Don’t get me wrong at all, before going any further let me be very fucking clear and borrow a sentiment from the great Jennifer Lewis, “GET YOUR ASS OUT AND VOTE!!!” on Tuesday. This is not a game.
That said, we need to understand that even if tomorrow we voted out every white supremacist who holds office (including perhaps the most egregious example, Iowa Republican, Steve King), white supremacy would remain in the DNA of the United States of America. As my Rabbi, Sharon Brous of Ikar-LA, wrote in Jewish Journal in 2017, “White supremacy is our country’s original sin. The legacy of slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, and the exploitation of immigrants remain unresolved and largely unacknowledged.”
I would add to Rabbi Brous’s veracious analysis that white supremacy also remains largely unchecked, and largely unmitigated. This, I believe, is due to the fact that far too many people are unaware of white supremacy’s praxis. We limit it to manifestations of overt racism including, but not limited to, tiki torch wielding domestic terrorists, those who send pipe bombs, and those who openly evoke abject racism, bigotry, and anti-Semitism.
Our collective lack of comprehension contributes to white supremacy’s scourge in our institutions and in our everyday social lives. National scholar and anti-racist practitioner, Dr. Robin DiAngelo, reminds us, “In fact, much of white supremacy’s power is drawn from its invisibility, the taken-for-granted aspects that underwrite all other political and social contracts.”
And the great writer Ta-Nehisi Coates suggests, “[W]hite supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it.”
A profound example of what DiAngelo and Coates portray can be found in an examination of white, working-class workers who allowed themselves to be seduced by white supremacy. In turn, many still harbor racist sentiments against Black and brown workers who shared their predicament and their desire for emancipation from white supremacy-fueled capitalism, which only truly serves the wealthy white class. David Roediger explains the root of these sentiments in his fantastic work, The Wages of Whiteness, arguing that white working class resentment is not solely related to economic advantage, “rather white working class racism is underpinned by a complex series of psychological and ideological mechanisms that reinforce racial stereotypes, and thus help to forge the identities of white workers in opposition to Blacks.”
When it comes to seducing people into harboring bigoted sentiments, white supremacy is more efficacious than a Sith Lord targeting the promising Padawan learner who eventually turns to the Dark Side of the Force. This may explain why the man responsible for signing the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act into law, as well as appointing the first Black Supreme Court Justice, Lyndon B. Johnson, himself once remarked, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” This mode of thinking continues today and was on full display during the 2016 Presidential Election when studies now tell us that racial resentment led to Trump’s election more than so-called “economic anxiety.”
Unfortunately, in that same period of time, we’ve been unwilling and unable to address it. And this may explain why Washington Post journalist, Michael Tessler, concludes, “[E]conomic resentment isn’t driving racial resentment; rather, racial resentment is driving economic anxiety.”
In his opus, Black Reconstruction, W.E.B. DuBois reminds us:
Reconstruction by uniting the planter and the poor white, was far exceeded by its… economic results… It must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white. They would rather have a low wage which they could eke out an existence than see colored labor with a decent wage. White labor saw in every advance of Negroes a threat their racial prerogatives.
That’s a pretty gangster analysis, but it’s DuBois, so we can’t be surprised or shocked. And speaking of this idea of “shock,” we need to discuss how this also contributes to white supremacy and reduces our ability to properly address it. It seems like every day the current occupant of the Oval Office says or proclaims something that is so “shocking” to people. But how shocked should we be? I highly doubt that the most marginalized people in this nation are at all shocked, even though they are quite outraged.
I am confident that Native American people—who have been fighting for their lives and culture since white supremacy stole this nation from them—are not shocked. I am confident that the majority of Black and brown folk—who were aware of police and state-sanctioned violence against their people long before the internet, cell phone videos, and YouTube—are not shocked. And I am damn confident that transgender people—especially trans women of color, with an average life expectancy of 30 to 35 years—are not shocked.
When we are shocked, we tend to embrace a sense of fight or flight, our adrenaline rushes (even if only momentarily), and then we take action. Generally, those actions—in this case, voting habits—are not strategic but instead HIGHLY reactionary. Unfortunately, the people we vote for and the political parties they represent want it that way. They’re counting on emotional, lizard-brain decision-making in the voting booth.
