Every now and then a lesson comes easy. Other times we learn things
by accident, if at all. And inevitably it seems, the lessons that matter most, often come
from the least likely sources, and at the most inopportune moments. So much so, that if we
aren’t paying close attention, we’ll miss them altogether. Such was the case last August
when my paternal grandmother died, at the age of 78.
Although the passing of a relative may seem hardly appropriate as
the jumping off point for a political commentary, it is precisely the oddity of it that
makes it all the more poignant and valuable. But first, a slight preface to what I’m
trying to explain.
In the past few years I have had the good fortune to speak before
nearly 60,000 people, in forty states, on over 150 college campuses, and to dozens of
community groups, labor unions, and government agencies about racism. Some audiences
respond favorably, others not so much. But the message I deliver is always the same: those
persons called "white" have a particular obligation to fight racism because it
is our problem, created in its modern form by us, for the purpose of commanding power over
resources and opportunities at the expense of people of color. Furthermore, all whites,
irrespective of their liberal attitudes, "tolerance" for others, and decent
voting records, have to address the internalized beliefs about white superiority from
which we all suffer. No one is innocent. No one is unaffected by the daily socialization
to which we are all subjected–specifically with regard to the way we are taught to think
about persons of color in this society: their behaviors, lifestyles, intelligence, beauty,
and so on.
Without question, convincing white folks–particularly those dear
liberals who insist every other friend they have is black–that they too have internalized
racist beliefs, even of a most vicious kind, proves the most difficult in the work I do.
You can’t prove the point with statistics, or poll numbers, or by pointing out the wide
disparities in life chances which form the backdrop of American institutionalized racism.
Convinced that they are free from the biases, stereotypes, and behaviors that characterize
"real" racists, such persons inevitably seem the most resistant to the analysis
offered here thus far. It is with this in mind that I return to my grandmother. For her
death–and more to the point, her life, right up until she died–offers more in the way of
proof that racist socialization affects us all than anything I have experienced in the
course of my 30 years.
You see, my grandmother was one of those good liberals. In fact, in
many ways she was beyond liberal, particularly given the time and place in which she spent
most of her life. Born in the Detroit area, she and her parents moved South in the 1920′s.
Her father was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. A member that is, until the day in 1938 when
his only daughter informed him that she had fallen in love with a Jewish man, and that in
addition to that, his hatred of blacks was unconscionable to her. She then handed him his
robes, and with her mother’s approval, asked whether he was going to burn them, or if she
was going to have to do it herself. She challenged him despite what must have been the
palpable fear of standing up to a man who was none too gentle and most certainly capable
of violence. As it turns out, he would never attend another Klan meeting, and by all
accounts changed his attitudes, changed his behaviors, indeed, changed his life
Throughout her life she would stand up to racist bigotry on a number
of other occasions: threatening to commit vehicular homicide on a real estate agent who
sought to enforce restrictive covenants in her family’s chosen Nashville neighborhood;
standing up to racist comments whenever she heard them, from friends, family members, or
total strangers. The fear which often paralyzes whites and makes us unwilling to challenge
racism–described by James Baldwin as the fear of being "turned away from the welcome
table" of white society–was something that played no part in her life. She was a
woman of principle, and although not an activist, in her own way she nonetheless instilled
in her children and grandchildren a sense of right and wrong which was unshakeable in this
regard. She is in no small part responsible for who I am and what I do today.
But enough for the praise. Heaping accolades on the dead is not my
intention here. There is another part of this story which is less heartwarming, and yet
more instructive and important than anything said heretofore. It is the part about my
A few years ago it became obvious that MawMaw, as we knew her, was
developing Alzheimer’s disease at a fairly rapid pace. Anyone who has watched a loved one
suffer with this condition knows how difficult it is to witness the deterioration that
takes place. The forgotten memories come first. Then the forgotten names. Then the
unfamiliar faces. Then the terror and anger of feeling abandoned. And finally, a
regression back to a virtual infant stage of development, complete with the sucking in of
one’s lips so typical of newborns. It is a fascinating disease, in that it renders
otherwise healthy persons helpless, eventually causing not only a mental meltdown, but a
physiological one as well. It renders its victims incapable of reason or comprehensible
thought. It saps the conscious mind of its energy, and therein lies the point of my story.
