I am not your Negro

james_baldwin

I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter, so I’m forced to be an optimist. I’m forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive. But the future of the Negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country. It is entirely up to the American people and our representatives — it is entirely up to the American people whether or not they are going to face, and deal with, and embrace this stranger whom they maligned so long.

What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it.

The question you have got to ask yourself — the white population of this country has got to ask itself — North and South, because it’s one country, and for a Negro, there’s no difference between the North and South. There’s just a difference in the way they castrate you. But the fact of the castration is the American fact. If I’m not a nigger here and you invented him, you, the white people, invented him, then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that. Whether or not it’s able to ask that question. – James Baldwin

I saw Raoul Peck’s documentary about James Baldwin, “I am not your Negro”, in theaters yesterday. It was deeply moving, and left me in silence long afterwards. It forced me to contemplate his central question: why did America invent the n—–?

I was reminded of Ta-Nehisi Coates exegesis of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous 1965 report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action”. Although he didn’t use the exact phrase, Moynihan’s title hearkened back to an earlier collection of essays by black writers, about America’s “Negro Problem”. Like W. E. B. Du Bois, Moynihan sought to explain the gap in socioeconomic status between black America and white America. But to Moynihan, these disparities were not primarily due to racism or discrimination in hiring or housing or wages, but instead to the unique pathologies of black culture. Blacks had inverted the natural order of things by placing women at the center of families:

In essence, the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which, because it is so out of line with the rest of the American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole, and imposes a crushing burden on the Negro male and, in consequence, on a great many Negro women as well.

Regardless of whether Moynihan himself was a racist, his rhetoric presaged and enabled the standard conservative line on racial inequality: that it was a problem of individuals and “culture”, not a problem of institutions and racism. Conservatives proceeded to construct caricatures and stereotypes out of black Americans for the next several decades: to effectively turn them into n—–s. There was the crime-prone n—–, prompting former Reagan Secretary of Education Bill Bennett to explain that the problem of crime would disappear if only we aborted “every black baby in the country.” There was the layabout n—–, whom Ronald Reagan characterized as a leech, someone who exploited the welfare system to buy “t-bone steaks” while you waited in line to purchase hamburgers with your own hard-earned money. There was the drug-dealer n—–, whom Governor of Maine Paul LePage claimed was preying on his state’s white youth with his out-of-town dope. And there was finally the dumb n—–, whom pseudo-scholar Charles Murray proclaimed possessed an IQ inferior to that of his white betters (according to science, even!).

Many of these pathologies came together in an interview by the “intellectual leader” of the Republican Party, Paul Ryan, where he attempted to explain the causes of our “inner cities” (read: Negro) problem. The interview was conducted by Bill Bennett, and Paul Ryan cited Charles Murray in his defense (of course, contrary to the conservative lamentations about the epidemic of political correctness, even blatant racism doesn’t disqualify you from public discourse). Ryan explained that “We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.” In other words, the inner cities are so crime-prone and dysfunctional because lazy men (who are probably dumb too) don’t want to work. Although 40 years separate Daniel Patrick Moynihan from Paul Ryan, very little has changed in conservative racial rhetoric, besides the fact that the dog whistles have gotten louder.

But why invent the n—– in the first place? Why construct these disorders, these horrible lies about a group of people whom these rich white men know nothing about? (As James Baldwin remarked, “And furthermore, you give me a terrifying advantage: you never had to look at me; I had to look at you. I know more about you than you know about me.”)

Remember who Bill Bennett is. He’s the guy who cofounded K12, a for-profit online education company that seeks to provide an alternative to brick-and-mortar public education. Remember who Charles Murray is. He’s the guy whose first claim to fame was a Manhattan Institute-backed book about the failure of America’s welfare system. (And his work was later cited by Bill Clinton, who explained, “”He [Murray] did the country a great service. I mean, he and I have often disagreed, but I think his analysis is essentially right”). And remember who Paul Ryan is. He’s the guy who has tolerated and even encouraged the worst of Donald Trump’s excesses, all in a craven and cynical ploy to gut the welfare state.

So what is the invention of the n—– about? Much of it is about money. For if people believe that public programs like free education, welfare, Medicaid, and Obamacare are about n—–s, and not about people like them, then they will vote to eliminate these programs. And people like Bill Bennett, Charles Murray, and Paul Ryan, or at least their wealthy backers, will grow rich in the process. After all, if there’s less money for “those people”, then there’s more money for “our people”.

Although you might vote for Republican politicians in the belief that you’ll finally get something better than unappetizing hamburger meat, you’ll quickly find out that the t-bone steaks are actually going to the rich “elites” that Donald Trump claimed to despise. Sure, you are taking away something from the n——s. But you’re also hurting yourself. The politics of racial division cut a wide swath of destruction. In one of the most remarkable social science papers in recent years, economist Alberto Alesina (and colleagues) asks the question, “Why Doesn’t the United States Have a European-Style Welfare State?”. The answer, he explains, comes down to race. Here’s the punchline: “Across countries, racial fragmentation is a powerful predictor of redistribution.” People will build welfare states if they see people like them suffering. But they will decimate welfare states if they see people unlike them benefiting, even if those people are not the only casualties.

This will be the main motif of the next 4 years. Are white people driven primarily by spite? Or are there enough white people with empathy for the n—–, or at least with the foresight to realize that what starts with him will not end with him? I would like to believe so; I would like to be an optimist, like James Baldwin, but I worry. One-third of Americans don’t realize that Obamacare and the ACA are the same thing. They are like the Kentuckians who believe that Kynect is a program for good upstanding white people, but Obamacare is a program for n—–s. I wish white America would watch “I am not your Negro”, and would take away this, if nothing else: “But the future of the Negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country.” A country cannot stain the reputation of a group of people without being swept up in the darkness itself.

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