By the Editors
The Charlotte NC chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), an organization for white antiracists, just called for disbanding in order to build solidarity among all groups. This is a very significant step forward.
“As former active members of Charlotte SURJ, we are disbanding this chapter. We’re calling for … the redistribution of the energy of white people into Black, Brown, Indigenous, and People of Color-led groups and endeavors for true racial justice and collective liberation.
“The end of white supremacy will not come from a room of white people talking to each other about racism. We need to take action, and now. … we have an imperative responsibility now more than ever before to rise against the fascist tide of Trump, his terrorist supporters, and liberal Trump apologists. We must do this as part of a multi-national, multi-racial, multi-gender force to fight white supremacy, colonialism, racism, capitalism, xenophobia, homophobia, trans misogyny, misogyny, ableism, classism, and all other systems of oppression. We demand full liberation of all oppressed people.
“White supremacy comes in many forms and will deceive us at every turn. We must never forget our legacy of violence and the historical context white groups have held in upholding white supremacy. We must remain ever critical of the ways our whiteness manifests. By organizing white folks in a silo we perpetuate racist ideologies and actions. We reject the neoliberal fad that ‘tough conversations’ alone will break down this oppressive system that kills people of color daily….”
It may be hard to envision unity when there are so many insults and worse that workers of color experience. These daily assaults, now termed micro aggressions in academia, affect people’s self-esteem and safety. The media and Trump’s rhetoric maintain a flow of racist, nationalist messages, which only makes the situation worse. All Turmp’s white supporters, many of whom are angry primarily about loss of jobs and income, are portrayed as racists and fascists. Some actually are. It is rare to read about black, Asian, white, and Latin workers joining forces for social change.
The ruling class of big business, finance, and media socialize us into believing in white superiority and the inferiority of everyone else. The early colonial powers developed the concept of race to institutionalize this hierarchy. In the US, they barbarically enslaved African people and bribed white indentured servants with eventual freedom, money, jobs (serving slave owners), and social status (“at least you are not slaves”). This institutionalized form of systemic racism, is now sometimes called macro aggression No matter the name, it is used to squeeze profit out of black, Latin, and Asian labor, and to maintain separation between people in different racial and ethnic categories. In fact, even today, US capitalism cannot survive without racism, which saves trillions of dollars by paying lower wages to workers of color and providing inferior services.
Slavery damaged the ability of white workers to earn a decent living since it was cheaper using slaves or convict labor, just as racism lowers the wages for all today. Many white led unions also perpetuated racism and economic insecurity by excluding black workers, often allowing bosses to hire black workers as strikebreakers and increasing the hostility between white and black workers (see Stories of Multiracial Unity on this blog). White workers resisted the early efforts to separate, even choosing death over complicity with the slave owners and colonial lawmakers. However, while there were many exceptions, the overall response by white workers was complicity and the adoption of white supremacy ideas and relationships.
People facing unrelenting racism also respond in different ways. Some groups turn to nationalism, uniting people based on a specific feature, such as sex, race, religion, or nationality, regardless of whether they are poor or a CEO. They often call for black owned businesses, community control of the police and other institutions, and separation of racial groups. The Marcus Garvey movement called for a return to Africa. Many civil rights workers hailed the election of black mayors in major US cities during the 1970s, such as Detroit, Atlanta, and DC. Because of sexism, many women view someone like Hillary or a female CEO as a success who will treat women better. (Google Margaret Thatcher).
Internationally, Zionism is an extreme example where Jewish people fleeing Nazi death camps moved to Palestine and supported a government that violently removed Palestinian people under the excuse of creating a safe haven. Prior to this, Palestinian Muslims, Jews, and Christians actually worked and lived together. We see this religious nationalism also with ISIS where religious differences mask a conflict over resources.
Identity politics, popular today, also organizes people in silos of race, sex, sexual orientations, etc. They promote inclusion and admiration for people with similar characteristics regardless of their class position and actions. For example, many people forgive or ignore Obama’s deportations of millions of immigrant families or Hillary’s role in wars from Yemen to Afghanistan.
There are many different views of identity politics. Here are some perspectives we have come across.
- A left wing critic opposes identity politics because it “reduces oppression to representation and that, as such, is apt to celebrate the inclusion of a right-wing fundamentalist woman in Trump’s team because she is a woman and hence “diversification”.
- A liberal critic opposes the “overly clamorous and over-hasty demands of women, gays, African Americans, migrants and others for justice. This, they claim, puts ‘progressives’ in a difficult position when it comes to building coalitions (with racists, homophobes, etc) and achieving real reforms.
- A right wing critic opposes “any concession whatsoever to the idea that anyone other than white bourgeois men are “created equal”. They mean welfare handouts and laws banning lynching. They mean attempts to reduce police violence.”
One public health colleague interpreted criticism of identity politics as a rejection of people’s experiences:
“… this idea that identity politics undermines progress is off putting. How can we really devise solutions and methods if we’re not willing to discuss the way these social ills, disparities intersect with my identity (racial, socially, gendered, etc). Racism and colonialism were and continue to be barbaric practices. They’ve had disproportionate impacts on communities of color. I don’t feel I should have to put my identity aside along with my lived experiences because it makes allies uncomfortable to do the work they need to do.”
She is absolutely right. Rejecting identity politics does NOT mean ignoring one’s history and experiences. People who do not share the experiences of oppressed groups need to acknowledge and appreciate the extent of interpersonal and institutionalized forms of racism. They need to recognize that white people have a very different history and treatment relative to others.
However, when we dig deeper, we see the ruling class creates conditions that impoverish and subjugate all workers, including whites. For example, Bill Clinton’s welfare reform kicked people off welfare and into low paid jobs if available, ripping out the safety net for millions, including many whites. There was little protest since welfare was always associated with black faces. In a similar strategy, media moguls portrayed drug users as black so people did not demand treatment over prison. Now that white people have increased their use of opioids, the media frames drug use as a public health emergency that requires health care.
Rejecting identity politics means seeing each other as accomplices in the fight for equity, It means working together on issues that affect our class, such as creating sanctuary for immigrant families, protesting police murders, ending wars, whether or not we are Mexican, black, or white.