Symbols and Solidarity: Ignoring What Matters Most
Controversy in nothing new to national discussions over the Confederate flag, but in the past month the debate has been particularly heated. Lines in the sand have been drawn and both camps have dug in their heels. Here in the South, especially in the wake of the Charleston Church Shooting and the wave of police violence in 2014 that brought the Black Lives Matter movement to national attention, it’s impossible not to choose a side. We’ve seen Confederate memorials across the region spraypainted with “Black Lives Matter” messages, our state officials (who had previously defended the flag with a disturbing consistency) have pushed to remove the flag from government facilities, and in many rural areas, white Southerners have taken to country roads and Wal-Mart parking lots to wave their flags in defiance in what they see as an attack on their “Southern heritage” (a heritage that conveniently ignores black and Native contributions to Southern culture).
Historical evidence linking the flag to slavery, white supremacy, support for racial segregation, and racist hate groups is difficult to dispute. There facts have already been covered elsewhere, including original documents from before and during the Civil War, so there’s no point repeating it. Despite this, many white (and occasionally non-white) Americans refuse to acknowledge the white supremacist legacy of the Confederacy and the Confederate battle flag. In other parts of the country — and even certain pockets of the South — flag supporters are subject to condescending insults and jokes about white trash rednecks and hillbillies.
In this climate, it’s almost understandable these folks would double down to defend themselves. Unfortunately, their efforts to defend themselves too often rely on racist symbols like the Confederate battle flag, Confederate leaders like Generals Robert E. Lee and Nathan Bedford Forrest, and the false claim that the Civil War was about “state’s rights” that had nothing to do with slavery. Without a doubt, racist sympathies are closely tied to their positions, but focusing attention on these misguided and ill-informed Southerners clouds the role that those of us who don’t support the flag and who don’t live in the South play in propagating white supremacy.
The Confederate battle flag has been used to terrorize and intimidate people of color for generations. In fact, it wasn’t until after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling and the start of the unsuccessful battle against desegregation that the flag was adopted by Southern segregationists and added to state flags across the South.
The flag is tarnished by that legacy to this day. The misguided claim that the flag is about “heritage not hate” and that it holds some sacred meaning doesn’t hold water when one considers the silence of the flag’s supporters in the face of hate groups like the KKK displaying it at rallies and cross burnings.
If defending the flag’s reputation was of such critical importance, perhaps we’d see them rise up to protest it being associated with white supremacists, and not only when Leftists suggest it might hide racist sympathies. After racist Confederate flag supporters in Douglasville, Georgia crashed a child’s birthday party, hurled racist insults, and threatened those in attendance with violence, there was a remarkable silence from the same folks who just weeks earlier threw a fit after learning they’d no longer be able to buy rebel flag underwear at their local Wal-Mart.
These symbols of Confederacy reflect some of the darkest periods in our nation’s history. Anti-racists have an absolute obligation to challenge state displays of the flag, advocate for the removal of monuments and memorials to racist leaders of the Confederacy, and to fight troubling images like the one carved into Stone Mountain (a bas-relief image that portrays Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, and Robert E. Lee in a park that regularly played host to Klan rallies and cross burnings before it was bought by the state of Georgia).
When Bree Newsome climbed the flagpole at the South Carolina capitol and removed the flag flying there, it was a brave act of defiance that sent a powerful message. It meant something. But when white Americans burn the flag and post videos to YouTube, white politicians come out to condemn flag supporters, and white progressives poke fun at backwards, ignorant “rednecks” who still fly the flag in freaking 2015, what material purpose, other than easing our guilt and, once again, making ourselves the center of attention, does it serve?
Trampling a flag is easy, but with these superficial actions we often overlook the more difficult, uncomfortable, and inconvenient work of confronting our role in reproducing white supremacy. Yes, we might be outspoken anti-racists, but as white Americans who benefit from a system that favors us at every turn, we have an obligation to do better, to put our comfort, our safety, even our bodies on the line. Relying on token symbols of resistance, while white supremacy runs along unchecked, is not enough.
