The George Floyd Uprising
Overnight mass conversions to the cause of African American rights are a rare phenomenon in America, and, even so, a recurrent phenomenon, and ultimately a world-changing phenomenon. The classic instance took place in 1854 in Boston. An escaped slave from Virginia named Anthony Burns was arrested and held by United States marshals, who prepared to send him back into bondage in Virginia, in accordance with the Fugitive Slave Act and the policies of the Franklin Pierce administration. And a good many white people in Boston and environs were surprised to discover themselves erupting in violent rage, as if in mass reversion to the hot-headed instincts of their ancestors at the glorious Tea Party of 1773. Respectable worthies with three names found themselves storming the courthouse. Amos Adams Lawrence, America’s wealthiest mill owner, famously remarked, “We went to bed one night old-fashioned, conservative, Compromise Whigs & waked up stark mad Abolitionists.” John Greenleaf Whittier experienced a physical revulsion:
I felt a sense of bitter loss, —
Shame, tearless grief, and stifling wrath,
And loathing fear, as if my path
A serpent stretched across.
Henry David Thoreau delivered a lecture a few weeks later under the scathing title, “Slavery in Massachusetts,” in support of blowing up the law: “The law will never make men free; it is men who have got to make the law free.” And in upstate New York, the businessman John Brown, taking the fateful next step, declared that “Anthony Burns must be released, or I will die in the attempt,” which sounded the note of death. Burns was not released. John Brown went to Bleeding Kansas, where the note of death produced the Pottawatomie Massacre in 1856, and thence to Harper’s Ferry and everything that followed.
A second instance took place in March 1965, this time in response to a police attack on John Lewis and a voting-rights march in Alabama. The event was televised. Everyone saw it. And the furor it aroused was sufficiently intense to ensure that, in our own day, the photo image of young Lewis getting beaten, though it is somewhat blurry, has emerged as a representative image of the civil-rights revolution. It was Lyndon Johnson, and not any of the business moguls or the poets, who articulated the response. Johnson delivered a speech to Congress a few days later in which, apart from calling for the Voting Rights Act to be passed, he made it clear that he himself was not entirely the same man as before. “We shall overcome,” said the president, as if, having gone to bed a mere supporter of the civil rights cause, he had waked up marching in the street and singing the anthem. He went further yet. In a speech at Howard University, he defined the goal, too: “not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact, and equality as a result,” which inched his toe further into social democratic terrain than any American presidential toe has ever ventured.
And, a week after the Voting Rights Act duly passed, the violent note of the 1960s, already audible, began to resound a little more loudly in the Watts district of Los Angeles, prefiguring still more to come over the next years — violence in the ghettos, and among the police, and among the white supremacists, and eventually on the radical left as well. All of which ought to suggest that, in the late spring of 2020, we saw and perhaps participated in yet another version of the same rare and powerful phenomenon: an overnight conversion to the cause of African American rights, sparked by a single, shocking, and visible instance of dreadful oppression, with massive, complicated, and, on a smaller scale, sometimes violent consequences.
During the several months that followed the killing of George Floyd, which occurred on May 25, 2020, close to eight thousand Black Lives Matter demonstrations are reported to have taken place in the United States, in more than two thousand locales in every part of the country. Many of those demonstrations must have drawn just a handful of people. Then again, a protest parading under my own windows in Brooklyn in early June filled eight lanes and took half an hour to pass by, and, far from being unusual, was followed by similar marches from time to time, week after week, eventually dwindling in size, then swelling up again, and never disappearing, not for several months. It is reasonable to assume that, nationwide in America, several million people took part in those demonstrations. These were the largest anti-racist demonstrations in the history of the United States, and they were echoed by still other Black Lives Matter demonstrations in a variety of other countries, which made them the largest such event in the history of the world. The scale of the phenomenon makes clear that, whatever the precise size of the crowds, enormous numbers of participants had to be people who, like Amos Adams Lawrence, went to bed as quiet citizens and waked up transformed into militants of the cause, ready to paint their own placards (a disdain for printed placards or anything else bespeaking the dead hand of top-down obedience was a style of the movement) and carry them through the streets, chanting “Black lives matter!” and other, scrappier slogans (“Why are you in riot gear? / I don’t see no riot here!”) that, until yesterday, would never have been theirs.
This has been, in short, a major event not just globally, but intimately and individually, one marcher at a time. The intimate and individual aspect has made itself visible, too, in the wave of professional groups and institutions of many sorts that have announced campaigns of their own to break up the segregated aspect (or worse) of institutional life in America — protests and campaigns in any number of business organizations and academic and cultural institutions, unto Kappa Alpha, the Robert E. Lee-revering college fraternity. And, in conformity with the historical pattern, the undertow of violence and destruction has likewise made itself visible, some of it a low-level political violence on the radical left, some of it in prolonged versions too (which is a fairly novel development); some of it a violence on the radical right, the ominous posturing with guns in public, the wave of right-wing car-rammings, the terrorist plots in Michigan, and some murders; and some of it outbreaks of looting, not on the urbicidal scale of the 1960s, but epidemically spread across the country, hotspot to hotspot.
The furors of 1854, 1965, and 2020 arose in response to particular circumstances, and a glance at the circumstances makes it possible to identify more precisely the intimate and even invisible nature of the mass conversions. The circumstances in 1854 amounted to a political betrayal. The mainstream of the political class had managed for a quarter of a century to persuade the antislavery public in large parts of the North that it was possible to be antislavery and conciliatory to the slave states at the same time, in the expectation that somehow things were going to work out. Instead, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, by enabling further triumphs of the slave system, demonstrated that nothing was working out. People who thought of themselves as patient and moderate reformers concluded that they had been played. And, with the arrest of a fugitive slave in antislavery’s principal city, the patient and moderate reformers felt personally implicated, too. They erupted in wrath on behalf of Anthony Burns, who was in front of them, and on behalf of the American slaves as a whole, who were mostly far away. They erupted on behalf of America and the principles of the American Revolution, which they understood to be identical to the antislavery cause (as expressed by Walt Whitman, still another enragé, in his poem on the Burns affair, “A Boston Ballad”). But they erupted also on their own behalf, one person at a time. They were earnest Christians who discovered, to their horror, that they had allowed themselves to be duped by smooth-talking politicians into acceding for a quarter of a century, through association with the abomination of slavery, to their own moral degradation or damnation.
