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How (Not) To Challenge Racist Violence

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How (Not) To Challenge Racist Violence

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Protests outside Trump's new Washington DC hotel

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

 

As white nationalism and the so-called “alt-right” have gained prominence in the Trump era, a bipartisan reaction has coalesced to challenge these ideologies. But much of this bipartisan coalition focuses on individual, extreme and hate-filled mobilizations and rhetoric, rather than the deeper, politer, and apparently more politically acceptable violence that imbues United States foreign and domestic policy in the 21st century.

Everyone from mainstream Republicans to a spectrum of Democrats to corporate executives to “antifa” leftists seems eager and proud to loudly denounce or even physically confront neo-Nazis and white nationalists. But the extremists on the streets of Charlottesville, or making Nazi salutes at the Reichstag, are engaging only in symbolic and individual politics.

Even the murder of a counter-protester was an individual act—one of over 40 murders a day in the United States, the great majority by firearms. (Double that number are killed every day by automobiles in what we call “accidents,” but which obviously have a cause also.) Protesters are eager to expend extraordinary energy denouncing these small-scale racist actors, or celebrating vigilante-style responses. But what about the large-scale racist actors? There has been no comparable mobilization, in fact little mobilization at all, against what Martin Luther King called “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today”—the United States government, which dropped 72 bombs per day in 2016, primarily in Iraq and Syria, but also in Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan, making every single day 9/11 in those countries.

Historically, people and organizations struggling to change U.S. society and policy have used direct action, boycotts and street protests as strategies to pressure powerholders to change their laws, institutions, policies, or actions. The United Farm Workers called on consumers to boycott grapes in order to pressure specific growers to negotiate with their union. Antiwar protesters marched on Washington or targeted their congressional representatives. They also took direct action: registering voters, pouring blood on draft records or nuclear weapons, sitting in front of trains carrying weapons to Central America.

All of these kinds of tactics remain valid options today. But there has been a puzzling shift away from actual goals and toward using these tactics merely to express one’s moral righteousness or “allyship.” I remember my first “take back the night” march in Berkeley, in the 1970s. As men and women marched through the campus holding candles, I wondered whether they thought would-be rapists would undergo a change of heart when they saw that large sectors of the public disapproved of rape.

Over the years I have come to see more and more of what Adolph Reed calls “posing as politics.” Rather than organizing for change, individuals seek to enact a statement about their own righteousness. They may boycott certain products, refuse to eat certain foods, or they may show up to marches or rallies whose only purpose is to demonstrate the moral superiority of the participants. White people may loudly claim that they recognize their privilege or declare themselves allies of people of color or other marginalized groups. People may declare their communities “no place for hate.” Or they may show up at counter-marches to “stand up” to white nationalists or neo-Nazis. All of these types of “activism” emphasize self-improvement or self-expression rather than seeking concrete change in society or policy. They are deeply, and deliberately, apolitical in the sense that they do not seek to address issues of power, resources, decisionmaking, or how to bring about change.

Oddly, these activists who have claimed the mantle of racial justice seem committed to an individualized, apolitical view of race. The diversity industry has become big business, sought out by universities and companies seeking the cachet of inclusivity. Campus diversity offices channel student protest into alliance with the administration and encourage students to think small. While adept in the terminology of power, diversity, inclusion, marginalization, injustice, and equity, they studiously avoid topics like colonialism, capitalism, exploitation, liberation, revolution, invasion, or other actual analyses of domestic or global affairs. Lumping race together in an ever-growing list of marginalized identities allows the history and realities of race to be absorbed into a billiard ball theory of diversity, in which different dehistoricized identities roll around a flat surface, occasionally colliding.

Let us be very clear. The white nationalists who marched in Charlottesville, hate-filled and repugnant as their goals may be, are not the ones responsible for the U.S. wars on Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. They are not responsible for turning our public school system over to private corporations. They are not responsible for our separate and unequal health care system that consigns people of color to ill health and early death. They are not the ones foreclosing and evicting people of color from their homes. They are not the authors of neoliberal capitalism with its devastating effects on the poor around the planet. They are not the ones militarizing the borders to enforce global apartheid. They are not behind the extraction and burning of fossil fuels that is destroying the planet, with the poor and people of color the first to lose their homes and livelihoods. If we truly want to challenge racism, oppression, and inequality, we should turn our attention away from the few hundred marchers in Charlottesville and towards the real sources and enforcers of our unjust global order. They are not hard to find.

