Monday, June 09, 2008

On Trusting White People

I've written on several occasions about my favorite quote by W.E.B. Du Bois, responding to a student who asked: "Do you trust White people?"
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.

15 comments:

Cycle Cyril said...

Since Blacks, though only about 12 - 13 percent of the population, commit 52 percent of all murders in America, would you then agree, using your logic regarding whether Blacks should trust Whites, that Whites should not trust Blacks?

Considering these statistics you might say that Blackness itself has been a social marker of something to be approaching with caution and prudence as a Black or a White person.

I didn't know you approved of racial profiling. You certainly don't condemn it.

David Schraub said...

First of all, Whites don't trust Blacks. And we do racially profile them. So this wild extreme hypothetical is not so shocking. Worst case scenario: turn about is fair play.

But anyway. Quoting myself in the other comment thread: "Blacks don't fear Whites because of some statistically measure of violent activity (one could use that to fear anyone -- men, Christians, heterosexuals... -- aside from simple statistical proclivity, nothing in the identity group makes them more prone to violent activity). Rather, it is because the violence and power we're talking about is explicitly racialized: it is because we are White and they are Black that the threat emerges. This isn't to say Whites are inherently violent or bigoted -- it's that the risk under discussion occurs not in tandem with an identity axis, but by virtue of it."

There is nothing about Blackness (or heterosexuality, or maleness) that makes one more likely to commit crimes. It is correlation, not causation. But the type of racialized violence or oppression we're talking about in this post -- not random street crimes but lynchings and cross-burnings and race riots -- occurs as a direct result of the racial identities in play. Anyone can murder anyone else. Race-based lynching/oppression cannot happen absent racialization.

Fractalman93 said...

Let's not forget that it was other "black" people in Africa who sold their brethren (or perhaps rival tribesmen) as slaves to the "white" people. Thus, if there's anyone that "black" people can't trust, it's themselves. I think inner city "black on black" violence is proof of this point. Also, there are a disproportionate number of African Americans in prisons across the U.S. I've got nothing against African American people. I'd vote for Colin Powell if he were running for president. I'd vote for him over McCain any day.

Cycle Cyril said...

You are condoning profiling based on historical, if not statistical, precedents.

Considering the statistical fact that Blacks, proportionately, commit more crime would you permit the police to profile Blacks? Would you allow profiling of other groups, particularly Moslems? If not, then why do you condone the profiling by Blacks?

Skin color does not make one more likely to commit crimes. Culture does. I just finished Albion's Seed a fascinating exploration of the roots of four of the cultural roots of America that began in Britain. Of note is the cultural group that came from Scotland and the English northern borderlands, an area that was wilder and more violent in the 1600's and 1700's than probably the American West. They tended to settle in Appalachia and the frontier of the time. They further transmitted their culture to their black slaves. The whites eventually became acculturated but the blacks became rednecks.

Anyway, "random" street crime (let alone terrorism) is, to a large extent, a function of culture and various cultures/groups are both more prone to commit and to be a victim of it.

David Schraub said...

Point: People of color don't trust Whites because Whites-qua-Whites have perpetuated racialized violence and oppression against them.

Counter-point: Sometimes Blacks commit crimes too!

Riposte: Yes, but those crimes aren't racialized -- they aren't committed as Blacks-qua-Blacks against Whites-qua-Whites (or Blacks-qua-Blacks).

Counter-riposte: Err....BLACKS COMMIT CRIMES TOO! *Stamps foot*

...and that's my cue to exit the thread.

Superdestroyer said...

I think Reginald Denny would disagree with David in his belief that blacks to not commit crimes against whites because they are white.

There are many crimes in recent years where the victim and the level of violence was due to the victim being white and the perpetrator being black.

What whites should not trust is not individual blacks but black culture in general. Black culture if a low trust culture to begin with and a culture that encourages taking advantage of others. It is also a culture that does not support punsihing crimnals.

When black culture promotes ideas like "No Snitching" and "Don't let another brother go to jail" then whites are very justified in not trusting blacks.

Cycle Cyril said...

My larger point is culture. I agree that many Blacks distrust Whites because of the past slavery culture and the past discrimination culture.

But Whites also distrust Blacks because of their current redneck culture with its acceptance of violence (just listen to much of the music coming out of the Black community).

This isn't so much "racialized" as much as "culturalized" (I don't like 20th century neologisms)

Jack said...

Wow. Just wow...

(I say in regard to the comments, not the post).

Macon D said...

