A Colonial Society: When Racism is the Pre-existing Condition
ALIENATION: the act of alienating, or of causing someone to become indifferent or hostile; the state of being alienated, withdrawn, or isolated from the objective world, as through indifference or disaffection.
People do not really understand how devastating systemic racism is in this country. We know racism exist. Even those who constantly deny it know very well that it exist. They simply refuse to be honest and acknowledge that their country is flawed. We need to understand more clearly the impacts of systemic racism on our psyches. We need to understand what racism does in preventing the true human potential of people of color from being used.
When we see the growth in murders in Milwaukee, people yell and shout that we need people to cooperate with the police. We hear people say that we need to stop killing each other. We never really ask what is going on in the minds of people that they are so angry that they have the capacity to take another life. Let’s explore the mind of killers.
Frantz Fanon, the famous psychiatrist wrote about the mind of those who live in an oppressive society. He spoke about alienation and the role it plays in people feeling or not feeling welcomed and appreciated and valued in the society they live in. He studied the existence of oppression in settler colonial settings like the Island of Martinique where he was born and reared. He did not clearly understand colonialism until he moved to Paris for medical school and saw the true nature of oppression and the impacts it has on the lived outcomes of oppressed people versus those in the oppressing group.
Fanon looked at alienation as a result of people being oppressed and how they reacted to that oppression. He explored alienation in several different ways and manifestations. One of these was alienation from your culture. One way this manifest itself is in how we master or don’t master a language. In America, Blacks are criticized and made to feel inferior because we don’t always articulate the Queen’s English well.
English is not my mother tongue. I have no idea what that mother tongue is nor do any Black people in this country. Our language was stolen from us over two-hundred and forty six years of captivity in America. We were punished severely for speaking our native language. Laws were passed making it illegal for us to learn or be taught to read and write. The same people who passed these laws then had the audacity to call us unintelligent and naturally inferior to Whites in mental capacity. It reminds me of the idea of cutting a man’s legs off and then blaming him for being a cripple.
Fanon wrote in his famous book Black Skin, White Masks about language and why it matters in oppressive societies.
“To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture. The Antilles Negro who wants to be white will be whiter as he gains greater mastery of the cultural tool the language is. In the case of the Martinquean, the culture and language imposed were French. One took pains to speak ‘the French of France, the Frenchman’s French, French French,’ all the while avoiding Creole, except to give orders to servants. The fact of having to speak nothing but the other’s language when this other was the conqueror, ruler, and oppressor was at once an affirmation of him, his worldview, and his values; a concession to his framework, and an estrangement from one’s history, values and outlook.”
By imposing European culture and languages on Africans here and throughout the diaspora, Whites used massive doses of violence to do so. The connection to our history and cultures in Africa was severed. Hussein Bulhan, author of Frantz Fanon and the Psychology of Oppression, tells us that “The Middle Passage uprooted bodies, transporting them to alien lands… (dislocating) psyches, imposing an alien worldview … the uprooting of psyches from their culture to their insertion into another, in which the basic values were prowhite and antiblack, elicited a victimization difficult to quantify but very massive.”
This last point is critical to understand. A value system which has been prevalent in America for over four centuries is “prowhite and antiblack.” How can we expect a system designed to promote a positive view of Whites and a negative view of Blacks to do anything other than what it was designed for? The system has been around for so long that it is embedded in all institutions in this society. It appears invisible. It is like the water that fish swim in but never really see because it is constantly there. It does not matter who the people within those institutions are if the basic framework is anti-black. It is inequality by design.
That is one of the core tenets of American society that far too may refuse to see. When you can see disparities within certain populations persist over centuries that tells you how the system is designed to work. It is not accidental that the poorest people in the country are Native Americans, Latinos and Blacks. Sure there are a boatload of poor White people as well but the highest levels of economic disparities show Whites doing significantly better than people of color.
The brilliant author, journalist and social critic Ta-Nehisi Paul Coates spoke about one manifestation of this systemic racism, the criminal justice system.
“I think our criminal justice system is working as intended. It is only broken to the extent that our society is broken. If your intention is to jail massive numbers of people, if you believe that prison is an effective means of dealing with the myriad social needs of the African American community then it’s pretty effective. In fact there is a long history in this country of dealing with problems in the African American community through criminal justice system, criminalizing social problems in a way that we don’t do in the communities…Literally we have the notion of Black people as criminals written into our Constitution. We have a fugitive slave clause which effectively makes all of the things which are normal for any other American in that period illegal for Black people. To pursue your own freedom was illegal. Slavery was enforced by the criminal justice system. Slave laws made very ordinary things like learning to read effectively a criminal act. Frederick Douglas is an escaped slave, he’s a criminal. He’s stolen his body as he said in one of his speeches. Harriet Tubman is running a a massive criminal conspiracy, stealing people.”
When our society sees people do things that are unacceptable such as committing murder it is an automatic straight line to blame that person’s culture when they are Black but not so when they are White. When Black people want to be seen as acceptable in America we try very hard to fit in. As Bulhan said about oppressed people, “How he talks, dresses, eats, and lives meticulously conforms to the rules laid down by the dominant group. This is particularly among those whose economic and class standing permit dreams of greater assimilation in to the white world.” Some oppressed people go in the opposite direction and reject assimilation.
