For Those Who Say How Can We Defund the Police, Let’s Talk about Using Our Radical Imagination To See What Defunding the Police Could Mean (Part 4 of 4)

My first three blog posts in this series (scroll down in this link to start with Part 1) attempted to lay some groundwork for taking more seriously the idea of “defunding the police.” I addressed the early history and the more recent history of policing to show where we are today when it comes to the police’s role in “social control” and “racial control.”

In my second blog post, I showed how for decades funding to police departments has grown exorbitantly. What exactly do we get with that huge investment? This month, the Washington Post reported that “A review of spending on state and local police over the past 60 years, though, shows no correlation nationally between spending and crime rates.” In 2018, the state and local governments spent $137 billion on police. The popular narrative we’ve been taught for years is that we need police to stop crime, but if we have spent a lot on policing, and it doesn’t seem to have any effect on crime, then why are we continuing to spend this money? Furthermore, what do we really mean by “crime” anyway? A police officer killed George Floyd because of $20. Michelle Alexander would say we are not spending $137 billion to reduce crime but rather to have “social control” and “racial control.” I don’t want my tax dollars supporting “social control” and “racial control” – do you? I’d rather have my tax dollars supporting justice. Let’s consider New York City.

In a recent episode of the podcast Social Distance about defunding the police, hosted by the Atlantic, the three speakers highlighted the following points specific to New York City, where the “NYPD budget is $6 billion.” That budget is “More than the Department of Health, the Department of Homeless Services, the Department of Youth Services, and the Department of Employment Services combined.” Also, “It’s larger than the World Health Organization” and “larger than the GDP of 50 countries around the world.” Furthermore, this is “the biggest police budget in the country,” and due to the pandemic, it’s getting cut by .39 percent, “whereas the Department of Youth and Community Development, which funds after-school programs, literacy services, and summer youth-work programs, is losing 32 percent of its budget.”

If budgets should reflect values, then what does this show? Why is so little spent on public good and so much spent on “social control” and “racial control”? An exorbitant budget on policing might be our current status quo, but it wasn’t always this way, and it doesn’t have to be this way. Many racial justice organizations have recently been promoting various plans to defund the police and to shift that funding to affordable housing, education, mental health services, homeless services, after-school programs, jobs training, and other types of programs that have been purposefully underfunded for decades, as I discussed in my second blog post.

For example, I’ve noticed that a lot of people are recommending Campaign Zero and its campaign #8Can’tWait that focuses on eight major recommendations. Recognizing this work is important, but let’s not stop there. Let’s also understand that while “defunding the police” is a phrase that appeared to hit the mainstream media only very recently, it has actually been around for years and is connected to the larger project of prison abolition. For example, Black feminists and prison abolitionists Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Angela Davis have been working on these issues for decades.

Gilmore’s introductory explanation of abolition has been circulating in social media recently, and I have found it quite powerful: “Abolition is about abolishing the conditions under which prison became the solution to problems rather than abolishing the buildings we call prisons.” If we “abolish the conditions” then we are focusing on justice in all of our systems, whether it is housing, education, healthcare, or other aspects of the public good.

When people say “defund the police,” some people mean take part of the policing budget away and put it to social services but leave the policing system intact. Other people mean defund current policing entirely and create something new, something that would support public safety, something that would focus on the public good rather than “social control” and “racial control.”

Last year, the New York Times Magazine ran a feature article on Ruth Wilson Gilmore and explained her work as follows: “Prison abolition, as a movement, sounds provocative and absolute, but what it is as a practice requires subtler understanding. For Gilmore, who has been active in the movement for more than 30 years, it’s both a long-term goal and a practical policy program, calling for government investment in jobs, education, housing, health care — all the elements that are required for a productive and violence-free life. Abolition means not just the closing of prisons but the presence, instead, of vital systems of support that many communities lack. Instead of asking how, in a future without prisons, we will deal with so-called violent people, abolitionists ask how we resolve inequalities and get people the resources they need long before the hypothetical moment when, as Gilmore puts it, they ‘mess up.’”

I know many people have a gut reaction to the phrase “defund the police,” and it’s not a positive reaction. The phrase “prison abolition” or “abolish the police” likely produces even more negative reactions. I get it. It is very hard to imagine a world where prisons or the police would not be necessary. One might wonder, what about calling 911, or what about a serial killer? However, if we get stuck because we cannot use our imagination, then we’ll never address racism. But, if we can use our radical imagination—where we imagine a world that does not yet exist—then we need to be open to all kinds of possibilities. We have taken for granted that the status quo of prisons and police are just the way our society needs to be, even though other countries we like to compare ourselves to have very different relationships with prisons and policing.

I have found the campaign by the organization #8toAbolition to be especially powerful in helping me exercise my radical imagination.

They are raising concerns about measures that are merely reforms, meaning changes that do not ultimately change the structure or the system. In other words, reflecting on my earlier blogs, if policing’s purpose is for “social control” and “racial control” then why reform this system, which will allow “social control” and “racial control” to continue? Don’t we need something else, something that we can only envision if we use, once again, our radical imagination? As #8ToAbolition writes on their website, “we hope to build toward a society without police or prisons, where communities are equipped to provide for their safety and wellbeing.” If communities can have safety and wellbeing without the police and without prisons, then why not?

