Letter to a friend on Black Lives Matter
31 July, 2020
So I've got to say I was a little shocked the other week when you said you'd never voted before and it got me to thinking about a few other things you've said over the years (like questioning climate change or whatever) and I realized that you don't have near the obsession with politics I have so I figured I'd share some thoughts about BLM to get out why I don't think it's a racist organization and what I think about the current state of the movement and country in that regard.
This letter is long, and contains many links. I encourage you to click them all. The twitter threads in particular are extremely informative. The videos are powerful and eye opening. This letter was very emotional for me to write, and I hope you take it to heart.
First, on the article you sent me, I looked into it.
The first thing I do whenever I see a story from a source I don't know is look into the source itself, especially if it's claiming factual evidence. This appears to be a minor blog on a local radio program out of Richmond. In 2020, I like to have considerably more evidence for something before I start believing it so I googled the query "black lives matter white people are sub human" and found only tenuous evidence of that statement (basically only like 3 articles, one referencing the Richmond one, and one being Washington Times, a hatchet job. The author of that Richmond Radio piece, btw, is Jeff Katz, a right wing hack. Search his name in Google News and it's pretty obvious.
All that said, I googled the girl's name and found this Vice article about her which I haven't fully read but leads to a diving off point:
Her name is Yusra Khogali and she was a co-founder of the Toronto chapter of BLM. Hardly an important person in the movement. And she came under fire when she tweeted "Plz Allah give me the strength not to cuss/kill these men and white folks out here today. Plz plz plz," in 2016 and my suspicion is she was forced to resign. There's barely anything about her anywhere anymore.
So please, don't paint the largest protest movement in American history by one rando chapter co-founder who has already been ostracized. That's just silly.
To address general racism in the black community and white permissiveness toward it: yes, it exists. Specifically anti-semitism, and I have known it in my own experience.
I first learned of Hebrew Israelites through a close friend of mine, who was black, and who was a member. You can read about them in this Wikipedia article. Yes, it exists, and many of their chapters are bad. Not all of them, and possibly not even a majority of them, but enough are Black Supremacists that I cringe whenever they're in the news.
Let me clarify, though: My friend was in no way, shape, or form, a racist, and he taught me a thing or two about the importance of people like Thurgood Marshall in the civil rights movement. Hell, he believed he was more important than MLK.
Another organization I am keeping an eye on is the Not Fucking Around Coalition. I do not think there is anything wrong with black folk exercising their second amendment rights (though, if you want a quick way to get gun control passed, that's it). But in general, I hate separatism. Black Separatism is as wrong as White Nationalism. We are a pluralist country, and separatism is a direct threat to that pluralism. The founder of NFAC is also an anti-semite.
Louis Farrakhan is also a real racist anti-semite. So are Ice Cube and Nick Cannon. These people are ostracized. If they are not, they should be.
My point is, black racism exists, should not be excused, but is not mainstream black activism or politics. Mainstream black politics is John Lewis and Elijah Cummings.
As for the statues, yes they are racist and need to go. Please, please, please go watch this video on the history of Confederate Statues. This letter will still be here when you get back. They were, without exception, built as racist statements in response to civil rights movements. Most of the anti-removal movements are anti-democratic rejections of local self-determination and governance.
I am sure your larger problem is not with a locality deciding to remove a statue because they find it offensive, it is more likely than not with the "tearing down" of statues by protesting crowds.
And there things become more complicated. I will without a doubt say that I prefer statues to be removed by legislatures than crowds. But I will not decry the removal of a racist symbol by force, just as I will never decry violence against Nazis. Yes, I do believe that the 1st Amendment protects speech, and I do not believe the government should jail someone for being a Nazi. But I also will never condemn anyone who wants to punch a Nazi in the face and suffer whatever consequences may come for them. Likewise, I cannot personally criticize a crowd for tearing down a racist statue. First of all, it's not some new fanatical leftist fascist act as Trump wants to say (sorry, it is absurd to put leftist and fascist in the same sentence), but a very old tradition in American history, and I doubt you'll say tearing down statues of King George III in the American Revolution were acts of fascism or anarchy. Second, it's very hard to justify any municipality keeping up a statue devoted to a white supremacist in a town that is 97% black. Finally, if there were statues to Nazis in the United States, and people tore them down, would you be as offended? Yet the holocaust only lasted 4 years, whereas the slave trade lasted 400 years, affected entire continents, and surely has a death toll far and above what was suffered in the Shoah. On that alone, how can we justify a single statue to a single confederate standing on our shores and call ourselves protectors of human rights?
