If you write and speak about racism and racial inequity, as I have for nearly thirty years, you get accustomed to certain questions and challenges from readers and those in your audiences. Some are hostile, others rooted in curiosity and open-mindedness (even on the part of those who profoundly disagree with what you’ve said or written), while others betray a desperation for answers, solutions, and some sense of hope that things will get better.
Of these, the last types are the hardest to which I am forced to respond.
First, because I haven’t the answers or solutions.
Racial injustice has been a long time developing, and the idea that a middle-aged white man has found the holy grail needed to deconstruct it, even after the same has eluded people of color — those most invested in its discovery — would be enraging were it not so absurd.
Second, these kinds of queries prove frustrating because they portend an abdication of agency on the part of the questioner. Though I suspect their intentions are good, by pleading for answers or hope, they consign themselves to passively receiving revelations from others, rather than discovering them, along with those others, in community.
This is among the reasons I have always felt a certain uneasiness about the very notion of hope in hard times. Despite the inspiration provided by those who managed to retain an ample supply of it during even the most dismal moments of enslavement and segregation, I have often wondered whether hope was really worth the claims often made for it by those who so readily tout its virtues.
At best, calls to “keep hope alive” or to believe in the prospects for “hope and change,” have often seemed the political equivalent of those “Successory” posters one can buy at the mall, with aphorisms like “There is no I in Team,” or “Believe in yourself.” At worst, they have felt as paeans to magical thinking as a strategy for social action.
This is not to say that I am cynical about the prospects for positive change and a more just world. Rather, it is to suggest that my ability to maintain a sunny disposition about the likelihood of either, absent something greater than wishfulness itself, has long been limited.
After all, in every instance where the marginalized have fought back against the forces of injustice, it was not hope that carried them to victory (however incomplete), but committed action. It was struggle, unceasing and relentless that made the difference.
Functionally, hope is a noun, however much it may seem imbued with a kind of verb-ish quality; but struggle is verb-like from beginning to end. The first floats in a somewhat abstract ether, above and thus beyond the grasp of true human influence, while the latter resides firmly on the ground, feet planted in the soil of choices all can make, if only we possess the will.
To illustrate the point: My oldest daughter is seventeen, and despite being an excellent driver, whenever she gets behind the wheel I find myself taking a deep breath. All I can do when she leaves the house is hope that she comes home safely because I have no control over the outcome. Hope in this instance is my only option, and its sole purpose — not unlike the purpose of saying a prayer at that moment — is to calm me. Neither my hope nor prayer will be the reason why she returns safely; and likewise, were she to have an accident of some sort, it would not be because my hope or prayers for an opposite and more salutary outcome had been insufficient.
On the other hand, and to use an example pertinent to the current moment, were my family from south of the United States border, facing violence and destitution in Mexico or Central America, for instance, I would not find much value in hoping for a better life north of that same line. Rather, I would do whatever it took to try and provide that better life. And if that meant breaking the laws of the United States to do it, then that is what I would do.
It is what most anyone would do.
It is what, I dare say, everyone who castigates such persons for making that decision would do, were they faced with the choice.
Indeed, if the nations of Europe whence white folks come had been contiguous to this country, there is little doubt that virtually all of our ancestors would have resolved to cross that border, even had the laws sought to stop them. Hoping for opportunity, freedom, and life itself is not enough. Opportunity, liberty, and life are human rights that cannot and should not be wished for, prayed for or begged for as scraps from someone else’s table, but demanded as if they are owed to us all because they are.
Oppressors never hope for the continuation and extension of their power; they act to ensure it. They organize collectively for their perceived interests, knowing that hope is at best a tease, and at worst an assassin of all they cherish, unless they act to manifest their desires. They may offer up entreaties to their God on Sunday, but come Monday they’re operating from a much more deliberative playbook.
Of course, I understand the impulse to hold on to hope as a commodity, even long after its value has cratered in the market. James Baldwin tried to do this all of his life, and nowhere more poignantly than in a 1963 interview with the brilliant psychologist Kenneth Clark.
Asked by Clark (around the 5:15 mark in the above clip) if he were optimistic or pessimistic about the future of America, Baldwin replied:
I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive, and to be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter, so I’m forced to be an optimist. I’m forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive.
It was a beautiful sentiment. Yet, when you watch the clip in which he says it, the thing you can easily miss — especially if you remain invested in the hope for which Baldwin seems grasping — is that there is nothing in his tone, inflection or facial expression to suggest that he really believes what he’s saying.
Though he was speaking most proximately to Clark — another black man like himself — Baldwin surely knew the white gaze would fix upon his words, that more than his own brothers and sisters would hear his answer to the question put to him. And so he claimed a kind of hope that his visage betrayed as counterfeit, perhaps because even amid his skepticism he knew that whites had so long marinated in the notion of American exceptionalism that staring into the face of its limitations would be too much. It’s worth remembering, after all, that this is the same James Baldwin who had famously noted four years earlier, that “Black people still do not, by and large, tell white people the truth, and white people still do not want to hear it.”
In his comments to Clark, he was writing a check with his words that his body language could not cash. And sure enough, five years later, following the assassination of Dr. King, Baldwin despaired of any false optimism, instead noting that he had lost all faith in the ability of America (and by this, he almost always meant white America) to act on the basis of morality.