Hence, the billions of dollars spent on campaign staffs/political consultants, internet ads, and television commercials each elections season. The goal is to illicit enough emotion out of all of us to react and vote based on our most primal emotion—fear.
In his book, How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate, Professor Steve Hoffman cautions us about reacting without strategy. “Reactions bereft of a human connection may increase social fission and animate our emerging social schism.” He also concludes, “Events do not in and of themselves create social change.” I take this to mean that while voting can be a catalyst for social change, voting alone cannot deliver social change.
While white supremacists, fascists, anti-Semites, transphobes, and misogynists must be removed from power, we must understand that merely replacing actors in this system, which has been and remains seriously tainted, is not enough to actually address white supremacy and its manifestations.
At the same time, we don’t have time to completely dismantle the system—the intersecting crises of climate change fueled by the Racial Capitalocene, rising global white nationalism, and increasing income/wealth inequality call upon us to do more than take part in electoral musical chairs to address these crises with success, and quickly.
Meanwhile, things are not looking good. Across the world, xenophobic, nationalist sentiments are surging, while global issues become even more urgent.
The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change sounded a global alarm in a recent report declaring we have less than 15 years to act on global warming. Brazil’s political cacophony interrupts its renowned sounds of samba and bossa-nova with the election of a racist demagogue as their new president. And the potential for an expansion of rising white nationalism incubates in Germany with the announced departure of Chancellor Angela Merkel. All the while, the gap between haves and have-nots portrays itself with increased profundity in developing nations in Asia and Latin America, and right in front of us in the most “progressive” cities including San Francisco and Seattle.
This is where the people—us, you, me, and everyone—come in. We’re going to have to put in the time and work, even after we vote, to see to the transformational changes that are necessary and imperative.
It’s painful to look into oneself and see elements within us that we abhor. It’s painful for men to navigate their programming and arrive at the patriarchy that resides inside all of us. In the same vein, I’m sure it is painful for white folk to dig deep and realize that white supremacy resides within them and is sometimes manifested in ways that are unconscious, but equally harmful and hurtful. But this realization is a good thing, it’s necessary and it’s imperative if we’re ever going to dismantle and decapitate white supremacy.
There is a phrase that some yogis use called, “the good burn,” when you’re holding that asana for a few more breaths and can almost literally hear your muscles screaming at you—and this is a good thing. Collectively, we’re going to have to decide that it’s a good thing to stretch our minds, our hearts and our souls and get to the root of white supremacy and allow for that “good burn” to permeate through each and every one of us—and yes, this even applies to the anti-racist white folk.
Our perambulation of racism, bigotry, and white supremacy is coming back to bite us all collectively, whether we know it or not. The great Kathleen Cleaver spoke to this explaining, “White Americans, as a rule, cannot see race in relation to themselves, and are therefore convinced that racism only poses a problem for ‘others.’ This phenomenon led Nobel-prize winning author Toni Morrison to note how poignant it is that scholarly concentration on the targets of racism manages any study of the impact of racism has on its perpetrators.”
In short, we need to ALL do the work, deep work that goes beyond electoral politics, yet in concert with it, to dismantle, decapitate, and eviscerate the global pandemic of white supremacy. And we must no longer skirt around the issue when it comes to the work of addressing white supremacy. This is one occupation where it actually IS appropriate for white folk to dominate and, primarily, be in positions of leadership.
As Tabitha Pohl-Moore, Director of Vermont’s NAACP, (yes, the state where Bernie is from and the state with the highest incarceration rate for African-American men in the nation) recently stated, “I’ve been saying this a lot lately: Asking Black people or people of color to fix racism is like asking the environment to fix global warming. It’s not our problem. We didn’t create it.”
Our society—white folk in particular—can no longer act as a rubber stamp for white supremacy and all of its elements and variables. It’s been on our collective desk for years, decades, generations, and centuries. It’s time for us to veto it, together, by busting down single-issue silos, taking it seriously and doing the collective work. If we only react to the acute and profound manifestations of white supremacy, we are actually allowing for the next profound manifestation of white supremacy. It’s an everyday struggle, it’s an everyday commitment, and it will require all of us to say and ACT upon the notion that enough is enough. The ball is in our court.
Get everyone you know to vote. And then get them all together the next day and commence the work to create the world we know is possible with the understanding that this will not be achieved by an activity that takes place intermittently, but through activities that take place every single day.