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Excerpted From: Deborah N. Archer, Classic Revisited: How Racism Persists in its Power: The Fire Next Time. By James Baldwin. New York: Dial Press. 1963 (Vintage International 1993 ed.). Pp. 110. $13.95. , 120 Michigan Law Review 957 (April, 2022 ) (40 Footnotes) (Full Document)


DeborahNArcherIn 2020, the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the ravaging of Black communities occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic and an inequitable public health infrastructure put the violence of racism, in all of its forms, on full display. This racial violence is enabled by the central role that white supremacy has played throughout the history of the United States. Our society has embedded racial inequality and white supremacy into our laws, policies, practices, environment, narratives, and cultural norms to form an infrastructure of racial inequality.

In 1857, in Dred Scott v. Sandford, the Supreme Court proclaimed that Black people possessed “no rights or privileges” beyond what white men might “choose to grant them.” So much of American history can still be understood through this lens. American institutions, laws, and cultural norms have developed as tools to subjugate, control, regulate, and devalue Black people. Although formal slavery ended with the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, lynchings continued into the 1960s. They have both been replaced with new tools--often authorized or enabled by the state--to continue enforcement of the racial order. Slavery gave way to convict leasing, Jim Crow, racial segregation, and the theft of Black land and property. Indeed, the infrastructure of racial inequality is working exactly as it was designed to work. In communities of color around the country, racism is all encompassing. For Black people in the United States, it is hard to escape racism's brutal grasp.

As the United States has embarked on a so-called “racial reckoning,” Black people are breaking out of the boxes created to perpetuate systemic racial inequality and challenging the narratives used to justify their oppression. That progress has been met with efforts to protect the “assumptions, privileges, and benefits that accompany the status of being white” and make whiteness “a valuable asset.” We saw this resistance during the January 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection, a blatant and violent attempt to disenfranchise Black voters and brand their participation in this democracy as illegitimate. The resistance to Black encroachment on the privileges of whiteness has also been rhetorical, as defenders of white supremacy have doubled down on narratives of Black criminality and inferiority, delegitimized counternarratives, and even banned efforts to understand and publicize the role of white supremacy in American history. This resistance has also infiltrated our legal system by expanding exclusionary voting and housing laws, challenging affirmative action, and weaponizing the police to protect “white spaces” against people guilty of “Living While Black.”

The current moment is not unprecedented. Every generation has experienced the rage, urgency, anger, and exhaustion that drive demands for change. Every generation has collectively and publicly grieved racialized brutality and the loss of Black lives. Every generation has been viscerally reminded of racism's grinding pain and the systems designed to contain, isolate, and crush Black people, physically and psychologically. Every generation is reminded that our systems are still founded on the white-supremacist belief that Black people have “no rights or privileges” beyond those that white people “choose to grant them.”

As this country is forced to confront, once again, the truth of who we are and how we got here, James Baldwin's searing examination of the architecture and consequences of racism, The Fire Next Time, offers a framework for understanding how racism persists in its power. In many ways, Baldwin's essays were prophetic, diagnosing the ways racism would continue to manifest, day after day, year after year, and generation after generation. It is a lens that connects the injustices of the past to those of today. The Fire Next Time can offer truth and comfort to those of us seeking to understand the cycles of resistance and retrenchment that allow racial inequality to not only persist but thrive.

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In 106 beautiful pages, James Baldwin walks us through the joy and pain of being Black in America. He explores the crushing brutality of racism and the toll it takes on its victims' bodies, hearts, and minds, and he explores the social and personal implications of life in a country steeped in Black subjugation. Yet The Fire Next Time ends hopefully, prophesying that “we can make America what America must become” (p. 10). That Baldwin can maintain such hope and optimism in the face of long-standing systemic oppression and the brutal resistance to change in itself reveals so much about being Black in America: never losing hope despite the heartbreak; being able to celebrate how far we have come without losing sight of just how far we have to go. Progress is always met with retrenchment, and an advance is always met by resistance. Reconstruction led to Jim Crow. The civil rights era led to the Reagan Era. The election of Barack Obama led to the election of Donald Trump. Record political participation by Black voters led to systemic disenfranchisement. Yet despite that resistance, the progress is real. Our challenge is to make it last. We must continue to fight on, to find hope in the struggle.

Professor of Clinical Law and Co-Faculty Director of the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law at New York University School of Law and President, American Civil Liberties Union.

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