The Lie That Sustains Racism

Once in a while a book calls to me such that I need to ask you to read it — perhaps half a dozen books since I began this blog in 2013. Today, that book is Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own by Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.

A friend urged me to watch a Haymarket Books dialogue between Glaude and Cornel West, moderated by Maya Marshall. The minute it was over, I bought the book.

Anything by James Baldwin is of interest to me. One of his books was the first novel I ever read; his portrait is the first I painted in a new series I’ve started; his words are the epigram attached to my email signature. His fierce courage and love inspire me every day. Among all of these inspirations, Glaude’s book is special. The writing is beautiful, but that’s not my only reason for saying so. The depiction of an exceptional artist’s struggle with the world is rich and moving, but that’s not my only reason for loving the book.

Above all, I commend this book to you because its message of truth, love, anger, and justice is exactly what I believe we need not only to hear but to heed, today and every day since enslaved people were brought to these shores.

Glaude uses a phrase — ”the lie” — to describe the terrible, ongoing, and thus far unending falsehood concerning black people that has rationalized and justified the damage that has been done to them, to history, to everyone in its stream. Glaude explains:

Baldwin’s understanding of the American condition cohered around a set of practices that, taken together, constitute something I will refer to throughout this book as the lie. The idea of facing the lie was always at the heart of Jimmy’s witness, because he thought that it, as opposed to our claim to the shining city on a hill, was what made America truly exceptional. The lie is more properly several sets of lies with a single purpose. If what I have called the “value gap” is the idea that in America white lives have always mattered more than the lives of others, then the lie is a broad and powerful architecture of false assumptions by which the value gap is maintained. These are the narrative assumptions that support the everyday order of American life, which means we breathe them like air. We count them as truths. We absorb them into our character.

One set of lies debases black people; examples stretch from the writings of the Founding Fathers to The Bell Curve. According to these lies, black people are essentially inferior, less human than white people, and therefore deserving of their particular station in American life. We see these lies every day in the stereotypes that black people are lazy, dishonest, sexually promiscuous, prone to criminal behavior, and only seeking a handout from big government. Baldwin made the Howard students [he met with a group of students including Stokely Carmichael [later Kwame Ture] after a talk he gave in 1963] promise him that they would never believe the lies the country told about them, because he knew that the lie would do irreparable harm to their souls, as it had done to the country.

Another constituent part of the lie involves lies about American history and about the trauma that America has visited throughout that history on people of color both at home and abroad. According to these lies, America is fundamentally good and innocent, its bad deeds dismissed as mistakes corrected on the way to “a more perfect union.” The United States has always been shadowed by practices that contradict our most cherished principles. The genocide of native peoples, slavery, racial apartheid, Japanese internment camps, and the subordination of women reveal that our basic creed that “all men are created equal” was a lie, at least in practice. These weren’t minor events in the grand history of the “redeemer nation,” nor were they simply the outcomes of a time when such views were widely held. Each moment represented a profound revelation about who we were as a country — ­just as the moments of resistance against them said something about who we aspired to be.

Glaude accompanies Baldwin on his journey of hope and possibility, of disillusionment and disappointment, of the renewal of possibility toward the end of life. He argues convincingly that Baldwin’s unflinching exploration of his own wounds and will was a necessary precondition of understanding the broken and blighted big story he had to tell; and that we, too, must look without blinking at our lives, our pain and our complicity, to comprehend the life of this country. He insists in many different ways, each grounded in stories from his own experience and Baldwin’s, that our only possibility of redemption lies in owning the truth the lie has hidden, in bearing witness to the legacy of trauma, “a legacy of sin that undergirds much of what we do in this country.”

He goes on to say that “Taken as a whole, then, the lie is the mechanism that allows, and has always allowed, America to avoid facing the truth about its unjust treatment of black people and how it deforms the soul of the country. The lie cuts deep into the American psyche. It secures our national innocence in the face of the ugliness and evil we have done.”

I’ve been thinking about what it would take to actualize the process of truth and restitution necessary to expose and destroy the lie. There are so many ways of lying embedded in the common culture of the United States.

I think of C. Wright Mills’ brilliant point about the national tendency to treat public issues as if they were personal troubles, shrinking their significance: if I lose my job, I will be asked what I did to deserve it; it will take a heroic effort to shift the conversation around to the the macroeconomic forces and political decisions that have eliminated so many American jobs. If a police officer murders George Floyd — just as when a lone white gunman shoots into a crowd at a school or club — one wing of the public conversation will focus on the perpetrator’s psychology, the wounds that brought him to this moment, seeking to identify the exact character of the bruises that distinguish this one rotten apple from the whole praiseworthy barrel.

