The term “anti-black racism” seems to be gaining in popularity lately. Liberal and progressive pundits use the term with regularity when describing the remarkable frequency of officer-involved shootings of Black people, or the fact that one in thirteen African Americans have been stripped of their right to vote by felon disenfranchisement, a form of collateral punishment that has always disproportionately affected Black people.
By the way, in case you were wondering why felon disenfranchisement is listed among expressions of racism, these laws were first popularized in the U.S. in the late 1860s through the 1870s. This was the period leading up to and immediately following the ratification of the 15th amendment which prohibits denial of voting rights on the basis of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
The list of issues driven by anti-black animus is a long one. String them together – ID requirements and other barriers to voting, drug laws, Stand Your Ground, gentrification (aka resegregation), among many others – and it becomes pretty obvious that a special antipathy toward Black people seems to be driving the design and implementation of public policy.
Consider, for example, welfare reform. Until welfare became associated in the popular imagination with Black families, we weren’t so anxious to cut it. But introduce the notion of Blacks living on the dole and welfare took center stage in our politics, accused of being the foundation of a “culture of poverty” that was fostering laziness, cynicism, and dependency.
But, when it comes to public policy, criminal justice it the real litmus test of exclusion. After all, there is no more raw and direct demonstration of state power than our criminal justice system. So if you draw a line around whom these policies are primarily designed to “protect and serve,” you end up with a pretty good picture of who among us are most fully included as citizens, and who we have deemed the enemy.
So yeah, I get it. Using the term “anti-black racism” helps us to be specific; to avoid mushing together the various ways in which people of color are affected by racism so that the particular crisis of the Black community receives the urgent attention it deserves. In order to make #blacklivesmatter, we first have to establish that, to the powers that be and far too many of the rest of us, Black lives don’t matter, or at least not enough to keep a cop, security guard, or vigilante from killing a Black person every 28 hours, outside of the jurisdiction of our courts, and usually with impunity.
But, as important as it is to make all of these points, I also think it’s also important to make this one: anti-Black racism is just racism. By “just” I don’t mean to minimize, I mean to specify in order to keep us grounded in history. Outside of the bounds of history the whole idea of “racism” is too easily reduced to simple prejudice, a context in which anti-white, anti-black, anti-Asian, etc., are equals.
In the U.S., racism is rooted in white supremacy. American white supremacy is a political and economic system created to facilitate race slavery. And, race slavery was the system of trade and exploitation upon which our national independence depended, and that our founding documents and institutions were designed, in some fundamental and enduring ways, to protect.
Yes, we are also an Orientalist and xenophobic society. But, there would likely be no national interests around which xenophobia could cohere into the particularly American brand of pig-headed, fear-driven, violent national chauvinism we live with today if not for slavery.
And, yes, we are also a violent, even genocidal, settler society. No one can credibly argue that the murder, removal, and containment of Native Americans wasn’t (and isn’t) definitive of who we are as a nation. Contemporary justifications for these past atrocities provide part of the foundation for other unjust wars we are waging or aspire to wage around the world.
However, we could not have built the armies and capitalized the industries that removed Native Americans from their lands and turned those lands over to exploitation if not for slavery. That’s why, while we have committed great injustices in our wars with nations we deem hostile (including Native American nations) in order to protect and expand the wealth of our settler society, within the confines of the settler nation, the primary targets of racism have always been Black.
American history revolves around the story of the exploitation and exclusion of Black people. We live in denial of this reality at our own great peril. The exploitation of Black bodies and Black labor (and our justifications for Black unemployment), and fear and loathing of Black people is at the very heart of our politics, our economy, and our culture. Perhaps this is why when we resist injustice, we so often draw from the template of Black struggle.
Many of us are victimized by white supremacy. However, white supremacy rests on a color line drawn in black and white. If we want to free ourselves of racism and white privilege, we’ll need to situate ourselves on one or another side of that line.