George Yancy: ‘F*ck this entire indifferent, hypocritical, and violent world!’
‘Thoughts and prayers’ haven’t done shit to help our suffering people. Now is the time for rage and action, philosopher George Yancy argues.
“There are times when I want to scream out: “F*** this entire indifferent, hypocritical and violent world!’” So writes philosopher George Yancy in a recent piece for Truthout entitled “If the State of the World Makes You Want to Scream, You’re Not Alone.” From endless militarism and war profiteering to climate chaos and the reactionary right’s attacks on democracy and civil rights, the most natural response to the compounding crises we face today is to be filled with rage. In this installment of The Marc Steiner Show, Marc speaks with Yancy about the necessity of feeling the fullness of that rage—not suppressing it with theoretical abstraction or false calls for civility—and then channeling that rage into collective action.
George Yancy is the Samuel Candler Dobbs professor of philosophy at Emory University and a Montgomery fellow at Dartmouth College. He is also the University of Pennsylvania’s inaugural fellow in the Provost’s Distinguished Faculty Fellowship Program (2019-2020 academic year). He is the author, editor, and co-editor of over 20 books, including Black Bodies, White Gazes; Look, a White!: Philosophical Essays on Whiteness; Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly about Racism in America; and Across Black Spaces: Essays and Interviews from an American Philosopher.
Pre-Production/Studio: Adam Coley, Cameron Granadino
Post-Production: Stephen Frank, Adam Coley
Marc Steiner: “Fuck this entire indifferent, hypocritical, and violent world!” That’s how philosopher George Yancy opens his article in Truthout. Let me just say he has stars instead of the word. The article’s called “If the State of the World Makes You Want to Scream, You’re Not Alone.” And I think that’s a sentiment many of us feel, given what we face with the rise of the right wing, the war in Ukraine, the ineptness of Democrats here in the United States to resist or blunt the right, to witnessing the pervasive racism that plagues this nation and the world. I’m Marc Steiner, welcome to The Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News. It’s good to have you all with us.
Dr. Yancy’s article in Truthout, “If the State of the World Makes You Want to Scream, You’re Not Alone,” and others like “Anti-Black Racism is Global. So Must be the Movement to End it.” Are really connected. George Yancy is the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Philosophy at Emory University, Montgomery fellow at Dartmouth College, he’s the author, editor, and co-editor of over 20 books, including Black Bodies, White Gazes; Look, a White!; Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly About Racism in America, and Across Black Spaces: Essays and Interviews from an American Philosopher. And welcome back, George, it’s been a while since we’ve talked and it’s good to have you on the air with us again.
George Yancy: Yes, it has. I appreciate it very much.
Marc Steiner: You know, I was thinking about the title of the article. This is often a sentiment that creeps into my brain and soul. It feels as if sometimes the forces of history and life are just a raid against us. I’d like to hear how you kind of came to the need to write this article and what it just says about the state we’re in.
George Yancy: Yeah, sure. It took me a while, actually, to write that piece. It had what was going on in Ukraine, in fact, even the death of – the killing, I should say, of George Floyd, having that knee on his neck for over nine minutes. COVID-19, all of that had sort of constituted a kind of confluence. And so there was this immediate influx, a kind of gestalt-like, overwhelming feeling of rage. And by the time I decided to read a little more of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who talks about the prophet’s word as a scream in the night, and the idea that what we have failed to do is to be outraged by the existential gravity of the problems that we face. I think then I could actually articulate the piece.
And the reason that I started out with the expletives, the F-word there, is because it, for me, embodied that sense of heaviness, that sense of dread and catastrophe that was hard to find a proper grammar. So I felt that that expletive would do it for me. And the idea of screaming suggests the sense in which we are outraged, the sense in which we can’t even clearly and with ease communicate these issues, the idea of abstract thought or abstract thinking or abstract discourse is always already too late. There is the emotive and affective dimension, because of the existential hell that we find ourselves in, such that perhaps what we need to do is scream. So what it was, it was a delay. It was a delay of my waiting and waiting, and yet feeling these incredible emotions, this sense of crying, this sense of lamentation. And I felt that I needed to say something, and that’s how it poured out of me.
