On White Fragility

White fragility.

White Privilege and the Southern Strategy or …
Why your fellow Green called you a racist

Hint:  They probably didn’t.

“I include myself in that.  The best white people can do is recognize we’re recovering racists.  We’re born into a system that tells us we rule”

— Jeremy Scahill, co-founder of The Intercept, 2015

Leftist groups — including the Green Party — have lately been struggling with fissures along identity lines, with race often being the most difficult.  A typical conflict goes like this:  Alice says Beverly has said or done something with racist overtones.  Beverly replies that Alice is the one who is bringing race into it.  Alice says that Beverly is suffering from and manifesting white fragility.  Beverly answers that actually it is Alice who is now the real racist.

If you have ever been the Beverly in this conversation, I am willing to bet you are the one who is wrong.  What you originally did or said was probably problematic, and you almost certainly suffer from white fragility.  But I am certainly not going to call you a “racist.”

“Let he who is without sin …”

The word “racist” is not an insult, and it is not directed at you.  But the word has become poisonous.  It has become poisonous because a specific political party has made it so deliberately in order to accrue and maintain power.  Allow me to illustrate.

The following video is part of an interview with a guy named Lee Atwater, who was an adviser to Reagan and the first George Bush.  He had worked in both their White Houses, and was Bush I’s campaign manager in ‘88.  In this 1981 interview, Atwater lays out the blueprint of the Southern Strategy of the Republican party, and he pulls no punches.

Thomas Nast.

“Y’all don’t quote me on this.  You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’  By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you.  Backfires.  So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff.  You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.  And subconsciously maybe that is part of it.  I’m not saying that.  But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other.  You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, ‘We want to cut this’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger’.  So, any way you look at it, race is coming on the backbone.”

As he explains, the point of the Southern Strategy is to make things “so abstract” that processes, institutions and modes of behavior that were specifically designed for racist outcomes would not be provably racist.  It allowed those racists, who weren’t quite racist enough to burn crosses and hang people, to vote for deeply racist policies and still feel superior to their parents.  Please note that Atwater implies the Southern Strategy began in 1954, ten years before what we recognize as the Great Realignment.

The Southern Strategy was wildly successful.  The Red Scare of the 50’s had decimated the left for almost a generation.  The Last Best Hope of the time was the Black Identity Movement, which had never fled its association with socialism (and even communism) through the 60’s.  After the certainly or likely state sponsored murders of Fred Hampton (Black Panthers), Malcolm X, and MLK, along with the framing of people like Angela Davis and Assata Shakur, Republicans went on to win 5 of the 6 next presidential elections since 1968 (or 8 of the 13 elections up to today).   In fact, credible sources have stated or implied that no Democratic presidential candidate has won the majority of the white vote since Johnson supported the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

By the early 90’s the Dems were tired of getting slapped around and decided to employ what the Republicans had been teaching them:  Go racist and take corporate money.  Enter Bill Clinton, a political genius for his zeitgeist.  Clinton was a spiritual Dixiecrat who had kept real-life slaves at the Arkansas Governor’s mansion.  His main innovation was to speak to the left while serving the right.  Being elected with monikers like “honorary black person,” Clinton went on to decimate the black community in part to prove he could be as racist as any Republican.  During the election campaign, he left the trail to oversee the execution of a mentally disabled black man for the cameras.  But, as Atwater said, “you’re getting so abstract now….” During this era, black people were characterized as “wilding,” “super-predators,” and “crack babies.”  All these characterizations have been scientifically proven false, but it wasn’t for 20 – 25 years, in 2016, that we were allowed to call these things racist in the mainstream.  It was during these Clinton years that the Exonerated 5, five black minors aged 14 to 16, were publicly vilified and falsely convicted based on confessions beaten out of them.

Gallup polls America on certain questions every year, some questions going back to the ’50’s.  1995 was the first year that the majority of Americans didn’t think interracial marriage was wrong.

Clinton’s win and presidency created a bipartisan racist arms race.  Unable to prove their policies were the most racist, Republicans — through funding think tanks and eventually Fox News — invented the “Culture Wars.”  This allowed the right to move the now very “abstract” debate into every aspect of life:  media, government, work and interpersonal relationships.  Still hobbled from the intellectual purges of the ’50’s and ’60’s, the left was just beginning to recover.  Right wing investments paid off and terms like “reverse racism” entered the lexicon.  This is where the strategy that Atwater described really began to pay dividends.

’Cause here is the thing:  the Republicans had trained 30 years of politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists, media, evangelicals and more to frame purposely racist systems, methods, policies, etc., in “abstract,” non-racial terms.  Meanwhile, any methods of mitigating, reducing or preventing the impact of racism (think affirmative action) HAD to be discussed in racial terms.  Thus the intentional racist could frame themselves as victims using the same language and perverting well-developed theories of the decimated Black Identity Movement of the 60’s.  Thus, though white women are the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action, only non-whites are called “affirmative action hires.” They wrested control of “Identity Politics” before the term was coined because they realized how powerful it was.

In 2008, the Dems struck gold again with another political genius:  Barack Obama.  Obama was extremely charismatic and had the advantage of winning the black vote without having to campaign in the black community.  Being half black, it wasn’t even necessary for him to offer anything to black America.  He won handily, twice.  This presented a new challenge for the Southern Strategy.  The Republicans were so deeply invested in it that racism was really all the party had to offer middle and lower class Americans.  The Strategy called for plausible deniability.  But Obama, by the standards that Republicans espoused, was a dream president.  New wars, free-trade agreements, pardoning torturers, legalizing the surveillance state, deporter-in-chief, etc, etc, etc.  And they STILL hated him.  It was much harder to keep race out of the conversation.  It was much harder to dismiss accusations of racism.  They couldn’t keep it “abstract.”  So they developed two new memes to infect our culture.

