White Supremacy Is America’s Original Pyramid Scheme
Ijeoma Oluo on the roots of police brutality, the model minority myth, and the school-to-prison pipeline
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
Ijeoma Oluo started writing about issues of race out of necessity. “The issues that were impacting me, my family and other Black people in Seattle were really incongruent with Seattle’s political attitude and reputation. It felt like gaslighting, and I was trying to find a way for people to get engaged.” Oluo started by sharing her work on Facebook and on Twitter. “First mostly people of color in the Seattle area started really being drawn to the work and asking if they could repost it.” Soon magazines and editors began contacting her. “Within a matter of years I really had to make a choice if I was going to continue writing or with my day job because I couldn’t do both. when you find a space where you can write openly about things that matter and can make a difference there really isn’t a choice.”
Her New York Times bestseller So You Want To Talk About Race guides readers in thinking and discussing race, gender, and sexuality while deconstructing white supremacy. Each chapter focuses on questions such as “What is intersectionality and why do I need it?” or “I just got called a racist. What do I do now?”
Oluo and I spoke by Skype the week that the Chicago teachers went on strike, a few days after Atatiana Jefferson was shot to death by the police, and a week before the 45th president deemed the current impeachment hearings a lynching. As a citizen of a nation founded on the twin evils of enslavement and genocide, I hesitate to say that Oluo’s scholarship is needed now more than ever, but I know that it is needed.
Oluo and I spoke about the model minority myth, how the origins of the police force play into the murders of people of color, and why protecting the childhoods of children of color should be viewed as a national emergency.
Deirdre Sugiuchi: You talk about white supremacy as being this nation’s original pyramid scheme, one where even those who have lost everything are still waiting to cash out. Do you mind elaborating on this?
Ijeoma Oluo: The system of capitalism is a brutal system that exploits almost everyone. Slavery and the American system of race were created as a function to justify capitalism by getting as much free labor as possible out of Black people to justify the brutality required from it. Also it was to give a space for lower-income whites to play a part in the system to help uphold the system when they were going to get very little payout. The promise was that you were going to get something out of it, that you were going to at least be better off than Black people, that you were going to get your reward, that if you worked hard enough you were going to rise to the top in a way that people of color never would, because it was your birthright, not theirs.
It helped convince lower and middle-class white Americans to play their part in exploiting Black people and Native people, in order to increase their chances and their payday that was never going to come, because capitalism has always been designed to make sure that a select few get the most profit out of the system. It’s a pyramid scheme. You’ve got middle managers getting lower-class whites to buy in constantly, telling them, “Your paycheck’s coming, your paycheck’s coming” and everyone is stepping on everyone else but all that cash is already spent. It’s already allocated to everyone on top.
People have wasted their entire lives and have participated in really violent systems in the hopes that one day it will pay off for them and all that it’s giving them right now is just a sense of identity and the ability to look in the mirror and go, “At least I’m not Black.” They’re losing so much more potential because there could be using a different system, one that doesn’t restrict 98% of the wealth to the very top.
DS: Agreed. It’s so disgusting to me that right now the working class is being taxed at a higher rate than the billionaire class. We just had this highly racialized election and people have blatantly got screwed over and they’re still buying in. Speaking of, I love that you cite Ronald Takaki, who wrote about how racism is experienced by different ethnic groups in America and introduced me to that subject from a historical perspective.
IO: I first read Takaki in college. His work is so fundamental to talking about race in America, and the bamboo ceiling, and the model minority myth. I wish he was referenced more in contemporary works on race.
DS: I actually wanted to ask you about the model minority myth, which you say is an act of racism that harms Asian Americans and benefits white supremacy. Can you elaborate?
IO: It’s really important to recognize that the model minority myth was created to first be used against Black Americans and to say, “Look they have nothing to complain about. Look how great Asian Americans are doing.” It harms Asian Americans on so many levels because the story of the success of Asian Americans has to do with patterns of migration, who is allowed in and who isn’t, but also people like to lump all Asian Americans together. Asia is a huge section of the world and has so many countries and so many cultures and circumstances. [Lumping all Asian Americans together] ultimately erases the struggles that many Asian Americans face. It hides extreme wealth and opportunity imbalances within Asian American communities. It makes it much harder for many Asian Americans to effectively advocate for services and to be heard when they do because people go: “what are you talking about? You’re Asian, you should be just fine.”