You see, resisting the weight of one’s socialization requires
conscious thought. It requires the existence of the ability to choose. And near the end of
my grandmother’s life, as her body and mind began to shut down at an ever-increasing pace,
this consciousness–the soundness of mind which had led her to fight the pressures to
accept racism–began to vanish. Her awareness of who she was and what she had stood for
her entire life disappeared. And as this process unfolded, culminating in the dementia
ward of a local nursing home, an amazing and disturbing thing happened. She began to refer
to her mostly black nurses by the all too common term which forms the cornerstone of white
America’s racial thinking. The one Malcolm X said was the first word newcomers learned
when they came to this country. Nigger. A word she would never have uttered from conscious
thought, but one which remained locked away in her subconscious despite her best
intentions and lifelong commitment to standing strong against racism. A word which would
have made her ill even to think it. A word which would make her violent if she heard it
said. A word which, for her to utter it herself, would have made her, well, another person
altogether. But there it was, as ugly, and bitter, and fluently expressed as it probably
ever had been by her father.
Think carefully about what I’m saying. And why it matters. Here was
a woman who no longer could recognize her own children; a woman who had no idea who her
husband had been; no clue where she was, what her name was, what year it was–and yet,
knew what she had been taught at a very early age to call black people. Once she was no
longer capable of resisting this demon, tucked away like a ticking time bomb in the far
corners of her mind, it reasserted itself and exploded with a vengeance. She could not
remember how to feed herself, for God’s sake. She could not go to the bathroom by herself.
She could not recognize a glass of water for what it was. But she could recognize a
nigger. America had seen to that–and no disease was going to strip her of that memory.
Indeed, it would be one of the last words she would say, before finally she stopped
talking at all.
Please understand my point: Given this woman’s entire life, and the
circumstances surrounding her slow demise, her utterance of a word even as vicious as
nigger says absolutely nothing about her. But it speaks volumes about her country. About
the seeds of pure evil planted deep in every one of us by our culture; seeds which–so
long as we are of sound mind and commitment–we can choose not to water. But also seeds
which left untended sprout of their own accord. It speaks volumes about the work white
folks must do, individually and collectively to overcome that which is always beneath the
surface; to overcome the tendency to cash in the chips which represent the perquisites of
whiteness; to traffic in privileges–not the least of which is the privilege of feeling
superior to others–not because of what or who they are, but rather because of what you’re
not: in this case, not a nigger.
In so many ways that’s all whiteness ever meant, and all it needed
to mean for those of European descent. To be white meant at least you were above them. If
you had not a pot to piss in, at least you had that. To call another man or woman a nigger
and to treat them the way one is instructed to treat such an untouchable is to assert
nothing less than a property right. It is to add value to what DuBois called the
"psychological wage" of whiteness. When my grandmother was strong and vibrant
she had no need to take advantage of these wages, and indeed, often tried hard to resist
them. But in weakness and confusion it became all that her increasingly diseased mind had
left. And she called in the chips.
Maybe all this is why I’m so tired of other white folks trying to
sell me bullshit like: "I don’t have a racist bone in my body," or "I never
notice color." See, MawMaw would have said that too. And she would have meant well.
And she would have been wrong.
Fact is, nigger is still the first word on most white people’s mind
when they see a black man being taken off to jail on the evening news. The first thing we
think when we see Mike Tyson, Louis Farrakhan, or O.J. Simpson (as in "that murdering
nigger"). Think I’m exaggerating? Then come with me to America’s airports and have a
drink with me at the bar the next time an African American other than Oprah, Michael
Jordan, or Colin Powell makes the news. Take a cab ride with me anywhere in this country,
and if the driver is white (or really anything but black), and the trip more than fifteen
minutes, see how long it takes for the word or its modern-day coded equivalents to spew
forth from their mouth, once they find out what I do. Ask me what white folks yelled at
black students who occupied the basketball court during a Rutgers/U Mass game a few years
back to protest racist comments by Rutgers’ President. Fans who mere seconds before had
been wildly cheering black basketball players, and yet could and did turn on a dime as
soon as they were reminded of the racial battlelines which trump NCAA-inspired brotherhood
every time. And then after that, tell me the one again about being colorblind. Let’s go to
Roxbury tonight, or East L.A., or to the Desire housing projects in New Orleans, or to any
MLK Boulevard in any city in America–and then let’s see how hard it is to spot melanin.
