they’ve been replaced by “Black lives matter!” Why? Because the earlier chant was ironic; it was intended (like the old chants of the Civil Rights movement) to shame the nation into moral action.
But in this dark time, as a third of us still support the con man Trumpus, as the Supreme Court is about to take abortion rights away and as several Republican legislatures are gerrymandering and vote-suppressing their way to taking over Congress, we have become, quite simply, shameless.
And we as a nation appear to have no shame about our institutions of social control. Once, we believed that democratic institutions were intended to encourage our highest potentials. But over our lifetimes, as great holes have appeared in the myth of American innocence, it has become clear that those institutions – politics, education, religion, the courts, entertainment – exist to bring out the worst in us. And in the case of policing, this seems to have been a deliberate process from the beginning.
My article, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot: The Sacrifice of American Dionysus” takes a deep dive into the mythological and sociological roots of this question.
We need the mythological dimension for our analysis. When we think in terms of the myths that govern our thinking at the deepest levels and provide a sense of identity in fast-changing times, it is difficult not to conclude that Black lives do matter – but only as the “Other”. To perpetuate the sense of White American innocence, the nation will always need a dark, demonized Other to measure its own lightness by. In religious terms, we need to know, to see exactly who we have deemed unworthy of being saved in order to convince ourselves that we – White folks – are among the elect. This is the essentially religious assumption at the base of American identity that I address in Chapter Seven of my book Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence.
As our own repressed awareness gnaws at us, it gets harder and harder to ignore who we are and what we as a nation have done. So we, like the Aztecs of the 16th century, push away the guilt more and more often by killing more and more Others. We need the Other. Black lives matter. What would America do if it didn’t have them available?
If we have to, let’s reduce this to simple economic terms, supply and demand. What would defense contractors do if all the “terrorists” gave up and went away? What would the security and prison industries do if the government ended the War on Drugs? What would the cancer industry do if it acknowledged the many proven and inexpensive cures that already exist? What would happen to Big Pharma’s stockholders if their drugs actually defeated disease? Or Big Insurance, if we switched to single payer? Or Big Oil, if we got serious about reversing global warming?
What would happen to the American Empire and its generals if young people lost interest in sacrificing themselves for “freedom”?
What would happen to the whole, wasteful, soul-killing edifice of consumerism if, as the 18th-century poet Novalis wrote,
When geometric diagrams and digits
Are no longer the keys to living things,
When people who go about singing or kissing
Know deeper things than the great scholars,
When society is returned once more
To unimprisoned life, and to the universe,
And when light and darkness mate
Once more and make something entirely transparent,
And people see in poems and fairy tales
The true history of the world,
Then our entire twisted nature will turn
And run when a single secret word is spoken.
Cui bono: follow the money. Of course, the “defense” and “security” and “penal” industries are making billions off our fear of Black men. But this goes deeper; it’s about identity, how we define ourselves in terms of the Other. The simple truth is that, to remain “America,” this nation requires a population of people perceived as deservedly suffering, and therefore evil Others within the borders just as it needs an identifiably evil population of terrorist Others lurking outside the borders. I don’t believe that it’s a coincidence that just as we – we – are reducing voting rights for POC, Congress has just given the military an even larger budget than they asked for, even though the occupation of Afghanistan has ended, and that the Biden administration is provoking nuclear confrontation in three separate areas of the world.
Now we can revisit that question of “All lives matter.” In the relentless, cold logic of late capitalism, no lives matter, unless they can be forced into one of the few square holes of the system: consumer, producer, entertainer (which includes almost all politicians, academics, journalists and news networks), prisoner, scapegoat or killer-enforcer. Life itself is of no value except as a natural resource.
Back in 2015, many progressive people were willing to deny what was right in front of their eyes. The mere existence of a Black president, even one who served Wall Street, Israel and the Pentagon, was enough for them to keep hope alive. Now no rational person can pretend that the worst proponents of White supremacy have not received permission to burst out of the national unconscious.
So here, sadly, is the ultimate answer to the question of Black lives mattering: of course they matter, in the value they offer to this upsurge of hatred. Every time a cop kills an unarmed Black person – especially when the crime is recorded – and goes unpunished, the message goes out to the haters (those who hate themselves so profoundly that they must transfer that hate onto the Other) that they can go out and do something similar without fear of reprisal or punishment. They know that representatives of the National Security State, from local prosecutors (as in the Arbery case) to the White House, will protect them.
I’d like to offer something positive, and here is the only thing I can think of: societies engage in mass human sacrifice when their mythic worlds are collapsing. Think Aztecs, Nazis, Hawaiians (yes, Hawaiians). We can’t yet see what the new mythology will look like. But as America turns its violent gaze back upon its old, tried-and-true human scapegoat, we know that the old story no longer works for most of us.
I won’t live long enough to see the new story emerge fully. Perhaps my grandchildren will. And I know that even that statement is an expression of white privilege.
Meanwhile, seeing young people offering their visions through slam poetry is one of the few things that gives me hope. But to be in their presence requires being present, as they tell their grief in hopes that we are listening. The most emotionally moving poem I heard at the Slam festival was told by a black woman who phones her brother every day – just to find out if he is still alive.
More articles of mine on race in America: