James Baldwin: These Innocent People

James Baldwin was a writer in the 20th Century. He was technically an American writer, but he lived abroad for many years, when much of his best writing occurred.

Nevertheless, James Baldwin wrote about America. His focus on the national identity and the sin of racism made his insights biting and valuable at the same time.

Baldwin was born and raised in New York City. Growing up in the urban confines of that cultural capital gave him a perspective on the plight of African Americans that is infused throughout his public speeches and published writing.

Willful Blindness on Race

Baldwin’s insights into the American condition are still resonant today. He saw a problem in the approach to race peace that has remained unaddressed. As he predicted, race would continue to be a problem in America, as long as the willful blindness continued.

The Fire Next Time
James Baldwin

Baldwin said:

‘..these innocent people (whites)…are still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.

They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know.

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, Vintage; Reissue edition (December 1, 1992)

Here he explains that the majority in the United States are living blind in a trapped historical perspective. Inside this world view, the exceptionalism of America stands as obvious; an example of greatness that defies any criticism.

Inside this denialism the American majority is destined to be ever agitated by the reminder of race and minority inclusion. Blacks, Hispanics, LGBTQ+ and immigrants all irritate and threaten the status and historical position of the majority in the American narrative. In order to maintain that narrative, greater levels of denial and exclusion are necessary; an American isolationism that has frequently occurred in American history.

Immigrants and Revolutionists

In the 1920’s, after the First World War, a wave of nativism ran through the country. The passage of the Immigration Act of 1924 enshrined isolationism and race into immigration quotas, announcing to the world who was welcomed to become an American.

Today, the feeling among the majority is that they are under threat from a growing diversity. Supporters of the current leadership in Washington D.C. want to hurt those who would add to the diversity of the United States, a nation built of immigration.

At one time, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt explained that ours is a nation of immigrants. He described the American tradition as born out of immigrants and revolutionists.

It is difficult today, as Baldwin said it was difficult in his time, for the majority to accept the equality and place of immigrants, minorities and women in American society. So many smoke screen excuses have been thrown up to preserve the status of the white majority. The present day is nothing different from what has happened before.

To point this out is to be targeted and attacked. The opposition to equality defies logic and clings to assertions of defending the national security or identity as if it were under threat. The irony is, of course, that the national identity of America is only advanced by inclusion and immigration. The present leadership and its supporters believe the opposite.

A recent study of bullying, in fact, supports this conclusion.

Seventh- and eighth-graders in areas that favored Trump reported bullying rates in spring 2017 that were 18 percent higher than students living in areas that went for Clinton. They were also 9 percent more likely to report that kids at their schools were teased because of their race or ethnicity.

In the 2015 data, there were “no meaningful differences” in those findings across communities, the researchers wrote.


The effect of supporting the current political leadership is a trickle down of bullying that is affecting schools. Students and teacher – yes, even teachers- are targets of bullying because of the climate created by the current leadership.

Unguided by Evidence

The current leadership of the United States is motivated by a victimization perspective, lashing out and reacting without logic, unguided by evidence.

To resist those who live in denial of the reality of the situation, afraid to accept that they might be better off facing their fears rather than building walls against it, need to be handled with care.

The future holds much that may provoke violence. The government shutdown, the migrant caravan, the flagging economy and the possibility of national emergency declaration all hold within it the possibility to unleash a greater release of pent up fear and aggression. The existence of this violent undercurrent is supported by the data on bullying and Trump supporters.

As Baldwin warned us:

To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case, the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity.’—James Baldwin

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, Vintage; Reissue edition (December 1, 1992)

Author: Tyler Rust