White Supremacy, White Progressives, and Netroots Nation

The Nazi and white supremacist violence in Charlottesville is horrific. But white progressives cannot allow this violence to be yet another moment when we pat ourselves on the back and point our fingers at other white people as the “real” racists while we ignore our complicity.

The Netroots Nation conference, the largest annual meeting of progressives, finished yesterday, and I keep seeing the same pattern, both at the conference and across the nation. White progressives get very defensive when faced with their complicity in white supremacy, and this defensiveness manifests itself in many ways, from wanting to dominate the Q&A in a session run by people of color to hesitation if not refusal to put racial justice at the heart of our political platform.

One of the most public displays of white defensiveness came Saturday morning at the plenary, where black conference participants who supported black lives matter engaged in an action that interrupted white female Georgian gubernatorial candidate Stacey Evans. White conference attendees in the audience responded in person and on twitter demanding the candidate be allowed to speak and essentially told the black activists to sit down and be quiet. Stacey Evans appeared to have learned nothing from Bernie Sanders’ response to black lives matter activists at this very conference two years ago. She just plowed through her speech, clearly frustrated and defensive. Netroots leadership didn’t seem to learn enough from Bernie’s experience two years ago either. Neither did white Netroots participants whose response imagines that there is a level playing field and that the reasonable thing is to just give multiple candidates for the same position a chance to speak. But this response entirely ignores the history and persistence of white supremacy. Black female Georgian gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams had just been a plenary speaker the day before, and there was significant enthusiasm and excitement for her speech. She was very impressive and spoke about her lifetime of work organizing her community. She would be the first black female governor in US history. After Netroots leadership did a great job of lifting up her candidacy, it was a slap in the face to Stacey Abrams, and everyone who supports her, for a white candidate for the same political office to receive such a prominent speaking slot the next day. Some white female conference participants said that the white female candidate should speak because white women face oppression. Yes, white women face gender oppression, but as white people, we are also complicit in white supremacy. Why can’t we learn that when we center the most marginalized people, we all win? Why can’t we trust local black activists who raised serious concerns about Evans’ candidacy? Why can’t we trust black women to lead?

One of the points that I tried to make in the training I gave Saturday, “Never Woke Enough: Talking to White People about White Supremacy” was that white people, all white people in the US, breathe the air of white supremacy and have been manipulated by the ideology of white supremacy and anti-blackness. This was an invention by the white wealthy elite that dates back to colonial America, and we have been manipulated for centuries to believe false racial ideologies that divide and conquer, protect patriarchy and capitalism, and dehumanize black people. We are not taught this history, and we need to start learning it if we are to confront what I call the “Racism Machine.” My Powerpoint slides are available here if you’re interested: Netroots Powerpoint Gaffney 2017 This manipulation is exactly what leads white people to be unaware that whiteness itself is an invention, created to maintain power and control for a tiny elite. Even when white people learn this history, it can be a huge challenge to figure out how that history impacts the actions we take and decisions we make every day. For example, white progressives can become very defensive and uncomfortable when asked if they pay reparations to people of color. How many white people are showing up to vigils and marches but not even thinking about reparations? When Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article “The Case for Reparations” appeared in 2014, white progressives bent over backwards to share it, but how many really engage in serious discussion about what reparations could look like in our daily lives?

While I thought it was important that Netroots participated in a solidarity rally Saturday night, and while I participated too, we can’t let marches be our only action. It’s even more important that we interrogate our complicity in white supremacy. For example, we marched through the streets of Atlanta shouting “This is what democracy looks like” at the same time as we passed by homeless people along the way, mostly black men. Homelessness and black poverty are not what democracy looks like. We must figure out how to make reparations, especially when faced with that level of hypocrisy in our own words. Reparations can at least start with paying black workshop leaders who provide labor to teach white people about racism. Paying Netroots trainers like Ashleigh Shackelford is a start. Supporting projects like the Safety Pin Box, whose black female leaders were at this conference, is another example. We also need to provide financial support to black lives matter chapters in our own states.

Finally, one of the things that concerns me the most that I saw at Netroots and that I continue to see in the media responding to Charlottesville is that white progressives are not learning from periods of crisis. Even though white progressives expressed and continue to express alarm at Trump’s election and his entire presidency, we are still not putting racial justice at the heart of our platform. We are so busy trying to show how much less racist we are than Steve Bannon or the KKK in Charlottesville that we are unable to recognize that white supremacy lives within us, too. Real racial justice requires us to actively confront our complicity in white supremacy. That means asking ourselves on a daily basis: How do our daily choices and actions in our community, in our homes, and at our workplaces uphold white supremacy? How are we complicit in anti-blackness in our daily choices about the media we consume, the places we choose to live, how we spend our money, what we say at work and what we don’t say, and how we interact or don’t interact with black people? If non-profit social justice organizations, the environmental movement, the Democratic party, and other entities say they care about racial justice, then why aren’t they upholding the leadership and liberation of those who are most marginalized? Why isn’t racial justice at the heart of their platform? Why aren’t they working with communities of color all of the time and not just right before an election? White progressives, we need to look ourselves in the mirror and recognize our participation in white supremacy and recognize that that process of recognition and dismantling our white supremacy is never-ending.