Marc Steiner: And so you write about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and his daughter Susannah said that he couldn’t pray because, “Whenever I open the prayer book, I see before me images of children burning from napalm.” So as I read that and thought about the title of what you wrote and thought about the despair people feel, what do you think has changed? In the sense that when Heschel said that, it wasn’t like, I can’t handle this anymore, I got to go, I can’t even look at it anymore. His response was, I may not be able to pray, but I’m going to act, whether it was against the war or whether it was walking with Martin Luther King, and he, to change the world, for tikkun olam, to repair the world. Has something changed?
George Yancy: I don’t think so, actually. I mean, Heschel was writing at a time when, of course, he’s taking on the kind of white supremacy that Martin Luther King is fighting against. So he’s right there on the forefront, thinking about and feeling with Martin Luther King, and of course against the war as well, which of course, Martin Luther King got into trouble for doing so. In fact, Martin Luther King was very unpopular during that period because there were individuals who said, even Black folk who said, look, arguing, trying to consolidate civil rights is one thing, but you now have stepped beyond, as it were, your calling, when you called into question something like the Vietnam War. And I think that sense of malaise has not changed. If anything, I’d want to say there’s a way in which the subtlety and the insidiousness, and yet at the same time the re-expression of unabashed white supremacy and war. None of those things are new to us, but there’s a level of intensity. There’s a feeling that we should have been done with this a long time ago.
So there’s this case in which there’s the recursive nature of this violence, the recursive nature of white supremacy. And I think you’re right about Heschel. I think in the end, what Heschel was saying is that what we need to do is get out and engage in a form of political praxis. But what I’m interested in is the way in which – I was going to call him Hegel for a moment – The way in which… Well, you see, because Heschel’s a brilliant philosopher.
Marc Steiner: Right? Exactly. No, I understand.
George Yancy: The way in which Heschel is saying, I can’t pray because when I open the prayerbook, I see children being bombed with napalm. That captures, for me, the weight. So that, for an example, when I’m teaching, when I’m teaching a text, my question is, how do we go on? How do we read? How do we engage in formal academia with all of its abstraction and preoccupation with abstraction and with theory – By the way, which theory comes from the term theōros, which means spectator – How do we continue to be spectators, and not cultivate this sense of outrage, the sense that we can’t read the prayer book. The Bible’s not sufficient. The Quran is not sufficient. That we can’t remain in the mosques, we can’t remain in the temples. And there’s something about that. It says that, and for Heschel, as with King, I would argue that both of them see that the importance of transforming society is a cooperative enterprise with a divine. I mean, in essence, that’s kind of what they’re arguing.
It’s not human beings who will bring about the transformation of society without being in cooperation with a divine being, and it’s not a divine being that will, alone, do this. So it’s a joint process. It’s a co-creative process. But again, what Heschel does, there’s this kind of existentialist dimension to Heschel, where he places so much weight on us. Where if, for an example, he says, all of us are responsible, or few of us are guilty, but all of us are responsible. So I wanted to capture in that piece, let’s call it the use of the F-word piece. I wanted to capture that sense in which we all have to rise to the occasion, to really articulate and to define what it means to be really responsible. For an example, Susan Sontag says when we’re looking at images, for an example, although she’s not alive, she would say, when we look at images from Ukraine, there’s a way in which we can look at those images and we can show sympathy. But sympathy itself tricks us into assuming that we’re innocent, that somehow we are detached.
We are disarticulated from the violence that’s happening in Ukraine, when in fact we’re not. In fact, sympathy, counterintuitively, can render us impotent, and in some sense apathetic, because what we should be focusing on is, how is it that we can make a difference? And again, that brings us back to Heschel. What he sees in the prayerbook is the horrifying, catastrophic images of children burning. What I see when I read an abstract philosophical text is George Floyd crying and screaming for his mother, calling for his mother, or I see him saying I can’t breathe. Or I think about the way in which Ukrainian women are being raped by Russian soldiers. I think about the body pieces, the way in which corpses are lying in the streets, and the streets are becoming sites of putrefaction.
And hence, back to death, the immediacy and the importance of death. I think that what Heschel’s doing, I think that what King was doing, I think that what I’m trying to do in that piece is really to raise a level, not just of critical consciousness, but to open up our hearts to, in some sense, create what I would call an un-suturing of our hearts, so that we can feel more and be motivated by the gravitas of that feeling, the feeling that we can’t go on unless there’s a radical transformation in the way in which we’ve been living.