To conclude, I want to return to the questions I posed in my first blog. If the motto of the police is “protect and serve,” who is being protected? Who is being served? At what cost? Let us imagine another way, a way that does not perpetuate harm, trauma, and violence. If we don’t imagine another way, another world, then we can’t create one, so let’s get started.

-by Karen Gaffney, author of Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (Routledge) and creator of the website Divided No Longer, which includes a four-part series “For Those Who Say How Can We Defund the Police” and a new resource page on Policing & Racism.

For Those Who Say How Can We Defund the Police, Let’s Talk About What Makes It So Hard To Address Police Accountability and Systemic Racism (Part 3 of 4)

In my first and second blog posts in this series, I urged us to step back from focusing on individual police officers and instead to look at the larger system, which means getting a sense of the history of policing, both its origins (addressed in my first blog post) and the changes that occurred more recently (addressed in my second blog post). Now, I want to build on that by continuing to focus on the system and turning to the current challenges we face in creating change. Despite all of the attention to police violence over the past several years and despite changes made (like implicit bias training, the use of body cameras, and bans on chokeholds), George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other Black people were still murdered by the police. Why does this keep happening?

There are several factors that spin into a vicious cycle, which reinforce policing’s role in “social control” and “racial control” discussed in my second blog post.

For one, given the history discussed in my second blog post, the police in the US have at their disposal overwhelming access to weapons, and they use them. As sociologist Alex S. Vitale explains in The End of Policing, “There is no question that American police use their weapons more than police in any other developed democracy (12). Furthermore, there is abundant evidence that police officers use force disproportionately against Black people. For example, the New York Times recently ran an investigative article with the headline “Minneapolis Police Use Force Against Black People at 7 Times the Rate of Whites.”

Why can’t measures be put into place to hold police accountable? This, without more systemic measures, is a challenge. For example, police unions have been, as the New York Times recently reported, “one of the most significant roadblocks to change.” To be clear, I am a proud faculty union member, and I generally support unions, but when they “derail efforts to increase accountability” that is a serious problem.

In tandem with the power of police unions, there emerged a “Blue Lives Matter” movement over the past several years to defend the police from accusations of racism, and supporters sought legislation to make killing a law enforcement officer a federal hate crime, shifting the narrative so that the focus becomes about protecting the police, not holding them accountable. As part of this movement, the image of an American flag in black and white with a blue line across it became a widespread symbol to support the police, from flags on front porches to stickers on cars to t-shirts. Some towns in 2016 painted a blue line down the middle of the street in front of police departments, especially in my state of New Jersey, to support “Blue Lives Matter” and to “support the police.” All of this made it even more challenging to address police violence.

In 2017, historian Matthew Guariglia wrote in a Washington Post article: “The ‘Blue Lives Matter’ movement and its corresponding legislation are just the latest chapter in the evolving notion of what it means to be a police officer, one that dates back over 150 years. The subsequent history shows that, at least for white officers, this strong sense of identity and camaraderie — of police-hood — often supersedes an ability to empathize with civilians of color.”

There is a police culture of resistance to accountability and of silence that makes it almost impossible for individual officers who want to see change to speak up, and new officers are encouraged to participate in this toxic culture. If they don’t, their future on the police force is at stake. Even when police chiefs want change, it is very difficult. Mayor of Atlanta Keisha Lance Bottoms echoed these challenges in her op-ed, “The Police Report To Me, But I Knew I Couldn’t Protect My Son.”

Derek Chauvin, the officer who has now been arrested for murdering George Floyd, had already faced 17 complaints of misconduct. That didn’t stop him from being out on patrol, from detaining and killing George Floyd, all for $20. Furthermore, two of the officers who witnessed the murder were rookies under the supervision of Derek Chauvin, who was the “training officer.” Not only was Derek Chauvin allowed to continue to serve as an officer, but he was also responsible for new officers. What kind of message does that send to rookies? If the murder of George Floyd had not been recorded by a brave young bystander, it seems likely that Derek Chauvin would still be a police officer out on patrol and the rookies would have learned that his violent behavior was acceptable and encouraged.

Even when officers leave a police department after killing someone, they can still be hired by another police department. For example, in 2014, officer Timothy Loehmann shot and killed twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, and he was still hired by another police department.

We also need to recognize that while police officers can find unarmed Black people threatening, they do not appear to be threatened by white people, including armed white people. Even if they might feel threatened, they do not act on it the way they often do with Black people. For example, in April, armed white protesters demanding that stay-at-home orders be lifted confronted the police in cities like Lansing, Michigan, where “Police allowed several hundred protesters to peacefully enter the capitol building around 1pm, where they crammed shoulder-to-shoulder near the entrance to legislative chambers.” Armed white people with no masks in a pandemic, inches from the police, are “allowed” to confront the police while unarmed Black protestors who want justice are tear gassed and shot with rubber bullets? Or worse? This disparity reinforces the history and purpose of the police I discussed earlier: the role of “social control” and “racial control.” The armed white protesters didn’t need to be “controlled” like Black protestors.

Vitale describes another group of people who don’t need to be “controlled” when he writes, “the criminal justice system excuses and ignores crimes of the rich that produce profound social harms while intensely criminalizing the behaviors of the poor and nonwhite, including those behaviors that produce few social harms” (107).

