In August 1908, an enraged crowd of white men and women, numbering in the high thousands, packed the streets outside a jailhouse on North 77th in Springfield, Illinois. They demanded that two black inmates, Joe James and George Richardson, be released to them for mob justice. James had been arrested for the alleged murder of local engineer Clergy Ballard, a white man, and Richardson for the alleged rape of Mabel Hallam, a white woman. Unknown to the crowd was the fact that Sheriff Charles Werner had already transferred the men to another jail 64 miles away with the help of Harry Loper, a local white restaurant owner. When the mob found out, they destroyed Loper’s restaurant and proceeded to riot across black neighbourhoods. Dozens of homes and businesses were set ablaze, and by the time the embers cooled, there were seven bodies to be buried. Five of them were white: one was crushed underfoot in the basement of Loper’s restaurant, and at least two others were shot by black residents defending their homes from the invaders.
William English Walling documented the riot in the September 3rd issue of The Independent. Walling was a white labour activist whose family, just a generation removed, once owned slaves. When he spoke with white residents of Springfield, their grievance towards black residents was not only for the alleged crimes of two men, but also for the audacity of the city’s negroes, who seemed to consider themselves on equal footing with whites. Of the rioters’ motives, Walling wrote, “'Why, the niggers came to think they were as good as we are!’ was the final justification offered not once, but a dozen times." Despite his family’s background, and his own racial hang-ups (he would later refer to a swimming trip with W.E.B. Du Bois as “swimming with a monkey,”) Walling was a staunch socialist who deeply believed in the need for a coalition centered on the representation and defense of America’s black communities. He ended his article with a call to action for his readers, lest America be dragged into another Civil War: “Yet who realizes the seriousness of the situation, and what large and powerful body of citizens is ready to come to their aid?”
A white woman in New York City named Mary White Ovington put down her copy of The Independent and set out to meet Walling in person. Along with Jewish social worker Dr. Henry Moskowitz, Ovington and Walling created a campaign to launch a national conference on black civil rights, scheduled for February 12, 1909: the centennial birthday of Abraham Lincoln. A broad range of long-time civil rights activists promptly responded to the call, including Du Bois and Ida B. Wells. This group of activists and social reformers went on to create the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP. The group, while not united in skin colour, was united in purpose:
To promote equality of rights and to eradicate caste or race prejudice among the citizens of the United States; to advance the interest of colored citizens; to secure for them impartial suffrage; and to increase their opportunities for securing justice in the courts, education for the children, employment according to their ability and complete equality before law.
It’s been 106 years since the NAACP was formed. Yet in North America, our predominantly white societies still tell us we must earn our humanity, and until such proof of merit can be provided, any manner of inhumane treatment we receive must be our own fault.
We’re still living in societies that rationalize why black people occupy a lower caste status, are still being disenfranchised, still struggle to receive justice. To be black in North America is to know that our skin negates our expectation of safety, and that any manner of white violence against our bodies will be isolated, explained, and often excused. To be black in North America is to speak out against that white violence done to our bodies, and brace for the retort that “black on black violence” is a more important conversation to have. It is to know that our identities—our art, music, food, and colourful vernacular, and even our skin and hair—only exist as unique until white folks come to snatch them from us, too.
This isn’t a failure on the part of black communities, but rather, a failure of white culture. As long as people of colour have been free to form communities, white supremacy has existed to remind us where we stand. And as long as white supremacy has resulted in violence against our bodies, white culture has existed to downplay the problem, instruct us on how to deal with it peaceably, and deny it exists at all. White culture tells us that white supremacy is a black problem.