Marc Steiner: And I wonder if, when you, and others, and many of us want to say we want to scream, given what the world is facing, something seems to me to have changed drastically over the last 50 years. Where the left has been diminished, where the right is really on the rise, where racism, even though there was this flourish of change in 1960s and ’70s, that the deeply embedded racism that we see has erupted again in response, I think, to everything that was pushed forward. It was like, if you think about the Reconstruction period here in the United States, when there was this real attempt on parts of some to build a multiracial democracy. And of course, that was an anathema to many in the South, white people in the South, and it erupted and destroyed everything that was built. The same thing, that dynamic seems to be happening again. So when I read that title, that’s where it took me politically. Why are we there, and what does that mean? How would you approach that?
George Yancy: Sure. I think that, one, I would think about Robin Kelley, the brilliant historian.
Marc Steiner: Oh yeah.
George Yancy: Who actually talks about sort of three Reconstructions, one of which, of course, happened after 1877 – Well, it actually ended in 1877. And then around the ’50s and ’60s, let’s call it the second Reconstruction. But then he talks about a third Reconstruction that’s necessary. And he sees that as having great potentiality in this moment. So he, take for an example, the argument against policing and defunding the police. He says, look, it’s not the case that we need better jails. It’s not the case that we need better prisons or better policing. He argues that we have, along with others, is that we have to do away with the logics of policing and the logics of prisons. And of course, that doesn’t mean that we don’t give attention to individuals who engage in violent acts. It doesn’t mean that we throw law out of the window.
Rather, we understand the society with greater compassion, and we understand the mechanisms, the systemic mechanisms that underwrite the American polity, whether we’re talking about criminalization, questions of racism, whether we’re talking about questions of the opioid crisis. There’s a certain kind of compassion that we have failed in terms of seeing the world.
So what Robin Kelley is saying, I think, is something quite radical. He’s saying that what we’ve done is that we have allowed society to go on too long without looking at it through a critical lens that is capable of taking us to this radically new place, such that we’re able to transgress both, I think, the left and the right. The Republicans and the Democrats. That we have to really rethink the human. Rethink the anthropos, and to rethink that with a level of passion so that we can all develop a kind of common discourse to understand the ways in which all of us mutually suffer in the structures that we’ve created. So that it’s no longer zero sum logics, where some win and some game gain, which is precisely, of course, the logics that both Democrats and Republicans are playing according to. So he’s suggesting something far more radical, something far more inclusive, and yet critical.
Marc Steiner: So all the things you’ve written over the years, I’ve read a lot of what you’ve written over the years, and I think of you, in some ways, as a practical, pragmatic, applied philosopher. You think about how the world should be.
George Yancy: Yes.
Marc Steiner: So given what you just said, what form does that take? I mean, if you are… Let me come back to what I said earlier, because I think this is part of what we’re facing in the world today. Is that because of the failures – In many ways out of the West – To better people’s lives, is a rise of the right. And it’s very powerful. And the left, which for most part was born of, not just Marx, but also of humanism and more, has been diminished in many ways. And you’re seeing right now with what’s happening in Ukraine, where people with both the right and the left are split over what to do about Ukraine, what does it really mean? Should I support Russia or should I pull for Ukrainians? And you see that happening in both spectrums. So what form do you think that takes, both humanly and politically?
George Yancy: Yeah, look, I think that for me, when I think of left-like thinkers, I think of Robin Kelley, I think of the left bell hooks, I mean the late bell hooks, of course, the left bell hooks, I think of Cornel West, I think of other figures. And what I see, in their paradigmatic way of thinking about the world, is really rethinking limited ideological boundaries. So I think the right is living in a world that is upended precisely by its contradictions, precisely by the fact that its notion of what it is has been completely transformed in the light of someone like the strongman narcissist Donald Trump. So it seems to me that, for the most part, conservatives will sell their souls as long as they get more votes. And as long as they get more votes, meaning as long as there’s a populous figure who is capable of confusing the truth from lies, and lies from truth.
So I think what we’ve got is simply the investment in how to gain more power. So that’s, it seems to me, the teleological basis upon which the Republican Party moves. That’s its raison d’être. But at the same time, of course, Democrats are beholden to Wall Street. Democrats are beholden to money and to wealth. So there’s a way in which I would argue – And I don’t, by the way, I’ve never publicly referred to myself as a leftist. But how I do think about myself is in terms of this radical way of thinking about hesed, the Hebrew term hesed, which means loving kindness. And I see that working in Cornel’s work, and namely in West’s work, in Robin’s work, in bell hooks, to name three of them.