The “stifling wrath” (Whittier’s phrase) was different in 1965, but not entirely so. Opinion in large parts of the country had come around in favor of civil rights, timidly perhaps, but with a feeling of moral righteousness. The philosophical battle against segregation and invidious discrimination seemed to have been won, as shown by Johnson’s success, a year earlier, in pushing through the Civil Rights Act. Under those circumstances, to see on television the state troopers of the rejected Old South descend upon the demonstrators in Selma, quite as if the country had not, in fact, already made a national decision — to see the troopers assault young John Lewis and other people well-known and respected for their noble agitations — to see, in short, the unreconstructed bigots display yet again, unfazed, the same stupid, brutal arrogance that had just gone down to defeat — to see this was — well, it did not feel like a betrayal exactly, but neither did it feel like a simple political setback. It felt like a national insult. It was an outrage to everyone who had waked up singing “We Shall Overcome.” It was an outrage to the murdered President Kennedy. Then again, to some people the spectacle signified the futility of political action and self-restraint and, in that fashion, it opened the gates of limitless rage.
The political origins of the mass response to the killing of George Floyd are likewise identifiable, though I will confess that, if you had asked me a day before it started to predict the future of radical reform in America, I would have identified a different set of origins, and I would have extrapolated a different outcome. The origins that did lead to the uprising had everything to do with Black Lives Matter as an organization, and not just as a vague movement. Everyone will recall that, in 2013, a Florida vigilante named George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of a black teenager named Trayvon Martin, and the acquittal led to furious demonstrations in Florida, California, and New York. A politically savvy young black woman in San Francisco named Alicia Garza posted stirring responses to the incident on Facebook which included the phrase “black lives matter,” simply as a heartbroken thought and not as a slogan, and which was reposted by others using #blacklivesmatter. Garza and a couple of her Californian friends, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, converted their hashtag into a series of social media pages and thus into a committee of sorts.
Garza was a professional community organizer in San Francisco, and, as she makes plain in her account of these events, The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart, she and the little committee did know how to respond to unpredicted events. The next year, when the police in Ferguson, Missouri, shot to death Michael Brown, a spontaneous local uprising broke out, which was the unpredicted event. Garza and her group made their way to Ferguson, and, by scientifically applying their time-tested skills, helped convert the spontaneous uprising into an organized protest. Similar protests broke out in other cities. The Black Lives Matter movement was launched — a decentralized movement animated by a sharply defined outrage over state violence against blacks, with encouragement and assistance from Garza and her circle, “fanning the flames of discontent,” as the Wobblies used to say, and then from other people, too, who mounted rival and schismatic claims to have founded the movement.
In New York City, the marches, beginning in 2014, were large and feisty — marches of young people, sometimes mostly white, sometimes multihued, with flames fanned by the New York Police Department, whose uniformed members managed to choke to death Eric Garner, guilty of the peaceable crime of selling bootleg cigarettes. I did a little marching myself, whenever an attractive cohort was passing by. Some of these marches were, in fact, attractive. Then again, some of them seemed to be youth adventures, a little daffy in their anti-police fervor. I kept expecting to discover, at the rear of one march or another, a graduate-student delegation wheeling an antique caboose loaded with dogmas of the university left, barely updated from the identity politics of the 1970s and 1980s, or shrewdly refitted for the anti-Zionist cause. And, to be sure, Angela Davis, who spent the 1970s and 1980s trying to attach the black cause in America to the larger cause of the Soviet Union, came out with a book in 2016 called Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement, trying to merge, on intersectionalist grounds, Black Lives Matter in Missouri to the Palestinian struggle against Israel.
As it happens, the anti-Zionists had some success in commandeering an umbrella group of various organizations, the Movement for Black Lives, that arose in response to the upsurge of Black Lives Matter demonstrations. But the anti-Zionists had no success, or only fleeting successes, in commandeering Black Lives Matter itself. Nor did the partisans of any other cause or organization manage to commandeer the movement. Alicia Garza makes clear in The Purpose of Power that, in regard to the maneuverings and ideological extravagances of sundry factions of the radical left, she is not a naïf, and she and her friends have known how to preserve the integrity of their cause. Still, she is not without occasional extravagances of her own. In her picture of African American history, she deems the “iconic trio” of freedom fighters to be Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and, of all people, Huey Newton, the leader of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s and 1970s, “the Supreme Servant of the People” — though Garza’s San Francisco Bay Area is filled with any number of older people who surely remember the Supreme Servant more sourly.
An occasional ideological extravagance need not get in the way, however, of a well-run organizing project. In San Francisco, a black neighborhood found itself suddenly deprived of school busses, and, as Garza describes, she and her colleagues efficiently mobilized the community, even if that involved the followers of Louis Farrakhan, of whom she appears to be not too fond. And lo, bus service resumed. Mobilizing a few neighborhoods around police violence is not any different. Still, the ideological impulses are sometimes hard to repress. From Garza’s standpoint, the overriding necessity during the presidential campaign of 2016 was to denounce the Democratic Party for its evident failings. Militants of Black Lives Matter duly made dramatic interventions in the campaign — at one of Bernie Sanders’ events, in order to denounce Bernie for failing to give black issues a proper consideration; and at an event of Hillary Clinton’s, in order to denounce Hillary for her own related inadequacies. But those were less than useful interventions. They seemed likely only to dampen popular black enthusiasm for the Democratic Party, precisely at a moment when the cause of anti-Trumpism depended on black enthusiasm — which led me to suppose, back in 2016, that Black Lives Matter was bound to remain a marginal movement, brilliantly capable of promoting its single issue, but incapable of maneuvering successfully on the larger landscape.
The leftwing upsurges that, in my too fanciful imagination, seemed better attuned to the age were Occupy Wall Street, which got underway in 2011, and Sanders’ 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns. Occupy mostly evaded the dismal fate that skeptical observers predicted for it (namely, a degeneration into mayhem, Portland-style); and the Sanders campaigns only partly indulged, and mostly evaded, its own most dismal possibility (namely, a degeneration into full-tilt Jeremy Corbynism). Instead, the two movements gathered up large portions of the American radical left and led them out of the political wilderness into the social mainstream — in the case of Occupy, by transforming the anti-Main Street hippie counterculture into a species of hippie populism, 1890s-style, with a Main-Street slogan about “the ninety-nine per cent”; and, in the case of Bernie’s campaigns, by convincing large portions of the protest left to lighten up on identity politics, to return to an almost forgotten working-class orientation of long ago, and to go into electoral politics. Those were historic developments, and, in my calculation, they were bound to encourage the more practical Democrats to make their own slide leftward into a renewed appreciation for the equality-of-results idea that Lyndon Johnson had tried to get at. And then, with the pandemic, a leftward slide began to look like common sense, without any need to call itself any kind of slide at all. In the early spring of 2020, that was the radical development I expected to see — a dramatic renewal of the unnamed social-democratic cause. Not an insurrection in the streets, but something larger.
Instead, there was an insurrection in the streets. The insurrection owed nothing at all to nostalgias for the 1890s or Eugene V. Debs or LBJ. It was an antiracist uprising. What can explain this?