David, it's great to discover my post quoted in such an excellent discussion of this topic. You really fleshed out the topic here, and provided me with much to think about and incorporate into my overall, ongoing efforts to understanding my own whiteness and how it operates in the world, at the micro and macro levels.

To the detractors here: it's nothing new to anyone to point out that white people don't trust black people. It is, however, something new to most white people to hear that black people don't generally, automatically trust them either.

What whites can't be trusted to do, until they prove otherwise, is to hold back acting on the stereotypes about black people that've been planted in their heads by white supremacist America.

Why do you want to talk about white distrust of black people, when the opposite is the topic at hand? Instead, I recommend, from one white-trained person to another (or others), sit back and learn something about yourselves. Black people know a lot of things about you and the way you're likely to think and act that you very likely don't know about yourselves. I learned a lot about my white self by reading black writers and listening to the few black people I've met willing to talk about it. Black people have LONG known a ton about white people because they've had to, as a means of survival. Whites, on the other hand, know little about what their whiteness really means in their lives, because they've been discouraged by a white-majority society from thinking about it--from even seeing it.

Nquest said...

Cycle Cyril,

If crime is what White people are concerned about then Whites should place their focus and anxiety within their own community.

From 1976 to 2005...

* 86% of white victims were killed by whites
* 94% of black victims were killed by blacks


All that should be common knowledge.

Nquest said...

there are a disproportionate number of African Americans in prisons across the U.S. - Fractalman93

Hmmmm...

Some things never change with regards to the historic and current systematic racism and the criminalization of "blackness"

"In Alabama alone, hundreds of thousands of pages of public documents attest to the arrests, subsequent sale, and delivery of thousands of African Americans into mines, lumber camps, quarries, farms, and factories. More than thirty thousand pages related to debt slavery cases sit in the files of the Department of Justice at the National Archives. Altogether, millions of mostly obscure entries in the public record offer details of a forced labor system of monotonous enormity.

Instead of thousands of true thieves and thugs drawn into the system over decades, the records demonstrate the capture and imprisonment of thousands of random indigent citizens, almost always under the thinnest chimera of probable cause or judicial process. The total number of workers caught in this net had to have totaled more than a hundred thousand and perhaps more than twice that figure. Instead of evidence showing black crime waves, the original records of county jails indicated thousands of arrests for inconsequential charges or for violations of laws specifically written to intimidate blacks—changing employers without permission, vagrancy, riding freight cars without a ticket, engaging in sexual activity— or loud talk—with white women. Repeatedly, the timing and scale of surges in arrests appeared more attuned to rises and dips in the need for cheap labor than any demonstrable acts of crime..."


(Hat Tip: Macon D)

Yep!! Mass incarceration of the black and brown via the "just up and happened, if we accept the decontextualized and historically illiterate, vacuum infused posts of Fractal & Cycle.

But, we won't ignore the curious "flip flopping" of the racial composition of the prison population in 30 years. Especially since
The Tim Wise (video) makes the excellent observation that this skyrocketing increase incarceration rate -- by some 450% since 1975, actually -- just so happened to coincide with or seems to be the proximate reaction to that landmark piece of legislation in 1964 that was the cause of much consternation among so many of America's White citizens. (Actually, data on the subject indicates

But let's not stop there. Let's let Senator Jim Webb in on the picture and let him close the deal by noting one of many "key points" about this phenomenon:

* Growth in the prison population is due to changing policy, not increased crime.


Hmmm...

Nquest said...

Please pardon my poor editing in the previous post...

Anonymous said...