He had not lost all hope in the ability of change itself but had permanently burned away all illusion as to the chances that such changes might flow from a font of national goodwill. Discussing white Americans in an interview with Esquire, published that summer, he explained:
…not many black people in this country can afford to believe any longer a word you say. I don’t believe in the morality of this people at all. I don’t believe you do the right thing because you think it’s the right thing. I think you may be forced to do it because it will be the expedient thing. Which is good enough.
Good enough indeed.
Put simply, those who believe in freedom and justice and democracy and equity must be prepared to act on behalf of all four. We must be prepared to struggle, even when hope is scant or altogether irrational. We must fight not because we hope for victory or even remotely expect it, but because without the effort all four will surely perish. Fighting may not work, but its opposite certainly will, in ways quite pleasing to those who would maintain the status quo.
As Austin Channing Brown notes in her new book, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness:
In order for me to stay in this work, hope must die…I cannot hope in white institutions or white America; I cannot hope in lawmakers or politicians. I cannot hope in misquoted wisdom from MLK, superficial ethnic heritage celebrations or love that is aloof. I cannot even hope in myself. I am no one’s savior.
Rather, she notes, it is better to embrace the “shadow of hope…working in the dark, not knowing if anything I do will ever make a difference.”
Such a mentality must seem horrifyingly foreign to many white folks. Those who have long enjoyed institutional privileges — none more important than the privilege of believing in one’s own efficacy — cannot help but be perplexed or even angered by the suggestion that there is something we might not be able to accomplish.
Whiteness has, for so long, meant capacity and potency that anyone claiming there might be things that reside outside the grasp of the determined will must appear as a killjoy at best, a lunatic at worst. Even those white liberals — perhaps especially them! — who can at least begin to see the weightiness of white supremacy often fall victim to this naivete: a false optimism that demands the permanence of hope no matter the evidence.
It’s why so many whites — but frankly a scant few black folks — were upset by the proposition of legal scholar Derrick Bell in his classic work Faces at the Bottom of the Well, wherein he noted with confidence that white racism was likely a permanent condition of life in America, never to be entirely undone. By saying this, Bell was turning his back on the prospects for justice, they cried. How dare he, was the subtext.
For conservatives, he was a reverse racist for suggesting white America was, in some sense, incapable of fully embracing anything approaching racial equanimity. For liberals, he was a grizzled and cynical pessimist who had relinquished the light of freedom and for all intent and purposes was pissing on the legacy of the struggle.
But for most black folks, he had merely told the truth, however messy and unpleasant its ring.
I remember reading his words in Faces and feeling liberated. Challenged? Yes, for I too as a white man had been led to believe I could do literally anything if I put my mind to it, and this is a dream that dies hard in a nation that has so long relied upon its acceptance as a virtual precondition of club membership. So to tell me that perhaps the work in which I was even then engaged might prove inadequate was a hard pill to swallow.
But once I swallowed it, I was free.
Free to no longer obsess about my own role in bringing about a new and better world — an obsession that is frankly unhealthy and narcissistic — and free to act on the basis of moral principles without having to measure the value of those principles with a yardstick crafted by others, most of whom have no allegiance to the same.
Because even if I knew for a fact that justice would prove elusive, would that release me (or any of us) from the obligation to fight for it anyway? Of course not. Injustice is worthy of opposition because it is unjust, not because it is beatable.
What was liberating about Bell’s skeptical understanding of this nation was that it called us to choose resistance, to opt for rebellion, to act for change less for the ultimate payoff than the fact that, as he often put it, “there is redemption in struggle.”
And it is not merely an abstract redemption, but one that allows us to remain in the fight longer, and healthier, thereby actually enhancing the likelihood of attaining victory. After all, when you fight for your own redemption, you haven’t the luxury of burnout because you see that your very life is at stake, whereas fighting with an eye towards some far-off finish line makes the struggle a source of perpetual frustration and unfulfilled promises, from which one can much more easily walk away.
Ultimately, the notion that there is redemption in struggle is a more poetic way of saying that life is short, and even shorter is the time one has to consciously sort out its meaning, and justify one’s presence here. One could do worse, I suppose, than to conclude that perhaps the meaning of life is to embrace the challenge of struggling for a fuller and more just existence, and to then join that struggle.
This freedom, of fighting for justice on its own terms and for its own sake, was something about which I had begun to think a few years before I read Bell actually.
In 1988, the anti-apartheid organization I had co-founded at Tulane University managed to convince South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu to reject the school’s offer of an honorary degree, due to our ongoing investments in companies that were bolstering white minority rule there.
Although Tutu’s boycott made international news, it didn’t suffice to force the college to divest from apartheid-complicit firms. But just as those of us in the movement were doubting ourselves, despairing of our failure to obtain the goal for which we had been fighting, the Archbishop wrote to me. It was a simple, one paragraph note, the key sentence of which read:
You do not do the things you do because others will necessarily join you in the doing of them, nor because they will ultimately prove successful. You do the things you do because the things you are doing are right.
So now, as the president splits families at the border and threatens to deny them due process in violation of the Constitution; as he and his congressional minions unravel any movement towards affordable health care; as he soft-pedals the rise of overt white nationalist and neo-Nazi hatred, and stands poised to appoint a supreme court justice whose votes could roll back civil rights protections and women’s reproductive freedom for generations to come, let us do whatever we must to resist.
Let us struggle as if our lives depend on it because indeed they do.
Let us, in Baldwin’s terms “earn our deaths,” however many years hence they may come, by confronting with passion the conundrum of life and insisting that our time here will be well-lived and that we will stand for something greater than our solitary selves.
And if we are to lose, let it at least be said that we did not go quietly.