Charlottesville and White Supremacy: GC Professors Linda Martín Alcoff and Jessie Daniels Weigh In
The recent fatal clashes in Charlottesville and President Donald Trump’s response have brought heightened attention to the issue of white supremacy in the U.S. and to those who study the topic, like Graduate Center professors Linda Martín Alcoff (GC/Hunter, Philosophy) and Jessie Daniels (GC/Hunter, Psychology).
Just days after the white nationalist rally turned deadly, Buzzfeed published a list of books that “explain white supremacy” in the U.S. Alcoff’s The Future of Whiteness (Wiley, 2015) made the cut.
In the book, Alcoff explores what it means to be white in the U.S. when white, European Americans are becoming a minority. She examines how the demographic shift is mobilizing some whites into angry and even violent activism.
For Alcoff, the events in Charlottesville offered further evidence of the increasing polarization among white people in this country.
“You saw the right-wing amalgamation of a variety of anti-Semitic, anti-black races, anti-Latino races,” Alcoff said. “But you also saw there were a lot of white people on the other side” who refused to be represented by supremacists.
Alcoff herself has a complicated relationship with race. Her father is from Panama. Her great grandfather on her mother’s side fought in the Civil War. Growing up in the South during the civil rights movement, largely surrounded by her mother’s relatives, she saw racism both in her own family and in her community.
“There was a resurgence, post-civil rights, throughout the South of the Klan,” Alcoff said. “And the Klan was always raising funds, recruiting, organizing.”
For Alcoff, who participated in a counter demonstration against the Klan 40 years ago in Tallahassee, Charlottesville had an element of déjà vu. Yet, she said, there were also stark differences. Namely, the white supremacists in Charlottesville didn’t cover their faces, and they came heavily armed. “They’re unapologetic about who they are,” she said.
She believes that deepening inequality is fueling the spread of white supremacy. “Trump and the ‘alt right’ prey on vulnerable whites who are at a loss to figure a way forward that’s meaningful and plausible for their families,” she said.
“The analysis of the ‘alt right’ is that poor working class whites are doing badly because people of color are doing better, so it’s a zero-sum game,” Alcoff added. “And that’s not well supported by facts — historical, sociological, economic, or political, so you provide a counter narrative.”
She has seen glimmers of hope in the labor movement, where there is multiracial solidarity. She points to last spring’s threatened strike by nursing home workers in Chicago who demanded that their new contract protect the rights of all workers regardless of immigration status.
“It is entirely possible to build solidarity, but it takes work, and it takes articulation of what the problem is,” Alcoff said. “And that means, we have to talk about whiteness. We have to talk about race. We have to not shy away from talking about identity issues, and that’s the thesis of my book.”
Daniels, a widely followed scholar on race and the internet, also sees a connection between inequality and the spread of white supremacy, but she admits she is less optimistic about a path forward than her friend and colleague.
“We are going to have to make some profound changes to the way our society operates to address the lingering white supremacy in it,” Daniels said.
Daniels readily acknowledges white supremacy isn’t a new phenomenon in the U.S., an argument she makes in her book White Lies: Race, Class, Gender and Sexuality in White Supremacist Discourse (Routledge, 1997).
“There’s a persistent presence of white supremacists in the U.S., and they are much more like the rest of us than we care to believe,” she said.
To her, the difference today is “the mainstreaming of white supremacist ideas into political and media discourse, national policy, and people’s everyday lives.” Even CNN, she points out, has participated in normalizing the views of the “alt right.” The network drew ire when it paraphrased the racist rhetoric of Richard Spencer, president of the National Policy Institute in its chyron: “Alt-right founder questions if Jews are people."
“At the same time,” she said, “you’ve got a sitting president of the U.S. saying, perhaps there are ‘two sides’ to white supremacist violence. … Now, we’re getting into a really dangerous area of inciting racial violence and worse.”
In her book Cyber Racism: White Supremacy Online and the New Attack on Civil Rights (Perspectives on a Multiracial America) (Rowman, 2009) and in other writing, Daniels has traced the intertwined history of the internet and the spread of racism. White supremacists, she shows, were early adopters of the medium and used it successfully to spread their ideology globally. “It’s also made networking among white nationalists and other extremists much easier than in the pre-internet era,” she said.
It is a fallacy, though, she says, to think that white supremacists like those that gathered in Charlottesville are all that different from the rest of us. “We continue to participate in systems — from policing, to education, to employment, to housing — that perpetuate the same kind of inequality the torch-carrying white supremacists envision.”
Submitted on: SEP 7, 2017
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