I grew up here, in a city with a checkered past and uneasy present with regard to race relations, in a religious denomination founded on the defense of race-based slavery, and among extended family members who often exhibited prejudice. Race became one of those things you could joke about but never talk about, and racism was certainly not an issue that you brought up with others, especially not at a family picnic, a lesson I never seemed to learn. So I grew up surrounded both by white people and a brand of racism that was rarely named but always implied. It was in the jokes told at family gatherings, in the sections of town we were warned to avoid, and in the ways our lives failed to include people of color, unless our coach was recruiting for a sports team. As a child raised on the multicultural worlds of Sesame Street and 3-2-1 Contact, and with parents that taught me to treat everyone with respect and kindness, I began to notice these contradictions. Slowly, I also noticed how conversations about poverty portrayed low-income white people as 'down on their luck,' while low-income people of color were portrayed as pariahs and leeches. I learned just enough about abolitionism and the civil rights movement in school to know whose side I was on. Yet I never studied history or the arts from a multicultural perspective, and I was ignorant about how complicit I was in systems of oppression.
As a result, as an adult I found myself opposed to racism but without the tools that I needed to recognize and uproot it in myself or in the structures and cultures of society. It wasn't until graduate school in the late 1990s that I truly began to better understand and finally start to undo all these subtle layers of racist ideas and anxieties within and around me. At first, I became embarrassed that it took me so long to begin to make those changes, and then had to realize that my embarrassment was part of the problem, too, shifting the focus off of racial justice and onto my fragile identity. Slowly, too slowly, I came to realize that understanding and eradicating white supremacy is essential in our continuing struggle for collective liberation.
Because it’s no secret that racism has been an extremely effective tactic to thwart movements for democracy and justice in the United States, creating a gulf between people who would otherwise be allies. While the history of white supremacy is not simple, it is true that, as Bill Bigelow at the Zinn Education Project put it,
“The social elites of early America sought to manufacture racial divisions. Men of property and privilege were in the minority; they needed mechanisms to divide people who, in concert, might threaten the status quo. Individuals’ different skin colors were not sufficient to keep these people apart if they came to see their interests in common.” (SOURCE)The tactic has been useful time and time again, and has resulted in a continued and accelerated redistribution of wealth and power toward the top percent of society, at the expense of the wellbeing of most of us, and especially for those at the margins. In 2016, a time when we desperately needed to come together, to work cooperatively to address economic justice, climate justice, and social justice, the nation instead rallied around a symbol of white supremacy and patriarchal violence, and Trump did it in large part by relying on this tried and true method. The American National Election Studies’ pre- and post-election survey, which included responses of over 4,000 people, showed that, more than political identity, education, and even economic level, “racial resentment, black influence animosity, and immigration attitudes” were the best predictors of a vote for Donald Trump. (SOURCE)
None of this should have been surprising. Our history, and our economic power, is built on the bones of enslaved Africans, displaced Native Americans, and exploited immigrants. Yet the majority of white people have, at best, remained oblivious to both the history and continued impacts of systemic racism. This has empowered the Trump administration to continue on a course of exploiting the weakness of white folk for clinging to white privilege and white supremacy. Out of many attacks already made by the Trump administration on civil and human rights, two may be particularly helpful in revealing and symbolizing the ongoing power and legacy of white supremacy and our common need for collective liberation.
The first occurred in April 2017, when Attorney General Jeff “Sessions order[ed a] sweeping review of police reform,” and not in a good way. The two page memorandum called for examining “all police reform agreements and investigations initiated by the Justice Department” and “effectively open[ed] a re-examination of an aggressive effort by the Obama administration to force local police to reform many policies, from the use of deadly force to how officers deal with minority communities.” (SOURCE)
The incredible and powerful work by movements, such as #BlackLivesMatter, to put in place more accountability and change with regard to bringing an end to police brutality, racial discrimination in the justice system, and mass incarceration, began under the Obama administration. Despite the limitations and failures of that administration, it is important to note that, during Obama’s presidency, “the Justice Department opened investigations into more than two dozen police agencies and secured court-enforceable agreements in more than a dozen cases to force changes in local law enforcement policy.” (ibid)
In contrast, the Trump administration is actively seeking to rollback and oppose any progress being made while sending a threatening message to activists. And, as we mark the third anniversary of the murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, 2017 is on pace to be an even deadlier year than ever, with police already responsible for killing over 600 people. This violence disproportionately impacts people of color and other vulnerable populations. Exposing and opposing these abuses has been essential, empowering, and increasingly effective, which is why the Trump administration has strategically signaled that they are fighting back in favor of “law and order,” which is inevitably racially charged code for Trump’s rhetoric of an imaginary increase in crime and violence, an irrational fear and hatred of Muslims and refugees, and a derogatory and false depiction of undocumented workers and immigrants.
This is made all the more obvious when you consider a second policy. On August 1, 2017, the New York Times ran an article by Charlie Savage on an internal announcement for the “Justice Dept. to Take On Affirmative Action in College Admissions.” In short, the Trump administration is redirecting “resources of the Justice Department’s civil rights division toward investigating and suing universities over affirmative action admissions policies deemed to discriminate against white applicants … .” They are seeking lawyers who are willing to aid in “investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions.” (SOURCE) I am not sure if it is fair to even call this a thinly veiled attempt, so blatant is its targeting of protections for marginalized and minoritized groups in order to prop up fragile white identities.
