“If you are neutral in situations of injustice,” Bishop Desmond Tutu told us in 1984, the year I first manifested what might be called a political consciousness, “you have chosen the side of injustice.” Injustice, cruelty, oppression, and inequality refuse the position of neutrality; they will not recognize a central point from which we can stand and decry the excess of energy on both sides. When you recognize the operation of injustice, you can only take two positions: opposing it or taking part in it. There is no third way, no triangulation, no objectivity: there is only throwing yourself in the path of the machine, or standing back and letting it do its work.
I spent this morning on Chicago’s South Side, listening to activists from the Movement for Black Lives, Fight for 15, and other organizations talk about the experience of African-Americans in one their largest urban concentrations. The rally took place in front of a towering statue of Stephen Douglas, who, if he is known much today, is known for having been the man who engaged Abraham Lincoln in a series of memorable debates prior to the American Civil War. But there is much more to the story than that: Douglas was perhaps the most prominent advocate of expanding the practice of slavery to the free state of Illinois, and, had he defeated Lincoln in the presidential race of 1860, would likely have achieved that aim. We in Chicago owe our history of being free of the taint of human slavery to the fact that Douglas was the first of a long list of slaveholder’s asses that Lincoln went on to vigorously and thoroughly kick.
Douglas was not just a client of Slave Club; he was also a customer. The meeting ended with a recitation of the names of all 132 of his slaves, who, by all historical accounts, he treated abysmally even by the dismal standards of chattel race-slavery. It was a stark reminder of the mind-bending dehumanization of the South’s peculiar institution: names were not only forced on these black men and women — names which bore no resemblance to the ones by which they were raised; names which were a function of the total erasure of their culture, identity, and humanity that took place as they were converted from living people to slavery — but they were recycled over and over. Perhaps you were named “Mary” because you looked like some other slave of the same name, some other piece of property who was worked to death ages ago; perhaps it was because the master simply couldn’t recall your name and gave the same one to everyone who performed a particular function in the slave economy. Whatever the case, it was not the name you wanted to be known as. It was the name you would be beaten unless you answered to.
It is under a statue paying tribute to a man who so conceived of black humans as interchangeable names, suited only for the random dispersal amongst a slave class of walking machines, that the descendants of his property must walk to work and back every day. It is beneath the gaze of a man who, if he had is way, would have turned this state to yet another antechamber of the Hell on Earth that was the Confederacy. It is past a majestic park dedicated to his name, and a vastly wealthy university that he helped endow with the riches he made off the lacerated backs of slave labor, that they must deal with underemployment, a lack of fair housing, abuse and contempt, and constant assault by racist police.
We are not accustomed to thinking of Illinois as a place where the poison of the slave states and the leaching of white supremacy into the soil are big problems. But Stephen Douglas, cast in bronze and waving his hand in a gesture of ownership over the distant offspring of his property, reminds us: it is a problem everywhere. There is not an inch of soil in America that was not bought with the spilled blood of African slaves, of Chinese immigrants, of brutalized labor, of Indians who were robbed first and then killed. There is not a penny of wealth that did not come from a capitalist class who used them all for cheap toil they were unwilling to do themselves, and who spent the years after slavery attempting to recreate it in all but name. We were reminded by the speakers today that slavery was meant to end with the Civil War, but that it never really did; it was reconstituted in the form of wage slavery, of prison labor, of legal and extra-legal discrimination, of systemic racism. The level playing field of capitalism did not embrace our black brothers and sisters; it merely absorbed and compounded their misery, turning them into another cheap human resource and then selling their sweat back to them.
And how have white Americans reacted to this shameful legacy? For the most part, they have chosen one of two paths. The first has been denial, ignorance, deliberate oversight: the dangerous path of neutrality by which a crooked game is judged to be fair, an unjust system is pretended to be just, a legacy of brutality and oppression is said to be the natural state of things under which one might excel if one just worked hard enough and did not make any unreasonable demands of his betters. For others, though, they chose the path of rage, of hate, of doubling down on the idea that slavery was not too much, but rather not enough. So unhinged did some of our fellow Americans become — not at what had been done to them, but what they had been complicit in doing to others — that they would rather plow a car into a crowd and kill without compunction than face up to the reality of the country they helped make.
A few of us — a dismaying few, but a brave few — came out to face that reality and not just admit our part in it and shuffle our feet in hopes people would show us the most profitable use of our guilt, but actually work towards a way of destroying the system we helped build and replacing it with something else. Many more stayed home. To them, and to the ones who cannot admit their complicity but go on spastically enacting a never-ending dance of blaming their own victims, Desmond Tutu asked another question a year later: “For goodness’ sake, will they hear? Will white people hear what we are trying to say? Please: All we are asking you to do is recognize that we are humans, too.”
For those who answered him “no”, the game is over. There is no more time for patience and neutrality. There is only one way to respond.