The video of George Floyd explains it. Six or seven years of skillful agitations by the Black Lives Matter movement had made everyone aware of the general problem of police killings of black men, one killing after another, not in massacres, but in a grisly series. The agitations had made everyone aware of the furious resentment this was arousing in black communities everywhere. But Black Lives Matter had also tried to make the argument that police killings represent a larger underlying cruelty in American life, something built into the foundations of society. And, until that moment, the agitations had not been able to overcome a couple of widely shared objections to that last and most radical of contentions.
There was the objection that, however ghastly the series of killings had proved to be, the series did not constitute a unified wave, and nothing in particular was responsible for it. Ijeoma Oluo is a journalist in Seattle, whose book So You Want to Talk About Race is one of several new popular tracts on these themes. And she puts it this way:
In this individualist nation we like to believe that systemic racism doesn’t exist. We like to believe that if there are racist cops, they are individual bad eggs acting on their own. And with this belief, we are forced to prove that each individual encounter with the police is definitively racist or it is tossed out completely as mere coincidence. And so, instead of a system imbued with the racism and oppression of greater society, instead of a system plagued by unchecked implicit bias, inadequate training, lack of accountability, racist quotas, cultural insensitivity, lack of diversity, and lack of transparency — we are told we have a collection of individuals doing their best to serve and protect outside of a few bad apples acting completely on their own, and there’s nothing we can do about it other than address those bad apples once it’s been thoroughly proven that the officer in question is indeed a bad apple.
The second objection was the opposite of the first. It conceded Ijeoma Oluo’s points about police departments. But it went on to argue that, contrary to her contention, the failings of policework are, in fact, widely understood, and a campaign to address the failings is well underway. Perhaps the campaign has not advanced very far in the retrograde America that still flies the Confederate flag, but in other parts of the country, in the enlightened zones, where cities are liberal, and mayors likewise, and police chiefs are reform-minded, the campaign to modernize the police has been sincere, or mostly, and it has been social-scientifically sophisticated, and it has taken aim at racial biases. And if problems persist, these may amount to a failure of communication — the failure to conduct the kind of face-to-face conversations among reasonable people that President Obama promoted at the White House by having a beer with Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and the police officer who had treated Gates as a burglar on his own doorstep. Minor problems, then — problems calling for articulate presentations of up-to-date civic values from liberal politicians and reform leaders.
But the video was devastating to the first objection. And it was devastating to the second. The video shows a peaceful day on the sidewalks of enlightened Minneapolis. George Floyd is on the ground, restrained, surrounded by police officers, and Officer Derek Chauvin plants a confident knee on his neck. The officer looks calm, self-assured, and professional. Three other cops hover behind him, and they, too, seem reasonably calm, the group of them maintaining what appears to be the military discipline of a well-ordered police unit. Apart from Chauvin’s knee, nothing alarming appears to be taking place. No gunshots ring in the distance, no commotion rises from the street, no shouts against the police or anyone else — nothing that might panic the cops or enrage them or throw them into confusion. And, in that setting, the video shows the outcome. Floyd moans that he cannot breathe. Someone on the sidewalk tries to tell the oblivious Officer Chauvin that something is wrong. And, for the many millions of people who watched the video, the shocking quality was double or triple.
If even a firecracker had gone off in the distance, the viewers could have concluded that Officer Chauvin was overcome with fear, and his actions might be understandable, though a more skillful cop would have known how to keep his cool. Or, if only Officer Chauvin had looked wild-eyed and upset, the viewers could have concluded that here was a madman. But, no. Chauvin and the other cops, maintaining their unit discipline, plainly show that all was well, from their standpoint. The four of them make no effort to prevent the people on the sidewalk from observing the event. No one seems embarrassed. These are cops who appear to believe themselves to be operating by the book.
And yet, how can they believe such a thing? Everyone who watched that video was obliged to come up with an explanation. The obvious one was that, in Minneapolis, the four police officers do not look like rule-breaking rogues because they are not, in fact, breaking rules — not in their own minds, anyway. Yes, they may be going against the advice proffered by their reform-minded department chief and their hapless mayor, the bloodless liberal. But they are conforming to the real-life professional standards of their fellow officers, which are the standards upheld by the police unions everywhere, which are, in turn, the standards upheld by large parts of the country, unto the most national of politicians. “Please don’t be too nice,” said the president of the United States to the police officers of Long Island, New York, in July 2017, with specific advice to take people under arrest and bang their heads as they are shoved into police vehicles. Why, then, should the four cops in Minneapolis have considered themselves rogues? That was the revelation in the video of George Floyd’s death.
And a large public drew large conclusions. To draw momentous conclusions from a single video shot on the sidewalks of Minneapolis might seem excessive. Yet that is how it is with the historic moments of overnight political conversion. There were four million slaves in 1854, but the arrest of a single one proved to be the incendiary event. In the case of George Floyd, the single video sufficed for a substantial public to conclude that, over the years, the public had been lied to about the complexities of policing; had been lied to about bad apples in uniform; had been lied to about the need for patience and the slow workings of the law. The public had been lied to by conservatives, who had denied the existence of a systemic racism; and had been lied to by liberals, who had insisted that systemic racism was being systematically addressed. Or worse, a large public concluded that it had been lied to about the state of social progress generally in America, in regard to race — not just in regard to policing, but in regard to practically everything, one institution after another. Still worse, a great many people concluded, in the American style, or perhaps the Protestant style, that, upon consideration, they themselves had been terribly complicit, and, in allowing themselves to be deceived by the police and the conservatives and the liberals, they had abandoned the black protesters, and they had allowed the police violence and the larger pattern of racial oppression to persist. Those were solemn conclusions, and they were arrived at in the most solemn of fashions, by gazing at a man as he passes from life to death.
So masses of people marched in the streets to rectify the social wrong. But they marched also to rectify the wrong nature of their own relation to society. This of course raises the question of what would be the right nature — which happens to be the topic of the new and extraordinarily popular literature of American antiracism.
The literary work that shaped the mass conversion to anti-racism in 1854 was Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, from 1852 — which was much despised by James Baldwin a century later for its demeaning portrait of the very people it was meant to support. The book that, more than any other, shaped the mass conversion in 1965 was Dark Ghetto, a sociological study from that same year, by Kenneth B. Clark — which was much despised at the time by Albert Murray, the author of The Omni-Americans, for what he, too, took to be a demeaning portrait of the very people it was meant to support. The book that, more than any other, has shaped the mass conversion of our own moment is Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, from 2015 — which was written in homage to Baldwin, and yet is bound to make us wonder what Murray would have thought, if he had lived another few years.
