As many have pointed out, making Black lives matter is a precursor to making all lives matter. To make all lives matter, we have to address the ways certain lives, particularly those of people of color in the United States, have been devalued. Put another way, we can’t create a culture and society that values all lives unless we identify and root out the mechanisms and value systems that have been enabling the devaluation, the differential valuing, of particular groups’ lives.
One of those key mechanisms, of course, is racism. And a behavior chiefly associated with the ideology of racism, it must be recognized, is genocide. It must also be recognized that the development of the United States is grounded in the genocide of Native Americans, the foundational act of racist violence, murder, in this nation’s history.
While Donald Trump certainly stands in a long line of presidents who have participated in this ongoing genocidal practice characteristic of U.S. history, the flagrant way he disregards human life, takes shameless pride in his genocidal discourse and practice, may just finally push Americans to the point of addressing U.S. racism in this broader historical and cultural frame.
As I wrote about in PoliticusUsa last October when Trump facilitated the genocidal slaughter of Kurdish people in Northern Syria by the Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan, described by many as an “ethnic cleansing,” Trump’s behavior needs to be understood as nothing less than genocidal, worthy of being brought before the United Nations for adjudication. At the time, he was also engaging in the caging of Latin American people at the border, also arguably an act on the genocidal spectrum as I wrote at the time, highlighting the continuity between his domestic and foreign policy, his genocides at home and abroad.
Trump’s response to the police murder of George Floyd, sparking mass protests generating broad multiracial support for the Black Lives Matters movement, constitutes one more piece in the puzzle of America’s genocidal history and culture which Trump celebrates and practices so proudly. Trump had little to say in sympathy for Floyd or in recognition the larger epidemic of racism and police violence. He did exploit Floyd when he reported better than expected unemployment numbers on June 6, stating that Floyd must be looking down and smiling, that it was a good day for him. Since then, Trump has largely pounded home again and again his “law and order” message, effectively endorsing the police’s participation in America’s ongoing genocide, particularly as he lambastes and threaten the protesters who continue to challenge racism.
His handling of the coronavirus pandemic reveals again this pattern of genocidal behavior. Native American tribes, for example, recently had to sue the Trump administration to release the COVID-19 relief funding designated for them. Earlier this month a federal judge ordered Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to release $679 million slated for Native Americans, who have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic and also particularly neglected, their lives devalued along with those of other people of color in the United States. The judge scolded the agency the “irreparable harm” caused by the months-long delay, writing in her decision, “Continued delay in the face of an exceptional public health crisis is no longer acceptable.”
While we can see this neglect and delay in funding as part and parcel of Trump’s genocidal agenda—and the nation’s ongoing genocidal project—Americans also need to recognize how addressing this genocidal practice is key to making all lives matter and to improving the lives of all Americans by creating a more just and humane society and culture in America.
The genocidal attitude which especially targets—and has historically targeted–people of color in the United States, particularly, enables the more general devaluation and indifference toward American lives. Trump’s refusal to address the coronavirus pandemic in a serious and coordinated way, with a national policy and support for states, should make clear to all Americans the way his racist disregard for the lives of people of color actually extends to all Americans. His insistence on meat-processing workers returning to factories with no assurance of safety exemplifies this devaluation of human life.
White Americans, all Americans, need to understand the way racism and genocide, in enabling the devaluation or differential valuation of lives, threatens their own survival. They need to see that they should not consider themselves simply allies in the anti-racist struggle but that they should consider the struggle as crucial to their own survival and well-being. White America, America generally, must take its political lead from Native and African America.
Living in a genocidal culture, while racism has put people of color at the front of the line, it needs to be recognized that everybody is standing in line awaiting their destruction.
Consider as illustrative of this point the Standing Rock Sioux’s legal victory last March when a federal judge struck down a permit that would have allow the Dakota Access Pipeline be directed under the Missouri River upstream from the Standing Rock reservation, endangering their lives, and way of life, should an oil spill occur.
Many will remember the massive protests in 2016 at Standing Rock. Well, the Sioux persisted beyond the publicity and finally won this verdict.
What is important to realize, however, is that this victory protects not just drinking water for the Standing Rock Sioux, but for everybody. They are just experiencing this threat most immediately and visibly.
Undermining ecosystems is one part of a genocidal project, as we see with Standing Rock, but Trump has been assaulting the environment and enabling the pollution of water supplies since he took office, demonstrating again that the dehumanization of particular groups of people and the disregard for their lives that culturally underpin genocide finally extend beyond the limits of those groups; they infuse the dominant culture at large.
As more Americans reflect on the recent protests and the Black Lives Matter movement, it will become increasingly important that they frame this moment in the context of the U.S. genocidal history to most lucidly grasp the cultural and historical dynamics endangering our lives and to understand how to create a culture and a society that truly value life.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.