After the presidential debate in which members of the Proud Boys, a right-wing group known for instigating violence at demonstrations, were emboldened by President Trump’s “stand back and stand by” remark, a call has gone out to not only better understand this reckoning of the white nationalist movement but to prepare Black America for the calculated onslaught that could follow. Here the Southern Poverty Law Center Chief of Staff Lecia Brooks and Senior Fellow Eric K. Ward explain in their call to action on how we can use this moment to prepare in our response and leadership.
These are hard times for Black America. It is a moment in our centuries-long struggle for racial equity in which we face more than these manifestations of persistent, structural white supremacy. The other threat facing us today goes beyond anti-Black racial bias. Our entire democratic system is under attack from the white nationalist movement.
White nationalism, which emerged as a backlash to the 1960s civil rights movement, descends from white supremacy. It is not a system like white supremacy but rather, a social movement committed to overthrowing the U.S. government to establish a whites-only nation. Its supporters seek to build political power to achieve that ideological vision by implementing extreme racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic policies.
The gains we are achieving against white supremacy in this year’s uprising for racial justice are critically important. But the world needs to understand that these hard-fought gains on their own won’t slow down the white nationalist movement unless we take white nationalism on directly.
We need to expand our leadership role from protesting white supremacy to leading the fight against the white nationalist movement as well.
White supremacy has created the conditions we’re protesting now. White nationalism seeks to exploit those conditions. With Trump increasingly desperate to stem his deteriorating popularity – and refusing outright to condemn white supremacy and telling the white nationalist Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” – Black America needs to get ready.
An unintended consequence of the robust movement in support of Black lives over the past six months, is that backlash has intensified: the white nationalist movement has been galvanized. The desire to accelerate what’s happening now into a full-blown civil war is supercharging the chat rooms of white nationalist organizers and their paramilitary wing.
We cannot allow ourselves to be deterred. We need to prepare for a further increase in anti-Black hate crimes, police misconduct, and armed vigilante actions. We need to be seen as the leaders in the movement to counter authoritarianism and hate violence.
Since George Floyd’s killing, Black America has created one of the largest referendums on racism that has occurred since the 1960s. Black community leaders are making headway and continue to mobilize the nation in a Black-led, multi-racial solidarity movement. If we make this a referendum on white nationalism too, we could turn the tide. This means strengthening our understanding of authoritarian and anti-democratic movements and debunking the myths that we carry, too.
One myth is the myth of race itself. Far too many Americans – including African Americans – believe that race is biologically determined. The truth is, dividing and defining us by “race” is a social construction. The idea that so many Black Americans accept a biological definition of race is a sign of the influence of white nationalist thinking on all of us.
Another myth is that authoritarian, far-right movements exist only outside the Black community. We need to acknowledge there are racial supremacist movements within our communities, groups whose ideologies include tenets of racially-based hatred.
Black separatists believe the answer to white racism is to form separate institutions – or even a separate nation – for Black people. We need to wrestle with these forms of intolerance and draw a clear moral line against violence and public policy based on notions of racial supremacy, regardless of its origins.
The third myth we need to unpack is our view of white nationalists. The popular depiction is of poor, uneducated, alienated victims of society, who are driven by economic pressures to assert white racial superiority. While there may be some who fit that stereotype, white nationalist movements also consist of think tanks, elected officials, members of law enforcement and the military, and others who are not disenfranchised from institutional power.
Once we let go of these myths, we will see clearly that our task is to build broad-based multi-racial alliances while being clear about the special position that Black and Indigenous people hold. To strengthen our response and leadership in this moment we have to close the door on hate cultures in our communities. These are wedge issues that weaken our power while strengthening the power of the authoritarian paramilitary movements aiming for us all.
White nationalism now puts us at risk of losing everything our parents, grandparents, and their grandparents fought to win. We built this country – that is an indisputable fact. Our people have always been central to upholding American ideals. This is our moment and the United States is our democracy. We cannot allow centuries of our sacrifice to die in the current backlash.
Lecia Brooks is Chief of Staff for the Southern Poverty Law Center and a participant in Western States Center’s Leadership Initiative to Combat Antisemitism. Eric K. Ward is a Senior Fellow with SPLC and Race Forward and Executive Director of Western States Center.
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