Between the World and Me has shaped events because, in a stroke of genius, Coates came up with the three main and heartrending tropes of the modern crisis behind the antiracist uprising — to wit, “the talk;” the killing by the police of a young black man; and the young man’s inconsolable mother. The form of the book is a frank and emotional letter from Coates to his young son, which amounts to “the talk,” advising the son on the realities of black life in a hostile white America. The killing that takes place is of an admirable young black man from Coates’ social circle at college. The inconsolable mother is the young man’s mother, whom Coates goes to visit. In laying out these elements, Coates has supplied a vocabulary for speaking about the realities of modern police violence against blacks, which is a language of family life: an intimate language, Baldwinesque and not sociological, a language of family grit and grief.
Then again, he speaks insistently and emotionally but also somewhat abstractly about the black body and its vulnerability — not the beauty of the black body, but, instead, its mortifications, considered historically. These are the physical horrors of slavery long ago, conceived as horrors of an ever-present era, as experienced by himself as a young boy growing up in the rough neighborhoods of Baltimore, or as a child subjected to what appear to have been his father’s disciplinary beatings. This aspect of the book, the contemplation of the body and its mortifications, amounts, in effect, to a theory of America. Or rather, it amounts to a counter-theory, offered in opposition to the doctrine that he describes as the capital-D “Dream.” The Dream, as he lays it out, is the American idea that is celebrated by white people at Memorial Day barbecues. Coates never specifies the fundamentals of the idea, but plainly he means the notion that, in its simple-minded version, regards America as an already perfect expression of the democratic ideal, a few marginal failings aside. Or he means the notion that, in a more sophisticated way, regards 1776 as the American origin, and regards America’s history as the never-ending struggle, ever-progressive and ever-victorious, a few setbacks aside, to bring 1776 to full fruition. A theory of history, in short.
His counter-theory, by contrast, postulates that, from the very start, America has been built on the plundering of the black body, and the plundering has never come to an end. This is an expressive idea. It scatters the dark shadow of the past over every terrible thing that happens in the present, which is never wrong to do, if the proportions are guarded. Yet Coates adopts an odd posture toward his own idea, such that, in one way or another, he ends up miniaturizing certain parts of his story. When he conjures the Dream, the precise scene that he brings to life is of little blond boys playing with toy trucks and baseball cards at the Memorial Day barbecue, as if this were the spectacle that arouses his resentment. When he conjures his own adult experience with the historic mortifications, he describes a disagreeable altercation on an escalator on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where a white lady treats him and his toddler son in a tone of haughty disdain, and is seconded by a white man, and the temperature rises — as if this were the legacy of the horrors of long ago.
The incident on the escalator comprises a climax of sorts in Between the World and Me — the moment when Coates himself, together with his toddler, has to confront the reality of American racism. And yet the incident is inherently ambiguous. He gives us no precise reason to share his assumption that the woman and the man are angry at him on a racist basis — an observation made by Thomas Chatterton Williams in his discussion of the scene in his own book, Self-Portrait in Black and White. Williams wonders even if Coates’ anger at the lady’s haughtiness might not have alarmed the lady and the man, with misunderstandings of every kind likely to have resulted — an easy thing to imagine in a town like New York, where sidewalk incidents happen all the time, and whites presume their own liberal innocence, and blacks do not, and correct interpretations are not always obvious. The ambiguity of the scene amounts to yet another miniaturization. The miniaturized portraits are, of course, deliberate. They allow Coates to express the contained anger of a man who, in other circumstances, would be reliably sweet-tempered.
He does present himself as a loving man — as a father, of course (which confers a genuine tenderness on the book), but also in regard to African American life as a whole. And yet something about this, too, his love for black America, ends up miniaturized. His principal narrative of African America is a portrait of Howard University from his own school-days, presented as an idyllic place, intellectually stimulating, pleasant, socially marvelous, affection-inspiring and filled with family meaning, too, given that his father, the Black Panther, had worked there as a research librarian — an ideal school, in sum, designed to generate graduates such as himself, therefore a splendid achievement of black America. But the argument that he makes about the ever-present universe of American slavery and the eternal vulnerability of the black body makes it seem as if, over the centuries, black America has achieved nothing at all, outside of music, perhaps, to which he devotes a handful of words. It is a picture of the black helplessness that racist whites like to imagine, supine and eternally defeated. This was Albert Murray’s objection to the black protest literature of the 1960s, with its emphasis on victimhood — the literature that was unable to see or acknowledge that, in the face of everything, black America has contributed from the very start to what Coates disparages as the Dream, or what Murray extolls as the Omni-America, which is the mulatto civilization that, in spite of every racial mythology, has always been white, black, and American Indian all at once.
I do not mean to suggest that Coates’ bitterness is inauthentic. Frank B. Wilderson III is twenty years older than Coates and, with his degrees from Dartmouth, Columbia, and Berkeley, is today the chair of the African-American Studies department at the University of California Irvine. His recent book, Afropessimism, conjures a similar landscape of anger and bitterness, as if in confirmation of Coates, except in a version that is far more volcanic, or perhaps hysterical. Coates during his college years in the 1990s was, as he explains, an adept of Malcolm X, but then outgrew the exotic trappings of Malcolm’s doctrine, without rejecting the influence entirely. Wilderson, during his own youth in the 1970s, was a “revolutionary communist,” in an acutely intellectual, Third Worldist fashion. He was an admirer of the Black Liberation Army, which was the guerrilla tendency that emerged from Eldridge Cleaver’s faction of the Black Panthers on the West Coast (and from City College in New York). The great inspiring global example of revolutionary resistance, in Wilderson’s eyes, was the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, given its uncompromising struggle against the Zionist state — which, being a man of ideologies, he imagined (and evidently still imagines) to be a white European settler colony. And the Black Liberation Army, in his view, was the PFLP’s American counterpart.
Revolutionary communism left him feeling betrayed, however, or perhaps singed — damaged and enraged not by his black comrades in the United States, but by everyone else: by the whites of the revolutionary communist movement (namely, the Weather Underground, who gave up the struggle and returned to their lives of white privilege), and even more so by the non-blacks “of color.” He felt especially betrayed by the Palestinians. He was horrified to discover that a Palestinian friend in his hometown of Minneapolis, who despised Israelis, reserved a particular contempt for Israel’s Ethiopian Jews. And, in despair at the notion that even Palestinians, the vanguard of the worldwide vanguard, might be racist against blacks, Wilderson turned away from revolutionary Marxism, and he distilled his objections and complaints into a doctrine of his own — it is a doctrine, though a very peculiar one — which he calls Afropessimism.
