President Donald Trump’s description of Africa and Haiti as shitholes preoccupied commentators with the question, “Is the president ‘a racist’?”
A New York Times headline for a David Leonhardt column implored, “Just Say It: Trump Is a Racist.” Over at CNN, Jim Acosta wasn’t quite prepared to answer Leonhardt’s plea, carefully telling Anderson Cooper, “It’s a disturbing pattern, because it seems to come back to one truth here, and that is that this president deep down may just be a racist.” Meanwhile, The New Yorker’s John Cassidy would have none of this hedging, proclaiming, “The obvious truth can no longer be avoided or sugar-coated: We have a racist in the Oval Office.”
Trump’s long record of racist speech and behavior and inclination toward racist policies restricting immigration from poor parts of the world evidently hadn’t been as conclusive as this vulgar episode.
The expletive, like its predecessor in the Access Hollywood tape, heightened the statement’s outrageousness: Presidents are supposed to be dignified, not crass; eloquent, not vulgar; decent, not filthy. But Trump’s racist remark violated an even more fundamental norm. “The main lesson most whites absorbed from the Civil Rights Movement,” tweeted sociologist Crystal Fleming, “wasn’t that they have a personal responsibility to fight systemic racism but rather, that they have a responsibility to maintain a public appearance of being ‘non-racist’ even as racism pervades their lives.”
Politicians may engineer coups d’état, brutal austerity, or covert wars in Africa and Haiti; they may enact policies that intensify poverty, incarceration, and pollution that disproportionately hurt black and brown people in the United States, but these are not sufficient to irrefutably verify that they are “a racist.” Only public speech acts can do that, since, as Fleming continued in her Twitter thread, “the problem, for many whites, isn’t white racism or dominance —the problem is a failed public performance of being ‘non-racist.’”
In this formulation, racism is not a system but an inherent quality within an individual, proof of which comes when they publicly espouse racist views or use racist language. By formally classifying Trump “a racist” (“calling him out”), well-to-do liberals are able to implicitly deem themselves “non-racists” while keeping the pervasiveness of the attitude that Africa and Haiti are shitholes where it belongs: swept well under the rug.
But racism is not an individual quality; it is a hierarchical system of distributed power that gets mediated through people’s acts. As black-power activist Stokely Carmichael is quoted as saying, “If a white man wants to lynch me, that’s his problem. If he’s got the power to lynch me, that’s my problem.”
Affluent liberals, however diligently inoffensive their public speech, have less to be proud of in a framework wherein politicians are praised not for having the correct opinion but for leading collective action toward redistributing power. The question then shifts away from whether a person has good politics and toward whether a person wages good politics.
The dominant liberal conception of white anti-racism emphasizes altruism. In this mode, white people must set aside our own self-interest in order to extend kindness to those less fortunate. Humanitarian assistance is rewarded, and those who practice it are hailed for their self-sacrifice and generosity.
White people are encouraged to defer, shrink, and assist. It is not our fight, the white-altruism mode says, so we must strive to decenter ourselves and support black people’s “advancement” as peripheral allies, doing what kindnesses we can to compensate them for the privileges we enjoy. We must reliably articulate non-racist positions using suitably non-racist terminology, correct white people who fail to do these, and under no circumstances use racist language out in the open.
Not that people shouldn’t interrupt racist personal acts or respect the expertise of people of color regarding how racism plays out in their lives and communities, but that alone does not constitute a strategy. At best, these interruptions and this deference are a woefully inadequate response to systemic racism. At worst, white altruism is a recipe for disaster. Not only does it treat racism as personal flaw rather than a system of power; it also insists that white people have an obligation to help black communities “advance,” a construction that is vulnerable to white people’s misconceptions of what constitutes “advancement.” Without being anchored to a goal of redistributing power, altruism is often carried along by the prevailing currents of racist capitalism.
At the end of the Civil War, instead of furnishing formerly enslaved black people with the 40 acres Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman had promised, well-meaning moderate Republican Reconstructionists championed the Freedman’s Savings Bank “to instill into the minds of the untutored Africans lessons of sobriety, wisdom, and economy,” which Congress considered crucial to “the economic and industrial development of a people.” According to bank’s founder, Congregational minister John Alvord, black people didn’t want free land: “We hear them saying, ‘We will work and save and buy for ourselves.’”
Over a decade, the bank’s board, made up of highly regarded philanthropists, transformed the bank into an investment outfit conducting risky speculation, bribery, and fraud. When the Panic of 1873 threatened the bank’s viability, the trustees, desperate to reinforce an image of the bank as a trustworthy institution, appointed Frederick Douglass, an abolitionist and former slave, as bank president. In this capacity, Douglass discovered the enterprise to be “full of dead men’s bones, rottenness, and corruption.” The bank folded, leaving over 60,000 depositors without access to millions in strenuously earned deposits, and obliterating more than half of accumulated black wealth.
