“After Mr. Trump’s election, after Brexit, and after the multiplicity of far-right agendas across Europe, it has become dishearteningly clear that there will always be those who when the time for action is near, instead resign themselves to forgetting the pledges they made before the storm.”
At the start of 2016, the UK’s exit from the European Union (Brexit) appeared a political bluff. On the other side of the Atlantic, the proposition of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States seemed to millions of Americans to be merely a political distraction. But for millions of other, mostly white Brits and Americans, these outcomes seemed to them to be the only solutions to their problems—both real and imagined.
There are many issues – from concerns over unbalanced globalised economies to political sovereignty– that many analysts have asserted formed some part of what underpins these political developments across much of Europe and North America. What continues to be ignored by far too many, however, is the continued reality, and the current manifestation, of white supremacy.
those who pretend to know better keep their mouths shut to keep their power.
This ignorance is especially acute on the part of ‘well-meaning’ white liberals; despite the fact that their agency has been significant (even if not eager) in securing the most basic socio-cultural and political progress in these countries.
It is white supremacy – now, again, re-mobilized in countries such as Hungary, France, the Netherlands, the UK, Poland, Sweden, Austria, and the United States – that seeks to nullify the painfully incomplete gains made over the last nearly sixty years of civil rights activism across the northern hemisphere.
But when confronted with the words ‘white supremacy’, liberals generally – and white liberals specifically – display a chronic unwillingness to reckon with its meaning and implications. It is an unwillingness that is ultimately traced to the fact that, in terms of the economic and socio-political structures of these societies, liberals can never really distance themselves from white supremacy.
Faced with the strong condemnation from the largely white vote, which endorsed a transparently hate-filled platform, many liberals shuffled quickly to the right; flagellating themselves and others for what, in reality, has always amounted to their tepid support of anti-hate policies.
A serious reckoning would require retributive actions based on the fact that white supremacy and progressive liberalism are mutually inclusive—that non-white sociopolitical ‘gains’ in these societies have always been, and are still, predicated on white consent.
This means, contrary to narratives of linear racial progress, changes in the lived experiences of non-white peoples are the result of the evolved structures of white supremacy, from which liberals consciously or unconsciously benefit, rather than the dismantling of white supremacy itself.
In 2008, the political philosopher Charles W. Mills argued that “race and liberalism have been intertwined for hundreds of years” as European colonization and empire dominated much of the world. As such, we must always understand white persons as the intended beneficiaries of the political rights and norms of liberalism, and non-white persons as being subject to the varied restrictions on those rights and norms, as determined by white interests. This liberalism which institutionally privileges whites is what Mills calls “racial liberalism”.
As a result, while in this present moment in history, white supremacy is espoused as an explicit and violent political agenda, the logical conditions of Mills’ “racial liberalism” also mean that life-long UK Labour party devotees could vote for Brexit without explicitly connecting themselves to far-right white-nationalist groups. Similarly, two-term white Obama voters could turn around and vote for Trump in 2016 without any apparent sense of an individual moral or ideological shift.
We are now in a state of absurdity in which maintaining a position of neutrality, outright denial, or cowardly acceptance of the new status quo has come so easily for far too many.
Still, it is tempting to believe that even if white liberal-progressives – take, for example, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn – failed to understand the subtleties of racial liberalism, they would certainly work diligently to destabilize the more transparent facets of this white nationalist, fascistic resurgence.
But so much are all issues of consequence—economic, political, and socio-cultural— structurally tethered to a white privilege in which liberals are inevitably included that, even now, the response of many among the left to a white nationalism that threatens the imagined moral fabric of western societies, is one that bypasses the very core of the problem.
Nearly six months after a UK Independence Party campaign that was purportedly about the economic strife of the middle and working classes, but hinged significantly on the vilification of non-British European immigrants and by extension non-white citizens of Europe—the response from the left-of-them is to focus on intervening in the Brexit process. As if, somehow, the xenophobic ignorance and hatred within the heart of British society that underpinned much of the substance of the Brexit campaign could be magically disappeared simply by formally overturning the Brexit vote.
Under these conditions… ignorance is king
In the United States, the U.S. Republican presidential campaign was also purportedly about neglected middle and working classes. Yet, a campaign unlike any other we have witnessed actually revolved around the demonization of Latinx and Muslim immigrants and non-white U.S. citizens. Again, the response from the left-of-them has been to unify around the President-elect, and to attempt to shift the Democratic Party’s focus from “social issues” to the economy. As if the two were ordained to be mutually incompatible.
What resulted from both of these campaigns — initially condemned by the liberal left for their white supremacist rhetoric — was the sharp rejection of what many liberals are now calling ‘identity politics’ or ‘identity liberalism.’
There is no amount of legal citizenship that could ever make you ‘civilised’ or ‘respectable’ enough to be included among those welcomed to live, and to live freely.
Faced with the strong condemnation from the largely white vote, which endorsed a transparently hate-filled platform, many liberals shuffled quickly to the right; flagellating themselves and others for what, in reality, has always amounted to their tepid support of anti-hate policies. Fully aware of the historical horrors that proceed from white supremacist regimes, liberals have nevertheless capitulated to these outcomes and validated the institutional processes that generate them.
