I thought white people were evil.
I was wrong.
Whenever anyone mentions the historical atrocity of chattel slavery, white people will emerge from the dark crevices of humanity to gnaw away at the assertion like roaches on a discarded Cheeto. They will explain how most white people didn’t own slaves. They will offer a convoluted explanation about the Confederacy and Southern heritage. They will introduce the concept of “presentism”—the idea that we shouldn’t judge the actions of people in the past using modern-day standards—as if the white people of the past couldn’t quite grasp the idea of inhumanity and brutality until 1861.
Everyone knew that slavery was evil. Everyone knew that Jim Crow was evil. Everyone knew that lynching was evil. Everyone knows that any kind of injustice or inequality is evil. These things persist because most white people don’t actively fight to eradicate them.
And most white people don’t actively fight to eradicate inequality and injustice because they usually benefit in some small way. The Southern economy was built on evil slavery. Jim Crow laws maintained a national order with white people firmly planted atop the social hierarchy. Systematic injustice keeps black people in their place, but it also comforts white people to know that the big black bogeymen are being kept behind bars.
Inequality and racism exist not because of evil but because the unaffected majority put their interests above all others, and their inaction allows inequality to flourish. That is why I believe that silence in the presence of injustice is as bad as injustice itself. White people who are quiet about racism might not plant the seed, but their silence is sunlight.
Many of those people don’t speak out because they fear alienation more than they hate racism. For them, the fear of having someone furrow their brow in their direction outweighs their hatred of sending children to an underfunded school knowing that they don’t have an equal chance at success because of the color of their skin.
They know the reality of disproportionate police brutality, but they don’t have to worry about their children being shot in the face. Their kids receive good educations. Their kids can wear hoodies whenever they please. Little Amber and Connor’s résumés don’t get tossed in the trash because of their black-sounding names. Their children’s futures are determined only by work ethic and ability. Therefore, they stay silent on the sidelines.
That’s not evil.
That is cowardice.
“All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.”
—Thomas Jefferson (maybe)
On Thursday, while visiting San Antonio, I was approached by a gentleman who heard my name and wanted to know if I was the Michael Harriot from The Root. He said that he was a paralegal who works with one of the noted immigration attorneys who were all over the news that day (I don’t know which one because I had been traveling and ... Crown Royal). He began to explain how the Trump administration was literally putting children in concentration camps.
Hold up ... before that previous sentence causes Caucasian heads to explode, allow me to offer this definition from Dictionary.com:
Concentration Camp: a guarded compound for the detention or imprisonment of aliens, members of ethnic minorities, political opponents, etc., especially any of the camps established by the Nazis prior to and during World War II for the confinement and persecution of prisoners.
Now back to our previous conversation.
Just before he shook my hand and said it was nice meeting me, he explained that it was entirely possible that those children might never see their parents again. Then he said something that I still cannot erase from my brain. He paused, his hand still gripping mine, and looked past me as if he were recalling something, and said, “This is some Gestapo shit, man.”
I know that sentence gave liberals heart palpitations. There is always pushback anytime someone compares anything or anyone to the führer. Even though there is a literal Nazi movement rising in this country, Hitler is the third rail of every conversation, no matter how apt the comparison.
Despite the similarities between 1933 Germany and 2018 America (a rise in nationalism, a government-sponsored ethnic-cleansing movement, a racist strongman in power, that whole concentration camp thing ... ), the most obvious parallel between the Third Reich and the Trump administration is the willing silence of the majority.
Trump chief of staff John Kelly, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and many others refuse to publicly stand up to this insane administration even though they disagree with the policies. Ryan would rather quit. Kelly has reportedly given up. Sanders is reportedly leaving the White House. But none have publicly broken up with Donald Trump.
But it is not just the politicians in the Republican Party who are afraid to speak out against their base; the spineless cowardice of the Democrats has also become increasingly apparent. We expect Republicans to stand with their fearless leader and maintain their grip on power, but Democrats have been so silent that Rep. Maxine Waters’ defiance makes her look like a crazy woman in a tinfoil hat by comparison.