Finally, one reason that it is so difficult to challenge systemic racism within policing is the way in which the “good guy” police officer has been normalized in the overwhelming number of TV police procedurals over the past few decades. We have been taught to cheer for many of the police characters in these shows, and the shows often affirm a faith we want to have in the fairness of the criminal justice system. The organization Color of Change released a report a few months ago called “Normalizing Injustice,” where they studied hundreds of episodes from more than two dozen scripted crime shows.

The report concludes “that the crime TV genre—the main way that tens of millions of people learn to think about the criminal justice system—advanced debunked ideas about crime, a false hero narrative about law enforcement, and distorted representations about Black people, other people of color and women. These shows rendered racism invisible and dismissed any need for police accountability. They made illegal, destructive and racist practices within the criminal justice system seem acceptable, justifiable and necessary—even heroic. The study found that the genre is also incredibly un-diverse in terms of creators, writers and showrunners: nearly all white.”

When we think about challenges to ending police violence, we might not often think about popular culture, but this study helps us understand how we got here. It explains how we can be so easily indoctrinated into a belief that focuses on the police as the “good guy” and in need of support and protection.

I focused most of this piece on the system because in my observations, that is often the thing that people, especially white people, have the hardest time seeing. We, as white people, have been conditioned to focus on individuals and not to see systems and not to see the racism built into systems. At the same time, we have been taught to believe that the police are inherently good and any problems are the result of a few “bad apples.”

However, if we can start to see the problem is systemic, then hopefully we can see the solution must be systemic as well, as I consider in my final blog post in this series.

-by Karen Gaffney, author of Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (Routledge) and creator of the website Divided No Longer, which includes a four-part series “For Those Who Say, How Can We Defund the Police” and a new resource page on Policing & Racism.

For Those Who Say How Can We Defund the Police, Let’s Talk About What Happened to Policing After the Civil Rights Movement (Part 2 of 4)

In my first blog post in this series, I urged you to consider the larger system of policing rather than focus on individual police officers who you may know and to recognize how policing was originally created for “labor control” and the preservation of a “social hierarchy.” We can now turn to how policing evolved after the civil rights movement at the same time as it kept focusing on these goals.

In the late 1960s and after, there was a backlash to the civil rights movement and US Presidents from both parties, like Nixon and later Clinton and now Trump, championed “law and order” rhetoric in order to win elections and build support to avoid a “soft on crime” accusation. This heightened rhetoric on crime had its foundation under the Johnson administration, even though he was also the president who declared a “War on Poverty” in 1964 and supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In 1965, Johnson declared a “War on Crime.” That year, the Law Enforcement Assistance Act “first established a direct role for the federal government in local police operations, court systems, and state prisons” (Hinton). This legislation set the stage for a massive increase in funding and support for police departments and the distribution of “purchased bulletproof vests, helicopters, tanks, rifles, gas masks and other military-grade hardware for police departments” (Hinton).

The increased attention to crime and the increased funding for the militarization of the police were not in isolation. Starting in the 1970s, neoliberalism grew, which focused on the individual and privatization rather than the collective, public service, and the public good. When it came to policing, the public was convinced to support its expansion at the same time as the public was convinced to support cuts to social services.

Black feminist and prison abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore explains that in the 1970s and 1980s, a narrative became popular that the reason “people are suffering from this general economic misfortune is because too much goes to taxes” so elected officials focused on cutting support for social services. At the same time, she says, a parallel narrative focused on crime as the main problem that needed to be addressed, even though it was not a growing problem. In other words, the public, especially the white public, became convinced that their taxes should not go to social services, education, affordable housing, mental healthcare, summer programs, jobs programs, and other pillars of the public good. Instead, policing and prisons expanded, still in keeping with policing’s historical goals of “labor control” and the preservation of a “social hierarchy.”

In addition, legal scholar Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow explains that as part of the backlash to the civil rights movement, the Reagan Administration announced a War on Drugs in the 1980s even though “illegal drug use was on the decline” (6) and when illegal drug use was comparable across races, not higher among African Americans (7). The War on Drugs was always intended to maintain a racial hierarchy. Furthermore, Alexander adds, “The resistance within law enforcement to the drug war created something of a dilemma for the Reagan administration. . . . Huge cash grants were made to those law enforcement agencies that were willing to make drug-law enforcement a top priority” (73). Then, she explains, “By the late 1990s, the overwhelming majority of state and local police forces in the country had availed themselves of the newly available resources and added a significant military component to buttress their drug-war operations” (74). Funding for police departments increased significantly, and police departments had unprecedented access to military weapons. Media representations of Black people as criminals and the similar rhetoric of politicians served to rationalize this funding.

Furthermore, police officers were encouraged to use racial profiling tactics, like stop-and-frisk, and were rewarded for increasing their arrest rate. This pattern led to Black people being disproportionately targeted, surveilled, arrested, and incarcerated, the “new Jim Crow” of Alexander’s title. She describes the criminal justice system as a system of “social control” and “racial control” (237), which echoes the history of policing I described earlier as a method of “labor control” and as a method to preserve the “social hierarchy.”

In 2014, white police officer Darren Wilson murdered unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Wilson was not indicted. In the investigations that followed, it became clear that Ferguson had become financially dependent on the disproportionate targeting of Black residents. As legal scholar Justin Hansford explains, “the Justice Department reported that Ferguson’s officers targeted residents as ‘sources of revenue,’ a practice disproportionately aimed at African-Americans.”

