“To be black was to confront, and to be forced to alter, a condition forged in history. To be white was to be forced to digest a delusion called white supremacy. Indeed, without confronting the history that has either given white people an identity or divested them of it, it is hardly possible for anyone who thinks of himself as white to know what a black person is talking about at all. Or to know what education is.”
—James Baldwin, “Dark Days” (1980)
In 1962, James Baldwin wrote in a letter to his nephew, “You know and I know that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too early. We cannot be free until they are free.” Baldwin was writing about white people finally freeing ourselves of the lie of white supremacy. More than half a century later, we are no closer to doing so, even though the recent uprisings in the wake of the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Walter Wallace Jr., and too many others, may be the largest in American history, and more white people than ever before have been in the streets protesting racist policing.
This nationwide movement has eschewed failed moderate reforms and instead centered transformative demands like defunding and abolishing the police and the entire prison industrial complex (PIC). Abolition of the PIC is a decades-old political practice originally theorized by Black feminist writers such as Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Mariame Kaba, and organizations such as Critical Resistance and Incite! Women of Color Against Violence. Abolition demands the dismantling of our society built on white supremacy and racial capitalism, and the construction of a new society “built on cooperation instead of individualism, on mutual aid instead of self-preservation,” in the words of Kaba.
Unfortunately, so far Chicago is one of the only major cities which has not been responsive to the demands of the movement. Mayor Lori Lightfoot is adamantly opposed to defunding the notoriously corrupt, racist, violent, and unreformable Chicago Police Department. Even though the movement has not secured many policy wins thus far, it is important to acknowledge that several forward-thinking Local School Councils have voted to remove police from their schools, and several progressive City Council members have endorsed defunding the police and proposed essential alternatives like a non-police mental health emergency hotline.
In addition, the Movement for Black Lives in Chicago has attempted to keep the pressure up with marches, mass trainings, canvassing, and other inspiring direct actions. Ultimately, it remains to be seen whether the demands of the movement will be met during this administration, but I at least hope that this historical moment pushes more white people to have their own interpersonal reckonings about race, which would make you both less likely to be subject to any personal racist attacks. Those are very unlikely to be eliminated any time soon, but we must try to make that the reality—while also dismantling the broader structures that produce “group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death,” which is Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s definition of racism.
In Baldwin’s letter, he wrote, “Please try to remember that what [white people] believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority, but to their inhumanity and fear.” There is still so much of that fear, that belief in white supremacy, throughout the country and even within our own family. I don’t have any memories from when it happened in the early 2000s, but I remember being so mad when I heard years later about how several of our family members were upset with your mom for marrying your dad, a Black man who immigrated to the U.S. from Guyana after meeting and falling in love with your mom when she was living in Guyana as part of the Peace Corps. While it is good that not as many people in the family would be as straightforwardly racist as that today, this is only one part of divorcing oneself from white supremacy.
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Many people in our family are still committed to white supremacy today, even if they are not racist interpersonally, because they support racist politics and policies like mass criminalization, privatization, and austerity, otherwise known as neoliberal capitalism. This so-called “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” politics is racist because it produces group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death. These policies are responsible for the thirty-year life expectancy gap between white and Black Chicago neighborhoods, and a nine-year racial gap in life expectancy on average.
Further, in this city and throughout the country, by all measures the Black/white wealth gap is at the same levels as it was in the 1960’s, and inequality continues to skyrocket as Black people are disproportionately killed and economically harmed by the coronavirus crisis. As Ohio State law professor Amna Akbar concluded in an October 31 essay in the New York Review of Books, “The impacts of Covid-19 are racialized because inequality is: Black, Latino, and Indigenous people are experiencing rates of infection two to three times that of whites and suffering the highest rates of death. These rates of illness and death are caused by segregated and exorbitantly priced housing, profit-driven health care, meager wages for essential work, and thousands of prisons, jails, and detention centers—all of which disproportionately affect Black people and people of color. This is what [abolitionist scholar Ruth Wilson] Gilmore means by a ‘vulnerability to premature death’ sanctioned by the state.’”
This white supremacist status quo has been disrupted by the ongoing mass uprising in response to unrelenting police violence against Black people, in Chicago and throughout the country. At this historic moment, instead of using his power to stand with Black Chicagoans by working to enact the transformative change that our city needs, our parents’ cousin, Patrick D. Thompson—the current alderman of Chicago’s 11th Ward—has been blaming “outside antagonists and criminals” for looting and instead “standing with” police officers “everyday.”
Instead of defending Black lives by using his position on the City Council’s Public Safety Committee to give the community control of the police or otherwise reduce the power and scope of the CPD—and therefore reduce their ability to continue killing and brutalizing Black and brown Chicagoans—he does not support the Civilian Police Accountability Council ordinance, and wants to give even more power and resources to CPD. That is because he, like almost everyone else in our family, idolizes our great-grandfather Richard J. Daley, who was the horribly racist mayor of Chicago from 1955 to 1976.
