“And every day on evening news they feed you fear for free
And you so numb you watch the cops choke out a man like me
And ’til my voice goes from a shriek to whisper, ‘I can’t breathe’
And you sit there in the house on couch and watch it on TV
The most you give’s a Twitter rant and call it a tragedy
But truly the travesty, you’ve been robbed of your empathy
Replaced it with apathy, I wish I could magically
Fast forward the future so then you can face it
And see how fucked up it’ll be”
— Killer Mike, “walking in the snow,” RTJ4
There are two opposite, but equally toxic reactions a white person can have to racism — white victimhood and white guilt — both of which confront racism through interpersonal behaviors instead of its systemic causes. I say this, not as someone who believes they possess any sort of god-tier wokeness, but as a run-of-the-mill white guy who understands that an injustice against one is an injustice against all. These days, Jordan Peele’s Us carries a more acute resonance: In a parallel universe where the guns, germs, and steel were pointed in another direction, any one of us could’ve been tossed into the dark underworld of the American nightmare and wound up as George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or any of the other countless black lives needlessly snuffed in senseless brutality. Concepts like privilege and microaggressions can be boiled down to exercising basic empathy and self-awareness, but white victimhood and white guilt are too consumed by its own feelings to ever fully recognize the consequences of its all-devouring destruction.
White victimhood is easy to mock because its defiant stupidity is little more than fudgy thundering and half-baked paraphrasings of reactionary cable news programming. It exists when Trump voters — some, I assume, are good people — refuse to ask themselves why his flagrant bigotry wasn’t a dealbreaker, yet nevertheless feel entitled to a moral pass they don’t deserve. It envelops into a Disneyworld fantasy where white Americans can evince their lack of prejudice by saying something like “all lives matter” or “I don’t see race,” namedropping Jay-Z or Barack Obama as exemplars of black excellence, invoking the 13% of the population commits 50% of the crime meme, or attributing “cultural differences” to racial disparities. It lashes out in giddy fury toward black athletes who kneel before the flag and in prickly indignation as hagiographic Confederate statues are torn from their perches, but will browbeat the “politically correct” for questioning whatever incoherent Trumpist revanchism is en vogue. White victimhood unwittingly, if not proactively, maintains the dreary and inevitable outcomes of our unspoken and unexamined political consensus: The job of the state is to sufficiently punish the right people.
White guilt, while seemingly more well-intentioned, can be just as parochial and insidious as white victimhood because it atones for its sins of privilege without any self-investment into an eternal struggle. It is the product of this ongoing conflict between anxiously aspiring to moral goodness and the complicity in a decadent and vicious civic order that’s far less interested in things like democracy and equality in practice than it was in theory. It is social justice through self-improvement: read White Fragility, be inspired by the “I Take Responsibility” celeb video, post a black square, use this hashtag, don’t use that hashtag. It is the protagonist of The Onion article “White Ally Willing To Do Whatever It Takes To Make Sure People Won’t Be Mad At Him.” White guilt is the flabby, ineffective response to white victimhood — all tact and no vision — one that reflexively accepts its job is to mitigate the state’s efficient execution of its own cruelties.
White Americans are taught to slot racism into this good/evil person binary, though these biases can mutate even in the absence of blunt maliciousness. The fact that Trump’s racism is still up for debate is indicative of its pernicious persistence — as if his Tulsa rally the day after Juneteenth isn’t blatant enough proof. Racism is nefarious because it can be propagated by well-meaning people who are acting out of the dogma inculcated within them by the very same system they exist in. White victimhood is incapable of understanding racism-by-outcome; it can only conceive of racism in its most cartoonishly evil displays, like Charlottesville, and anything short of this standard is smugly dismissed as a sort of liberal hypochondriac malaise. White guilt is incapable of grounding race in predatory capitalism; it can only conceive of racism as racist ideas fuelling racist policies.
In fact, as Ibram X. Kendi points out, racist policies breed racist ideas: When facile legalisms are draped over raw and racialized authoritarianism, it must be accompanied by sneering and barely coded euphemisms that target and demean certain tranches of Americans. The relationship between race and galloping wealth inequality grows more visceral and evident under this lense, as such actions enabling stark economic imbalances are almost always in service of naked self-interest. Politicians and economic elites back policies like tax cuts and tough-on-crime and Voter ID laws for personal profit and political expediency, then produce racist rationales to advance them; Americans mass-consume these ideologies until they’re convinced black people are superpredator welfare queens and Mexican immigrants are murdery rapists.
With this failure of perspective, white guilt values representation over transformation. This notion sweeps through public life like an engine of civil obliteration, the cringing calculation and vacuous abstraction of Democratic leaders kneeling silently in kente cloth before introducing wan and vague police reforms, the focus of the whirring lenses of an assembled media with a wonkish contempt for “the unrealistic” and a burbling concern over the least offensive way to describe and respond to rampant, racialized police violence and impunity. “The quest to transform this country cannot be limited to challenging its brutal police alone,” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes in The New Yorker. “It must conquer the logic that finances police and jails at the expense of public schools and hospitals.”
George Floyd’s death was more than a murder made in sociopathic indifference; it was a catastrophe visited upon him through psychic, structural, and institutional terror. This is an issue of democracy, as one cannot function without accountability and responsibility. Our nation’s founding documents contain beautiful rhetoric about equality and the pursuit of happiness, and thus outflowed an empire of liberty with large swaths of people excluded from that liberty. The Confederate Flag is paraded as a symbol of southern valor when it is a crystallization of white supremacy nearly shattering our fragile democracy. Jim Crow is described as “segregation” rather than American apartheid, a tense era marked by this country’s inability to extend full citizenship to its black populace. Overbearingly violent police advance daily through plumes of tear gas armed to the teeth, foot soldiers at domestic war with overwhelmingly peaceful public actions aimed at stopping this specific type of unchecked brutality. Meanwhile, the War on Drugs and the prison industrial complex incarcerate African-Americans with monstrous efficiency.
