Ta-Naheshi Coates, whose views on race in America are probably the best articulation of mine (save for reparations — I do not support reparations), gets what’s really at stake, and what has really been protested, in Ferguson:
The [city’s and the police department’s] “focus on revenue” was almost wholly a focus on black people as revenue. Black people in Ferguson were twice as likely to be searched during a stop, twice as likely to receive a citation when stopped, and twice as likely to be arrested during the stop, and yet were 26 percent less likely to be found with contraband. Black people were more likely to see a single incident turn into multiple citations. The disparity in outcomes remained “even after regression analysis is used to control for non-race-based variables.”
One should understand that the Justice Department did not simply find indirect evidence of unintentionally racist practices which harm black people, but “discriminatory intent”—that is to say willful racism aimed to generate cash. Justice in Ferguson is not a matter of “racism without racists,” but racism with racists so secure, so proud, so brazen that they used their government emails to flaunt it.
In effect, the black residents of Ferguson were there to be looted. They weren’t citizens, but subjects. Worse than subject, they were “natural resources,” or sheep, to be sheared when budgetary needs demanded. Conor Friedersdorf noted that the death of Michael Brown last summer merely triggered long-simmering resentments among Ferguson residents about how they have been treated:
Little wonder that black people in Ferguson took to the streets after the killing of Michael Brown. Sooner or later, some event was bound to push them over the edge into protest, and even if Officer Wilson acted totally unobjectionably in that encounter, it wouldn’t change the fact that the general lack of confidence expressed in municipal and police leadership was well-founded.
The struggle over race is America isn’t really about race. It’s about citizenship. And what the good folks of Ferguson were rebelling over were good old fashioned claims to the “Rights of Englishmen” to be treated with some respect and dignity by those in power and, more importantly, to not be mere sources of revenue to be extracted at will.
It’s the kind of assertion that challenged monarchs and prompted revolutions.
And it ought to be the kind of thing that should animate at least a few Tea Party types. After all, the kind of government they fear is coming to rule them already rules other Americans in places like Ferguson.
But there’s a simple reason the Tea Party doesn’t much care. Because black folks aren’t Englishmen, and they do not have — and cannot ever possess — the Rights of Englishmen.
The fight over race in America is a fight over citizenship. It is about what it means to be an American and who gets to be an American. Americanness is an ideological construction, with one foot in a set of ideals that claim to be universal, that say they apply to all of humanity equally. This is America “at is best,” at least for some, and is reflected in the Declaration of Independence, and the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Barack Obama whenever he gets hifalutin on the matter.
But the other foot stands solidly on a particular. These “universal” rights are not just distilled from the Enlightenment, but from over 1,000 years of English history, of give and take between (and among) people, nobility, and monarch. And this footing says only Englishmen get to exercise these rights because only Englishmen can. Everyone else is only fit to be some kind of subject.
This understanding is best expressed in Jacksonian populism, which extended the Rights of Englishmen down to the poorest white farmer (and, eventually, to all European immigrants, despite some initial resistance). The Rights of Englishmen were given conditionally to “well behaved” non-whites. But they could be denied at will, and frequently are.
(This tension between the universal and the particular is not just America’s problem; France has never known what to do with Muslims since the “universal” aspirations of Frenchness have always deliberately excluded Islam and Muslims from any possibility they could meaningfully be French.)
The Tea Party isn’t interested in Ferguson simply because it inherits more of the Jacksonian particularism than it does any universal proclamation of rights and ideals. The Tea Party isn’t saying “Americans are being denied their rights” but “we Englishmen are being denied our rights!” Black folks were never really entitled to the Rights of Englishmen, cannot claim them, and thus were never really Americans in any substantial sense. And that was clear in the pre-civil rights racial order — an order which has never really stopped appealing to what became conservatism since the mid-1950s. So, to ask that conservatives who see the shadows of jackbooted thugs from underneath their tricorner hats to empathize with the black residents of a tiny town bullied and abused by their government and their police is truly asking too much. Those residents don’t have rights worth respecting.
I appreciate and even admire that black folks are fighting for something resembling equal citizenship (and to claim the Rights of Englishmen), to live up to the noble aspirations of America’s universal ideals. I just think it is a fool’s errand to do so because the universal ideas are themselves a lie down to their very foundation. The particular is far more real, and it will always mean that someone will be excluded because they cannot be “Englishmen.” These rights seems to have magically migrated to all sorts of non-English people (that the Irish got to be white is truly an amazing thing), but they won’t ever belong to you. You won’t be allowed to claim them.
No, I do not have an answer. Sometimes I think it’s enough to simply call a thing so widely believed a lie. And I do think America is a lie. A beautiful, amazing, astounding, incredible, beguiling lie. But a lie nevertheless. As true as the earth is flat.