There’s a way in which they’re really thinking about how caritas, or how agape, can transform the way in which we’re thinking about, let’s say, take Ukraine. For the moment, what am I learning? I mean, all of us are learning things like what javelins are. We’re learning. I’ve had a military lesson in the last few weeks. But that’s what we’re learning about. We’re hearing, it’s important to support them militarily. And despite the fact that we don’t really hear a critical discourse about the way in which Bush Sr. said that we wouldn’t move another inch in terms of NATO vis a vis Eastern Europe. So it seems to me there are contradictions as well. But for me, I think that the real discussion is, how do we talk about what it means to show loving kindness? What does it mean to lay down the sort of geopolitical, socially constructed distinctions that we have created?
And that keeps us all imprisoned. So for me, and while this is certainly utopic, and in that entomological sense, it does not exist. But I mean, what would it look like for a politician, for an example, to build their platform on something like hesed, on loving kindness, what would that look like? What are the radical material implications of that kind of frank speech, that kind of parrhesia, that kind of courageous speech. So I’m being less political here and looking at something perhaps beyond the political. And for me, that which is beyond the political is that which holds us all together in this incredible way in which we are all haptically connected, the way in which we’re all touching, based on the fact that we’re all part of this larger ecosystem that implicates all of us. So it goes back to King’s notion of all of us being part of this larger network.
It goes back to John Donne, the argument where, the statement that one doesn’t ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee. And this is what I wanted to communicate in this piece. I want to be able to identify not only with the Ukrainians that are being slaughtered, massacred, but how do we identify with those Russian soldiers themselves who are part of a system, a totalitarian system, where they too are forced to engage in brutal acts of murder? So it seems to me that I want to raise the question of violence, and the question of political divisiveness, and the question of air spaces – Which, again, is a bizarre notion that countries can own air spaces – And I want to liberate that discourse. I want to extricate that discourse from political ideology and talk about something like the power and radicality of love, what Heschel says when he says that, how can any of us, if we were really to take on the weight of the world’s suffering, how could any of us live in tranquility?
So there’s a way in which the left and the right bases itself upon a conception of time, as King would say, that is always waiting to happen. It is always the next thing that’s happening. And my sense is that what we need is a post-hope understanding of temporality that says that tomorrow is always too late, but today is the day that we scream. And by the way, when I say scream, I just don’t mean that sonically. I also mean that as an embodied form of resistance where we refuse to cooperate with the logics of the world, where we refuse to do politics in the way in which we’ve been doing it, where we demand more in terms of care and emphasis upon our very humanity.
Marc Steiner: So in some ways you’re saying we have to dig deeper in a different way if we’re going to address this. I’m thinking about the other article that you wrote, “Anti-Black Racism is Global. So Must be the Movement to End it.” And I want to envision that for a minute with you about what that means. And this quote you have in here, it really has stayed with me. And it is, you make this comment, “People feign a look of shock when I respond to the world that the world is like Mississippi, Mississippi just owns what it is.”
George Yancy: Mm. So is that what I said there?
Marc Steiner: Yeah. So tell me, in the face of that, in the face of the depth of racism, in the face of the depth of the kind of economic exploitation that happens, in these kinds of invasions the United States has taken part in, that Russia has taken part in across the globe. So tell me what kind of response that what you’re writing here would be, give us a sense of what that is.
George Yancy: Yeah. I think that what I’m saying is, what we have to do is, I’ll put it this way. Judith Butler says that – And it’s a fancy way, but it gets at what I’m saying – She says that we need to create an insurrection at the level of ontology itself. And ontology comes from ontos, which means the study of being. What we have to do is not to continue with the same approaches, the same logics that we’ve been approaching, whether, again, whether it’s left, whether it’s right. Whether it’s liberal, whether it’s conservative. I think that what we need to do is to rethink the very notion of, particularly the neoliberal conception of self, I think that we have to rethink the idea that autonomy, the very idea that we are separate from each other. The very idea that, again, going back to this notion of a zero sum logics, the very idea that we are these autonomous beings who live according to these artificial distinctions. I think that what we need is to place far more humanity on the fact that life, and all of us, are fundamentally precarious.
