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By Zillah Eisenstein
Revolutionary imagination is the most dangerous and therefore meaningful thing any of us have to offer. So I am writing in support of coalition building in the struggle against racism that will matter more, and do more. There is a new anti-racist movement led by Blacks, many who are queer Black women, in this country today. We white people need to see them, to recognize this new movement that started in Ferguson, Missouri, and actively support it in whatever way needed.
I went to see the film Selma on opening day in New York City and the theatre was standing room only. I was reminded of the indomitable courage of Blacks to get the right to simply vote. I was also reminded of the brutality and malevolence of white people, including the President at the time. The audience was multi-colored, with about half being white. I wondered if the whites were letting themselves feel the pain and the shame of who “we” can be: full of hatred and terrorizing.
I live in this moment as a white person who deeply believes in and who grew up in the Civil Rights Movement, when my family’s lives and I were predominantly nurtured and shared with Blacks. Most whites hated us. We were white race traitors. I was singled out and bullied in my high school as a dirty Jew N—– lover. We lived in the Black community surrounding Atlanta University, where my father taught. I later came to full adulthood in the U.S. feminist movement with socialist Black feminists as my comrades.
White people have structural power and privilege that gives us more of everything than people of every other color. This power of whiteness is big. It is formidable. It is everywhere. So reforms may help but are incomplete. The new Black Lives Matter activists are attempting to fully disrupt this racism. Die-ins are supposed to stop life as usual—from traffic flow to shopping malls.
The months leading up to seeing Selma have been etched with multiple killings/murders of Black boys and men by white police officers leaving heartbroken families and communities. Several Black women have also died while in police custody, but have garnered much less publicity. Police officers have not been held accountable, while Black communities have been left to mourn. It seems as though a fully-blown new kind of militarized policing is in place, most particularly for Blacks—gay, straight, and trans.
The structural systems of racism that are in play today are not identical with previous forms. Much has changed. Much that has changed has not necessarily brought greater equality or freedom. Some of the equality trickles down to a few, but not the many.
Emmett Till was murdered at the age of 14 in 1955 on the false charges of rape of a white woman. In 1964, civil rights workers Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman were murdered. Fred Hampton of the Black Panthers was shot and killed by Chicago Police in 1969. Assaults like these have continued. Rodney King was brutalized by white cops in 1991. Abner Louima was sodomized with a broken-off broom handle by New York white police officers. He had been an electrical engineer in Haiti, before.
And then more recently there have been the heartbreaking killings of unarmed Black teenagers Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown, by white officers. And as if this is not enough, Eric Garner, a father of six is choked and killed while fighting to breathe; and twelve-year old Tamir Rice is mistakenly murdered; and Dontre Hamilton, a mentally impaired young man is shot 14 times and killed in Milwaukee and then Antonio Martin is killed right outside Ferguson, Missouri again. The autopsy of Ezell Ford in Los Angeles has just been released. Police shot him in the back and his killing is classified as a homicide. This is what racism looks like: not-so-random murders by white police of Blacks for being Black. Reform of the police state in the U.S. is a must, but totally not enough.
Racism pours from each and every site/sight. Ebola, a disease of Black Africa, colonialism, white privilege, and wealth, ravages Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea while the U.S. worries about its “white” self. Cuba sends hundreds of doctors, Doctors Without Borders tries to stem the fury of the disease wherever it is, and we punish our few doctors and nurses who have gone with quarantines and fear.
This racism is embedded in misogyny and class inequalities, so rape and sexual violence exist alongside and inside the system of racialized capitalist hetero patriarchy. Marissa Alexander—who fired a warning shot against her abusive husband—is threatened with a jail term of 60 years, and succumbs to a plea deal because there is no justice system she can trust.
Amidst all this, the Black Lives Matter movement emerges. Black Lives Matter (BLM) re-orients and redirects the white gaze. It demands a revolutionary assault on white supremacy. Ending chattel slavery did not uproot the racial hatred; instead, it removed the legal structure upon which it stands. The Black Lives Matter and Hands Up Don’t Shoot movements continue the struggle to dismantle and abolish racial hatred. This hatred must be expunged with the remaining structural leftovers of economic and gender inequality.
Chattel slavery was reformed rather than destroyed. What would it look like to annihilate racism, as B.R. Ambedkar, the Indian Dalit writer and activist might have it? BLM activists are pondering these questions and using new tactics to do so. These demos are spontaneous and dispersed but they are connected. They are making a new movement for racial justice that includes intersectional knowledge of sex, race, and class divisions.
It is good that Obama is president because it proves that this is not the answer for addressing racism today. Racism is not an individual problem so no one individual can fix it, even if they wanted to. The structures themselves corrupt and coopt so the pressures must come from outside/in. This is why the BLM movement seeks to disrupt the systems that support racism. Entry is not an option. They will stay in the streets until police officers are held accountable, and Cheney and his gang are found guilty of war crimes. Disruption can be used to further expose injustices. I dream of a time when this kind of accountability will be fully realized.
The horrific brutality of white privilege embedded and reproduced first in settler colonialism and then the system of chattel slavery hangs around in every crevice of this country. It is the dirty open secret that keeps being pushed from view in new forms of brutality: from lynchings, to police killings, to rape and sexual violation. The tactics change some, while the strategy of dispossession and humiliation remain similar.
The misogyny used against Black female slaves and women today is embedded in the racism of chattel slavery. Black male slaves suffered it as well, as they could not lay claim to white patriarchal privilege. Slavery was a class/caste system that relegated all blacks to crushing poverty. It was simultaneously variegated by a racialized gender system. To think of slavery as simply racist is to falsely disconnect it from its white misogynist roots/routes.
