Together in this historical moment
This presidential election cycle features a coded appeal to an era when white supremacy easily resisted challenge. We hear yearnings for a time when white men wielded unquestioned ownership of the keys to the country. Control over the lives of the vulnerable was, as it remains, enforced by violence and the threat of violence. In previous elections, this was the famous Nixon, Reagan, G. W. Bush “southern strategy”. Politicians exploit the irrational fears of white people who perceive themselves as endangered. Remind me: who is actually at risk?
My blog generally addresses musical concerns. My readers share my perception that music transcends questions of technique, form, or artistry. Music is an expressive vehicle that mediates our relationship to the world and, as much as politics or other endeavors, is intimately tied to the historical, social moment.
I have, in my recent blogs, used the phrase “white supremacy” as a mantra. White supremacy, white supremacy, white supremacy. Speaking these words aloud seems anathema to many people who look like me. Resistance to the word pair seems like an allergy with no natural source. As my students and friends know, I believe we need to bring the phrase “white supremacy” (there it is again) into our daily discourse precisely because it describes an essential daily reality. Not speaking these two words diminishes the logic of our speech and compromises our understanding.
Unmentionable ideas seem to travel in packs. Intimately linked to white supremacy is the male exertion of power and control over women and its exercise over other men who can be made vulnerable to domination. The slogan “make America great again” is a whistle call, recalling an era when the dominance of white men was understood to be the way things worked, how things go when societal wheels turn “smoothly”, undisrupted. It is not by chance that the Trump campaign draws its support and strength substantially from white men who express aggrievement with contemporary America.
In truth, this well-oiled machine was supported by the misuse of human bodies, the abuse of women and of people of color. Its foundation was American slavery, the source of labor that built this country. The structure of plantation life was defined by the dominance of the male owner over “his” slaves and over “his” women. Enslaved women were at the intersection of cascading vulnerabilities.
This brings us to the debate about the recent spate of mass killings. Amanda Taub writes in the New York Times (“Control and Fear, what mass killings and domestic violence have in common,” June 15, 2016): “Domestic violence, experts say, often occurs when an abuser concludes that violence is the best tool to solve his or her grievances. That might mean a husband who perceives his wife’s failure to do the laundry as a challenge to his rightful authority, leading him to try to re-impose his will through violence.” Violence is chosen as an implement because it works. Violence is instrumental because its power, once wielded, hovers as a continual threat. Encoded is the message: “I can intimidate you to obey my rule. I hold over you the threat of harm if not death; you will lose anything and everything whatever I choose. All choices are ultimately mine. You will not be believed if you try to stop me.”
Domination by white men unifies the ideology and practice of white supremacy, power over women, and hatred of those viewed as a threat to hyper-masculinity. This confluence explains the historical stigma of being LGBTQ or Jewish. Reclaiming the term “queer” has been of value precisely because it highlights how threatening gender and sexual nonconformity is to a system of male dominance.
Within this system, Jews and Blacks are stereotyped and stigmatized in a manner that is highly sexualized.
Jewish men have been historically caricatured as impotent yet hyper-sexual. They are supernaturally financially adept; populist mythology continues to label Jews as controllers of world power and finance, a dynamic that periodically turns economic success from being an entry point to whiteness into a liability. Jewish women are labeled domineering and frigid.
Black men are mythologized as ignorant, out of control sexual predators and angry murderers; Black women as drug addicted prostitutes, mammies, and exotic sexual objects. Societal safety and the purity of white women are said to be constantly under threat; twisted logic of the Jim Crow era rendered sexual disfigurement a constant element in the public lynching of Blacks, and at times, Jews. Donald Trump’s rhetoric about Mexico sending rapists across the border ties immigration into this web of white male dominance and control.
My personal experience of these dynamics was gained when my mother was forced to seek work as a public school teacher outside New York City. This was an era when, in an unspoken rule, women were excluded from American History teaching. Consequently, I spent my adolescent years in an unfamiliar suburban environment: a thin, small Jewish boy. I naively allowed myself to be identified in equal measure with Jewish and African American concerns (accurate but, as it turned out, risky). I was not cognizant of the rules of an all-white, largely Christian environment. I sounded like a New Yorker, looked like an outsider, and was thus marked for abuse. The details of that experience await another day.
The experience alerted me to what it meant to be stigmatized and vulnerable—labeled nonwhite–to the violent behavior of white men who rigidly asserted their dominance. The level of fear I experienced brought to mind earlier experiences when I was very young, of late nights at our summer colony in Golden’s Bridge, in the company of freedom riders who spoke of their coming perilous journeys. Our very real fear was that we would never see them again. Here I was in middle school, doing nothing heroic, challenging nobody, yet reminded of this same level of fear.
These experiences lead me to take personally the spate of killings of Black men and the rash of mass shootings. This is not to say that I conflate the present, constant vulnerability of Black America with my own safety. Protected with reasonable security by my white male skin, I do not.
Certainly, the language of this present election cycle frightens me. The antidote to perceived threats to this system of dominance is said to be a return to a mythical past when men were men, when their control remained unchallenged, and what lay between civilization and chaos was firepower.
Most important here is that I am reminded that I, like many, are capable of empathy during this difficult present moment. Like many who are not Black, I—like many other people—know what it feels like to be vulnerable, and we can draw upon those experiences to take the side of those at risk. We can use our own personal memories to craft a shared societal wake up call.
We all share a stake in the death of so many Black men on our nation’s streets. We can have common cause in the harassment of immigrants and people of Islamic faith and in the mass killings at the Pulse gay nightclub. We can choose to be in this together.