“I would burn down the damn city too,” declares a pregnant white woman’s sign of sympathy for black mothers whose sons have been killed by police, posted online by Occupy Democrats. Well-meaning as this white woman may be, there is no evidence for the implication that grieving black women have resorted to violence. Since Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, the vast majority of protesters have been peaceful, and the violence on display has often involved white people, notably police officers. Rather than drawing attention to the widespread multiracial solidarity and mutual aid among the marchers, the corporate media have focused on the looting, which they condemn with more conviction than the lethal force that occasioned it. Unlike those who dismiss the demonstrators as “thugs” as soon as a storefront is shattered, at least the sign acknowledges that righteous rage can give rise to violent action. We should ask ourselves why we deplore damage to commercial assets more readily than the destruction of black life. As historian Robin D.G. Kelley put it in the New York Times, “What kind of society values property over black life?”
An honest look at history reveals this inhumane valuation as a defining feature of the United States from its inception. Since then, in the prioritization of property and profit over black lives, white people have not hesitated to employ violence. Tim Wise comments on the irony of white America admonishing black people about the evils of violence, given that we have secured our privilege and prosperity using violence at every turn, from the founding fathers to the slave patrols to today’s police brutality (to say nothing of the long history of European colonialism).
Instead of casting yet more aspersions on black people, let’s pause to clarify and contextualize what we are saying when we insist on nonviolent resistance to violence. To people on whose necks our knees have been pressing since we dragged them here in chains we are saying, “Do as we say, not as we do.” Many are endorsing “law and order” – aka more police brutality – to stop people from protesting police brutality.
Considering the centuries of whips, nooses, clubs, hoses, guns, and chokeholds, along with the denial of rights and resources routinely granted to white people, it’s remarkable that there hasn’t been more black violence. Why is there no black Dylann Roof or Timothy McVeigh? The black equivalent of boogaloo and other far-right groups? Armed black men storming a statehouse? Among other possibilities, one answer is obvious: The black men not already behind bars or dead know that any such act would be suicide.
Meanwhile, white extremist violence abounds. From James Fields, who killed Heather Heyer with his car in Charlottesville, to Steven Carrillo, who murdered two Santa Cruz County deputies and scrawled the word “boog” and “I became unreasonable” in blood on the hood of a car. “Boog” is short for boogaloo, an anti-government movement that began on the extremist site 4chan and aims to start a second American civil war. “I became unreasonable” pays homage to Marvin Heemeyer, who, seeking revenge in a zoning dispute, bulldozed 13 buildings in Granby, Colorado.
If black people bulldozed buildings after every indignity, we would all be homeless. As Kimberly Jones notes in “How Can We Win,” the viral video in which she explains our history of racial injustice in terms of a rigged game of Monopoly, white people should be grateful that blacks seek only equality and not revenge.
Although gratitude is probably not the prevailing sentiment among whites toward blacks, this is a moment of greater white recognition of the reality of racism, a moment that holds the potential for an overdue reckoning with our past – and awareness of its profound imprint in our present – both necessary for a more humane future. Still, it’s easy to see the sickening wrong in Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, but harder for many white people to see the systemic violence against black people. When we think of violence only as physical aggression, we fail to understand the crucial role of institutional forms of violence in maintaining the status quo.
In addition to physical force, Dictionary.com defines violence as “an unjust or unwarranted exertion of force or power, as against rights or laws.” When black people carry “Stop killing us” signs, Kelley recently explained, they are demanding an end not only to police violence, but also “the violence of poverty, the violence of a health care system that has continued to ignore our health care crises and to reproduce inequality, the violence of dilapidated housing, the violence of economic strangulation.” This systemic violence acts as a chokehold on black lives, its effects documented in a wide range of indicators from higher rates of diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease, to higher maternal mortality, to higher death rates from asthma. The latest data on the coronavirus show black and latinx people three times more likely to contract it and almost twice as likely to die from it. Black people get sick at younger ages, have more severe illnesses, and age more rapidly than whites, a phenomenon scientists call the "weathering effect," due to the cumulative stress of being black in a racist society. Compounding the devastating consequences of mass incarceration on black men and their families, these conditions constitute an unjust and unwarranted exertion of power against their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and make a mockery of any claim to equality.
