You do not and you know that you do not, much as you want to; yet you rise and lie and say you do; you must say it for her salvation and the world’s you repeat that she must trust them, that most white folks are honest, and all the while you are lying and every level, silent eye there knows you are lying, and miserably you sit and lie on, to the greater glory of God. [W.E.B. Du Bois, Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil 102 (1920) (Humanity Books, 2003)]
Many times, I've been told that Du Bois' expressed sentiment here was racist. Even if Du Bois would have allowed individual Whites to prove their trustworthiness (which he did -- Du Bois worked with Whites all his life), his "default" stance of mistrust towards Whites-as-a-class is mere racial prejudice. To which I respond: at what point in American history would it had have been justifiable for a Black person to say that their default position is to be untrustworthy of Whites? I would have thought 1920 would be well within the range, but apparently not. So -- 1896? 1856? When?
Some have strongly implied that there is no such time -- Blacks are always obligated to have a default stance of trust for Whites, until Whites specifically show themselves to be incontrovertibly racist. What these writers do not understand is that, for much of American history, a default stance of "trust" in Whites was not just a matter of having friendly, egalitarian sentiment towards all of humankind. It was, quite literally, a risk to Black lives. Black people who were too "trusting" of Whites -- too trusting that they would treat them fairly, that they wouldn't mind breaching Jim Crow racial "etiquette", that they were the "good kind" of White folks -- these were Blacks destined to get lynched. A Black person in 1920 who -- trusting the fairness of the typical White -- asks a White man if he can marry his daughter runs a serious risk of death. In positions of such power asymmetry, mistrust is a survival skill. There were German rescuers, but the Jew attempting to hide from Nazis in 1942 would be forgiven for defaulting to mistrust towards the average German.
Macon D, a White blogger, has a post up on the persistence of this mistrust as the default setting amongst many people of color:
Unlike a lot of non-white people, most white folks think that the world sees them as trustworthy, reliable, and honest, unless they do something to prove themselves otherwise. White people can dress in a variety of ways or wear a variety of adornments or tattoos that will lower the level of trust other people are likely to place in them. What they rarely realize, though, is that their whiteness itself often provokes mistrust. And that it does so for some good reasons.
Macon put up a picture of a White person at the top of his post -- specifically, one with bleary eyes, a shaved head, a goatee, bruises, and tattoos (including one of a Nazi swastika). He uses it to illustrate an important point: while many people would be fine admitting lack of trust for this White guy, it would not be because he is White. It'd be because of his grim demeanor, or his Nazi tattoo. There are many symbols people can wear that might legitimately provoke mistrust. If I'm walking in my new Chicago neighborhood and I spot a Black man wearing gang colors, I think I am quite justified in not asking him for the time. I would not be so justified in avoiding a Black man in a suit, though. But across American history, Whiteness itself has been a social marker of something to be approached with caution and prudence as a Black person. The only (or at least, a sufficient) signifier for a Black man in 1920 that a person might lynch you for asking to marry his daughter is his Whiteness. No tattoos, no grim visage, no spouting of Klan doctrine. Just his Whiteness.
Whites can, through their deeds, show themselves to be trustworthy (or ratify the original suspicion of mistrust). No mainstream minority writer holds that there is an ontological bar preventing Whites from being trustworthy. But many many would say that it is still wiser for people of color to adopt a default of mistrust. For -- though there are fewer cases of racially motivated violence in America today -- the risks of assuming trustworthiness remain for many people of color. People of color still must be quite guarded around Whites (particularly empowered Whites, such as the police, but also nominal social equals, such as coworkers). Mention that you were stopped by the police and your suspicion that it was racial profiling, and you have to worry about whether your White peers -- who don't believe racial profiling really exists -- will assume you're at best someone who refuses to take responsibility for your own mistakes, and at worst that you're a drug runner. Send your kid to a largely-White school under the presumption that she will be welcomed, and then have to deal with what happens when her "friends" send her a note saying "go back to Africa" (this happened to a family from East St. Louis who managed to get her daughter into a largely White suburban school. She returned to the failing system in East St. Louis -- a system with nearly no funding, crumbling buildings, and rampant crime -- because she was essentially chased out of the White school by racism). And, having experimented with integration, with trusting Whites, watch as you get blamed for its failures. It was that girls fault that she's stuck in a failing school: "she couldn't cut it" with the Whites.
I'm not saying Blacks should (or should not) trust White people. I'm saying that -- as a political matter -- it is unavoidable for Blacks to ask that question. Politically, Blacks again and again are forced to ask themselves the degree to which they want to put their faith in Whites as part of their own uplift. When they decide whether integrated schools are best for their children, they are in part deciding whether they want their children's education to be (in part) in the hands of Whites. When deciding where to move, there are in part deciding whether their White neighbors will interfere with their simple desire to live happy, flourishing lives. When they decide how they want their political strength to be organized, they have to determine whether their interests will be protected in political systems dominated by White people. These are all questions of trust, and moreover in most cases they cannot be determined in the idealized, individualistic, "judge everyone on their own merits" framework. It is about trusting Whites-as-a-class. When deciding what school your daughter goes to, you don't have the luxury of meeting all the students at the nearly all White suburban school and determining whether they as individuals are welcoming, egalitarian, anti-racist folks. You have to determine for yourself whether you trust them to be good people -- and there is nothing that says Blacks have to answer affirmatively. This is, in other words, a legitimate question for deliberation within the Black community.
Many Blacks -- many more than Whites have had any right to expect -- have decided to operate within this framework of trust (even if they do so, as did Du Bois, with strong private misgivings). They have worked under the presumption that if they work hard, play by the rules, stay clean, and make the right moral arguments, Whites will accept them and transcend the racism that permeates our society. The fact that the Back to Africa movement -- which coalesced in the nadir of American race relations -- failed to achieve much momentum is testament to just how much Blacks have been willing to trust the ability and potential of Whites even in the heart of darkness. But at the end of the day, it's their choice, not ours. They decide whether it is better, worthwhile, or even safe to trust us. This is not hate. There is nothing hateful in surviving.