Many who took to the streets were out there to engage in a form of mass group therapy.
“it was necessary for many whites who had never before engaged in race activism to rush into street protests to declare: ‘I am not a bad racist person!.’”
No doubt, on the Fourth of July, there will be thousands of white, newly self-proclaimed “allies” of the black community who will stand over their grills with tears in their eyes, not from barbecue smoke, but from delusional heartwarming thoughts that only in America can centuries of grinding racial oppression be swept away by donning a face mask, making a hand-scrawled protest poster, and spending an afternoon with hundreds of other good citizens chanting calls for law enforcement reform.
We do not speak here of the militant young white activists who some time ago took stock of their life prospects in a crumbling empire and decided to do all in their power to hasten the demise of capitalism, white supremacy and the rest of the system’s rotten fruit. We speak instead of blissfully naïve, uninformed urban professionals and suburbanites who, when they took to the streets for the first time in their lives, told themselves they were there to protest, when in fact many were out there to engage in a form of mass group therapy.
The collective white psyche has borne a very heavy burden for more than 500 years. Historically, the perceived necessity of conquest, enslavement, genocide and territorial theft, all in the name of European and American expansion, development and industrialization brought with it the challenge of rationalizing and justifying the devastating consequences for entire civilizations of dark-skinned people. Some white people likely hoped they would be able to neutralize their feelings of guilt by telling themselves that God himself approved of their conduct. Consequently, petitions were submitted to the Vatican for papal bulls (edicts issued by the Pope) authorizing conquest and slavery. In 1455, the Pope authorized Portugal to enslave Arabs and Africans:
“Some white people likely hoped they would be able to neutralize their feelings of guilt.”
“We [therefore] weighing all and singular the premises with due meditation, and noting that since we had formerly by other letters of ours granted among other things free and ample faculty to the aforesaid King Alfonso—to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.”
But conscience can be a stubborn nuisance, and even the supposed moral and legal authority conferred by papal bull gave the white mind no guarantee of peaceful sleep. It became necessary to morally justify the devastation of entire civilizations with a white supremacy doctrine that held that people of color were inferior and perhaps not even human. But it was a huge lie that required consistent and sustained propagation. These efforts bore fruit. By the 19th Century not only had white supremacy become embedded in scientific literature, it lingered. Even in 1921, George Oscar Ferguson, Jr. wrote in The Scientific Monthly:
“…while Negroes are often very capable, the general level of intelligence among the masses of the race is considerably below that of whites.”
This and comparable propositions were false, but they were repeated often enough that they became truth in the collective white mind. So vital were such lies to white mental and emotional stability that sustaining mass racial self-delusion became an art form. It was very useful to white northern workers during the slave era. Because they feared that members of communities of free blacks would take jobs and other economic opportunities, white workers established The American Colonization Society to work for the repatriation of free blacks to Africa. The organization justified its mission with racial lies. In her book Criminalizing a Race, Charshee McIntyre said: “(The American Colonization Society) described free African Americans as the most obnoxious and repugnant element in the community.” She quoted the organization as saying: “…free persons of color are by far as a class the most corrupt, depraved and abandoned.”
“Sustaining mass racial self-delusion became an art form.”
Racial stereotypes also facilitated comforting self-delusion for whites who abhorred the very idea that their beloved country was anything other than a land of equality. Gone With The Wind offered a comforting portrayal of slavery. Hollywood westerns made conquest and genocide acts of nobility. Complaints about police brutality were either dismissed out of hand, or it was presumed any force used by officers was a justified response to the pathological criminal propensities of people of color.
The election of Barack Obama was exceptionally helpful to self-delusion about the essential racial goodness of America, even though the carnage resulting from racist police violence reached extreme levels during the tenure of the country’s first black president. Then the murder of George Floyd happened, and no amount of lying to self could erase the raw, naked ugliness of America’s institutionalized white supremacy. To cope emotionally, it was necessary for many whites who had never before engaged in race activism to rush into street protests to declare to themselves more than to others: “I am not a bad racist person!”
“It was presumed any force used by officers was a justified response.”
George Floyd’s murder was not qualitatively worse than many other police killings captured by video recordings. Eric Garner also couldn’t breathe. Walter Scott was shot in the back in cold blood. In Saginaw, Michigan, black, homeless, mentally ill Milton Hall was executed by a police firing squad. The list seems eternal. The Floyd murder was different only because God chose to touch hearts and minds and force an honest acknowledgment of who and what America is all about. We of the world’s African family will continue to monitor what white folks are doing in reaction to this divine revelation. Our fondest hope is that the protests are not merely therapeutic strategies for coping with a disturbing reality, and that they are instead early signs of an epiphany leading to the real transformation of hearts, minds and souls. But at the same time, we know that we should not hold our breaths. Regardless of the degree of sincerity of white allies, the essential objectives of liberation, independence and self-determination shall remain ours alone to achieve.
Mark P. Fancher is an attorney and writer. He can be contacted at mfancher[at]comcast.net.
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