A white NYC lawyer threatens to call ICE against two restaurant workers speaking Spanish on the job. A white woman calls police against black people having a BBQ in an Oakland park. A white graduate student at Yale calls campus police on a black woman napping in her dorm’s common room. A white Philadelphia Starbucks employee calls police on two black men waiting for a friend. A Latino customer finds a racial slur written on his coffee cup. A white woman in Memphis calls police on a black real estate investor inspecting a house. A white woman in Rialto, California calls police on several black people checking out an airbnb, says they failed to wave to her. Two Native American teens on a tour of Colorado State University are briefly detained by police after the white parent of another prospective student called police because she said they made her “nervous.” The white co-owner of a golf course in Pennsylvania calls the police on a group of black women, accusing them of playing too slowly. A white employee of a gym in Seacaucus, NJ, tells two black men, one of whom is a gym member, that they must leave or pay, sparking allegations of racial profiling.
The above incidents were taken from the press and social media in the late spring of 2018; some of them received thousands of hits and shares. Most of the complainants were white women; let readers make of that what they wilI. In the Yale and Oakland cases, commenters made much of the advanced degrees of the complainants, revealing the commenters’ surprise that “educated” whites could be “racists.”
Every incident on the list was the act of an individual, not an institution.
Here were some of the reactions from official society:
The lawyer’s partners expelled him from his office. Thousands showed up outside his home to denounce him with a mariachi party.
Oakland officers wrote a report but issued no citations, made no arrests and allowed the barbecue to continue. Oakland residents held a huge cookout on the same site on May 10.
Yale campus police told the woman who called not to bother them with non-police business.
Starbucks shut down all its stores nationwide for sensitivity training and announced a new policy permitting people to sit there and use the rest rooms even if they do not make a purchase. (Were the sensitivity training sessions compulsory? Were employees paid for attending them? Did their pay include tips? Were black employees included?)
Memphis police told the woman who complained about the real estate investor, “You’re going to let him do what he’s going to do. Listen to me— if you try to do anything to stop him, I’m going to take you to jail.”
Officials at Colorado State apologized. The woman who called the police said she felt “ridiculous.” The fitness chain apologized and promised to improve staff training.
Officers who came to the golf course determined it wasn’t a police matter and left. The women eventually left on their own and no charges were filed. The owner of the course apologized to the women the next day.
Several incidents took place at Waffle House restaurants: in Nashville, a gunman killed four young “people of color” before being stopped by an unarmed customer; in Saraland, Alabama a Waffle House employee called the police after a patron allegedly complained about customer service. The police tackled the patron, a black woman, “placing a hand on her throat and exposing her breasts,” and threatened to break her arm. In Pinson, Alabama a black customer said she was locked outside of a WH while the restaurant continued to serve white customers. In Warsaw, N.C. police officers choked a 22-year-old black man who was at a WH after taking his 16 year-old-sister to her high school prom. The incident was sparked by an employee calling the police after the patron allegedly complained about customer service. All that within two weeks. Assuming all the reports are accurate, that is not so many when the number of WH restaurants (more than two thousand nationwide, mainly in the south), is taken into account. The incidents have sparked a call for a nationwide boycott. As we go to press a report has come of another incident, from Florida, in which the police handcuffed a black couple who disputed a charge for orange juice. (I can testify that the WH menu is unclear on this point.) WH apologized the next day, refunded the cost of their meal and announced it plans to offer “additional training” in customer service to its employees at the restaurant; so far there is no word of any nationwide plan. One can only imagine how it would go over with the middle-aged and older ladies who work at WH, whose feet hurt—not your typical Starbucks worker. There appears to be something special about WH: https://www.eater.com/2017/5/2/15471798/waffle-house-history-menu.
Even counting Waffle House, of the millions of daily interactions in which whites serve black people (and the other way around), the vast majority go off with a courteous smile and a thank you, ma’am—or at least without the calling out of the police.
