White-On-White Class Violence: The Invisible Race Problem That's Killing Black Americans
The “race problem” between police and black Americans won’t go away because it’s a deadly ruse.
White-On-White Class Violence: The Invisible Race Problem That's Killing Black Americans
By Thandeka / tikkun.org

In his testimony before the St. Louis County Grand Jury, Darren Wilson said he felt like a five-year-old peering into the face of someone who “looks like a demon” as he wrestled with Michael Brown, the black teen he later shot to death in Ferguson, Missouri.

In other words, Wilson’s eyes perceived an unarmed teenager, but within his head that image was transfigured into a demonic apparition.

The actions of police officers aren’t supposed to be governed by fear. But Darren Wilson’s were. Wilson’s actions, however, weren’t “his actions,” but rather an outcropping of what theologian Sarah Drummond aptly calls “an epigenetic, cellular memory of loss and its resultant need for a scapegoat.”

Michael Brown became the scapegoat for Wilson’s own internalized feelings of powerlessness. Like so many other white people in this society, Wilson viscerally experienced himself as powerless because of a historical truth: for hundreds of years, most European immigrants and their descendents have been used instrumentally by white elites to cement the interlocking racial and economic hierarchies that subjugate most people in this country. In the process, they have lost their ethnic roots and adopted “white” identities defined by fear. It is this core feeling of fear—a mixture of internalized feelings of powerlessness and loss, paired with the conviction that blackness is to blame for these feelings rather than the actual white attacks against them by the white ruling elite—that make up the demon in Darren Wilson’s head.

The story of how this demon got into Wilson’s head starts in the 1670 Virginia Assembly, which laid the groundwork for the construction of a legal system in the United States that disempowered most whites and all blacks when declaring it forbidden for “Negroes and Indians” to own Christian (i.e., white) servants. Another key moment in this story is the “Great Compromise” reached during the Philadelphia U.S. Constitutional Convention of 1787, which decreed that slaves legally counted as three-fifths of a person for the political purpose of population counts to disenfranchise non-slaveholding white voters. By the nineteenth century, all European immigrants to the United States needed to learn how to become white in order to get and keep their jobs as the North’s new industrial workers—and in succumbing to this process, a bogeyman got into their own heads. It is this same internalized demon that led Darren Wilson to kill Michael Brown.

This master narrative exposes the “surplus powerlessness”—to use Rabbi Michael Lerner’s fine term—that disempowered whites use as an add-on, if you will, to self-destructively increase the social and economic exploitation they fall victim to through the vested financial interests of the white power elite. This is not a conspiracy story but an ongoing American tragedy. The powerless, in short, keep pulling themselves down when others push them down. In this tragic scenario, the use of deadly force against black men, teens, and children by white cops today is the collateral damage to an ongoing attack against whites by their own economic, political, and social systems that render most of them afraid. And for good reason. They live in a country that trashes most whites.

Deadly Fear

Let us return to Wilson’s testimony before the St. Louis County Grand Jury—the testimony in which he described his fear in the face of someone who “looks like a demon.” When Wilson finally fired off shots, Brown ran away. Wilson pursued, firing more rounds. Brown stopped and turned around, and, then according to Wilson, began “bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him. And the face that he had was looking straight through me, like I wasn’t even there, I wasn’t even anything in his way.”

Wilson thus “had to kill him,” he said, to neutralize that aggressive, demonic force. So he shot Brown six times, twice in the head. And only after a bullet entered Brown’s head did Wilson feel he had regained control. Wilson said, “And then when it went into him, the demeanor on his face went blank, the aggression was gone, it was gone, I mean, I knew he stopped, the threat was stopped.” Wilson’s demon was dead.

Clearly, Wilson didn’t like what he felt as he wrestled with “Hulk Hogan”: powerless and afraid. And clearly his mind turned Brown into a demon. Wilson thus killed a young man he thought of as a demon that could not be wounded, handcuffed, and carted off to jail, but must instead be slayed. This is a self-incriminating statement, evidence that could have been used to indict Wilson for unjustifiable manslaughter. But it wasn’t.