White altruism fared no better out West than down South. The policy of “allotment,” which broke up tribal lands into individually owned plots, came from white altruists. The architect of the 1887 Dawes Act, which made allotment official federal policy, was Alice Fletcher, an upper-class New York City suffragist who, out of anthropological curiosity, went west to live with and studied the Omaha Indians, ultimately adopting one as her son. She and other reformers were sure that tribal landholding was unproductive, inefficient, and destructive to the individual work ethic, that it thus prevented Indians from making healthy economic advances. In practice, allotment shrunk Indian-held lands from about 150 million acres to 48 million by the time of the Dawes Act’s 1934 repeal, leaving two-thirds of Indians either completely landless or without enough land to subsist.
Later, in the early 1940s, altruism struck again when the Rockefeller Foundation made an effort to alleviate the “tragedy of hunger” in the “backward” country of Mexico, touching off the much celebrated “Green Revolution.” Rockefeller Foundation scientists and policy experts implemented a system designed to raise Mexicans’ daily calorie intake by improving agricultural efficiency through “higher yielding and higher quality crop varieties” and disease control. The white people who designed and implemented the Green Revolution won awards. But for the farmers of Mexico, the program dramatically narrowed the genetic base of crops, destroyed indigenous agricultural practices, supplanted small and communal farming with commercial agribusiness, and displaced millions of peasants into urban slums or across the border.
Still today, manifestations of white altruism undermine the well-being of the very “shithole” denizens whose “advancement” it seeks. Microfinance, or inviting poor people into small amounts of debt, has been held up by its most powerful, enthusiastic advocates as a panacea for the ills that beset impoverished countries. In 2005 the United Nations even gave microcredit its own international year. Honors notwithstanding, microloans tend to worsen livelihoods overall, notoriously driving hundreds of Indian women to suicide. Far from raising living standards, microfinance has calcified the hierarchy that produces such poverty—and enriches Europe and North America.
Time and again, white people acting as allies in other people’s “progress” have not just failed to address racist power relations; they have entrenched white dominance. Altruism cannot be the basis for white anti-racist action. There’s only one thing that can: solidarity.
Solidarity is about unity, not around like-mindedness or affinity but around common interests. Neither having the same opinions nor even mutual fondness is required for one to enter into a solidarity relationship with another. All they need is the acknowledgement that, to achieve liberation, “I need you and you need me.” Solidarity is about fighting for oneself alongside another person, for one’s family alongside another family.
The thing is, when two people fight for themselves alongside one another, when they perceive themselves to be teammates, they begin to warm to each other. In 1939, a Chicago stockyard worker, Jim Cole, told a reporter from the Federal Writers’ Project, “I don’t care if the union don’t do another lick of work raisin’ our pay, or settling grievances about anything. I’ll always believe they done the greatest thing in the world gettin’ everybody who works in the yards together, and breakin’ up the hate and bad feelings that used to be held against the Negro.”
Only when white people come to see that our own liberation is bound up in the liberation of others can we achieve solidarity and have a basis for white anti-racism that does not produce the colonial outcomes generated by altruism.
White people in and adjacent to poverty have solid grounds for this type of solidarity; they are directly victimized by a politics that relies on racist rhetorical appeals. The cycle works the same way time and again: Politicians gin up fear of a racist mythological problem, and propose a solution that harms poor and working-class people of all colors—while consolidating wealth and power for the (almost entirely) white rich.
In the late 1970s and ’80s , the racist mythological problem was “welfare queens” living decadently off government fraud, illegitimately claiming white people’s “taxpayer money.” To solve this problem, the government cut safety-net payments, the largest share of whose beneficiaries had been white. The entire, diverse working class, disproportionately people of color, was harmed, and the white rich claimed tax cuts on behalf of aggrieved “taxpayers.”
Then in the 1990s, the racist mythological problem was “superpredators,” committing violence with “no conscience, no empathy”—the sort of people who, if affluent white Americans were ever to be safe, needed simply to be brought “to heel.” To solve “superpredators,” the government enacted harsh policing and sentencing measures, which served to expand the carceral system in which black and brown people were overrepresented, but a majority of whose inmates were white. The whole time windfall profits streamed into the accounts of the mostly white capitalists driving the prison-industrial complex.
Lately, the racist mythological problem has been “voter fraud.” Trump, in his characteristic way, has eschewed the normal dog whistles and campaigned outright on the fear of “illegal immigrants voting all over the country,” encouraging his 2016 supporters to “go down to certain areas” and make sure that “other people don’t come in and vote five times.” To solve the “voter-fraud” problem, the government has enacted a host of suppression measures from requiring documentary proof of citizenship to an Interstate Crosscheck system, which disproportionately disenfranchises voters of color and rural communities.
In each of these cases, the millions of lower-class white people whose lives are materially damaged have a firm basis for teaming up with the other nonwhite members of their class in opposition to the racist politics that fuel the policies hurting them. Poor and working-class white people are suffering under white supremacy, and have good reason to demand that they too be freed from it.