It also hides other issues impacting Asian American communities like the fact that you may well be able to rise up to middle management but your chances of being promoted to upper levels of management if you are Asian American is decreased. Your chances of being elected to government and having that sort of representation are decreased. Your chances of getting help for domestic violence or mental health issues are decreased because these myths are ingrained, that Asian Americans are strong, that they’re stoic, but also that they’re not really leaders. All of these work against Asian Americans and they also work against other people of color because that message is used to silence the issues of other groups of color have as well. It also stops any sort of solidarity between Asian Americans and Black Americans or Latinx Americans or Native people, because people are played against each other in a way that only serves white supremacy.
DS: Right now the nation is reeling from the death of Joshua Brown and Atatiana Jefferson, and before that from the death of Botham Jean. This past weekend here in my community of Athens, Georgia, a 28-year-old man is in serious condition due to excessive use of police force. You say that few subjects shed greater light on the racial divide in the United States than the subject of police brutality. Can you discuss the history of the police forces and how they were born from the Night Patrols, the units who controlled Black and Native populations in New England and assisted the Slave Patrols?
IO: I think it’s really important for people to understand that our police forces are rooted in violent white supremacy and they’ve always had dual purposes. The dual roles of these were to capture escaped slaves and protect white citizens. From the very beginning of the police forces we’ve had two separate mandates—to control Black people and to protect white people. It’s important to know that this is in the DNA. This is how our police forces were started.
The night patrols were precursors to police in America. Many white people who don’t understand the issue of police brutality because they are being served by that other mandate to protect and serve white people and it’s hard to reconcile how one officer you trust to save your life will take the life of a Black person. It’s important to recognize that the entire training, that the entire structure of the police force has been designed to ensure that that is what happens, that they will protect and serve whiteness and that they will control violently if necessary Black Americans. That dual identity has always existed and is part of the bones of American policing.
DS: This morning I was listening to NPR and they were talking about how the warrior mindset played into the death of Atatiana Jefferson. Basically this mindset views people as threats and that’s the way officers are trained.
IO: That’s the part that always confuses me because the reason why we are supposed to appreciate police forces is because they’re supposed to risk their lives for us, but at the same time it is very clear even by the justifications given for the death of murders of Black Americans is that they are never supposed to risk their lives for us. Even at a hint of possible danger, they are trained to shoot us. So then why do we have police when they are never trained to risk their lives for ours? Why do they have all of these vests? Why do they get all these accolades if they aren’t supposed to take some risk and that risk is this person may not be armed?
But if that person is Black, that is not how they are trained. They’re trained to shoot to kill. They are not trained to protect us. They are not trained to risk their lives for us and that’s something I think we really need to understand is that all this defense people give for police, what they’re actually saying is when they say that phone could have been a gun, that hand in that pocket could have been a gun, what they’re actually saying is I’m not willing to risk my life. My life is so much more important than yours but even the hypothetical risk that your hand could be a weapon means that you deserve to die because that hypothetical chance is not big enough to take. I’m that much more important than you. It’s really what we’re saying about the value of Blacks and Native Americans in this country, that the hypothetical risk to our police isn’t even worth it and they’re the one people tasked to risk their lives to save people. That hypocrisy always just gets to me.
DS: I taught in public schools for fifteen years and was fascinated by all you had to say about the school-to-prison pipeline. Can you discuss how the high levels of suspensions and expulsions lead to the school-to-prison pipeline?
IO: Any time you have youths out of school, you’re going to increase the chance of crime, so when you have youths of color being released continuously from school you increase the likelihood with all the free time and the bad decisions that students make they’re going to tend towards crime. Also what we see is school resource officers are used to enforce suspensions and expulsions. Often the student is not just suspended and expelled, they are arrested. School resource officers really escalate the situation and not only that, they are predominantly placed in schools with large amounts of African American children. They predominantly target them in a way that doesn’t actually match any increase in violence, drugs, or truancy at school. They target them because they are there.
