When I first saw Jordan Peele’s Get Out last year I thought it was a very funny movie. But after interviews with Peele, I realized that he also intended to make a subtle, but potent, commentary on race relations in America, one that blamed white liberals (like me) for leaving African Americans on their own in fighting the war against racism.
The film shows what happens to a young African American male named Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) when he accompanies his European American girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), home to meet her family. The family is eager to meet Chris, but not as a prospective son-in-law. They see him as a potential addition to their crew of African American domestics/sex slaves assembled over the years to serve and service them. The nervous laughter begins when we see Chris slowly realize the future Rose and her family have planned for him and plots his escape.
Get Out reminds us of the uncomfortable psychological space in which African Americans are placed in polite American society; in theory they are accepted as equals, but in fact often are not seen as such. Peele believes that most African Americans can identify with Chris’ predicament — how in meeting whites to distinguish between potential friends and well-disguised foes.
White Americans have a long history of being clueless about the social reality African Americans encounter. For a long time schools and the media kept us in a state of blissful ignorance about the devastating effect that centuries of slavery, then near slavery under “Jim Crow” laws, and later discrimination have had on the lives of our African American compatriots. In movies, for instance, African Americans were mostly portrayed as amusing comic characters or faithful retainers. Until the 1960’s most white Americans knew little and thought less about the barriers African Americans faced in trying to live the American dream.
But this era of innocent ignorance was shattered by a civil rights demonstration in 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama. Network television brought into living rooms all over America images of Southern police using water cannons and police dogs to disrupt a peaceful march by African American grade school students.
At first, a new more enlightened America appeared to be in reach. African American activists like Martin Luther King, with the support of white religious groups and left wing activists, were able to put civil rights on the national political agenda. And then President Lyndon B. Johnson made sure that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 became the law of the land.
But it soon became clear that, while a great battle for racial justice had been won, the war for equal respect was far from over. Fifty years later that war continues. Anyone who has even casually read the newspapers, watched cable news, or skimmed the web knows that racial progress has stalled and now threatens to recede. Peele rightly attributes this sad situation to white “neglect and inaction.” Silence can be culpable.
Fortunately, African Americans have not given up the fight. New groups like Black Lives Matter have called our attention to damning facts like the numerous incidents where an unarmed African American suspect has been killed by a white police officer. But polls tell us while about 83% of African Americans voice support for Black Lives Matter, that favorable view is shared by only 35% of whites.
Why do nearly two thirds of American whites not support Black Lives Matter? I think the reason is that many whites who cannot not deny the facts that Black Lives Matter has publicized still resent hearing the bad news from a black activist group.
This reaction might be irrational, but it’s still very human. If white police officers misuse their power, that itself says nothing about white civilians. But in our culture where “race” is such a powerful and polarizing force, whites may feel the charge implicitly includes them. Or they may feel sympathy for the officer involved and his or her family. But sympathy for a mistake made under great pressure does not justify condoning a system that accepts unjustified killings of unarmed citizens. What about their families?
Peele says one reason he made the movie was to explode the myth that Obama’s election transformed America into a “post-racial society.” He’s clearly right. Whites should expect blacks to distrust them until they prove themselves trustworthy. To ignore history and the distrust it has bred does no one a favor. Still it is in the best interests of both white liberals and African Americans to work as allies in creating a society where all races are treated fairly. We have a lot of internal issues to work through if we hope to be successful. How to voice and listen to criticism is one of those issues.
In the meantime, European Americans are going to have to spend less time nursing their hurt feelings and more time working on remedying the evils critics like Black Lives Matter point out. And they have the power to do so if they choose. Even now white participation in the fight is significant. If we take support of Black Lives Matter as a rough measure of support for the fight against racism, white supporters outnumber African American supporters by more than two to one.
The support of just one-third of white Americans is not going to get the job done. But if the percentage of whites supporting the goal of a post-racist America approached in any way the 83% support of African Americans, the war would soon be won.The simple truth is that whites created the “race” problem and without our contribution it can’t be defeated.
Martin Luther King set out the moral metric that should guide us: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly….”
There’s no longer room for “neutrals” in this struggle. It’s time for liberal whites to show whose side we are on. A good starting point might be learning more about Black Lives Matter.