That any given culture assigns significance to something does not necessarily make it so. Shared delusions that arise in response to a given need may seem beneficial or at least harmless for a long period of time, but eventually any lies or misapprehensions of reality come back to bite us, hindering our development and even our survival.
The Nordic settlers who first colonized Greenland, for instance, held the popular religious belief that fish were demonic. Thus the native Inuit they encountered who ate fish and seals were considered demonic by them as well. The Vikings killed the Inuit whenever they saw them, and avoided eating anything from the sea.
At first this did not matter to their survival because their culture was pastoral. They survived by raising the sheep and cattle they brought with them, running their settlements according to traditions developed in the lands from whence they came. When the climate shifted and became consistently colder, however, the land could no longer support their grazing animals. As they died out, so did the Vikings.
Had the Vikings not engendered antipathy towards the native population they might have learned from the Inuit the ways they’d developed over hundreds of years to survive in that clime.
Had the Vikings not engendered antipathy towards the native population they might have learned from the Inuit the ways they’d developed over hundreds of years to survive in that clime. Instead, even in the face of utter destruction the Vikings allowed traditional belief patterns to define their worldview, and their fate was sealed [‘Collapse’, by Jared Diamond].
Why does this example matter to us today? Because many in our culture are poised to make a similar mistake.
Setting aside for the moment the legacy of slavery in a personal sense (since as a person perceived ‘white’ I have no competency to speak to that issue), how has the creation of the ‘race’ construct affected those regarded as ‘white’, in our culture?
Contrary to the eugenics fad that swept the early twentieth century from which Hitler found justification for his views, there is no biological underpinning for the ‘race’ construct, no tying of minute genetic difference far below the level of species to traits deemed superior or inferior in intelligence. Belief in such differences are cultural, tribally defined. Such tribal distinctions predate our science, and have clung on far after for the purpose of economic exploitation.
In war it is difficult to encourage someone to take another human life without first painting it as something less than human. Similarly, the theft of lives, property and labor from those of different skin tone could never be countenanced if one regarded them equally deserving.
Around the same time the Vikings in Greenland were dying out due to their intransigence, the concept of ‘race’ was conceived to justify the Anglo-Norman invasion and domination of Irish pagans, sanctioned by the Pope. While there was no difference in skin color, the English told themselves there was a difference in “sanctity of blood.” Perhaps with the distance of history it is easier today to recognize the mental trick the English played on themselves to justify their greed.
If I identify as ‘white’, with that label I accept the legacy of colonialism, slavery, and the continuing domination of much of the world and its resources by northern Europeans. Some relish this as ‘the march of progress’, consider it the natural order of things, without recognizing what it has cost, and continues to cost, so-called whites.
Similarly, if I take pride in being an ‘American’ (meaning a citizen of the United States specifically, though the label applies equally to all the Americas), I assume my role as inheritor of the spoils of genocide and slavery, and their formative roles in the creation of this nation, and all the nations of this hemisphere, whether I consciously acknowledge the fact or not.
If however I identify as a human being, I can decide what it means to be an American, what kind of American I will be, and what being ‘white’ in my culture actually means.
To this day ‘whiteness’ underpins disproportionate legal authority and use of resources, but does so at a cost. ‘White’-ness stunts moral evolution, restricting the individual’s ability to grow into their birthright of being fully human.
To avoid simply accepting the privileged position our culture makes available at the cost of my soul requires I act from a position of deeper moral authority than ‘whiteness’ allows. More than any privilege ‘whiteness’ can grant is the comfort of being all that I am, much more than the color of my skin. Clinging to the label means cutting myself off from most of what I am.
The cost of clinging to ‘whiteness’ is increasing. Once lightly assumed, now whenever challenged it must be seen to be violently defended. The alt-right are being pushed toward committing a new genocide, justified as self-defense, against any and all who question the concept of white supremacy. The Q-anon conspiracy, alleging Democrats are part of a pedophile ring drinking the blood of children, is not even new; just the old anti-Semitic canard of the “Blood Libel”, repurposed.