Racism: It Ain’t Just a Southern Thing
White supremacy has been a crucial chuck of US history since before our nation was born. Slavery and the slave trade occurred mostly in the South, but that doesn’t mean the North didn’t reap some of its benefits. Over 40% of the slaves who entered the United States came through Charleston, SC and New Orleans was one of the largest human slave markets in North America, but Northern cities like New York, Boston, and Newport, Rhode Island also imported slaves and wealthy Northern merchants dominated the slave trade.
Many of the ships that carried slaves to America were owned by wealthy Northerners, who profited just as much — if not more — from the sale of black Africans. The North played a key role in the westward expansion that displaced and killed millions of indigenous Americans. Ignoring these uncomfortable bits of our history allows Northerners to lay the effects of slavery and white supremacy entirely at the feet of the South. The real picture, of an entire nation built on slave labor and genocide, is much more difficult to swallow.
Until the Civil War, the Southern economy relied on human slavery and a plantation system from which produces wealth enjoyed by only its most powerful residents. Even today, the South remains one of the most impoverished and least developed parts of the country, where rural whites suffer similar rates of economic hardship as residents of poor urban communities (85% of the counties with the highest poverty rate are in rural America). The dominant social class foments division between these communities that allows white middle-class Americans to ignore their role in our white supremacist society.
Most progressive politicians and organizers have given up on the stubborn South to conservative politicians and fundamentalist preachers. Heck, whenever our Southern neighbors get riled up over and go into Old Testament mode over gay marriage or trans people expecting at least a small measure of respect, Northern progressives gleefully imagine a country second Southern secession with would, presumably, leave behind a liberal, forward-thinking utopia free from racism, bigotry, and fundamentalist ignorance. Southerners indisputably have our share of problems, but this condescending attitude obscures the North’s own long — and ongoing — part in white supremacy and, especially, racial segregation.
Despite the popular image of a racially segregated South, eight of the top ten most racially segregated cities lie in other parts of the country. New York City, our bastion of progressive liberal enlightenment, is fourth. Chicago comes in seventh. Schools in the North are also more racially segregated than in other parts of the country. And, while the South incarcerates more of our residents than any other region, Northern states like Connecticut, Vermont, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania incarcerate more black and latino residents per capita than any Southern state.
Some of the notorious cases of police violence against American people of color — Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, Ezell Ford, Rekia Boyd, Jonathan Crawford, Tanisha Anderson, and seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones — happened elsewhere. In fact, no Southern state is ranked in the top ten of per capita police killings (Louisiana checks in at number 12).
And while Americans imagine cross burnings and lynching being exclusive to the South, black people were also frequently lynched in the North and West and many of the most notorious white-led pro-slavery and race riots occurred in cities like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit. There are also, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, more hate groups in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania than any Southern state.
None of this is to say that racial tensions, discrimination, and bigotry don’t exist in the South; they unquestionably do, and have for a long time. But white supremacy is deeply rooted in every pocket of our country. Placing blame strictly on the South might appease the guilt of white Northern liberals, but it only compounds the tragic effects of white supremacy in some of the areas where it’s most dangerous.
When Allies Become Voices for White Supremacy
Progressive liberals and radical leftists are the most outspoken critics of white supremacist hate groups like the KKK and National Socialist Mmovement (NSM). We make a habit of poking fun at these groups, sometimes going so far as to dress up as clowns, with one man tailing the KKK and NSM a a recent Charleston rally with a sousaphone. This is intended to agitate or embarrass these groups into submission, but it’s rarely effective. These antics have symbolic meaning, but they only address outward signs of racism.
