Recently, I had the chance to re-watch Django Unchained: Quentin Tarantino’s slavery revenge film. And while I was reminded of the things I had liked about the movie — truthfully, what’s not to like about the killing of racist kidnappers? — it also made me remember one thing I hadn’t. It’s something that often bothers me whenever Hollywood portrays racists, like the slaveowner, Monsieur Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio.
Namely, as with other race-themed films, Django relies far too heavily on a portrayal of white racists as barely literate, as if their bigotry were simply the product of uneducated stupidity manifested by people with bad dentition.
While the temptation to render such despicable characters this way is understandable, it’s dangerous. By portraying every white person involved in the slave system as a veritable half-wit — especially the Francophile Candie (who can’t speak French but fancies himself cultured) — Tarantino risks trading on the cheap and easy chuckle at the expense of a more in-depth understanding.
The fact is, to suggest that persons with such hegemonic power were little more than illiterate hayseeds is to render the objects of their oppression embarrassingly pathetic by comparison. After all, how could such simpletons maintain the slave system unless those who were enslaved were especially lacking the intellectual wherewithal necessary to overthrow them?
Although Django ultimately engages in a one-man uprising to settle accounts, Candie’s question around the dinner table in one particular scene — “Why don’t they rise up and kill us?” — becomes especially troubling, given Tarantino’s rendering of those who are so bewildered by the question. Why indeed? It’s a question with no good answer, but many bad ones, once we accept that those charged with maintaining such a system were barely smart enough to string two sentences together. And all of those answers cast doubt upon the strength or intellect of the oppressed rather than the oppressors. Were they really this oafish, surely they could not have held power for so long.
While it might be cathartic to laugh at DiCaprio’s Candie or Chaplin’s Hitler (or Mel Brooks’s aping of the Nazis as clownish buffoons), let us not forget, their viciousness and depravity sprang from something. That something was not a lack of intellectual acumen; instead, it was a paucity of its ethical equivalent. Stupidity was not their motivation. Power and the desire to maintain it — and the cruelty to make such a thing possible — was more than enough.
The same is true today.
When Amy Cooper called police on a black man in Central Park who had asked her to leash her dog, she didn’t do so out of stupidity. She did so knowing that having the police called on you as a black man could be the prelude to violence or death. She is not an uneducated naif. Before she was fired due to her embarrassing viral video fame, she worked in financial services. She watches the news. I’d bet good money that she has seen the video of Eric Garner being murdered by cops in Staten Island. I have no doubt she has heard the story of the five young men arrested by NYPD, prosecuted, and imprisoned for something they didn’t do in that same park three decades ago. Yet here she is, doing her best impersonation of a modern-day Carolyn Bryant. The fact that things didn’t work out for her doesn’t make her stupid, though. They make the target of her animosity lucky.
Viewing racists as operating from ignorance suggests that the answer is enlightenment, the sharing of facts with bigots so that by filling in the gaps of their knowledge they can be changed. But this thinking ignores the reasons why people cling to racism and racially unequal systems. Doing so isn’t irrational at all when you’re on top of the social structure. It makes quite a bit of sense.
To wit, those lawmakers in North Carolina who passed a series of roadblocks to black voting — which a federal court ruled sought to disenfranchise them with almost “surgical precision” — did not do so as an act of bumbling political incoherence. They knew what their goal was and how to obtain it.
Those who defend standardized testing, even for students from unstandardized backgrounds, who enjoyed unstandardized opportunities, know the impact of such batteries. They are fully aware that such things perpetuate racial disparity by rewarding those who have been previously favored, exposed to higher-level material, and encouraged from the day they were born. That is why they maintain them.
The assumption of irrationality — as if people who perpetuate racism don’t know the damage they do — is precious, but absurd. It is perhaps best exemplified by those whom you’ll hear regularly say things like: “Don’t people understand, it’s cheaper to spend money on educating black kids than locking them up?” Yes, everyone knows that. And the people making budgetary decisions keep putting the money into prisons anyway. I suppose you can assume it’s because their brains short-circuited in the middle of the legislative session, and they forgot it was cheaper to spend the money on schools. But I suspect it would make more sense to conclude that they had a purpose in mind other than saving money.
The notion of racism’s irrationality has long bedeviled the political left in this country. You can see that in the way class-centric leftists speak about it, and how people like Bernie Sanders do. For them, it’s all about how racism divides the working class and causes white workers to “vote against their interests.”