We are now in a state of absurdity in which maintaining a position of neutrality, outright denial, or cowardly acceptance of the new status quo has come so easily for far too many. Women and men who, in the earlier part of this year, wanted us to believe they stood for what was right and not simply what was either the least complicated, or granted the most power.
These dangerous times have announced themselves plainly enough through both violent rhetoric and violent actions. Sadly, racial liberalism is not equipped to correct these outcomes because its very ideological underpinnings are themselves committed to white supremacy.
As if somehow the xenophobic ignorance and hatred within the heart of British society that underpinned much of the substance of the Brexit campaign could be magically disappeared simply by formally overturning the Brexit vote.
In our current era, this commitment is mostly demonstrated by the refusal of many supposedly well-wishing whites to even acknowledge the existence of white supremacy unless it serves their specific political purpose (such as winning an election); much less, to make themselves collectively accountable for it under any circumstances.
Some years ago, while in law school, American feminist legal scholar Catharine McKinnon taught our Sex Equality class that one of the principal problems with classical western jurisprudence (and liberalism) is its commitment to Aristotelian equality—the notion that we should evaluate like things in like manner, from a ‘neutral’ perspective. As if history matters not to our understanding of what is just.
It should, therefore, be little surprising that such historically important movements as ‘Black Lives Matter’ are now condemned as dismissing the equal relevance of non-black lives. Neither should it shock that those who decry the hate speech and crimes of America’s newly-empowered neo-Nazis are now told that their cries can be also construed as, itself, hate-speech. Under these conditions, historic power imbalances and wrong-doings are to be ignored. Ignorance is king; and to compound the absurdity, those who pretend to know better keep their mouths shut to keep their power.
Ultimately ‘whiteness’ – including the so-called liberals who are content to benefit from a system they only ever pretend to denounce – has to recognize, and reckon, with itself.
In this absurdism, the relevant questions are now: what happens to nations that are willfully ignorant about their own histories? Or more precisely—what happens to nations that embrace the wrong ideas about their histories?
The problem with ignoring history is that what is true becomes difficult to identify. If the past is firmly past, then the structure that underpins the societies of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and so forth, can have no relationship to colonialism, to slavery, to Jim Crow, to white supremacy.
If history has no bearing on what organises our understanding and actions in the present, then white wealth—thirteen times black wealth in America, and approximately three times black wealth in the UK—is higher simply because white people, as a fundamental decision of nature, work harder than non-whites. And violence perpetrated by whites is always more individual, more forgivable and understandable, than similar violence committed by non-white hands.
In a world where what is actually true is now of little consequence, we are told that white Americans and Brits struggle economically because the system they claim to have built all by themselves is rigged against them in favour of non-white citizens and non-white immigrants. Regardless of the facts of a history of a western economic development that was fundamentally advanced using African labour and productivity, white power – so we are told – is under threat. It is now the job of non-whites to understand the feelings of they who believe, rightly or wrongly, that they are vulnerable.
The truth, neither here nor there, has been abandoned with fresh digital relish. So it is that two white billionaire/millionaire businessmen-turned politicians – one known for exploiting labour globally and locally – can become working class ‘comrades’ apparently invested in smashing the exploitative globalized corporate system; by expunging immigrants.
we must always understand white persons as the intended beneficiaries of the political rights and norms of liberalism.
The fact is, most people in Africa’s diasporas have always known what it means when people in predominantly white countries start talking about ‘taking back their countries’. There is no amount of legal citizenship that could ever make you ‘civilised’ or ‘respectable’ enough to be included among those welcomed to live, and to live freely.
Of course, the 8 per cent of Trump voters who were African American and the 15 to 18 per cent who were Latinx, as well as the 27 per cent who voted for Brexit who were black Brits, will never be far in the minds of those who deal in illogical arguments. To the overwhelming majority of non-whites who did not vote for Trump or for Brexit, however, it should be clear by now that these elections and referenda are never really about them.
Ultimately ‘whiteness’ – including the so-called liberals who are content to benefit from a system they only ever pretend to denounce – has to recognise, and reckon, with itself.
If the past is firmly past, then the structure that underpins the societies of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Italy and so forth can have no relationship to colonialism, to slavery, to Jim Crow, to white supremacy.
In a recent interview, the American linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky – himself a witness to the rise of Nazi Germany – expressed his fright at the combination of Brexit, the rise of the ultra-nationalist far-right across Europe, and Trump’s presidential election. The outcome of what Trump has “brought forth”, he said, will “depend on the reactions of those appalled by his performance and the visions he has projected.”
After Mr. Trump’s election, after Brexit, and after the multiplicity of far-right agendas across Europe, it has become dishearteningly clear that there will always be those who when the time for action is near, instead resign themselves to forgetting the pledges they made before the storm.
While these will likely be those who believe themselves immune to the consequences of their own cowardice, they must also be sure that they will not, one day, require humanity’s help. And since they surely will, they must pray that the rest of us will have the courage, on that day, to remember history and to face up to what is true.
Danielle Purifoy is a North Carolina native. She is a lawyer and obtained her JD from Harvard University. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Environmental Policy at Duke university. She also writes and edits for Scalawag Magazine.
**Correction: this article earlier cited that of those who voted for President-elect Trump, 29 per cent were Latinx. This oft-cited figure by the major US news outlets is disputed by scholars, who put the figure closer to between 15 and 18 per cent. This article was corrected on the 23rd of December, 2016.