The Lie That Sustains Racism

Arlene Goldbard
9 min readJul 10, 2020

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

Arlene Goldbard

Writer, painter, speaker, consultant activist. Learn more about