Now consider the public statement of Daniel Pantaleo, the Staten Island Police Officer whose chokehold killed Eric Garner, an unarmed black man suspected of peddling cigarettes last summer. Pantaleo, like Wilson, said he was afraid. The New York Times quoted him as saying he feared they would crash through a plate glass storefront as they tumbled to the ground. Although the attack on this black man was recorded on the smartphones of eyewitnesses, as were his asthmatic cries of “I can’t breathe,” the police officer was not indicted. His fear, apparently, was deemed reasonable, along with his killer grip.

When white cops who kill unarmed black Americans say they felt afraid and threatened or that they believed they faced catastrophic injury or death, the grand juries conclude—with rare exception—that these cops had every right to slay what made them so afraid.

Cops, when under attack, are not supposed to tremble and quake like a child watching a demon romp and stomp and make a wild rumpus start as wild things are wont to do. Nor are they supposed to kill people for selling single cigarettes. Police officers are trained to toughen up, to not hallucinate, and to stay calm. But because white men like Wilson and Pantaleo “can’t police their imagination,” as poet Claudia Rankine puts it, “black men keep dying.”

Or as Drummond puts it, “We live in a culture where anything we do can be excused when our explanation is that we did it because we were afraid. So we have to understand the underlying structure of fear, as it’s the scaffold we’re calling an ethical framework.”

Policing the Imagination

The results of the racial scaffolding are now becoming a matter of public record. Police, for example, must be taught strategies to control their fears—their ego and adrenaline rushes. This is the conclusion of a two-year federal investigation by the Justice Department of the Cleveland Police Department. The study found an “unreasonable and unnecessary use of force” that prompted reckless and dangerous behavior.

But the strategies to correct this behavior fall way short of the mark because they target the behavior of cops and neglect the emotional history that has created frightful black demons in white American minds for more than three centuries. This is why the recent grand jury decisions in Staten Island and in Ferguson against indicting white cops who killed unarmed black men seem to defy logic. According to the New York Times, criminal justice scholars believe the decision hinges on the officer’s perception of danger during an encounter. And this perception is not being adequately interrogated as an issue of surplus powerlessness: white victims participating in their own economic demise.

Presently, no one is focusing on the white officers’ perceptions, except in terms of white racism against blacks. This racial approach is tragically flawed. White cops cannot police their own fears because they have learned how to see “blackness” when feeling overpowered and afraid. And when grand juries do the same, we’ve got an invisible race problem in America writ large.

This problem of surplus powerlessness among most whites is a psychological problem that is rooted in a history of white-on-white racial violence: when the mass of European immigrants to the United States lost their political and economic power and their ethnic identities, the elite whites who took these things away from them taught their white victims to blame their losses on black folk.

The “race problem” between the police force and black Americans won’t go away because it’s a deadly ruse. Race talk about the need for more black police officers in black communities, more body cameras on cops, more civilian review boards for police, and more special prosecutors will never solve the core emotional problem. Neither will Al Sharpton’s pleas for the Justice Department to create national guidelines for investigating officers when they use deadly force nor pleas from people like Democratic committeewoman in Ferguson Patricia Bynes for fuller participation in traditional politics. Such talk hides a pervasive political, economic, and social disorder that compromises the emotional integrity of whites who then blame blacks for terrorizing them. The blacks in this white drama are “simply” the scapegoats. Or more precisely, the collateral damage.

The disempowerment inflicted upon whites by other whites in the process of constructing a collective white identity has been almost impossible to understand politically because it began with the slave count. Few American historians write about this racial ruse.

The Slave Count and the Electoral College

When the southern colonies agreed to ratification of the U.S. Constitution for the new republic, they insisted that each slave held in the states of this new government must be counted as three-fifths of a person. This decision, called The Three-Fifths Compromise, is found in Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the United States Constitution:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

This particular article is referred to as a “compromise” because the Southern delegates to the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 wanted to tally each of their slaves. But the Northern delegates only wanted to count the free inhabitants of the states as the basis for determining tax rates and the apportionment of members of the United States House of Representatives. The compromise reached by the two groups was that slaves would be tallied as three-fifths of a person.

