A scene from the movie “Gangs of New York” puts the current unrest in our cities into perspective. It depicts a battle between rival gangs of poor white people — native-born Americans versus Irish immigrants — in the notorious Manhattan slum of Five Points. Their battle is suddenly interrupted by cannon fire from American warships anchored in the Hudson River that are attempting to quell a larger riot. The gang battle just happened to be in their way.
The larger riot had erupted over the nation’s first wartime draft, which was raising troops for the Union’s extended and deadly efforts to win the Civil War. If a draftee could afford it, he could pay $300 — the equivalent of almost $9,000 today — to buy an exemption and avoid going to war. When lists were posted naming the poor people who had been unable to avoid the draft, the protests turned violent. The “mob,” as the protesters were called in the movie, began looting and killing Black people. Those poor white protesters blamed their misfortunes on the yearning of Black people to be free.
Slowly, the mob moved uptown to wealthy white neighborhoods, looting and killing more people. That’s when a voice was heard saying: “We must put down the mob. Put down the mob at all cost.” The ships then commenced to fire. The army marched in. The “mob” was put down, the draft was implemented, and the war proceeded along its bloody path.
The point is that violence in poor and working-poor communities, whether it’s white-on-white, white-on-Black, or people of color-on-others, is allowed, and in some ways even encouraged, by wealthy whites, as long as that violence doesn’t threaten their privileges. America will summon its army and navy to protect the supremacy of the “rights” those people enjoy.
The scene from “Gangs of New York” focused on the roots of that white supremacy: the power of wealth, the advantages of whiteness, and the oppression of Blacks and other people of color.
Today’s unrest has been cast as a protest against racial injustice, as if injustice can be segmented. Racial injustice is a servant of economic injustice. In America, the latter could not exist without the nation being conditioned to obsess over the former. Scientists tell us that race is not a biological reality, but an illusion. Societies invented so-called racial identities long ago as tools of manipulation and vehicles by which to profit. As such, racial fear and hatred are learned vices.
While many protesters insist Black lives must matter, the only way we can achieve that result is by breaking the cycles of white supremacy. Doing so will be no small task, because white supremacy perpetuates itself in all aspects of America’s social formation. It resists attacks, pretends to decry injustice, and insincerely promises to do better. But in the end, white supremacy has the power to repeatedly “put down the mob” until discontent inevitably boils over again. Too often, it seems unconquerable.
If the experiment we call America is to succeed, the cycles of white supremacy must be broken. White people must stop being surprised by injustices that have been in plain view for over 400 years. Stop saying “something needs to be done.” We have heard that before. Do something!
Start with the truth. Say that white supremacy in all its manifestations is the problem. Say that white supremacy is evil, a sin against the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God, and that it is bad for America. It’s not enough to talk about “equity” and “merit,” because they are incapable of coexisting with white supremacy. Finally, stop hiding behind market theory and “capitalism,” and the presumption that both operate independent of race, and call it what it is: greed. Greed concentrates white wealth while limiting opportunities not only for people of color, but for most white people as well. Close the wealth gap by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, and the economy will take care of itself.
White supremacy cannot have its cake and eat it too. America’s success requires a better business model, one that allows human potential to flourish whatever its color or class. Such work requires an institution that grows from the seeds you are planting. Therefore, the University of the District of Columbia is establishing the Institute for the Study and Elimination of White Supremacy in America.
All people — scholars, activists, citizens — who believe in the idea of America — that all people are created equal and endowed with rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — are invited to join this enterprise.
The days of simply commiserating over the condition of poor, Black and brown Americans is over. It is time to rethink our future. It is finally time for one nation, under God, indivisible, to be born!
Mason is president of the University of the District of Columbia, the nation’s only exclusively urban land-grant university and public HBCU in Washington, D.C.