This Saturday, ChangeLab and OneAmerica are hosting an event in Seattle called The Past, Present & Future of Multiracial Solidarity. In preparation, I thought I’d offer my take on how white supremacy works, and some thoughts on what solidarity requires of us.
Just to be clear, by white supremacy, I don’t mean the KKK. I mean the set of ideas and beliefs that creates and enforces whiteness as the dominant norm.
No one has taught me more about white supremacy than Andrea Smith. Her scholarship led me to see not a single system of racial oppression, but what she describes as a more complex system made up of “three pillars.” I’ve come to think of it as a kind of three-legged stool. It has opened my eyes to what solidarity demands of us as people of color: not just to see how we are oppressed, but also how we participate, knowingly or not, in keeping that stool upright.
One leg of the stool is slavery, the idea of black people as property. This logic has been built into the U.S. economy and political system and endures today in the black-white racial hierarchy. It tells us that if we’re not black, we have the chance to rise above the brutality of capitalism. Of course this isn’t true, but that hardly matters. It’s a powerful tool in racial politics, motivating people from across the color line to buy into anti-black racism out of self-interest, consciously or not.
As Scot wrote in a RaceFiles post called, “Blackness is the Fulcrum,” there is no hierarchy of oppression, but anti-black racism is what gives white supremacy traction and leverage. Not only are structures like the Constitution and the electoral college rooted in slavery; over time, the politics of anti-blackness has led to the shredding of critical safety net programs and to the rise of a massive prison system. It’s also what led whites in the U.S. South to defect from the Democratic Party after WWII – an opportunity that Republicans seized upon through the Southern Strategy. In popular consciousness, blackness equals the bottom; that’s what makes it such a powerful political tool.
By the way, for anyone who missed The Nation’s release late last year of a 1981 interview with Lee Atwater, a Reagan-era Republican strategist, here’s a lesson in racial codes:
Indeed, anti-black racism led to the creation of the model minority myth, which has created particular frictions between blacks and Asians in the United States. It matters little that Asian Americans didn’t create the myth, or that it’s just that – a myth, or that it actually fuels anti-Asian violence, or that there’s in fact a legacy of Asian-black solidarity. The myth is effective, and some of us have bought into it. It lifts up Asian Americans as successful examples of hardworking immigrants fulfilling the American Dream, implicitly portraying us as living indictments of blackness. This is why, as Asian Americans, one strategic way to attack the myth is to vocally and visibly reject anti-black racism.
Another leg of the stool is genocide, which mandates the disappearance of Native peoples. It’s the thinking that tells us that non-Natives are rightfully entitled to own indigenous lands, because Native people simply don’t exist. This was also a key part of building the U.S. economy, by forcibly removing Native peoples to make way for owning land and exploiting resources for profit. It can be seen today in everything from the shameless naming of towns and sports teams to the massive resource extraction projects throughout North America and the Global South.
A third leg is Orientalism, the basis for war. Orientalism is rooted in European imperialism. It’s the “us-versus-them” mindset that casts certain groups of people as enemy threats. It can be seen today in the War on Terror, in massive deportations and entrenched barriers to citizenship, and in the 1,000+ U.S. military bases around the world. Orientalism allows the United States to defend the effects of slavery and genocide, by arguing that America must stay strong enough to fight its enemies, and to protect and spread freedom and democracy in the world.
As people of color we participate in both genocide and Orientalism when we serve in or glorify U.S. wars and when we espouse American exceptionalism. We participate when we use language about the American Dream, or about America as a land of immigrants, by making invisible all the ways that the dream itself relies on global exploitation and on the disappearance of Native peoples. The truth is, we participate in white supremacy all the time. How could we not, given the roots of our economy and our political system? The challenge is to be mindful of this as we develop strategies for justice.
As an identity, the term “Asian American” was coined to reflect a coalition across different ethnic groups, and a rejection of the term “Oriental.” It reflected a commitment to solidarity with blacks, Chicanos and Native Americans, and a critique of war and imperialism. That was in the late ‘60s. But what does it mean to be Asian American today? What does it mean to be API? What about being a person of color? There’s a need for coalitions, but not just for the sake of including different categories of people. Meaningful coalitions are based on relationships and explicit political commitments.
As more Asian immigrants and refugees today are profiled as a result of both war and criminalization/anti-black racism, there’s an opportunity for solidarity. As the U.S. government forcibly takes land from indigenous peoples to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, that’s also an opportunity for solidarity. As immigration policies create more ways to exploit low-wage workers, that’s another opportunity for solidarity. Organizers are seizing these openings in exciting new campaigns and alliances. But we still have work to do to come up with the shifts in thinking, the organizing practices, and the vocabulary we need to push back against white supremacy.
On Saturday, we hope to explore lessons from the past with Aaron Dixon and Ron Chew, and to discuss opportunities for the future. It’s just one step, but I hope you’ll join us.