“Black women are the mules of the world,” a friend once said to me in an argument, paraphrasing Zora Neale Hurston.
When I asked her to explain, she clarified that black women were the single most victimized and assaulted group in the world. This was a moral, indisputable fact.
There was a very strong case to be made in her favor. She is a black woman.
I’m a black man.
I could see it her way, but we were each invested in our own experiences. I figured we would agree to disagree.
She pressed me further: Who had it worse? She had to know where I stood. She couldn’t be friends with someone who didn’t subscribe to her belief. In that moment, I was not a friend with a differing perspective. I was a man, a person of privilege, who had abandoned her in the struggle. For her, I had ceased to be an ally.
Increasingly, when speaking with fellow millennials, I’ve found myself in zero-sum arguments. The battlegrounds change — from global politics to race to gender to class and sexual identity — but the stakes seem to have risen across the board. These days incongruent viewpoints are not grounds for discussion, but for dismissal.
In times of struggle, we need to connect to a community for support. This connection is vital; it gives us purpose, direction, and the drive to push toward our vision for the world. Now, more than ever, we need allies. But as this need has grown, the criteria by which we identify our comrades have become ever more demanding. More problematic, every challenge is perceived as an attack.
While the “With us, or against us” approach to dialogue is not new, something has changed. Thanks to new communications technology, we have the opportunity to connect with those we agree with, but also to customize and curate these connections. We isolate ourselves from anyone who doesn’t share our views. We find those who share our perspective, and our communities become rooted in that perspective. In these echo chambers we become less and less exposed to differing points of view. The reformist cause is in jeopardy because we have lost the ability to engage in civil discourse with those outside of our in-groups.
And as our carefully constructed personas become increasingly public through social media, our beliefs, ideals, and personalities collapse into memes. To those seeing us through our “profiles,” we are necessarily less complex, less human, so that we are more easily labeled, and so more vulnerable to attack.
In political spaces, we have come to require perfectly pure philosophical expression though, deep down, we know it is not possible. The paradox of it aims our wrath at whoever misses the politically correct bull’s-eye, even if those same people have previously been deified for those perfectly packaged personas.
Consider a Jay-Z and Beyoncé conversation: Lemonade drops and Beyoncé is once again crowned the monarch of feminism. Jay-Z’s subsequent 4:44 release met with critiques over his lyrical mea culpa.
Her music projects a mobilization of women and girls to reclaim their sexual, social, and political power. His music reflects the battle to reconcile the street mindset with the rise of a young black mogul. How has this self-actualized icon at the heart of anti-patriarchal anthems like “Irreplaceable” been saddled with the same problems of mortal women for the better part of a decade? Marriages have ended for less than multiple, protracted infidelities. And what do we expect from the man whose songs paint a picture of a man-child steeped in the dissonance between his chaotic youth and wild success?
Their music connects us to something human and universal, but when that rears its human head, we do not like what we see. The picture is too complex, and we prefer our icons bite-sized: He’s a dog. She’s an angel. All the while, the questions in the center are most salient. Why would the young man who wrote the lyrics: “…y’all be frontin, me give my heart to a woman? Not for nothing, never happen, I’ll be forever mackin” in a song called “Big Pimpin’” know how to respect women? Is there no irony in crowning Beyoncé all powerful as a feminist Queen, then blaming all her problems and choices on a man?
A black mother as business savvy and brilliant and beautiful as Beyoncé is not enough. She also has to be an unfaltering political statement unto herself. A black boy escaping the ghetto to become a man who could be traded on the stock market is not enough, we also want him to exist above the paradigm that created his art.
To some extent, these unspoken aspirations are thrust upon us by the circles in which we travel. Preachers have to keep their feeds holy. If you’re a teacher, posting an image from your birthday bash in Vegas may cost you your job. Online, we are not people, we are personas.
These identities become an impossible ideal. There is no growth. There is no redemption. If you’re a person of the left, you are afforded one chance to speak and be “woke” on all things. Take your shot, but if you miss the mark, you’re off the team, for good.
There was a time where progressive politics and personal complexity could co-exist quietly. You could be a public humanist with all manner of private contradictions. Think JFK or MLK. Today, social media platforms have brought closet contradictions into the light. This unbridled access to “truth” may seem like a positive thing, but the problems with our approach are glaring.
One problem is that these public “purity tests” and haranguing are meted out disproportionately. Bill Cosby has been accused of drugging women for sex, and even before charges could be filed, The Cosby Show was dropped from syndication in many major TV markets. Meanwhile, Roman Polanski and Woody Allen are still making films and leaving critics raving.
To be sure these men have all made questionable — or criminal — choices, but the axe falls with less gravity in certain cases. Once he’s been tried in the court of public opinion, to say “Bill Cosby is innocent until proven guilty” is tantamount to social media suicide. In Cosby’s case, the effect is so complete it literally changes the value of the work he’s done in the past. The Cosby Show was one of the most valuable syndicated shows of all time, but try to find a re-run today.