Why does a single “racist” act attract more attention than the millions of everyday exchanges where “nothing happened”? Perhaps the answer lies in the old adage, dog
bites man is not news, man bites dog is news. Being a glasshalf- empty sort of person, I have to say, nah, it can’t be that.
Not only do reports of bad (or allegedly bad) behavior on the part of whites crowd out stories of people going about their daily routines without incident, a single “racist” act gets more attention and discussion than a study showing the persistence of inequality in housing, employment, health care and the criminal justice system. Why are people more interested in the retail than in the wholesale?
Some of those reading this column have seen Raoul Peck’s film about James Baldwin, I am Not Your Negro. (It can now be seen on line at https://www.kanopy.com/product/iam- not-your-negro.) Baldwin was one of the clearest thinkers about the race problem in America, farsighted and bold. The film is a good picture of his times. A viewer emerges from it thinking not much has changed.
That would be a mistake: those who think everything has changed, and that the country has put the race problem behind it—a view heard less frequently since Trump’s election— are mistaken. Those who think that nothing important has changed since Baldwin’s times, that the country is as “racist” as it ever was, are also mistaken. As usual, the truth does not lie someplace in between, but in a new synthesis.
As might be expected, the synthesis has something to do with class. In Baldwin’s time the task of subjugating black people was carried out by the mass of ordinary whites, in return for which they were socially defined as members of the dominant race. At that time the black “bourgeoisie” (such as it was) played little role in keeping the masses down.
The triumph of the Civil Rights Movement gave rise to a layer of black people, north and south, whose job is to administer the misery of the black poor, often in the name of “Black Power.” Black mayors, police chiefs, city councilmen, prison officials, superintendents of boards of education and welfare departments, heads of foundations now do the job once done by whites, who as a consequence have lost a great deal of their social function and the status attached to it.
The changes in the mechanisms of control are not limited to high-level administrators: many of the police in the black neighborhoods are black, along with social workers, schoolteachers, corrections officers, etc.; often the face of oppression is black. It used to be that poor black people who went to the Social Security office or the DMV were insulted and humiliated by white clerks; now they are insulted and humiliated by black clerks.
The immiseration of the black poor and the presence of black professionals in previously white spheres appear to be in conflict: How could such progress exist alongside such misery? There is a necessary connection between the two phenomena: neither could exist without the other; that is, without black faces behind desks, no force could stop the masses of black poor from tearing the country apart; and on the other hand, without the threat of the black poor there would be no black faces behind desks.
In Baldwin’s day the black community was the most advanced outpost of the new society, a society in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all, and the black movement was implicitly oriented toward bringing that society into existence. I once asked a black woman how she managed to keep from hating whites given how they had acted historically. Her answer: I was brought up to believe that we were put here by God to save this country, and therefore I could not give in to hate.
I did not share her religious belief, but I recognized her commitment to bringing into existence a better world, not merely for herself and her immediate family but for everyone. At its best the Civil Rights Movement embodied her outlook.
It is by no means clear that all those known as “black” have anything in common comparable to having to sit in the back of the bus in Georgia (as they did in the old days) that would constitute them as a single community.
The victories of the Civil Rights Movement gave rise to new privileged strata. Their slogan is A piece of the pie, or, more crudely, Where’s mine? They trade on the rhetoric of community to perpetuate their personal and class interests. Having to a considerable degree succeeded in gaining access to spheres from which they were previously excluded, they now focus on symbols rather than actual exclusion. Some denounce “microaggressions”; others seek to enlist white people in “racial sensitivity” sessions where they can “unlearn racism. The focus on “racist” behavior on the part of individual whites (of which there is no shortage of examples) is popular among professional civil rights activists and official society because it diverts attention away from the system; it ignores the fact that if every white person reformed and all racial discrimination disappeared overnight, black people would continue to make up a disproportionate share of the poorest layers of society because of the sedimented effects of past racial discrimination: the person whose grandparents had access to a skilled trade or a college education has an advantage over the person whose grandparents walked behind a mule or a mop, and nothing but a total change can address that reality. “Anti-racism” is the ideology of a class of people who seek no alternative to the present system—or what is the same thing, who believe there is none—and those who act on it are like doctors who secretly love the disease they claim to be fighting.
