“Capitalism obviously doesn’t work without state power,” said N.D.B. Connolly on a Who Makes ₵ents? podcast on September of last year. “But then what is the state? That’s where race gets right, front, and center, because what you see happening through the era of post-emancipation through the South, through the period of the pre-war and post-war period, the only thing I can say that gets confirmed again and again is that the state is white people. Whites have a kind of popular sovereignty over what the state does and the state acts by-and-large in their benefit.”
The majority of white people in the US would dispute this notion, in spite of the “compounding moral debts” of our history, and many believe that the opposite is true these days—that the government gives resources and advantages to immigrants and minorities at the expense of the white population. A study in 2011 showed that subjectively, whites feel more discriminated against than blacks do. This sentiment is hard to makes sense of, except as a result of growing economic concerns and a “zero sum” view of race in which any improvements for folks outside of your group represent a net loss for those within your circle.
Part of the challenge when it comes to race is understanding the many different ways that it acts upon both society and the individual, and incorporating all of this information into a conclusive narrative. This is a challenge because their is no way to produce a narrative about race that won’t ring false in someone’s subjective experience. Centuries of struggle in this country have largely removed the formal aspects of racism, so that, seemingly, only the informal qualities remain—qualities which are emergent of structures that aren’t explicitly about race. Thus, any instance that might have the characteristics of discrimination can be given the benefit of doubt—or, on the other hand, might be taken for granted as something borne out of an inherently racist society.
The State As “White People”
The recent controversy over recent actions of some Black Lives Matter activists have cut to the heart of these questions. Why are they targeting left-wing politicians like Bernie Sanders, many of the Senator’s supporters asked, and calling progressives and leftists white supremacists, when we are their closest allies? Many other white liberals have been sympathetic to the actions at the Netroots conference and the Westlake Medicare rally in Seattle, while several black leftists and activists were critical of the Westlake disruption. Independent journalist Arun Gupta accused those of all skin colors who disagreed with the interruption of the Seattle rally of being “way too invested in whiteness.“
There are different ways of trying to understand these racial tensions on the left. On the surface, this is a standard conflict between identity politics and economic populism. It would be unfair to judge people of color too harshly for being skeptical of a populist agenda, since it is just as capable of being wielded against immigrants and minorities as against the elites. In Greece, the leftist Syriza party campaigned only against the elites, while the fascist Golden Dawn party have been violently against both. There is naturally some overlap between right and left-wing populisms, both in terms of objectives and in terms of their constituents. A comparison with the success, thus far, of the US presidential campaigns of Sanders and Trump, respectively, would be analogous. In this respect, whether or not Bernie Sanders is an appropriate target, or whether their narrative about the campaign was even accurate, is strategically less relevant than the question of whether Sanders’ base is progressive enough on race.
Of course, even those sympathetic to the BLM movement may struggle to understand why liberals are being called “white supremacists.” Obviously, there is room for debate over the meaning of these terms. For those on the left who apply Marxist thinking to the concepts of gender and race, white supremacy is not just an express ideology, it is performative. The participant at the Medicare rally who reportedly said that the two young women should be tazed was giving expression to a form of violence that, based on who he is and who they are, would seem to be yet another link on a troubling chain of custody. As Ta-Nehisi Coates argues, persuasively, “in America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.” Coates writes of an incident where, in the midst of a heated exchange, a white man tells him “I could have you arrested,” and it becomes clear to him that this threat of violence is not just a threat of one man against another, but an instance that carries with it the momentum of an entire history. If it is true that violence against blacks is implicit to our nation’s social contract, then the Black Lives Matter movement and it’s cohorts are justified in suggesting that not being opposed to this constitutes, on some level, an acceptance of white supremacy.
Rights Verses Liberties
On the other hand, the above framing may at times be too blunt an instrument of critique. To say the least, it would be obtuse to assume every point of disagreement in regards to social justice is between racists and sexists verses non-racists or sexists—as it is normally framed by the “warriors” on social media—and even people who might be considered “imperfect allies” could plausibly be given the benefit of the doubt if they respond negatively to being called racist in the middle of a rally about expanding medicare.
But if white liberals are “imperfect allies,” then the groups like the Oath Keepers, who had returned to Ferguson for the second anniversary of civil unrest, must be beyond the pale. Someone on Twitter called the Oath Keepers “cowardly little racists” for showing up at Ferguson—apparently because any random, pejorative adjective will suffice, so long as “racist” follows. It isn’t hard to understand why people are so troubled by the Oath Keepers, more for what they represent than for their actions. A bunch of mostly-white, militia types showing up in a black neighborhood to defend local businesses against looting brings to mind the late Chris Kyle’s probably-false claim to have sniper-killed dozens of so-called looters during the chaos of Hurricane Katrina. On the surface, the objectives of the Oath Keepers seem to underlie the the same values that the police are already there to defend, since so much of what the police do is channeled into guarding local commerce and property against the “undesirables” who aren’t invested in the state-approved avenues of economic production. And the group’s focus on gun rights, in the context of a situation where police are using deadly force against black unarmed teens and children wielding toy guns, may seem misguided, to say the least.
But what’s truly “offensive” about the Oath Keepers’ presence has less to do with their stated purposes, which is mostly about civil liberties and the constitution, than with the fact that they are able to demand their rights without being arrested, harassed, or being found dead in jail. “Every person we talked to said if they carried they’d be shot by police,” one Oath Keeper learned after discussing the issue with locals. He later told a reporter, “we love the people of Ferguson and they deserve to be protected and the St. Louis County police is not doing the job.” Let’s hope more such conversations occur.