We’re fundamentally always being toward death, to use Heidegger’s term. There’s a way in which we have a very short period of time where all of us will be dead. And so there’s something about the impending doom of death, not just violent forms of death, but the fact that it’s part of our human condition. It seems to me that that ought to motivate the kinds of political discourse, if you will, that we engage in. The kinds of deflationary, I should say, political discourse that we engage in. I think that the language of hesed, I think the language of caritas, I think a figure like Heschel, who basically says, look, that we have lost this outrage, and that’s what he wants to bring back. And I’m not sure who’s outraged. It seems to me, as one Slovenian psychoanalyst and philosopher put it, she said that we would rather die than to be scared to death.
So I think that what we’ve failed to do is to be scared to death. To be scared to death, to have that push us as an impetus toward rethinking politics, toward reformulating the very discourse that we use, the very idea of thinking about approaches to ending, let’s say, the Ukraine war. I think that we need a language that attempts to transcend the old forms of balkanization that are already in place. Now, how you do that is going to be difficult because the discourse of love has very little priority, not only in the US, but in the world. So I think that what we have to do then is to cultivate a new generation of individuals who begin to create forms of alliance across those divisions, and where forms of strongmen and dictators, which is precisely what we may have in 2024 with the reelection, or so I claim, of Donald Trump.
Marc Steiner: So as a philosopher, if you were sitting with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or many of the other kinds of political, rising political figures in this country who are trying to think of a different world. And you are saying that you want to build this world of love, and you look at them in a very practical, philosophical way about how you might do that. What would you be advising them? Let’s say that all of a sudden you are in that position. What would you say?
George Yancy: Your questions are so daring. I love them. You can’t be completely abstract with you [Marc laughs], which is so important. I think part of the issue here is I’m trying to speak at a level that emphasizes my position while at the same time not having my discourse fall with any category that’s much easier to articulate. So I think that if I were speaking to her, I would say something like, what we need is we need to begin to emphasize courageous speech. So hints, parrhesia, which Foucault says that it is that very idea of bringing one’s self to the point of death, the very risk of the possibility of death. Personal death here, because of one’s own political praxis.
But I think that what’s important is for those who are more left of center to engage in a form of fearless speech, but also fearless listening. To be able to speak to those individuals who would automatically just try to erase them by a label called being leftist, which of course is a term that has been used and manipulated in such a way precisely to appeal to more white folk, I think, who are right of center. Or center, for that matter. So to use the term leftist to be Russian totalitarianism. I think that what we need is a way of introducing a radical sense to the right, to say that, look, there’s a way in which we have to come to terms with the history of this country.
I would say to her that it’s important that we open up the consciousness of these individuals such that they’re able to come to terms with the historical legacy of anti-Black racism, of the ways in which whiteness has continued to be a dominant force, to deal with issues around xenophobia, to deal with issues around a kind of political solipsism. But again, it’s hard. But I think, it seems to me, that place of embarkation has to be a place where one attempts to articulate a history that is able to be revealed to those who don’t agree with one’s own position, to see how they’re implicated in the very ideological positions that they take hold of.
So if you have politicians who have, as a backdrop, the Bible, then it seems to me that one has to engage in a form of imminent critique to emphasize that Palestinian figure known as Jesus who would argue that we have failed. We have failed precisely at the level of taking seriously who our neighbors are. I mean, how do we communicate with Putin that he is our neighbor? How do we communicate with Russians that they are our neighbors? Well, part of what we have to do is deconstruct the artificial walls that have already been put in place. What we have to do is somehow infiltrate those barriers, literally, that are blocking anything that’s contrary to the language, the lingua franca, of a party line kind of discourse. So, that kind of critical discourse is not even being communicated.
But again, I think that we need something far more humanistic that is far more global in terms of how we’re thinking about the way in which we’re all touching. And it seems to me that COVID-19 should have demonstrated that, but you don’t see that. You now see precisely a more neoliberal understanding of freedom, which says that what freedom looks like, it’s something I don’t want to do. It’s a negative freedom. I should not have to do X. It’s a kind of radical decisionism, which is really all about the self. It’s not the kind of responsible agency that, let’s say, a Jean-Paul Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir would remind us of. There’s a kind of responsibility, a heavy weight that comes with the kind of decisions that we make, for an example, concerning wearing a mask. I mean, I saw the images of people on airplanes delightfully throwing, laughingly throwing their masks in the trash.
