Black lives and the “American Dream”

RONALD E. SANTONI

Philosophy Professor Emeritus

Why do I get so annoyed and irritated when I hear so many White Americans chant “All Lives Matter!”, in response to the anguished cry of “Black Lives Matter!”, by our Black brothers and sisters and their supporters?

In short, it is because so many White people still don’t get it. Their response reveals a failure to know American history; a refusal to recognize the distinctive pain that, since the USA’s congenital slavery, Blacks and people of color have suffered; and a sign that Whites wish to ignore the cancerous White supremacy that has wreaked division and conflict in the United States since its birth. And may I be sufficiently bold to suggest that although “All Lives Matter!” has the sound of a noble inclusiveness, it more often betrays a covert, if not overt, White racism.

But that is not all. As Ta-Nehisi Coates – whom Toni Morrison has described as the James Baldwin of our time – has written in his extraordinary new book Between the World and Me, American Whites are, generally speaking, “Dreamers.” They not only idealize the American Dream; they are “lost in it,” and actually believe that they are living it: failing to take cognizance of the indignities and inequities still done to Black people, and the continuing assaults on their dignity and bodies.

Do these White “Dreamers,” if I may adopt Coates’ term, not see that Black human beings, Black bodies, are not treated equally with Whites, whether on our streets, in our schools and universities, or in our White-invented and sustained system of “justice”?  (Consider Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, or Eric Garner, among countless others).

I think not. For, as so many – but certainly not all – Whites continue to accumulate money, healthful food, comfortable homes, power, honor, and so many other conveniences, they are reinforced by their belief in the American Dream. After all, they ask, isn’t success, well-being, the “good life,” happiness, and other privileges, all part of the promise and expectation of the American Dream?

But for Black and other persons of color, this Dream has hardly been their general expectation or lived reality. Rather, predominantly and disproportionately, they have constituted the poor, the humiliated, the marginalized, the violated, the oppressed, “the wretched of the earth” (Fanon). For them – and again I agree with Coates – the American Dream must be a monstrous “lie”, giving false hope, which 150 years after the American Civil War shows little sign of being realized. (Have we forgotten or ignored Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address?) Racism remains with us. Black people remain stigmatized, subhumanized, and victimized. White Privilege still dominates. Yet too often we White Privileged are in denial regarding it.

Yes, I have grounds for being irritated with the issue-evading counter-cry that would apply to all life-threatening human situations, namely “All Lives Matter!” They do. But “Black Lives Matter!” applies directly and distinctively to a particular disgraceful historical situation: America, in practice, has traditionally viewed and treated Black people as inferior to Whites.

It is time for all White people to face reality, to put aside our undeserved arrogance and pretenses of the American Dream; acknowledge our complicity in segregating and pillaging Black bodies; and struggle to change the unequal, social, economic, legal, and educational arrangements of our nation.

A good start would be to resolve to live the embracing Judeo-Christian commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself, rather than applaud and support – as many are doing – the boisterous, racist, exclusivist, and dehumanizing exhortations of the clownish Donald Trump and followers, which, if enacted, may ruin America, if not the world, forever.

Black Lives Matter!

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