“The wretched of the earth do not decide to become extinct, they resolve, on the contrary, to multiply: life is their only weapon against life, life is all that they have.”
James Baldwin, a twentieth-century American writer, was forced to make racism his business—he was part of a people segregated at birth by skin color. The sentence cited here notes a contradiction: experiencing misery and poverty produces new lives, whereas a life of comfort produces fewer.
In Napoli, ground-floor apartments—slum dwellings with just a single room—used to swarm with children. With no possibility of privacy, parents began new pregnancies in the middle of their families. Such was their force, their biological richness: since they lost many of their numbers to every form of scarcity, being numerous was essential.
The comfortable felt this was unnecessary. By its very nature privilege tends towards exclusivity, not sharing.
Baldwin freed himself from his circumstances by writing—which can be a good cover, a second skin that renders the first acceptable, even noble.
An expert on racism, he knew that such sentiments were neither spontaneous nor individual. To see the light of day, racism requires certain conveniences: it needs a favorable environment, a sense of its own strength, an authorization from above. Once the coast is made clear, then it shows its face. Because racism is simply an exhibition of supremacy.
When it’s a question of the poor, doggedness is detestable. In the rich, the same behavior is welcome.
Arab immigrants are rejected, and the Emirates are revered. Racism addresses itself to the weak, those who lack rights and protection. It is inevitably craven and needs to isolate its foe.
The present American president plans to cast eight hundred thousand people recognized by the previous administration into illegality and expulsion. In Italy we’re doing the same, refusing citizenship to people born here to immigrant parents. Even where a person is completely Italian on the basis of language, life, and education, that right is denied. They live in Limbo, the antechamber of the Inferno in Dante. More recently, limbo has been the antechamber for concentration camps.
Isolation is the pretext necessary in order to attack with ease and impunity.
Yet the overall reduction of new lives among the comfortable includes the racists. The race of racists is destined to become extinct.
Erri De Luca is one of Italy's best-known writers. His most recent book is Diavoli custodi (Feltrinelli, 2017), with the artist Alessandro Mendini.
Translated from Italian by Jim Hicks