White Supremacy in the Age of Trump
Excerpts from a talk by Loretta Ross – November 4, 2017 – Amherst, MA
Loretta Ross gave the keynote address as the War Tax Resistance Gathering in Amherst, Massachusetts, on November 4. She teaches “White Supremacy and Appropriate Whiteness in the Age of Trump” as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Women's Studies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Note: These excerpts are just part of a longer talk; the full version is on NWTRCC’s YouTube channel, linked at nwtrcc.org. We’ve left out most ellipses for ease of reading.
I have the immense privilege of having 25 of the brightest kids you will ever see eagerly embracing a strategy for deconstructing white supremacy from a place of whiteness. They are students of pretty good privilege. If they wanted to, they could just melt back into society, and no one would ever offer a critique of what they are doing because it would be usual, expected, customary. And yet they are choosing to learn how to become active resisters. …To me that’s why this historical moment is so precious, because those of us who have been objects of enslavement and genocide, we’ve been saying white supremacy is in America’s DNA. But the fact there is a significant portion of the white population that’s understanding that the currency of white supremacy is counterfeit is new and different.
I have studied the fascist movement for the last 30 years. In the 1990s my job was to monitor hate groups at the Center for Democratic Renewal, formerly known as the National Anti-Klan Network...under the leadership of Rev. C. T. Vivian. [He] came to work one day and literally told the staff “if you ask people to give up hate then you have to be there for them when they do.” I started talking to people who had been in the Klu Klux Klan, the militia movement, the Aryan Nations, etc. It was probably the most challenging and interesting work that I ever did, because I found out that once you got to know someone in the hate movement, it was really hard to continue to hate them. I used to say “Oh they’re like roaches. They come out at night when you turn the lights out.” And then I saw them as human beings, hurting human beings, but human beings nonetheless. Of course, this just messed up my thinking because if a Black woman can’t hate the Klan, who’s left to hate?
In this current epoch, we’re talking about Trump supporters. The perspective I’m trying to offer the students I’m teaching and the audiences I get to speak to about white supremacy is that we are going to have to take a longitudinal view of what we are facing, because Trump was so clearly an outcome, not a cause.
What we are witnessing is what happened after the success of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The people who felt they had lost control of this democracy and their determination to protect white privilege and white supremacy developed a multi-decade plan to regain power. To implement this plan, they pulled together not only people who had been resistant to the civil rights movement, the diehard segregationists, but they also thought that they needed to foment culture wars against LGBT rights, women’s rights, abortion rights, immigrants, workers’ rights, environmental justice. They just perfected the politics of white grievance against modernity.
[I]n about thirty years the demographics are going to shift so thoroughly that white people will no longer be the majority in America. So what we see now is their total deconstruction of the mechanics of democracy, because they no longer think democracy works in their best interests anymore. Not that we ever had a perfect democracy to begin with, but when you tie their attacks on voting rights, gerrymandering, the media, education, the judiciary, government regulation of corporations, what is truth even — facts — science, all of that, you get a very alarming dystopian picture, that these people are deconstructing the very mechanisms we count on protecting egalitarian democratic society, and they are trying to create a society that allows an embittered minority to stay in control.
I’ll stop and define it: White supremacy is a body of ideas, it is not a race of people. It’s a body of ideas comprised of racism, homophobia, Christian nationalism, ableism, sexism, anti-environmentalism. There are so many parts of this thing called white supremacy that I think the most frequent mistake people make is working on only one aspect of it, and thinking they are seeing the whole thing. You have to see it as a totalizing system, a toxic sea in which we all swim, so that in the final analysis every white person is not a white supremacist and every white supremacist is not white.
That’s what we face, and my question is, are we who are trying to fight the ravages of the white supremacist movement sufficiently “woke” enough to realize that we need our own multi-decade plan?
For me, fighting white supremacy is what I’m against, but the vision that I want to talk about is a vision of a world based on human rights. That’s what I’m fighting for. I really like the fact that in 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was shepherded in under the leadership of former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to allow us to define societies in which people treat each other based on our need for each other, our human interdependence, the need for a cultural caring philosophy and morality as opposed to atomization, individualism, and alienation, which is what our present society operates on.
We should have been building a U.S.-based human rights movement, holding our government accountable for its human rights violations here and around the world. We should have been organizing ourselves as the women’s rights wing of the human rights movement, working with the anti-racist wing of the human rights movement, and the peace wing of the human rights movement, and the environmental wing of the human rights movement. Instead we’ve been in identity silos acting like we’re the divided and the conquered, and our enemies, have just taken advantage of that. [W]e’re so engaged in a call-out culture, criticizing each other’s activism...that we forgot to be strategic together and share a vision.
There is no way you can live in the South and not know the names of the people who died — black, white, women, men — who died for your right to do this work. So when you have those kinds of dates in your soul and on your shoulders you tend to become overly serious, humorless... I couldn’t even go to a movie without offering a critique of its racial and gender politics. It was overwhelming, until Leonard Zeskind told me, “Loretta, lighten up. Fighting nazis should be fun, being a nazi is what sucks.” And I’ve never forgotten that phrase.
When you’re fighting on the side of justice and truth and righteousness it’s a perfect struggle. You don’t have to be perfect. The struggle is. You can bring your imperfect self to the work. That’s what we need to dismantle white supremacy, white people who are self-critical enough and brave enough to take risks and learn new mistakes as they go along.
Loretta Ross was a co-founder and the national coordinator of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective from 2005-2012. She is an expert on women’s issues, hate groups, racism and intolerance, human rights, and violence against women. Her work focuses on the intersectionality of social justice issues and how this affects social change and service delivery in all movements.