June 15, 2020 - admin

Some Thoughts on White Supremacy and White Popular Discourse

by Darren Barany

The mass protests against systemic white supremacist violence were sparked by the disturbing and sadistic display of the killing of George Floyd by Officer Derek Chauvin, who pressed his knee into the neck of Floyd for almost nine minutes. Floyd was handcuffed, compliant, and eventually unresponsive, and Chauvin maintained the “hold” even a minute after paramedics arrived. This grotesque display of disregard for black life was a tipping point in a string of recent killings of African Americans, including the shootings of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. 

Like many people, I’ve gone to social media for images, video, news, and analysis about everything that’s happening. As with the police murders of black and brown people before, problematic responses by whites on and off social media have ranged from discouraging to distressing. Make no mistake, many have shown up and have proven to be good allies and accomplices in the struggle against systemic racist violence. However, in response to analysis linking the actions of Chauvin to those of other cops, systemic racism, the historical role of police in preserving the racial order, calls to redirect police funding to other public services that benefit the community, etc. many remain defensive, dismissive, tone deaf, and, even with the explicit inhumanity and violation of procedure shown by Chauvin on video, shockingly hard-hearted. For whites in America, the need for racial cognitive consistency is strong. In other words, their perception of race relations in America and of white supremacy is skewed by their own position of advantage in a society that places a higher value on whiteness. To acknowledge this and remain comfortable with one’s own social position as a white person relative to others would be “bad.” It would be complacence in the face of clear injustice, and no one likes to think of themselves as “one of the bad ones.” Sadly, the path of least resistance *for whites* is to deny systemic racism.

A Word on White Supremacy

As white people, it’s important that we acknowledge that the systemic violence and discrimination faced by black and brown people in America is very very real. White supremacy (ideological, political, economic…) explicitly and implicitly places the needs and wellbeing of whites above those of other races. As Robin DiAngelo notes in her poignant book, White Fragility, racism in our society is predicated on white supremacy and should be understood as a system to which we are all connected, not just individual and disconnected acts committed by a “few bad apples.” One’s race in such a system therefore determines whether they experience privilege or disadvantage, and in a system of white supremacy, whether their needs, lives, and wellbeing are more greatly prioritized in relation to others.

While this is largely and experientially understood by racial minorities, it confronts white people with cognitively dissonant and potentially destabilizing information. It can be unsettling and provoke deep, inward, critical self-reflection and be a personal call to action in being a better ally and accomplice in the struggle against systemic white supremacy. However, grasping this dynamic is not easy for whites because it confronts them with a grim truth, that their privilege and the advantaged social position they’ve experienced as normal is dependent on the oppression and suffering of others. This truth is especially dissonant for whites when confronted by it given that they typically get to live their lives largely without needing to be conscious of how their race is being read and responded to by others across a multitude of social spaces and interactions. These include, of course, interactions with police, teachers, medical personnel, store clerks, etc. Whites get to, well, just be “normal.” The role of the normalization of whiteness in sustaining privilege has been discussed extensively. A readily available and incisive sociological discussion of this may be found in Teresa J. Guess’s “The Social Construction of Whiteness: Racism by Intent, Racism by Consequence.” When whites are reminded that they are plugged into a racially oppressive, immoral, and violent system that disadvantages people of color, it is decentering and uncomfortable and all-too-often triggers a reactive denial in response. This denial, as we’re reminded by Ibram X. Kendi in an early 2018 New York Times opinion piece (and in his crucial work, How to Be An Antiracist), “is  the heartbeat of racism.” Otherwise, whites would have to recognize their own complicity and contribution to that oppression and violence. Moreover, as Kendi notes, such denials come from conservatives and white liberals alike. 

Due to prevailing and overlapping ideologies which reinforce racism, like class elitism or the myth of meritocracy, confronting white supremacy as a white person means needing to acknowledge that their social position was determined by, among other factors, their whiteness. This complicates ego-boosting self-narratives of hard work and achievement and requires a difficult self-reckoning that can produce a kind of privilege-denialism that then fuels racial stereotyping and scapegoating.

As a consequence a handful of crude and over-simplified narratives, seemingly tailor-made for platforms like Facebook and Twitter, are again evident in the online (and offline) discussions about the recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, and the spontaneous, organic, multi-racial, multi-class mass uprising of protests against systemic white supremacy and violence against black and brown people which has emerged. In some instances, these statements are misguided efforts to do the right thing and condemn an act of horrific inhumanity. Other times they are explicit efforts to undermine the voices and experiences of black and brown people and the efforts of the protests. It’s important that white folks understand these dynamics and bear them in mind when we participate in the discourse and events as they unfold. 