Despite the appalling lack of diverse representation in our politics and business, and overrepresentation of people of colour in our penal system, Canada is especially susceptible to the myth that we have outgrown racism. Many will be quick to tell you that here, racism claims a much lower body count than it does down south. That myth has permitted white Canadians to look the other way while we’ve had to deal with the worst of them. A couple of years back, in Georgina, Ontario, a black teenager was beaten by his white classmates while others crowded around shouting, “Pound the nigger!” The assault happened in the same school where the Confederate flag waved so freely that complaints from black parents forced the local school board to ban it. It happened in the same city where Asian Canadians were being swarmed by white mobs and thrown off fishing docks with such regularity that the practice was given a name: nipper-tipping. But to hear white residents tell the story, all of this can be excused by the feeling that they are now minorities in their own country. I spoke about this story often with white friends at the time, and I can’t remember one conversation I had where someone didn’t pitch the refrain, “Well, at least we’re not as bad as the States.”
Back in April, a few days after cellphone footage was released showing North Charleston police officer Michael Slager murdering a black man named Walter Scott during a traffic stop, I met up for beers with a friend whom I’ll call “Jason.” After Jason had spoken out on social media against Toronto police’s carding policy, his white friends began to flood his Facebook wall with videos and comments every time another dead black person became the center of the news cycle. They wanted to know his thoughts, whether he was as outraged as they were, and what should be done to stop this rash of violence against black bodies. When the YouTube footage of Scott’s execution reached his wall, Jason had enough and temporarily deactivated his profile.
As long as people of colour have been free to form communities, white supremacy has existed to remind us where we stand. And as long as white supremacy has resulted in violence against our bodies, white culture has existed to downplay the problem, instruct us on how to deal with it peaceably, and deny it exists at all.
The evening we met, I noticed the new creases between his brows, and on the corners of his lips. When I asked if he’d been sleeping well, he responded, “You know deep down they don’t care. I thought I knew my friends.” I said I didn’t follow. He picked up his beer, took a deep drink, and sighed. “To them, we’re nothing but videos to share on Facebook and hashtags to boost on Twitter. Then when they put their phones back in their pockets, and go on about their lives, they feel like they’ve done something that matters. And after people are done talking about this guy getting shot, or that guy getting choked out on the street, we’re still the ones carrying this weight.”
I carried this conversation with me the day I recorded the June 23rd episode of my podcast, Canadaland Commons. In the final segment of the podcast, I discussed the massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church, the hate-motivated shooting spree in Charleston, South Carolina, with guests Supriya Dwivedi and Ishmael N. Daro. In the final edit of the podcast, the conversation seems to carry on smoothly, but the recording session was brutal. There were moments when, overwhelmed by thoughts of Jason and the many others who’ve been beaten down by the never-ending torrent of white violence on black bodies, I had to stop recording. If one were to listen closely around the 21st- and 23rd-minute, one might notice a few pauses where I had to stop myself from breaking down into tears.
After the episode was released, I received e-mails, tweets, and direct messages from people who took exception to my use of the word “terrorism” to describe the shooting. One e-mail in particular stands out to me. The writer suggested my comprehension of terrorism needed correcting, and chalked it up to my confusing the term with “mass murder,” as though it were more accurate (or even distinct) to call the shooter, Dylann Roof, a “racist mass murderer,” and not a terrorist. “I just point this out,” explained the writer, “because I find identity politics very interesting…I couldn’t help but perceive a line of inquiry framed through the inquirer’s identity rather than a dispassionate frame of reference (as would be appropriate for an unbiased show on politics, lest [sic] you be grouped in with people like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, etc).” In other words, speaking on the violence against black bodies through the lens of my black identity lessened my credibility. The writer concluded, in the voice of Yoda, “Perhaps to a painted nail, like a white hammer everything looks.”
Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Compromise speech, in which he encouraged black Americans to “Cast down your bucket where you are,” held that white racism wouldn’t be overcome with resistance or political representation, but through industriousness and community-building. Marcus Garvey preached the virtues of pan-Africanism, tirelessly working to unite the diaspora and find common roots in our homeland. To some extent, every black leader whose face adorns bedroom posters and living room portraits has challenged brothers and sisters to navigate white supremacy through black solidarity and self-improvement. This is how organizations like the Black Business Professionals Association, the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers, and the Canadian Association of Urban Financial Professionals are founded—through a desire to ingrain ourselves in high places, and keep the door propped open for future generations.