Americans of all races suffer under the current system
Despite the advantages white people enjoy courtesy of pale skin, we too are harmed in a racist society. Racism deforms and diminishes us all. We fail to be fully human until we open our hearts to the suffering of others. When our privilege depends on other people’s pain, we become constricted, warped versions of ourselves. Teaching a class of white third-graders the day after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, anti-racist educator Jane Elliott gave them a memorable lesson on racism by dividing them into groups according to eye color. On the first day, students with blue eyes were deemed superior, smarter and more deserving; they received extra recess and lunch time as well as exclusive access to the water fountain, while the brown-eyed children had to wear collars and drink from cups. Children who had played happily together were instantly at odds. Children who had been sweet and cooperative, inflated by their privilege, became tribalistic little beasts, nastily insulting those designated as inferior, who performed much worse in class and became despondent. The next day the roles were reversed. Elliott continued this lesson for several years, believing that the children learned to see prejudice as baseless and arbitrary and, after their time cast as inferior, to feel empathy for those subject to it. In response to criticism from parents, Elliott said, “We are worried about white children who experience a couple of hours of made-up racism for one day when children of color experience real racism every day of their lives. Why is no one outraged about that?”
In addition to the psychological damage wrought by the pathology of predatory racial capitalism, millions of white people suffer materially as well. The US’s majority-white population experiences high rates of poverty and other adverse conditions, such as lack of health insurance and unaffordable care. Though more than twice the percentage of blacks live in poverty than whites, in absolute numbers, far more whites fall below the poverty line. In Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton analyze an unprecedented trend in developed nations, the rise in deaths among white people aged 45-54 in the US, notably white men without a college degree. The authors conclude that American capitalism is failing blue-collar men, who are – via drug overdoses, drink-induced liver disease and suicide – dying of despair.
In From #Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor observes that “there are 400 billionaires in the United States and 45 million people living in poverty. These are not parallel facts; they are intersecting facts. There are 400 American billionaires because there are 45 million people living in poverty. Profit comes at the expense of the living wage.”
During the pandemic, many of the people living in poverty have been deemed “essential workers,” but this label does nothing to guarantee that they earn a living wage or have access to health care, though they risk their lives continuing to supply and deliver provisions to the wealthy sheltering safely at home. As 27 million people lost their health insurance, health care industry CEOs paid themselves $2.4 billion. The federal government issued trillion-plus dollar bailouts for corporations, granted the legal rights of personhood, while failing to provide adequately for many citizens, actual people whose rights often amount to little more than labels. A New York Times headline on July 4 read, “European Workers Draw Paychecks. American Workers Scrounge for Food.”
This is economic violence, in which race and class have long been interlinked. Speaking to impoverished black sanitation workers on strike, Martin Luther King Jr. said: “Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality….What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?” Recently Jamelle Bouie wrote of these workers: “Their oppression as black Americans and subjugation as workers were tied together. Unraveling one could not be accomplished without unraveling the other.”
A decades-long process of redistribution from the 99% to the 1% has left American workers of all races with a tattered safety net, stagnant wages, fewer rights, weaker unions, and often inaccessible health care. “George Floyd’s alleged offense was passing a fake $20 bill at a convenience store,” wrote Chris Lebron. “Corporate barons rob the American people daily to the tune of millions, but it was Floyd who got a knee to the neck.” These are not parallel facts; they are intersecting facts. Corporations get away with murder, figurative and literal (see so-called externalities) because ordinary people lack the power to stop them. The police, purportedly protecting and serving the populace, actually protect capital. In other words, inequality is not only an economic issue. One significant reason the US lags behind other nations in life expectancy and GDP per capita, David Leonhardt and Yaryna Serkez write in the New York Times, “is a lack of political power among the bulk of the population.” In our money-fueled politics, greater wealth equals greater power.
Political and economic power are more concentrated now than since the 1920s. Economic justice will require lifting people of all races out of poverty, and, crucially, the reduction of the wealth gap between black and white, itself a form of violence, an unjust exertion of power to deny black people equal opportunity. The average black family with children has just one cent of wealth for every dollar held by the average white family with children. Though some point to black celebrities as evidence of progress, in fact the magnitude of the racial wealth gap widens as black people earn more income.
But economic justice will remain out of reach until poor and working people develop interracial solidarity as a foundation for political power. The white elite has long fomented racial antagonism among working people in order to maintain power. “The purpose of racism is to control the behavior of white people, not black people. For blacks, guns and tanks are sufficient,” said the late Otis Madison, who was a black studies scholar at the University of California, Santa Barbara. White male members of the working class will continue to struggle with poverty and despair unless they see how racism keeps them divided and disempowered – and join their black, latinx, female, and immigrant peers in recognition of their shared fate.
Reality has rudely awakened those who were lulled into an Obama-era dream of a post-racial society, but many Americans have not yet emerged from the fantasy of unfettered social mobility in which we have cast off class hierarchy. In fact, we have quite low levels of social mobility, and much to learn from a class analysis. Blacks comprise a disproportionate percentage of the prison population not only because of their skin color, but also because they are disproportionately poor. The poor are most likely to be policed, arrested, and incarcerated. Because poor blacks are overpoliced, their mass incarceration is overdetermined in our racialized class structure.
