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The Politics of Emotionalizing Racism

Picture of Dayvon Love

Dayvon Love

Director of Public Policy
Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle

One of the most frustrating things to endure as a person who has committed himself to the liberation of people of African Descent from the global system of white supremacy is the way that emotion and sentiment are deployed to muddy the waters and frustrate rigorous conversations that are necessary to build institutions and to transform social structures.  This process occurs in two basic ways.

Part 1: Emotionalizing rational argumentation

This is a dynamic that I encounter most often when I am dealing with white people (particularly, but not exclusively, white liberals) and discussing issues of white supremacy. Emotionalizing rational argumentation is a process in which ideas are framed not as reasoned political commentary, but instead are cast as mean spirited or personalized observations about race.  This can happen either when the problems of white institutional power are described or when solutions that identify the need for autonomous Black social/cultural institutions are offered.  This is a common problem that Black people face as we advocate a vision that requires Black people to  lead and control the institutions that affect our communities.  History offers many examples that illustrate the process of emotionalizing. In many circles, Malcolm X is seen as an angry fire brand who scolded white people about the injustices of white supremacy.  However, when watching clips of him talking to white people in formal settings you will find that he is very polite and has a statesman-like quality.

The effect that this false representation has on the way that he is received allows people who are implicated by his words to dismiss his ideas as emotional outbursts, instead of dealing with the substance of the words he spoke.  White people have a tendency to reduce critiques of institutional racism and oppression to personal attacks on their individual senses of guilt.  Seen this way, white people can absolve themselves of the ways in which they benefit from and reproduce racism/white supremacy.  Think about it.  If white people have to acknowledge that they are the benefactors of a legacy of domination that continues to exist today, then they would have to agree that a massive reconstruction of society is urgently needed.  Imagining this reconstruction which would necessarily undermine the white supremacist structures that give them unearned power and privilege.

White supremacy has created a set of expectations that form a sturdy floor from which white people very rarely fall.  This floor provides comfort in countless forms: “my child would never be followed by the security officers in the mall,” “I am not at risk of being shot by a neighborhood patrol,” “when another person of my race commits a crime it won’t make my coworkers suspicious of me,” etc.    The idea that white people would have to give up comfort or power in order to be genuinely interested in justice disrupts the white imagination so intensely that it produces an emotional response and therefore causes them to frame our calls for justice in terms of their emotions, in a way that obscure the logical, rational arguments being put forward.

So, for instance, in 1959 when Mike Wallace developed a television series about the Nation of Islam called “The Hate that Produced Hate” this framed the conversation around the systematic and institutional elements of white supremacy as emotional issues that have produced an emotional response instead of an economic, political, and social issue that has produce an economic, political and social response.  People have gotten sucked into the discourse of personal meanness as the lens from which racial oppression is rendered intelligible, at the expense of developing race literacy (a concept I borrow from Tricia Rose) that will help people understand the larger American body politic and the ways that we can solve the problems we all face.

A contemporary example of is the conversation now happening between Ta-Nahisi Coates and Jonathan Chait.  In this public debate there is a discussion about the role of personal responsibility in addressing the issues that Black folks face in the inner city.  Without re-hashing the debate here, Coates’ position is that the source of the problems facing the inner cities of America are rooted in the continuing phenomenon of white supremacy, and not, as Chait claims, a culture of poverty that he argues is partially responsible for the conditions that Black people face.  Coates’ argument about white supremacy was described by writer Andrew Sullivan as being a break from Coates’ usually hopeful outlook, a descent into pessimism.  This again is an attempt to sentimentalize or emotionalize Coates’ observation about the material reality in which we are situated.  Instead of responding to Coates’ argument Sullivan resorts to making the conversation about Coates’ attitude, which takes away from a substantive conversation about racism/white supremacy.

A local example of this involves an article that was written about myself and LBS.  In a piece authored by Lionel Foster that was published in the Baltimore Sun, Mr. Foster accurately describes my criticism of white liberals tendency to control and operate institutions that primarily serve and deal with issues facing Black people as an example of how racism perpetuates itself.  My argument is simply that organizations and institutions that primarily serve Black people should be controlled and operated by Black people.  This article was greeted with mixed responses.  There were some people who said that they were hurt by the article, that it made them feel like I was not interested in a conversation.  This is a very peculiar response to an article that merely advances a logical argument about Black institutional control and power, and had no emotive elements to it as far as I can tell.  This again is another example of how logical argumentation is relegated to mere emotional venting.  It is so much easier to dismiss something you see as emotional

What Black people need are institutions that have fidelity to the people most directly affected by the onslaught of racism/white supremacy.  A non-profit which aimed to serve abused women would be more effective if its leadership was not comprised primarily of men in long-term, stable marriages.  The claim that we live in a society based on racism/white supremacy is not an emotional claim, it is an empirical observation about the world that we all live in.  The call for independent Black institutions is not reverse bigotry nor is it rooted in any personal meanness toward whites but is instead a prescriptive statement about the most effective way to achieve racial justice.

Part 2 Will be about the way that Black people internalize white supremacy and often engage in micro (and macro) aggressions toward each other.

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