As I recently recalled in the Weekly, in the mid-twentieth century, roughly around the time he was mayor, “Chicago’s Black population grew from about 8.2 percent to 32.7 percent. At the same time, from 1945 to 1970, the city’s police budget grew 900 percent and the CPD doubled the number of cops on the streets.” These police killed, tortured, brutalized, arrested and incarcerated Black Chicagoans without cause and with impunity throughout these years, while the judicial system was as corrupt as City Hall and sent thousands of innocent people to prison. When Black and brown Chicagoans protested police brutality, segregation, and racial inequality, he denied that there was any problem, instead always emphasizing “law and order,” much like the current mayor and both candidates for president in 2020.
Today, Illinois continues to incarcerate hundreds of thousands of people, a disproportionate number of them Black and from the Chicagoland area. Chicago has been recognized as the false-confession capital of the United States. The 2016 Police Accountability task force report (chaired by then-president of the Chicago Police Board Lori Lightfoot) concluded, “CPD’s own data gives validity to the widely held belief the police have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color.” This long, racist history and unrelenting oppression demonstrates that policing and prisons are inherently white supremacist institutions, so they must be defunded in the immediate term and made obsolete in the long term.
Many people in the family will disagree with everything that I am writing, and they will probably tell you that our great-grandfather made these choices in a different time, and that this is what the voters demanded. They may also say the same thing for his role in resisting desegregation in public schools or fighting Martin Luther King Jr.’s campaign to desegregate Chicago’s neighborhoods, including the deliberately-segregated public housing projects, but they will most likely just not talk about those things at all.
The first Mayor Daley was enduringly successful in shaping his city, and his legacy influences Chicago’s politics today. Chicago remains one of the most segregated cities in the country, while public schools, health facilities, and housing have been closed and divested from; at the same time police spending per capita has tripled since 1964. The structures of racial capitalism produce and perpetuate lasting disparities in employment, education, wealth, health, food and housing security, and life expectancy. That is why, as Saidiya Hartman writes, “The possessive investment in whiteness can’t be rectified by learning ‘how to be more antiracist.’ It requires a radical divestment in the project of whiteness and a redistribution of wealth and resources. It requires abolition, the abolition of the carceral world, the abolition of capitalism.”
As horrible as this history and present is, for the most part I have not gotten into too many detailed arguments over this history with the family yet, and I have not directly criticized our great-grandfather very much, because I am very conflict-averse in general. That’s why I debated for a long time whether to try to get this letter published instead of just letting it be a letter that I give you when you are older. But as Baldwin said, “I think it does a disservice to a child to tell [them] things which are not true. Children cannot really be fooled.”
Even if I have not until now directly called our family out for their racist policymaking amongst other family, I definitely do still speak out about racial injustice in conversations with them, and the most tension arises whenever there are family discussions about the current Black Lives Matter protest movement. In the midst of this historic uprising—when more white people than ever before are realizing their complicity in upholding white supremacy and taking action to demand change—many members of our family are still very pro-police. They are prone to respond to the Black Lives Matter movement with the “all lives” or the even worse and more directly white supremacist, “blue” lives matter refrain.
It is always astonishing to me that some of our family members can repeat this racist nonsense while also ignoring our great-grandfather’s record, or the fact that as Cook County State’s Attorney our great-uncle, Richard M. Daley, later Mayor of Chicago, was involved in covering up evidence of Chicago police torture, and over one hundred torture survivors remain incarcerated. Well, they must know about this of course, but they still must not have a problem with the status quo enough to want to change it.
I have a lot more hope for your generation though, and I hope that by the time you are more politically engaged, you do not have to deal with as much of this conservative selective memory. Ultimately, that is why I am publishing this letter, because I do believe that this needs to be called out, and that we must dismantle the white supremacist policies and institutions enabled by some of our family members, such as the Chicago Police Department. But I do still hope that it doesn’t ruin too many relationships with loved ones, and I hope that you both find it useful one day.
Above all, as Baldwin wrote to his nephew, “Take no one’s word for anything, including mine, but trust your experience.” When you are finding strength to love and dream about what you believe the future of the world should look like, instead of looking to politicians like our great-uncles and great-grandfather, you should instead listen to your parents, and read people like Guyanese professor and political activist Walter Rodney and Trinidadian-American writer and communist organizer Claudia Jones, and learn from the many organizers in Chicago’s movement for Black liberation. As the American activist, minister, and P.h.D candidate Nyle Fort recently wrote in a letter to his incarcerated nephew, “I’m talking about dismantling a society that thinks it needs police, or prisons, or war, or guns, or borders, or fossil fuels, or private property, or the lie that some of God’s children matter more than others.”
Bobby Vanecko is a contributor to the Weekly. He is a law student at Loyola University Chicago. He last wrote about illegal lockouts and evictions for the Weekly.