Of course, there are the usual “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” refrains, which are now such frequent expressions of white denial of racism that they’ve become cliché. However, a description and analysis of some other themes can be found below, as they also demonstrate quite well the dynamic noted above.

“This Happened to Me [My Brother, My Neighbor Who is White, etc.]” “It’s Not About Race”

Whites suffer oppression in the current system too. The intersection of class, ability, gender, sexuality, and other categories represent overlapping and unique social experiences of trauma and marginalization. However, for instance, a poor white person and poor black person may both struggle with poverty, but the poor white person does not experience anti-black racism. So, while each group may experience common disadvantages, black people have the added disadvantage of having to negotiate their experience of living in a system of white supremacy. This was exactly the “sort of public and psychological wage” by which whites are compensated in addition to their economic wages elaborated by WEB DuBois 85 years ago – the advantage of “public deference and titles of courtesy” – and it still carries import today. When whites say, “Me too!” (in this context), even if as a misplaced gesture of solidarity, it is simply unconstructive and invalidates the experiences and lives of people who must constantly face and live with the consequences of racism. 

“Defunding Police Would Lead to Lawlessness!” “Gangs of Thugs will Roam the Streets!” “If You Support This, You’re an Idiot”

It’s important to understand that there are a range of proposals and ideas circulating in relation to defunding and abolishing the police (as well as to what these terms mean). People in the communities most deeply affected by police violence are the ones making demands that significant change needs to happen and happen as soon as possible. Saying things like “thugs” will take over the streets or that criminals will roam unfettered, and smugly dismissing proposals being made, evokes historically racist language, and activates white fears and hysteria. It does no one any good. Proposals actually include many things, including emphasizing an “economy of care” over an “economy of punishment” and getting police out of the business of being social workers with guns, something for which police themselves have expressed frustration. They’re really not trained to adequately deal with issues related to mental health, addiction, homelessness, children’s behavior in schools, etc. The resources and labor allocated for this should be directed elsewhere. 

There is also no reason police departments should be militarized and funded like small armies. Neighborhoods are no place for shock and awe tactics. Armored vehicles should not be patrolling residential streets. Communities do not need large squadrons of police in body armor and face shields, which are known to escalate and provoke confrontations with the public. Society would be far better served if these funds were redirected to services, infrastructure, education, social programs, etc. Distorting the demands being made by the black led movements for racial justice and inferring a lack of knowledge for people who are articulating their own needs with regard to their own communities, again, invalidates the experiences and voices of the communities of color which are most impacted by systemic racism and white supremacy.

“Outside Agitators”

Whether it’s tales of “outside agitators,” George Soros money, “crisis actors,” or those bad ol’ Antifa “terrorists,” white armchair experts on phony right-wing talking points see themselves as well-researched, red-pilled, luminaries on the “far left’s war on America.” They’ve watched lots of YouTube and are really mad at the “real enemies of America,” which are usually “the libs,” immigrants, “thugs,” black and brown people, LGBTQ folks, social justice warriors, and the list goes on. In relation to spontaneous expressions of collective political agency, they love to assert that there are outside (almost supernatural) forces at work in relation to the popular movements for justice. Such assertions have a long anti-black and anti-Semitic history.

The contributions of these white armchair experts to the discourse about the current mass response by protesters and the movements for justice demanding an end to the extrajudicial murders of black folks by police, while often tone deaf, dismissive, or explicitly racist, are framed as the clearheaded outsider swooping in to set the record straight and cut through the liberal BS. These “experts” often bring up tropes like black-on-black crime, falsely claim that whites are killed by police at a higher rate than other racial groups, argue that these are issues fabricated by the “far left,” etc. This particular narrative sets out to erect phony unsubstantiated theories as matters of fact. By presenting people of color (and white allies) as charlatans who are “victim posturing” or “virtue signaling,” or who are dupes of Jews and communists and manipulated by outside forces, etc., it has the consequence of minimizing and invalidating the accounts of black and brown people with regard to their own experiences of racism and discredits the grassroots efforts of activists to confront this crisis. Trust people of color when they talk about racism. Listen, and don’t assume that, as a white person, you know more about the lived experiences of others.

“This is Really All about Class [or the Fed, Big Banks, etc.]”