“Reverse Racism” was relabeled “Identity Politics.” Not only did this phrase erase race from the conversation, it could be wielded against other communities including women, LGBTQI, religious minorities, etc.  They also created the formulation that any discussion about racial oppression is itself racist.  “He called me a racist! He just did that because I am white.  What a racist!”

These brand-new formulations were pumped into the political dialogue via the vast right-wing/Republican apparatus I described above.  They’ve only been around for maybe 10 years, but we are already swimming in them.

The anti-racists have been on the ropes for a while, but they haven’t been asleep.  Affirmative Action, though misguided, did help to produce a couple of generations of great thinkers inside the institutions who have helped deconstruct and lay bare the racism that permeates our society.  Thinkers like Cornell West and Michelle Alexander come to mind.

In 2011, a white woman named Robin DiAngelo (Phd) wrote a 17-page paper for the “International Journal of Critical Pedagogy” entitled “White Fragility.”  In it, she coins and defines the term, and backs it up with solid research.  I had not read it until recently, and while it did not contain any information I didn’t already know, I marveled at how clearly and succinctly she lays out these facts.  I highly recommend you read it.  I must quote at length:

“White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress.  This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility.  White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.  These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation.  These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.  This paper explicates the dynamics of White Fragility.

“I am a white woman.  I am standing beside a black woman.  We are facing a group of white people who are seated in front of us.  We are in their workplace, and have been hired by their employer to lead them in a dialogue about race.  The room is filled with tension and charged with hostility.  I have just presented a definition of racism that includes the acknowledgment that whites hold social and institutional power over people of color.  A white man is pounding his fist on the table.  His face is red and he is furious.  As he pounds he yells, “White people have been discriminated against for 25 years!  A white person can’t get a job anymore!” I look around the room and see 40 employed people, all white.  There are no people of color in this workplace.  Something is happening here, and it isn’t based in the racial reality of the workplace.  I am feeling unnerved by this man’s disconnection with that reality, and his lack of sensitivity to the impact this is having on my co-facilitator, the only person of color in the room.  Why is this white man so angry?  Why is he being so careless about the impact of his anger?  Why are all the other white people either sitting in silent agreement with him or tuning out?  We have, after all, only articulated a definition of racism.”

These are the first two paragraphs of the paper.

One thing you will note if you read the paper is that DiAngelo never calls the man a “racist.”  She doesn’t call anyone a “racist” because white fragility and white privilege are not about individuals being “racist.”

DiAngelo addresses this directly, with a definition of “racism.”  Even for those who haven’t read this paper, I believe this to be the most widely accepted definition of the word on the left, even for those who have never articulated it.

“Although mainstream definitions of racism are typically some variation of individual ‘race prejudice,’ which anyone of any race can have, Whiteness scholars define racism as encompassing economic, political, social, and cultural structures, actions, and beliefs that systematize and perpetuate an unequal distribution of privileges, resources and power between white people and people of color (Hilliard, 1992).  This unequal distribution benefits whites and disadvantages people of color overall and as a group.  Racism is not fluid in the U.S.; it does not flow back and forth, one day benefiting whites and another day (or even era) benefiting people of color.  The direction of power between whites and people of color is historic, traditional, normalized, and deeply embedded in the fabric of U.S.  society (Mills, 1999; Feagin, 2006).  Whiteness itself refers to the specific dimensions of racism that serve to elevate white people over people of color.  This definition counters the dominant representation of racism in mainstream education as isolated in discrete behaviors that some individuals may or may not demonstrate, and goes beyond naming specific privileges (McIntosh, 1988).  Whites are theorized as actively shaped, affected, defined, and elevated through their racialization and the individual and collective consciousness formed within it.”   (Frankenberg, 1997; Morrison, 1992; Tatum, 1997)

So, like, no one is calling you a “racist.”  It’s not about you.  It is about systems and modes of behavior that you can choose to engage in or choose to disrupt.  When you choose to engage rather than disrupt then, yes, the anti-racists are going to have something to say about it.

Understand this:  it isn’t DiAngelo or anyone on the left who first recognized white privilege in America.  It was the Republican party, back in the 60’s and 70’s.  Remember the Southern Strategy, which sought to hide discussions of race on the right while forcing left anti-racists to address racial issues head-on? It only works to get votes if white fragility exists.  The Republican Party recognized that discussions of race and the (definitional) privileges of whiteness would lead to specific responses in white people, specifically, as DiAngelo wrote, “outward displays of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation.”  They knew it so well they crafted an electoral strategy on it that has allowed them to dominate U.S. presidential politics and control the white vote since before I was born.

But the anti-racists are catching up.  Analysis and awareness are flowing out of the universities and new media.  Millennials largely understand the issues we are discussing intrinsically.  Thus, many of the behaviors you have blithely engaged in your whole life are now getting the push-back and scrutiny they have long deserved.  It’s like “Me Too,” but for race, and in slow motion.

So when you have that visceral, Beverly response to claims that you may have engaged with racist tropes or systems, remember that you feel that response because a bunch of white racists have spent a lifetime trying to instill that response on you for their political gain.  Recognize that if someone has “accused” you of white fragility, they are probably correct if you grew up in America and have not gone through intentional, intensive deprogramming.  It is unlikely you have overcome decades of American segregation, curricula and media.  Check your privilege and use the experience to learn from your fellow Greens how you can be a better anti-racist and help us fight the rising tide of fascism the Southern Strategy has helped to set off around the country and the world.

— LeBeau Kpadenou
Co-Chair Green Party of Florida, February 2020

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