Throughout this country’s history, from the Revolutionary period to Reconstruction to the black freedom movement of the mid-twentieth century, the United States has faced moments of crisis in which the country might emerge otherwise, moments when the idea of white America itself could finally be put aside. In each instance the country chose to remain exactly what it was: a racist nation that claimed to be democratic. These were and are moments of national betrayal, in which the commitments of democracy are shunted off to the side to make way for, and to safely secure, a more fundamental commitment to race.
We often reach for the language of “backlash” to describe these moments when the prospect of genuine change around racial matters hits a wall of resistance. It’s a word we hear often today, one that registers that, for some people, the pace and substance of change have gone too far and, in doing so, threaten the very way of life that makes the reform possible in the first place. It is a genteel way of saying white people have had enough. Or it is another way of asking the old question, “What else does the Negro want?”
We should resist the language of backlash, not merely because it is inaccurate, but because it wrongly concedes the frame of the question. The term describes a political response to a problem that cuts much deeper than politics, suggesting that white people believe they have gone far enough in addressing black people’s demands; it mistakes the substance of those demands for the underlying fears that have produced the politics and laws to begin with. As I wrote in my book Democracy in Black, even good laws are distorted by the persistence of the value gap, meaning that changes in laws, no matter how necessary, will never be sufficient to produce a healthier society. Only addressing the deeper fears can accomplish that. “Backlash” mistakenly views demands for fundamental dignity as demands for privileges, and, worse, suggests that creeping incrementalism is a legitimate pace of change when it comes to remedying the devastation of black lives.
“Backlash” fails to capture the response to the collapse of old hierarchies as people who were once relegated to the bottom rungs of society seek to move out of their designated spots. In critical moments of transition, when it seems as if old ways of living and established norms are fading, deep-seated fears emerge over loss of standing and privilege. Baldwin put it this way in the essay on Carmichael: “When a black man, whose destiny and identity have always been controlled by others, decides and states that he will control his own destiny and rejects the identity given to him by others, he is talking revolution.” That threat to the social order releases fears that further contaminate our politics.
The word backlash covers in a cloak of innocence white fears and the politics that exploits them. Those fears throw us back into the pit and make tar babies of us all. During a speech at Kalamazoo College in 1960, later adapted and published in Nobody Knows My Name, Baldwin tried to show how those fears moved us about, how they dictated policies, and how they revealed what’s at the heart of white identity in this country:
They do not really know what it is they are afraid of, but they know they are afraid of something, and they are so frightened that they are nearly out of their minds. And this same fear obtains on one level or another, to varying degrees, throughout the entire country. We would never, never allow Negroes to starve, to grow bitter, and to die in ghettos all over the country if we were not driven by some nameless fear that has nothing to do with Negroes. It is only too clear that even with the most malevolent will in the world, Negroes can never manage to achieve one-tenth of the harm which we fear. No, it has everything to do with ourselves and this is one of the reasons that for all these generations we have disguised this problem in the most incredible jargon.
Talk of backlash is just one of the many disguises. In these moments, the country reaches the edge of fundamental transformation and pulls back out of a fear that genuine democracy will mean white people will have to lose something—that they will have to give up their particular material and symbolic standing in the country. That fear, Baldwin understood, is at the heart of the moral psychology of the nation and of the white people who have it by the throat. That fear, not the demand for freedom, arrests significant change and organizes American life. We see it in the eyes of Trump supporters. One hears it in the reticence of the Democratic Party to challenge them directly.
It is not enough to merely acknowledge these dark moments when the politics of fear threaten to overwhelm, as Jon Meacham does in his brilliant book The Soul of America, but then to move quickly to examples of hope that affirm the country’s sense of its own exceptionalism. We fail to linger in the dark moments at our peril. To be sure, we have a vibrant democratic tradition and numerous examples of courageous voices who risked everything to defend its basic ideals. But these after times reveal the deep cellar of American life (that two-storied sense of the country), where the fears that move us about reside. They work like the recurring nightmare that frightens the child, because their power derives from a deep wound that overruns everything. One has to linger here. Move too quickly, and you set yourself up for another nightmare.
Excerpted from Begin Again by Eddie S. Glaude Jr. Copyright © 2020 by Eddie S. Glaude Jr. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.