The liberal critique frequently relies on the old condescending stereotypes of poor, rural white Americans as “white trash rednecks” who idolize the Klan and live only in the South. Many white Southerners take this as an insult, flying rebel flags in defiance, even when they aren’t racist and don’t support the Confederacy (Georgia anarchist Don Jennings, aka Prole Cat, covers this in his essay “Anarchism and Confederate-Flag Culture“) . Right or wrong, this only results in a self-perpetuating cycle that isolates potential allies who might otherwise be receptive to our anti-racist message.
Southern whites don’t face anything like the marginalization suffered by American people of color. They can hardly be considered oppressed (although they frequently claim to be) and, no, “reverse” racism is not a thing. But poor, rural white Americans, especially in Appalachia, are subject to the same system of economic exploitation. Unfortunately, the dominant social classes has successfully shifted legitimate frustration away from themselves and toward our black and latino neighbors.
The “most racially-enlightened” among us are often the most ignorant to the privileges they enjoy in a society that favors their lives and voices. We rarely stop to ask ourselves how this system manifests itself in the own lives. And in so doing, we can’t help but sabotage any meaningful efforts at building cross-racial cooperation between poor rural whites and people of color in the South.
Blinded By Color-Blindness
A growing number of white Americans claim color blindness, seeing only “human beings” instead of different races. Everyone’s equal and, of course, there’s no way I could be racist! I treat everyone the same! However well-intended, this idea is well off the mark. By failing to see color, we blind ourselves to our own part in this racist society — whose benefits we enjoy without even noticing. It’s the ultimate demonstration of our white privilege, affording us the benefit of not seeing race, while those subject to white supremacy can’t escape it.
A recent poll revealed that 48% of white millennials believe they face as much discrimination as people of color — despite mountains of evidence to the contrary that should put their perceived oppression to rest. Our nation’s failure to seriously discuss racism for three decades has given birth to a generation that poorly understands and refuses to critically examine how they reproduce white privilege, racism, and white supremacy today.
Color-blindness has played out in some disturbing ways. Here in Georgia, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “progressive” champions of free speech rights, has taken up the cause of the International Keystone Knights of the Ku Klux Klan to adopt a highway. A state controlled by conservative Republicans has repeatedly denied the Klan’s request, which would require placement of signage indicating the road is maintained by the Klan. The KKK and ACLU have taken the case all the way to the Georgia Court of Appeals, despite a recent Supreme Court ruling against a similar effort in Texas. There’s been little dissent from white Georgia liberals over the ACLU dedicating resources to fight such a ridiculous cause.
On a related note, the Georgia chapter of the ACLU refused to aid incarcerated Georgians whose ability to write and receive letters was severely restricted in county jails across the state. Most inmates in the state, like the rest of the US, are black or latino.
Many Americans refuse to see modern hate groups a threat to public safety. Some even place black or latino rights groups in the same category. These sentiments are repeated across the political spectrum. The prevailing view is that hate groups only want attention and simply ignoring will make them disappear. Not only is this misguided, but ignoring these groups has proved dangerous. Since 2008, the year our first black president was elected, the number of hate groups in the US has skyrocketed. Amid the steady stream of police violence against people of color, officers across the country have been been revealed as either extremely racist or as members of the KKK. The KKK has also rushed to the aid of white officers implicated in these incidents, even being allowed also been permitted to raise money on crowdfunding sites. Not only are we allowing racism to survive, we’re giving racists and fascists a platform to expand.
The Klan is nowhere near as prominent as it once was, but other hate groups are taking up the slack. They’ve learned from their mistakes and are rebranding themselves to appear more credible. While the prevailing image paints white supremacists as the stereotypical hillbillies and rednecks of old (and those who attend their public rallies only reinforce this image), modern white supremacists have formed crypto-fascist “European heritage” groups that push the same hateful message dressed up in business suits and academic language that’s just as dangerous. Many of these groups have connections to local and national politicians, granting them power and influence over political parties and social issues the Klan could only hope for.