First, I want to say that class inequality, the monetary policy of the Fed, the disproportionate power of and lack of regulation over large financial institutions are really important issues. The dynamic of privilege and disadvantage that I’ve referred to can be applied to class as well. Just as the privilege of whites is contingent on the oppression and suffering of people of color, the affluence of the very rich is contingent on the poverty-induced misery of low-wage, under-employed, and unemployed workers. However, when people are rising up against systemic white supremacy and violence against black and brown people, and black folks are giving voice to the harm they’ve endured for centuries and the trauma associated with the ongoing and recent wave of violence, the reductive lesson on class exploitation actually being at the heart of it all is misplaced.

Again, economic inequality is real, and racism, anti-queer bigotry, sexism, ableism, and anti-immigrant xenophobia all intersect to create unique and overlapping conditions and experiences of oppression. We have to bear in mind that systemic white supremacy is part of this admixture. It reinforces and is reinforced by the overlapping and intersecting of these ideologies and realities. Reductionist and dismissive intellectualizations on the economy invalidate those experiences, and especially in times like these, they invalidate the pain being experienced by black folks.

Inadequate Gestures of Outrage by Focusing on Officer Chauvin Individually, His Violation of Procedure, etc. but Avoiding Discussions of Race and Racism

When the video of Derek Chauvin murdering George Floyd was released, something I observed was the tendency for white people to say things like, “That’s not proper procedure.” “What an asshole!” “It’s a police state!” Etc. They rightly note that this was a disgusting overreach of force by the officer. However, they don’t address the incident in any sort of context of differential justice, the historical pattern of law enforcement violently policing poor and working class black and brown communities, or the conspicuous absence of accountability when cops kill black and brown people.

This removes the incident from the context of systemic and pervasive racism. Since the cop is merely an “asshole,” and people don’t typically think of themselves as assholes (let alone racists), they are absolved of any kind of responsibility or complicity. It feels good to identify the cop as just one of the “bad apples,” because we think of ourselves as good apples and nice people. Nice people aren’t racist. However, when as white people we remain silent about or deny our privilege and deny or remain silent in relation to racism, we contribute to the perpetuation of a system that produces disadvantage for non-whites and reproduces privilege for us.

“He should have complied” “We Don’t Know the Whole Story”

A white person watching a black person killed by police on video and responding by saying something like, “Well, he should have complied,” directly signals that this person sees the victim’s life simply as less valuable in relation to white life. When whites say or post things like this about police murders of black and brown people, it is a direct expression of anti-black racism being used to rationalize the act of violence committed against the person with relatively less power in the interaction. By that, I mean less power as a black person and less power as an unarmed civilian at the mercy of armed police officers. As institutions whose operations fundamentally uphold the racial and social order as it exists, police (depending on how generous we want to be) tacitly or expressly reproduce white supremacy. The ongoing and objectively disproportionate pattern of police brutality and killings of black and brown people with scarce accountability for police is one troubling example. So even if the officer who crosses the line is not white, something whites like to hold up as evidence that racism is no longer relevant, acts of police violence against black and brown people remain within this framework. 

While there has been resounding condemnations of the police hold used by Derek Chauvin that killed George Floyd, past incidents of police violence against black and brown people, including other police killings caught on camera, have garnered responses by whites asserting that they “must have done something” or they “should have complied.” While less prevalent, I’ve observed such cruel assertions even in relation to Floyd’s murder, despite the gross disregard for his life exhibited by Chauvin. Blaming a victim of murder for their own death is a particularly grotesque form of dehumanization. With cases like this, such comments provide moral justification for the system as it exists and removes culpability from the cops and, again, enables the denial of white complicity. 

With regard to George Floyd’s murder, white outrage that is not racially contextualized contributes to justifying the system and policing as it currently exists, the idea being that Chauvin obviously violated protocol, should be charged with murder, and is clearly a “bad apple.” This frames the narrative of racism in policing as something a few rogue officers do, but otherwise, everything is great. This also reinforces the rationale that in all those other cases, it must have been the victims’ fault, the police are always the good guys, and they are there to protect us. It should be understood that this perception changes depending on which “us” we’re talking about. Without the context of systemic racism, simply focusing on Chauvin as a “bad apple” fails to acknowledge and validate the experiences of black and brown people who are disproportionately impacted negatively by the criminal justice system and who, rather than feeling protected, often feel endangered by it and the police.