I call this way of tallying slaves a ruse because five blacks got three votes, which of course, they didn’t get. Rather, every five slaves counted as three white men in order to increase proportionately the number of representatives who could be elected to represent the state in the Congress.

This calculation of political value of each slave (called the federal ratio) increased the number of votes in the Electoral College, which was based on the number of congressional representatives from each state. These extra votes—called the “Negro votes”—swept Washington and then Jefferson into the presidency. Negroes, in effect, became the shill, the co-conspirator in a voting game they did not create.

New Hampshire Senator William Plumer summarized Jefferson’s election mandate this way: “The Negro votes made Mr. Jefferson president. Negro electors exceed those of four states, and their representatives are equal to those of six states.”

Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Garry Wills lays out this move against nonslaveholding white voters in his extraordinary book Negro President: Jefferson and the Slave Power. Wills’s study of Jefferson’s election is unusual, however, because he is one of only a handful of American historians who mention the fact that Jefferson won election by the slave count. Yet, as Wills also notes, this election “is one of the most thoroughly studied events in our history.”

So why this silence among historians about the ruse? The truth was too big to hold onto. America politically disempowered the vast majority of its newly white citizens and called the move democracy. A series of ad campaigns hid the truth.

The Creation and Promotion of Whiteness

In seventeenth-century colonial America, upper-class Virginians created a new racial category called “white” and made laws to this effect. They did so as members of the Virginia General Assembly, the legislative body of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Subsequently, anyone who fit into this new race category would be given, by law, white racial privileges that no other “races” could have.

Social historian Edmund S. Morgan chronicles the results in American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial VirginiaIn 1670, the Virginia Assembly forbade Free Negroes and Indians to own Christian (white) servants. In 1680, the Virginia Assembly made it legal for white Christians to give “any negroe or other slave who shall presume to lift his hand in opposition to any Christian [thirty] lashes on the bare back.” And in 1705, a law forbade masters to “whip a Christian white servant naked.” Whipped, yes. Naked, no.

The purpose of these white racial privileges, as Morgan rightly notes, was to form a wedge between the European and African indentured servant classes and exbondsmen so that a united class war against the ruling elite would not happen.

Until this period, class defined race. Accordingly, class prejudice, as Morgan reminds us, was difficult to distinguish from race prejudice. Indentured servants of all colors were considered part of the same race: the poor. Thus when bedraggled, penniless Englishmen and women were first shipped to Virginia, Morgan tells us, they initially found common cause with enslaved people of African descent:

When their masters began to place people of another color in the fields beside them, the unfamiliar appearance of the new workers may well have struck them as only skin deep. There are hints that the [African slaves and English indentured servants] initially saw each other as sharing the same predicament. It was common, for example, for servants and slaves to run away together, steal hogs together, get drunk together. It was not uncommon for them to make love together.

The planter class designed a new racial lineage system to make poor whites feel like a million bucks. Promoted through a series of ad campaigns for wage earners in the industrial North, this system also created a new type of racial identity for immigrant Americans: the white. Promotional materials called for complete, immediate, and utter assimilation by European immigrants—in effect, a “Got Race?” ad campaign was underway.

Coupled with this campaign, of course, were veiled or direct threats of annihilation to those who failed to make the grade. The campaigns produced, what one commentator on this period called, a “destruction of memories.” Remember, the first-generation factory workers, whether native-born or foreign-born, had been peasants and agrarian workers. So they had to be broken in by the Northern industrialists who hired them. They had to learn how to work by the clock rather than by the sun. To act, simply put, like whites.

Efforts to promote this new racial lineage system hid from view its real purpose: to breed contempt between African and European laborers. The ad campaign was designed, in sum, to keep most whites impoverished as politically powerless wage earners and small businessmen. Campaigns for white assimilation and loyalty thus used attacks against blacks to hide an economic attack against working whites.

When Hinton Rowan Helper exposed this pervasive hidden race-class link in his 1857 book The Impending Crisis of the South, his book was publicly burned in the South. A Methodist minister spent a year in jail for simply owning a copy, and three Southerners were hanged for reading it. According to Helper, “The lords of the lash are not only absolute masters of the blacks … but they are also the oracles and arbiters of all nonslaveholding whites, whose freedom is merely nominal, and whose unparalleled illiteracy and degradation is purposely and fiendishly perpetuated.” His work was banned in the South and bandied in the North.