Colorblind my ass.
And then once we’re all through feeling bad for having been
sucker-punched by racist conditioning just like everyone else, then please, for the love
of God, let’s learn to forgive ourselves. Our guilt is worthless, although, it should be
said, far from meaningless. It has plenty of meaning: it means we aren’t likely to do a
damned thing constructive to end the system which took us in, conned us, and stole part of
our humanity. And what those women at my grandmother’s nursing home need and deserve–much
more than a sniveling apology from embarrassed family members–is for me to say what I’m
saying right now, and to encourage everyone to be brave enough to say the same thing. To
put an end to this vicious system of racial caste. To spend every day resisting the
temptations of advantage, which ultimately weaken the communities on which we all depend.
Those nurses knew–and so do I–why my grandmother could no longer
fight. For the rest of us, there is no similar excuse available.
Of course we have been adding more links and articles to ZNet. We’ve
even managed some non (explicitly) Kosovo material such as a major new Instructional On
Economics ( ), an SEP site update ( ), new Activism Watch updates ( ), and of course new
Kosovo pages ( ) from, among others, Edward Herman ( ) and Saul Landau ( ). We’ve also
added a section of song lyrics that I feel speak to the issue, sometimes as well or better
than even our most informed critics — though differently, of course. THese will be
changed every few days–those there now are from Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Phil Ochs.
And again, for it is part of organzing, I also want to remind you to look at the ZNet
Commentary Program Page ( ) and the page of outrageous options we are currently offering
for subscribing to Z ( ), since each of these choices will not only bring you a much more
substantial source of information and analysis than these free Updates, it will also, if
you participate, help finance all our operations.
But, again, in light of the fact that we are at war, mostly I want
to use this (extra) ZNet Update to try to convey something that will be useful to how you
address the curent events.
When confronting a horrible war machine if one doesn’t shut down and
obey media marching orders, one’s eyes tend to open very wide, not only to immediate
events, but pretty quickly to broader matters as well. We become aware not only of the war
but through discussion of it and a sensitivity that suddenly alters our perceptions, to
other phenomena as well. It can be overwhelming to realize, and not just to realize but to
really feel the extent of the crimes in the world and the extent of one’s own country’s
quiet complicity, overt responsibility, or violent involvement. There is a tendency to
either shut down to the truth or to bog down in feelings of hopelessness or cynicism about
it, or perhaps to lash out in an anger that leads nowhere. In contrast, it is hard to do
things that retain touch with the whole truth, sustain one’s comittment, that speak to and
from one’s rage, and that yet accomplish good.
I am sending, today, the following piece adapted from one that I
wrote during the Gulf War. It means to keep us in touch with the facts of our world,
utterly horrible as some of those facts are when we literally face them in full display.
Tomorrow I hope to inform this very emotional appeal, not meant to turn us into cynics or
depressives or irate ineffectuals, with some useful answers to the questions that
naturally arise — okay, but then what do I do to dissent from war and to fight against
these and all ill winds, and how do I understand my actions and also relate them to what
other choose to do? I am sending these two messages because the last similar message I
sent, about informing oneself in order to become an effective advocate of change, yielded
a very unexpected but also very huge call for more material that spoke in a similar voice.
I hope these two follow-up messages will be useful and that you will not find them an
imposition. And I hope you will stay in touch with ZNet and its Kosovo pages for more
analytic and in-depth historical material as well. First, then, to really put ourselves in
touch with the world as it is and the responsibility we thus shoulder:
Suppose a hypothetical god got tired of what we humans do to one
another and decided that from January 1, 1999 onward all corpses unnaturally created
anywhere in the "free world" would cease to decompose. Anyone dying for want of
food or medicine, anyone hung or garroted to death, shot or beaten to death, raped or
bombed to death, anyone dying unjustly and inhumanely would, as a corpse, persist without
decomposing. And the permanent corpse would then automatically enter a glass-walled cattle
car attached to an ethereal train traveling monotonously across the U.S., state by state,
One by one the corpses would be loaded onto the cattle cars and
after every thousand corpses piled in a new car would hitch up and begin filling too. Mile
after mile the killing train would roll along, each corpse viewed through its transparent
walls, 200 new corpses a minute, one new car every five minutes, day and night, without
By the end of 1999, on its first birthday, the first day of the new
millenium, the killing train would measure over 2,000 miles long. Traveling at 20 miles an
hour it would take about five days to pass any intersection. By the year 2000, assuming no
dramatic change in institutions and behavior, the train would stretch from coast to coast
about seven times. It would take about six weeks from the time its engine passed the
Statue of Liberty to when its caboose would go by. God still wondering when pitiful,
aspiring humanity would get the message.
