The explosion of wanton violence that burst through the walls of an Orlando gay night club in mid-June cut through communities across the country, culminating in 72-hours of bloodshed and grief in Baton Rouge, Minnesota, and Dallas only days after the nation’s Fourth of July festivities.
Staggering from Twitter feeds to news reports, we are silent witnesses transfixed by the enormity of pain and the seeming futility of resistance. Black, brown and people from all backgrounds collectively despair, exhausted by the recognition that “we’ve been here before,” having protested, reasoned, sacrificed, and—by dint of 21st century technology—unflinchingly documented real-time executions transmitted by livefeed to Facebook. That inter-generational fortitude seemed frail—a thin reed blasted by the competitive victimization offered up by the media that whip frightened citizens into reactive submission.
By the end of the first news cycle, it was hard to imagine that anyone would remember anything than, depending on which erroneous notion they digested, that Black Lives Matter is a police-hating cult or that all white males – especially all police officers –are brutal, patriarchal-racist killers who deny the humanity of those who challenge their dominance.
The need for context and conversation
How do we move past reactivity and aggression? As Jon Stewart suggests, we should be able to have two conversations at the same time—but we need to be able to talk to each other. America must learn the lessons of white supremacy and hierarchy, while holding in its consciousness the nation’s very real economic and structural problems. This, in turn, compels us to question the hold of hierarchy and exclusion on the American mindset. And it requires context.
Some, like Professor Richard D. Wolff and Dr. Harriet Fraad, emphasize that the anger stoked by Trump is real and the product of a growing sense of place-lessness—symptomatic of an economic and cultural dislocation that began in the 1970s after well-paying industrial jobs were increasingly moved overseas and automated out of existence. The loss of position was most acutely felt by working class white males who, in traditional fashion defining themselves as “the family breadwinner,” were increasingly pushed out of that role.
The sense of alienation deepened as women’s workforce participation rates grew and demographic diversity increased due, in part, to the Immigration Act of 1965, and, as Elizabeth Hinton notes in her excellent book, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime, black people followed the Great Migration into Northern cities, competing for working class jobs (which only inflamed the underlying racial hierarchy). The disaffection was further exacerbated when the gains of the civil rights movement took hold, particularly after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In the years that followed, the coded language of alienation would become openly anti-black, anti-woman, anti-immigrant, anti-gay—all targeting groups that represented perceived threats to the dominance of the traditional white male household. Women who achieved standing in the workforce were denounced by right wing radio messaging as “feminazis,” low wage migrant workers consumed by corporations in backbreaking work like industrial agriculture were tarred “illegal,” black and brown people looking to move beyond the hyper-segregated, hyper-policed zone of their communities into secondary education or employment were literally incarcerated, beat back or executed. The evidence of a society hemorrhaging pain from economic dislocation and the associated loss of identity was lost on a culture not equipped with the language to process such events.
Anti-hierarchy and the movement for structural change
Overcoming stratification in all its forms could not be more urgent. But how can American society move beyond misdirected anger to empathy for persons of all experiences? How do Americans, steeped in an invisible, interlinking hierarchical mesh with cultural roots that span a history of enslavement, free market capitalism, and vicious Social Darwinism, effect such a massive reorientation? As Black Lives Matter has highlighted, a level critique of neo-liberalism and state-sponsored violence is relevant.
It is our obligation to ask: who are the victors, who are the victims? And doing so is not a call for anarchic violence. Bernie Sanders and the Occupy Wall Street movement before him tapped into a pervasive sensibility that the answer does not lie in re-invoking familiar insider/outsider hierarchical dyads: citizens before immigrants, whites before blacks, women in service of men.
A more productive exercise would be a clear eyed examination of the structural causes of dislocation, as evidenced by the success of “The Fight for Fifteen.” States and municipalities, like Seattle, are beginning to address the root issues underlying social exclusion at the local level: poverty, subsistence wages and unemployment, discrimination, inadequate social supports, unmitigated violence.
Equally important is an examination of how we choose to organize ourselves at work and in our communities, raising up innovative, democratic structures like self-directed worker enterprises that open up opportunities for training, work, and solidarity to all, including those marginalized like the formerly incarcerated.
We should continue to interrogate dysfunctional structural issues, such as the pools of corporate money hijacking the electoral process, and the necessity of addressing our grossly unequal social structure by demanding an increase in taxes on corporations and the wealthy in order to provide what is minimally required for full participation in society: living wages, job training, affordable housing and transportation, free education and health care for all persons living within the United States—whether that person is “marked” as a citizen or not.
We must commit to overcoming our violent and hierarchical tendencies. No one should forget the gut-wrenching, illegitimate use of summary violence directed against black bodies—who have been criminalized at birth. We must continue to press for structural reforms in our enforcement and punishment systems and develop a robust agenda to address police violence. Some important questions include: How can police officers be better sensitized to inherent bias, so they no longer act as judge, jury and executioner, or as Jesse Williams noted, can come to recognize their role in the disparate targeting of black and brown communities for over-enforcement and brutality? How can communities become respected partners of law enforcement, resulting in increased police supervision by and accountability to the communities they serve, so the abuse of power, entrenched victimization and graft evidenced by the extra-legal activity of the Oakland Police Force and its involvement in sex trafficking ultimately might yield increased community cooperation and involvement when working with the police.
We must contend with the root cause of gun violence, namely the availability of guns—who gets them and who gets to use them. (By all accounts, black men do not have a cognizable Second Amendment Right in the United States. Ask the families of John Crawford or Philandro Castille.) An issue for another day is the enormous profit generated by gun manufacturers and their contingent of lobbyists and legislators who benefit. We should also think more broadly about the rationality of open carry laws. Does anyone seriously think that someone visibly brandishing a gun will reduce gun violence? And, as members of this society, no one should be permitted to deploy a firearm against a police officer.
Most of all, we need to have a discussion about whether we should arm ourselves against each other or join together to demand jobs and other structural changes. But to move forward, we must first address the historic operation of white supremacy, marginalization more generally, and exclusion. Let us begin this work by closely examining the relationship between hierarchy and violence because the reflexive relegation of others beyond the pale of humanity will always lead to bloodshed.
Kimberly Westcott is an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Columbia University School of Social Work.