A photo 400 years in the making

How to say this with care — first for those who are troubled by this image (like me) and also for those pictured (whom I refuse to hate): Everyone we see in this astonishing photo from yesterday’s #BlackLivesMatter rally in Concord is harmed by racism, albeit unequally.

Photo credit: Jody Anthony

First, a little background. In 1705, the Virginia House of Burgesses, which represented wealthy enslavers rather than the general inhabitants of the colony, passed a law conscripting poor White men to serve in so-called Slave Patrols. The men were armed and charged with policing and punishing enslaved Black people on behalf of their ‘masters’ – protecting white property, as it were.

It was one in a long series of measures taken by the ruling class to legislate and enforce inequality between two groups of under-resourced people who had many times before found common cause in resisting a common oppressor. The measures were accompanied by concerted campaigns to convince poor White people that their enslaved Black neighbors were naturally dangerous, criminal, hyper-sexual, sub-human. (For an in-depth history, see Ibram X Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning)

Fast-forward 300 years. Although our mapping of the human genome definitely proved in 2003 that race is a figment of our collective imagination biologically-speaking (hence my use of quotation marks around Black and White), the false ideology of White supremacy continues to poison us all. President Trump, whose racist policies and beliefs have been well-documented since the 1970s, has termed the protestors “THUGS” and invoked the segregationist’s call “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” to defend the property of Whites.

In response, heavily-armed White men have been attending #BlackLivesMatter events around the country in a kind of latter-day ’slave patrol.’ As America’s original police, their close alliance to segments of today’s well-meaning Men in Blue is implicit, as seen in this photo. Exhibit A: Travis and Gregory McMichael.

But here’s the kicker. While these offenses to Black bodies and Black lives are finally taking center-stage where they belong, the damage does not end there. The rapacious quest for arms by certain White men to protect their white ideal from Black “thugs” and Brown “invaders” and Muslim “terrorists” costs thousands of dollars many can ill afford while introducing unnecessary fear and separation into everyday life. It also costs all too many people their lives, as White male suicides are the leading category of gun deaths today (see Dying of Whiteness by Jonathan Metzl). And it contributes to the perpetuation of a winner-take-all economic system that not only harms people of color in the extreme but harms these same ‘white’ men and their families too. Exhibit B: America’s #1 ranking in terms of economic inequality and ‘deaths of despair’ among OECD nations.

I do not mean to excuse or to convince the President and his adherents, although I seek strength to keep them in my daily prayers. Rather, I hope that the large majority of Americans of every phenotype who suffer from racist structures, albeit unequally, will finally find common cause and purge our society of its original sin.

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