For all the current across-the-aisle adoration of Senator John McCain, it is worth noting that, Sarah Palin, the running mate he chose for his failed 2008 presidential campaign arguably helped to kick in the door for the unchecked, politically incorrect, dog whistle politics of the current administration. Of course, blatant white supremacy didn’t begin with Palin’s wink-and-a-nod soccer mom racism, or with the election of former reality star Donald Trump—or even with McCain’s own vote against a national Martin Luther King holiday in 1983 (as well as a state holiday in 1990—he wouldn’t fully denounce his decision to cast those votes until 1998).
The images captured at the recent white nationalist and Nazi marches in Charlottesville, Virginia were both difficult to look at and tragically reminiscent of historic photos from the days of public lynching, Jim Crow and sit-ins. Sure, white hoods and cloaks have been exchanged for white polo shirts and khakis. But the similar visuals beg important questions: Is there really a significant difference between the Klu Klux Klan rallies of decades past and the gathering of young white people who showed up with tiki torches and chants of “blood and soil” this year? We understand that both the former and recent groups showed up to protest equality, racial diversity and the idea that America is made great not by one race of people, but by all. So, in the spread of time between then and now, has anything really changed?
CASSIUS asked some of our most valued thinkers on the matter of race to compare photos of white supremacist groups of today and yesterday, and to weigh in.
Jesse Williams, Actor/Activist: “Run Them Out of Town”
The people [in these photos] are the exact same. They found a way to justify slavery; they’ve always found ways to push the boundaries of what is socially acceptable. If they made slavery legal tomorrow, these people would be able to sleep at night. The primary difference between ‘then’ and ‘now’ is that white supremacy has had to adjust to the times. Today, they have let women speak now and get jobs, and so they do and they work around that.
People don’t simply get better over time because time has passed, they get better because they are forced and because society will punish them if they don’t. Absent any consequences, that doesn’t happen. These trashy ass white people that would attend a white supremacist rally in 2017 aren’t better than their predecessors in 1700s or 1800s, they’ve simply had to make some adjustments.
As Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) once said, “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. Racism is not a question of attitude; it’s a question of power.”
It’s tempting to get in a huff over someone saying something nasty or bigoted, but we can react to that accordingly without expending energy that belongs elsewhere. For example, how racists use power to hurt people, i.e. suspending Jemele Hill for her Tweets without being able to explain how she “violated” her company’s social media policy. Acts like this are the use of power to hurt and restrict people’s ability to exercise their full citizenship. It’s not about what Vice President Pence did by walking out of an NFL game, but how that action is a manifestation of the policy that he promotes.
Being mad at some random white person who has said a horrible thing should not take up our day. Are these folks getting people hired and fired? That’s probably more damning than say, some arbitrary celebrity making a troublesome comment or overlooking issues of importance.
When it comes to that Richard Spencer boy and cowards in Charlottesville, I think we have to be cautious in how we examine them. Run them of town, make the case that white boys in khakis are the only anti-American group that would be allowed to gather like that and then come back again—but I don’t want us to be terrified of these clusters of white folks. We cannot allow them to cripple us, nor get so consumed by easily-condemned marches that we lose sight of where their mobilization is poised to harm us most.
David Wall Rice, Dept. Chair of Psychology, Morehouse: “Today’s White Supremacist Lacks Knowledge of Self”
The chronological distance between the days of “mask on” and “mask off” white supremacy has allowed folks to behave as if true progress has not been stymied by the same persistent, brutal ignorance that has allowed for POTUS 45—an appointment that was fueled by his ability to peddle well-trod American fiction to an eager, audience desperate to believe in whiteness once again.
It isn’t the abandonment of Klan uniforms that differentiates the fictitious America of white supremacists observed in modern day Charlottesville from similar gatherings in the past. The true contrast is found in the unraveling, confused and insecure identities of the participants. Today’s white supremacist lacks knowledge of self, thanks to the growing, bold outlines of the diverse cultures that surround and haunt them.