Helper’s work, as American history David Williams notes in Rich Man’s War: Class, Caste, and Confederate Defeat in the Lower Chattahoochee Valley, sold more copies than any other nonfiction book of the era and was called by one historian “the most important single book, in terms of its political impact, that has ever been published in the United States.” But Helper’s book couldn’t stop the campaigns for white assimilation because the campaigners had already discovered a powerful trick: putting the traumatized emotions of working class whites into blackface.

Traumatic Transitions into Whiteness

Social historian Herbert G. Gutman chronicles this racial indoctrination program for the immigrant industrial workers in Work, Culture, and Society in Industrializing America. In 1895, he writes, the New JerseyAmerican Standard called Irishmen who caused disorder as the sought wages due them from the Erie Railroad “animals” and “a mongrel mass of ignorance and crime and superstition, as utterly unfit for its dues, as they are for the common courtesies and decencies of civilized life.”

In 1869, Scientific America told the “ruder” laborers of Europe who were welcomed to American shores that if they did not “assimilate” quickly, they would face a “quiet but sure extermination.” They must change their ways or “share the fate of the native Indian.”

In the mid-1870s, the Chicago Post-Mail characterized its city’s Bohemian population as “depraved beasts, harpies, decayed physically and spiritually, mentally and morally, thievish and licentious.” The Chicago Tribune called striking immigrant brickmakers men but “not reasoning creatures.”

During this same period, the Chicago Times complained that the country had become “the cess-pool of Europe under the pretense that it is the asylum of the poor.” The New York Times would echo similar sentiments fifteen years later.

The immigrants assimilated as fast as they could. As one of them said at the end of this process: “I have been successful. I have property. My children have superior advantages. But I have lost my life.” Sociologist William Isaac Thomas studied the immigrants’ attitudes and recorded their stories of how their internal, emotional lives were altered. As Thomas notes in recording the memories of one immigrant’s story, the man’s loss pertained to the “memories of his home conditions, of leisure and festivities, of joys and sorrows shared by an intimate group.”

The Rise of Minstrelsy

These workers’ emotions were still Irish, Italian, Slavic, German, English, Catholic, Jewish, and Russian, and their religious values still affirmed a world of relationships that could not be reduced to commercial interest and gain.

But they had to get rid of these internal feelings in order to become white Americans, namely, white industrial wage earners. They had to learn how to hide their true feelings, their ethnic desires, and their Old World memories because they weren’t white enough. So to find an outlet for these forbidden feelings and memories, they disguised them in blackface. They blackened their facial expressions and body gestures—and by so doing created America’s first national cultural institution: white minstrel shows performed in blackface. Black was now the color of choice for the industrial workers’ own white surplus powerlessness.

They blackened up and then sang their Old World songs to their heart’s delight but now as Zip Coon or other famous minstrel figures. They blackened up so that they could see their true feelings. They gazed at their feelings of being lost, alone, and afraid. They gazed at their regrets and their profoundly disquieting feeling of being at risk in the country they now must live in as their home. They put all these feelings—these seditious emotions—in blackface so as to be able to express them as whites while at the same time disowning them as whites.

zip coonThis is how the campaigns for white racial assimilation took hold at a deeply subjective level in these immigrants’ lives. The marketing campaign showed up in them disguised as a kind of Free Will Myth. These industrial workers, after all, seemed to freely choose to blacken their faces and act like Zip Coon—and other figures with demonic or ghoulish demeanors. But their choice to blacken up was the result of a “Got Race?” campaign to turn them into whites.

Becoming White through Blackface

Night after night these industrial workers would sit in the audience with other male members of their class and watch performers who were self-announced “white” men. They wore grease paint and burnt cork on their faces and hands to show their audience what white men weren’t: Men with seditious emotions. Men with inordinate desires and feelings and longings for what they were not supposed to have. Distancing themselves from their own emotions through blackface, they made fun of what they felt. They blackened their feelings in order to affirm them, even while pretending to deny them.

