I’ve always known that rhetoric, speech, and writing serve as weapons to sever communities or as tools to bring them together. Because of this, I know that individuals in power will use that weapon to keep individuals beneath them separate through demonizing one group and promising hopes to the other. This has occurred throughout history, and in regard to race in America, it has occurred with white politicians and those in power telling whites who are beneath them, “You can be like me one day. You’re not like Blacks. Latinxs. Muslims. You should fear and hate them. You’re white.” This weapon serves, then, to construct a dispensable army that’s been promised riches but will never see them. It works to buttress those in power, making everyone beneath them expendable.
Numerous thinkers, artists, and scholars have discussed this from W.E.B. Du Bois to Keri Leigh Merritt and more. Here, I want to delve into this topic a little more, specifically by looking at two songs: Brother Ali’s “Before They Called You White” and Run the Jewels’ “walking in the snow.” Each of these songs points out the ways that the powerful flatten whiteness and present it as a unifying mechanism which separates whites outside of power from others in the same situation. This severing causes those whites to stand against their own self interest in favor of upholding those who reside above them, ultimately continuing their own oppression while they oppress others.
Frank Yerby shows how whiteness gets flattened in novels such as Benton’s Row when Oren tells Wade, after the Civil War, that he is free now and has the ability to make something of himself. Merritt points to the aftermath of the Civil War and the South’s “economic ruin” as the way for poor whites to achieve landownership, taking advantage of the wealthy landowners’ falling to the wayside. In The Vixens, Yerby begins the novel by highlighting the ways that those in power keep the “white men out in the piney barrens, debased and starved,” using them and their poverty to wage war on Black communities.
All of this occurs in “smoky rooms,” as Yerby says, where the wealthy concoct plans to divide and conquer. In Black Reconstruction in America, W.E.B. Du Bois argues that the Civil War arose from “the South[’s determination] to make free white labor compete with Black slaves, monopolize land and raw material in the hands of the political aristocracy, and extend the scope of its power.” This occurred after the Civil War too, as Yerby and Du Bois showed. It occurred into the twentieth century as Lillian Smith showed.
Throughout her writing, Smith noted the ways that the wealthy severed the connections of those beneath them. One of the monologue speakers in Our Faces, Our Words, a young white civil rights activist speaks to her father telling him,
You went to Harvard — and yet you fall for the lies Mr. Rich White told Mr. Poor White long ago, to keep him satisfied with poverty and sharecropping, and all the rest of it. How can you? Don’t you know why all that was said? Don’t you know it was to keep poor whites from demanding their rights as Americans? Do you need me to tell you that is Mr. Rich White handed them a drug instead of bread? A tranquilizer for their hungry souls to feed on — and now it has driven some of them mad.
The lies said that the white man was superior to all. The drug fueled that fire and made him forget about his own suffering and poverty because, as Smith wrote in 1942, the wealthy allowed the poor white man to feel as if he could succeed “[a]nd now white men believe men who once had said I am as good as you, and believed it, could believe it still only by adding For look at all the black folks we both are better than!”
Smith points out that after the Civil War, and once the frontier ceased to exist, wealthy whites pumped up poor whites with hopes of upward mobility and fears of others, leading those whites to essentially become foot soldiers in a war being orchestrated in “smoky rooms.” By keeping people blind to the ways that those in power manipulate and use those below them, the wealthy and powerful could stoke hatred, fanning the flames and making poor whites believe in their superiority to Blacks and others.
Brother Ali’s “Before They Called You White” dissects the historical construction and flattening of whiteness. In the process, he points out the same things that Yerby, Du Bois, Smith, and others do about the ways that the powerful divide and conquer. Brother Ali calls this the “sickest system that ever existed,” a system that a “dirty hand” first crafted. He continues by noting that individuals who came to America were Dutch, Irish, German, Greek, and other nationalities. They were not “white.”
However, the wealthy saw a way to bring these disparate groups together and formulate “whiteness.” Brother Ali raps,
Rich bloodsuckers saw new soil to seize
And they ain’t ‘bout to get their hands dirty, cracker please
Swindled you to trade in your identity
Showed you pie in the sky and promised you a piece
With symbolic image in the scripture that you’re reading
White holy angels and black evil demons
You were so starving that you started to believe it
Now you’ll die colonizing for somebody else’s greed
Don’t you see the overseers are still in the field?
Through this, the wealthy sowed division. They psychologically trained individuals to think “white=holy, pure, good” and “black=sinful, impure, evil.” This move caused whites to see themselves as pure and upholders of “civilization” and enlightened ideals and others as “uncivilized” and savage. The goal of this, though, was wealth and power, fueled by greed. The method of obtaining it, stirring the pot and creating antagonism below, pitting one group against another.