Think how a young child sometimes points to a picture in a book or
magazine and asks for an explanation, "Tell me about a tree?" A car? A boat? Or
a train? A big train? The killing train?" Go ahead, answer that one.
If the ecologists are right that this planet is a single
super-organism, they are wrong that pollution, toxic waste, and other human-created
garbage is the most deadly virus attacking it. The killing train is worse.
Think about the pain that radiates from the Vietnam War monument
with its 50,000 names in Washington, D.C. Imagine the lost opportunity and lost love and
the network of negative influences that radiate from the unnecessary deaths enumerated on
that monument. Now think about the killing train stretching from coast to coast and back
and forth and back and forth and back and forth. Consider its impact, not only on those on
board, but on every person that any of those corpses ever loved or would have loved, fed
or would have fed, taught or would have taught.
Who rides the killing train? Citizens of the "Third
World," selling their organs for food, selling their babies to save their families,
suffering disappearances and starvation. They live in Brazil, Colombia, the Philippines,
Timor, Iraq, El Salvador, Turkey, and New York. They are headed for the killing train.
Every day. Millions.
Is this exaggerated? When 10 million children die yearly for lack of
basic medical aid that the U.S. could provide at almost no cost in countries whose
economies Exxon and the Bank of America have looted, what can you call it other than mass
murder? Bloated diseased bodies are victims of murder just as surely as bullet-riddled
bodies tossed into rivers by death squads. Denying medicine is no less criminal than
supplying torture racks and stealing resources.
Evolution has given humans the capacity to perceive, think, feel,
imagine. At a time of war—as now in the Balkans—if we get aroused to action we
begin to see the whole killing train as it persists day in and day out. When this happens,
what do we do about it. Become depressed? Cynical? Anguished? Cry? Daydream of Armageddon?
Daydream of justice? Hand out a leaflet?
Once we begin to see this macabre train, how do we face it? Part of
us says these crimes are so grotesque, so inhumane, that the perpetrators deserve to die,
now. A little tiny killing train for the killers and no more big killing train for
everyone else. An eye for a million eyes. What other step makes more sense? But, of
course, that’s not the way the world works. People give the orders, wield the axes,
withhold the food, pay the pitiful salaries, but institutions create the pressures that
mold these people. When an institutional cancer consumes the human patient, what kind of
surgeon can cut it all away? Is the weight of repression so intense it can never be
At first, becoming attuned to our country’s responsibility for the
corpses stacked behind transparent cattle-car walls makes handing out leaflets, or arguing
for peace with a co-worker, or urging a relative to think twice about paying taxes, or
going to a demonstration, or sitting in, or even doing civil disobedience seem
insignificant. But the fact is, these are the acts that the hypothetical God, tired of our
behavior, would be calling for if she were to actually parade the "free world’s"
corpses down our mainstreets in killing trains. These are the acts that can accumulate
into a firestorm of informed protest that then raises the cost of profiteering and
dominating so high that the institutions breeding such behavior start to buckle.
The fact is, "You lose, you lose, you lose, and then you
win." Every loss is part of the process that leads to transforming institutions so
that there can be no people as vile as Clinton or Milosevic. No more "Good
Germans" or "Good Americans," cremated Jews or decapitated peasants.
War in the Balkans is a horrendous crime against humanity for all
the reasons critics have expounded, but, ultimately, becase it rends like and justice to
no benefit to any constituency other than the Masters of War. It is an orchestrated
atrocity that mandates our militant, unswerving opposition. There should be no business as
usual until this war is ended.
But even after the Balkan War ends, the on-going U.S. war against
"free world" people destined to ride the killing train will, if it continues,
remain a tremendous crime against humanity. The killing train transcends the Balkans,
Turkey, Timor, Colombia and extends into the systemic denial of human fulfillment and
development, even to the point of starvation and death, all for profit and power.
Ultimately, so must our opposition transcend the current events. The killing
train—poverty, disease, starvation, death squads, and terror—stems from basic
institutions. These must become our lasting target.