The doctrine is a racialized species of post-Marxism. Wilderson thinks that, instead of the world being riven by Marx’s economic class conflict, or by the imperialist versus anti-imperialist conflict of Marxism in its Third Worldist version, it is riven by the conflict between the non-blacks and the blacks. The non-blacks regard themselves as the capital-H Human race, and they do so by seeing in the blacks a sub-human race of slaves. And the non-blacks cannot give up this belief because, if they did so, they would lose their concept of themselves as the Human race. Nor is there any solution to this problem, apart from the “end of the world,” or an apocalypse. The idea is fundamentally a variant of certain twentieth-century theories about the Jews — e.g., Freud’s notion that hatred of the Jews supplies the necessary, though unstated, foundation for the Christian concept of universal love. Freud’s theory is not especially expressive, though. Wilderson’s theory expresses. It vents. But the venting is not meant to serve a constructive purpose. Wilderson tells us that he studied under Edward Said at Columbia University, and he was greatly influenced. He admired Said’s resolute refusal to accept the existence of a Jewish state in any form. But Said’s revolutionary aspiration, in conformity with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was to replace the Jewish state with something else. Wilderson’s Afropessimism entertains no such aspirations. It is “a looter’s creed,” in his candid phrase — meaning, a lashing out, intellectually violent, without any sort of positive application. Positive applications are inconceivable because the non-black hatred of blacks is unreformable.
Still, he does intend Afropessimism to be a demystifier, and in this regard his doctrine seems to me distinctly useful. The doctrine beams a clarifying light on the reigning dogma on the American left just now, which is intersectionalism — a dogma that is invoked by one author after another in the antiracist literature, with expressions of gratitude for how illuminating it is, and how comforting it is. Intersectionalism is a version of the belief, rooted in Marx, that a single all-encompassing oppression underlies the sufferings of the world. Marx considered the all-encompassing oppression to be capitalism. But intersectionalism considers the all-encompassing oppression to be bigotry and its consequences — the bigotry that takes a hundred forms, which are racism, misogyny, homophobia, and so forth, splintering into ever smaller subsets. Intersectionalism considers that various subsets of the all-encompassing oppression, being aspects of the larger thing, can be usefully measured and weighed in relation to one another. And the measuring and weighing should allow the victims of the many different oppressions to recognize one another, to identify with one another, and to establish the universal solidarity of the oppressed that can bring about a better world.
But Wilderson’s Afropessismism argues that, on the contrary, the oppression of blacks is not, in fact, a variation of some larger terrible thing. And it is not comparable to other oppressions. The oppression of blacks has special qualities of its own, different from all other oppressions. He puts this hyperbolically, as is his wont, by describing the bigotry against blacks as the “essential” oppression, not just in the United States — though it ought to be obvious that, whether it is put hyperbolically or not, the oppression of blacks throughout American history does have, in fact, special qualities. On this point he is right. He is committed to his hyperbole, however, and it leads to an added turn in his argument. He contemplates, as an exercise in abstract analysis, the situation of a black man who rapes a white woman. In his view, the black man ought to be regarded as more oppressed than his own victim. The man may have more force, but he has less power. He is the victim of the “essential” oppression, and she is not, which makes his victimhood deeper. Wilderson’s purpose in laying out this argument is to shock us into recognizing how profound black oppression is.
Only, the argument leads me to a different recognition. I would think that, if black oppression cannot be likened to other oppressions — if a special quality renders the black oppression unique — the whole logic of intersectionalism collapses. For if the black oppression is sui generis, why shouldn’t other oppressions likewise be regarded as sui generis? The oppression experienced by the victims of rape, for instance — why shouldn’t that, too, be regarded as sui generis? Why not say that many kinds of oppression are genuinely terrible, and there is no point in trying to establish a system for comparing and ranking the horrible things that people undergo? There might even be a virtue in declining to compare and rank one oppression with another. A main result of comparing and ranking the various oppressions is, after all, to flatten the individual experience of each, which softens the terribleness of the oppression — an especially misguided thing to do in regard to the racial history of the United States.
It may be a mistake to argue with Frank Wilderson III too much. He is a brilliant man with a literary gift that is only somewhat undone by a graduate-school enthusiasm for critical theory. But, at the same time, a cloud of mental instability or imbalance drifts across his book. He explains in his opening pages that his shock at discovering a casual anti-black racism among Palestinians induced in him a serious nervous breakdown, and he appears never to have fully recovered. He describes the sinister persecution that he believes he and his lover underwent at the hands of the FBI, and his account hints of paranoia. Then, too, it is striking how insistently he goes about miniaturizing his own picture of the racism against blacks that he believes to be inherent in the whole of civilization. The great traumatic experience of Wilderson’s childhood appears to have been the moment when the mother of a white friend persisted in asking him, “How does it feel to be a Negro?”
He is traumatized by the poor reception of his incendiary ideas at an academic conference in Berlin, not just among the straight white males whose essence it is to be oppressive, but among the women and non-whites whose intersectional essences ought to have impelled in them a solidarity with his oppressed-of-the-oppressed outlook. Especially traumatic for him is a Chinese woman at the scholarly conference, who, in spite of being multi-intersectionally oppressed, fails to see the persuasive force of his ideas. Then, too, a fight that turns nasty with a white woman in the upstairs apartment back in Minneapolis seems to him a recursion to the social relations of slavery times. The man has no skin. Every slight is a return to the Middle Passage. His book resembles Ta-Nehisi Coates’ in this respect yet again, except with a pop-eyed excess. The shadow of slavery times darkens even his private domestic satisfactions. He appears to regard his white wife as, in some manner, his slave master, though he seems not to hold this against her. It is positively a relief to learn from his book that, during his career as communist revolutionary, he went to South Africa to participate in the revolution (by smuggling weapons, while working as a human-rights activist for Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch), but had to flee the country because he was put on a list of “ultra-left-ists” to be “neutralized” by the circle around Nelson Mandela himself — a level-headed person, at last!
But it is dismaying also to notice that, for all his efforts to identify anti-black racism and to rail against it, the whole effect of Wilderson’s Afropessimism is to achieve something disagreeably paradoxical. He means to make a forward leap beyond Marx, and he ends up making a backward leap to the era, a generation before Marx, when Hegel felt entitled to write the black race out of capital-H History. Hegel believed that black Africa, where slavery was practiced, existed outside of the workings of historical development that functioned everywhere else — outside of the human struggles that make for civilization and progress. Hegel was, of course, hopelessly ignorant of black life. Wilderson is not, and, even so, he has talked himself into reproducing the error. Wilderson, too, believes that blacks live outside of History. It is because blacks have never ceased to be the slaves that Hegel imagined them permanently to be. Wilderson explains: “for the Slave, historical ‘time’ is not possible.” Here is the meaning of the bitterness that Wilderson expresses wildly, and that Coates expresses not wildly. It is more than a denial of the black achievement in America, along the lines that exasperated Murray half a century ago. It is a denial, in effect, of tragedy, which exists only where there is choice, which is to say, where there is history. It is an embrace of the merely pitiful, where there is no choice, but only suffering — an embrace of the pitiful in, at least, the realm of rhetoric, where it is poignant (these are literary men), but lifeless.
