Gentle Readers, let’s talk white supremacy. We do that almost all the time here, but usually in the context of other things. That makes it easy to let some details slip through the cracks. I think most Americans get the most basic idea: whites come first, everyone else possesses debatable humanity. I realized a few weeks back, in the course of talking with others, that I ought to pay more attention to the myriad ways that simple idea wends its way through our lives.
Most people would probably agree that an individual who expresses belief in the racial superiority of whites or the inferiority of non-whites to whites counts as white supremacist. The guy in the brown shirt with the red armband and the other guy in the white hood believe things like that. We have agreed, at least in mixed company, that this makes them monstrous. They believe in horrible things and countenance historical atrocities and present injustices which we righteously condemn. They have no fit place in polite society and we have an obligation to do what we can to contain them and limit the harm they do, so far as we can do so and remain faithful to other vital principles. If they wheel out racist pseudoscience, whether vintage nineteenth century or the more recent sort, that makes them a hard case. Sometimes they receive a kinder hearing than they should, but mostly the convention holds. We should call those people out and keep to our norms. Such clear expressions of racial hatred serve as calls to action and precursors for new horrors. People may do harm with or without our saying so, but they will understand silence as permission.
We do not, however much we may wish otherwise, live in a world where villainy so eagerly announces itself. Admitting that puts us in a bind. In making those who express open racial animus into pariahs, exiled by their deplorable ideas, we easily slip into a second corollary. Something we consider so vile, we cannot imagine occurring with any great frequency. We imagine racists as freaks, so different that we can’t imagine knowing them. We have made racism into a crime near unto murder, yet with no victims. Someone far away or long ago did horrible things, but we finished that and now we have sad, hateful remnants who don’t really warrant our attention. Racism simultaneously counts for a great deal and doesn’t matter at all. It then makes no sense for us to go looking for it.
By we, I must clarify, I mean myself and other white Americans. We have the luxury of these conventions written on our skin. Their costs we carve into the lives of others. I have done it myself more times than I care to remember. We have arranged our civilization to let us do it without thinking, but even when we choose thoughtlessly, we still choose. Suffer me this story to illustrate:
The worst physical injury I have yet endured came when two boys pushed me down on the playground. I landed with my left hand forward. Rather than catching myself, the radius and ulna both broke. My hand drove up between them and one of the bones lay lengthwise across the back of it. The doctors told us that I had one of the worst fractures they ever treated without operating. It still hurts when it gets cold sometimes, almost a quarter century later. I can’t imagine many people I have actually met whom I have cause to like less than those two boys, who suffered no punishment for doing it. But I have known since the day it happened that they did not come at me thinking that they would break my bones and leave me with occasional pain for decades after. They set out to shove me away, perhaps to the ground, but not to rearrange my skeleton.
Some part of that day will always be in the present tense for me. Others have suffered far worse with a grace I can’t muster; I don’t write this to ask your sympathy for childhood pains. Rather hope you can understand that what those boys meant to do on the playground didn’t matter. Their not meaning to hurt me did not preserve me from harm. No amount of good intentions saved my bones and spared me fleeting pain. Even had they simply bumped into me in the hall, not meaning to lay a hand on me, the bones got broken. I felt, and sometimes still feel, the pain of the moment. That matters. We live with the things done to us in flesh and blood far more than we ever will the intentions that drove them.
We can perform white supremacist actions without conscious intention to do so; I know I have. We can say, perhaps honestly, that we didn’t mean it. People get hurt all the same. I maintain that we do so more often than not, habitually privileging the interests, concerns, and ultimately the lives of white Americans above those of anybody else. The people of Flint have poison coming out of their faucets because white people chose to allow it. They suffer not an iota less if we meant otherwise. The government of Michigan, my state, poisoned them all. It has lately appealed a court ruling that the state must deliver that water to residents, rather than make them come to collect their daily rations. No one made the state file that appeal; they chose it, knowing that the less accessible they make drinking water the more likely they are to force the residents to use the poison flowing from their taps all the same. Flint has a majority black population. A mostly white government with a mostly white constituency prefers poisoning them to supplying them with basic necessities, even when that government has only itself to blame for the poisoning.
Say that the people of Michigan did not vote for this. (We didn’t, though when we voted as we did we could reasonably have expected a cavalier attitude toward black lives.) Say that the state government did not mean for it to happen or didn’t know it could. (They knew.) It doesn’t matter. Flint’s residents of all ages got to drink poison all the same. Pleading good intentions will not change that, though it does an admirable job of distracting us from white supremacy in grotesque operation.
Keeping on the theme of water, an oil company wants to build a pipeline through North Dakota. It would have run right by Bismarck, the state capital. The people there believed that this would put their drinking water at risk. Oil does tend to spill; pipes do fail. In response to the concerns of Bismark’s people, which we can all understand, the pipeline got rerouted through a Sioux reservation, Standing Rock. The Sioux, who know something about living on the business end of genocide for the past few centuries, objected too. They would also prefer that they and their children did not drink poison, as well as that an oil pipeline not run through their sacred lands. For some time now they have conducted a large, peaceful protest against the construction, to which the police have responded with violence. That includes spraying water on the protesters at night, in November on the high plains, which ought to count as lethal force all by itself.
I understand that many people stand to make a great deal of money off this pipeline, including the man who lost the late presidential election. But when the people of Bismarck objected to the route endangering their water, plans changed. Ninety percent of the people who live in that city can boast white skin, which goes a long way. The Sioux cannot, so they get to have their children poisoned and their holy places despoiled. Their resistance, not that of Bismarck, brought down the heavy hand of the law. Here, as in Flint and as we do in countless other times and places, people made a decision. White children don’t deserve poisoned water. No one will drive a pipeline through one of Bismarck’s churches. The Sioux have no such immunity. Their concerns, lives, and culture don’t count any more than the people of Flint do.
It may be that some of the people who made the decisions for Flint and North Dakota exulted at the thought of afflicting minorities. If I have learned anything from the research I do for this blog, I have learned to never underestimate the power of pure malice. But it doesn’t matter if they acted with depraved hearts, they did what they did. We can’t know fully the minds of others, however much we try, but they write their actions on the bodies of their victims. The rest of us must make our own choices then. Even if we can’t follow every issue and understand each controversy, we decide when they come before us. We can refuse to allow such things to happen in our name or we can turn away and tell stories about well-meaning mistakes and oversights, reducing those genuinely harmed to an irrelevant detail. A band of neo-Nazis or Klansmen might harm people by the score, but all of us standing by play our part in far greater crimes. A gang can kill dozens or hundreds; policy, silent assent, and willful blindness reach millions.