The Crisis Of Leadership In The White Community

“If we — and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others — do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.”

- James Baldwin

To my white friends:

Ever since the election of abject bigotry to the most powerful office in the world, my mind has been neurotically preoccupied with how I might be equal to the demands of these tumultuous times, which are ours and for which we will be held accountable by posterity.

In the pursuit of answers, I’ve been thinking about the black community: where we are now, what we could’ve done differently, to what extent voter suppression efforts dampened our turnout, how we must work to reinstantiate the liberties that Shelby County v. Holder stole from us; how to avoid the gravitational pull of sickness and despair that each appointment of a white supremacist to the next presidential cabinet intensifies, and which seized many of my black and brown friends within a week of the election: everything from the cold to the flu to a single case of pneumonia: the sorrow of being rudely reminded that your country devalues your life; that your rights and liberties are up for debate. Bound up in this choice our country made is a reminder that I am not a full citizen, that our country belongs more to you than to me.

When they get a cough, we get the flu.

This black adage does not just attest to the rather banal fact that economic downturns, periods of austerity and all other trials that befall a nation traumatize and disable black people more than whites. This has always been true, for we are a race born of bondage, rape, unspeakable sorrow and the most dehumanizing and profitable enslavement of human beings that any society has perpetrated in recorded history; for a race brought to the edge of oblivion, it is facile to understand this truism as a description of the stratification that no doubt keeps us at the back of the bus.

This saying cuts to something deeper around which I’ve been circling ever since Nov. 8. We black and brown people feel more acutely the horrors of white supremacy than our white fellows, which is to say that we are far more invested in the work of overthrowing white supremacy than white people; and this not simply because white folks are, of course, its witting and unwitting beneficiaries nor because we black folks live at the fraying ends of it - driven nearly to oblivion though we are - but because the enduring cowardice in the white community has forced us to take upon ourselves the work of filling the vacuum of white leadership.

I’m sure that sounds harsh but please hear me out on this for I want nothing more than to see things clearly, to understand where we are within the multivalent contexts of history available to us.

To see clearly, we must understand that black and brown people constitute a community that exists in the negative space of the many liberties and rights conferred exclusively to white folks through white supremacy. Whether you like it or not, you are beneficiaries and our exclusion is your benefactor.

If our president-elect and his henchmen have their way, the coming days, months and years will enlarge these liberties and rights that are inaccessible to us, and enlarge too the sense of entitlement that many in the white community possess as members of the ruling class.

How will you respond as a member of the white community? How is the white community responding now? Here’s what I see:

On one side of the white community, the crudest elements of our country hail our president-elect with proudly precise Nazi salutes, invoke him as evidence of the imminence of a white ethnostate, and insinuate themselves into the white house, the capitol, the mainstream media, and into the thousands of corners of our country whose hate has bludgeoned blacks, Arabs, Asians, Muslims, Latinos, Jews, queers, and women with unbridled aplomb. On the other side, little more than a scattershot of listless condemnation from white liberal talking heads and politicians.

On one side, our white-supremacist-nationalist-sympathizing president-elect excoriates the Hamilton cast for asking our vice president-elect to care about all Americans but cannot seem to string together the sentence, “I strongly disavow white supremacy and neo-Nazis”, let alone passionately decry our neo-Nazi white supremacist countrymen, and on the other side … little more than susurrate silence.

Racist post-election graffiti
Racist post-election graffiti

Where are all of the enlightened white folks indignantly and vociferously decrying these neo-Nazi white supremacists? I know that you would sooner abscond to another country than allow yourselves to be citizens of a white ethnostate. But what of actively resisting the white supremacy furthered by these crude elements that invoke your same heritage to further an ethic of white superiority? To whom or to what are you turning to answer the question of what these our times demand of you should you strive to be equal to them?

In answering this question for myself, I’ve recently reread The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, the seminal essay of which is titled On Being White and Other Lies. In this essay, James Baldwin defines what he sees as a crisis of leadership in the white community. In essence, he argues that never have black folks’ many and serried collective struggles for liberation been equaled by a conspicuous, enraged and single-minded battalion of white people also bent on liberating both white and black from the bondage of the lie of whiteness. And, he argues, because of this failure of white leadership, black people have had to do the work of both black and white; and in this sense, we black Americans possess the freedoms we have now despite the extent to which we have never been fully met by white folks in our struggle; insofar as we are two races that co-created each other – whiteness being a category that was defined as the antithesis of blackness, and blackness a category defined as everything that is not purely white – black folks, Baldwin argues, have done the work of realizing the American dream for both by taking upon themselves the pursuit of the liberation that will unshackle white and black from fetters fortified by the many whitewashings of history that are necessary to maintain the delusion of race.

