It could be argued that this past year was the year that the term “white-supremacy” has gone mainstream. Everybody and their mother is talking about fighting or resisting white supremacy. White leftists are usually the ones who are seemingly throwing themselves on the front lines. They also come across as the most eager to smash white supremacy, ultimately overshadowing the ones who are directly oppressed by it.
So, let me be real about this and come out and say that it bothers me. For the longest time I couldn’t really articulate it but in my gut something just didn’t feel right. The term “white-supremacy” has never been a popular colloquial term. Nor has it ever been even truly acknowledged by white America as a very real reality for most black Americans. If white supremacy was ever discussed it was generally talked about in its isolated fringe form and relegated to annals of day time talk shows. Throughout the 90s I would remember the times I stayed home from school and watched exploitive shows such as Jerry Springer or Geraldo Rivera when they would bring on neo-Nazis and Klan members to generate easy ratings. Geraldo even got his nose broken when a Klan member through a chair at his face.
For the majority of white liberal Americans of the post-civil rights era, white supremacy was viewed in the contexts of isolated fringe far right groups that was a mere relic of history. White supremacy was viewed as history. Only with the rise of Trump have we begun to have mainstream discussions about what role dose white supremacy plays in our society. And that’s great! We need to be having that discussion.
Yet what has been lacking from that conversation is the systematic nature of white supremacy and how it’s directly tied to capitalism. Liberals who claim to be part of the “resistance” are acting as if Trump has opened a long dormant Pandora’s box of white supremacy. The “resistance” accuse the current head of the American empire of being a white supremacist fascist without questioning whether or not the American empire is inherently white supremacist in nature.
Much of the focus has been on the symbolism of what Trump represents and not on the material reality of what America is. The horror of what is white supremacy is ultimately stripped of its historical and current roll in supporting capitalism and is diluted when liberals only see white supremacy through the prism of individualistic interpersonal relations. Privilege politics is a manifestation of individualizing white supremacy. Rather than struggling against the structural forces that create white privilege in the first place we are instead expected to meekly ask that white people somehow give up their privileges or at very least recognize that they have privilege. It should be obvious to anyone that that makes little sense because it forces us to depend on white people to enact symbolic change while we surrender what little power we have in the first place to make fundamental social change. Privilege politics also assumes that white supremacy in our society is result of individualistic patterns and behaviors when in fact people’s patterns and behaviors reflect the political and economic conditions of the society.
Systems don’t change because people change, people change because systems change. All of this amounts to the depoliticizing of white supremacy. It’s preventing us from fully understanding that Americas foreign, domestic and economic policy is essentially white supremacy in action.
An excellent example of what the depoliticization of white supremacy looks like is the reaction to the recent debate between Dr. Cornel West and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. In the article he peened for the Guardian, Dr. West put it bluntly and accused Coates of being “the neoliberal face of the black freedom struggle”.
West went on to say astutely that “any analysis or vision of our world that omits the centrality of Wall Street power, US military policies, and the complex dynamics of class, gender, and sexuality in black America is too narrow and dangerously misleading.” He then adds his most damming indictment by saying “In short, Coates fetishizes white supremacy. He makes it almighty, magical and unremovable.”
West accurately theorizes that any discussion that removes structural white supremacy from its central role in upholding Americas capitalist empire will inadvertently end up reinforcing white supremacy. However, instead of seeing West’s critique of Coates as a valid insight on the state of the black liberation struggle, most of the reactions have framed the debate as some sort of personal beef between the two most prominent black intellectuals in the country, resembling some sort of Hip Hop celebrity feud.
Detractors of West such as Dr. Michael Eric Dyson have even gone on accusing West of throwing “shade” because he’s somehow jealous of Coates’ success, as if West’s criticisms were based on piety narcissism rather than grounded in a legitimate concern for the fate of black America. It’s just plain dismissive to reject what West has to say without fully analyzing the points he was trying to make.
The reactions are indicative of the neoliberal thinking that is insistent on removing all traces of critical thinking that challenges the orthodoxy of privilege politics. Critics of West completely ignore his points in favor of denouncing him simply as a washed up bitter old man. West was trying to make us understand that white supremacy is imbedded into every fabric of American life and society. It’s not some mystic force that is so great that it indestructible. He wants us to understand that the responsibility to make change isn’t held by those who have privilege. It’s not for them to kindly give up their privilege or come to terms with it, rather its our responsibility to struggle against this unjust system that creates such unearned privileges.
Only when we are able to see that the fight against white supremacy and the fight against capitalism are interconnected struggles (two sides of the same oppressive coin) is when we’ll finally be able to make any real progress towards liberation.
Amir Khafagy is a self-described “Arab-Rican” New Yorker. He is well known as an activist, journalist, writer, performer and spoken word artist. Amir is currently perusing a masters degree in Urban Affairs at Queens College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.