As the news of overflowing morgues and dwindling PPE began to give way to the timeworn tableaus of federal boots reigning blows on Black necks, my mind turned, as it often does, to rock ‘n’ roll. What better way to offset the crumbling empire blues than to swaddle myself in the pentatonic protective equipment that has sustained me for so long? If the negro can speak of Rivers Cuomo for a second, I thought about Weezer’s “The Sweater Song.” Judging by the ferocity of the government’s crackdown on anti-racist protests roiling the US, they think holding police officers accountable is a thread that, if pulled, would destroy the sweater of our republic.
I agree with that assessment of the stakes, with the significant caveat that in a country founded on the lofty notion of perfectibility, short-term harm to the republic is a necessary precondition to its long-term refinement. But, admittedly, keeping an eye on the big picture is a struggle. At the dusk of another bloody, cataclysmic summer, it is hard to feel like this is the volta in that winding moral arc I’ve been hearing about since I was a kid. I am too aware of the simmering tensions of so many summers past, of revolutionary potential scuttled in the autumn breeze. Even among the literati, running a thumb along the layers of recurrence is almost a game. In one of the previous decade’s most influential texts on anti-Black racism, Ta-Nehisi Coates borrows both title and conceit from two different twentieth century commentators to frame his own meditation on the fire that time. The grift goes off without a hitch because the masses of book buyers are none the wiser—scarcely more schooled now than during the conflagrations pondered by the author’s predecessors.
For my part, I have stroked the strata of time by revisiting a Chris Rock riff from his 1999 special Bigger and Blacker. The comic observes that in the US, every race is angry about something, but white people are the angriest. Rock believes white people see so much red because they view things like affirmative action and immigration as evidence that they’re “losing the country.” He rejects this conclusion. “If they’re losing,” Rock cracks, “who’s winning? It ain’t us.” The quip has only gained resonance in the two decades since. When victors get the spoils, it warps their reality so profoundly that triumph itself becomes unrecognizable.
Nominal gains for Black people, even when they fall substantially short of achieving equity, disrupt white homeostasis because staggering disequilibrium is our cultural resting state. Vigilant preservation of that resting state has made sending drones to a thumb war a matter of course. That resting state demands Black abjection. It’s by design.
With this in mind, the police’s use of excessive force is just an atomized expression of a venerable American precept. If race is a social construct, the chromatic associations of the words “black” and “white”—colors we tend to think of as poles—scaffold that construct. As a result, Black-white race relations are often warped into a fracas between symmetrical factions, parting the tumult into the equal and opposite forces of Newton’s third law. This miscasts white schadenfreude as credible grievance, Black outrage as churlish entitlement.
The mirage also conceals the class differences among white people, and the ways the interests of wealthy white folks diverge from those of less fortunate ones. People of color have often functioned as red herrings to deceive middle and working-class white people into embracing politics contrary to their own interests (as we’ve seen with the politicization of the public health response to COVID-19). Once data began to show that Black and Latinx people were disproportionately affected by the virus, you could almost see the gears churning inside Republicans’ knuckleheads: Stumping for the health of the economy at the direct expense of public health is an easier sell if racial minorities are perceived to be footing the bill. Such sleight of hand transfigures a sinister Faustian bargain into a simple quid pro quo. If COVID-19 is mainly the foe of a timeless public enemy—namely, Black and Latinx Americans—then perhaps it is a friend to their antagonists.
In his 1992 short story “The Space Traders,” the late legal scholar and activist Derrick Bell offered an analogue to the country’s current predicament. In the story, extraterrestrials arrive on Earth and offer the US government riches and advanced technology. The catch? The government must hand over the country’s African American population. It’s a daunting test for the strength of the Union. Does democracy lessen the temptation to sell out the few to enhance the lives of the many? Would the country’s non-Black population view the sacrifice as a betrayal of “their own”—or convenient removal of a nuisance they’d longed to jettison anyway? In Bell’s telling, the trade commences. Most white people favor eliminating the racial group they see as disproportionately responsible for crime. The Supreme Court reasons that sending Black America to outer space in exchange for resources is similar to the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II—that is, a justifiable opportunity cost. In the end, 70 percent of Americans vote in favor of accepting the aliens’ offer, and Black people are marched en masse onto spaceships at gunpoint. Though the 2020 pandemic version of this dilemma involved less potential gain, and more loss, than the aliens’ offer, our country’s leadership made essentially the same choice.
Meanwhile, as case numbers remain persistently high across most of the country, prioritizing profits over people jeopardizes more than just Black folks. Crudely drawn fault lines obscure basic numerical realities; even if people of color are overrepresented in virus casualties, they still make up a minority of these deaths overall. Premature reopening condemned white people in low-prestige jobs to the same fate as those who occupy the lowest stations in the nation’s racial caste system. (The enemy of your enemy is, in fact, still your enemy.) The supposed yin yang division between Black and white Americas reduces a convoluted morass to binary simplicity, as if the welfare of people of color and the welfare of white people are completely extricable from one another. And just like in Bell’s allegory, as long as it serves the bottom line, the ruling class makes no bones about writing off those clinging to society’s bottom rung.
Spoiled victors have doggedly held down the fort in places of worship as well, with the summer’s unrest underscoring the (often conspicuous) lack of anti-racist solidarity within Christian fellowship. For reasons as mysterious as His ways, my mother attends a predominantly white church in a suburb outside of Boston. Mom felt the church should be a critical front in the country’s larger cultural reckoning, so she asked her pastor to incorporate some reference to anti-racist struggle in his sermon. It wasn’t as if the subject wasn’t already on people’s minds—Black Lives Matter protests were at their peak and dominated national news. Yet the pastor was reluctant. Any conversation about racism needs to be approached gingerly, he warned: It’s a sensitive topic. Other church leaders echoed his caution, insisting that any overt mention of race was bound to be “divisive.” Apparently my mother’s siblings in Christ couldn’t stomach the possibility of alienating anyone Zooming along to service. They dismissed my mother’s argument that some schisms are necessary to promote a higher harmony.
