Call a thing a thing
By Charles M. Blow
Now that we are deep into protests over racism, inequality and police brutality — protests that I’ve come to see as a revisiting of Freedom Summer — it is clear that Donald Trump sees the activation of white nationalism and anti-otherness as his path to reelection. We are engaged in yet another national conversation about race and racism, privilege and oppression.
But, as is usually the case, the language we used to describe the moment is lacking. We — the public and the media, including The New York Times, including, in the past, this very column — often use, consciously or not, language that shields anti-Black white supremacy, rather than to expose it and hold it accountable.
We use all manner of euphemisms and terms of art to keep from directly addressing the racial reality in America. This may be some holdover from a bygone time, but it is now time for it to come to an end.
Take for instance the term “race relations.” Polling organizations like Gallup and the Pew Research Center often ask respondents how they feel about the state of race relations in the country.
I have never fully understood what this meant. It suggests a relationship that swings from harmony to disharmony. But that is not the way race is structured or animated in this country. From the beginning, the racial dynamics in America have been about power, equality and access, or the lack thereof.
Protests, and even violence, have erupted when white people felt their hold on those things was threatened or when Black people — or Indigenous people or Hispanics — rebelled against those things being denied.
So what are the relations here? It is a linguistic sidestep that avoids the true issue: anti-Black and anti-other white supremacy.
It also seems that the way people interpret that question is in direct proportion to the intensity of revolt that’s taking place at a particular time. Satisfaction with race relations is somewhat correlated with the silence of the oppressed. When they stop being silent, it affects the outcome.
After the rise of Black Lives Matter, satisfaction with race relations suffered a sustained drop.
The same can be said for the term “racial tension.” Read your news carefully and pay close attention to television and your podcasts and you will hear this phrase repeated. Someone is inflaming racial tensions or trying to cool them. But again, what does this mean?
Is the act of taking to the streets to demand justice a form of tension? Again, whenever people object to their oppression, it is framed as problematic to peaceful coexistence.
Furthermore, this tension between the oppressed and the oppressors has always existed and always will. The lulls you experience between explosive revolts of the oppressed should never be mistaken as harmony. They should be taken as rest breaks.
Then there are ever-present terms like “racial unity” and “racial division.” America loves to frame race in this country around unity rather than equality. But to do so robs the oppressed of legitimate grievance.
I’ve never understood the aim of bringing people together in unity absent the removal of anti-Black white supremacist social and political frameworks. It is one thing to experience transracial unity with an ally who is fighting just as hard for your liberation as you are. But it is literally impossible for me to unify with someone perfectly happy with the current state of affairs, which included the oppression of people who look like me.
Most of these phrases suggest a false premise: that white people and nonwhite ones are operating from equal positions of power in this society and are simply not getting along or agreeing on issues.
In other words, by implication, they make nonwhite people equally at fault for the state of race in America, when both history and social science demonstrate, unequivocally, that this is not true.
It is almost like we are experiencing a Lost Cause revisionism in our language on the issue of race.
It is time for us to simply call a thing a thing: White supremacy is the biggest racial problem this country faces and has faced. It is almost always the cause of unrest around race. It has been used to slaughter and destroy, to oppress and imprison. It manifests in every segment of American life.
It is odd that we are so timid about using it now because the white men who were the architects of modern white supremacy used it freely.
Mississippi was one of the first states to rewrite its constitution for the express purpose of codifying white supremacy, and states across the South followed the Mississippi example.
As one delegate at the Mississippi constitutional convention of 1890 put it: “It is the manifest intention of this Convention to secure to the State of Mississippi, ‘white supremacy.’”
One hundred and thirty years on, we are still fighting against this architecture.