Racisms

The Obvious Thing

photo/Leon Vanella

As I write this, America is imploding. Nationwide, cities are on fire. Around the world, people are protesting police brutality against black Americans. In this country, the protests against police brutality have been met with more and ever-escalating police brutality. The president just announced that our country will be designating ANTIFA a terrorist organization. As ANTIFA stands for Anti-Fascist, the president has, in effect, officially designated the United States of America a fascist country. A return to a guilty-until-proven-innocent, thought-crime, McCarthy-era America seems to be on the horizon. Perhaps something much worse.

This is happening on top of a global coronavirus pandemic that has killed well over 100,000 Americans. Back in April, the CDC released statistics showing that black people in Maine were five times more likely than white people to contract the coronavirus. A month later, the new numbers revealed that black people were more than twelve times as likely to be infected with COVID-19.

I’ve been trying to take this all in. I’ve been wrestling with every emotion I have. Seeing the incredible numbers of white people showing up for black civil rights is thrilling. Seeing the police violence that mostly seems to be targeting women is blood-boiling. Seeing the lack of social distancing is worrying. Knowing that all these protesters are willing to risk their lives in so many ways is inspiring. But more than anything else, I feel scared that it’s not enough.

So many people are not yet willing to admit the obvious thing. We all saw the 2016 presidential election. We all saw “fiscally conservative” Republicans vote for the most financially insolvent public figure in a generation, evangelical Republicans vote for the most morally lacking public figure in my lifetime, rural Republicans vote for the dandiest, citified fop on television, Republican intellectuals vote for the stupidest person in the entire country, and tough-guy Republicans vote for the whiniest and wimpiest worm in the world. We saw 53 percent of white female voters vote for a cretin with more than 20 rape allegations on top of a boast of having committed sexual assault. Either each and every one of them coincidentally and accidentally voted exactly and entirely against their own specific interest or… you know, the obvious thing.

Too many people aren’t willing to admit how much of their lives are dependent on sustaining the obvious thing. Our relationships, our comfort, maybe even our jobs. Have you ever stayed silent while a boss or coworker told a bigoted joke? If so, why? Is it because you didn’t want to rock the boat? Were you afraid you’d be fired? If so, then your job is dependent on sustaining the obvious thing.

What about your uncle at family gatherings? Do you confront his small-minded views? If not, why? Is it because you think he’ll stop talking to you? Are you afraid of the potential awkwardness at future family functions? Then your relationships and comfort are dependent on sustaining the obvious thing.

Will you admit to understanding this obvious thing? I know. The problem is, once you admit that understanding, then you’ve admitted the harm you’re doing. And if you admit the harm you’re doing, then you have to stop. Or everyone will know.

Of course, you can try to mince words. Maybe you can talk about the obvious thing as a matter of degrees. Then it’s not so obvious. Maybe a lynching isn’t as bad if a cop does it. That’s too extreme. Maybe you can say the N-word because they say it?

No, no. That won’t work either. This isn’t a matter of degrees, it’s a matter of morality, and you can’t haggle morality. Things are either right or wrong, right? Like murder. Murder is wrong even if you’re really, really, really angry.

This is not an abstract concept. This is not a thought experiment. This is you and your life right now as you sit there with the whole world watching the country burn down around you.

You know that the world is standing together in the name of Black Life. You know COVID-19 infects black people in Maine at an exponentially growing rate that’s more than 12 times that of white people. If you can afford to stay inside, will you?

This is the bare minimum. This is not action. This is inaction. This is not storming city hall with a machine gun strapped to your back, wildly declaring support for your black brothers and sisters. This is sitting on your couch. Is the burden of a break from the beach too much to bear?

“And we will live here together or we’ll die here together. It is not I telling you. Time is telling you. You will listen or you will perish.”
— James Baldwin

Samuel James is an internationally renowned bluesman and storyteller, as well as a locally known filmmaker. He can be reached at " target="_blank" rel="noreferrer noopener">.