It could be argued that this past year was the year that the term “white supremacy” went mainstream. Everybody and their mother is talking about fighting or resisting white supremacy. White leftists are usually the ones who are seemingly throwing themselves on the front lines. They also come across as the most eager to smash white supremacy, ultimately overshadowing the ones who are directly oppressed by it. Since the arrival of Trump, liberals have joined the fray, focusing much of their anger on the man himself.
So, let me be real about this and come out and say that it bothers me. For the longest time I couldn’t really articulate it but in my gut something just didn’t feel right. The term “white supremacy” has never been a popular colloquial term, nor has it ever been even truly acknowledged by white America as a very real reality for most black Americans. If white supremacy was ever discussed, it was generally talked about in its isolated fringe form and relegated to annals of day-time talk shows.
Throughout the 90s I would remember the times I stayed home from school and watched sensationalist shows such as Jerry Springer or Geraldo Rivera when they would bring on neo-Nazis and Klan members to generate easy ratings. Geraldo even got his nose broken during one episode, when a Klan member threw a chair at his face. For the majority of white liberal Americans of the post-civil rights era, white supremacy has been viewed in this context as a mere relic of history only maintained by isolated, fringe, far-right groups.
Only with the rise of Trump have we begun to have mainstream discussions about the role white supremacy plays in our society. And that’s great! We need to be having that discussion. Yet what has been lacking from that conversation is the systematic nature of white supremacy and how it’s directly tied to capitalism. Liberals who claim to be part of the “resistance” are acting as if Trump has opened a long, dormant Pandora’s Box of hatred, xenophobia, and white supremacy. The “resistance” accuses the current head of the American empire of being a white supremacist fascist, without ever questioning whether or not the American empire is inherently white supremacist in nature.
Much of the focus coming from liberal camps has been on the symbolism of what Trump the individual represents, and not on the material reality of what America represents, which is based on war, greed and empire. With this approach, the horror of white supremacy is ultimately stripped of its historical and current role in supporting capitalism and empire. It becomes diluted when liberals only see white supremacy through the prism of individualistic, interpersonal relations.
Privilege politics is a manifestation of individualizing white supremacy. If “radical” means “grasping things at the root,” like Angela Davis once said, then this myopic approach taken under the banner of privilege politics is the opposite of radical. It is superficial. Rather than recognizing and struggling against the structural forces that create white privilege in the first place, we are instead expected to politely ask that white people somehow give up their privileges; or, at very least, recognize that they have privilege.
It should be obvious to anyone that this approach makes little sense because it forces us to depend on white people to enact symbolic change while we surrender what little power we have in the first place to make fundamental change. Privilege politics also assumes that white supremacy in our society is result of individualistic patterns and behaviors – that is an outlier, not a norm. In reality, people’s patterns and behaviors reflect the political and economic conditions of society. Systems don’t change because people change, people change because systems change. All of this amounts to the depoliticizing of white supremacy, and it’s preventing us from fully understanding that America’s foreign, domestic, and economic policy is essentially white supremacy in action, and always has been.
For an example of what the depoliticization of white supremacy looks like, we can assess the reaction to the recent debate between Dr. Cornel West and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. In an article he penned for the Guardian, Dr. West put it bluntly and accused Coates of being “the neoliberal face of the black freedom struggle.” West went on to say that “any analysis or vision of our world that omits the centrality of Wall Street power, US military policies, and the complex dynamics of class, gender, and sexuality in black America is too narrow and dangerously misleading.” He then adds his most powerful indictment by saying “In short, Coates fetishizes white supremacy. He makes it almighty, magical, and unremovable.”
In looking past the controversy sparked by his article, we can see that West’s words and message are crucial. He accurately theorizes that any discussion which removes structural white supremacy from its central role in upholding America’s capitalist empire will inadvertently end up reinforcing white supremacy. However, instead of seeing West’s critique of Coates as a valid insight on the state of the black liberation struggle, most folks chose to frame the debate as some sort of personal beef between the two most prominent black intellectuals in the country, resembling some sort of Hip-Hop celebrity feud.
Detractors of West, such as Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, have even gone on accusing West of “throwing shade” because he’s somehow jealous of Coates’ success, echoing the same responses given to West’s vital critiques of Obama. As if West’s criticisms were based on piety narcissism rather than grounded in a legitimate concern for the fate of black America. It’s just plain dismissive to reject what West has to say without fully analyzing the points he was trying to make. Borrowing West’s own logic, the reactions are indicative of a neoliberal culture that is insistent on removing all traces of critical thinking which challenge the orthodoxy of privilege politics.
Critics of West have completely ignored his points, choosing instead to denounce him as a “washed-up, bitter, old man.” An important message has been lost in the winds of this drama. West was trying to make us understand that white supremacy is embedded into every fabric of American life and society. It is not relegated to fringe groups or individuals like Trump, and it is not some mystic force that is indestructible. He wants us to understand that the responsibility to make change is not held by those who have privilege. It’s not for them to kindly give up their privilege or come to terms with it; rather, it is our responsibility to struggle against this unjust system that creates such unearned privileges.
Only when we are able to see that the fights against white supremacy and capitalism are interconnected struggles (two sides of the same oppressive coin) is when we will finally be able to make real progress towards liberation. The gatekeepers of neoliberalism come in many forms. West was handing us a key.