The Blood Libel held that Jews regularly sacrificed and consumed Christian children. The fact that consuming even animal blood is against Jewish religious teaching did not prevent Christian Europeans of the 12th and 13th centuries from believing Blood Libel nonsense, and committing the first pogroms, setting the stage for continued persecution of Jews on into the 20th century, and our current one.
Will today’s white supremacists prove more enlightened than the self-identified Christians of a millennia ago? One can only guess. I confess to having doubts.
I can’t say what it means to be Black, the personal challenges in dealing with the legacy of slavery in a culture that ascribes various meanings to skin tone, but recent events emphasize our culture is something we collectively create together, not something we need inherit, as inherently natural.
Given it is clearly time to move beyond ‘whiteness’, how might we as a culture accomplish this? Actions speak louder than words, and the Earth system responds only to our actions, not our promises. With all of the West Coast (save Alaska) suffering under air quality rated as poor, dire, or dangerous, perhaps more of our population are now sympathetic to the plight of those suffering the effects of environmental racism. Current conditions make clear it is more important than ever that we unite to save our collective asses.
“Give me a number!” Jordan Peterson demanded of Michael Eric Dyson, when their debate turned to the topic of reparations for slavery. Of course this begs the question what about reparations to Native Americans for genocide, or at least the fulfillment of treaty obligations consistently violated; but for the moment let’s take Jordan Peterson at his word. Martin Luther King Jr.’s estimate (based on the promise of 40 acres and a mule) is on the low end of many such estimates, would be $6.4 trillion today, or roughly $150,000 for each of the 42 million African Americans in the country. Sounds like a lot, but we spend more than a tenth that much every year on our bloated military, while the issue of reparations has gone ignored for over 150 years.
The modest wealth tax proposed by Elizabeth Warren during her campaign would raise, according to respected University of California, Berkeley, economists Gabriel Zucman and Emmanuel Saez, $2.75 trillion over 10 years, and fall on only .1% (75,000) of US households. Under Warren’s wealth tax plan, households would pay an annual 2% tax on all assets — net worth — above $50 million, and a 3% tax on every dollar of net worth above $1 billion. As Warren put it in a tweet, “If you own a home, you’re already paying a wealth tax — it’s called a property tax. I just want the ultra-rich to pay a wealth tax on the diamonds, the yachts, and the Rembrandts too.”
Of course to address all the issues we need to address (the Green New Deal, single payer healthcare, free higher education, neglected infrastructure) would require more, so one can easily conceive of tripling her proposal, for starters. Increasing it by a factor of ten would mean it still would affect only a small portion of the wealth of the richest 1% of the population (entirely justifiable if one casts a glance at where all the gains in productivity went for the last thirty years— you guessed it, the top 1%). This would raise $2.75 trillion per year, enough to address just transition to a Green New Deal, Medicare for all, free higher education, infrastructure upgrades, and pay $6.4 trillion dollars in reparations to our African American population over the decade we have left to solve the climate crisis, before our generation makes the planet uninhabitable for future generations.
If some consider this too onerous let the tax fall more heavily on those corporations and individuals whose wealth can be traced directly to slave ownership and the slave trade, than those whose wealth was made in other ways.
It’s time for Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson to realize that before they jet their families off to Mars, they’d better chip in to fix this planet first, before it’s too late. Mars may look like a fun challenge to billionaires but it’s not much of a Plan B if your Plan A goes up in smoke.
To be fully human in the twenty-first century requires creation of a post-‘white’ world, not acceptance into that world of honorary whites; those Blacks, Latin-x and women who qualify by accepting the same rules. Our extractive relationship toward the planet and each other must be renounced in favor of a world where women reclaim their power (control over their own bodies being the least of it), and citizens of all nations and skin tones understand their mutual survival depends upon mutual support. Anything less contributes to the unraveling of our existence.
One need not view the establishment of this relationship as something new, or as socialism or communism so much as the fulfillment of the promise of American values, and Christian values as well (speaking of the teachings attributed to the figure of Christ, and other religious masters; not how such messages have been perverted by those who claim to be their followers, for their own ends).
The question facing us resolves to: are humans too greedy a species to act in their own interest?
Or, put another way, will we let ‘whiteness’ be the death of us?