A feature of systemic economic oppression, systemic racism will be eradicated only when we reduce the class divide and redistribute political and economic power from the 1% to the 99%. Not by burning down cities, but by taking down barriers to well-being, from redlines to individualism run amok, building better schools instead of barbaric prisons, creating an inclusive, participatory democracy that would preclude the violence – police and plutocrat – of the current system.
American violence abroad and at home are of a piece
This is a tall order, to be sure. American violence, though disproportionately inflicted on blacks and other people of color, permeates all of society. We have more guns per capita and more mass shootings than any other country. We consistently rank among the most militarized nations in the world, along with Israel, Russia, and North Korea. According to the 2020 Global Peace Index, produced by the nonpartisan Institute for Economics and Peace, the United States is less peaceful than 120 of 163 countries, falling between Azerbaijan and Burkina Faso, far below such places as Haiti, Sierra Leone, and Cuba, and even further from European allies most Americans consider our closest societal peers. In many years the United States has received the worst possible score on indicators such as incarceration rates, external conflicts, and arms exports.
Our domestic and international violence are of a piece, racial injustice at home intertwined with imperialism abroad. Just as police expenditures exceed those for social services in cities across the county, the defense department budget is more than ten times that of the state department, a reflection of the primacy of militarism in US foreign policy. These are not parallel facts; they are intersecting facts. As if further evidence were needed, excess military hardware is routinely used by police.
Regarding the vaunted “American dream,” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor observes, “This mythology is not benign. It serves as the United States’ self-declared invitation to intervene militarily and economically around the globe.” We inhabit the land of the free white supremacist, free to exploit and extract all of Earth’s bounty. The same system that oppresses black Americans sends drones to kill Yemenis, Somalis, and others, sells fighter jets and bombs to tyrants in the Middle East and elsewhere, and separates children from their parents at our Southern border. Police brutality in Minneapolis is a domestic manifestation of the international military-industrial complex.
In 1953 President Eisenhower, a five-star general and a Republican, declared: “every gun that is made, every warship launched” is “theft from those who hunger and are not fed—those who are cold and are not clothed.” It’s hard to imagine a president today uttering these words and supporting a budget that serves the people on Main Street instead of the profiteers on Wall Street. But we must do more than imagine; we must make it happen. Violence can secure power and squash dissent, but it cannot undergird a just society or enable human flourishing.
A politics of nonviolence means elevating an ethic of care
The alternative to the private despair chronicled in Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism is public solidarity. The current system creates a false sense of scarcity and pits workers against one another. Politicians warn against deficits to justify cutting social programs while the military budget remains bloated beyond reason. Material and ideological conditions push white workers to be racist and all workers to regard each other – rather than the plutocrats – with suspicion. Raising awareness of these dynamics is essential to galvanize the mass action required to move us from divisive violence to unifying nonviolence.
“Nonviolence demands that we understand relations to others as constituting who we are. Individualism is based on the denial of that relationality. If we impose regional, national, religious, racial, gendered limits on the relations by which we are defined, we adhere to group identifications that reproduce the exclusionary logic that nonviolence opposes. It has to be the stranger—the one I have never known, the one who lives at a great distance from where I live, who speaks another language I do not know—to whom I have an ethical obligation. An understanding of global interdependency, manifest now in acute forms in the pandemic world, brings to the fore these kinds of global obligations,” Judith Butler told The Nation, concluding that “an ethics and politics of nonviolence must be global in character.”
We must move from an ideology of individual insufficiency, where no amount of money is enough, competition is compulsory, and our acquisitive impulse is in perpetual overdrive, to a culture of shared abundance, where our conception of a good life is defined not by the size of our bank account but by the richness of our social bonds, the robustness of our compassion, our sense of belonging, purpose, and fulfillment.
In other words, we need what the philosopher Martin Hagglund calls a revaluation of value. The pandemic has laid bare all the ways our society devalues care, epitomized by nurses in garbage bags for lack of personal protective equipment – in telling contrast to the high-tech full-body armor of the military and police. We habitually treat the labor of care like garbage; the mostly women who perform home care, for example, are low-paid, low-status workers, many living in poverty. Teachers, to whom we entrust the education of our children, frequently struggle to make ends meet, as do childcare workers.
Our violent system of exploitation for profit depends on the devaluation of care — for people, for other species, and for the planet. Racism depends on dehumanization to justify violence to create and control labor. Maximization of profit depends on minimizing the cost of labor. The endless extraction of natural resources to produce commodities is a form of violence against the Earth. Racial, economic, and environmental injustice are not parallel facts, but intersecting ones. They result from treating people and places as disposable, of use only to be exploited until they are lifeless. All this is antithetical to care.
Even the pandemic may be the result of our lack of care for animals and their habitats. "There is a single species that is responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic – us. As with the climate and biodiversity crises, recent pandemics are a direct consequence of human activity – particularly our global financial and economic systems, based on a limited paradigm that prizes economic growth at any cost,” according to scientists from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, an independent body dedicated to sustainable biodiversity and long-term human well-being. "Rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species have created a 'perfect storm' for the spillover of diseases from wildlife to people,” they write.