It’s About So Much More Than White Supremacists
White supremacist hate groups are still a threat, but they’re far from the only manifestation of modern white supremacy. Our news media and Facebook feeds are chock full of stories about racial oppression and the benefits white Americans enjoy thanks to our white skin (whether we want to or not). While it’s easy to attack obviously racist hate groups, it’s much more difficult to turn the mirror on ourselves.
White Americans are less likely to be killed by police (yes, of course unarmed whites are still killed in ridiculous numbers) and more likely to receive diversionary sentences like drug court or probation if they are arrested. Black and latino Americans are far more likely to be targets for suspected criminal activity, to be convicted, and receive disproportionately longer sentences for similar crimes (Native Americans also fall into this category). In our “post-racial” America, 1-in-3 black men and 1-in-18 black women will spend time in prison, compared to 1-in-17 and 1-in-111 white men and women (the figures are 1-in-6 and 1-in-17 for latino/latina men and women). Black women make up that fastest growing segment of the US prison population.
Our racially-biased justice system is only one, though perhaps the most extreme, example of white supremacy in modern America. It’s clear that black and brown lives are given less importance in a society that ignores their voices and cries for help.
When the “Black Lives Matter” movement swept across the country in 2014 in response to our long history of police violence against people of color, protesters were more likely to be met with contempt than support from the white community. Even progressives who outwardly oppose police violence criticized black protesters for blocking traffic, disrupting holiday shopping, and interrupting their sacred Sunday brunches.
Black Lives Matter activists recently interrupted a Netroots Nation event featuring Democratic presidential candidates Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders. They marched in singing “Which Side Are You On” and Tia Oso took the stage asking for concrete plan to fight white supremacy from both candidates. Sanders brought up his support of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s (as though that was somehow relevant to what’s happening now) and effectively ignored the protesters for the rest of the event as they read out the names of those killed by police. O’Malley brought out the crypto-racist “all lives matter” line (yes, we know all lives should matter, but it’s obvious they don’t. Come on O’Malley!), demonstrating how out of touch the Democratic party is with the needs of American people of color.
Sanders has since tweaked his campaign speeches, at least giving lip service to the protesters’ demands. The candidates’ reactions, however, aren’t even the most troubling aspect of the affair. It was Sanders’ white liberal supporters who questioned the motives of the protesters, scolding them for marginalizing themselves from the only candidate whose policies would help them.
Yes, Bernie Sanders is the “great white savior” who can save all the people of color by focusing on income inequality and thereby solving all the problems created by white supremacy. Rather than listen to what the protesters and their supporters had to say, they were lectured for showing poor manners. Apparently white progressives know better how to solve problems in the black community than people of color do.
This attitude follows a disturbing trend across the white American Left: race and gender issues are seen as secondary to class struggle. The protesters were warned to get in line or lose their voice in the progressive “political revolution.” Too often the Left’s support for anti-racism and communities of color is conditional on our own comfort and our credentials as allies are best left unquestioned.
This reaction demonstrates that even in supposedly friendly circles, black and brown voices are given less importance than those of white people. Our convenience and comfort is more important. Our support remains tentative. People of color can only challenge the system on our terms. We have to do better if we even hope to consider ourselves allies in the struggle against white supremacy.
White Supremacy Protects Itself — Are We’re Its Partners in Crime
In gentrified urban communities, where many of the progressive white Americans live, a troubling pattern of behavior has emerged, whereby residents rely on police and neighborhood watch groups to protect them. Threats to public safety are often wrapped up in crypto-racist language (thugs, the ghetto, etc.) and almost always focus on people of color, many who were residents long before white folks started moving in.
The KKK and other hate groups have recently targeted these areas for recruitment, placing propaganda and racist literature on parked cars. No one ever sees them placing these fliers, and those who would call the police on an “out of place” black person with sagging pants don’t bother to report them. Their right to enter our communities and terrorize our neighbors is never challenged. Meanwhile, neighborhood watch groups, security patrols, and police target people of color for most minor “offenses,” which might include something like walking past their homes twice in the course of thirty minutes or so. Police, of course, encourage this behavior and residents are eager to oblige.