The even greater challenge is to bring affluent white people into solidarity relationships with working-class and poor people of color. The systems of property, policing, and uneven distribution of political influence favor them. But even those who sit atop the racist hierarchy are pressured and bullied into the constant battle to maintain their position. In forcing them to jealously guard their resources and power against those with less—black people, immigrants, indigenous Americans, Muslims, and “white trash”—our hierarchical system makes them develop fearful and contemptuous attitudes that worsen their lives. It alienates affluent white people from their fellow Americans and humans, depriving them of fellowship and cooperation.
The wealthy are terrified of falling a few strata down the socioeconomic ladder, and who can blame them? The less money you have, the poorer your health and education outcomes, the less decent your housing, the less healthful your food, the likelier you are to be abused on the job or by the police, and the less confident you can be that your children will have it any better. Losing ground in America is such a scary prospect that it blinds the affluent to the goal they might achieve if they adopted solidarity: liberation from that fear. If they there weren’t so far to fall, they wouldn’t be saddled with paranoia at every turn.
Solidarity requires that we rethink “privilege.” At present, white anti-racism demands intense examinations of and attempts to correct for privilege. To build solidarity, we must shift away from this practice and toward a demand for universal rights. As long as anti-racist white people remain fixated on privilege at the expense of all else, we remain divided from black people and relegated to the role of, at best, helpful allies. If we can shift to a universal-rights framework, we recast ourselves as all on the same team.
To perform this shift, it’s important to differentiate what political scientist and blogger David Kaib calls the “two faces of privilege.” On the one hand, “privilege” refers to things nobody ought to have, such as the power to dominate discussions, the feeling of entitlement to the body of another person, and the unthinking assumption that comes with social hegemony: that your experiences are the default. We should indeed pay attention to such dynamics, remaining vigilant about white people’s systematic conditioning to behave in ways that exasperate teammates or cause them pain or fear.
On the other hand, it refers to things everybody ought to have. This is where the “privilege” framework can be harmful. For example, I am said to be “privileged,” because my housing has always been dependable, I have never been deprived of nutritious food, I have been able to access treatment and surgery when I have been sick or injured, I have not only received a quality education but had some say in its direction, my periods of unemployment have been brief, and I have enjoyed the free time and freedom of movement and communication necessary to pursue art, inquiry, social life, and other sorts of joy and fulfillment.
Those are human rights, and calling them “privileges” undermines the fight to get them universally respected. Freedom, dignity, and democracy are due to everyone. If the lives of other people are less free and less dignified than mine, if they are denied the say I’m afforded in the systems that affect them, that is not a matter of their lacking my degree of privilege but of their rights being violated.
The baseline matters. Describing human rights as “privileges” uses destitution as the baseline. When people work from that baseline and treat every step above it as another “privilege,” we are affirming the right-wing idea that we naturally have nothing, that we have to ruthlessly compete just to get by. But when we talk of “universal rights,” the baseline shoots way up to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and freedom from want and fear. That is the life we all deserve; that is the life we are owed.
In the “privilege” framework, racist inequality induces white people to feel guilty, which produces inaction. In the “universal-rights” framework, it induces us to feel fury, which inspires action. No longer is it, “I feel bad for even thinking it, but thank goodness I don’t have it as bad as those who are worse off.” Instead, it becomes, “let’s get together and collect our due.”
Fostering solidarity will require diverse groups (labor unions, community organizations, and political parties) organized around guaranteed rights to good jobs, decent housing, quality health care, educational opportunities, nutritious food, and so forth. People’s membership in these organizations must not be superficial, as grass-roots engagement tends to be with, say, the Democratic Party. For the solidarity to be real, disparate people have to take courageous collective action.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the Poor People’s Campaign, which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was organizing at the end of his life. Premised on moving “from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights” and securing “a radical redistribution of economic and political power,” the Poor People’s Campaign was supposed to bring poor people of every color, ethnicity, and geography together to “raise certain basic questions about the whole society”—like who owned the resources and why poverty persisted in a land of plenty.
King was assassinated before the campaign came to fruition, but 50 years later Rev. William Barber II, pillar of the Moral Mondays movement, is anchoring a reimagination of the Poor People’s Campaign called A National Call for Moral Revival. Designed to bring thousands of people together in at least 25 states for a season of action targeted at state legislatures and the US Congress, the campaign will call for a dramatic overhaul of our national priorities in order to defeat poverty, systemic racism, ecological devastation, and the war economy.
In each state, people directly impacted by these “quadruple evils” are in the leadership of the campaign, which is specifically interracial and focused on universal human rights—precisely the antidote to the “white altruism” that pervades the predominant model of white anti-racism. People dissatisfied with merely proclaiming the president “a racist” and congratulating themselves on their bravery would do well to figure out how they can get involved.