in response to Cycle Cyril or shall I say say CC (so sweet) first and foremost, blacks committed 52% of all murders between 1976 and 2005 (although our communites have been plagued decade after decade with a new plan to guarantee our failure though it hasn't/won't work,that is around the time that our businesses began to suffer due to outside influences and integration,
gentrification, or whatever they decided to call it that time to get in and get over on us, drugs were pushed into our communites along with guns, etc. and we have been killing ourselves ever since) However, white folks in America kill just as many people. If we are responsible for 52% of the deaths, I can be sure that white folks were responsible for at least 40%. It's a proven fact fact that anywhere there's poverty
less education, low-self esteem,
miseducation, along with drug infestation, etc., there are higher levels of crime, including murder. It's not just a black thing. in America we are the most oppressed, disparaged group of people who often live in poverty, with poor education, poor surround
ings, drug infestation, etc. so that would ultimately mean that we would not only commit the crimes, but be the victims of those same crimes because they usally take place in our own community....
usually there are no whites there so NO white people do not have to be distrustful of black people. The whole US is run by white folks, so everything in our life in America has to go thru a white person, generally speaking, and we have been let down since WHITE people brought us over here, so I'd say, we have every reason to be somewhat skeptical if not downright opposed to the idea of trusting white folks ever again. Once bitten twice shy. I have done research, and you wouldn't believe some of the atrocities committed by white folks to others and this is not only history, recently too, including projects that were disguised to help folks (minorities)that have not only pushed us back, but have given us sicknesses, tests ran w/out our
knowledge, all because we trusted white folks to help us out, so HELL YEAH we have right to be distrustful..with all the murders we commit, you damn sure haven't had to worry about that happening to you and more than likely, you don't go thru life worrying about being killed by a black person, most white people don't. We go thru life worrying about every decision made by a white person affecting our lives.
In any relationship trust must come first, that inspires love and respect.

Anonymous said...

Also, an individual has a right to or not to trust anyone they choose.
People generally learn to mistrust people based on experiences. Speaking as a black woman, I learned through life experiences not to trust white people the way I thought I could. Most blck people I know in my age range (21-30) have varied thoughts on trusting white people, some do, some don't, some may not even know a white person enough to trust or not trust them, and those same poeple have distrust for others also. Most black people I know mistrust white people because they have had negative experiences when they've have trusted in them. I mean, not a simple lie or even a crime, but a life changing experience, such as loss of a job, or of money they were depending on to feed their family, or their home
or even their freedom, these are things that will make anyone weary of ever trusting a person or anyone
like them again. Just as many men do not trust women EVER again, because they've have had or someone close to them has had their heart broken, been connived, or done dirty, extremely wrong by a girl or woman who they trusted and loved deeply and unconditionally. That is the relationships that many blacks have with white people. And another thing, most Africans were willing to work or to trade their workers for gifts and such under the pretense thst the workers, would either not leave Africa at all or would be brought back after the work was completed, we were,in essence,kidnapped, most of us. There were very few slaves that got over here by being sold out. And to this day, black people do not trust anybody that seems to bring harm or hurt in their direction, ONCE BITTEN TWICE SHY.

Anonymous said...

Also, if the mistrust is based on culture, it's still a misguided way of thinking. Most white people I know accept people based on their status , education, family background, money, etiquette
Lack of opportunity to become
"cultured" in those things, does not mean that you are a person that is likely to commit a crime. Most white people don't really know any black people, on a real personal level. If so, they are black people that act or behave as they would like them to, they've more or less assumed the white culture. A lot of those blacks even assume that our culture is a certain way, the way that white media has portrayed it to be. You have to meet black people from all walks of life to find that most are nice, kind hearted individuals
just w/out ivy league education, or certain advantages, etc. Black people that do not trust white people, just don't trust them, whether they are rich or poor, smart or dumb, attractive or ugly. See our mistrust of white people does not stem from culture, it stems from experience that has taughts us that most white people, that we've come in contact with, no matter how "cultured" or not, have proven to be untrustworthy.
The Nazi'esque white folks are usually frowned upon by culutred white folks, not because they share different views but because they don't like the image it gives. The majority of KKK folks were/are prominent, cultured, wealthy white folks that had/have government influence. There are middle class and working class white people that have found ways to make sure blacks don't live in their community. Blacks who work, have clean records, go to college or have graduated, etc. Who may or may not be more "cultured" than them. If a black person sees anybody, no matter the color, do another person wrong that is a reason for distrust. We as blacks base our distrust of things less on race then you think. The gov't and the higher ups of this country has been screwing folks for years, and their all white, so honestly speaking, whites should be somewhat skeptical of white people, at least those who have power over them. In America, all whites have power over us, in one way or another, and more times than not, it's been used against us. Since, white people seem to do us wrong more than others, we harbor distrust for most white people, unless they prove to be otherwise. Difference is, black people can distrust almost anybody but still respect and befriend that person based on other aspects of their personality. For example
"He seems real cool, I like him, I don't know if I trust him yet, but he's alright so far." That person in question will not be treated any differently than anybody else, they are welcome to hang out and party, a normal conversation can and will be held with that person, if in need that person will be helped out if it's within our ability to do so. However, certain personal aspects of our lives, anything that can be used against, to hurt, harm or condemn us will not be divulged out of an issue of trust. There is nothing wrong with protecting yourself from potential harm.