Their pleas for extraordinary tact are misguided. After all, this is a community bonded by their collective identification with the view that humanity is afflicted with original sin—that we are all complicit in evil by default and destined for damnation save for the intervention of Christ. Why is talking about complicity in oppressive systems so much more earthshaking? In both cases, we are called to recognize that the conditions we are born into shape and maintain our culpability, and that it is possible to propagate a grave ill without malice. Leaning on an unseen deity, the parishioners can accept that they are wayward. Why such skittishness about owning their fallibility in terms of racism?
The difference is, of course, that a visceral tenet of whiteness tells them that if they relinquish an inch to Black people we’ll seize forty acres—and a mule for good measure. At some psychological ground zero, my mother’s fellow congregants are sentries charged with maintaining a hallowed circle of advantage. No wonder they guard its entrance as tenaciously as the NBA shields its delicate “bubble” isolation zone in Orlando, FL.
Imagine the pressure: the limbic impact of believing that all is lost if one so much as relaxes a forefinger in the vice-like grip whiteness holds on power and access. The torsion and torment of one whose body has internalized this precarity. Consider the video from earlier this year of Amy Cooper calling the police with a false accusation against Christian Cooper—putting the safety of a Black man at risk just because he told her to leash her dog. It reminded me of the 2015 video of Officer Brian Encinia threatening to “light up” Sandra Bland for smoking in her own car. The Cooper/Cooper and Bland/Encinia collisions illustrate the shape racism takes in white people’s subjectivities, as both Cooper and Encinia act with the unhinged desperation of a blue chipper behind in the score.
Chris Rock’s riff on sore winners becomes more resonant with each new imbroglio. The policeman and the dog walker each take outsized umbrage at what they perceive as Black people behaving above their station. Though Encinia was a police officer and Amy Cooper a private citizen, their behavior serves the same social function. Encinia’s thirst for Bland’s subservience exceeds the scope of enforcing the law. It is not enough for her to cooperate; she must be cowed. Cooper, meanwhile, expects that she can flout the law flagrantly and without consequences—first, by leaving her dog unleashed, and then by making a false report. But both Encinia and Amy Cooper are operating by what they know to be the rules: their actions are guided by a correct reading of the social and institutional capital they wield, as they intuitively leverage the racialized and gendered power available to them to shore up the clout Bland and Christian Cooper have upended. In Encinia’s case, physical might makes right, while Amy Cooper marshals a subtler but no less devastating method to restore homeostasis. America has always been a contronym, connoting both persecution and prosperity—and the oppression it represents for some is the very condition for the richness and possibility it embodies for others. In moments like Bland’s traffic stop and the Coopers’ showdown in Central Park, America’s two Janus faces lock eyes until one of them blinks.
I have gotten older and bigger and certainly no less Black in the years since I first heard Chris Rock’s diagnosis of this problem. And to my eyes it remains the case that white people so often experience lopsided domination as doleful austerity. What can move a heart chilly enough to blithely bust shots at Breonna Taylor as she lay harmlessly in bed, to chase down Ahmaud Arbery like human prey, to wrest the air from George Floyd’s prone body as he begged for breath? This is the frightful handiwork of deluded avengers, “balancing” a ledger that was firmly in the black to begin with.
It’s inadequate to sketch American life as a zero-sum game, one in which the perceived gains of minorities scan to white people as their own losses. It’s more like one in which white people’s losses and others’ gains are of different orders of magnitude. Black people have fully metabolized the notion that they have to work twice as hard to get half as far. Perhaps now is the moment of a broader awakening to the reality that we are punished twice as hard for making up half the ground.
Transgenerational trauma theory tells us that the legacy of atrocity doesn’t pass. It just accumulates. Why wouldn’t our country’s many spoiled victors suffer from a less-ballyhooed cousin to PTSD: Perpetrating Traumatic Stress Disorder, a congenital inclination to victimize and exploit bluntly encoded in the hippocampus? It’s activated by a too-quiet Black household at nightfall, or a too-jaunty Black jog through smoldering streets. By the wild-eyed conviction that any currency Black people possess is necessarily counterfeit.
Primo Levi writes that “in history and in life one sometimes seems to glimpse a ferocious law which states: To he that has, will be given; from he that has not, will be taken away.” As the convergence of the pandemic and widespread anti-racist demonstrations shows us, in America this ferocious law is not one we steal glances at but one so close to our faces that we can’t always see it clearly. Without muscular and sustained intervention, advantage and dispossession each reproduce themselves. Levi’s law acts as a pacemaker to the country’s very heartbeat.
What would it mean to develop a new cultural resting state? It might begin with reimagining how and in what terms non-Black people have skin in the game.
I recognize that “we understand that we’ll never understand” is supposed to be a respectful disclaimer, but it hits my ears as a lazy surrender, a default to profoundly truncated moral imagination. You’ll never have Darth Vader for a father, but you seem to be able to empathize with and even imagine yourselves as Luke Skywalker. You don’t have a historic midrange game, but you seem to be able to identify with Kobe Bryant. You can’t record your TikToks on beat but you can seamlessly adopt the cadence, lexicon, and mythos of the rappers you fetishize. What is it about existential fury at 400 years of subjugation that is so uniquely arcane? How is it that fictional, celebrity, or heavily stylized subjectivities are the only ones you can access other than your own?
What kind of coalition might be possible, if you stop taking for granted the assumed limits of “understanding?” It’s the only kind that can meet the moment.