We humans like to think of ourselves as standing apart from nature, but we belong to it no less than bats and polar bears, redwoods and rainforests. When we do violence to them, we imperil ourselves. When we treat them with care, which we can also call love, we enhance our own prospects.
A declaration of interdependence
As a Eurasian, I can endorse King’s claim that only love can drive out hate, but I have no right to insist that black people employ love to seek equality when we have them in a chokehold. “For people on the receiving end of racism, it’s hard to have to extend grace when you’re experiencing trauma,” the Reverend Leslie Copeland-Tune, the CEO of the National Council of Churches, told me. Rather than ask more of black people, let’s ask more of ourselves. Let us practice love. Then nonviolence becomes our baseline. If we think of justice as love in the public sphere, there is room for debate as to the precise forms this love might take, but no one can credibly claim that love is manifest in rat-infested housing projects in redlined ghettos, food deserts with underfunded schools, underemployment, and overpolicing. “The safest neighborhoods aren’t the ones with the most prisons and the most police — they’re the ones with the best schools, the cleanest environment, and the most opportunities for young people and working people,” notes the homepage of The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.
Though nonviolent, our love must be fierce and unrelenting. As power is no more likely to concede without a demand than in Frederick Douglass’ day, the 99% must demand not just an end to police brutality but to the system that enables it. More white people must show up in the streets, speak out at work and elsewhere, and mobilize fellow whites to do the same. “There is no neutral ground,” says anti-racist scholar Ibram Kendi. We are either racist or anti-racist. Living as a white person without taking anti-racist action means to be complicit with the systems and policies oppressing black people, in other words, to be racist.
That said, there are shades of white complicity. From the affluent, guilt-ridden Democrat who works harder to befriend her black nanny than for black equality, to the Republican who proudly considers himself colorblind, to MAGA-hatted gunmen protesting the “tyranny” of being asked to wear a mask at Costco, to Stephen Miller. Just as we should try to understand why oppressed people might loot, we need to consider what lies behind white ignorance in order to overcome it, if only because it’s either that or civil war. If those of us committed to racial equality condescend to our white compatriots, we reinforce their sense of grievance and their determination to stand their well-armed ground. There may be whites unwilling to relinquish their racism, but we won’t know until we try to reach them. Those who deny responsibility for injustice by pointing out that they haven’t enslaved or oppressed anyone, we might ask to consider that black people too were born into a world not of their making. While white people can’t be blamed for inheriting a racist culture in which people who look like us enjoy unearned privilege at the expense of black lives, we can hold ourselves accountable for allowing it to continue or changing it. To people who doubt that racism permeates our culture, we might ask whether they would want to wake up tomorrow with brown skin. When Elliott posed this question to a white audience, not a hand went up.
If you’re ready to become anti-racist, listen to and learn from black people, but don’t burden them with your guilt or confession or even questions. Instead, ask whites already committed to anti-racism such as those at Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ). Explore anti-racism resources for white people. To do this work, we have to get uncomfortable, to acknowledge our complicity without retreating into self-involved shame. Let’s embrace this discomfort as growing pain, for only when a critical mass of white people become active anti-racists will we achieve the momentum to make all lives matter equally. If you are afraid to take a stand, remember that black people have no choice but to face the danger that confronts them in daily life, whether jogging or bird watching or having a barbeque. White parents don’t have to fear for their children when they go out to play or for Skittles; black parents do. White fear of speaking out may be understandable but it is not justifiable. We must not privilege our feelings over black lives.
Rather than tell black people how they should fight for rights we take for granted, let’s start practicing non-violence ourselves. Let’s declare our interdependence and expand our circle of compassion to include all Americans, from the single mother incarcerated because she can’t afford the fee for a broken taillight to the laid-off coal miner unable to support his family to the Karens victimizing as they fear victimization, to all people, and yet further to all sentient beings and all life on earth – what Canadian poet Stephen Collis has termed the biotariat, meaning not only workers, but animals, plants, land, and oceans, i.e., everything employed as a resource for the accumulation of wealth. Echoing its forebear the proletariat, the biotariat entails the potential for revolutionary transformation. This will require solidarity not just with struggling workers, but also with other species and the Earth’s ecosystem on which we all depend. As we move from denial and indifference to care and revaluation, we must transcend historical divisions between black and white, native and immigrant, human and non-human. If we commit to love as our lodestar, we can realize the world of King’s dream, a society that values life more than property, gratitude more than guns, and compassion more than commodities.
Unless we practice love, we should expect violence. And if we practice love, we will not accept the oppression of others. American apartheid or authentic democracy. It’s up to us.
Pam Spritzer’s work has appeared on Salon, HuffPost, and elsewhere.