One of the signs at the post-Charlottesville solidarity rally in Portland, Maine on Aug 13 (which I wrote about here) read, “White? Not racist? You/I Still Benefit from White Supremacy.”
I did not get a chance to talk with the young woman holding the sign, but I would have liked to. I find this sort of sentiment—that all white people benefit from white supremacy—endemic among members of the left oriented around identity politics. As such, I think it is worth taking a critical examination of this view, and offering a socialist perspective.
The woman’s sign actually reminded me of an online video that circulated back in 2012, shortly after Trayvon Martin’s murder. The subject of the video—titled, “I AM NOT TRAYVON MARTIN,” in all capital letters—is a young white woman who chastises fellow white activists for wearing t-shirts with the words, “I Am Trayvon Martin,” emblazoned on them.
The woman argues that white activists–no matter how outraged they are over Martin’s racist killing–are not Trayvon Martin. And, by virtue of being white, their attempts to stand in solidarity with Martin and his family are disingenuous at best. Rather, the woman argues, she and her white colleagues have more in common with Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman. According to her a “more accurate t-shirt” for her white colleagues to wear would say, “I Am George Zimmerman.”
Her argument, which is steeped in “privilege” politics, is that white activists can only ever relate to a racist oppressor, like Zimmerman.
(Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder by a mostly white jury, on July 13, 2013.)
“I look at Zimmerman,” the woman says, “and think, ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I.’”
She goes on, “… Realizing that you more closely resemble a homicidal, oppressive force than a helpless victim is a really uncomfortable thing to do. I know. But wanting to identify with the victim is weak and immature when it is not an accurate representation of reality.”
This woman (she never identifies herself) makes the same reactionary argument as the other woman’s protest sign: “If you’re white, you are part of the problem. In fact, you are the problem.”
This is the essence of identity politics. It suggests that all white people are inherently—and perhaps irredeemably—racist, simply by nature of being white. And no amount of education, enlightenment, commitment to social justice or personal growth can alter a “privileged” white person’s–allegedly subconscious–racist, intolerant views.
Liberal identitarians argue, by the same extension, that all men are inherently sexist, all straight people are homophobes, all Westerners are Islamophobic, and all able-bodied people are “ableist,” etc., etc…
Thus, identity politics casts “White People,” (or even just “whiteness”) or “[toxic] masculinity” as the enemy of marginalized people, rather than the structural oppression (be it racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia) intentionally erected and perpetuated by the ruling class as a means of maintaining its power.
As the abolitionist, Frederick Douglass observed of the twisted genius of the capitalist ruling class in pitting white workers against black workers, “The slaveholders, by encouraging the enmity of the poor laboring white man against the blacks, succeeded in making the said white man almost as much of a slave as the black himself.”
“Both,” Douglass added, “are plundered by the same plunderer.”
While there is no doubt that certain segments of society (African-Americans, LGBT folks, women, immigrants, and Muslims to name a few) endure greater forms of oppression than others, the system of capitalism serves to keep all working class people in chains. As such, all workers have an interest in joining together in solidarity, and shaking off those metaphorical chains.
If white working-class people are so “privileged,” why do so many of them struggle in dead-end jobs, performing unrewarding work for dirt wages? Why are so many saddled with thousands of dollars of debt from college loans? Why do so many struggle to afford decent health care—despite the positive gains of “Obamacare”? And why do whites make up the majority of recipients of government assistance programs—despite the fact that blacks and Hispanics endure significantly higher poverty rates?
For that matter, what accounts for the fact that only a tiny portion of white people own the economic means of production?
This is not to suggest there are no obvious advantages to being white in an undoubtedly racist society. There absolutely are. But these predicaments do not strike me as a sign of “privilege.” Quite the reverse, in fact.
Furthermore, I think it speaks volumes to how low we have set the bar for social justice that we now seem to regard freedom from the threat of being arbitrarily murdered on the streets by the police—or those acting on their behalf—as a mere “privilege.” This should be a basic human right.
