“The purpose of order is to ensure justice. When order has failed to do so, the disruption of that order is justified.” — Tyrance Billingsley II | Statue of slave owner and Confederate General Robert E. Lee
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Op-Ed by Tyrance Billingsley II, contributing writer
A wise historian once said, “If the house is to be set in order, one cannot begin with the present, he must begin with the past.” That honorable man was John Hope Franklin, a survivor of the 1921 Tulsa Race massacre that left 36 square blocks of a prosperous Black town in ruins.
What we see happening in our country today is the facing of a disease that has had its severity downplayed, its symptoms masked, and, in many cases, its existence outright denied for the sake of maintaining the mythos of American society. Racism and white supremacy were built into the very foundation of our nation’s culture.
While its symptoms have been treated many times before for the sake of preserving order, the disease itself has never truly been faced with the purpose of eradication. This is the core of the dilemma we are experiencing today. American society refuses to truly face racism because it requires acknowledging that it isn’t a contracted illness, but a hereditary one that is embedded in the very fabric of our national identity.
Travon Martin’s face projected onto slave owner and Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s statue.
Whether it takes the form of slavery, the killing of an unarmed Black man, mass incarceration, economic disempowerment or merely day to day forms of tone-deaf social interactions, racism is woven throughout the sociopolitical landscape of America. Our refusal to truly face it as a society has led to this nationwide,and even global, catharsis that feels like chaos.
To truly understand our current predicament and attempt to move towards solutions, we need to fully understand this problem, how it affects us and get comfortable being uncomfortable.
In Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, the iconic civil right’s leader wrote, “Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”
The American mythos is that of a shining city on a hill that serves as a social and moral compass to the rest of the world.
To acknowledge that racism is not a vice or addiction that we have struggled with, but a sickness that is in the very cultural fabric of our country would be to tarnish that mythos, that narrative, in a way most Americans would not even know how to begin reconciling. It’s one thing to right a “terrible wrong,” but still hold on to the notion of moral superiority and exceptionalism under the guise of “every country makes mistakes”.
It’s something else entirely to reconstruct everything you believe about your nation with the understanding that the mythos you have concocted is a lie. To face this fact is to question an idea that is the cornerstone of our mythology and storytelling, that we are inherently righteous as a society.
George Floyd’s image projected on to slave owner and Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s statue.
In an attempt avoid the deep journey of self-reflection necessary to confront this hideous truth of our nature, the idea of racism in this country –when it is acknowledged — is often confined to its most overt, extreme and simplistic manifestation: the conscious unconditional hatred of a person or people solely because of their ethnicity or the color of their skin. This definition is preferred when talking of racism in this country because it is simple, shallow and easy to absolve oneself and modern America in the face of such an accusation. One Black friend, family member or positive interaction serves as evidence that this is unlikely the character of the person accused of racism, but this, too, is an attempt by our culture to simplify a complex and multifaceted issue. This perception of racism requires very little introspection and analysis. As a result, this definition has allowed for us to go for generations without truly understanding what racism really is and how it affects every aspect of our society, systems and social constructs.
This truth is the reason we as a society have refused to truly try understanding racism and white supremacy, is because understanding how these evils are woven into every aspect and pillar of our society would call for a radical breaking down and reconstruction of our national, social and cultural identity in a way that threatens the order within which America has thrived and grown comfortable. The level of work, introspection, education and self-accountability that comes with acknowledging this fact and taking on this task is both daunting and presents an inherent threat to a social order that this country is not yet ready to part with.
Dr. King continues in his profound Letter, stating, “I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.”
What we are seeing today is the refusal of Black Americans and many others in this country to continue accepting a culture that promulgates suffering and injustice in the name of maintaining law and order.
American culture and society is a massive tower whose foundation is an ever-growing layer of the skeletons and corpses of millions of Africans, including indigenous and countless others and Black Americans. This metaphor is to be understood, not only as speaking to the scores of people unjustly murdered during slavery and colonization, but also to the persisting culture that inflicts perpetual suffering, trauma, and death on Black Americans today.
Much of America — for the sake of their order and negative peace — would keep this tower standing, to see the layer of growing skeletons as a necessary evil to maintain what they understand as the ‘greater good’ so they elect to ignore it, trivialize it and make excuses for it.
The unrest across our country today is verbalizing that this will not be tolerated any longer.
I am not attempting to be hyperbolic or eschatological when I say that; as the original sin of this country, this is the social issue that has the power to lay our republic low if it is not adequately addressed.