Ibram X. Kendi appears, at first glance, to offer a more satisfactory way of thinking in his two books on American racism, Stamped from the Beginning: The Deﬁnitive History of Racist Ideas in America, which runs almost six hundred pages, as befits its topic, and the much shorter How To Be an Antiracist, which distills his argument (and does so in the autobiographical vein that characterizes all of the current books on American racism). Kendi does believe in history. He thinks of the history of racism as a dialectical development instead of a single despairing story of non-progress, as in Wilderson’s despairing rejection of historical time, or a single story of ever-victorious progress, as in the naive celebration of the sunny American “Dream.” He observes that racist ideas have a history, and so do antiracist ideas, and the two sets of ideas have been in complicated conflict for centuries. He also observes that black people can be racist and white people can be antiracist. He cites the example of the antislavery American white Quakers of the eighteenth century. He is the anti-Wilderson: he knows that the history of ideas about race and the history of races are not the same.
His fundamental approach is, in short, admirably subtle. Still, he feels the allure of simplifying definitions. Thus: “A racist idea is any idea that suggests one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any way.” And, with this formula established, he sets up a structure of possible ideas about blacks in America, which turn out to be three. These are: (a) the “segregationist” idea, which holds that blacks are hopelessly inferior; (b) the “assimilationist” idea, which holds that blacks do exhibit an inferiority in some regard, but, by assimilating to white culture, can overcome it; and (c) the “antiracist” idea, which holds that no racial group is either superior or inferior to any other “in any way.” His definitions establish what he calls the “duality of racist and antiracist.” And with his definitions, three-part divisions, and dualities in hand, he goes roaming across the American centuries, seeking to label each new person or doctrine either as a species of racist, whether “segregationist” or “assimilationist,” or else as a forthright “antiracist.”
In How to Be an Antiracist, he recalls a high school speech-contest oration that he delivered to a mostly black audience in Virginia twenty years ago, criticizing in a spirit of uplift various aspects of African-American life — which, at the time, seemed to him a great triumph of his young life. In retrospect, though, sharpened by his analytic duality of racist and antiracist, he reflects that, in criticizing African Americans, his high-school self had fallen into the “assimilationist” trap. He had ended up fortifying the white belief in black inferiority — which is to say he had therefore delivered a racist speech! Is he fair to himself in arriving at such a harsh and humiliating judgment? In those days he attended Stonewall Jackson High School in Manassas, and, though he does not dwell over how horrible is such a name, it is easy to concede that, under the shadow of the old Confederacy, a speech criticizing any aspect whatsoever of black life might, in fact, seem humiliating to recall. On the other hand, if every commentary on racial themes is going to be summoned to a high-school tribunal of racist-versus-antiracist, the spirit of nuance, which is inseparable from the spirit of truth, might have a hard time surviving.
Kendi turns from his own mortifying student oration to the writings of W.E.B. Du Bois. He recalls Du Bois’ famous “double consciousness” in The Souls of Black Folk, which reflected a desire “to be both a Negro and an American.” In Kendi’s reasoning, an “American” must be white. But this can only mean, as per his definitions, that W.E. B. Du Bois was — the conclusion is unavoidable — a racist, in the “assimilationist“ version. Du Bois was a black man who wished no longer to be entirely black. Or worse, Du Bois wanted to rescue the African Americans as a whole from their “relic of barbarism” — a racist phrase, in Kendi’s estimation — by having the African-Americans assimilate into the white majority culture. Du Bois’ intention, in short, was to inflict his own racism on everyone else. Such is the ruling of the high-school tribunal.
It is an analytical disaster. The real Du Bois was, to the contrary, a master of complexity, who understood that complexity was the black fate in America. Du Bois did not want to become white, nor did he want to usher the black population as a whole into whiteness. He wanted black Americans to claim what was theirs, which was the reality of being black and, at the same time, the reality of being American, a very great thing, which was likewise theirs. He knew that personal identity is not a stable or biological fact: it is a fluidity, created by struggle and amalgamation, which is the meaning, rooted in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind, of “double consciousness.” A man compromised by “assimilationist” impulses? No, one of the most eloquent and profound enemies of racism that America has ever produced.
Kendi is confident of his dualities and definitions. He is profligate with them, in dialectical pairings: “Cultural racist: one who is creating a cultural standard and imposing a cultural hierarchy among racial groups.” Versus: “Cultural antiracist: One who is rejecting cultural standards and equalizing cultural differences among racial groups.” And, with his motor running, one distinguished head after another falls beneath his blade. He recalls Jesse Jackson’s condemnation, back in the 1990s, of the campaign to teach what was called Ebonics, or black dialect, to black students. “It’s teaching down to our children,” said Jackson, which strikes Kendi as another example of “assimilationist” error. But Kendi does not seem to recognize who Jesse Jackson is. In his prime, Jesse Jackson was arguably the greatest political orator in America — the greatest not necessarily in what he said, which ran the gamut over the years, but in the magnificent way he said it. And the grandeurs of Jackson’s oratorical technique rested on the grandeurs of the black church ministry, which rest on, in turn, the heritage of the English language at its most majestic, which means the seventeenth century and the King James Bible. In condemning the promotion of Ebonics, Jackson was not attacking black culture. He was seeking to protect black culture at its loftiest, as represented by his own virtuosity at the pulpit and the podium — or so it seems to me.
But then, Kendi does not like the hierarchical implications of a word like “loftiest.” Naturally he disapproves of the critics of hip hop. He singles out John McWhorter, who has seen in hip-hop “the stereotypes that long hindered blacks,” but he must also have in mind critics like the late Stanley Crouch, who condemned hip hop on a larger basis, in order to defend the musical apotheosis that Crouch identified with Duke Ellington — condemned hip hop, that is, in order to defend the loftiness of black culture in yet another realm. In this fashion, Kendi’s dualities of racist and antiracist turn full circle, and Ibram X. Kendi, the scourge of racism, ends up, on one page or another, the scourge of entire zones — philosophy, oratory, jazz — of black America’s greatest achievements.
His ostensible purpose is to help good-hearted people rectify their thinking. It is a self-improvement project, addressed to earnest readers who wish to purge their imaginations of racist thoughts, in favor of antiracist thoughts. This sort of self-improvement is, of course, a fad of the moment. An early example was Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence: Understanding and Facilitating Diﬃcult Dialogues on Race, by the psychologist Derald Wing Sue, from 2015, a serious book with its share of genuine insights into microaggressions and other features of the awkward conversations that Americans do have on topics of race. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, by Robin DiAngelo, a diversity coach, is perhaps the best-known of these books — a slightly alarming book because its reliance on identity-politics analyses has the look of the right-wing race theoreticians of a century ago, except in a well-intentioned version. Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race, with its breezy air, is the most charming of the new books, though perhaps not on every page. But Kendi’s version is the most ambitious, and the most curious.