The problem with this approach is that it assumes the structure of white supremacy has either limits or a conscience, or that it can be mitigated through black respectability and collective ethic. Henry Louis Gates’ Cambridge credentials and Harvard tenure didn’t stop his white neighbour calling the police and having him marched out in handcuffs when he spent too much time fiddling with the broken lock on his front door. It didn’t stop my best friend, dressed like a cover model for a men’s magazine, from being called a nigger and spat on for the crime of walking down Toronto’s College Street with a white woman.
Self-improvement cannot save us. No matter how hard we work to eradicate it, the flames of racism still lick around our heels. If every black man and woman left the welfare rolls to enter the workforce, we would be branded with the stigma of hiring quotas and under-qualification. If we amassed capital for the purpose of vacating every square foot of subsidized housing and buying our own homes, banks and private lenders would do as they always have—waste no effort in separating us from that capital. If we pulled every teenager off the street and mentored them into college-worthy students, their white peers would assume their own opportunities had been stolen.
The failure of white culture is a failure to look inward, and I suspect it’s because white people would be frightened or ashamed at what they see. James Baldwin examined this failure more than 50 years ago in his blistering “Down at the Cross” essay, published in his book The Fire Next Time. His outlook was no less cynical:
[There] is certainly little enough in the white man’s public or private life that one should desire to imitate. White men, at the bottom of their hearts, know this. Therefore, a vast amount of the energy that goes into what we call the Negro problem is produced by the white man’s profound desire not to be judged by those who are not white, not to be seen as he is, and at the same time a vast amount of the white anguish is rooted in the white man’s equally profound need to be seen as he is, to be released from the tyranny of his mirror.
We’ve seen how disastrous the legacy of that unmet need has been for black North America. The legacy to which both the Red Summer and the razing of Africville belong. The legacy produced by the bombing of Osage Avenue, the redlining of neighbourhoods, and by racially selective immigration policy. Ending that legacy would require white people to examine how collective wealth accrued since World War II created its middle class, and why generational black wealth has been all but nonexistent. It would require confronting that legacy wherever it lives.
Recently, I spoke at a panel discussion on racism and policing for an organization called JAYU, which engages marginalized communities through art and public dialogue. When asked about my experience discussing black issues, I told the audience, “White allies, y’all are fucking up.” The room got quiet. “Every time your uncle makes a racist comment at the Thanksgiving dinner table, or your co-worker complains about affirmative action, or your friend thinks it’s funny to make ironically racist jokes, and it’s too uncomfortable for you to confront it, you are making your community’s racism our problem to deal with.”
In every white social circle, you will find a Dylann Roof. They’re someone’s wayward younger brother, or cousin with the anger issues, or classmate, or someone’s co-worker’s kid who posts those troubling Facebook updates. Dylann Roof’s family and friends knew he had a grudge against black people. Roof’s father knew he owned a firearm, because his father was the one to come up out of pocket for it. Dylann Roof’s roommate knew he was planning to harm black people, because he had been talking about it for months. Everyone who could have prevented Dylann Roof from robbing the earth of nine black souls chose to do nothing. That aversion to looking in the mirror, that desire to avoid personal friction, came at the cost of our lives.
In the wake of the Emanuel AME church massacre, the most fatal case of anti-black terrorism in nearly a century, we saw how the white political and media class spared no effort to avoid being judged. The very night of the shooting, an assembly of Charleston’s black community leaders spoke with the press, describing themselves as “angry” and “tired” of racial violence. In response to that, a local reporter asked them what the community itself could do to prevent it, and whether those leaders could speak some sense into a culture that abhors “snitching.” On the matter of shooter Dylann Roof’s motivation, Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul proposed that “lack of salvation” was the cause of the violence, rather than blatant racism. FBI director James Comey dismissed the idea that Roof’s murderous act and hate-filled manifesto qualified as terrorism, despite fitting neatly into the definition outlined by the U.S. State Department. And on Meet the Press, Chuck Todd decided to tackle the “colour-blind” issue of gun violence by featuring interviews with Sing Sing prison inmates jailed for gun-related crimes. All of the inmates interviewed were black.