Taken together, these moves, by accident or design, appeal to the culture of white supremacy that continues to plague the United States and that continues to be an essential tactic in blocking meaningful change toward justice and equality. And, unfortunately, it continues to work. Michael Dawson, political scientist at the College at the University of Chicago and founding director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture, has studied and written extensively on the enduring gulf between black and white Americans. In a 2012 interview, Dawson was asked to comment on how 90% of blacks, but only 38% of whites, understood the Katrina hurricane disaster to reflect racial inequality. He replied,
“When I wrote these numbers into statistical equations, class disappears, region disappears, age and gender disappear, and the only thing that remains statistically significant is race. Controlling for all the things that sociologists, economists, and political scientists say you should control for, we find that what drives one's views [most significantly] is race.”Dawson went on to describe “fundamentally different” ways people were viewing the world. For example, a “large majority of white people thought, as early as 2000, that black people had already achieved racial equality,” while “80 percent of black people” reported that they did not expect to see racial equality in their “lifetime or maybe never in the United States.” Similarly, a survey in the mid-1990s showed that “the majority of whites [… said] that black people had caught up in housing, healthcare, health outcomes, and unemployment,” while the data demonstrated that the opposite was actually true. And a study by the Harvard sociologist Larry Bobo discovered that a small majority of white people thought “that black people were intellectually inferior and a larger majority saying that black people were prone to crime and welfare.”
“So on the one hand you have the view that black people had caught up or are doing better than white people overall (in fact, in another survey recorded over the last few months, many whites think they are the most discriminated against) and [on the other hand] there is the feeling that black people are whining [and are actually criminal and dependent on state handouts]. All this while black people are saying that ‘we're behind, that we have a lot of catching up to do, that this society still sorts by race.’ You couldn't have two more firmly different ways of viewing the world.” (SOURCE )Most of the white people I’ve known that hold these kinds of views, though, would insist that they are not prejudicial, that they are not racists. And that’s where a lot of conversations can get stuck. There’s a kind of emotional logic to the experience, that goes something like this:
1) Racists are bad people.
2) I am a good person.
3) Therefore, I am not racist.
That’s where the argument ends, and that’s where you start going in an endless and ridiculous circle of either cussing each other out or assuaging white guilt.
The truth is that it is likely impossible for a white person in the United States to not benefit from white supremacy in at least some ways. That I don’t like it, and that I am trying to eradicate it, doesn’t make it less true. But feeling bad about it also doesn’t change it; blame and guilt are not reliable motivators, especially when it comes to justice work. Similarly, thinking that I am the one who can step in and make it all better just falls into another trap. As Teju Cole has put it, “The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.” (SOURCE)
So our justice movements are not in need of saviors, but rather learners and partners. As bell hooks wrote,
“Fundamentally, if we are only committed to an improvement in that politic of domination that we feel leads directly to our individual exploitation or oppression, we not only remain attached to the status quo but act in in complicity with it, nurturing and maintaining those very systems of domination. Until we are all able to accept the interlocking, interdependent nature of systems of domination and recognize specific ways each system is maintained, we will continue to act in ways that undermine our individual quest for freedom and collective liberation struggle.” (bell hooks, Outlaw Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994/2008: 290)Collective liberation is a handy way of capturing the insight and power of Fannie Lou Hamer’s words, that “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” The United Students Against Sweatshops describe it this way:
“Collective liberation means recognizing that all of our struggles are intimately connected, and that we must work together to create the kind of world we know is possible. We believe that every person is worthy of dignity and respect, and that within systems of oppression everyone suffers. / Collective Liberation is not just a value, but an action. When we work together across the barriers kept in place to divide us, we strengthen our organizing. When combined, our diverse identities and experiences give us the tools to dismantle systems of economic and social oppression, and to create a world in which all people are seen as fully human.” (SOURCE)“Imperialist, capitalist, white supremacist patriarchy,” as bell hooks has helpfully named it, exploits racial and other divides in order to perpetuate terrible injustices that make life worse for all but the very few. Any discomfort we may feel, any risks we may take to oppose and replace it, are nothing compared to the suffering we have been content to let people of color absorb for centuries. We need to act out of commitment to the freedom, well-being, and joy that await us when we live in truly just and equitable communities. It is our anger and grief at the terrors of racial injustice, it is our growing love for one another as interdependent members of the human community, and it is our shared vision for another way that will see us through.
These are the most basic steps we should be engaging in, if we are serious about moving from white supremacy to collective liberation: taking our lead from and supporting racial justice movements led by people of color with our time, money, and efforts; giving people, especially white folk, an opportunity to participate in anti-racist education; training community leaders in organizing and community development practices that are truly multiracial and just.
The system was designed to profit off of oppression and exploitation, but it requires the complicity of the masses to maintain its power. The powers that be are counting on our willingness to accept our own level of oppression in exchange for certain privileges and conveniences, and at the cost of the suffering of others. But we can say no to the way things are, and we can say yes to the way things could be, to making the changes in our lives, communities, and government policies that finally embody solidarity, justice, equality, and love.
Because “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”