One reason for the determination of the black professional-entrepreneurial group to scrutinize every interpersonal encounter between black people and whites may be insecurity; many reached their position through great sacrifice—stony the road they trod—and they fear losing it. Even the most affluent black people often have family members trapped in poverty or imprisoned or murdered by official or unofficial violence. These days, when the children of the white middle class are being pushed down into the proletariat and semi-proletariat, given the country’s racial history who can say what the future holds for the black middle class?
Not all those who benefited from the Civil Rights Movement have sold their souls for personal advancement. There are signs of a black movement beyond the self-interest of the newly advantaged. More often than not, it presents itself as a straightforwardly class project, albeit one that is overwhelmingly black: for example, the grassroots aspects of “Fight for Fifteen.” Black Youth Project 100 recently held a demonstration at Chicago’s City Hall. Its members represent both the newly advantaged and a remnant of the vision historically embodied in the black community. And the black church endures, with its many contradictions. I referred earlier to the ordinary, everyday incidents in which “nothing happened.” I was being ironic; there is never a time when nothing happens. I grew up and lived most of my life in the north. I had visited the south, but had never lived there. In 2009 I drove from New England to the Georgia and South Carolina Low Country, for the first time in many years. Two things most impressed me, and have continued to impress me in the years I have lived there since: first, black men and women working on roadside construction projects operating heavy equipment, holding well-paying jobs once reserved for white men; second, the relations between black and white workers, especially in restaurants, where servers and cooks, black and white, male and female, inter-acted with an ease and comfort rare in the north. The epitome of this pattern was Waffle House.
Waffle House restaurants are a scene of friendly interactions between white and black and at the same time a scene of deadly or near-deadly conflicts. In Studs Lonigan, James T. Farrell describes the horrifying violence engaged in by young Irish men against their presumed “fellows.” A relative of one of our editors spent much of his childhood watching his uncles and older cousins recovering from boneshattering, blood-thirsty fights with each other. Historically it was the lack of competition between black and white that prevented the formation of a common consciousness; competition, or more generally living and working together, gave rise to conflicts that created the possibility of unity. Maybe, just maybe, the violence amid the cameraderie at Waffle House restaurants signals the painful emergence of a class-for-itself, people whose ancestors come from all over the world, who have nothing to lose but their chains, and know it. One looks for the positive in the negative.
Shortly after I arrived in the south I attended a gathering of musicians and their friends, mostly black, in a back yard in Jasper County, South Carolina—salmon croquettes, macand- cheese, collard greens, the usual. It got late and a neighbor (white?) called the police. Nothing happened—the mayor andpolice chief were at the party. Meanwhile Savannah across the river, with its projects, drugs, gang wars, police shootings and corrupt administration headed by a female black mayor, resembles a typical northern city.
Nothing happened indeed! Notwithstanding their votes for Trump, their Confederate flags and their use of the bad word, not one in a thousand white Americans questions the presence of black men and women in those construction jobs. In Memphis, Tennessee, cops threaten to jail a white woman if she interferes with a black man carrying out his business. Memphis, Tennessee—Do I need to spell out what that means?
“Attentiveness to daily life is essential to those who would act purposefully to change the world” – Hard Crackers mission statement. One problem we face is the lack of historical awareness of how things once were, how they are now, and what the relationship is between then and now. The aim of Hard Crackers is to think through the stories of everyday life to discover the essence of what is going on.
When I am on the road, I eat at Waffle House; call it research.
Noel Ignatiev is editor of Hard Crackers.