by Winslow Myers
Recently the Equity Leadership Steering Committee associated with an almost entirely white school district in Maine came out with a strong letter asking citizens to acknowledge not just the anodyne “white privilege,” but the actual “white supremacy” pervasive in our nation. Not unexpectedly, they received some pushback. Fortunately the Superintendent of Schools had the courage to back them up.
Selective listeners heard “you’re accusing me of Ku-Klux-Klan-level racism.” But “white privilege,” compared to “white supremacy,” has the ring of a garden party to which I somehow deserved an invitation. “White supremacy,” enforced by the police and structures too long set in cultural concrete, is closer to the truth. The events of the past two weeks, especially so many young whites demonstrating alongside blacks in the streets, have made it easier for whites to acknowledge the depth of the injustice in which they play an integral part.
We humans are selective listeners. We hear what we want to hear, because it fits our mindset. When Donald Trump hears “defund the police,” he thinks “anarchy, chaos, abandonment of law and order.” When the millions of American protestors hear the same phrase, it means “the militarization of the police only brought out their worst tendencies. Reform is a failure. Time to reconceive the police, and put far more funds into social services that meet human needs directly.”
A pervasive paradigm never dies a painless death—in this moment the real deaths of far too many black people. While we’re on the subject of defunding an overmilitarized police corrupted, perhaps from the beginning, by invulnerable power, structural racism, a code of conspiratorial secrecy, and resistance to reform, let’s also remember just how big a paradigm shift we are undergoing in our historical moment—bigger even than racism. Because in this shift, everything is connected.
When Mr. Trump hears “Green New Deal,” he thinks “radical socialism,” where Ocasio-Cortez thinks “new job opportunities and a more sustainable living system; what’s not to like?” Pushed out of the headlines by the pandemic and the police lynching of Mr. Floyd, international challenges like climate change do not abate.
When Donald Trump hears “full spectrum dominance” or “we have more nukes than any other country,” he hears that the “strength” of supremacy enforces law and order internationally as well as domestically. A growing number of the rest of us hear foreboding elements of weakness, decay, misappropriation of limited resources, double standards, and possible nuclear catastrophe.
It isn’t just the police that are overmilitarized; it’s the military itself. Not just in the United States, but the United States is a case in point. The Lockheed F-35 Strike Fighter is expected to cost a trillion dollars over its 60-year lifespan. The plan to renew our nuclear arsenal over 10 years will cost us taxpayers $1.6 trillion—leaving aside our futile and unnecessary wars, including the racist one in Vietnam and our indecisive long-running campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Imagine the trillions expended upon bloated military programs and stupid wars that end up diminishing our security repurposed to give everyone in our nation authentic equality of opportunity, equal access to health care, equally well-funded schools.
We, and not just in the U.S. but also in other autocracies like Brazil or Hungary or Russia or China or Iran or Myanmar, are invited to rethink the age-old question of fundamental relationship between the state and the individual citizen. Is the purpose of the state to control, or is it to support human dignity and equal opportunity and clean air and water?
The U.S. Declaration of Independence says that citizens will create an ideal society and government by “laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”
The people in the streets yearning for something new and hopeful, not only in the U.S. but all around the world, including Hong Kong, don’t want to be controlled by an intrusive state; they want to be free from the state unless it is repurposed to more effectively champion their needs and rights.
Nuclear weapons, like our over-armed police, are also the expression of a brutal, dysfunctional, obsolete attempt at supremacy and control. Defund and reconceive the police. Defund subsidies for fossil fuels and support alternative energy systems. Defund and reconceive international security by forging new arms agreements which lift the anxiety of being annihilated off our necks. “I can’t breathe” has more than one meaning.
Winslow Myers, the author of Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide, serves on the Advisory Board of the War Preventive Initiative.