I think of our national addiction to exceptionalism as a way of filtering out injustice: if Beyonce and Jay-Z can be billionaires, if Barack Obama can be President, we must have made wonderful progress, mustn’t we? Never mind all those statistics about black people being incarcerated at three times the rate of whites (13 percent of the U.S. population, 38 percent of the prison population), of dying of COVID-19 at three times the rate of white people. Never mind that “the average black family with children holds just one cent of wealth for every dollar that the average white family with children holds,” just one statistic in Nikole Hannah-Jones masterful New York Times article about racial and economic injustice in this country.

The core lie at the heart of American hypocrisy and injustice begins with the genocide of Indigenous people on these shores and continues with the enslavement of human beings in the drive for profit in Southern agriculture. Baldwin put it clearly in a 1964 essay:

The people who settled the country had a fatal flaw. They could recognize a man when they saw one. They knew he wasn’t…anything else but a man; but since they were Christian, and since they had already decided that they came here to establish a free country, the only way to justify the role this chattel was playing in one’s life was to say that he was not a man. For if he wasn’t, then no crime had been committed. That lie is the basis of our present trouble.

But the lie’s deep roots also shoot branches into the lives of every group not fully admitted to the category “white.” Every single day brings a barrage of cellphone videos shot by participants or bystanders to violence, exclusion, insult meted out by celebrities and ordinary people alike. How many will it take to add up to facing the lie? Here are just a few from this week alone.

In Phoenix, a man in a parked car was surrounded by police who broke a car window, opened fire, and killed the man.

A group of white men in Indiana beat and threatened a black man, pinning him to a tree and threatening to get a noose. Some of the protestors who took to the street to support him were hit by a car, a growing phenomenon in response to Black Lives Matter demonstrations. The New York Times covered it. Does that end the story?

Here’s a San Francisco tech CEO viciously insulting an Asian American family before being ejected from a restaurant. The CEO, Michael Lofthouse, apologized in the now-expected fashion. I doubt anyone believes him. Does that end the story?

DeSean Jackson of the Philadelphia Eagles quoted Hitler in his social media condemnation of Jews. He apologized. In fact, there have been layers of support for his statements followed by apologies for the support. Does that end the story?

In Begin Again, Glaude shows how this nation failed to grasp — in fact, rejected and dismissed — two epochal opportunities to face the moral reckoning necessary to break the power of the lie, Reconstruction and the mid-twentieth century civil rights movement. Twice when the call to truth sounded especially loud and most people stopped their ears. He sees clearly the opportunity before us now:

Now we find ourselves facing a moral reckoning of the same magnitude. We should have learned the lesson by now that changing laws or putting our faith in politicians to do the right thing are not enough. We have to rid ourselves, once and for all, of this belief that white people matter more than others, or we’re doomed to repeat the cycles of our ugly history over and over again. George Santayana, the Spanish-born American philosopher, was right to point out that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But what he didn’t say is that those who willfully refuse to remember become moral monsters. What we need is a third American founding, to begin again without this insidious idea of the value gap that continues to get in the way of a New America. We need an America where “becoming white” is no longer the price of the ticket. Instead, we should set out to imagine the country in the full light of its diversity and with an honest recognition of our sins. As the Lynching Memorial [the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, AL] seeks to do, we have to confront our national trauma honestly if we are to shake loose from the political frame of Reaganism and Trumpism with its racial dog whistles and foghorns, its greed and selfishness, and its idealized version of America as the shining city on the hill, where the country’s sins are transformed into examples of its inherent goodness. This will demand of us a new American story, different symbols, and robust policies to repair what we have done.

Much of my work is with artists who have been doing this hard labor of exposing the lie and pointing us toward truth and justice. It makes me happy that so many artists have made this their mission. I could list hundreds of projects here, but I’ll just mention a few. Visit Remember 2019 to see the powerful work in Phillips County, AR, to unearth and learn from the mass lynching of 1919, a hundred years after. Visit Untold RVA to see the work being done to unearth buried history in Richmond, VA. Visit the Social and Public Art Resource Center to see “The Great Wall of Los Angeles,” depicting hidden truths of that region’s history from prehistoric times. Download the USDAC’s guide to honoring Native land, urging everyone to acknowledge the history that moved Indigenous people off their traditional lands and attempted to erase their cultures. Watch Felicia Lowe’s film Carved in Silence to learn the history of Chinese exclusion and incarceration.

It seems to me that the work of dismantling the lie and engaging the truth starts at the most basic level. No more pretending that the presence of some black people in the halls of government and corporate power cancels the systematic deprivation and oppression of the many. No more delving into the psychopathy of the vicious and entitled as if their character flaws — instead of this nation’s sins — explain their acts. No more deviation from the direct path we have to walk — run — from our shameful condition and the villains we have put in charge of the body politic to reparations, voting rights, equity in the place of all the ways our policies express the lie that white lives matter more. (Listen to Steve Phillips’ July 9 “Democracy in Color” podcast, “Reparations 101,” to learn more on that subject.)

Read Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own and see for yourself.

The Devil Finds Work” by Rev. Sekou, inspired by James Baldwin’s essay of the same name.

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