 

Aviva Chomsky is a scholar of the history of Latin America and the Caribbean at Salem State College.

 

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5 Comments

  1. idamag August 24, 2017

    So, we must give them quarter for what they didn’t do and that is supposed to negate what they did do? Hitler didn’t drop bombs on New Zealand, either, so that makes him an okay person? No, we shouldn’t be dropping bombs all over the world. That means we are nasty people domestically and internationally. As for more deaths by automobile: Know anyone who buys a car for its assault capabilities? Hitler came to power with the help of those who did not speak out against him.

    Reply
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      Reply
    2. Dapper Dan August 25, 2017

      Unfortunately as we’ve learned from Charlottesville the extreme right aren’t afraid to run people over with their cars either. So I guess yes they could think of how many people they can kill with the car they get

      Reply
  2. Aaron_of_Portsmouth August 24, 2017

    As my friend “idamag” points out, we SHOULD, personally and as a group, speak out against racists who now are emboldened to express racism openly in broad daylight.
    And why do they do this? Part of the reason is that they expect people to be timid in the face of oppression. The Civil Rights protests were two-pronged, and not based on an “either-or” conviction. The methods used were directed at arch-segregationists like Police commissioner “Bull” Connor of Birmingham, Ala., in parallel with boycotts. The economic angle really made the white businesses to reevaluate their stance.

    The author makes a good point about there being major actors promoting racism in a genteel manner. But the fight against racism isn’t a binary one—it has to take place on multiple levels, and against government entities and against chump organizations and individuals like Cantwell and the Alt-Right. The departure of advertisers who partnered with FOX and Breitbart has made an impact.

    However, the real victory will come NOT from using political tools, although that has an effect. No, the real victory is going to require something much harder—to use convincing proofs and arguments based on logic, science, and the Teachings of Baha’u’llah. That plus rightly-guided and firm, but polite, actions which inform by word and deeds, rather than use violence and cursing which cause those in the wrong to dig in their heels.

    When Abdu’l Baha visited America in 1912, he didn’t organize protests against American political figures, as he spoke about about the Oneness of Humankind, but made a statement by the example he showed publicly, defying the norms of Jim Crow and racial protocols without blinking an eye. He didn’t accommodate hotels that refused guests who accompanied him because they happened to be Black, but refused to take a room in the hotel, and took his business elsewhere with his multiracial entourage. When he visited the Bowery in lower East Side Manhattan, he purposely singled out a black youth among a group of youth from the neighborhood, who were invited to the home of a prominent Baha’i home.

    As Abdu’l Baha was handing out chocolates to the youth, and the black kid approached, Abdu’l Baha had a twinkle in his eye, took the chocolate and placed it near the face of the boy, and announced loudly “Behold, a black rose”. The youth were surprised to hear their black friend described as a black rose—maybe, because they thought of him in worst terms. using the usual racial epithets reserved for black kids in the neighborhood.

    When Abdu’l Baha was invited to a banquet in Wash. DC in his honor, the table was set with Abdu’l Baha seated at the head of the table. Everyone was seated according to DC protocol, but one of the Baha’is was absent. That person was Mr. Louis Gregory, one of the first African American Baha’is. Louis felt that according to the norms, he should remain in the kitchen, out of sight because it wasn’t the custom to have black people seated at a table with whites. Abdu’l Baha noticed his absence, and shouted “Where is Louis? Bring Mr. Gregory to the table.” Louis was beckoned by Abdu’l Baha to sit next to him, an honored position.

    With that gesture, and so many others, the early Baha’is, and onlookers began to gradually realize that the time had come to begin ignoring and refuting established customs of bigotry.

    This is what we need to continue doing today, in everyday life and by voicing our dissent and disapproval of racism, whenever and wherever it rears its ugly head.

    Reply
    1. Dapper Dan August 25, 2017

      No worries Aaron even though where I live racists keep their opinions to themselves. However it’s usually a rally that brings them out of the shadows and Seattlites aren’t afraid to confront them and their racist BS. If I have an encounter with them they’ll hear loudly from me what I think of those turdblossoms

      Reply

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