At a 2013 KKK rally in Atlanta, police from three different departments formed a solid wall of protection. They focused their attention on us (who outnumbered the Klan at least five times over), mocking, antagonizing, and threatening us if we even stepped off the curb and into the street. Halfway through, a white officer attacked one of the counter-protesters, a trans woman, for holding a sign that read “Fuck Off Nazi Scum!” The officer slammed her into the back of a squad car and nearby officers, both black and white, piled on top of her, eager to land a blow. The irony of these same officers protecting the Klan’s “free speech” was lost on no one.
At the July 2015 KKK and NSM Confederate flag rally in Columbia, South Carolina, another troubling scene emerged. Police, black and white, again protected racist protesters with their bodies (some anti-racists later broke through and landed some blows anyway). The most surreal image came from the photograph of a black officer helping an old white NSM member who became overheated. The officer was praised for his humanity. Meanwhile, the people of color who stood against the Klan were ignored or lumped in with the New Black Panthers, a black separatist group (not to be confused with the original Black Panther Party). The public reaction to the photograph plays into a troubling expectation that black Americans remain complacent in the face of white supremacy and oblige even the most disgusting white folks.
In contrast, protests that follow unarmed people of color being killed by police are met with swift and decisive force. Only when communities of color rise up to fight back are any of their demands considered. And if they step out of acceptable boundaries of resistance (usually peaceful, passive marches and demonstrations) the media and the white community ask “Why are they rioting?” when the question should be, “Why wouldn’t they?” and “Why the hell does this keep happening?”
The police have a long history of antagonizing leftist dissenters, especially when they’re people of color. The Civil Rights movement was met with police violence while the Klan was given free reign, and sometimes support from police and politicians, to terrorize black Americans. When more militant members of the Civil Rights movement split off and started Black Power groups to push things further, they were met with brutal systematic violence.
The militant black labor movement in the North and South, which often resorted to wildcat strikes against the wishes of white union leaders, was met with police violence. The Black Panther Party, which pushed for complete liberation, armed self-defense, and black self-sufficiency, was infiltrated by the FBI and saw its leaders assassinated by federal and local authorities.
While white Americans, especially Southerners, loudly proclaimed their right to keep and bear arms, when black Americans armed themselves, the story suddenly changed. Armed resistance was a critical aspect of the Civil Rights movement and that story is only now starting to be told. There are few things that frighten white America more than black folks with guns.
(Check out the writings of Akinyele Umoja on the Mississippi Freedom movement, Radio Free Dixie and Robert F. Williams, and the Deacons for Defense and Justice for more on armed resistance. Wildcat at Mead and Dixie Be Damned provide background on the the militant black labor movement in the South)
Any time the scattered elements of the American working class cooperate to challenge our white supremacist capitalist system, the state sends its foot soldiers to neutralize or recuperate the threat. These might be the police, national guard, or political and community leaders who push for “nonviolent” resistance. Such efforts are almost always successful, even when they have to afford some concessions to these social movements.
The dominant social class has relied on this strategy since before the country was founded. In the wake of Bacon’s rebellion, when white indentured servants and black slaves joined forces to challenge the existing social order (which also pitted them against the indigenous people, laying the foundation for the complicated social relations we still see today), the ruling classes established a racial caste system to divide poor white and black Americans. They continue to exploit these conditions just as successfully today.
Our modern American social system sometimes affords positions of power to people from oppressed groups willing to assimilate and conform to certain social and cultural expectations. This sows more division that the dominant social class has exploits to its benefit. This is how we have a black CEOs and a black president while Americans of color are still denied opportunities for work; access to food, shelter, and educational opportunities; are routinely subject to police violence without recourse; whose lives, voices, and experiences are given less importance; who continue to be arrested, tried, and convicted at disproportionately higher rates than white people who commit similar offenses; and whose places of worship continue to be vandalized and burned to the ground — while the white community remains silent.