While the widespread media attention on Ferguson in 2014 and 2015 and the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests provided a real opportunity for systemic change in policing, that did not happen, which explains how we arrived where we are, in June 2020. Hansford writes, “We had just one year of progress on police violence before the backlash kicked in.” In particular, he says, “Consent decrees with police departments in Baltimore, Chicago and even Ferguson followed groundbreaking, scathing federal investigations of racism and other misconduct by officers. . . . But then the backlash came. The federal government retreated from reform. A conservative Supreme Court continued to uphold and protect racialized policing and the use of unnecessary violence even after the federal investigations reinforced the complaints of community members. The Trump Justice Department largely limited oversight of police departments, and that played a significant role in erasing the short-lived push toward accountability.” Furthermore, in Ferguson, “the number of killings by the police in 2017 and 2018 rose to earlier rates.”

Now, with the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, there is clearly a resurgence of mainstream media attention on policing and on Black Lives Matter protests speaking out against systemic racism. There is an opportunity for change now. However, the obstacles to change have been growing over the past few years, which my next blog post will consider.

-by Karen Gaffney, author of Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (Routledge) and creator of the website Divided No Longer, which includes a four-part series “For Those Who Say, How Can We Defund the Police” and a new resource page on Policing & Racism.

For Those Who Say, How Can We Defund the Police, Let’s Talk about Systems (Part 1 of 4)

For those who say, we need to support the police. For those who say, but there are good cops…

Let’s start with systems.

I want to step back from thinking about individual police officers you may know and love and look at the larger system. All systems in the US reinforce systemic racism, regardless of the intentions of the individual members of that system, whether the system is the media, real estate, education, or the criminal justice system. That’s how structural or institutional racism works. Racism is embedded in the structures of these systems going back centuries.

When we consider the system of policing in particular, many white people are taught from an early age to think of a police officer as someone you go to if you need help. That’s certainly what I was taught, along with the idea that the only people who need to fear the police are criminals. As adults, it’s not a surprise that many white people would keep that mentality and focus on the need to “support the police.” After all, why would we question a system whose motto is “to protect and serve”?

But we must ask ourselves: Who is being protected? Who is being served? At what cost?

Even if we know individual officers who are “good” and trying to do the right thing, we still need to step back and look at the larger system in order to answer these questions.

In thinking about the system of policing, we need to consider its history. Professor Chenjerai Kumanyika, from Rutgers University, said recently on NPR: “there were also laws going all the way back to the 17th century that empowered all white people to catch slaves. But I think it’s too simple to say that policing only evolved from slave patrols. Police really evolved around a lot – what I would call labor control. And so in the South, that was controlling slaves. But in the North, that actually had to do with controlling any inconvenient population, especially labor. And so the institution of policing is very much connected to the enactment of violence against strikers and union-breaking.” Understanding this context helps us recognize that, as Kumanyika also says, “modern policing was invented to make sure that that social hierarchy remained intact.”

The very concept of “labor control” means that the “labor” needs to be kept under “control” in order to maintain the status quo of the elite. Likewise, a “social hierarchy” is preserved in order to preserve the position of the elite at the top. This hierarchy is one of white supremacy.

Sociologist Alex S. Vitale explains in The End of Policing that after the Civil War, the “new and more professional forms of policing” targeted formerly enslaved people for “subservient economic and political roles” (98), again maintaining the hierarchy. Of course, the police did not act in isolation, and many other systems simultaneously maintained this hierarchy as well, including housing, voting, education, laws, healthcare, the media, and more.

During the civil rights movement, Vitale describes how police in the South became more “repressive” when they “beat demonstrators” and “made discriminatory arrests” in order to “preserve a system of formal racial discrimination and economic exploitation” (101). Understanding this history helps us see that the police maintained the social hierarchy of white supremacy.

We might like to think that after the civil rights movement ended, policing shifted away from this repressive approach that focused on preserving this hierarchy, but as I will explore in my next blog post, policing did change but not for the better.

-by Karen Gaffney, author of Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (Routledge) and creator of the website Divided No Longer, which includes a four-part series “For Those Who Say, How Can We Defund the Police” and a new resource page on Policing & Racism.

From One Karen to Another

Yes, my name really is Karen. And it’s not a surprise: I am white and middle aged. I grew up in suburban, segregated New Jersey (a state that likes to pretend it’s not segregated, when it’s one of the most). I didn’t learn about race and racism in K-12. I didn’t learn that race is a social construct, much less that whiteness is an invention. I didn’t learn that I, as a white person, was benefitting from advantages that I did not earn but rather were built into our systems. I didn’t learn any of that because it was not taught. I graduated near the top of my high school class without that knowledge. Also, though I wouldn’t have wanted to admit it at the time, I had also learned several false racial myths: that black men are dangerous and that white women need to be protected from black men. While these myths might not have been overtly taught in school, they were everywhere in the very air we breathed. I’m thinking especially of the news coverage during my junior year of high school in 1989 of the young black men who the media identified as the “Central Park Five,” whose guilt I took for granted.

