The Audacity of Hopelessness

Jonathan Bachman’s iconic image from the July 2016 protest in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, days after police shot and killed Alton Sterling at close range, captured Ieshia Evans silently confronting heavily armed riot police. She later said she wanted her silence to convey: “I’m human. I’m a woman. I’m a mom. I’m a nurse. I could be your nurse. I could be taking care of you. You know? I’m here. We all matter. We don’t have to beg to matter. We do matter.”

I have so many thoughts and so much anguish about the horrific week just past, about the lynching of George Floyd, the latest in the seemingly never-ending assaults on black and brown bodies, and promises of more from this administration. It seems inadequate to just post something on social media, but at the same time silence in the face of innocent suffering is complicity in the act itself. It just feels numbingly like “thoughts and prayers”: a performative gesture with no real connection to systemic change. 

While Democrats condemned the latest lynching, reaction from the administration has been to pour as much jet fuel on the flames as possible. I’m not saying the Democrats’ reaction has been adequate, or that the current administration is the cause of this, but when the president gleefully tweets “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” it is clearly weaponizing these incidents and doing what it can to escalate them, presumably for what it hopes will be political gain. This is the shock and awe, the state of constant trauma that we were warned would be this administration’s MO. The chaos we are witnessing daily is a deadly combination of bad faith and ill-will. Much of it is absolutely carelessness and incompetence — scary enough — but the rest: strategic inattention to complex systems, and then weaponizing their collapse for profit — is truly terrifying.

Add to all of this the scorched-earth tactics of an election year. Brian Levin, director of the Cal State San Bernardino Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, told the LA Times in January: “with an election season coming up, we really have to be concerned because over the last decade, the three worst months were all around politically charged events.” I have been through enough of these election cycles in my life to have seen the “political violence cycle” with my own eyes, and how it usually impacts people of color, women, immigrants, religious minorities, and LGBTQ folk. We already know that this regime does not value all human lives equally, and that they are committed to keeping power at whatever the cost. Again, a president who tweets: “the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat” is encouraging political terror, whatever prevarications or excuses his handlers offer for his messaging.

It’s already a lot. And we’re not even into the real thick of it. The chaos can blind us to the patterns beneath. We are overwhelmed by evils on all fronts, and our outrage can silence us into complicity. There’s plenty of reason for despair, and that can lead those of us with privilege to withdraw. Many of us worry that we are playing a part in spreading violence by participating in a culture that relies on us to amplify it, but gives us very little in the way of solutions. There is value in witness, but when the spectacle of cruelty and violence is a tool of those in power, we become simply an audience for it. I wish I could say turning off the telly and engaging in self-care until things “get back to normal” was the answer. But “Back to Normal” is the moderate, good white people version of “Make America Great Again.” Back to normal, as we have seen, involves unrelenting systemic violence against people of color. 

When it was “revealed” that Amy Cooper was a “Buttegieg liberal,” it was no surprise to me. Blue cap. To be clear: all white Americans benefit from systemic racism. All white Americans have internalized racial privilege. They may not even realize it until it’s “activated.” As Christian Cooper suggested in several interviews, it comes out in “stressful” situations, where that privilege is questioned, even if only by the innocent presumption of equality by a person of color. Amy Cooper’s racism was reflexive. The logic of privilege is conditioned over a lifetime by systems of oppression that our unquestioned participation in makes seem organic and ineluctable. This does not mean that she, or any of us, is not responsible for participating in and perpetuating, in our millions of tiny everyday ways, this great evil. I’ll quote again, as I often do, from Marjorie Suchocki’s The Fall to Violence:

Ingrained attitudes of passive acceptance of a great social evil … is sin, and entails guilt. It is original sin, in that it is a pre-given structure of ill-being through which we view the world, inherited as the very stuff that forms the world as world. It becomes personal sin when, having the ability to question the structure, we fail to do so, and thus support and perpetuate the structure.

“…When, having the ability to question the structure, we fail to do so.” It’s very hard for “good white people” to stay focused on this, to really grasp the myriad ways we individually benefit from the systemic oppression of black and brown people. When we say that Amy Cooper “knew what she was doing,” we’re saying she knew what all white people know. Her acting on this knowledge is the flipside of our own ongoing inaction on it. As long as racism for us is little more than a “distraction,” however tragic, from other agenda items, black people will continue to be lynched in the streets; black and brown kids will continue to grow up in cages, separated, likely forever, from their parents, mostly forgotten among the multitudes of other victims of the human rights atrocities that are the human cost of our “normal”; and the powers that seek to profit from cruelty, violence and division will continue to provide content for audiences, outraged and otherwise, for their atrocities. The ratings, as our reality game show host-in-chief likes to say, are “through the roof.”

It feels like we are at war, doesn’t it? Everyday we wake up to devastating stories involving the loss of innocent lives. There’s good reason reasonable people shy away from the rhetoric of warfare, of course. We know that acts of retaliatory violence will only result in greater violence toward those who are already suffering. So, what’s the answer? We want to believe that our system of electoral politics, which we know to be flawed, if not broken, will rescue us from what that same system has wrought. We long for the “normalcy” of “before.” But we need to stop pretending that the normal we want to get back to was “at peace” just because we weren’t targeted for violence, because the systems of oppression and violence benefited us. I’ll say it again: “Back to Normal” is the blue cap version of “Make America Great Again.” 

I’ve watched as good white people have hoped against hope that someone or something would bring down this cruel, corrupt regime. Remember Robert Mueller? Now we wait, a little impatiently, a little put out, for November’s “blue wave,” urging our friends and “followers” on social media to remember to register to vote, to do the right thing! All the while dread and doubt eating at us, as we diligently follow the news, watching helplessly as those in power chip away at the transparency and fairness of our electoral system. The disbelief that any of this could really be happening is far outpaced by the fact that much of it has already been accomplished. We are like the search party, meticulously gathering clues in the dust, while the body rots in a ditch ten feet away.

Social ethicist and professor of Latinx Studies Miguel De La Torre, has written about embracing hopelessness. He is interested in “the function of hope in reinforcing oppressive structures and reining in revolutionary tendencies.” The “hopey, changey thing,” which has been a staple of the left, may, perversely, be serving an oppressive status quo. De La Torre suggests that as long as that hope exists, unchallenged, even the least of us may feel that we have something to lose, “and thus will not risk all to change the social structures. The realization that there is nothing to lose,” he says, can be the most powerful catalyst for change there is. It brings to mind the American president’s pitch to black voters in 2016: what the hell have you got to lose?” Maybe it’s time we all de-centered our hopes of returning to normal, and started fighting for the world we want as if our own lives depended on it, as if we, ourselves, have nothing to lose.

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