We Gon’ Be Alright is a hopeful demand for liberation, not just for those who are oppressed, but also the liberation of the oppressors. Chang believes that we need the grace of truth and love. He finds his inspiration in the works of James Baldwin and the idea that love is not an emotion, but an action. Love must be the motivation for revolution. Black people must love themselves enough to demand liberation not just for them, but also their oppressors. As Baldwin wrote, “To love all is to fight relentlessly to end exploitation and oppression everywhere, even on behalf of those who think they hate us.”
In spite of the search for grace, We Gon’ Be Alright is not even in the slightest a kumbaya, can’t we just all get along, sort of book. It is a collection of essays asking serious questions about how we have gone from 65% of the American people supporting the Civil Rights Act in 1965 to the current process of resegregation that allows many to ignore and disregard black experience.
It opens with noting the hapless cycle of crisis, reaction, backlash, complacency, and crisis. There is an outrage. People demand action. Those in power assert the status quo by invoking fear. Interest subsides into denial or helplessness, and then there is another crisis. Every crisis reinforces complacency because the status quo remains. This raises the question, are we “gon’ be alright?”
From there, Chang looks at the shift from affirmative action to diversity. Thanks to the Bakke decision, efforts to increase opportunities for people of color have been made more difficult. It’s as though in the midst of an experiment, the Supreme Court intervened and forced everyone to use the placebo. Justice Powell “disappeared racial exclusion from the history of higher education, and redirected discussion of affirmative action into a decontextualized present. He radically flattened difference. You’re a farm boy. You’re a violinist. You’re a Louisianan. You’re Black. You’re Chicano. He had affirmed that diversity really was for white people.”
He celebrates student protest and makes an eloquent argument for safe spaces and speech codes, reminding us that the reason students of color are demanding this is because they have been assaulted with racist slurs and symbols while school administrators looked away, allowing harassment to continue with impunity. It is a significant indictment of these institutions of higher learning that the demands of today are similar to the demands students have been making for thirty years.
In another essay, he discusses the loss of cultural equity and the privatization of culture, a process that erases experience. “An inequitable culture is one in which people do not have the same power to create, access, or circulate their practices, works, ideas, and stories. It is one in which people cannot represent themselves equally. To say that American culture is inequitable is to say that it moves us away from seeing each other in our full humanity. It is to say that the culture does not point us toward a more just society.” #OscarsSoWhite is inadequate to the effacement of those on the downside of power.
One of the most important essays is Vanilla Cities and Their Chocolate Suburbs. He points out that it is not just gentrification, it’s resegregation. It is about white flight and white colonization. It is about black removal being marketed as urban renewal. This leads of course, into the segregated communities like Ferguson, black communities run by white people to extract all the money they can to finance city services through over-policing, fines and assessments.
And over-policing leads to violence and state-sanctioned murder and now, finally, and gloriously, Black Lives Matter. It is emblematic of the power of racism that something so simple as asserting that lives of black people count is seen as dangerous and insurrectionist. We have so completely accepted the right of police to kill black people, that questioning their power is a revolutionary act, shocking and frightening to those in power. We are so accustomed to absolute police power that asking for police accountability is perceived as an existential threat.
The reaction to the simple idea that black lives matter indicts white America. Protesters are saying “Black lives matter too” but reactionaries hear “Black lives matter more.” That they cannot hear the humanity of “black lives matter” demonstrates how little black lives have mattered for a very long time.
As a white person, I can hear the dog whistles that are supposed to make me fear Black Lives Matter, but I know that fear leads to injustice. America’s problem is not black people protesting, it is the oppression and devaluation of black people. We have to stop being more angry about complaints of injustice than we are about injustice.
Chang writes about the founding of Black Lives Matter and how it differentiates itself from previous civil rights movements. It recognizes that the time for respectability politics is past. Respectability politics in the face of the murders of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner is inexcusable. He also challenges the misunderstanding of Black Lives Matter as a leaderless movement, quoting Montague Simmons, “One of the things that falls real heavy on us when we hear it is that it’s a leaderless movement. That’s not true. We would say it’s a leader-full movement.”
Another essay focuses on his own identity as Asian American, an identity he did not acquire until he moved to the mainland for college from Hawaii. Perhaps because it was a new imposed identity, he has a different perspective, seeing the challenge of uniting people from all sorts of different ethnicities and histories into one classification. He checks the community for exploiting anti-black racism to advance and promotes the idea of centering civil rights activism on fighting anti-blackness. Many of his ideas are similar to those promoted by RaceFiles and #Asians4BlackLives.
The broad scope of We Gon’ Be Alright makes this a difficult book to review. I think I highlighted about three or four thousand words that I thought were important, that I thought would be nice to include in a book review that might end up as long as the book. I guess the point is that you just have to read the book. What is truly amazing though, is that this is a relatively short book, written with an urgent and fast-moving pace that propels you through the book, unable to look away. Set aside a time when you sit down because you won’t want to stop until you finish.
Let me finish as Jeff Chang finishes, with his question we must ask ourselves. “Each of us is left with the question: can we, given all the pain that we have had inflicted upon us and that we have inflicted upon others, ever learn to see each other as lovers do, to find our way towards freedom for all?”
We Gon’ Be Alright will be released on September 13, 2016. I received an advance e-galley from Macmillan Picador through NetGalley.
- Jeff Chang, author’s web site
- Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop site
- We Gon’ Be Alright at Macmillan Picador