He does not actually believe in the possibilities of personal rectification — not, at least, as a product of education or moral suasion. In Stamped from the Beginning, he observes that “sacrifice, uplift, persuasion and education have not eradicated and will not eradicate racist ideas, let alone racist policies.” The battle of ideas does not mean a thing, and racists will not give up their racism. The people in power in the United States have an interest in maintaining racism, and they will not give it up. “Power will never self-sacrifice away from its self-interest. Power cannot be persuaded away from its self-interest. Power cannot be educated away from its self-interest.” Instead, the antiracists must force the people in power to take the right steps. But mostly the antiracists must find their own way, in his phrase, of “seizing power.” The phrase pleases Kendi. “Protesting against racist power and succeeding can never be mistaken for seizing power,” he says. “Any effective solution to eradicating American racism” — he means any effective method for eradicating it — “must involve Americans committed to antiracist policies seizing and maintaining power over institutions, neighborhoods, countries, states, nations — the world.” And then, having seized power, the antiracists will be able to impose their ideas on the powerless.
This attitude toward the seizure of power is known, in the old-fashioned leftwing vocabulary, as putschism. But as everyone has lately been able to see, there is nothing old-fashioned about it. The manifesto that was signed not long ago by hundreds of scholars at Princeton University, calling for the university administration to ferret out racist ideas among the professors, was accepted, and the university announced its intention to set up an official mechanism for investigating and suppressing professorial error. Can this really be so? It is so, and not just at Princeton. The controversies over “cancel culture” are controversies, ultimately, over the putschist instinct of crowds who regard themselves as antiracist (or as progressive in some other way) and wish to dispense with the inconveniences of argument and persuasion, in favor of getting some disfavored person fired or otherwise shut up. And the controversies have spread from the universities to the arts organizations and the press. I would think that anyone who admires Kendi’s argument for seizing power could only be delighted by the successful staffers’ campaign at the New York Times to fire its eminently liberal op-ed editor, whose error was to adhere to the Times tradition of publishing contrarian right-wing op-eds from time to time — though other people may suppose that putsches in the newsroom and in the universities amount to one more destructive undertow in the larger constructive antiracist wave.
A difficulty with putschism, in any case, has always been that putsch begets putsch, and the hard-liners will eventually set out to overthrow their wimpier comrades, and the reaction-aries will set out to overthrow the lot of them; and truth will not be advanced. But apart from the disagreeable impracticality of the putschist proposal, what strikes me is the inadequacy of Kendi’s rhetoric to express the immensity and the depth of the American racial situation. It is a dialectical rhetoric, but not an expressive one. It amounts to a college Bolshevism, when what is required is — well, I don’t know what is required, except to remark that, when you read Du Bois, you do get a sense of the immensity and the tragedy, and the inner nature of the struggle, and the depth of the yearnings.
Isabel Wilkerson’s alternative to this kind of thinking, presented in Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, manages to be lucid and poetic at the same time, perhaps not in every passage, but often enough over the course of her few hundred pages. She wishes to speak principally about social structures, and not as much about ideas. Only, instead of looking at economic classes, which is what people typically think of when they think about social structures, she speaks about social castes, as in India. The caste system in traditional Indian society is a rigid and ancient social structure, which divided and still divides the population into inherited classes, whose members work at certain occupations and not others, and perhaps dress in certain ways, or are physically distinct, or have distinctive names, and are forever stuck in the eternity of their caste status.
There was a vogue in the 1930s and 1940s for social scientists to venture into the scary old American Deep South and, by applying surreptitiously the techniques of anthropology, to look for social structures of that kind in Jim Crow America. Isabel Wilkerson is fascinated by those people — by the anthropologist Allison Davis especially, a pioneering black scholar, to whom she devotes a few enthusiastic pages in her book. She is taken with Davis’ insights and those of his colleagues. She sets out to update the insights to our own era. And, in doing so, she comes up with a marvelous insight, though it takes her until her fourth chapter to lay it out. A caste system, as she describes it, is defined by its antiquity. It resembles a theater play that has been running for a long time, with actors who have inherited their roles and wear the costumes of their predecessors. “The people in these roles,” she explains, “are not the characters they play, but they have played the roles long enough to incorporate the roles into their very being.” They have grown accustomed to the distribution of parts in their play––accustomed to seeing who plays the lead, who plays the hero, who are the supporting actors, who plays the comic sidekick, and who constitute the “undifferentiated chorus.” The play and the roles are matters of habit, but they take them to be matters of reality.
In a social system of that sort, custom and conformity are ultimately the animating forces. But then, in the American instance, if custom and conformity are the animating forces, there might not be much point in analyzing too deeply the ideas that people entertain, or think they entertain. And it might not be necessary to go rifling through a philosopher’s papers, looking for unsuspected error. Nor should it be necessary to set up language committees to promote new vocabularies and ban the old ones, in the belief that language-engineering will solve the social problems of past and present. That is Isabel Wilkerson’s major insight. She prefers to make social observations.
She glances at India in search of perspective into caste structures and customs, and, although Indian civilization differs in every possible way from American civilization, she is struck by the American parallels — by the visible similarities between the African-American caste status in the United States, at the disdained or reviled bottom of American society, and the status of the lowest caste in India, the Dalits, or untouchables, at the disdained or reviled bottom of Indian society. She does seem to be onto something, too. She tells us that, in India, Dalit leaders and intellectuals have been struck by the same parallels, and they have recognized the far-away African-Americans as their own counterparts, and have felt an instinctive and sympathetic curiosity. And then, seeking to deepen her perspective, Wilkerson examines a third instance of what she believes to be a caste structure, which was the situation of the Jews under Nazis in Germany.
This seems to me only partly a good idea. There is no question that, in traditional Christian Europe, as well as in the traditional Muslim world, the Jews occupied the position of a marginalized or subordinate caste, with mandated clothing, sundry restrictions, humiliations, and worse. Traditionalism, however, was not the Nazi idea. Still, it is true that, on their way to achieving their non-traditional goal, the Nazis did establish a caste system of sorts, if only as a transitional state, with the Jews subjected to the old ghetto oppressions in an exaggerated form. And some of those measures drew overtly on the Jim Crow precedent in America. Wilkerson reminds us that, in preparation for establishing the Nuremburg Laws for Jews in Germany in 1935, the Nazi leaders undertook a study of American racial laws, the laws against miscegenation, the laws on blood purity, and so forth. And with the American example before them, the Nazis established their Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor and their larger code. She tells us that, in regard to blood purity, the Nazis even felt that America, with its “one drop” mania, had gone too far! — which is not news, but is bound to horrify us, even so.
