Roy Herndon Smith
While abusive police practices disproportionately injure and destroy the bodies, families, homes, and communities of Blacks, Native Americans, other people of color, and immigrants, police have, in responding to recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations, often used violent measures against and have incarcerated non-violent White, as well as Black, protestors and others, including journalists, while they have usually not used such measures against gun-wielding white nationalists protesting stay-at-home orders. These different responses expose an historical dynamic Thandeka and other researchers on “whiteness” have identified as lying at the heart of white racism in America. The owner class, which was and remains a small minority of the population, deliberately constructed and continues to promote white racism as a means of dividing and controlling the very large majority of people who are not members of the owner class. (Thandeka, Learning to be White, Bloomsbury, 2000).
In colonial America, a small landowning English aristocracy, backed by a relatively small army, governed a very large majority of non-landowners made up of four groups of people, indentured, generally English and other European, servants, other non-land-owning English and other European immigrants, African slaves, and Native Americans. During the first half of the seventeenth century, these non-land-owning masses socialized with each other, married each other, and had families together. And they rebelled against the ruling owners together. During the first decades of the 17th century, owners treated indentured servants and slaves in roughly the same way; both could eventually become free and both had certain rights that owners respected. Beginning in 1641, in Massachusetts, and 1661, in Virginia, the land-owning elites in most of the colonies passed “slave laws” that removed the rights that slaves had and the possibility, for most of them, of gaining freedom from slavery, and legalized violent measures to control them. At the same time, the landowning elites implemented laws that protected the rights of indentured servants and gave them small amounts of property, including land, when they finished their periods of indenture. The slave laws also forbade marriages between African slaves and indentured and free Europeans. Within two generations, these laws had the effect the aristocracy desired; most “White” working class people identified with the “White” owners and over against “Black” slaves. White became an idealized identity—an image of an independent, self-made free man (women in this ideology were male property) who, through hard work, owned himself, his home, and his family. Black became the category of those who, by perceived nature, in the case of slaves and Native Americans, or perceived moral fault, in the case of the poor and any who resisted the White ideal, were not fully human, did not posses the rights of “free men,” and were subject to violent and coercive control like that visited on slaves. This brutally enforced ideology gave working-class Europeans a stark choice: either they identified as “White,” even though this identity contradicted the reality of their lives, in which they “slaved” to “earn a living” for themselves and their families, what little property they owned was vulnerable to being appropriated by the rich and powerful, and their families’ lives, rather than being “free,” were constrained by the threat and often the reality of poverty, or they suffered ruling powers’, and other “White’s”, treatment of them as subhuman “Black” animals. (Thandeka, Learning to be White)
Ever since the colonial period, this racist ideology has shaped American psychology, society, culture, politics, and economics. The regime of measurement of productivity, micro-management, and tight control over slaves’ labor became a model for American corporations’ rigid measurement of productivity, micro-management of, and strict control over labor ever since (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/slavery-capitalism.html). Armed patrols to quell slave revolts and capture escaped slaves morphed, after the end of slavery, into police forces that violently suppressed and continue to suppress labor unions, movements for civil, voting, and economic rights, and demonstrations against wars and police violence (https://time.com/4779112/police-history-origins/). The portrayal of slaves as inherently lazy and in need of coercive discipline to make them civilized morphed into the use of Blacks as the face of the lazy and immoral poor who do not deserve social supports, such as guaranteed medical care, child care, and welfare, cannot be trusted to vote, and require strict and coercive policing https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/26/opinion/black-lives-matter-injustice.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage&fbclid=IwAR02bGtB4An3hf8CIMrfALs2sSER5Gj5g8DfASy54WxQN8djtaO4gH64Qn0). The portrayal of immigrants and asylum seekers as explicitly or implicitly “Black” parasites justifies breaking up their families, separating children from parents, and incarceration and expulsion from the country without trial. From the colonial period to the present, wealthy elites have deployed this dynamic to maintain their power over governments by mobilizing whites, including working class whites, to identify with and vote for them and against Blacks, the poor, and those who identify with them (Thandeka, Learning to be White).
In summary, while the overt and structural violence of white racism begins with and disproportionately afflicts Black bodies, families, and communities, it also systematically afflicts the bodies, families, and communities of others who do not belong to the wealthy owner class—the vast majority of the population. The Black Lives Matter Global Network explicitly recognizes this connection in its statement of “What We Believe”:
Every day, we recommit to healing ourselves and each other, and to co-creating alongside comrades, allies, and family a culture where each person feels seen, heard, and supported.We acknowledge, respect, and celebrate differences and commonalities.
We work vigorously for freedom and justice for Black people and, by extension, all people.
We intentionally build and nurture a beloved community that is bonded together through a beautiful struggle that is restorative, not depleting.
We are unapologetically Black in our positioning. In affirming that Black Lives Matter, we need not qualify our position. To love and desire freedom and justice for ourselves is a prerequisite for wanting the same for others.