Re Protesters: “They Had it Coming” “They Got What They Deserved”

Like the fetish of compliance in relation to police power mentioned above, a related tendency among social media users has been to blame peaceful protesters being attacked by police during the protests, often by saying they got what they deserved or had it coming. With images on social media of protesters deliberately breaking curfew the evening of June 2 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, some Twitter users were urging a violent use of force against the “criminals,” that police shoot down protesters, etc. Across the country, there have been numerous injuries, including protesters who’ve lost eyes after being hit with tear gas cannisters or rubber bullets. I’ve seen this connected to the kinds of clothing worn by protesters, their slogans, their tactics, identifying them as Antifa and therefore terrorists, them being violent and looting (even when they aren’t), etc. This accepts the premise that the authority and the behavior of police is always justified, even when their actions and orders are unlawful, immoral, or unnecessary. 

Some of the responses to videos showing police using mace on peaceful demonstrators, deliberately shooting tear gas cannisters at people’s faces (often from point blank range), and beating up hand-picked members of the protests arbitrarily have expressed things like, “That’s what happens when you play games,” or “That’s what you get when you mess with the police,” etc. This perpetuates the myth that if black folks and their allies just protested the right way, then their cause would be taken seriously. The reality is, and this has been well expressed in many places, viral memes circulating the web, etc., that when it comes to challenging systemic white supremacy, an act which is experienced as a threat to the normalcy and comfort enjoyed by whites, there is no right way to protest. Therefore, respectability becomes the fallback. “Look how they talk,” “Look how they act,” etc. Among other things, this hijacks the issue, making it about public decorum and white comfort and emotional wellbeing rather than understanding and acknowledging the pain and trauma experienced by black and brown people, addressing white supremacy, confronting its history, and looking to challenge a system predicated on anti-blackness.

What To Do?

As noted above, as white people, when we’re confronted with the dissonance encompassed by the reality that we experience privilege and the system in which we live was designed to prioritize our comfort and wellbeing over those of people of color, it can provoke a reactive and ego-protective denial which works to preserve a positive self-concept. This denial protects whites from the contradiction of being beneficiaries of privilege within a system that is oppressive to non-whites. However, this confrontation can also provoke deep, inward, critical self-reflection, and be a call to mobilize personally and collectively to be better allies and accomplices in the struggle against systemic white supremacy. We can choose not to presume to know more about the experience of anti-black and anti-brown racism than those who are forced to endure it. We can choose to center and respect black and brown voices. We can honor and recognize the credibility and legitimacy of the movements against white supremacy and systemic racism and the black and brown leadership driving it forward. We should stay mindful of the fact that this same system is one which actively and disproportionately produces trauma and death for black and brown people and that we are in a unique position to leverage our power within that system to challenge it.

Below you can find material with information on (1) what’s been accomplished so far by the nationwide protests against systemic racism and white supremacy, (2) articles and guides on activism and other ways to offer support, and (3) a few documents that compile multiple resources on different aspects of anti-racism work, activism, and learning. There are plenty more out there, but these are some I’ve accumulated over the last couple weeks.

  1. What Have the Recent Efforts to Confront Racism and White Supremacy Accomplished?
    List of Accomplishments of the 2020 Uprising against Systemic Racism and White Supremacy
    What the George Floyd Protests Have Achieved in Just Two Weeks
    Minneapolis To Disband Police Department
    Communities United For Police Reform Celebrates The Passage Of Police-Stat Act By New York State Senate And Assembly
    New York to Vote on 50-A to Make Police Disciplinary Files Public
  2. Articles and Guides on Activism and other Ways to Offer Support 
    5 Ways White People Can Take Action in Response to White and State-Sanctioned Violence
    A Year of Anti-Racism Work
    10 Ways For Non-Black Academics to Value Black Lives
    75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice
    12 Ways You Can Be an Activist Without Going to a Protest
    5 Racist Anti-Racism Responses “Good” White Women Give to Viral Posts
    Here’s Where You Can Donate to Help Protests Against Police Brutality
    ActBlue Link to Contribute to Black Lives Matter Global Network
  3. Compiled Resources 
    Black Lives Matter Resource Guide
    Getting it together as race traitors
    Scaffolded Anti-Racist Resources
    Black Lives Matter Instructional Library (resources for kids)

Darren Barany is Associate Professor of Sociology at LaGuardia Community College at the City University of New York. He is a Co-Convener of the college’s chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ). He is the author of The New Welfare Consensus: Ideological, Political, and Social Origins [sunypress.edu]. He lives in Queens, NYC. Follow him on Twitter @_BARANY [twitter.com].

Reflections

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