But she also draws another benefit from making the Nazi comparison, which has to do with the tenor and the intensity of her exposition. The Nazi comparison introduces a note from abroad, and the foreign note allows her to speak a little more freely than do some of the other commentators on the American scene. The foreign note, in this instance, is an uncontested symbol of political evil, and, having invoked it, she feels no need to miniaturize her American conclusions, and no need to introduce into them an aspect of childhood traumas. She does not draw a veil of critical theory over her presentation. Michel Foucault’s focus on the body appears to enter into her thinking not at all. Nor does she feel it necessary to toy with mental imbalances and nihilist gestures. Nor does she look for ways to shock anyone, beyond what is inherent to her topic.
She points at the Nazis, and at the American champions of Jim Crow — points at the medical doctors in Germany, and at their medical counterparts in America, who, in the grip of their respective doctrines, felt free to conduct monstrous scientific experiments on victims from the designated inferior race. And any impulse that she may have felt to inhibit her expression or resort to euphemism or indirection disappears at once. In short chapters, one after another, she paints scenes — American scenes, not German ones — of mobs murdering and disfiguring their victims, of policemen coolly executing men accused of hardly anything, of a young boy murdered because of a love-note sent to a girl from the higher caste. She paints tiny quotidian scenes of minor cruelty as well — the black Little Leaguer who is prevented from joining his white teammates in a joyous festivity, or, then again, the Negro League career of Satchel Paige, perhaps baseball’s greatest pitcher, who watched his prime years go by without being able to display his skill in the Major Leagues. She does not twist her anger at these things into something understated, or into something crazy. Nor does she redirect her anger at secondary targets — at the white American resistance to discussing these things, or the lack of communication, or the lack of sympathy. Silence and the unspoken are not her principal themes.
Her theme is horror, the thing itself — the murdered victims dangling from the trees. Still, she does get around to addressing the phenomenon of denial and complacency and complicity, and, when she does so, her analytical framework allows her to be quietly ferocious. She reminds us that, apart from leading the Confederate troops in their war against the American republic, Robert E. Lee was a man who personally ordered the torture of his own slaves. He was a grotesque. She tells us that, even so, there were, as of 2017, some two hundred thirty memorials to Robert E. Lee in the United States. To underscore her point, she describes in a flat reportorial tone a public hearing in New Orleans on the matter of what to do about a statue of Lee, at which a retired Marine Corps officer spoke: “He stood up and said that Erwin Rommel was a great general, but there are no statues of Rommel in Germany. ‘They are ashamed,’ he said. ‘The question is, why aren’t we?’” — which is Isabel Wilkerson’s manner of staring her readers in the eye.
It would be possible to go through Caste and pick it apart, from the standpoint of social theory. But social theory is not really her theme, even if the anthropologists of the 1930s are her heroes and their concept of social caste drives her book forward. Mostly the work is an artful scrapbook of various perspectives on the black oppression in America, divided into short sections — on the idea of caste, on the Indian social system, on Indian scholars she has met, on her visits to Germany, on Nazi legal codes, on the horrors of lynching, and still more horrors of lynching, on the severity of Jim Crow laws, on the pattern of police murders of blacks, and, then again, on her own experiences. She recounts any number of vexing or infuriating encounters that she has undergone with people at airports or restaurants, the DEA agents who decide that she is suspicious, the waiter who manages not to serve her table, together with vexing experiences that other black people have had — a distinguished black man mistaken for a bicycle messenger in his own apartment building, a student from Nigeria, whose language is English, praised for being able to speak it.
Certain of these incidents may seem ambiguous, and yet they do add up, such that, even if one or two of the incidents might be viewed in a kinder light by someone else, the pattern is hard to deny. The meaning of the pattern becomes identifiable, too, given the historical scenes that she has described. And yet, although she has every desire to register and express her own fury, and no desire to tamp it down, she has also no desire to drown in it. She looks for reassuring signs of a liberating potential, and she finds them here and there — in the moral progress of the Germans and their reckoning with civic monuments. Barack Obama’s presidency strikes her as a not insignificant step forward. As for what came after Obama — well, she concludes the main text of her book with a sentimental anecdote about a surly MAGA-hatted white plumber, unhappy at having to work for a black lady in her leaky basement, who softens up after a while, which suggests the possibility of progress, in spite of everything.
I suppose that hard-bitten readers will figure that Wilkerson goes too far in clinging to some kind of optimism for poor old America. But then, I figure that I have some acquaintance with the potential readership for her book and the several other books that I have just discussed, if only because the readership spent several months in the spring and summer of 2020 marching around my own neighborhood. I can imagine that each of those books is bound to appeal to some of those militant readers, and to disappoint the others. Ta-Nehisi Coates will always be a popular favorite, if only because of his intimate voice, which has an attractive tone regardless of what he happens to be saying. Then again, in the course of the uprising, a carload of gangsters profited from the mayhem to break into a liquor store around the corner from my building and to carry away what they could. And those particular people, if they happen to be book readers, which is entirely possible, may look on Coates with a cold eye, given how lachrymose and virtuous he insists on being. They also won’t care for Alicia Garza’s California life-story and organizers’ tips in The Purpose of Power, and they are certainly not going to see anything of interest in the cheerful suggestions to white people in Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race. The gangsters might like Frank Wilderson III’s Afropessimism, though. Heartily I recommend it to them. Still other people, large numbers of them, will prefer the scholarly dialectics and historical research of Ibram X. Kendi.
And yet, I suspect that among the book-reading protesters, the largest number will prefer, as I do, Isabel Wilkerson and her Caste — prefer it because of her emotional honesty and directness, and because of her anger, which somehow ends up angrier than everyone else’s among the writers, and, then again, because it is refreshing to find someone with a greater interest in the shape of society than in the marks of interior belief, and still again, because of her streak of optimism. I cannot prove it, but, in my own perception, directness, anger, and a streak of optimism were main qualities that marched in the streets during those months — even if some people were adrift in academic leftism, and other people were looters, and still others rejoiced in singing, “Jesus is the answer / for all the world today.” The protesters chanted only a handful of slogans, which testified to the discipline that mostly dominated those enormous marches. Sometimes — not often — they chanted “George! Floyd!” — which was the most moving chant of all: the note of death, which underlay the vast national event. But mostly the protesters chanted “black lives matter” — which was and is a formidable slogan: an angry slogan, plaintive, unanswerable. And somehow “black lives matter” is a slogan flecked with a reform spirit of democratic hopefulness, not exactly as in 1854, and not exactly as in 1965, and yet, given the different circumstances, pretty much as in those other eras, in conformity with the invisible geological structures of the American civilization.