I am not going to bother litigating every case of every statue being torn down, or democratically removed, or whether it should be or not. This is still a democracy, and democracies are messy. Things that shouldn't be taken down are taken down, people that shouldn't be cancelled are cancelled. But I will address a few the right love to talk about.
- The Teddy Roosevelt statue in front of the New York Museum of Natural History was not taken down because it was Teddy Roosevelt but because it was a racist statue. Scroll down and look at the statue from the front, the way a naked black man and a naked Indian were flanking Teddy on a horse. That statue is incredibly distasteful and I think you're sophisticated enough to recognize why. That said, Teddy Roosevelt does have a questionable legacy that I think should be discussed.
- The Abraham Lincoln statue taken down in Boston was also not about Abraham Lincoln but about it being a racist statue, just like the Teddy Roosevelt statue. It is hard to say that the creator of that statue thought black people were equal to white people.
- The Fredrick Douglass statue that was torn down is a very interesting case. We literally have no idea whether it was torn down by angry crowds or white supremacists seeking retribution for the destruction of confederate statues.
- The statues toppled in San Francisco are clearly examples of people tearing down statues of slave owners (Serra, Francis Scott Key whose legacy I think should also be examined; no I don't think we should change the National Anthem), getting caught up in a frenzy, and vandalizing Miguel Cervantes and Ulysses S Grant, which was stupid.
Numbers 3 and 4 bring me to a deeper point I want to make about protest movements and the organizations associated with them. Leaderless crowds are dangerous. They get caught up in an angry frenzy and often do terrible things. This is the nature of angry people. Organizations like BLM exist to channel that anger into nonviolent, focused action. It is, for this reason alone, self-defeating to criticize organizations like BLM for being violent. They are not, they are the only thing keeping angry crowds from turning into violent mobs.
What needs to be understood is that, just as there is a Fog of War, there is a Fog of Protest. I've been going through my twitter scrapbook and I could provide dozens of examples of misinformation and disinformation going around as part of this movement and who is commiting violence. When you are dealing with large groups of untrained people, there is going to be, inevitably, violence and stupidity. Never judge a protest by individual protestors. The vast majority of the protests since very early in this movement have been peaceful, because BLM took charge of it. (Portland is another story, and I would address it separately because I think it's hard to consider it properly a part of the BLM movement.) The early riots were just angry people lashing out. People kept repeating an old MLK quote that perfectly summed up why we were seeing riots: "Riots are the language of the unheard."
Do not underestimate this movement. You are witnessing the largest protest movement in US history, and it is without a doubt in the top 5 largest protest movements in world history. The civil rights movements in the 60's were fairly small in comparison. This one is breath-taking in its scope. Public opinion has shifted faster and harder than almost ever in American history. There is something called the 3.5% Rule for social movements, that "Nonviolent protests are twice as likely to succeed as armed conflicts – and those engaging a threshold of 3.5% of the population have never failed to bring about change." And it is nowhere near over. What will probably end up being the largest March on Washington in history is scheduled for August 28th. The entire political gravity of the United States has already shifted and we're still only just now sorting out what that means.
I don't care whether George Floyd has a long criminal record or not. Movements for justice are never morally clean, never complete, never perfect. Even the abolitionist movement had some questionable heroes who are still morally ambiguous to this day. If you allow little things like that to cloud the moral clarity of the moment at hand you will be forever justifying the perpetuation of evil by the angry actions of the oppressed.
None of this is new. Time is a flat circle. See the comic.
You and I grew up in a wealthy, white suburb. We went to a wealthy, white school. We were taught American history by white people. Some of our teachers were pretty damn good (Mr. Kay, for one, who made clear that Woodrow Wilson was a racist, though perhaps not to the extent that I've since learned) and some of them were terrible. Nearly everything I have believed that was wrong about the civil war and black history was taught to me by Mr. Maisner. Yes, our high school has been an A rated school for a very long time. But that does not mean we were taught the truth about American history.
I have always considered myself to be very knowledgeable about black history. I've known obscure (to white people) names in black history for a very long time. I've known about Emmet Till, Medgar Evers, Fred Hampton, Stokely Carmichael, Booker T. Washington, and Marcus Garvey since I was a teenager. I knew about the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment and how that leads to higher rates of vaccine hesitancy among African Americans. I read Fredrick Douglass's autobiography when I was 15, Malcolm X's at 17.
I was wrong.