To wit: Benjamin Banneker took it upon himself in 1790 when he risked his precarious and uncommon freedom to write a letter to Thomas Jefferson chiding him for the hypocrisy of proclaiming all men to be equal while enslaving them; famously, Thomas Jefferson admitted in writing that he knew Banneker, a great scientist and mathematician, to be a man like himself and to be in possession of far greater than average intelligence and yet he could not, to his self-professed dismay, defy convention: a crisis of white leadership. Harriet Tubman took it upon herself when she singlehandedly created and conducted the underground railroad for which white men have retroactively taken credit; in fact, she led hundreds of slaves to freedom despite receiving next to no help from white “abolitionists” who refused to break unjust fugitive slave laws in the pursuit of justice: a crisis of white leadership. Ida B. Wells took it upon herself when lynchings replaced our chains and Mamie Till took it upon herself when she kept the casket of her barbarically beaten son open for not one but five full days so that the world might see just how great America is. Baldwin took it upon himself when he defied every force in this world which negated his progenitors to conclude that “we - who were not black before we got here, either, who were defined as black by the slave trade - have paid for the crisis of leadership in the white community for a very long time and have resoundingly, even when we face the worst about ourselves, survived and triumphed over it. If we had not survived and triumphed, there would not be a black American alive.”

1968 Olympics medalists John Carlos and Tommie Smith honored in the National Museum of African American History and Culture
1968 Olympics medalists John Carlos and Tommie Smith honored in the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Months ago I might have thought that Baldwin was being slightly hyperbolic here but I recently spent an entire day at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, each floor of which makes clear that in no way is it overblown to interpret the sheer existence of black Americans as the greatest American triumph to date. Whew! How my heart broke before the truths of what my ancestors endured, and how my spirit sang to know that I am borne of the most courageous and sustained struggle for freedom that has ever been waged in recorded history. This heritage is yours as well. This history is your history. This inheritance is our inheritance.

To be worthy of it, we must confront and internalize the Gordian knot of human and inhuman cruelties that is the mother of both white and black. The longer white folks abdicate responsibility for the lifting of the veil of whiteness, and the longer that black folks suffer for both - these two races: less a couple than conjoined - the more painful that day of reckoning, and on that day, the choice must be made to either plunge headlong into untruth as our neo-Nazi white supremacist countrymen would have it or else back away from the edge and relinquish once and for all the sinister fictions that divide us.

Do I possess the courage that is responsible for my existence? Do you possess the courage that is responsible for my existence? The courage that disallowed my ancestors from being destroyed by so cowardly a people as those who enslaved, beat, raped and plundered them; a pillage so horrible it is negated by any attempt at description? This courage which was not born to hope to become the equal of the slave-master, but to transcend the slave-master dialectic. This courage, which defied the imperial might of powers both here and abroad to dispel the fallacy of black inferiority. This courage which might, if applied to overcome the crisis of leadership in the white community, dispel, against all odds, the fallacy of white superiority.

We must try. I will try. I’ve joined a group of activists working singlemindedly to end white supremacy. Will you do the same?

On one side, our neo-Nazi white supremacist friends yell “Heil Trump, Sieg Heil” and on the other side…

Bolstered by the brazenness of those who’ve got buddies in the white house, our neo-Nazi white supremacist fellows have begun taking their rap on the road. They are young, not unattractive, and not entirely without rhetorical talent; it is foolish and intellectually reckless to deny that they can and will increase their numbers by orders of magnitude. The only force which might keep them in check is a commensurately deft and compelling cohort of white folks condemning them at every turn and holding up for their would-be converts an opposite and far grander aspiration toward the courage required to confront the past in order to heal and transcend it.

It is high time - for it is late, and there aren’t so many suns left for us or for our nation if we continue down this path - for white people to take their liberation from the fallacy of whiteness upon themselves.

I promise to do my part. Will you?

In solidarity and with great love,