June 9, 2020

One Blood. One People.

One Blood. One People. 

The greatest gift Trump never intended to give white Americans is exposing the radical evil within himself, and in those humans susceptible to evil, such as police officers that kill unarmed victims. I’m referring to the humans that never learned from 1930s Germany, or from the Civil Rights movement right here in the United States, whether first-hand or from history books. We have seen it in the way Trump legitimized the KKK’s presence in broad daylight in Charlottesville in 2017 at the Unite the Right rally. “You also had some very fine people on both sides,” he said in reference to the white supremacists. When it comes time for every human to stand up for justice in response to Breonna Taylor’s, Ahmaud Arbery’s, and George Floyd’s murders at the hands of the police—and countless others who are equally important—Trump remains silent on the subject of racism. 

What could he say? “I am racist, and I always have been,” is the only truth he could articulate. He is the only president of the United States to have been sued by the U.S. Department of Justice for racist business practices. Trump denied multiple rental applications from prospective black tenants as early as 1973. He is not alone, but by exposing his own racism, and lauding white supremacists, he has ratified this evil, coaxed it out of the crevices, the cracks, and the KKK’s dark nights.

Instead of calling to end systemic racism of the disenfranchised, like his predecessor President George W. Bush did, instead of underscoring that all young black people should be able to pursue their dreams, like former President Barack Obama did, Trump has remained silent. What is the call in the streets? Silence is violence. 

As contemporary theorist Alain Badiou has long argued, capitalistic democratic societies are not immune to evil; rather, democracy participates in masking the truth of evil. But we are not hiding behind our COVID-19 protection masks now. We—whereas I would like to refer to the collective ‘we’ of humanity, I am sensitive to the reality that black people have confronted this evil on a quotidian basis for centuries—are in the midst of a watershed moment of unity that transcends generations and skin colors to expose racism and fight for justice. The concept of justice in this democracy has been tainted, though, for justice implies that a reasoned decision-maker will assess evidence, evaluate witness credibility, and reach an unbiased conclusion that metes out fairness. Justice has been masked by injustice in this democracy—exemplifying Badiou’s point about masking the truth of evil—but the fight for justice is escalating now. Black lives matter.

Why have we woken up now? Why are we marching in the streets from New York to Australia now? Dehumanization of black people through senseless police killings has taken place without accountability since the pre-police slave patrols in 1619, when the first slave ship from Africa landed in Point Comfort, Virginia—a year before the Mayflower landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620, making me more of an immigrant than those who arrived from Africa a year before my family did, yet no one calls me English-American to this day. Eric Garner was killed in 2014 at the hands of the police in an eerily similar way to George Floyd’s murder. It didn’t produce a watershed moment. Why now?

The globe is on pause from globalization’s perpetual motion. The pandemic’s effects have come into our homes throughout the globe as we live through the zeitgeist of fear, pain, and loss. Perhaps our pain has fertilized a seed of empathy, germinating a systemic shift in consciousness. Do I know what it feels like to be scared to run outside? To shop? To be an ornithologist? To exist with the knowledge that I might be killed at any random moment by those paid to protect my life? No. 

We cannot know the pain George Floyd experienced as he expressed “I can’t breathe” to the officer stepping on his neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. We cannot know the pain that his family experiences, or the pain of fear that seeps viscerally into black people on any given day, including many of my closest friends and family members. Yet we can acknowledge it. 

Post-colonial theorist, poet, and scholar Aimé Césaire writes in response to violence perpetrated against black people: “There is not one single poor lynched bastard, one poor tortured man, in whom I am not also murdered and humiliated.” With our growing empathy, we can feel the murder, the humiliation, and the fear. We have witnessed the evil and we are responding.

Those that call out “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” and those that kill a man who cries, “Officer, I can’t breathe,” are authoritarians that have succumbed to evil. Trump has given us this great gift by exposing his own evil that reinforces the historic violence inherent in racism. 

That violence is best described by the formidable critic Frantz Fanon, who wrote in Black Skin, White Masks: “I had to meet the white man’s eyes. An unfamiliar weight burdened me. In the white world the man of color encounters difficulties in the development of his bodily schema. […] What else could it be but an amputation, an excision, a hemorrhage that spattered my whole body with black blood?” Fanon’s words embody the trauma of racism.

But Fanon’s blood was red, the same color as my blood. We all have blood coursing through our veins. Nothing else matters. The blood cancels otherness. That’s our common denominator. 

If you find Frantz Fanon’s words from the 1950s to be outdated—although he was one of the greatest scholars on colonialism and racial difference of the twentieth-century—then consider how much progress was made between then and now. Think of now. Fanon also wrote the uncanny words: “I have to throw off an attacker who is strangling me, because I literally can’t breathe.” The strangulation Fanon perceived has intensified. What Fanon called the “almighty body of violence rearing up” has not stopped rearing up in the United States; in fact, he was reluctant to come to Washington D.C. in 1961, where he died while undergoing treatment for leukemia, because he feared being lynched. 

These violent killings of black people are what philosopher Immanuel Kant called radical evil in the eighteenth-century. Radical evil is inherent in human nature, for which each of us is responsible, according to Kant, but he offers hope that moral progress is possible. We humans have to fight for the light and rise up in global empathy against the darkness of white supremacy, white indifference, and socialized anti-blackness.

This isn’t about lying in bed in pajamas—still in quarantine—cradling a phone to put a black square on an Instagram page for #blackout Tuesday, and checking off the box of being anti-racist. This goes beyond marching to protest the violence of racism. This is about living our lives in a new normal that includes standing up for justice every single day, every single time that we witness injustice. In our conversations. In our protests. In our art. In our walks on the street. In our political discourse. In our reading. In ways that we are just discovering, still enumerating. I am calling for global accountability. Global accountability can start with education. We can read Michelle Alexander’s powerful The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and Anthony Hinton’s The Sun Does Shine, an account of how he spent thirty years on death row for crimes he didn’t commit.Funding and supporting black-led youth organizations and voting for candidates of color constitute a few ways for us to acknowledge that we are: One blood. One people. 

Michelle Slater is a scholar of French and Comparative Literature who founded the Mayapple Center for the Arts and Humanities.