It was chiefly this issue, in combination with many other factors, that divided and nearly destroyed our nation in the only civil war of its history. It is with this level of urgency that we should collectively look to remedy, not merely pacify, this issue that is both an atrocity and a social time bomb that has begun its final countdown.
The purpose of order is to ensure justice. When order has failed to do so, the disruption of that order is justified. The tendency of many White Americans to cry out against the rioting and looting but not the murder of an unarmed Black American citizen is reflective of them valuing their order above justice, which is akin to, in this case, trading another person’s car to get gas for yours. Until justice is at the forefront of everyone’s mind, peace will never be secure in America.
“The difference between patriotism and nationalism is that the patriot is proud of his country for what it does, and the nationalist is proud of his country no matter what it does; the first attitude creates a feeling of responsibility, but the second a feeling of blind arrogance that leads to war,” Sydney J Harris said.
To remedy this issue, I am calling on us all to participate in a radical self-reflection and reconstruction of our national culture. When I say radical reconstruction of our culture, I mean that we, for what may be the first time in our nation’s history, truly reflect on the social principles this nation should strive for, and cultivate a new social order in which securing the justice of these values is prioritized above maintenance of a negative peace.
For White Americans in particular, I am calling on you to educate yourselves on the plight of Black Americans in this country, be willing to put in the work on yourselves and commit to the lifelong battle against white supremacy, and most of all, actively push for policies to dismantle every system of oppression. Our country must collectively face the trauma and legacy of its past abuses against non-White people and be willing to admit that true justice can only be achieved via building a new social culture rather than innovating upon the old one.
Just as ‘total war’ encompassed the use of every area of society, contributing to the war effort ‘total reconstruction’ will require effort from every facet of American society to dismantle white supremacy. From education, housing, police reform, banking, and entrepreneurship to politics and our justice system, all of our institutions must consciously reflect on the ways white supremacy has molded their discipline and actively petition for policies to dismantle it.
Rather than viewing it as a ‘social issue’ that is to be confined to one area of life, be constantly mindful of it as something that is as ubiquitous as water and be relentless in your efforts to neutralize it.
I am calling on the citizens of our nation to be fearless in becoming who we should have always been from the beginning, a society built upon liberty and justice for all, but with justice taking precedence over unjust order.
We have recently seen multiple companies, institutions, organizations and officials condemning the death of George Floyd and supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. This is necessary, but only the first step. The total dedication of all of our nation’s entities to dismantle white supremacy through policy and social pressure is next. Only via this radical and total reconstruction of our nation’s culture can we take up the mantle of responsibility that secures justice to all Americans.
As the great writer, Zora Neale Hurston, declared, “ I will fight for my country but I will not lie for her.”
I want to close out by saying that I still believe in the promise of America. Every single day I see what this country can and should be, which is why I find what it is now to be unacceptable and feel the need to fix it with the utmost urgency.
My call for a radical and total reconstruction of our nation’s culture is petitioned not only out of a cry for justice for my people but for the betterment of our nation. Only by recognizing that neither the apotheosis of our founding fathers nor the emphasis of the perceived good this country has done will ever absolve its blood-soaked inception and flawed nature will we be able to rise above it.
It is only through facing ourselves and admitting that while some things have worked marvelously, we have failed to hit the chief aim of this social experiment we call America.
There have been plenty of countries in history who have achieved unmatched prosperity for a select group of their people. That doesn’t make our country unique. What makes us unique is the promise of securing equality and justice to ALL of our citizenries. The fact that this is our founding principle and the basis upon which we set our nation apart from the rest of the world’s nations is the very same reason why the excuse of “every nation had slaves, has racism or was founded in blood” will not cut it.
If our country is going to boast about exceptionalism, we need to be exceptional, most of all, in the area that was originally supposed to make us exceptional in the first place: justice and equality for all.
I write this not as a cynical rebuke of all things American, but as a disappointed and hopeful citizen. How will we pull through this trying and defining moment as a nation? We have to recognize that for the America that we all know should exist to live, the one built atop lies and Black bodies must die. We should not try to preserve the culture we have come to know as America, but rethink what it means to be American itself. We must atone for our past, secure justice in the present, and take moral responsibility in the future. We must reimagine America.
“O, let America be America again — The land that never has been yet — And yet must be—the land where every man is free.” — Let America be America Again by Langston Hughes
Tyrance Billingsley is a contributing writer of The Black Wall Street Times as well as an entrepreneurial and politically active African American in Tulsa. He chose to stay in Tulsa after high school in an effort to establish himself locally and to help build Tulsa into the global hub it once was — for all its citizens. Tyrance is very passionate about Tulsa and hopes to use Tulsa as a launchpad for global change.