Our military drops bombs and regularly kills people of color considered “collateral damage” in wars that advance the interests of the dominant class. Even if our president wanted to challenge this system, it’s apparent that even the “leader of the free world” doesn’t hold enough power to make that happen.
It’s not the place of white journalists and commentators to criticize President Obama’s handling of issues that affect the black community, but there’s an ample supply of writings from the black community, especially at the Black Agenda Report, offering their own poignant critiques, calling Obama a “traitor to the black race.”
The Privilege of Remaining Silent
It’s not the place of white American commentators to lead these discussions. We’ve seen the shortcomings of resistance to white supremacy that subjects itself to the expectations and comforts of white America, to the point that self-appointed spokesmen for the black community become nothing more than voices for the white ruling class. But we have an obligation to speak up. There’s a trouble absence of white voices condemning police violence or supporting the actions of black Americans who refuse to confine themselves to traditional (and mostly ineffective) peaceful protests and “nonviolent” resistance.
We should be mindful not to speak over the voices of black Americans leading those movements, but we must find a place to support them. To remain silent is to consent and reproduce a social order that oppresses — and murders — our friends and neighbors of color. Cursory insults toward hate groups isn’t enough. Unless we’re prepared to step out of our comfort zones, and risk our own safety, to do the hard work of dismantling white supremacy (what some call the white supremacist hetero-patriarchy that links all forms of oppression), we’re complicit in that system. There’s no neutral ground here.
If we’re not willing to support movements for black liberation on terms that we don’t get to dictate, if we fail to act, we’re just as guilty as those who vocally support racism. Ashanti Alston, known as the Anarchist (Black) Panther, summed up this point in his essay “Beyond Nationalism But Not Without It,” saying:
“WHITE ANARCHISTS: DEAL WITH BEING THE BEST ANTI-RACIST ALLIES YOU CAN. WE NEED YOU – AND YOU NEED US – BUT WE WILL DO THIS SHIT WITHOUT YOU.”
Until we recognize that this shit is not ours to decide, and until we forfeit our share of social privilege, control, and comfort, we will continue to reproduce and perpetuate a racist, white supremacist social order. As we push forward our class struggle, we fight not only for ourselves, but for all workers.
Overthrowing capitalism alone won’t eliminate racial inequality or erase the effects on centuries of violence against people of color. More importantly, focusing on capitalist exploitation does little to improve the lives of oppressed groups today. We don’t need to apologize for having white skin, but we must acknowledge the benefits it grants us.
It’s the obligation of white supporters of this cause to shut the hell up; to not just hear but to listen to the voices of people of color; to step back and let go of control; and to walk beside, and never before, our friends and neighbors of color. We’re obligated, as beneficiaries of this system, to turn the spotlight from ourselves and recognize that the working class doesn’t just mean the white working class.
Our class struggle has too long been about overturning the exploitation of white workers (if you doubt it, just look at any old union cartoons, and the anti-immigrant language of modern labor unions, and the utter lack of solidarity with workers in other countries). In doing this, we reproduce the white supremacist social order that powers capitalism in our own movements. We consistently fail to critically consider our own role in white supremacy and conveniently avoid uncomfortable discussions about race and privilege. Worse, when we’re called out on our behavior we complain that it was done too publicly, or that criticism should be focused on us — we’re allies, why would you attack us?
If we’re not prepared to be uncomfortable, embarrassed, or have our motives and loyalties questioned, we don’t belong there. If we refuse to listen and fail to amplify oppressed voices, we only serve to silence them in favor of our own. When we avoid these discussions because they hurt our ego, we’ve already chosen sides — and we damn sure don’t deserve to be considered allies.