White America: What Is Your Stake in #BlackLivesMatter?

Marissa Johnson, left, speaks as Mara Jacqueline Willaford stands with her and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie
Marissa Johnson, left, speaks as Mara Jacqueline Willaford stands with her and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., stands nearby as the two women take over the microphone at a rally Saturday, Aug. 8, 2015, in downtown Seattle. The women, co-founders of the Seattle chapter of Black Lives Matter, took over the microphone moments after Sanders began speaking and refused to relinquish it. Sanders eventually left the stage without speaking further and instead waded into the crowd to greet supporters. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Gustavo Gutierrez, the great liberation theologian, once said he was "suspicious of those who are not in the struggle for themselves."

Unless and until white Americans recognize that the very forces that plunder and kill black bodies are a product of forces that sustain white privilege in a way that will ultimately destroy the planet itself, racism will be kept at a distance -- a "problem" to be solved. And it never will be.

Today, as I write this, is August 9, 2015, the one-year anniversary of the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. A march and a moment of silence were held at the site where Brown, who was black and unarmed, was fatally shot by Ferguson officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9, 2014. A grand jury and the U.S. Department of Justice declined to prosecute Wilson, who resigned in November.

The #BlackLivesMatter movement continues to seek justice for African Americans, and calls for "redressing the systemic pattern of anti-black law enforcement violence in the U.S."

It can look like progress is being made. According to a new Pew Research study (August 5, 2015), "a growing number of Americans view racism as a big problem in society." Today, Pew reports, a majority of whites (53 percent) now say more needs to be done to insure racial equality. Last year, just 39 percent of whites said this.

But Pew's question about "racism as a big problem" is very important because it is the very question that will not lead to deeper examination.

"How does it feel to be a problem?" was the unasked, but implicit question W.E.B Du Bois felt white America always wanted him to answer, as he reflects in The Souls of Black Folk.

The issue that so few are willing to name let alone address, is what Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his searing book Between the World and Me calls "the Dream." The Dream is the self-anesthesitizing of white society, the temptations of rhetorical as opposed to real racial progress and the generalizations that give comfort without asking what actually has to change.

That is why when Pew uses the very framing that caused Du Bois to cry out to God in anguish, I am suspicious this reported statistic is not really progress. "Being a problem," reflected Du Bois, was a kind of existential crisis with profound religious import. "Why did God make me an outcast and a stranger in mine own house?"

This existential crisis is named with human, not divine anguish, by Coates, as he writes his book as a letter to his son after Trayvon Martin's killer was not convicted. "Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is tradition to destroy the black body -- it is heritage."

But white Americans do not, by and large, see this as the basic American tradition on race. There is a deliberate obscuring of the real problem. This obscuring is "the Dream," in Coates's terms, of "Americans who believe they are white." To me, as a white American, part of keeping the Dream intact requires naming race as a "problem" without being particularly specific about whose problem it is.

That is its purpose. The problematizing of race is a way not to have to see the real problem of racism. Thus, increasing the visibility of the "problem" is not going to lead to progress on actually reducing the real problem: destruction of black bodies.

Let me repeat that. The problem, to be specific, is the injuring and killing of African American bodies.

What white Americans in particular have to realize is that this pattern is not accidental. It is deliberate and it is absolutely crucial to expose that in order to actually start to change it.

We're not doing well on that.

In the Fox primary debate, the #BlackLivesMatter movement was given less than a minute of consideration before a commercial break, an hour and a half into the program.

Megyn Kelly asked Wisconsin governor Scott Walker about how "many in the Black Live Matter movement, and beyond, believe that overly aggressive police officers targeting young African Americans is the civil rights issue of our time. Do you agree? And if so, how do you plan to address it? And if not, why not?"

This question positioned Walker to give the expected, comforting to white America answer. He narrowed "the problem" of unarmed African Americans being killed and harmed by police to "training" the "very few" bad-apple cops who act racist.

It can get worse. Donald Trump, when questioned in another context on police brutality toward African Americans went directly to "crime" and the need to "to give power back to the police, because crime is rampant."

Donald Trump is effectively the "Id" (in Freudian terms) of American conservatism, an unfiltered window into the impulsive (mostly unconscious) part of the human psyche that responds directly and immediately to the instincts. Thus Trump's answer shows what the conservative base really instinctively feels about racism (he also shows the real problems on sexism, of course): Conservatives don't feel racism is really even a problem. The threat posed by black bodies to white America is the problem. According to Trump, policing of the black body needs to be increased, not decreased.

But the failure to name what is at stake in #BlackLivesMatter is not just a conservative failing. The problematizing of racism without clarity and specificity about exactly what matters on racism is also a failing of more liberal Americans. Candidate Hillary Clinton caused outrage when she used the liberal, universalizing #AllLivesMatter formulation in an African American church. As one person commented on Twitter, "Well she just locked down the racist white people who think they aren't racist vote." Indeed.

A Bernie Sanders event in Seattle was shut down on Saturday of this weekend by #BlackLivesMatter protestors who wished to turn attention to the anniversary of the killing of Michael Brown. A "largely white audience... booed and chanted for protesters to let the senator talk. A few yelled for police to make arrests."

Marissa Johnson, one of the protesters, said, "I was going to tell Bernie how racist this city is, filled with its progressives, but you did it for me," accusing the audience of "white supremacist liberalism." She cited Seattle's own police problems, including an ongoing Justice Department consent decree over use of force.

It is significant to me that it was Seattle where this happened, a city that is a symbol of technological "progress." The conclusion of Coates's Between the World and Me is a particularly chilling warning on the deep script of racism. According to Coates, the technological revolution "has freed the Dreamers to plunder not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself." And its vengeance, even now, is huge. "Something more awful than all our African ancestors is rising with the seas."

If liberal and conservative and middle-of-the-road white Americans want to wake up from "the Dream" and find their stake in ending the plundering of the black body, let it be this: The using and abusing of black bodies for profit in the name of progress is the same trajectory that will likely kill you (and me) as well.

That's what Gustavo Gutierrez meant. White Americans can find a real stake in #BlackLivesMatter. They need to make it a confrontation with the existential threat to humanity and to the planet that these racist forces pose, and then come to know why black lives actually matter.

And once you see that, you will act to put a stop to the American tradition of destroying the black body.