Europeans so often look at the United States with a mix of wonderment, disgust and deep confusion, especially when it comes to Americans voting against their own economic interests—as is the case with the support for Donald Trump of a sizeable portion of the white working class. For the outside observer it’s hard to make sense of images like those of the red faced and uninsured white American holding a sign reading ‘keep your hands off my healthcare!’ and vehemently rejecting a government that could provide affordable systems of care, education and housing.
Key to understanding this is the ‘southern strategy’—a tenuous partnership between disaffected poor whites in the newly de-segregated south and wealthy white northerners, pioneered by the Republican Party and glued together with the common goal of dismantling black progress, which in the 1960s was gaining pace with the black-led civil rights movement and groups like the Black Panthers.
The revitalised racist rhetoric born during Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign in the late 1960s buttressed the enactment of anti-welfare policies—a thread that continues in American politics through a convoluted association of any social program with the advancement of undeserving black people.
It was surely not the first time the wealthy white class used racism and economic frustration among the white working class to secure their wealth—in fact, this tactic is as old as the institutionalisation of chattle slavery itself
Whilst the southern strategy explains in part the racist underpinnings of contemporary American politics, the failure of white liberal non-profit organisations and individuals to tackle it is less often discussed.
My own story can help shed light on this. At 11 years old my parents sent me to a progressive K-12 private school in Baltimore County. I was one of a handful of black students in a school filled with the children of upper class white liberals, and I was silenced. The school board was more interested in black students existing to share our culture for a white multicultural experience, rather than creating a safe atmosphere for all students to learn.
White teachers and students attempted to relate to us through distorted visions of black authenticity, and in doing so consumed us as objects. When racial issues arose and I felt compelled to share my knowledge, white students, usually male, shouted me down when my critiques ran too deep.In the microcosm of this elite private school I lived this American political dilemma: a white and educated progressive class unwilling to actively address and dismantle racism and classism.
Some staff members took it upon themselves to create spaces for black students to vent about these racist aggressions, but the institution as a whole did little to actively address the students and teachers racial biases on the grounds that it may make the majority of students feel uncomfortable.
The few white students known to be from a working class family often faced outright rejection as dirty and ignorant from the wealthiest students. They could serve no purpose in maintaining the latter’s white liberal identity, predicated on being not racist and having exposure to multi-ethnic cultures.
In the microcosm of this elite private school I lived this American political dilemma: a white and educated progressive class unwilling to actively address and dismantle racism and classism. Just as my wealthy white-run school kept its black students in a cramped space of personal and intellectual expression, so too does the white-run ‘non-profit industrial complex’—a term Ruth Gilmore Wilson uses in her essay The Revolution Will Not Be Funded to describe the professionalised organisations that seek to ‘manage’ social and political movements and act as gatekeepers to funding, among other functions.
This sprawling sector emerged in the vacuum of a welfare state shrunk in part by policies informed by the southern strategy and it is extremely lucrative: by 2035 it is expected to gain a cumulative 1 trillion dollars. Thus for the liberal white elite, launching systemic challenges against racism would not only be culturally uncomfortable, but would also threaten an entire industry and professional class nestled within—and profiting from—their comfortable white politics.
Armed with the assurance of being both better than white racists and performing necessary benevolent gestures to help assist an underclass assumed to be powerless, organisations like United Way, the Carnegie Foundation, and a slew of federal watchdog advocacy groups, have created an entrenched culture of political stasis. This political ecosystem differs greatly from the grassroots activism and community-based strategies that actually shifted cultures of racism and policies of oppression in the 1960s.
This is partly a consequence of legal and structural limitations. As Gilmore writes, ‘the shadow state . . . without significant political clout, forbidden by law to advocate for systemic change, and bound by public rules and non-profit charters to stick to its mission or get out of business and suffer legal consequences if it strays along the way.’
Yet there is something deeper and more destructive at work here. In Dr. Amie ‘Breeze’ Harper’s recently published article Don’t Include Black Me In Your White We she talks of a ‘non-racist racism’ that exists among many white liberals:
‘You’ve been this way since the ante-bellum slavery officially ended. You were that “moderate” white person who didn’t think Black people should be “slaves”… but also didn’t think they really should have the same power, resources, agency as any white person. And yea, you considered yourself one of the “good” whites since you weren’t lynching Black people like those “bad” whites; yours was a kinder non-racist racism.’
The white liberal left, with their objectifying interest in people of colour, classist separation from the white poor and moneyed interest in the continuation of the non-profit industrial complex, have prevented those individuals and organisations that must lead their own struggle from taking the fore in the fight against racism in American society. It doing so, they have helped create a vacuum for a white supremacist outburst to sweep the nation.
In order to dismantle the southern strategy and address the system of white supremacy that continues to run this country, white Americans must embark on anti-racist work that both takes the lead from black and brown activists and also tackles racism among poor whites. It is the duty of white people to educate their own communities and demystify the centuries long notion that racism will help the poorest white people attain wealth. In reality, the false hope that belonging to the white race will deliver prosperity keeps them chained to the whims of the 1%. It must be known that the global liberation of black and brown people will usher in an era where we reject the notion that slavery and colonialism are necessary to build a prosperous and happy society.