We draw lines and divide ourselves from would be allies. Our impossible ideals ultimately lead to inaction, and a stagnant, elitist social politic. We become a movement defined by what it stands in opposition to, not by its own achievements or ambitions. It is worth noting that this is the precise caricature that allowed Presidents Trump, Bush Jr., and Reagan to attain power by casting their opponents as toothless, liberal cry-babies.
We modern progressives rest in the notion that speaking right means doing right, all the while dividing our constituency, scattering our support, and weakening our thrust towards our objectives.
For the record, I am an absolutist. Reducing the number of black folks killed by police or increasing wages for women aren’t laudable goals in my eyes. I don’t care for slow progress. I do not find dignity in struggle or valor in hard-fought gains. I want equality, and I want it now.
That point of view is palpably idealistic of course. There are inherent contradictions and systematic challenges that prevent us from having a year without the police shooting a black man dead — as morbid and shameful as that arithmetic is. Change on a mass scale may necessitate compromise, but what can never be conceded is the importance of the conversations. We are allies so long as our goals align, even when our methods do not.
Mine is not a call for moderate action, but for moderate discourse.
Let’s take as an example another stormy period in American history, the African American Civil Rights Movement. Back in the 1950s and ‘60s, gains were made amid a Tetris-like structure of quid-pro-quo bureaucracy, advancing technologies, community organization, and mixed constituency politics, an environment not unlike ours in 2017.
Two crucial and often undervalued drivers of change during this period were the philosophical schism between pacifist and so-called violent resistance groups and the self-interested investment of the white middle class.
In the case of the first of these, the Civil Rights Movement presented America, its newly militarized police, and its politicians with two choices: work with the peaceful, church-going, only-want-a-quiet-life-of-dignity-Negroes — the Martin Luther King Jr.’s of the Movement — or face off against the angry, dark-suited or leather-clad and beret wearing, rifle-toting Negroes represented by groups like the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam.
This second option was something of a bluff. Though the Panthers and the Nation were philosophically ready to go to war against the government to defend their communities — a defensive war, mind you — they knew the stark reality: they were too few to fight a wealthy nation of white rage. Even when our numbers were highest, black folks have only represented 13 or 14 percent of the national population. But, as Fredrick Douglass once said, “power surrenders nothing without a threat,” and that is what the militant wing provided.
The white power structure could opt for war, a war that would not be without great cost to white aggressors — or they could opt for a conversation. The bullet or the ballot. Of course they ultimately chose the latter, at least as a matter of public policy. This brings us to the last of those two critical elements: white guilt.
Then as now, technology played a part. According to the Library of Congress, less than nine percent of homes had a TV in 1950, but that figure rose to 90 percent by 1960. The period gave Americans broadcast news and, naturally, the ’60s offered plenty of content — including prominently the sights and sounds of a nation on fire.
Imagine it for a moment: You’re a white mother, a homemaker. Your husband will be home late from a meeting, and you’re prepping dinner while your daughter goes on about her school day and your baby boy plays with his red shiny Radio Flyer. But after your hubby kisses your cheek, asks about the meatloaf, and pours a Tom Collins, he flips on the television. Your Rockwellian world is flipped upside down as you witness, for the first time, a black mom and her boy fighting off dogs, bleeding from rocks thrown by a crowd, buffeted by police water cannons, singing spirituals and covering up vital organs.
The media’s thrusting these stories into the day-to-day lives of whites across the country made a difference, intentionally or not. It’s one thing to ignore an atrocity you can’t see, quite another to explain a squad of grown men beating a child in the street to your young daughter. In short, it became distasteful to the white consciousness on a macro-level. The stench of it all rose into the nostrils of the men in the White House. It was a daily, national embarrassment, and it forced their hand.
Visibility forced a choice. White men were dragged — in some cases kicking and screaming — into a new era. They were not philosophically aligned with the Panthers, or, for that matter, with Martin Luther King, Jr. The Movement didn’t ask for angels; only allies.
Of course, this was not a hard and fast truth. It was no secret that within the Movement intellectual disputes over methodology were often heated but, by and large, the notion of each person going about the struggle as best they could was respected. Today, artists, religious leaders, athletes, scholars, and public figures are as likely to be railroaded off the scene as invited to the struggle. Ours is the democratic apex of celebrity culture. We bronze new idols every day, and think nothing of casting them down for an errant quote.
We expect people who do good work on behalf of our communities to come entirely free of prejudice. When they inevitably fail us, when we find they are not woke enough, we have no means for redress. We have no instinct to teach or rebuild. As the income divide widens and money becomes more synonymous with political power, we have so few voices of means and courage it seems a shame to silence them when they speak without thought or with natural privilege. The world is a complex place. We progressives should judge our allies by realistic standards.
We don’t have to choose between our principles and our progress. Let us define our leaders and ourselves by our ambitions. We should sharpen each other, teach each other, challenge each other, but we should stop short of exile. It’s quite possible that tolerating differing ideas is necessary to prevent our cause from collapsing into chaos under the weight of unreachable ideological perfection.
Unless, of course, you disagree.