Once a child is entered into that system, it’s very hard to get them out. Being removed from their friends or their social support groups and placed in detention centers, it is really hard for them to ever get back on track and it’s very hard for them to be treated like children worth educating by the school system after that, and it’s really the beginning of a lifelong relationship with a criminal justice system that really robs our youth of their whole livelihoods. It’s really important to recognize how heavy use of school resource officers, how unchecked discipline programs of suspensions and expulsions, are forcing our Black children and Hispanic children into the system, especially if they are at a really young age—dooming them to a life in prison before they even know what hit them.
We have to find a solution to this, we have to start recognizing the right to education, a safe education for all of our children. What is deemed a threat to our children is different from what is deemed a threat to white children. Maybe some families might feel safer sending their white children to a school that has a school resource officer, but it often does not make Black and brown children any safer at all. Just like the rest of our criminal justice system, there is very little accountability for how youth of color are treated by the system. Very few people are looking into these numbers and figuring out nationwide how many of our children are being stolen. Activists are, of course, but I’m talking about the accountability government level. Our youth jails are filled with children of color, no matter how few children a color are within a demographic area. That absolutely needs to stop.
DS: You talk about how we are teaching from textbooks that teach white culture and taking tests designed for white students. A lot of the teachers are majority-white and come from different backgrounds from their students. All of these things make it harder for children of color to succeed in school. How can we have a diverse and inclusive education for all of our kids in a white supremacist society?
IO: I think it’s important to realize that no matter what the racial makeup of your classroom is, you’re not adequately educating your children if you’re not providing a diverse and inclusive curriculum, if you’re not recognizing that absolutely every subject has contributions from people of color and it’s more than just one month a year for one racial and demographic. Your children aren’t learning anything accurate or adequate about any field—math, science, English, history, social studies—if they aren’t learning it from a diverse perspective.
Often times when I go into schools and workshop with teachers, we start talking about what sort of opportunities each class has to teach about to increase the diversity and teach through a racial justice lens, it’s often really hard for them to imagine the different ways. But when I do these exercises with students, especially students of color, they have a myriad of experiences. In almost every single class we have billboards of ideas from them that they know that if they had a class that really cared about racial justice, teachers that cared about racial justice, they have so many ideas about what that would look like. Because we are a racialized people, every subject has a racialized lens. Every subject has people of all races that are contributing to it and deserves to be heard and we need to normalize the thought of people of color existing and achieving and interacting in every system and every subject matter that our students learn about, and that’s something that students of color need to see and that’s something that white students need to see.
Oftentimes teachers only tend to see this issue if they have a high minority population in their class, but they’re also cheating their white students out of an adequate education if they don’t do this.
DS: For the most part I’ve only taught predominantly students of color, but thinking of my own education, I agree, it’s imperative for people, for society, to understand. I so appreciate you writing about children and sharing stories about your family and yourself. You say the biggest tragedy of our schools is the loss of childhood joy. Can you elaborate on this?
IO: Our children, I mean children of color, are not able to be rambunctious. They’re not able to make mistakes. They’re not able to be rebellious. They feel the thrill of discovery of seeing someone who looks like them in their textbooks, of getting the praise and attention from their teachers that white children get. All of these things are integral to childhood. They’re part of the whole fairy tale that we tell about childhood and it’s robbing our youth. And of course, in the more extreme, they’re being robbed of their youth when they are kicked out of school, when they are being sent to prison at an early age, when they are being brutalized by school resource officers. They’re being robbed of childhood and we can’t get those years back.
As adults we can sue, we can do whatever we can to try to rectify the harm done to adults, but we cannot give a childhood back to someone. Those years never come back. Those formative experiences never come back and that absolutely breaks my heart when I see how often being an actual child just costs Black children, Native children, Hispanic children, in particular. They don’t get that back. They don’t get that carefree joy back. It robs you of something for the rest of your life and that absolutely breaks my heart. Too often instead of looking at how can we preserve and protect childhood for children of color, we look at how can we compensate them after it has already been stolen. And you can’t ever. To me, it’s an emergency. Each child that goes through the system without us doing something has lost something that can never be returned and that’s an absolute tragedy and a crime. We have to treat it like every day that we don’t address this, like we have lost another childhood. We have to treat it with that urgency.