Yet the dictates of identity politics paint all white people as an undifferentiated mass of reactionary, racist attitudes. The woman in the video claims—with no evidence whatsoever—that the white people disingenuously wearing “I Am Trayvon Martin” t-shirts are all “middle-class.”
To this, I have two questions for the woman: 1) What is this “middle-class” you speak of? And, 2) How do I join it?
No doubt, there is a group of privileged (mostly) white people. (A handful of women and African-Americans have joined their ranks in recent decades.) They are the bourgeoisie, the ruling class, the elite, the wealthy, the capitalists or the one percent. Bernie Sanders calls them the “billionaire class.” Their members include people like Donald Trump, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and, yes, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
These are the people who need to “check their privilege.” In fact, they should check some of their wealth, too. And hand it over to the rest of us.
Not only are liberal identity politics incredibly reductionist and deterministic, but one must wonder at the profound cynicism of those who espouse them. If we are all nothing more than our physical identities—rather than the actions that we take from day to day—then what is the point of struggling for a better world…? If white/male/straight/fill-in-the-blank-with-“privileged”-adjective-of-your-choice people are incapable of feeling empathy for anyone other than the oppressors, as “Video Woman” suggests, then activism is all but useless.
And that is precisely the danger of this mindset. It leads to political passivity. Identity politics is a recipe for paralysis.
Likewise, the proliferation of the practices of “calling-out” and “privilege-checking” serves only to deter potential activists from political participation. Who wants to protest racial injustice if they fear they will be publicly shamed and ridiculed for every perceived “microaggression” they accidentally commit?
This is no way to build a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-gender movement to topple capitalism–or to achieve anything, for that matter. It is, however, a way to ensure the left remains small, fractured, atomized, and largely impotent. If we are serious about defeating the far-right and halting the rise of a resurgent fascism, the left must move beyond the narrow confines of identity politics.
“Video Woman” believes stepping out of one’s comfort zone to stand with the oppressed is “weak” and “immature.” I could not disagree more.
“In … a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners,” Albert Camus wrote, “it is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners.”
Fortunately, it seems identity politics are beginning to lose some of their currency—particularly in the wake of the mass outpouring of resistance to white supremacy following the repulsive “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville on Aug. 12. That rally—in which white supremacist groups including the Ku Klux Klan, the Proud Boys, and neo-Nazis brandished shields and tiki torches, and chanted Nazi slogans—resulted in the murder of Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal and activist.
In response, cities throughout the country have mounted rallies, marches, and vigils denouncing white supremacy in all its vile forms. At least 400 people turned out for the aforementioned rally in Portland the following day.
About 40,000 people showed up in Boston on Saturday, Aug. 19—a week following Heyer’s death—to protest a pitifully small “alt-right” rally, which ended early. Leftists in Boston literally chased the Nazis out of the city! This was followed by another rally in Portland, on Sunday, Aug. 20, which attracted 1,200 people.
And these are not your run-of-the-mill protests. In the wake of Heyer’s death, these protests are taking place in a pronounced atmosphere of fear. The events in Charlottesville made it terrifyingly clear the far-right has no qualms about using violence and murder to achieve its ends.
It is also painfully clear the increased police presence at these marches is not for the benefit of the mostly peaceful protesters. The police are there to protect the Nazis. At the Boston march, the Boston Police surrounded a gazebo of 20 or so neo-Nazis, and escorted them away when they got scared of the protesters with their, you know … signs, and water bottles… Hence the socialist chant, “Cops and Klan/Hand-in-hand!”
In other words, these anti-racists—black and white–are coming out to these events at great personal risk. They understand that solidarity–the idea that “an injury to one is an injury to all”–is the only way we can defeat the far-right. We won’t defeat them with reductionist, deterministic identity politics.
None of this should be interpreted as a condemnation of workers organizing around a shared identity or history. Nor is it to suggest that class is “more important” than race. Karl Marx, writing in 1867, understood how race and class are inextricably intertwined.
“In the United States of America, every independent movement of the workers was paralyzed as long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic,” Marx wrote in volume one of Capital. “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.”
What I would like to offer is an alternative sign for the young woman at the Portland rally–one with a more simple and direct message: “Unite to Fight the Right.”
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