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 in only 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.
Women’s Graphics Collective, Chicago 1978
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 towards 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 that 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.