I am Karen, and I am a Karen. While part of me wants to insist #NotAllWhitePeople, that reaction is simply unacceptable. The truth is #YesAllWhitePeople. Rather than distance myself from Amy Cooper, Travis and Gregory McMichael, and Derek Chauvin, I need to confront what we have in common. While I may never have called the police on a black birdwatcher, killed a black jogger, or forced my knee into the back of a black man as he died in the street, my very whiteness is a weapon, a weapon I deploy without always being aware of it. As a white professor, when have I deployed my whiteness in the classroom? Or in the grocery store? Or walking around my town?

Fellow Karens, Amys, Travises, Gregorys, and Dereks, we must begin by acknowledging the racial truths that we were not taught and the racial myths that we were taught. If we are too defensive to even be willing to begin to recognize and learn about those truths and myths, then we are going to cause more racial violence. We must learn the truth, debunk the myths, develop an antiracist perspective, and carry out that antiracist perspective. That is our responsibility.

by Karen Gaffney, author of Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (Routledge) and creator of the website Divided No Longer

Confronting 1619 in 2019 (Part 2)

Could understanding how white people first became indoctrinated into white supremacy help us un-indoctrinate ourselves now? After finishing Ibram Kendi’s smart, accessible, and much-needed recent book How To Be an Antiracist, with its emphasis on actively resisting racist policies, decisions, and other manifestations of white supremacy, I keep going back to when it all began. For guidance, I look to Kendi’s earlier book Stamped from the Beginning as well as the recent attention to the year 1619, when enslaved Africans arrived in colonial Virginia (see The 1619 Project, created by Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times). (Find my Part 1 blog post on this project here.) As I highlight here, we might see this indoctrination several centuries ago in two phases, the first by an elite fueled by their own self-interest and the second by the masses, pressured by the elite.

In Stamped from the Beginning, Kendi makes it clear that when we look at history globally, we see that enslaved people initially encompassed a variety of skin colors and that slavery existed before the creation of what he calls “racist ideas.” How did we go from this period of slavery without racist ideas, if you will, to centuries later in August 1619 with colonial Virginia’s arrival of “more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists,” as the cover of the August 18, 2019 New York Times Magazine explicitly states? Furthermore, how did we go from August 1619 to 1705, when colonial Virginia passed the “slave codes” that identified enslaved black people as “real estate” at the same time as it provided a list of benefits to European servants who occupied the newly-created racial category of “white”?

These are questions I’ve been thinking about for years and that my book, Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (Routledge, 2018), attempted to consider. In retrospect, though, I think I did not give enough attention to the impact that “racist ideas,” again using Kendi’s words, had already had on the minds of colonial Virginia elite by 1619. Kendi helps us recognize that the early propagators of antiblackness tended to be the elite, first in Europe and then in colonial America: intellectuals, politicians, royalty, clergy, and major landowners. It served their interests to believe in black inferiority because that was a convenient rationale for slavery, which in turn allowed them to carry out their imperial, colonial, missionary, and capitalist ventures, which in turn led to increased power, wealth, and profit. “Racist ideas” were at first generally limited to the elite, not yet indoctrinating the minds of European servants.

How and why did this elite become indoctrinated into a racial ideology? Here are a few highlights, which also reveal the inter-connectedness of this elite:

  • Kendi describes a commissioned biography of Portugal’s Prince Henry, completed in 1453 by Gomes Eanes de Zurara, as the beginning of “the recorded history of anti-Black racist ideas” (10). Kendi makes it clear that these “racist ideas” were created in order to rationalize Prince Henry’s slave trading of African people, which had become financially lucrative for Prince Henry. While Eastern Europe had earlier been a source of slaves, that became more challenging at the same time as Portugal began venturing further down the western coast of Africa. Even though Prince Henry’s motivations for slave-trading in Africa were driven by greed and a desire to grow his wealth, his biographer Zurara needed a more palatable justification, so, as Kendi describes, Zurara rationalized the slave trading of African people at the exclusion of anyone else as necessary for their “salvation” and “improvement” (12). Kendi therefore concludes that the “racist idea” of black inferiority was “a product of, not a producer of” Prince Henry’s slave-trading (10). It is essential to recognize this pattern of a “racist idea” being created in order to rationalize elite self-interest.
  • About a century after Zurara’s text initiated an ideology of anti-blackness, a second text by Leo Africanus affirmed these “racist ideas” and depicts Africans as hypersexual and less than human (17).
  • In 1600, an Englishman named John Pory translated this second text into English (21), less than a decade before England invades what is now Virginia and establishes the colony of Jamestown.
  • In 1619, George Yeardley is governor of Jamestown and owner of 1,000 acres (26). John Pory is Yeardley’s cousin and in 1619, he arrives in Jamestown to work as his cousin’s secretary (26).
  • Yeardley then organizes a foundational meeting of local elected politicians, which included the great-grandfather of Thomas Jefferson, and they elect Pory to be their speaker (26). In other words, as Kendi spells out, the English translator of one of two major texts spewing an antiblack ideology “became colonial America’s first legislative leader” (26).
  • The very next month after this first meeting of what became the General Assembly, enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown, and Yeardley bought twenty enslaved Africans (26). The rationale of a racist ideology served the self-interest of the elite.