When you live in this space as an oppressed Black person in America you are forced to see yourself and your community as flawed. Bulhan tells us how this mindset permeates our society.
“The school, the history books, the comic strips…all these also enforce cognitive dissonance and even self-hate…The closer the school boy gets to the social circle of the oppressor, the more he learns to disparage what he is by birth and race. On the one hand, he is assimilated in to the dominant culture, and on the other, he is made to break away from his own culture…then comes the stage when he must choose either his own group and culture or the ruling group and an alien outlook.”
In America for Black people, this “alien outlook” is the way White society devalues Black people. For its’ entire history beginning with the British colonies which became America, this nation has had at its’ core a disdain for Black people. This becomes the mindset of Blacks who see themselves as an alien species in this country they built with coerced labor over generations. We called these forced labor camps plantations with brings up images of a bucolic Southern space with large beautiful oak trees and White people drinking Mint Juleps and living in the lap of luxury as Africans worked from what they called “can’t see to can’t see.”
The daily frustrations and traumas that build into weeks, months, years and generations make it hard for some of us in the Black community to value Black lives. We are at war with ourselves. We become auto-oppressors. Society has created a kind of Frankenstein’s monster. This is a person who has such disdain for himself that he can’t possible value those around him. How is it possible to value your life when every door of opportunity is slammed in your face? How can you feel good about being Black in America when so many of your peers are downtrodden? You can’t see the exceptions to the rule, the Oprah Winfrey’s, and Barack Obama’s as being a reflection of yourself. They seem like aliens to you.
Their values don’t align with your values. They are living in the lap of luxury while you are wallowing in the pits of despair. The are wealthy while you struggle to make a dollar out of fifteen cents. Your anger explodes into intense rage, usually against someone in you community. Bulhan says “A highly volatile person becomes schizophrenic even under a small number or a low intensity of challenges.”
Fanon spoke about the alienated person being a victim of others and then of himself. The violence imposed upon him by society becomes embedded in his psyche and the multiple examples society has shown him become what he sees as acceptable. When he knows society does not value his community and the lives of Black people neither does he.
This is the stage where we see what people call senseless acts of violence, particularly murder. America ask, How can Black people march saying Black Lives Matter, while at the same time they continue to kill each other?
Few understand the underlying factors that create this rage. Few in Milwaukee understand that that huge number of murders in Milwaukee this year are a manifestation of the pressures on individuals during this pandemic. The number and percentage of domestic violence murders being off the scales this year did not come as a surprise to domestic violence mitigation advocates.
They warned us in the spring that domestic violence would increase as the lockdown and isolation continued. They correctly predicted that many more domestic violence victims would be murdered. They begged for our city leaders to do something to help make sure this did not become a huge crisis. For the most part, not much was said or done. As a result, the city is nearing a record number of murders.
There is an old saying that says “hurt people, hurt people.” It is playing out in our society on a daily basis. The murders we see committed when we get past the initial shock are not so senseless after all. They are a part of a pattern that is very predictable. A lack of hope leads to a lack of caring.
People who commit murders are often the last to admit that they did so. They are racked with internal guilt that they try to hide from the world. When people examine the mindset of these individuals as they rot away in prison, they see a different side of these people our society calls monsters. Some are truly sociopaths but most are regular people who reached a point where the rage burning inside of them had to be released. What target is more reasonable than the most despised people they know, their community members?
In the late 1880s and early 1900s, as millions of European immigrants arrived in America, they quickly realized the streets were not paved with gold. These foreigners felt alienated and murdered each other much as Blacks do now. Eventually their alienation based on country of origin and an inability to speak English well dissipated. They became a part of the collective of White people. They were no longer just Italians, Jews, Irish etc. They became White. Life changed immediately once they gained this status. They would be invited into the secret room where you were given a key to unlock the American dream. The door was closed to most Black people and had so many locks on it that very few Blacks could “break in” and enjoy those privileges.
For many Black people we are still on the outside looking in. We are sick because of the pre-existing condition of systemic racism. Those who study oppressed people around the world see common themes in their lived experiences. The outcomes of their lives are not difficult to predict. The barriers created by racism in America lead to an inability to see, access and take advantage of the vast human potential which is so often wasted.
We have trouble seeing ourselves in a way that does not incorporate the ugly things we’ve heard about ourselves for generations. This is why we call each other nigger, because that is all America has ever allowed most of us to be. This ugly racial epithet is not something we arrived from Africa having as a part of our vocabulary.
As the comedian Richard Pryor said when he visited Africa for the first time he recounted in a live album, Live on the Sunset Strip. A voice commands him to look around. “Do you see any niggers?” Pryor answers no. The voice says: “Do you know why? Because there aren’t any…”I been wrong. I been wrong … I ain’t never gon’ call another black man nigger.”
This debased being, “the nigger,” is a creation of a system whose logical progression over centuries finds Black bodies only useful as a tool to fulfill the wealth building of a Eurocentric political and economic system that many refuse to admit exists.
When you see yourself in this way you will act accordingly.
“If you can control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his action. When you determine what a man shall think you do not have to concern yourself about what he will do. If you make a man feel that he is inferior, you do not have to compel him to accept an inferior status, for he will seek it himself.” – Dr. Carter G. Woodson, father of African American History Month and author of The Mis-Education of the Negro