What this does, as Brother Ali continues, is promise poor whites success but the prison warden will never let them “own that farm or the prison for real.” The carrot gets dangled in front, but it always remains out of reach, tantalizingly within eyesight and smell, yet just far enough away to elude one’s grasp. This is the false hope that Smith discusses. This is the myth of the American Dream. This is the reality of the systems that work to maintain power. Until individuals open their eyes to this, we will keep repeating the same things over and over and over and . . .
Merritt details how this game plan worked during the Antebellum period, and after Emancipation and the Civil War, she notes that while land access opened to poor whites, most of the wealthy landowners were able to keep their land even though they lost a lot of their wealth during the war. She points out, “By maintaining ownership of most of the Deep South’s remaining capital, former slaveholders were able to adapt to the new economic structure of the region by earning their primary income as landholders.”
This move, of course, led to a new form of slavery, sharecropping, a system where Black laborers could not get out from underneath the heel of the landowner. Through this system, the wealthy landowners could maintain control. A prime example is General Granger’s Order №3. While it told the enslaved in Galveston and the rest of Texas they were “free” it also “advised” them to stay on the plantation where they worked.
The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property, between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them, become that between employer and hired labor. The freed are advised to remain at their present homes, and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts; and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.
The order, in essence, merely changed the name of the institution. It did not ensure that freed enslaved individuals would get a fair shake. They were still under the boot of the wealthy landowner who they served. This is what Brother Ali points out about poor whites not in power in his song “Before They Called You White.”
Brother Ali highlights that they will never own the land, and that they are “identifying with the people in control” in the hopes of one day being at the top. This means that they worked to throw people in the bottom of a boat, whip people underneath the Southern son, reprimand workers for supporting Black Lives Matter at work, and on and on. The narrative of upward mobility and the American Dream gets recycled, again and again, and people buy into it, believing and hoping they will benefit. However, when it gets down to it, the game is rigged in favor of the ancestors of those who gained that wealth and position decades and centuries before, those pushing those underneath them down to maintain their pedestals.
Along with Brother Ali’s song, Run the Jewels’ “walking in the snow” points out the ways that the powerful sever alliances and the ways that the church perpetuates racism and oppression. For today, I’m only going to focus on the former. In both El-P’s and Killer Mike’s verses, they pinpoint the ways that the powerful use those beneath as an expendable army, pointing out that once they do their job the powerful will come for them. El-P raps,
Hungry for truth but you got screwed and drank the Kool-Aid, there’s a line
It end directly at the edge of a mass grave, that’s their design
Funny fact about a cage, they’re never built for just one group
So when that cage is done with them and you’re still poor, it come for you
The newest lowest on the totem, well golly gee, you have been used
You helped to fuel the death machine that down the line will kill you too (oops)
Here, El-P breaks down the expendable army. Sonically, this point gets driven home with the beat and specifically with the whistle that appears on the second beat at points, almost like a drill sergeant whistle. The powerful get those beneath them to buy into the rhetoric, buy into the fear, buy into the hope that somehow they will succeed. This buying in places those individuals against others, specifically Black and Brown individuals. Once the powerful remove the first “threat” to their position, they’ll come after the group who did the dirty work. In this manner, they maintain control without getting their hands dirty. They work in the “smoky rooms,” working out ways to cage, divide, and conquer.
With his first verse, Killer Mike points out the ways that the system sets up Black children to fail from the outset, stating that school is where “you’re shipped away for your body to be stored” and that test scores “predictin’ prison population.” He then moves on to the media and our reactions to seeing Black men like him dying on television. We become numb and apathetic, rattling off Twitter rants and nothing more, not working to change the system.
This apathy, as Killer Mike points out, blinds whites to the fact that once the powerful finish attacking Black and Brown individuals they will come for the whites beneath them,
But truly the travesty, you’ve been robbed of your empathy
Replaced it with apathy, I wish I could magically
Fast forward the future so then you can face it
And see how fucked up it’ll be
I promise I’m honest, they coming for you
The day after they comin’ for me
This is the key. This is what W.E.B. Du Bois, Frank Yerby, Lillian Smith, Keri Leigh Merritt, Brother Ali, El-P, Killer Mike, and more point out. The wealthy and powerful use those beneath them as pawns. They maneuver them, not tactically on a map to cut off positions, but through rhetoric and misinformation. They see ways to divide and conquer. They see ways to sever. They do all of this to maintain their positions, not to work for equity and the betterment of society. This is the crux. People need to realize they’re being played. They’re being duped. They’re being manipulated. They need to dissect the information they receive. Until this happens, the machinery of divide of conquer will continue to plow ahead at full steam.
When I think of all of this, I cannot help but remind myself, as Stephen Salaita puts it, “The most deplorable acts of violence germinate in high society. Many genocides have been glorified (or planned) around dinner tables adorned with forks and knives, made from actual silver, without a single inappropriate speech act having occurred.”