The elite were using a racial ideology to protect their self-interest and grow their profit at the same time as their racial ideology was not permeating the minds of European servants. After all, if European servants were fully indoctrinated into antiblackness, would there be so much evidence that European servants and enslaved Africans ran away together and engaged in relationships with each other? Would Bacon’s Rebellion have occurred, an interracial uprising by people who may not have focused on their difference in skin color as much as their common fight against the wealthy landowners?

Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676 was one major catalyst for the elite to carry out their racial ideology in full force against the European masses. As Kendi writes, “For Governor Berkeley’s wealthy White inner circle, poor Whites and enslaved Blacks joining hands presaged the apocalypse. . . . Rich planters learned from Bacon’s Rebellion that poor Whites had to be forever separated from enslaved Blacks. They divided and conquered by creating more White privileges” (41).

Likewise, as Mary Elliott and Jazmine Hughes of The 1619 Project put it: “In the wake of Bacon’s Rebellion, in which free and enslaved black people aligned themselves with poor white people and yeoman white farmers against the government, more stringent laws were enacted that defined status based on race and class. Black people in America were being enslaved for life, while the protections of whiteness were formalized.”

As I discuss in Dismantling the Racism Machine, the 1705 Virginia “slave codes” not only codified the status of enslaved black people as chattel, as property with no rights, but it also elevated the status of the newly-white servants and granted them specific benefits upon the conclusion of their period of indenture.

In dividing and conquering white servants and enslaved Africans, white servants had to be taught this racial ideology. They had to be indoctrinated into a belief system of white superiority and black inferiority. In other words, they had to be taught that whiteness was real, that whiteness was an inherent special quality that they naturally possessed. This is a lie, of course, and so whiteness itself is a lie. Moreover, it is a lie that taught white servants and other poor whites to accept their low status because at least they were white. This ideology is deeply intertwined with capitalism, a zero-sum game that depends on people believing that they need to fight each other for crumbs, while the elite amass far more than their share. Colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism are all interconnected systems of power that, not coincidentally, emerged at the same time as “racist ideas.”

I don’t believe that in 1619 American racialized slavery was a foregone conclusion, but by 1705 it most certainly was. The colonial elite of early Virginia made a choice to come here in the first place. That choice is not one of innocent “discovery” or “exploration.” It is a choice about greed and self-interest. They built their colonial elite power on a foundation of white supremacy and capitalism, something The 1619 Project makes especially clear. The servants who came to be seen as white also made a choice – they accepted that whiteness. They didn’t have to.

Today, 500 years later, we have another choice to make. Are white people in the US today going to continue to accept the lie of whiteness? The lie of white superiority? Or we going to disavow this lie? If we look back at the gradual indoctrination of the elite and then the masses into a racial ideology, we can see that the group with the least self-interest in this ideology was the group indoctrinated last, which is not a surprise, the masses. Ironically, today, it is often the poorest of whites who are blamed for the persistence of white supremacy when it was and continues to be an elite who creates and perpetuates this system for their own self-interest. Not only do poor whites today not have a self-interest in whiteness, but it is actually hurting them. In fact, Jonathan Metzl’s recent book Dying of Whiteness shows exactly how an ideology of white supremacy is killing white people today. Likewise, Kendi reiterated this point at his recent appearance at the Morristown Festival of Books. The last to be indoctrinated may have the most to gain from becoming un-indoctrinated today.

We need to recognize the lie of whiteness for what it is in order to begin to un-indoctrinate ourselves.

by Karen Gaffney

Confronting 1619 in 2019

Last month, we saw the year 1619 appear throughout the news media and social media, especially through The 1619 Project, an “initiative from the New York Times observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery.” This work is necessary and deserving of our attention. I also think we need to pay attention to the reactions to this work. On the one hand, it’s not surprising that conservatives like Newt Gingrich called the Times project a “lie” and “propaganda” for focusing too much on slavery and not on the “other things going on.” His response of whitewashing history reveals exactly why this project is so critical, especially today.

On the other hand, the reaction I’d like to focus on here is more complex and nuanced but one that gets to the heart of the need for this project in a different way. It involves language and what happens when those writing about history seek to humanize people who were not seen or treated as human. More specifically, I’m asking: What are the implications of using “servant” vs. “slave” vs. “enslaved” to describe Africans in early Jamestown, Virginia?

On August 14, The Guardian published an article by historian Nell Irvin Painter, who wrote the groundbreaking book The History of White People (2011). The title of the article was: “How we think about the term ‘enslaved’ matters,” and the main heading stated: “400 years ago, the first Africans who came to America were not ‘enslaved’, they were indentured – and this makes a crucial difference when we think about the meanings of our past.”

The same day, scholar Alondra Nelson tweeted a link to the article highlighting Painter’s statement: “This process of turning ‘servants’ from Africa into racialized workers enslaved for life occurred in the 1660s to 1680s through a succession of Virginia laws… In short, the 1619 Africans were not ‘enslaved’.”

The next day, Nikole Hannah-Jones, the New York Times journalist who founded The 1619 Project, replied to Nelson’s tweet:

“The bulk of the scholarship disagrees. 1) Those Africans did not enter into labor contracts. They were sold. 2) Slavery can exist without being permanent or for life. 3) From the beginning, African people were treated different by law and census.”

As a white anti-racist educator and writer who has eagerly followed the work of Painter, Nelson, and Hannah-Jones for several years, this exchange gave me a chance to think more carefully about the tension over the language of “servant,” “slave,” and “enslaved” and to reflect on the language I use in my work.