This is why any assault against racism puts the misogyny of racism in the mix. The challenge is to dismantle and recreate the white supremacist hetero-capitalist patriarchal structure of everything. So it should be no surprise that the key leaders of the Ferguson rebellions are Black women, two of them queer: Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza. They started the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag after the murder of Trayvon Martin. Cullors is founder and director of Dignity and Power Now, which is a justice organization for incarcerated peoples. Garza is special projects director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Tometi is executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration.
BLM is an all-encompassing site of justice for Cullors, Tometi, and Garza. This specific site takes them to the place of universal justice. If the U.S. can be rid of racism towards Blacks, racism in all its forms begins to be challenged. As Alicia Garza says, when Black people really get free then “every single person in this world has a better shot at getting and staying free.”
I agree with this initiative. In order for democracy to ever be fully inclusive of humanity, it must re-arrange its thinking about universalism, which has historically been an exclusionary concept to begin with. Slaves were not a part. No woman was. Therefore, specificity is needed to re-invent and re-orient democratic theory and practice. Universals and the abstracted “individual” are preferred as though it encompasses everybody in its non-specificity. But the non-specificity is a farce because it originally meant white property owning men. Specify the “individual” by gender and race and the Black woman becomes a newly inclusive notion of democracy rooted in specificity that potentially embraces universality. It is time to try things this way after so much of history has been blinded by exclusionary rights parading as inclusive and just.
White Crazy People
When Frank Rich asks Chris Rock if the election of Barack Obama meant progress, Rock says, yes, it showed progress for white people, they have progressed, they were the one’s with the problem, not us, we were and always and have been ready to be president. “White people were crazy. Now they are not as crazy.” And then, just to make this perfectly clear to whites who might not get it, he says of his daughters: “The question is, you know, my kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children. There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.”
I will take Chris Rock’s optimism and try to put it to good use, but also be reminded of Franz Fanon’s statement: “We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.” Let us be reminded of Eric Garner pleading for his life: “I CANNOT BREATHE.” He said it eleven times before he died.
Reform and Revolution, Again
I love the clarity and energy of Black feminist/writer Brittney Cooper’s activism of every sort. She posts on Facebook, December 12, 2014: “Regarding tomorrow’s March on Washington, let’s just say I been over Marches on Washington since I lived in Washington. There are many problems here, not the least of which is that I need the Civil Rights establishment to be original. Every crisis in Black America does not call for a march on Washington. Those marches are largely about telling us who our new leadership is supposed to be and allowing us a good ‘Sunday Morning shout,’ so to speak, without doing anything substantive…Now in this moment, die-ins disrupt traffic and business as usual. And they are acts that give political place to black rage. I’m also here for tomorrow’s march in NYC, because that is about a show of solidarity in a local place where this occurred. But I couldn’t be more disinterested in another March on Washington. Sharpton and co. keeps doing that because it doesn’t require them to think. Let’s do a new thing, folks. Let’s be creative. Let’s talk to these young folks and follow their lead, and get on board, with whatever we have to give.”
There are newly new systems of racism that make racism and its white privilege more complex to see, and not. Brutal police shootings of mostly unarmed Black boys and men and women harkens back to the terrorism of chattel slavery. But although slavery—its racism and sexism and classism—is present, it is also massively restructured in new forms. In chattel slavery a black person was ascribed his or her status, there was no opportunity, so to speak, to achieve. No race to run. To be Black was to be poor and enslaved; there was homogeneity of powerlessness even if made up of unique individual selves.
Today and recently there has been a Black president, a Black woman secretary of state, a Black Attorney General, a Black Joint Chief of Staff, a Black woman commander of the Army’s elite drill sergeant school. So things have changed while also staying similarly racist. There is an evolving militarized police state that now orchestrates an unforgiving racism that continues to put Black bodies of all genders at risk while also diversifying the gaze. Racism intersects with sexism all the time, and racism also has many colored variations. To complexify and enlarge is not to reduce. It is to open racism to its heterogeneity.
A revolutionary intersectional and coalitional movement is needed today. Central to this coalition must be the attack on racist, capitalist, hetero-patriarchy. The revolutionary status demands intersectional understandings of each and every identity. Hopefully, BLM is working from this commitment because the purpose of any regime of power is to mystify its source of power. Maybe this moment allows for revolutionary change; a complete overhaul from the bottom up to rearrange colors, sexes, races, and genders and with them the white supremacist nation itself.
Do not be looking for a revolution like the past. We need one for the future; one that is accountable to people of all colors, most particularly Black people who suffer the greatest indecencies today.
This may feel impossible, but a politics of the seemingly impossible is needed more than ever. We, the big “we,” need a new modern civil rights movement that disrupts newly.
Zillah Eisenstein has been a Professor of Politics at Ithaca College in New York for the past 35 years and is now “Distinguished Scholar in Residence” there. Besides her recently published THE AUDACITY OF RACES AND GENDERS: A PERSONAL AND GLOBAL STORY OF THE OBAMA CAMPAIGN (2009, Zed Press, London; Palgrave, U.S.), her books include among others: SEXUAL DECOYS, GENDER, RACE AND WAR IN IMPERIAL DEMOCRACY (London, Zed Press; New York, Palgrave, 2007); AGAINST EMPIRE, ibid.; HATREDS: RACIALISED AND SEXUALIZED CONFLICTS IN THE 21ST CENTURY, (Routledge, 1996); GLOBAL OBSCENTITIES: PATRIARCHY, CAPITALISM AND THE LURE OF CYBERFANTASY (NYU PRESS, 1996); and MANMADE BREAST CANCERS, (Cornell Univ. Press, 2001). For more information see: www.ithaca.edu/zillah.