With Virginia DA Mark Herring following Governor Northam in the news, it’s turning into a bit of job to find a prominent White Democrat from Virginia who didn’t at some point wear blackface in the 80s. So much so that treating this as an individual crime is a distraction. Southern institutions produce racists, or at least they don’t produce a critical mass of anti-racists to reform the institutions that do produce racists, and that is the problem.
From time to time, Americans, in figuring out the limits of their race-based power, flex their racist might by wearing blackface or saying the National word, or even, as in the case of a bar here in Athens, Ga. serve a watermelon liquor drink called the n*gger*ta.
These are all symptoms of a regime of racial power that has its more material expression in this graph of median household wealth in America:
It’s not enough to treat Mark Herring, the latest Democratic politician with a blackface past, like a disease. Instead, we need to understand Herring is a predictable product of series of schools, churches, family structures, and media that sustains a racial hierarchy in the United States. Addressing a handful of symptoms like an infelicitous hot mic moment or a picture in blackface is an irresponsible cure for the structure of White supremacy that undergirds American “freedom.”
This is particularly important if you are a school with a history of being on the wrong side of White supremacy. We need to stop hiding the evidence of White Supremacy, and instead adopt a system of mass conversion. Conversion doesn’t happen when you stop putting on blackface or stop saying the National word. Conversion happens, and this is what Plato knew, when you are made to turn around and see all of the artifice and energy and illusion that goes into making you think that how you see the world is true.
Conversion to truth is the result of destabilizing everything that had previously been assumed to be true, and conversion on race is a matter of showing how people’s conventional ideas about racial justice or racial progress are actually in service of a very exploitative project, an exploitative project that universities in the United States have spent a good amount of tax payer resources supporting.
All of these Southern universities need a racial justice requirement in the curriculum. Not some weak-kneed multi-culturalism requirement, but a requirement directly tied to how education institutions were used in service of White supremacy. The requirement does not have to be fulfilled through any particular department, but any of a variety of departments, e.g., Education, Political Science, Philosophy, History, Economics, Psychology, etc. can tailor a course to be approved by committee to fulfill the requirement. I did my undergraduate education at Berkeley, and we had an American Cultures requirement that emerged out of similar pressure. At schools like UGA, what we need is more targeted. We need an education that exposes Georgia’s institutions of White Supremacy.
Universities have a rich tradition of being the engine of White supremacy. Humanities departments create White supremacist historians who venerate slavers. Social science departments create scientific racists who publish papers and gave testimonies on behalf of maintaining the racial hierarchy. We all remember Hillary Clinton suggesting inner city boys were super-predators. That thesis was championed by John J. DiIulio, a young man at the time with a PhD from Harvard and is now tenured at Princeton. He has since denied that thesis, but he was vocal enough at the time to get the 1996 Crime Bill passed because of the ideological work he fed into.
Academia’s hands have never been clean. Currently, I’m not particularly keen on how Women’s Studies paper over White women like Margaret Sanger, or how White women use women of color to attack men in general, while covering the stink of White women’s active support of and investment in White Supremacy.
We need to take anti-racism seriously as a political project and struggle in whatever institutions which we are a part, because the answer is not to pick the person who has avoided scandal, else we risk a world where only Lincoln Chaffee rules; rather, the answer is to create institutions that churn out the kind of people who take responsibility for the current state of American White supremacists institutions as their own, and actively reform them towards justice, taking whatever social risks required along the way.
That is much more serious project than taking down monuments or avoiding Blackface. We don’t need to punish individuals; we need to get serious about institutionalizing an educational curriculum adequate to converting America.
At the most benign level, it could be filling in the gaps in our political history with books like Mehrsa Baradaran’s The Color of Money, but at a more substantive level, it’s about refusing to shy away from the specter of triggering White fragility, that is, the race-based anxiety White people experience in regards to their participation in White Supremacist institutions.