On one level, Painter and Hannah-Jones have different interpretations of the historical evidence, and that’s not unusual. Painter focuses more on the ambiguous status of Africans in early Jamestown, and Hannah-Jones focuses less on ambiguity and more on a clearer inferior status of Africans in early Jamestown. That alone might not seem like a big deal. All academic fields have debates among people who still share fundamental ways of thinking. However, the implications of their debate, especially in the context of today’s atmosphere of white supremacy, put them in an impossible bind, one that gets to the deeper issue of how do you talk about a history of human beings who were not treated as human beings without further dehumanizing them? My impression, based on following their work for some time, is that they both are deeply concerned about the persistence of systemic racism, and they both have devoted their careers, despite the obstacles they have faced as black women, to raising awareness about the history of racism and its continued impact today.

While I don’t believe she said this explicitly, I think Hannah-Jones’s negative response to Painter’s article relates to the dangerous ways in which the word “servant” have recently been used to whitewash the history of slavery, a concern that I think Hannah-Jones and Painter would share. For example, in February, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam received significant criticism when his medical school yearbook page was shown to include a racist photo of a person in blackface and a person in KKK regalia. In a follow-up interview that received additional criticism, he said, “If you look at Virginia’s history, we’re now at the 400-year anniversary – just 90 miles from here, in 1619, the first indentured servants from Africa landed on our shores.” The interviewer Gayle King then said, “Also known as slavery,” and Northam responded, “Yes.”

Northam’s use of the phrase “indentured servants” can be seen as a white-washing euphemism that erases the fact that African people were kidnapped and taken by force, very different from the status of indentured servants, who generally became servants willingly, often in exchange, in this case, for travel to Virginia. Likewise, in 2015, the major textbook company McGraw-Hill Education was criticized for using the word “workers” to describe people who were enslaved. We can see this same effort at the erasure of past and present systemic racism in the #WhiteLivesMatter response to #BlackLivesMatter.

When Hannah-Jones questions the word “servant” as a description of African people in Jamestown, it appears to me that she is trying to highlight the existence of antiblackness in Jamestown in 1619, and that’s important because acknowledging the existence of antiblackness relates to acknowledging the full humanity of black people. This reminds me again of the fundamental principle behind #BlackLivesMatter, that black people are human beings. It is significant to note that Painter is also trying to acknowledge the full humanity of black people in her concern about the word “enslaved” to describe Africans in early Jamestown because for her, this word reinforces the problem of thinking that, as she puts it, “enslavement is the essence of black identity.”

Together, Painter and Hannah-Jones reveal that we don’t necessarily have the sufficient language to recognize the humanity of those who were dehumanized. This should not be a surprise, given that we have not acknowledged our history, and we often deny it. For example, I think many, if not most, people in the US, especially white people, would be surprised to learn that, as Hannah-Jones writes in The 1619 Project, “10 of this nation’s first 12 presidents were enslavers.” Furthermore, this same audience would likely be horrified at her suggestion that “some might argue that this nation was founded not as a democracy but as a slavocracy.” We have such a long way to go before we have fully confronted our history, especially in an environment where explicit and implicit examples of white supremacy surround us, from violent hate crimes to structural racism widespread throughout  our institutions. Yet, even as our language appears insufficient, we do change our language to do better.

With that in mind, I point to the recent shift in language from “slave” to “enslaved.” I think this shift in language is really important, and unfortunately, I had not adopted it when I wrote my book, Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (Routledge, 2018), but I have since been actively working to make this shift. The word “enslaved” reflects the humanity of the person who is being enslaved because it emphasizes how they are not inherently a slave but that status has been forced upon them. They are humans who are being treated as sub-human. Likewise, there has been a shift from the word “slaveowner” to “enslaver,” and I did not, unfortunately, take that into account in my book either. The former sounds more innocent and passive, not active, whereas “enslaver” reflects the fact that every day a person who owns other human beings has to decide whether or not to keep owning them.

As we reflect on the work of The 1619 Project and the responses to it, let’s consider: Is our language a “master’s tool [that] will never dismantle the master’s house,” as Audre Lorde put it? Or can our language change to be used for liberation?

by Karen Gaffney

In the Wake of White Supremacist Terrorism and Toni Morrison’s Death

As we reel from a weekend with two mass shootings linked to white supremacy and toxic masculinity, we hear about the passing of literary genius Toni Morrison. After the massacres in El Paso and Dayton, many are quick to jump to mental illness as the problem, but to equate mental illness and violence is not only offensive but also simply inaccurate. And to focus on the explanations of a “lone wolf” or even “hatred” misses the systemic nature of domestic terrorism rooted in white supremacy. Now, in 2019, it is the 400th anniversary of the first arrival on colonial Virginia’s shores of people who were kidnapped from Africa. As the 1600s progressed, colonists built a system of racialized slavery. In 1705, Virginia colonial legislators passed the slave codes, which clearly established racial categories and positioned them on a hierarchy in order to protect the power and profit of the elite (as I describe in my book Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox).