These industrial workers and performers bamboozled themselves. They pretended that the feelings they expressed on stage weren’t their own forbidden and thus “seditious” feelings because their white depictions were of the blacks. These images thus revealed and also hid the way whites felt about themselves.

The brilliant montage of blackened ghoulish and demonic images collected by Spike Lee and displayed at the end of his movie Bamboozled lays out in stark detail how campaigns for white assimilation hid the raw and ravaged feelings of whites by depicting them as ghoulish blacks:

 

The “Got Race?” campaigns in both the North and the South look like white racist attacks against blacks because that’s indeed what they are. But when we break the historical code of silence, wipe away the greasepaint, and focus attention on the grim poverty of whites who got disempowered through the creation of whiteness (and the attendant requirement that working class whites participate “willingly” in their own exploitation), the primary target of these ad campaigns comes into view: the ravaged emotional feelings of disenfranchised whites. We see the white racist attacks against the desires of immigrants to be Italian, Irish, Slavic, etc.—and not whites. And we see the collateral damage: the racial demeaning of blacks.

Thanks to these ad campaign narratives, the racial identities of black and white Americans became co-constructed ways of dismantling, shattering, and destroying the emotional integrity of the American people.

The Black Face of Darren Wilson’s Feelings

Black and white racial identities were constructed to keep most Americans from seeing what they have in common: feelings of loss, sorrow, remorse, feelings of being at risk, feelings of anger and rage, and excessive fears because they are ceaselessly being taken advantage of. These “seditious” emotions rise up against the 1 percent.

Perhaps Darren Wilson felt that Michael Brown could “see right through” him because, in facing Brown, Wilson came face to face with his own terrified feelings. The white cop saw his own terror, his own broken hopes and dreams, his own losses and defeats, his own anger and rage, and felt his own sense of learned powerlessness. Even though he had a gun, he was, according to his own account, undone and panicked like a five-year-old kid.

The deepest tragedy here, of course, is that in my account both Wilson and Brown are racial victims of the same historical whiteness campaign. Both men looked into the face of the racial “other” and felt a threat to their own emotional integrity. The major difference, of course, is that Wilson had the gun and the legal authority to use it.

Millennial Activism

If the scenario I have laid out here is correct or at least worthy of consideration, Wilson’s grand jury testimony can become a tipping point narrative for young activists looking for new ways to make sense of their own emotions that got stoked and set ablaze by the gunning down of Michael Brown—and the chokehold death of Eric Garner.

Millennial activists participate in the Millions March in Oakland. Credit: Creative Commons/Daniel Arauz.

These activists are not streaming the old narratives proffered by veteran civil rights workers who once again push for more minority police officers, civilian review boards for police, special prosecutors, or national guidelines for investigating officers when they use deadly force. And they are not notably moved by pleas for fuller participation in traditional politics.

Rather, there’s now a breach, a break, a disjunction widening between the old civil right formulators and the youthful experimenters. Or as Alisha Sonnier—the nineteen-year-old president of Tribe X formed to protest Michael Brown’s death—told the New York Times, “At the end of the day all of us are dealing with similar feelings and similar emotions. There’s a disjointment in how we feel we should go about it.”

Millennial activists are looking for new race narratives. And when millennial demonstrators shout “If we don’t get no justice, they don’t get no profit,” they are exposing the links between race and wealth that the “Got Race?” ad campaigns were designed to conceal. The basic premise of white privilege, after all, rests on a ghoulish shill, albeit a fatal one that leaves one black American killed every twenty-eight hours by a cop.

As millennials track down their own raced (and erased) emotions, they can start a new American narrative, one that portrays both Wilson and Brown as victims of a centuries-old race campaign that has disempowered the vast majority of the American people. Their new narrative will be about the American people and what we can now do together to end the racial assaults that keep us a divided and conquered people.

 

Thandeka, author of Learning to Be White: Money, Race, and God, will be the Visiting Professor of Affective Theological Studies at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts, this spring. For more of her work see revthandeka.org.
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White-On-White Class Violence: The Invisible Race Problem That's Killing Black Americans