But it seems to me that that’s part of the problem, is that our understanding of freedom does not take into consideration the welfare of the other. But that’s precisely the basis of the US, is to precisely get us to think about ourselves in terms of atoms in the void, as neoliberal subjects, as entrepreneurs, where our happiness is really about what we do for ourselves rather than that happiness being inextricably linked, and indeed, our misery and our suffering precisely being linked to those others who suffer. So the language that I’m using, if I’m to avoid just sort of re-articulating a leftist position, or certainly not a right position, the language, it seems to me, is the language of someone… It’s a language of a kind of theology, a kind of a theology of love that is not a theological politics or political theology, which grounds itself in some perfunctory notion of God bless America, which absolutely means nothing at the end of the day, when in fact we’re prepared to leash all hell on those that we’ve already identified as our enemies.
Marc Steiner: When you look at the depth of racism in our world…
George Yancy: Yeah.
Marc Steiner: I always make this analogy, I say that antisemitism runs deep on the planet earth, and it’s probably 2000 years old. That modern anti-African racism is maybe at best 600, 700 years old, and it permeates the world and permeates human consciousness. When I look at the United States today, way beyond the US, but when I think about the United States today and the younger people in this country, people I’ve met across the globe, their mindset is changing. I think, in part, because of all the movements that have forced people to rethink what racism means and how deep it is. So take what you’ve been saying, because you write a great deal about race, obviously, and how what you’re seeing applies to that, how it applies to change that. Because that, to me is, when you joked about what I said earlier is because, when I was studying philosophy in college, I got into applied philosophy, that was just where my head was. Maybe it still is there.
George Yancy: Sure.
Marc Steiner: So the question is, let’s talk about how you talk about what you’re talking about and apply that to race and racism…
George Yancy: Sure.
Marc Steiner: And how you’ve got to deal with the depth of that. Because that is what’s rising the right, that’s what’s rising the most dangerous kind of thing that’s kind of a specter on our future, across the globe.
George Yancy: Sure. I think that, just to say something about philosophy, my entry into philosophy. There was a time when I thought about philosophy as Platonic and Aristotelian, which is to think about philosophy as a sight of wonder.
Marc Steiner: Right.
George Yancy: But because, for so many reasons, part of the reason being that I don’t know why I’m here, and by here, I mean, I don’t know why I’m here or why any of us are on this planet [crosstalk].
Marc Steiner: We’re in the same club.
George Yancy: Okay, good. And also because of the death of George Floyd, or the death of Alan Kurdi, or the death of Ukrainians, the death of Breonna Taylor, and also the backlash that I often experience when I’ve written pieces that are fairly provocative, but are attempting to… I wrote “Dear White America” in 2015, which I considered to be a letter of love, in which I received all kinds of hateful mail and was called the N-word probably over a hundred times. So for me now, philosophy is a sight of suffering, rather than just a sight of wonder. And I think that, from what I can tell, there are some who’ve argued that the way in which we think about anti-Black racism has not fundamentally changed. In fact, some would argue that it’s gotten worse.
My sense is that as long as white supremacy continues to exist – And by white supremacy I don’t mean those individuals who were in Charlottesville. It’s amazing when Anderson Cooper has his Black pundits on and they were talking about Charlottesville, and they were all agreeing that what was going on in Charlottesville with the Tiki torches and arguing and making these claims about blood and soil, Anderson Cooper could agree with his Black pundits that this is horrible. But no one at any point called into question Anderson Cooper’s whiteness. And so that, for me, I don’t rely on that tight bifurcation between good whites and bad whites, I think that distinction creates more trouble. And while I’m not claiming that white people that I know are card carrying Klan members, or part of the boogaloo movement, or the Proud Boys, I want to just make sure that we understand whiteness as a toxic framework.
To quote David Roediger, historian of critical whiteness studies, he says that it’s not the case that whiteness is only false and possessive. He says that whiteness is nothing more than possessive and false. So my argument is that, it seems to me that, as whiteness continues to grow, because it’s this multi-headed Hydra-like beast, if you cut off one head, it grows another. And this is sort of the logics of the 13th Amendment. Once you have said, okay, there will no longer be involuntary servitude, you then put into place Black Codes, so that no longer are Black people oppressed because of something called, that peculiar institution known as American slavery, they’re now oppressed under Black Codes. Under vagrancy.
Marc Steiner: Right.
