From A More Perfect Reunion, which was published in June by Bold Type Books.
Even before Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, many were debating the utility of pacifist resistance. After Malcolm X was killed, after Martin was killed, after Medgar Evers was killed, all hell broke loose. The summers of 1968 and 1969 saw mass uprisings in every major city in America. The police responded with violence: shooting dissenters, busting heads, filling hospitals and prisons.
After the fires, people were no longer simply calling for desegregation. The limits of rhetoric had been crossed. They were in the street fighting for what white Americans and the U.S. government feared would become a full-blown revolution. It almost did. King and earlier civil-rights advocates had taught people the power of mass mobilization. Malcolm had taught black America a language of self-determination. The Black Panthers took it to the streets and pulled the national political conversation to the left, with the effect of making less radical liberal goals more achievable.
Since 1956, the FBI had run a counterintelligence program called COINTELPRO, aimed at disrupting domestic political operations on the left. Among the groups deemed a threat were socialists, anti-Vietnam organizers, and the civil-rights movement. The Panthers were all of the above.
Violent white resistance to equal rights led the black left, and with it much of the American left, to an unnatural demise, underscoring the fact that as recently as fifty years ago the government was willing to use deadly force to suppress political speech. It was as chilling as it was effective. This violent resistance of local, state, and federal governments to Martin Luther King’s doctrine of nonviolence, meted out in every corner of this country, had radicalized the younger members of that movement in the first place. The violence deployed against the Panthers was not as immediately apparent as police batons and water cannons (to cite only the abuse that was broadcast and irrefutable), but it was just as effective, demonstrating that resistance to black power was not simply the province of rogue Southern sheriffs and vigilante mobs. It was national policy.
Whiteness and blackness are not static opposites, as the crudest understandings of race would have us believe. They are dialectically entwined concepts and conditions. Whiteness wishes to reserve for itself the power to arbitrate the meaning of both whiteness and blackness, each of which has a range of values. But whatever their shifting meanings and relationships, whiteness requires blackness (a priori) to define itself. Equally crucial: all states described within the system are actually composed of two components. The first part is the actual thing or condition under consideration. The second component is its symbolic representation (the words, images, and social poses we use to describe it). The symbols sometimes mirror and sometimes distort the true underlying condition.
Even before they walked onto the floor of the California legislature brandishing rifles and shotguns, lobbying for their right to bear arms, the Panthers posed an existential threat to white power. What made black power so threatening was not the leather jackets and military drills, but that it offered one of the few possible paths out of race’s labyrinth: by wresting from whiteness the power to define what blackness means, it undermined and threatened to unravel a core principle of the system.
The definition of the white self may change, but it always exists in relation to blackness and the power to define that relationship. Without blackness, and power over blackness, whiteness becomes a null set. Society must look elsewhere for a philosophy of being. Just as a nation defining itself as leader of the free, home of the brave was revealed to the world as a racial state, indebted to the social and economic practices of the British Empire and European colonialism, so were a people who regarded themselves as educated, well-to-do, civilized, indeed the rightful heirs and stewards of “civilization” appalled by the brutality of force deployed on behalf of whiteness: purple-faced adults spitting at children exercising their right to an education. If one was not truly appalled, the idea of oneself as civilized nonetheless required that one perform indignation. Or at least empathy. The distinction between real belief and performance does not matter so long as the acts under scrutiny are visible and public. When they are private or deniable, the difference matters a great deal.
American whiteness, with its new role in the world, and new pretentions, had an image problem. The problem for those whose belief in justice was authentic: how to alter the racial state. For others, it was how to maintain white supremacy without being seen as a pariah in a world where the new watchword was freedom. Lynchings and water cannons are too much. Ghettos, exploited workers, and social death are acceptable. Appearing racist was verboten, but not racism itself.
The brilliance of race as a technology of oppression is that even being progressive does not mean being committed to deconstructing the racial state. It is enough to modify the performance of whiteness: in this case, a variation of the white savior, with desires operating apart, not in partnership, in order to maintain the centrality and alleged specialness of whiteness.
The Civil War generation went to war against slavery. The civil-rights generation practiced civil disobedience, registered voters, and sued the state to put forth concrete, systemic demands for equality—not partial, symbolic ones. As race morphs and hides like a virus inside the psyche, it requires a practical focus on the material substance of inequality, not simply symbolic performances, which often mask at least as much as they reveal.
The resilience of institutional racism and the incredible number of strategies that individuals deploy to absolve themselves of responsibility led the Panthers to renew the call for mass collective action. As Fred Hampton and the Panthers realized, that meant active and concrete demands. The pain of race is difficult to discuss and easy to dismiss. The anger of race is frightening. The competing feelings—shame at profiting from a system that oppresses others and pride in being part of the institutions that provide a sense of security—is the crux of the liberal compromise: accepting an easing of the conditions that have stolen people’s rights and celebrating that partial relief as progress soothes the national conscience but allows the core conditions of racism to continue. Or, as Malcolm said, “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out that’s not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made.”
In business as in politics, what has been added to the comfort of whiteness, after the civil-rights movement was shot in its sleep, is the vanity of demonstrating one’s bona fides as a supporter of racial justice. This performance is culturally inculcated. By demonstrating awareness or “wokeness,” one is demonstrating a badge of belonging, that you are a member of a group that cares about such things and went to a school or read a book or were raised in a milieu that taught you genteel behaviors and buzzwords. Yet any change to the existing structure is perceived as a threat because the system has also taught that blackness represents a unique threat, so you repeat your jargon from within the safety of the institutions and geography of whiteness. Integration threatens any self that takes whiteness as its most salient identity (without knowing it), across political lines, because it addresses the material, not the symbolic.
This is why the advocates of true justice and not merely of symbols of hope continue to face an uphill battle. They are calling for change. The center merely asks us to stand by the compromise that Rutherford B. Hayes made, in which Northern liberals stay in their place, passively aligned with Southern racists. So while one of the major parties is always actively opposed to civil rights, the other party is passively opposed, flying low, under the banner of political realism but really concerned only with the preservation of its own power.