“The thing about us fascists is, it’s not that we don’t believe in freedom of speech. You can say whatever you want. We’ll just throw you in an oven.” — Peter Tefft, white nationalist.
Which side are you on? When one side is composed of Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists, and the other is made up of people attempting to stop them, the answer should be simple: not with the Nazis. But the president of the United States has infamously taken a different view, characterizing the counter-protesters who squared off with Nazis in Charlottesville as having incited the deadly violence the city saw last weekend. Trump also assured the press that there were “fine people” at the Charlottesville convening of white nationalists and other proponents of ethnic cleansing. By lending political cover to his brutish, racist fandom, Trump has both emboldened his followers and further normalized white nationalism in the public consciousness. But amid our ubiquitous condemnations of Trump’s “both sides” rhetoric, the left has largely erased the fact that another group beat Trump to the punch: Respectable Liberals.
Social media has been awash in leftist condemnations of antifa and other counter-protesters who disrupted white supremacist events in Charlottesville last weekend. Many liberals have also criticized protesters in Durham, North Carolina, who removed a Confederate statue on Monday. Liberals who condemned the actions of the Durham protesters stated that the protesters’ cause was just, but that there are “better ways” (i.e., legislative solutions).
When I hear such arguments, I can’t help but wonder, where were these movement critics during all of the years that the Durham statue, a monument to slavery and hatred, stood undisturbed? Where were their legislative solutions then? How many Respectable Liberals have walked past Confederate monuments each day, without any thought of what it would take to bring them down?
In the years before Bree Newsome heroically declared, “This flag comes down today!” I don’t recall any of the white pundits who’ve condemned protesters in Durham initiating campaigns to remove these statues. For many liberals, the Confederate flag was nothing more than a symbol that reified their own superiority — as if their snide comments about those who still displayed the flag were, in and of themselves, political activism.
But as soon as Taqiyah Thompson climbed onto the base of a Confederate statue and attached the nylon rope that pulled it down, Respectable Opinions arose from the ground like weeds. It was as if the statue, and its impacts on Black people, had been invisible until it was lashed and pulled to the ground.
Because for many, this statue was, in fact, invisible until Thompson’s transformative act of rebellion occurred.
In liberal discussions of the Durham statue, you will rarely hear mention of how much, or how little, Respectable Liberals themselves have contributed to efforts to remove racist iconography. Because for most, no such solidarity existed. Many struggles don’t exist within the scope of the white gaze until white eyes are forcibly fixed on major events. What precipitated the removal of Confederate flags in South Carolina? Sadly, it wasn’t the well-reasoned arguments of Black people.
It took a massacre at the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston in Charleston, and Bree Newsome’s removal of a Confederate flag, for most liberals to see the removal of Confederate imagery as a political priority. As is often the case, it took both Black death and Black disobedience to bring a long-ignored issue into focus.
Some Respectable Liberals have argued that there is a distinction between Bree Newsome’s removal of the Confederate flag, which they supported, and the upending of the Durham statue — an act that they condemn. Why? For some, it is the imagery of property destruction, as they have been taught to understand it: A solid object was actually broken before their eyes, and capitalism has taught them that is bad. Both the flag and the statue were public property, and while Newsome didn’t destroy the flag, most leftists would have been happy to see it fall from its pole and land in a trashcan. So, what is the difference between a discarded scrap of fabric and a toppled pile of bronze?
A subconscious fear of Black people and Black rebellion is likely also at the root of many white people’s negative view of the events in Durham. It’s been documented that white people are simply more likely to fear Black and Brown people than white people. A 2015 study in “Evolution and Human Behavior” concluded that “prevailing impressions of Black and Hispanic men as large and muscular are connected to perceptions of physical aggressiveness.”
Amongst the many factors that inform such racial biases, one of the most politically obvious is that Black people in the United States have always had cause for revolt.
Most people would agree that human beings have a natural right to defend their own lives, and the lives of their families. Many more would concede that it’s reasonable for a person to reclaim what’s been stolen from them. If one examines the position of Black people within such a belief system, the possibilities become frightening to a whole lot of white people.
Put simply: The idea of angry Black people breaking things scares most white people, even if they think the object in question should be destroyed.
So, Respectable Liberals pay lip service to the issues while demanding that the oppressed wait patiently and do things the “right way,” just as the white moderates of King’s time implored him to be patient. But as marginalized people have learned, across the course of many oppressions, freedom is not delivered on request.
The Respectable Liberals’ condemnations of counter-protesters in Charlottesville are also rooted in the need to maintain white order. It has long been their policy to acknowledge inequity, but to argue that it must be allowed to continue, for now. To such people, a lynch mob is “speech” until someone is killed. For the sake of order, and everyone’s freedoms, we are supposed to watch as our would-be killers gather, pick up torches and rally for our deaths. Liberals have repeatedly echoed that Nazis and the KKK should be starved of attention, but the truth is, the liberal plan of ignoring fascists until they go away helped deliver us to this moment. The current surge in openly white-supremacist behavior, which drags all racist violence further into the mainstream, was allowed to incubate, undisturbed, by leftists who wrote its brutes off as basement-dwelling internet trolls. Now, they have emerged. They have marched brazenly, chanted “blood and soil” and killed a human being in full view of the world. And yet, we are still told that if we ignore them, they will go away.
What purpose does this strategy serve, except to maintain our participation in a system of order that does not protect us? Marginalized people are being treated as though we are the ones failing institutions that have never protected us. But we, as people who have been living under threat our entire lives, can no longer accept bureaucratic barriers to our dignity and survival. Liberals who cannot bring themselves to agree, or to confront these threats should, at the very least, learn to hold their tongues when a tactic they wouldn’t personally attempt comes into play.
To destabilize this damaging Respectable Liberal narrative, those embedded in communities that espouse it must take responsibility for pushing back against it. If you agree, but don’t know where to begin, I have a few suggestions.
Tell your Respectable Liberal friends that they don’t have to comment on every tactic they don’t agree with, or don’t understand. Assure them that, whatever society has taught them, it’s OK for them to have unexpressed thoughts. Tell them that when they find themselves writing a Facebook post about how a racist statue should have come down more bureaucratically, it’s time to hit delete and share a cat meme instead. Tell them that the first thing they need to do, to be of any use to anyone in our struggles, is to realize that the enemy is on the other side. Tell them that this work is complicated, but that they have a lot of role models to learn from. One of them died on Saturday. Her name is Heather Heyer.