But racism at the systemic level has served the interests of white people as white people in a system where being white has mattered. The fact that it may not have served the interests of those white people as taxpayers, or as workers, or as consumers of education or health care may be true. But in a society where whiteness has been given priority status — as a favored caste — those other categories will seem irrelevant in the face of it.
This is something most white leftists misunderstand. Class may have been the only game in town, so to speak, in the European nations about which Marx was principally writing. After all, they were mostly monocultures, where something like whiteness had no meaning. But in America, racial identity was given paramount significance from the start. It became an alternative way for workers to identify. They need not cleave to their status as workers in a class system. And, given that they are presently the losers in the class war, there is a psychological incentive not to do so. They would prefer to cleave to an identity where they feel strong, as winners, or at least dominant, relative to other groups.
In America, whiteness is property, as Cheryl Harris has reminded us, and those capable of claiming the label have a “possessive investment” in it, to quote George Lipsitz. To believe white workers are acting against their interests by not joining with their black and brown comrades to get a better deal as workers, presumes (falsely) that their identity as workers is what matters to them, or the only thing that should.
But whiteness has provided an alternative way of identifying. To tell them they could be better off in absolute terms if they joined the class struggle misses this: after all, what good is more money and better health care and more material well-being if everyone gets those things? In a society where everyone gets what they need, how will I know I’m better than they are? That’s how white people have been encouraged to think thanks to whiteness. And you won’t talk them out of it unless you attack the racism they have internalized head-on.
Ultimately if we are to undo racism in this country as a systemic force, we cannot merely change the subject from race to class in the hopes that this sleight of hand will pull a rabbit (or in this case, worker solidarity) out of a hat. Instead, we will have to demonstrate the toxicity of whiteness itself — that the thing white people cling to when the chips are down is not just bad for them as workers (an identity they are reluctant to consider) but even as the white people they think they are.
For instance, racial inequity long insulated us from some of the worst vagaries of the economic system — predatory lending, and deindustrialization, as two examples — even as these ravaged black communities. But once it was determined that black pain was acceptable, and there was money to be made by the actions that caused it, those intent on making that money did the same things in white communities. So now many of those spaces that whiteness told us were “good” and “nice places to raise kids” are hurting too. The cost of white advantage has been long-term stagnation and decline. Not just for those white people as workers but as the people labeled white who thought that label would protect them.
So too with the opioid crisis. Whites shrugged for years at the drug war because it wasn’t claiming as many of us. So we disinvested in rehab and treatment in favor of punishment and prisons. Now, as pharmaceuticals flooded the market with legal pain killers, and as millions of our kids and loved ones got hooked, we wonder how this could have happened to us. But that’s the point: our indifference to the pain of others — itself a privilege to have indulged for years — has come back to haunt us. It is killing us now. It is not just preventing us from having something better in the future, which we could attain if we join the struggle and go on strike and pour into the streets and manage to crush capitalism — but killing us now. Whiteness and our attachment to relative advantage are failing on their own terms. They aren’t keeping us safe. It isn’t making us more secure, quite the opposite.
And with the spread of COVID-19, we see the cost of racial disparity as well. Precisely because the virus has disproportionately killed lower-income persons of color, the administration and millions of white folks were nonchalant in the face of its wrath: inadequate testing and containment, and a desire to end lockdowns as quickly as possible to get the economy moving again. After all, they reasoned, the pain would mostly fall on “those people.” But now, as coronavirus surges in rural areas and small towns — and the very red states and communities that thought themselves invulnerable — we can perhaps begin to see the cost of our indifference.
The same eugenic mentality that places black life and brown life on a lower rung of importance allows us to dismiss the threats to whites with pre-existing conditions and the white elderly. Once we begin creating hierarchies of human value — something white supremacy did from day one in this country — it is only a matter of time before large numbers of white folks find themselves ground up by the same mentality.
In short, we have interest convergence with black folks to end racial inequity because the elevation it has provided with one hand has come at a cost. The people who were supposed to be protected are as insecure as ever. Not only as members of an amorphous working class in need of release from the grip of capitalist predation but even as the self-proclaimed middle class, mid-America, small town, God-fearing white Christians they consider themselves to be.
Whiteness is the problem. It has always been the problem. Unless we invalidate it by demonstrating its toxicity, there will be no class solidarity across racial lines, precisely because it will remain the off-ramp for white workers to take when the class war gets too difficult.
It is time to close off the exits.