A CBS survey revealed that most Americans disagree with Trump’s “both sides” equivocation regarding the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., last year. According to a CNN/ORC poll, a majority of Americans opposed the white-nationalist-inspired travel ban. Two-thirds of Americans say that separating children from their parents at the border is unacceptable, according to a CBS poll.
Still, most white people won’t do shit.
The crisis at the border is the latest addition to a long list of instances when white people have chosen silence over what is right. Most of the white people who supported civil and voting rights still did not march, boycott or sit in. The white people who shed tears over police videos won’t attend a Black Lives Matter meeting.
Cowards. All of them.
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
At least once a week, I will receive an email from a well-meaning white person who wants to know what they can do to fight injustice and inequality. The answer to that is simple. Whenever and wherever you spot racism or inequality, say something. Do something.
Every. Single. Time.
If a white person spoke up every time a fellow Caucasian used the word “nigger” in the safe space of whiteness, they would stop doing it. If a white person advocated for diversity and equality behind the closed doors of power, where black faces are seldom present, people in power wouldn’t dismiss the reality of the tilted playing field.
And maybe I should go back and add the word “some” before every mention of “white people” in this article because I’d bet every penny I have that at least one white person with good intentions is reading this while murmuring, “Not all white people ... ”
Which is exactly my point.
“Some” is not enough.
Some white people will speak out sometimes, just like some fish can fly and some bears can ride bicycles. But if a biologist were lecturing on the mobility of aquatic animals or grizzlies, it would be idiotic to interrupt with the rare cases of flying fish or bears that ride Huffys.
Fish swim. Bears walk.
And white people are cowards.
“I always wondered why somebody doesn’t do something about that. Then I realized I was somebody.”
There is a quote in the Holocaust Museum by Martin Niemöller, who was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp for speaking out against Adolf Hitler. The quote reads:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Initially, Niemöller supported the Nazi Party for years because he “felt that reparations, democracy, and foreign influence” had damaged his country and “believed that Germany needed a strong leader to promote national unity and honor.”
When they came for black people, white people, like Neimöller, did nothing because they were not black. When they came for the Muslims, white people did not speak out because they were not Muslims. When they came for the immigrants, white people remained quiet because they were not immigrants.
The most disheartening part of all this is that black people and other people of color alone cannot abolish discrimination and hate. It is a problem created by white America and maintained by the silence of the majority. Every form of inequality would disappear by next Friday if every white person in America used his or her privilege to eliminate it.
It is useless to speculate on the exact reasons why they don’t. Sure, some of them are racists who benefit from the current social order. But many are just unmotivated because they don’t want to upset the apple cart. They will weep at the sight of children being ripped from their parents’ arms and shipped to internment camps. They will say Philando Castile’s death was a cruel injustice. They will tell you they “have a good heart.”
But they will only whisper these feelings. Who gives a fuck about hearts when their mouths are quiet and their hands are idle?
Republicans who disagree with the Trump administration remain silent. Instead of screaming at the top of their lungs, Democrats are calmly suggesting the same electoral solution that put Trump in power in the first place. Moderate whites say nothing behind closed doors. White women still have not confronted the 53 percent of their population who supported Trump.
And that is why racism persists. That is how Trump maintains his power. Injustice is evil. The cowardice of silence perpetuates injustice, and anything that perpetuates evil is, by definition, also evil.
Therefore, silence is evil.
As Leonardo da Vinci once said (I could not find the exact source. I think he said it when he painted the Mona Lisa, fought injustice as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle or starred in Inception): “He who does not oppose evil commands it to be done.”
This is some Gestapo shit.
Until all white people do and say something, people in power will always be able to point to the silent majority and say that no one cares about racism or inequality. Ultimately, whiteness affords them the right to remain silent.
I thought white people were evil.
I was right.
(Updated 3/3/22 with new details)