Author and activist James Baldwin posed the question in the award-winning 2017 documentary “I am Not Your Negro”: “what white people have to do is try and find out in their own hearts why it is necessary to have a (n-word) in the first place because I am not a (n-word). I’m a man, but if you think I’m a (n-word), it means you need it.”
Baldwin, who died in 1987, uttered these word during a 1963 PBS interview. To him, the locus of work in resolving so-called issues of race was clear. This social construct remains a manifestation of the white psyche that only white America can resolve – and while a majority of them luxuriate in denial, Black people are dying.
Judging from the nearly majority white crowds protesting the horrific suffocation death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, Baldwin’s sentiment may finally have gained traction.
“For a very long time America prospered,” Baldwin said. “This prosperity cost millions of people their lives. Now, not even those who are the most spectacular beneficiaries of this prosperity are able to endure these benefits. They can neither enjoy, nor do without these benefits. Above all, imagine the price paid the victims or subjects for this way of life and so they cannot afford to know why the victims are revolting.”
Baldwin says elsewhere in the film that white people simply, “don’t know what’s on the other side of the wall because you don’t want to know.” America still routinely presses Black citizens to solve problems not of their making. Astonishingly, we embrace this impossible task.
We practiced “uplift suasion” – the belief, examined at length by Ibram X. Kendi in “Stamped from the Beginning,” that if African Americans could just make themselves upstanding enough, if we just pronounced our consonants more crisply, maybe white people would see our humanity and the terror would stop.
We led and staffed vacuous corporate diversity committees never actually intended to produce meaningful change.
We marched, legislated and sued.
Yet here the country remains, still asking what cooperative, unarmed Black Americans can do to persuade white police officers to stop shooting or suffocating us.
Some white people have encouraged fellow whites to face their racial responsibilities, from Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal in the 1940s to schoolteacher Jane Elliott in the 1960s-70s to writer and activist Tim Wise today.
Wide swaths of our nation remain in denial. Most Americans don’t recognize race as an organizing principle for our society.
Black Americans didn’t erect these constructs; white people did. Now’s the time for broad white introspection. Corporate, Christian and governmental.
Baldwin once rhetorically asked white people in a television interview, “You always told me that it’s going to take time. It’s taken my father’s time, my mother’s time, my uncle’s time, my brothers’ and my sisters’ time. How much time do you want for your progress?”
Social scientists have studied Black people – from Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” to fears of young “super predators” that proved baseless – for decades.
Shouldn’t the folks who designed this system get equal scrutiny?
A version of this article appears in the Summer 2020 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.
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