Heading to Netroots Nation

Soon I’ll be headed to Netroots Nation in Atlanta, where I’ll be giving a training workshop called “Never Woke Enough: Talking to White People about White Supremacy.” Thanks so much to the Hunterdon County (NJ) Anti-Racism Coalition for letting me test-run it and get feedback last month. I am sharing my Powerpoint slides here: Netroots Powerpoint Gaffney 2017. I created my title “Never Woke Enough” in response to hearing self-identified white progressives say they are “already woke” and already know everything they should know about racism. I don’t believe that white people can ever be done learning about white supremacy; it is a never-ending process. I also don’t think that the white political left, the Democratic Party, and/or white self-identified liberals and progressives have yet learned that racial justice needs to be a primary part of a political platform, not something secondary. I continue to hear that we should just focus on economic justice, and that will address racial justice. No. That approach just does not work, and it shuts out people of color whose leadership needs to be front and center. The conservative backlash against civil rights has been using divide and conquer strategies for fifty years through demonizing myths and stereotypes (War on Drugs, Welfare Queen, Voter Fraud, etc.), through rhetoric that criminalizes people of color (“illegal,” “terrorist,” etc.), and even through supposedly positive stereotypes like the “model minority” stereotype of Asian Americans. We need to put racial justice at the forefront of our political agenda if we ever want to dismantle white supremacy. I address some of these concepts in my upcoming book Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (from Routledge).

How did we get here?

I’ve been thinking about posting something for weeks, but I kept waiting until I felt like I understood. I don’t want to wait any longer, even if I don’t understand. I want to say this before Obama leaves office, and now there are just a few hours left.

Thank you President Obama. I will never forget the energy and excitement when you won on Election Day and then that beautiful Inauguration that I watched live at work surrounded by excited students and colleagues. Now I feel like we’re entering a different world, and rather than be proud of how the President would lead and represent us around the world, I am scared. But I’m also ready to fight. I recognize that whatever pain I feel about this election as a white person, it’s nothing compared to those who have been marginalized and targeted not only by the incoming president’s campaign but also by centuries of oppression that his campaign was built on.

Tomorrow, Jan. 21, I will be co-facilitating an event in my town to serve in solidarity with the protests happening around the country. It will bring local NJ social justice organizations together, and speakers will address how various communities in our area have been marginalized. I keep trying to focus on the principle that freedom only occurs when the most marginalized are free.

It took Trump winning for me to understand how much Obama inherited a powerful conservative backlash to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Many thought his election meant an end to this backlash and the arrival of a “post-racial” society, but clearly they were wrong. The conservative backlash only became more powerful, sometimes hidden, sometimes not, and it attempted to stop Obama at every turn.

This conservative ideology persuaded many voters that their worsening economic conditions were the fault of Obama and other democrats rather than the result of multiple conservative strategies that have contributed to a massive gap between the rich and the poor.  These strategies include union busting, deregulation, tax laws that benefit the wealthy, corporate lobbying, lack of campaign finance reform, the myth of trickle-down economics, and the notion that corporations are “people.” However, we’ve only been hearing about how poor white voters were persuaded by this ideology. What about all of the middle class white voters who were persuaded too? It’s much easier to call poor whites stupid than it is to say the same of middle class whites.

This conservative ideology also persuaded many voters that reverse racism was an actual problem and that racism itself was a thing of the past. Newt Gingrich referred to President Obama as the “food stamp President,” resurrecting the “welfare queen” stereotype that identified poor people as black and lazy and that helped pave the way for welfare “reform” under Bill Clinton’s presidency. Rollbacks to affirmative action were already well underway for years before Obama took office and also part of this mindset.

Mass incarceration has grown to unprecedented levels over the past few decades, built on a “War on Drugs” that made drug use a crime, and with it came racially disproportionate arrest rates, mandatory minimums, three strikes you’re out, and a refusal to be “soft on crime.” This “New Jim Crow” was already a powerful force when Obama took office.

The NRA became increasingly powerful and convinced many gun owners that their guns are under threat, even guns used by hunters that no politician would seek to ban. The paranoia that the NRA has stoked prevented reform when it comes to access to automatic weapons, even in the wake of an elementary school massacre at Sandy Hook.

The Tea Party formed as soon as Obama began his presidency and took this conservative backlash to new levels.