The feeble, shook racists at those rallies are not the most dangerous ones, that distinction goes to the institutions that undergird their violence. However, they are significant and worth monitoring, as they are the nervous twitches of that insidious and elegant tiered white supremacy that protects itself despite an irrational fear of “other.”
Nonetheless, keep pushing. These ‘bamas are cracking.
Rembert Browne, writer: “Fear Becomes Hate”
In both these moments, I see insecurity. Insecurity that becomes fear, fear that becomes hate. One event is in the daytime and one, the evening. That is the only difference between the two of them.
White supremacy functions today largely as a response to the numerous oppressed classes that have found some semblance of footing, people who have found their voices and have caused change that has been too fast for certain white folks to keep up.
Mia Charlene White, activist/scholar: “Black and Brown People are Here, They Are There”
What I see when I look at these two photos is a haunting and the haunted. Each reveals the spectacular performance of white male-patriarchy and the relationship of that performance to nation, to white flesh/bodies, to belonging, and to racialized citizenship.
Young people should recognize that white supremacy requires the use of bodies, thought and will to be enacted. We can all be used for their glory. I believe our role is to not see this as “set in stone,” as the practices erupt slightly differently across time and space. Yet, these photos perfectly illustrate what philosophers are grappling with now: that time is not linear, particularly the blackness of time.
It is always time to recognize the human need to hold each other accountable. More importantly, we must develop deepening bonds with each other as a practice of liberation that seeks to disrupt the activities in these pictures.
Black and brown people are here—they are there. There are unexpected degrees of freedom in seeing ourselves as still alive, still here, and continuously building our bridges to each other, in the face of these spectacular and, yet, common performances and practices of white supremacy.
Bree Newsome, Activist: “Young people must understand that this is a critical point in time”
We are witnessing a historical continuum of the white supremacist movement in America. The older photo is disturbing to me because it shows how normal and public the Klan clearly was at that time. However, when juxtaposed with the image from Charlottesville, it makes the recent one even more disturbing because it shows how overt racism has become—it also represents the modern resurgence in white supremacist hate groups that has occurred since 2008.
Young people must understand that this is a critical point in time and not without precedent. When white supremacy is threatened by progress and changing cultural attitudes, it responds aggressively. Consider the parallels between the period of Reconstruction, when the Ku Klux Klan first formed in response to the new constitutional rights granted to Blacks post-Emancipation and the uptick in overt racism following the election of President Obama in 2008, including the subsequent election a predecessor who ran on an overtly white nationalist platform. Black Americans are at risk of losing the civil rights gains we’ve made over time if we don’t respond with both vigilance and due diligence.
Black Americans have been enslaved here far longer than we’ve been emancipated and we have to be proactive in not allowing white supremacists to roll back the clock.
David Dennis, writer: “Racism in 2017 is Old School Racism”
Behold, America at the bookends of its false Black equality experiment that lasted from the signing of the Civil Rights act to the end of President Obama’s second term. The United States spent 50 years operating under the auspices that it wanted to be a land of equal opportunity and ended that charade over the course of 18 or so months.
In 2017, Klansmen don’t need to wear masks because racism doesn’t require it anymore. Anti-Blackness is as mainstream as anything else in this country and is so empowered that it needn’t hide its face. The values haven’t changed, but the acceptance of public articulation of those values has simply become more pronounced than it has been in the recent past.
We live in a country where we are taught that punching Nazis is somehow immoral and that disavowing racism somehow creates more of it. That plausible deniability is a seamless through-line from the bigotry that terrorized our grandparents to the version that haunts our children.
Here’s a difference to note: in the past, the KKK terrorized certain communities relentlessly, leaving others to feel at least relatively safe by comparison, while today’s white supremacists are able to penetrate hearts and minds across the world in a matter of seconds. They don’t have to be in your backyard to be in your backyard.
Ultimately, racism in 2017 is old-school racism—the statistics around income, education, incarceration and segregation reflect the same tenets it imposed upon our people 50 years ago. The United States has modern ways to defend White supremacy and silence those who challenge it just as viciously as they during the Civil Rights Movement. The fight has never ended and I’m not sure it ever will.