When Gina Raimondo became Governor of Rhode Island in 2015, she formulated two major construction projects (ergo by default supported by the Building and Trades unions, a major political force within the Democratic Party she hails from) that could not have been more perfectly located. By proposing the construction of a fracked natural gas power plant in rural Burrillville by Invenergy and an LNG processing station in urban South Providence, she effectively made certain a broad coalition, which would be absolutely necessary to prevent either project, would never form.
This is a brilliant case study of what makes Ralph Nader’s notion of “convergence” in his book Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State (Bold Type Books, 2014) so precarious. By all rights, activist-residents should have united from across the state to oppose both eco-catastrophe projects. Such a scenario is so perfect it would have been called too far-fetched had a novelist with proletarian sympathies tried creating it in fictional terms.
And yet it was not meant to be. And the reason why is demonstrated by a simple reading of the 2016 presidential returns in Burrillville:
Rhode Island’s postwar social contract was underwritten by a racist social democratic agreement between capital and labor. Banks intentionally and militantly red-lined the suburbs that so-called white veterans fled to in droves, abandoning the urban sprawl to BIPOC communities that were expected to rot. Owing to the generous social safety net and less-restrictive immigration enforcement policies, Providence also became a major port of entry for Latinx, Southeast Asian and other migrant populations, creating a vibrant and beautiful metropolitan experience despite a municipal government that was so undeserving of such wonderful residents. Indeed, many of the racist suburbanites who had fled the city after World War II ended up commuting back into Providence every day for decades! Simultaneously, the old European ethnic mob families went legit by joining the Democratic Party en masse, insuring that corrupt patronage was the norm of the day. After almost 80 years, this is the stark population distribution, presented in the map below by the Economic Progress Institute’s report The State of Black Families in Rhode Island.
The wages of whiteness, as described in Black Reconstruction in America byW.E.B. Du Bois, were defined as a psychological trick. European workers both consciously and unconsciously allied with the bosses against other workers in order to accrue and protect certain privileges, protections, and gifts that would exclusively benefit them. But only for a time. At the end of the day, the boss was always going to use this wage of whiteness to bribe European workers not in order to give them complete and permanent protection but instead to divide the forces so to rob blind workers of all ethnic and national heritages. One such robbery is now at hand with the Burrillville and South Providence projects.
Steve Ahlquist, a fine reporter and muck-raker, has diligently covered both events in Burrillville (1) and in South Providence for years now. In the case of South Providence (2), brave freedom fighters like Monica Huertas (3), a working class Puerto Rican mother, have come forward as strong opponents of Raimondo’s efforts. But in Burrillville, such has not been the case. They certainly oppose the power plant, and some have good intentions, but the undeniable racism and xenophobia has neutralized their ability to step things up. Last week, for instance, the Burrillville Town Council voted to declare the municipality a “Second Amendment Sanctuary Town.” The madness of settler-colonialism, with its noxious white nationalism, prompts the Trump voters to spit in the face of the very people that they need to be making alliances with!
Du Bois understood the nuances of whiteness better than any of his contemporaries. He quizzically asks in his essay “The Souls of White Folk,” published in his anthology Darkwater, “But what on earth is whiteness that one should so desire it?… Am I, in my blackness, the sole sufferer? I suffer. And yet, somehow, above the suffering, above the shackled anger that beats the bars, above the hurt that crazes there surges in me a vast pity,—pity for a people imprisoned and enthralled, hampered and made miserable for such a cause, for such a phantasy!”
Later James Baldwin, in The Fire Next Time (certainly an apt title for the climate catastrophe), wrote of how miserable whiteness actually was:
The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed that collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world’s most direct and virile, that American women are pure. Negroes know far more about white Americans than that; it can almost be said, in fact, that they know about white Americans what parents—or, anyway, mothers—know about their children, and that they very often regard white Americans that way. And perhaps this attitude, held in spite of what they know and have endured, helps to explain why Negroes, on the whole, and until lately, have allowed themselves to feel so little hatred. The tendency has really been, insofar as this was possible, to dismiss white people as the slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing.
Quo vadis, Burrillville?
The obligation for rectifying this contradiction lies solely with the beneficiaries of white supremacy in Burrillville. If they want to succeed in stopping this plant, those 4,139 Trump voters (and a good many Stein, Clinton, and Johnson voters as well) need to do some serious internal work and understand why their racism and xenophobia is allowing this to happen to their town.
Part of that begins with trying to make repairs to an accord between neighbors that is currently frayed. A variation on the word repairis reparations, a conversation that can and should be held with honesty by Burrillville residents. The challenge is not to be atoning for the sins of forebears, far from it. Instead, the goal is dismantle systems and social agents of oppression that target people on the basis of their skin color. This is complicated because in Rhode Island, white supremacy is maintained by a layered, onion-like structuring that prevents so-called whites from seeing how they participate in systemic attacks on their neighbors.
Part of this can be based around support for BIPOC-led organizations and BIPOC activists who are on the front lines opposing Raimondo, such as NoLNGinPVD (4) and the FANG Collective (5). Both groups have been doing tremendous work and deserve plenty of support. Other work can include political education with groups like Showing Up for Racial Justice (6), who focus on organizing so-called whites to oppose white supremacy and dismantle it.
The stakes for both communities are great. Allowing either project to move forward would cause serious regional ecological harm. A broad coalition between the two is necessary. But before that happen Burrillville needs to stop criminalizing the very people they need as allies in this fight and do some serious work.