The level of hatred in this country for “Obamacare” just reflects the power of a multi-faceted conservative ideology. Is it ironic that many who hate “Obamacare” think the “Affordable Care Act” is just fine? Or is it just evidence the conservative playbook has worked?

Now that this conservative backlash is about to take control of the White House and continue its control of the Senate and the House, we need resist in ways we never would have thought necessary in 2017.

Thank You Facing Race

Last weekend, I attended the Facing Race conference in Atlanta organized by Race Forward. As a thank you to the 2300 organizers, presenters, and participants, I would like to share some of what I learned as I work to dismantle white supremacy as a white educator, activist, and scholar.

  • Participating in a #NotOurPresident rally can be very cathartic. However, while protests are an important symbol, they don’t replace organizing.
  • Organize to make racial justice a priority for your organization if it isn’t already. Invite Race Forward to bring Racial Justice Leadership training to your organization. I attended the Racial Justice Leadership Institute right before Facing Race began, and it was a powerful and helpful experience for me. I’ve attended many such trainings before, and this was exceptional. Thank you to ramesh kathanadhi and Key Jackson for running the session I attended and emphasizing the importance of naming race explicitly, addressing racism at institutional and structural levels, and examining implicit bias.
  • Organize in your community. Join a local community organization as a volunteer or Board member. Run for local office. Towns and counties are often looking for people to run for local office. Volunteer for a candidate at the local level. Start working now on the next election, and stay involved. Change requires sustained involvement, not voting once every four years.
  • Expand your radical imagination, as #BlackLivesMatter co-creator Alicia Garza told us. If you haven’t already read the Guiding Principles of BLM, please do so and figure out how you can support these principles in your work and daily life.
  • Re-read or read “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” by Audre Lorde. Her wisdom is powerful.
  • Support the indigenous activists of Standing Rock. As presenters said several times, over 300 tribal nations are protesting at Standing Rock and need support. Raise awareness about the history of genocide and environmental racism. Provide financial support at https://www.paypal.me/OcetiSakowinCamp
  • Use social media for the organizing, strategizing, and support that cannot be done in person, but never underestimate the power of in-person organizing.
  • If you haven’t already, read this letter by #Our100, An open letter to Our Nation from 100 women of color leaders and Take the Pledge: “My work will not end at the ballot box. In the #First100Hours and #First100days, I will stand with women of color leadership. I will stand with women who are leading solutions that support a vision for Black lives, an end to violence against women and girls, power to make decisions about our bodies, health and reproduction, common sense immigration reform and an end to Islamophobia. I pledge to take action to pursue a democracy and economy where we all have an equal say, and an equal chance.”
  • Support the work of Linda Sarsour, who urged white people to be the first in line when Muslims are told to register.
  • Need a way to address comments about “reverse racism”? Share this video by comic Aamer Rahman: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dw_mRaIHb-M
  • A breakout session on “Dismantling Mass Incarceration: Strategies to Fight Back Against Prison Profiteering” did an excellent job of highlighting the powerful relationships between private prisons, banks, lawmakers, bed quotas, ALEC, immigrant detention centers, local elected officials, the police, multinational corporations, and more. Check out the important work of:
  • Roxane Gay reminded us that we need to infiltrate every system, every space. Go to law school. Go to business school. Run for local office. Write comics!
  • Read Toni Morrison and James Baldwin. Their names came up throughout the conference.
  • Watch the brilliant film 13th by Ava DuVernay, who Skyped into a session about popular culture and racial justice. Michelle Alexander, who spoke at the conference and is in the film, has done an amazing job of raising awareness about “the New Jim Crow.”
  • Actively work on leadership development opportunities for young people, especially those from marginalized communities.
  • Trump will likely betray many of his voters. He promised them jobs, but it’s unlikely he’s going to prioritize that. We need to expose that betrayal.
  • We need to develop a coherent narrative that connects racial justice and economic justice. As presenters discussed, the political right has been successful in their ability to connect economic disenfranchisement to race via scapegoating and dog whistle politics. We must disrupt that false and dangerous narrative. We need to form a multi-racial, multi-class coalition that prioritizes justice for those most disenfranchised.
  • We need to work until the most marginalized among us are free.
  • We need to build a national alliance between the movements for #BlackLivesMatter, Standing Rock, Marriage Equality, Trans Rights, Immigrant Rights, Anti-War, Occupy Wall Street, and more.
  • The media and popular culture have tremendous power to reinforce oppression but also to resist it. The Center for Media Justice, Color of Change, Unbound, and Weird Enough Productions need support to change the narrative so that people of color are represented as full human beings and can tell their own stories. Teaching media literacy is an important part of this process.

