State of Disunion

What Racism Steals From Black Americans

No matter the progress we've made as a nation, there has always been an unbridgeable gap between where we are and where we could have been if only we had embraced equality.

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It is yet another Black History Month when the American public will be taught that racism is a presence. We will be told that we can hear racism in shouted epithets, see it in “whites only” signs and burning crosses; process it as an observable truth. Universally identifiable racism is the only way to know that it’s real.

Like any good lie, the false tangibility of racism is made partly out of truth. There is serious and meaningful harm in the slurs and violence and malice aforethought that characterize the spectrum of visible racism. The pain caused by this cruelty shouldn’t be minimized or denied, and its practice must remain acknowledged and condemned. It’s not any less real for being overt. The problem of the lie is that what we see so often distracts us from what we don’t.

It’s a cold sleight-of-hand that makes us forget that racism is a bully and a thief. The latter attribute, in its least malicious form, picks pockets and evaporates resources while insisting no such prosperity was there in the first place. At its most heinous, it silences voices and steals futures, snidely insinuating the whole time that there was nothing worth getting from the lives unlived. As any thief, racism is marked less by what remains than what’s missing.

And—oh!—if you look at the empty space Black people in this country could have inhabited, what an unfathomable loss stares back. Into the abyss, we have thrown countless masterpieces that were never produced, tremendous talents that were never developed, the powerful aspirations of visionaries who burned their best hours on opposing racism rather than empowering themselves. We have the physicists who died in bondage and the inventors who were forbidden to learn how to read. This without even mentioning the infinite number of those whose exploits, skills, and passions shaped the world without ever getting their due, in either recognition or resources. For all the progress and achievement of the United States, there is an unbridgeable chasm between where we are and where we could have been if we had embraced equality.

But the national project is a small and petty thing compared to all the lives that we never lived. Enslavement, segregation, economic, social, and cultural negligence have suppressed and destroyed more fates than we can ever account for. We are haunted by the specters of the joys that could have been, the experiences we were not allowed to have and the people we were not permitted to be. We carry the pain of the families that were permanently sundered as parents and children, siblings of blood and choice, partners and lovers were separated by the auction block. We are left cold by the homes that never sheltered us, either to give us safety and refuge or to provide stability in this chaotic economic experiment. We are staggered by the heavy regrets born of those hopes and dreams that never materialized because people who look like us don’t get to achieve things like that.

Even when Blackness defies the odds, the accomplishment reveals the emptiness underneath. The more singular the achievement, the deeper the rift. We praise Black breakthroughs like they represent the triumph of the individual instead of the brokenness of the institution. For people who have been here since before the inception of the country, it is embarrassing that organizations are proud of having “the first Black” anything in the 21st century. There is no rational claim that Barack Obama was the first Black man who was qualified to be President of the United States; he simply was the first one who lived in a society that wouldn’t deny it.

And as our eyes are drawn toward the legitimate success of Black excellence, the difficult terrain and narrow odds are swept out of the way. Blink, and you miss that we are supposed to be grateful that an overqualified Black person has been reluctantly accepted after an eternity of silently tolerated white mediocrity. Pause, and you’ll hear that we are not supposed to question where the routes are for the second and third and fourth and more Black people to have their take and make their marks. Fail to check the empty space for even a moment, and you won’t realize that white supremacy makes slightly less oppression sound like a gift. This makes Black prosperity, joy, rest, and accomplishments things to be received or earned from whiteness rather than goals we actualize for ourselves.

So it is unsurprising that the emptiest space that racism crafts is the want of feeling, the lack of human empathy in whiteness. The gap that decency should occupy is where seemingly normal, average people find the energy to organize and cheer on the suppression of Black stories told with Black voices without recognizing themselves or their actions as racist. The void of mutual respect vomits out the confusion and dismay that drives people to call armed security to deal with Black neighbors, colleagues, and strangers, no matter how ordinary their behavior. And it is that hollowness of the heart that drives those with badges to believe that Black deaths are more valuable to society than Black lives.

Tyre Nichols wasn’t stopped that night because of his behavior, and nothing he did could have justified the cops beating him to death. Unarmed drivers being stopped on flimsy pretenses in order to create an opportunity to physically harm them should not be a thing anywhere for any reason, but especially not in a country that calls itself the “land of the free.” Armed security forces shouldn’t roam the streets looking to escalate small infractions into full 4th Amendment violations. And no person should be considered so irrelevant that state forces believe that killing them will bring no consequences. Yet Black people have been so disposable for so long, that this basic infringement of our natural rights is treated as normal, acceptable, and even morally good.

Begging for acknowledgement of our humanity from the very people, institutions, and social groups that actively withhold it is what makes racism so insidious. When suffering is the product of absence — of decency, of dignity, of respect, of equality — it is fueled just as easily by neglect and dismissal as by abuse and resentment. As it turns out, apathy does not pay down debts of humanity any better than antipathy.

The compounding interest that accrues in the meantime represents a wealth of human experience and potential that is being frittered away on permanent activism in self-defense, an overabundance of exertion to “prove” an unattainable worthiness, or the abject dejection of poverty. While society uses Black History Month to congratulate itself for fewer incidents of individual animus and interpersonal violence, Black people are left to fill the endless grief of who we aren’t allowed to be.

So as white governors and legislators spread silence where Black voices once spoke, emptiness where Black art once dazzled, ignorance where Black knowledge once informed: Do not forget what is missing. Look for it, seek it, be alive to it. The vacuum of racism is all around us, stealing possibility and prosperity with as much impact as any billy club or bullet. If we forget what is supposed to be there, we will lose a future of fulfillment, a Blackness that thrives, present and proud. Because the truth of Black history is that debts always come due.

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