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In the Wake of Charlottesville, Let’s Call for Structural Transformation

We need a strategy to eradicate white supremacy at its root.

A vigil is held in downtown Philadelphia on August 13, 2017, in support of the victims of white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, this weekend. (Photo: Jessica Kourkounis / Getty Images)

White supremacist James Alex Fields Jr.’s murder of 32-year-old Heather Heyer and near-massacre of antiracist protesters at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville turned the mobilization into a flashpoint for politicians on both sides of the aisle, as well as for media outlets. Heyer’s death shifted the mainstream portrayal of Charlottesville from a “street fight between the right and the left” to a terrorist attack aimed at the antiracist left.

Donald Trump, of course, did not make this shift. Although he has supplied swift responses to the attacks that have occurred in places like Paris, the president initially remained mum about Heyer’s murder and the dozens of people who were injured in the white supremacist attack.

Trump’s conspicuous silence and weak response led both conservatives and liberals to frame their conversations on Charlottesville through discussions of the president’s lack of moral leadership. Republicans and Democrats, such as Senators Orrin Hatch and Marco Rubio, and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe condemned Trump for his initial silence. Once Trump finally issued a response condemning what he described as “violence on many sides,” he attracted more criticisms from both liberal and conservative politicians and pundits for failing to identify that white supremacists were at fault and suggesting that both the left and the right were to blame.

While Trump’s comments were indeed egregious, mainstream narratives about Charlottesville that focus primarily on Trump’s bad character and the actions of one murderous racist (Fields), leave something to be desired: They obscure the need to creatively confront and defeat the white supremacist right. These limited narratives belie the structure of white supremacy in the US. Ultimately, this framing tells many of us on the left what we already know: Neither liberals nor conservatives have a real strategy for eradicating white supremacy at its root.

Like many Americans, I was horrified to hear about the murder of Heather Heyer and the injuries to other anti-racists and anti-fascists resisting white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday. As an organizer working to confront racist police violence in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I have seen tense moments where drivers have threatened to ram their vehicles into marchers exercising their right to protest, so I knew that this violence was not a case of a few “rotten apples;” the threat of it persists everywhere.

Fields’ evil deed recalls this nation’s deep history of state-sanctioned white supremacist violence aimed at people of color, especially African Americans, and the left. Friday night’s tiki-torch march and Saturday’s deadly assault recall the wave of race riots as well as the first Red Scare after World War I. Part of the white nationalists’ vision, at least as described by white supremacist leader Richard Spencer, is to create a white “ethno-state.” Driving through a multiracial flank of radicals could represent a pursuit of this goal, or at least an attempt to create the space needed for further white nationalist organizing.

However, the framing of Saturday’s attacks by liberal and conservative politicians and pundits does not really present death as a logical outcome of white supremacist organizing and a white nationalist White House. The overwhelming emphasis on the actions of the driver, as well as on Trump’s responses, reduces the problem of eradicating white supremacy to one murderous act by an individual and a lack of moral leadership from an immoral president, not the product of structural racism. Rather than seeing white supremacy as a system, many analysts are describing Friday’s and Saturday’s events as the result of an emotion: “hate.”

Critiques of Trump focused on his days-long inability to reference Neo-Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan, eventually forcing him to deliver a new statement. But what is the point of pushing Trump to denounce white supremacists, when he clearly does not have the moral authority to criticize them? Trump helped popularize birtherism, which offered a basis for Republican Party obstructionism during the Obama era. Trump-fueled birtherism also helped delegitimize certain policies, such as the Affordable Care Act.

Trump has employed white nationalists, such as Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, in his administration. His administration has sought to implement a constellation of policies that can only be described as an attempt to explicitly center white racial nationalism in domestic and foreign affairs. These policies include the Muslim travel ban, the continuation of restrictive immigration and aggressive deportation, a turn toward resurrecting racist drug war policies, and the Department of Justice’s flirtation with suing colleges and universities over their use of affirmative action policies. Trump is also “seriously considering” pardoning racist Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Calling on him now to denounce a part of his electoral base that he helped cultivate with his birtherism — without rolling back any of the aforementioned policies — seems like an empty gesture. Would we take seriously a well-known jewel thief’s disavowal of the latest bank robbery because the robbers killed a hostage? Probably not. So, why should anyone believe this president if he says he condemns white supremacists?

We are mistaken to focus on Trump’s inability to do the easiest thing ever — call folks who wave Nazi flags “Nazis” and white nationalists who commit murder “white supremacist terrorists.” We are also mistaken to reduce Heyer’s murder and white nationalist organizing to “hate” and a product of “fringe” and “bad” beliefs. We will not defeat white supremacy by just trying to shoo all of the “bad racists” back out of public life.

Black- and people-of-color-led movements against state violence have illustrated how white supremacy is resilient and powered by acts of institutional violence. These acts are perpetrated by policies constructed and enacted by both Democrats and Republicans. Bill Clinton was not wearing a KKK hood when he signed the 1994 crime bill, which fueled the mass incarceration of people of color. George W. Bush was not waving a Nazi flag when he and Congress enacted the Patriot Act, which led to egregious forms of racial profiling of Arab and Muslim folks after 9/11. While the KKK and other white supremacists have a history of using violence to block African Americans’ property, labor and voting rights, the federal government has not always needed the KKK to enact discriminatory policies.

So, yes, we must use a diversity of creative tactics to resist white supremacists whenever and wherever they organize, but that is not the only strategy. Eradicating institutional racism — especially as it is related to a host of other legal, political and material structures, such as private property rights and policing, restrictive immigration and deportation, wage and property theft, deindustrialization and the assault on organized labor, the patriarchal assault on reproductive rights, the theft of Indigenous land, imperialist wars, and other crimes committed by capitalists and the state — offers us the best chance to eradicate the foundation of white supremacy.

Without the acts of the criminal state to stand on, white supremacists will not have a platform to build a movement. Denying white supremacists’ racist symbols and ideas is important. I am a fan of confederate flag burners. But we may be able to prevent more acts of white supremacist violence if we finally eliminate their structural foundation.

This elimination will not be initiated by Democrats or Republicans. The focus on Trump’s behavior reflects the lack of a structural analysis. This should not surprise us. Before Black Lives Matter’s emergence, Republicans mainly operated on the official line that the United States was colorblind, while Democrats, colleges and universities, and much of corporate America embraced superficial notions of diversity and multiculturalism. In recent years, however, resistance to economic injustice, deindustrialization, mass incarceration, racist police violence, Islamophobia, restrictive immigration and deportations, and theft of Indigenous land for corporate gain has shattered both of these visions.

As Democrats scramble to adjust their racial politics, we should, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor emphasizes in her piece demanding “No More Charlottesvilles,” confront the violent right whenever and wherever it emerges. And while we are opposing the violent right, we should continue to offer our alternative: a working class-focused multiracial solidarity politics that aims to enact racial justice and economic democracy for everyone. Working from these strategies, hopefully, we will be able to prevent future Charlottesvilles.

This is a tall order, because structural transformation is difficult. Let’s not take the easy way out.

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