I left for this conference the day after the election, and now, more than a week later, I’ve had some time to process the election results and the reactions of my students, friends, and colleagues. I’ve seen many of my fellow white friends and colleagues respond in shock. And while it’s hard not to feel some level of shock, being in total shock is a sign of denial. At this conference, indigenous activists reminded us they have been living in Trump’s America since 1492. It has taken the election of an extremist for many white people to realize how embedded and “baked in” white supremacy is in our society.

I’ve been thinking about how white people have been describing other white people’s relationship with white supremacy and the election. Here are a few thoughts:

  • There are individuals throughout the entire country (in every state) who actively support white supremacy and are self-avowed white supremacists who believe that white people are biologically superior. While I don’t want to ignore their impact, they are not the majority of white people. Most white people would not join the KKK, for example. This is not a group we can easily “call in,” as they say. Given that, it would be tempting to ignore this group or to push them aside. However, I think that seeing them as different from the rest of us is a problem, as I hope to explain below.
  • There are a significant number of white people who voted for Obama once or even twice, who believe we’re in a “post-racial” society, and who believe in colorblindness as the remedy to racial injustice. They may not understand why black people are saying #blacklivesmatter. They may not understand why people of color are so worried about the election results. Once we understand that this group includes some Trump supporters AND some Clinton supporters, as well as some third party supporters and those who didn’t vote, we can start to see the system of white supremacy at work. The overall racial ideology created centuries ago that white people are biologically superior to black people (otherwise known as white supremacy) can still be an umbrella that allows for all of those behaviors and beliefs in the same individual without the individual consciously recognizing it.
  • The divide that is emerging between Trump voters as the racists and Clinton voters as the non-racists is dangerous because that absolves Clinton voters from recognizing their (our) own complicity in white supremacy.
  • While individual bigotry is of course a problem, focusing on individual bigotry when we think about racism ignores the much larger system of white supremacy that one can unconsciously perpetuate without being a bigot.
  • Finally, there’s another group of white people who would say we’re not in a “post-racial” society and does not believe colorblindness is a step toward racial justice. They tend to recognize the systemic nature of racism and support #blacklivesmatter. However, they (we) are not immune from being complicit in white supremacy either. We can’t forget that resistance to complicity requires constant vigilance. It’s never something that we can check off the list and say we’ve achieved.

The bottom line is that all of these groups I’ve just described are influenced by white supremacy. Some would embrace that, some would deny it, and some would acknowledge it and work to resist it. Identifying one group as smarter than another or superior to another just reinforces the type of hierarchy we need to dismantle. As a NJ resident, I need to actively resist the temptation to think I’m superior. Yes, NJ is one of the most diverse states in the country, but it is also one of the most racially segregated states in the country, with one of the most racially segregated school systems in the country. We are not superior. The Saturday Night Live sketch with white Hillary Clinton supporters in shock on Election Night was a reminder of my privilege.

If most white people only have one black friend, one Latino friend, and one Asian American friend, is it any surprise that so many white people are unaware of systemic racism? If they’re unaware of systemic racism, they don’t understand why anyone needs to say #blacklivesmatter, and they don’t understand why the election results would cause so much fear. We (white people) need to work on educating other white people about systemic racism and on actively dismantling our own complicity in white supremacy, which is a never-ending process. If we think we’re already “done” questioning our own complicity, then we’re definitely not done.

White people are taught to be unaware of systemic racism, so it should be no surprise when that happens. The burden cannot be on people of color to educate white people about why #blacklivesmatter.

Finally, in keeping with my goal of contributing resources for this work, I will be adding a new page to my website that will focus on Post-Election Resources, with articles, organizations, and strategies related to dismantling white supremacy specifically in the context of this election. Please let me know if you have any suggestions. I want this to become a resource for educators, activists, students, and community members. Please continue to refer to Recommended Resources for a series of more general resources about systemic racism and to Resources on “The New Jim Crow” for resources on mass incarceration.

Inspiration and Leadership in Atlanta

I am currently at the Facing Race conference in Atlanta sponsored by Race Forward. I will post reflections on this amazing conference when it’s over. For the moment, I just want say there are over 2000 racial justice activists supporting each other, sharing their ideas, inspiring each other, and strategizing for what’s next. I will be sharing resources and strategies at my college, in my community, and here. Also, since lots of people are asking about resources now, please take a look at my Recommended Resources page. It parallels the approach I use in my current book project and my college course on race as well as in the community version I developed and started facilitating last month, which I’ll share more about soon. I also added my email address to the “About Me” section since a few people at one of the sessions today asked about it.

Dear Netroots Nation

I just returned from Netroots Nation in St. Louis where I gave a training called “Moving Beyond White Guilt: How to Talk to Whites About Systemic Racism.” I posted to Medium some reflections on this issue and concrete recommendations for Netroots Nation to work on strengthening their response to racial justice as they plan for next August in Atlanta. Medium created the tag Nn16 for posts about the conference. Please check it out here!