White guilt lends reflexive ease to hold Donald Trump and his most monomaniacal supporters in utter contempt, which only fetishizes them as this outsized and magical force when they are mere avatars of a long tradition of white supremacy and spiritual emptiness and moral vacuity. This Mad King exists on a continuum of mediocre white men in high places who convince us to scapegoat the most vulnerable instead of confronting the most powerful.
Posting “this isn’t who we are” in response to the rhythm of grisly sadism and grotesque atavism that pockmarks post-Recession America is as much a denial mechanism as the MAGA movement’s fixation on petty cultural grievances. America is less so a country than it is an ideal, an aspiration, a notion of freedom. Tremors of liberation and repression have zipped through this nation’s nerves since the Declaration of Independence birthed it, the Emancipation Proclamation resuscitated it, and the Civil Rights Act ushered in its coming-of-age. The same flag waves for Martin Luther King, Jr. and Donald Trump alike. We now bear witness to a simultaneous display of the best and worst of America: The protests mark a stand for bravery and integrity as dictatorial nonsense wafts from the puckered lips of a TV tyrant who brandishes the Bible like someone who thinks Jesus probably said, “the meek shall be tear-gassed.”
“[White people] are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity.”
I was raised in a vanilla Connecticut suburb with the pretty colonial houses and the manicured lawns and the expensive schools, where the biggest concerns lied in some subdued ambient anxiety that a Mexican family would move into the neighborhood and turn the local Panera Bread into a taqueria. In this environment, you’re sold on a myth called meritocracy, one where equal opportunity is available to all because everyone is judged strictly on their skills and accomplishments. This was taken as a given, without any appreciation of our wealthy white parents’ ability to buy us more merit (essentially making us privatized welfare recipients), perhaps in part because of the lasting impact of discriminatory housing policy and the average white family having $13 of wealth for every $1 of wealth held by a black family.
It took me over 20 years to “get it,” and I understand that even when you “get it,” you can never really grapple with the around-the-clock, underneath-the-skin experiences of your fellow humans. Which is fine, because this means we’re all continually in process, hopefully with a desire to keep growing, keep listening, and keep failing with grace.
Introspection in response to racism is a laudable and healthy instinct, Socratic even, but a holistic reflection on race extends beyond interpersonal behaviors; it begins with the self already tied to a reality created by everything that’s ever happened and the structures that contain us all. White Americans should ask ourselves what took so long to reckon with blithe police abuse and systemic oppression. These questions aren’t concerned with formulating the precisely correct analysis — I certainly don’t have a monopoly on Truth — it is a line of inquiry meant to guide you toward becoming a more caring, compassionate, and self-critical member of this democracy. This interrogation is often unsettling and painful, and it invites a cascade of despair and self-doubt beyond the point of madness, but you will emerge in due time with carbon monoxide expunged from your lungs and litter released from your heart. Ultimately, this creates a more perfect balance between personal and collective responsibility.
Every generation struggles with the question of what it means to be American; Ben Fountain argues this country arrives at a crisis point every 80 years or so in Beautiful Country Burn Again. We stand at a grim moment of rank uncertainty and biblical upheaval, and there isn’t a convincing argument that things couldn’t or shouldn’t change. This has been true for a long time but Trump’s indolent, erratic misrule and cheesy demagoguery — as well as the manifest incompetence in dealing with two society-imperiling crises — have pushed the long-repressed and denied shame of America’s reactionary impulses into the frame. The normies will deploy arid circumlocution to rationalize suffering and to herald some abstract, context-devoid notion of “pragmatism” in face of servile fascism eroding the GOP’s gilded bulwark and the Democrat’s impotent hedging. But as Dave Chapelle cracks in his 8:46 special: “The streets will speak for themselves … this is the last stronghold for civil discourse, because, after this shit, it’s just rat-a-tat-tatta-tat-tat-ta-tat-tat — TAT.”
Does America have what it takes to turn this around? It’s an open question. It depends on the kind of humans we choose to be, the kind of values we adopt, the kind of voices we raise, the kind of courage we exhibit. Dr. Cornel West distinguishes those who are a thermostat from those who are a thermometer: “a thermostat shapes the climate of opinion, a thermometer reflects it.” White guilt is useless at best and narcissistic at worst because we didn’t choose our race or our conditioning or our socio-economic positioning; we can only choose how we respond to the discordant tragedies that emerge from age-old bigotries and novel maladies. People of color don’t need white Americans to say sorry and profess our undying allyship and feel bad about ourselves — they need us to feel a sense of urgency and advocate for anti-racist policies.
Four-hundred years of racial strife and oppression won’t be fixed by a few weeks of protests and an Executive Order that kindly suggests cops use chokeholds a little less. America cannot be considered exceptional as long as it maintains a permanent underclass, whether that be racial or economic, and these ills can only be rectified through a generational commitment to justice and empathy. No one’s expecting you to lead the revolution or get a Ph.D. in African-American Studies, but you can start with reading some Toni Morrison or listening to John Coltrane or getting involved with local and congressional progressive politics or supporting black businesses or donating in support of communities of color. This will be a journey of unpacking your insecurities, unlearning and relearning our history, and humbling yourself until you understand this process isn’t about you but your contribution to a shared humanity. And this is how guilt transforms into a moral imperative.