In the last year I have been absolutely stunned by entire aspects of American history that have been kept from me. It started with the opening of Watchmen and the Tulsa Riots. How could something so significant in American history have been left out of our class? Since then I've learned about the actual significance of Juneteenth, the importance of the song Lift Every Voice and Sing, the Rosewood massacre here in Florida (did you know Florida has an actual reparations program for Rosewood? I don't even know if anything like that exists anywhere else in the US), and the Tampa race riots in 1967. I learned that the housing segregation in the United States is not the result of de facto segregation as Mr. Maisner taught us, but the result of real racist government policies.
There are two American histories, this much has become clear to me. And it often feels like even we, as white people, are victims of this horrific system of apartheid that goes back before our nation's founding. We have been kept deliberately ignorant of the horrific things our government has done and continues to do to black people. This movement is not a surprise to historians, to people who are aware of that horrific history, who have had open eyes for the entire time.
- This twitter thread perfectly sums up the anger black people feel, and why it spilled over into violence.
- This twitter thread sums up how pervasively corrupt the mentality of most cops are.
- This twitter thread shows how far back the history of police brutality and racism go.
- And this article explains that white supremacists have long been infiltrating local police forces. I have seen numerous videos of police officers flashing white power signs.
This is real, pervasive, and disgusting. We need a national commission on deracistification just like we performed denazification in Germany. We need to be firing entire police departments. The culture is rotten. No, not all police are corrupt, but enough are. The "bad apples" trope is the most ignorant response to tackling systemic racism I have ever heard. The full saying is not "It's just a few bad apples." It's "A few bad apples spoil the barrel."
The police are agents of the state. They are trained professionals, who should behave professionally. The protestors are untrained individual citizens. It is for that reason entirely that we should judge the police by individuals, but not the protests.
You and I have never understood the pain that is felt by black people every day. That second video brings tears to my eyes every time I watch it. Black lives do not matter. They never have. That is why the slogan is so important. This horrible shit that we're barely taught about is not some far and distant stuff that happened in a far away corner of the country in the distant past. It is people's lives. They are shaped by it in ways we can never unravel. Our lives, you and I, are shaped by it in ways we can never unravel. It is bad for the economy, bad for our health, and bad for our country's standing around the world. It is bad for the soul of our country. Racism is so real and pervasive, and so real in black people's lives, just think about what the guy in the CNN interview linked at the beginning of this paragraph experiences. Think about the mountains of stress black people experience on a daily basis, dealing with the police, dealing with racism, dealing with discrimination. Is it any wonder at all why they experience almost double the rate of hypertension? That paper says the causes are still unknown. What a joke!
Why do we not know about people like Robert Smalls? Why are there no statues to him? Why is he lost in the pages of history? Because he is black. Not because he is not an interesting or important or compelling figure in American history. This is where we need to start. Reclaiming an entire strain of American history for all Americans. Black folk are Americans. And no one should ever fail to recognize it. Recognize that Robert Smalls is not Black History, he is American History.
Perhaps the most controversial, most difficult things to deal with right now are the way we treat national symbols and heroes. A tweet went viral a month ago that put red dots over all the slave owners in Turnbull's famous painting. It is shocking, and almost impossible to deny the racist, white supremacist origins of our nation. Of course, John Adams was elevated in that painting, because he was always an abolitionist, and I think you're aware that I've always been a John Adams superfan. I ended up creating a Twitter bot that tweets out the letters between John and Abigail Adams every ten minutes. But it is impossible to deny that our nation was founded on racism.
I helped get a lot of guys their GEDs in prison. One thing that always stuck with me was when one of my black students asked me how the Declaration of Independence is not a lie. How could a racist like Jefferson, a man who owned other human beings, write "All men are created equal"? I didn't have a good answer for him.
None of us have good answers for this stuff.
I do not know that I believe we should remove statues of our founding fathers. I will not answer one way or another. I know Biden does not want to remove them. I know many black people do not want to remove them. They will probably not be removed. But racism and white supremacy have been a stain on this nation since before it's founding. We have to actually reckon with this. We have to acknowledge that this country has two histories. Black Americans are Americans. And they are in pain. Americans are in pain, and they need to be helped. The moral clarity of that should be screaming out to all of us.
Questioning our nation's racist legacy is difficult. This is the nature of democracy. If you decide Black Lives Matter is racist and anti-American because some one or even many individuals are saying racist things, or because one free man uses his freedom to tweet a rejection of one of your dearest held traditions, then you're rejecting something more fundamental than a protest movement. You're rejecting democracy. You're rejecting the validity of their opinions as Americans. Not as blacks. As Americans.
And now I have to stop crying.