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All Your Buried Corpses Now Begin to Speak

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To build on the earlier post, perhaps no intellectual has more to say about the present moment than James Baldwin. Raoul Peck, who directed I Am Not Your Negro:

Baldwin’s words are forceful and radical; he punctures the fantasy of white innocence and an infantile attitude toward reality. He understood that there is extraordinary capacity for denial in this country, even when confronted with evidence and logic. His was a deep knowledge of the white psyche, which he thought was marred with immaturity. In this, he unsparingly exposed America’s original sins. First, the genocide of Native Americans: “We’ve made a legend of a massacre,” he said, which is a narrative “designed to reassure us that no crime was committed” and propagated by Hollywood’s “cowboys and Indians” stories. Then, the haunting legacy of slavery: As he said in a famous 1968 interview on The Dick Cavett Show, “I can’t say it’s a Christian nation, that your brothers will never do that to you, because the record is too long and too bloody. That’s all we have done. All your buried corpses now begin to speak.”

Denial of these sins, he made clear, is a powerful regulatory societal force, as mirrored, for example, in the entertainment industry. He wrote: “The industry is compelled, given the way it is built, to present to the American people a self-perpetuating fantasy of American life. Their concept of entertainment is difficult to distinguish from the use of narcotics. To watch the TV screen for any length of time is to learn some really frightening things about the American sense of reality. We are cruelly trapped between what we would like to be and what we actually are.” Other institutions have similarly erased history.

Why can’t we understand, as Baldwin did and demonstrated throughout his life, that racism is not a sickness, nor a virus, but rather the ugly child of an economic system that produces inequalities and injustice? The history of racism is parallel to the history of capitalism. The law of the market, the battle for profit, the imbalance of power between those who have all and those who have nothing are part of the foundation of this macabre play. He spoke about this not-so-hidden infrastructure again and again: “What one does realize is that when you try to stand up and look the world in the face like you had a right to be here, you have attacked the entire power structure of the Western world.” And more pointedly: “I attest to this: The world is not white; it never was white, cannot be white. White is a metaphor for power, and that is simply a way of describing Chase Manhattan Bank.”

Today, major corporations and leading institutions of entertainment, sports, finance, the press, and academia seem to have discovered for the first time not only how wrong they have been, but also how blind, stubborn, and insensitive. When will Wall Street and the sacred stock market question their role in this? Any serious conversation about systemic racism would have to start there too—maybe even primarily so. And artificial fixes will not do. A complete turnabout is required; a total reframing of rules and practices must take place, and substantial allocation of resources must come with it. The sociologist Kenneth T. Andrews wrote in 2017 about the need to “capitalize on the energy and urgency of the moment … and look to build a movement that generates new sources of cultural, disruptive and organizational power.” Today, a younger generation is in the streets. As Baldwin reminds us, we forget how young the actors of his time were.

What I would add to Peck here is that it isn’t just leading institutions and corporations that seem to have discovered how blind, stubborn, and insensitive they have been. It’s that everyday whites–very much including white liberals–need to understand that they too have been blind, stubborn, and insensitive. Or as Peck puts it:

Baldwin has been right this whole time. There is nothing to add or to subtract. It’s up to you now to act upon it.

Indeed. What will you do to fight the racism inside of you? Voting for Democrats is not an answer.

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