George Yancy: Then they’re put in jail, and hence the whole prison leasing, convict leasing program that occurred. So in essence, you get a kind of neoslavery. So for me, I think that as long as whiteness continues to exist, not only in the form, let’s say, of a Donald Trump, but as long as that whiteness continues to exist in a form, let’s say, of an Anderson Cooper, where he continues to benefit from white privilege, white supremacy, white hegemony, and white power, it seems to me that the question of anti-Black racism will not go away. So my argument is a bit pessimistic. And as much as I argue that Black people are sort of at the bottom of the rung of society, in which there that place will always be occupied, so that when you think about the Irish, or the Italians, or even Jews who came to America, there’s a way in which they had an out. And what was that out? And that, by the way, is not to deny the horribleness of antisemitism, by no means.
Marc Steiner: Right, right. [inaudible].
George Yancy: But I think that we have to recognize the way in which whiteness, as it were an attribute of property, was able to be possessed by the Italians, the Irish, and Jews. And so we have to think about the ways in which Black people don’t have access to whiteness. Even if we have access to more wealth, nonetheless, we experienced over and over again these fundamental instances of either spectacular racism in the form of George Floyd, or these microaggressions where we’re told things like, I didn’t think you were Black because you were so articulate, or I didn’t know you were Black because you’re a philosopher. So, what am I saying then? What I’m saying is that I think that it’s important, particularly when you think about… And think about Black bodies in Ukraine, anti-Black racism is not just specific to the US. It’s global. I mean, it’s in China, it’s in Sweden, it’s in New Zealand, and it’s also in Israel, for an example, if you…
Marc Steiner: Absolutely.
George Yancy: If you read stories about the Ethiopian Jews, in terms of the ways in which they undergo forms of discrimination, it’s as if we’re reading something that happened right here in the United States. So I think that what we need, that what America needs to do is to come to terms with not just identifying Donald Trump as the epitome of racism, or those other right-wing conservative individuals, but I think we have to begin to critique and uncover the way in which whiteness as a habitual form of iterative practices continue to exist in this country. So for me, until we sort of reach a moment of what I would call, not just post-race US, but a post-whiteness US, I think then we can begin to rethink the ways in which Black forms of embodiment are indeed partaking of something called a robust sense of humanity.
Marc Steiner: Well, George Yancy, this has been a great conversation. I was going to try to conclude with what you wrote about the quote from Hiroshima, but I think…
George Yancy: Oh, please do. I don’t mind.
Marc Steiner: Well, I was…
George Yancy: It’s up to you.
Marc Steiner: What you said was so good. It’s so strong. But it was a quote, I think, to leave with, especially in terms of the threat of nuclear war that’s upon us in this conflict in Ukraine, which to me is what sets it apart from the horrendous genocides of Rwanda, or Cambodia, or many of the places I could mention, because of what it means worldwide in terms of what we face. And I just want people to feel this and see this as we let George go, this is a piece that George Yancy put in his article. It was written by someone who lived through the nuclear holocaust of Hiroshima. And I think it’s something just to think about as we think about what we’re facing and what we have to do to not let it happen anywhere again worldwide.
“‘There were no air raid alarms on the morning of August 9, 1945. We had been hiding out in the local bomb shelter for several days, but one by one, people started to head home. My siblings and I played in front of the bomb shelter entrance, waiting to be picked up by our grandfather. Then, at 11:02 AM, the sky turned bright white. My siblings and I were knocked off our feet and violently slammed back into the bomb shelter. We had no idea what had happened. As we sat there shell-shocked and confused, heavily injured burn victims came stumbling into the bomb shelter en masse. Their skin had peeled off their bodies and faces and hung limply down on the ground, in ribbons. Their hair was burnt down to a few measly centimeters from the scalp. Many of the victims collapsed as soon as they reached the bomb shelter entrance, forming a massive pile of contorted bodies. The stench and heat were unbearable.’ Have we not learned from this great horror? For some, many, there seems to be no limit to their tolerance for existential devastation, unethical ineptitude, and Imperial lust.”
I’ll stop there. The last part was written by our guest, George Yancy. And George Yancy, thank you so much for joining us, it’s been a pleasure to have you. And I look forward to many more conversations as we’ve had in the past.
George Yancy: Yes. Thank you very much for having me.
Marc Steiner: Thank you. And I’m Marc Steiner, here for The Real News Network, here on The Marc Steiner Show. And let me thank Adam Coley, Kayla Rivara, Cameron Granadino, and Stephen Frank for making this show possible, making all this thing happen for all of us here. And please write to me at [email protected]. Let me know what you think, I’ll write you right back as soon as you write to me. So stay involved, keep listening, take care.