In Charlottesville, VA this weekend, American citizens marched. Some carried Confederate Flags (which I’ve discussed before, and which these proud White Supremacists definitely intended the way the Confederacy did). Some chanted white power slogans. Some carried Nazi symbols. Many chanted Nazi slogans like “Blood and Soil” or more generically racist and anti-Semitic slogans like “Jews will not replace us.”
In response to this display, a large portion of our country has come out to condemn these White Supremacists and Neo-Nazis. Many (I would personally hope most) Americans were/are horrified at people marching with Nazi Symbols and chanting Nazi slogans. Others, however, discussed problems “on many sides,” bringing up movements like Black Lives Matters and drawing equivalencies between them and those who marched at Charlottesville. In addition to some truly vile claims being made (which condemn themselves), I also came across the following meme:
Now, let me first say that the ending message the image’s creator intended is a good one. Peace is a good thing. Love is a good thing. But the conclusion is built on a flawed premise that equates “White Power” and “Black Power” and if we accept that flawed premise, we can never reach that goal of societal peace on this issue.
The context of each term is vastly different, therefore so is the meaning
First of all, let’s address the overt claim there. I’m exceedingly white and cries of “Black Power” doesn’t scare me in the slightest. On the other hand, cries of “White Power” terrifies me. The context of each is the reason why.
“Black Power” is the cry of a historically *and* presently oppressed demographic attempting to reclaim something unjustly taken from them. There are those who dismiss claims of racial injustice against black people by saying “It was in the past” or “I personally didn’t do it.” Such claims are intended to absolve us of any responsible to address the issue by acknowledging the historical injustice but also separating us from it.
To address the latter: I don’t need to have personally committed an injustice to recognize the harm it has caused. I don’t need to have personally caused a harm to want to help heal it. It’s my opinion that when justice is denied to one, it’s denied to all. If you disagree and only think you have a responsibility to others when you’ve personally wronged them, that’s your right. All I can say is that I disagree to the point where we have fundamentally opposed world views, but I don’t know how to explain to you that you should care about other people.
To the former dismissal, that racial injustice was in the past, I’ll say this:
Racial injustice isn’t just “in the past”
There are citizens still alive who were prevented from voting in their country’s elections based on their race – the Voting Rights Act was only 52 years ago. There are citizens who were prevented from full marriage rights due to their race – Loving v. Virginia was 50 years ago. There are citizens still alive who were prevented from accessing public educational equality – Brown v. Board was 63 years ago. Those people are very much alive in the present.
Moreover, they were prevented from that not only by social convention but by the explicit laws of our nation. The entire apparatus of governmental authority and power not only said “yes, that inequality is acceptable” it said “not only is it acceptable, we will use our power – power granted to us by ‘The People’ – to perpetuate that inequality.” They had their power taken away from them, not by a few evil people, but by the entirety of of American society (whether by intent or complicity). “Black Power” is a cry to reclaim it.
It is not “in the past” for those people and, more importantly, it’s not “in the past” for others because our society has never taken steps to address those injustices.
The significance of Restorative Justice (and the wound done by its absence)
So much of the injustice of the past continues into the present because while we may have addressed the cause of the injury, we failed to heal the harm. For more than two centuries, the laws of our ancestors reduced people to property. We (i.e., our nation) deprived people of their freedoms. We denied their essential humanity.
When we finally ended one of history’s most egregious crimes, we followed it with the failure of Reconstruction. Instead, our nation ushered in the Jim Crow era and our nation’s laws once again denied citizens their basic equality. Decades passed that only compounded the harms done.
And while Jim Crow laws are no longer on the books, we’ve traded de jure discrimination for de facto discrimination. Today, many areas are re-segregating, and can actually be *more* divided in some areas than during Jim Crow. A school district in Mississippi was found to be violating Brown v. Board *last year*. The wounds of our past fester because we have not deliberately worked to heal them.
The context of “White Power”
As I mentioned above, cries of “White Power” terrify me. “White Power” is the cry of an ideology based on the dehumanization of others. It is an ideology based on the idea that not all people are equal, that God or nature has created some to be inferior. It is the cry of rank and vulgar oppression lamenting the loss of its once total control. It is a relic of an inherently and deeply unjust society.
In a twitter thread that has since gone viral, a user discusses what “oppression” for white men in America. The thread is worth a read, but two statements stand out to me: “THIS is ‘white people’ oppression: We used to be the only voice. Now we hold the only microphone” and “THIS is ‘white man’ oppression: We face criticism now. We were free from it, because others feared the consequences”
I can understand how someone can feel white men in America are oppressed, either through individual experience or relative perceptions (i.e., the adage “To the privileged, equality can feel like oppression”). However, that’s just not the case. White male voices are the dominant voices in essentially every influential arena in society. The government, business, media – white, male voices dominate.
And it’s that vastly different context that makes “White Power” so different than “Black Power.” “White Power” isn’t an appeal to equality – it’s explicitly based on the inferiority of another. It isn’t an appeal to justice – it explicitly hearkens to unjust ideologies held by unjust societies (the Confederacy, Nazi Germany). It’s not a call for healing – it’s a demand for sustaining the cause of harm.
As I said above, I agree that peace and love and unity should be our goal. That meme’s creator likely has laudable goals in mind. However, the world view reflected by that image (and others like it) denies the context in which those terms (and our society exists). Because of that, looking at those two slogans and seeing them as the same is therefore sustaining (however unintentionally) an injustice.
Unity and peace are high goals. But there cannot be true unity without love. There cannot be genuine love while denying the fundamental equality of another. And there cannot be real peace while injustice survives.