“To them, we’re nothing but videos to share on Facebook and hashtags to boost on Twitter. Then when they put their phones back in their pockets, and go on about their lives, they feel like they’ve done something that matters. And after people are done talking about this guy getting shot, or that guy getting choked out on the street, we’re still the ones carrying this weight.”
This refusal to confront the sins of white supremacy doesn’t just stop at deflection and denial. Black people are not only required to withstand the worst of white North America, but to assume blame for provoking it. We saw that in the media reaction to Officer Eric Casebolt’s bizarre and over-the-top arrival at a pool in McKinney, Texas. After seeing the video of this man barrel-rolling through suburban lawns, handcuffing black teenagers without provocation, and whipping Dajerria Becton around by her hair before kneeling on her bikini-clad body with all of his considerable weight, we were expected to disbelieve our lying eyes. We were expected to believe that the incident was not racially motivated, even though it was sparked by a white woman shouting slurs at black teenagers. We were expected to believe drawing a service weapon on black teenagers is a logical response to them mouthing off. We were expected to have some sympathy for a grown white man slamming a young black girl into the dirt and kneeling on her back because she was no saint, either.
A few months ago, my friend Desmond Cole told me about a conversation he had with a couple of white reporters for the now-defunct SUN News in Toronto. They chatted briefly in the green room before going on air to discuss whoever was, at the time, the latest unarmed black man killed by police—there are so many names on that list that Desmond couldn’t even remember which one they were discussing. “Why,” one of the white men asked, “do we always talk about this when it’s whites killing blacks, but never talk about black-on-black crime?” Desmond, ever the embodiment of patience, let him continue: “Is there something to black culture that makes people more prone to acts of violence?”
Desmond’s response was far more sensible than I could have managed. “It’s interesting you seem to know so much about what’s wrong with black culture, given you’re not black yourself. Can you tell me something about what’s wrong with white culture?” He proceeded to ask why relationships between white societies and people of colour have consistently produced acts of violence ranging from systemic racism to outright genocide. The two men were stunned, unsure how to proceed with the conversation. They were then called into the studio, where they settled into the routine discussion of another black man being gunned down by another white police officer.
Expecting black people to do more work to end racism is, in itself, an act of oppression. If white audiences can watch the evening news and not come away with the impression that black people are living in a state of terror, we cannot sacrifice any more bodies to convince them. We cannot grant white North America compassion if, after learning a young man is gunned down by police in Brampton, the only story told is of his criminal past. We cannot grant white humanity to North America if, when we literally plead for our lives by chanting “Black Lives Matter,” the reply is that “All Lives Matter.” We’ve borne the burden of white apathy, self-delusion, and hatred for far too long. It is time for white North America to begin carrying its own weight and holding its communities to account for the terrorist violence borne within—terrorism which we’ve become obligated to withstand and rise above. We need white North Americans to risk hurting the feelings of others close to them, and hurting their own feelings as well. We need white North America to stop making excuses; to do the uncomfortable work of calling racism what it is, and confronting it head on.
The message now is that white comfort is worth more than black lives. This has to change.
William English Walling was not stopped by the spectre of identity politics. He did not dispassionately report both sides of the story on the Springfield riots, and neither did Mary Ovington White fold up her magazine and shake her head at what the world was coming to. The work they put in confronting white supremacy helped to create the modern day civil rights movement. Right now, we are in the midst of another movement, and there is no neutral place on the sidelines. Who will answer the call and come to our aid?