In the introduction to his edited volume, White on White/Black on Black, George Yancy begins with reference to comments made by then-President George Bush in reaction to the horrors committed at Abu Ghraib prison. “This is not the America I know,” President Bush stated. But, happenings like those at Abu Ghraib, contrary to Bush’s knowledge, are all to familiar to the America that black Americans know, says Yancy. The events of Abu Ghraib appear to Yancy as an unfolding dramatization of American dynamics of race. “Such themes as sadistic brutality, sexual violence, xenophobic paranoia, the reduction of fellow human beings to brute beasts,” says Yancy, “played themselves out against a silent, though familiar, backdrop of a long history of America’s racist drama.” Abu Ghraib depicted a re-enactment of the racist historical processes of racialization, whereby whiteness is generated and reinforced simultaneously and alongside blackness. What took place there was not an exception to the rule — to the post-racial existence that George Bush occupies — it was part and parcel with America’s racist brutalities that are executed within the governing framework of whiteness. The rituals performed at the Iraqi prison were, to borrow from Marilynne Robinson, rituals of the ordinary for those bound to the ideology of whiteness.
Drawing on Du Bois, Yancy points out that the ritualistic nature of lynchings of black bodies in America wasn’t so much about whether a victim was guilty of breaking the law or not, but rather it was about the performing the act of taking the life of any black — “for if you were black you were guilty.” This helps make sense of the seemingly unimaginable brutalities that have occurred in the history of racism in America. A tragic and lamentable example of which happened here in Waco (which will be posted on in the near future).
What this unfolds is a world cleaved across a Manichean axis. Blackness is “bad” and the state of guilt, while whiteness is “good” and the state of innocence. The America known by blacks, says Yancy, is one painted black and white, us and them, friends and terrorists, good and evil. It is the focus on black and white that concerns his book.
To unmask this Yancy describes how historical memory can function as a weapon against perceived national unity and equity (this brings to mind comments by MLK on the non-existence of democracy in America proven by the “deep rumblings of discontent out of Asia and Africa”). “To recall appropriate historical memory at the appropriate historical time has the power to silence those who would have us believe America is the paragon of ethical leadership,” he claims. Utilizing historical memory reveils this racist divide which was perpetuated by America itself and inherited from Europe during the age of exploration and consumption.
It should be pointed out that present day post-racial narratives and proponents of antiracialism — those who would do away with racial descriptions, commonly found in the linguistic practices of “colorblindness” — work against the weapon of historical memory for black Americans by seeking to cleanse language from the very terms that would allow for the oppressed to silence the oppressor. As MLK Day recently passed antiracialism was rehearsed through remembering King as an advocate of the importance of the “content of one’s character” above all else. Those are, of course, words from King himself, from his canonized “I Have a Dream” speech. What is interesting is how these particular words of King were situated within the context of antiracialism and colorblindness (e.g. “I don’t see color, just people”) making King himself a part of the narrative that ignores racial structures and powers — or, in Yancy’s terms, one that is blind to the Manichean divide.
As is conventional at the Republican debates, the mythopoetics of meritocracy have been emphasized by the candidates, and Newton Gingrich has been no exception. Gingrich has paid particular attention to solving issues of poverty for the black community and for the poor at large in America. Gingrich’s agenda, as far as I can tell, centers around providing jobs for the poorest in our country. This is neither surprising (conventional conservative parlance, after all) nor is it a bad idea in and of itself (also, for the sake of the post I’ll pretend that someone from Newton’s class even has moral standing to make a comment about solving poverty without concrete solidarity with the poor — thinking here about Mother Teresa’s important remark that it is much more common to talk about the poor than it is to talk to the poor). Jobs are an essential aspect to overcoming all kinds of barriers generated by poverty. The problem with Newton’s comments is the naiveté of their content with respect to the complexities of poverty and, even more apparent, the insensitive and racial edge that they have been delivered with. Without reciting the manifold dubious comments he has made about the poor in America and blacks in America (the two seem at times to be conflated for Newton) — poor kids only do illegal things, poor kids don’t know how to work, the black community needs to demand jobs not welfare checks, etc. — it should be recognized that the belief in meritocracy (an annoying, but suitable word), like antiracialism, blinds people from the Manichean divide that fragments America along the spectrum of whiteness and blackness.
What these frameworks of thinking, from advocates of colorblindness to believers in the ability to move up the social and economic latter through hard-work and determination alone to believers in a fair and just America (like George Bush) all have in common is that they function within a context of an epistemology of ignorance. This epistemic context is, says Yancy, “blinded by a certain historically stuctured and structuring (white) opacity.” Elaborating he summons scholar Charles Mills who describes this whiteness as, “a particular pattern of localized and global cognitive dysfunctions (which are psychologically and socially functional), producing the ironic outcome that whites will in general be unable to understand the world they themselves have made.”
Connecting this to certain strands of liberation theology that describe the “epistemological privilege of the underdog”. This description of whiteness can be seen as its antitype. The overdogs — those bound by whiteness — by and large are unable to see the world they have structured and are structuring. Hence, Newton Gingrich and George Bush may not be insincere in their comments (and it helps explain what is at play in Newton’s belittling and untruthful comments made towards Juan Williams on MLK Day), but they are wrong nonetheless, inhabiting unreality, and embody the outworkings of a racial and racist imagination and epistemology that has been seared into those who stand at the top in America, which, consequently, forges and maintains the present conditions and Manichean divisions.