While systemic racism has evolved over time and adapted, we are still living with the same core system of racial oppression that we’ve had for centuries, yet white Americans in particular usually refuse to acknowledge–much less seek to dismantle–this system of white supremacy. When, in response to recent shootings, “well meaning” white people say on social media, “This is not America” or “Why is there so much hate?” or “Why does this keep happening?,” the denial of our history is clear. This is America. These recent horrific massacres are a manifestation of the ideology of white supremacy at the heart of America, from our colonial history to the present. Professor Eddie Glaude, speaking on MSNBC after the shootings, said, “This is us.” White Americans, he said, want to see themselves as innocent, and that desire is dangerous because it’s grounded in a denial of systemic racism, past and present. Either we confront the truth of our white supremacy, or this will keep happening, he said.

I was thinking about his statement when I saw the heartbreaking news of Morrison’s death. As someone who has a PhD in English, who wrote about Toni Morrison’s Beloved in my dissertation, as someone who has taught Morrison’s work for years, this loss is profound. However, as a white person, I’ve also been thinking about how important it was for Morrison to center black characters, black experiences, and black readers. In thinking about what Professor Glaude said, I started to wonder, in horror admittedly: how am I connected to Morrison’s white characters? Since Beloved is the novel I’ve read, re-read, and re-read again more than any other novel of Morrison’s (and actually more than any other novel at all), my mind went immediately to the horrific character of schoolteacher. Perhaps Glaude is urging white people to think about not how different we are from schoolteacher (which is what we are so inclined to do) but what we have in common with him. That’s where we get at our complicity. That’s how we can start to confront systemic racism. schoolteacher is the unnamed everyman who represents white supremacy. In an interview, Morrison once described slavery as a “national amnesia.” We deny it so much that we try to forget it, and in Beloved, that history cannot be forgotten and becomes a haunting force. Glaude insists that if we want change, we can’t remain in denial. White Americans need to resist this amnesia, confront how white supremacy is at the core of American history and identity, and work to help build a new anti-racist future, something we can learn more about from Ibram Kendi next week when his book How to Be an Antiracist is released. Until then, Toni Morrison, RIP.

by Karen Gaffney

My Complicity: A White Woman’s Thoughts on “When They See Us”

I’m sorry I thought you were guilty. That’s what echoed through my mind when I finished watching When They See Us. I wasn’t much older than they were. In April 1989, I was a junior in high school, a predominantly white, middle class, suburban high school in NJ. As a white girl, the world recognized my humanity and the humanity of the jogger. She was “good” and “innocent” – that’s what I remember. The teenagers who became known as the “Central Park Five” were “bad,” and I remember thinking that. I don’t remember wondering if they were guilty; I took their guilt for granted because I thought the criminal justice system was fair. I remember thinking I had something in common with the white woman and nothing in common with the boys.

Ava DuVernay’s brilliant four-episode series reveals to me that my mindset was the same one held by the police, by the media, by all of the systems in power that allowed five innocent kids to be incarcerated for years. Her title is so powerful because white people are taught not to see black people as human beings. We are taught to see black people as criminals, as animals, as inferior. As white people, we need to recognize how we are all Linda Fairstein, how–even when presented with irrefutable evidence–we hang onto the false narrative of white supremacy with desperation.

As the 4th of July approaches, I implore my fellow white Americans to confront our ongoing complicity in a system of white supremacy that persists in the US, despite our attempts to deny it. The criminalization of black and brown people is the norm, not the exception. The exception is that these five men were exonerated, and that only occurred because the person who actually committed the crime confessed on his own volition, more than a decade later. We criminalize black and brown people because we see them as inferior, as other, as sub-human, as animal. We are locking up black and brown people, including children, at the border and at detention facilities around the country. My own state of New Jersey has the worst racial disparity in the country when it comes to youth incarceration, as the NJ Institute for Social Justice reports.

As a white girl, I was taught to trust the system, and I did. I thought that if the boys were called a “wolf pack,” that if the boys were “wilding,” then they were “wild,” that they were animals, that they should be locked up. If the police and the jury said they did it, then they did, and that was it. Justice was fair, and my privileged life was safe.

Now, decades later, as a white anti-racist educator, I recognize that they only way to resist systemic racism is to be actively anti-racist. Being passive just reaffirms the systems that perpetuate white supremacy. We must constantly question the systems that surround us and confront the ways in which they uphold unearned advantages for white people, even without the awareness of those involved. I had the mindset I did as a high school junior in 1989 because I was not taught about the history of race and racism in this country. I firmly believed the myths that I now work with white people to debunk, the myth that race is biological, the myth that race has always existed, and the myth that the Civil Rights Movement ended racism. I wrote my book, Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (Routledge, 2018), to provide an accessible introduction to these concepts, with steps for action.

Systemic racism persists because it teaches white people that we are the only people who are fully human. When They See Us resists that in powerful ways by humanizing the five boys and the men they became. As white people, we need to ask ourselves, what will it take for us to share that vision and see black and brown people as fully human? Just because we have been taught otherwise doesn’t mean we need to continue to be complicit in a centuries-long system of oppression. White children would never get treated the way that black and brown children are treated in the US, whether it’s 1989 or 2019. They would not get shot by the police for playing with a toy gun. They would not be seen as a threat. They would not be vilified by the media. They would not be locked in cages at the border. They would not experience the tragic abuse revealed in When They See Us. If white people have been taught that we’re the only people who are fully human, we need to ask ourselves: where is the humanity in continuing to believe a false racial narrative about white superiority?

by Karen Gaffney