This is long and unfinished, but I wanted to share my thoughts before the week escapes us. I encourage you to read “Against Fascism and War” by George Dmitrov and this collection on the Black Radical Tradition, specifically the pieces by CLR James and James Baldwin. All are more qualified and better at discussing these topics than me.
I was traveling between NYC and DC with family and friends this weekend. Every time my phone buzzed, the news got worse.
A white man tried to enter a black church in Kentucky. Failing, he went to the nearest grocery store and gunned down a black woman and a black man, both in their 60s. He had a history of domestic violence and clearly wanted to kill black people.
Then, another mail bomb is found. A suspect with a van wrapped in right-wing conspiracy theory stickers is arrested. He, too, has a history of domestic violence, and a particular disdain for immigrants and Muslims.
Then Pittsburgh. The gunman there, also white, believed that Jews were funding the so-called “caravan” of migrants making their way through Mexico and needed to be killed.
These episodes of fascist violence are all linked to each other and to a political current not only on the rise in the Pennsylvania or Kentucky, but here in DC and across the world.
White Male Supremacy and a Perceived Loss of Power
For centuries, men have dominated global politics, economics, and culture. Among men, white men have been especially dominant in the last couple of hundred years. In the United States, as limited social progress chipped away at their monopoly on power, a lot of white men became overt gender and racial supremacists. They fomented religious fundamentalism, nationalism, and sexual fundamentalism, too.
Over the past century, heterosexuality, whiteness, Americanness, protestant Christianity, and masculinity have been marketed as the key qualities of a “superior” human being. To be born here, in this skin, with these parts, this orientation, and this faith is to be entitled to all that the world has to offer. The American Dream was built around this notion. Capitalists fed the delusion that the only thing separating a working class man with “superior” qualities from a wealthy man was the application of a little hard work.
Now imagine being born a white man in America and feeling as if you enjoy none of this promised success. You may not start out a racist, misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic murderer. You may even call yourself tolerant. But then the fall happens. You’re broke. You’re ill. You’re alone. The churches just want your money. You keep being told that if you get an education or a job it’ll all work out, but it never does. Perhaps the only moments you feel in control are those when you’re emotionally or physically in control of someone else, most often a woman.
We know men in all of our communities who feel and act this way. So why is it that one group in particular, these white men, seem to so frequently translate their sense of being wronged into mass murder?
Many of these men look around their communities and see what they’ve been taught are “lesser than me” people succeeding. They see an Asian woman behind the desk at the doctor’s office, a trans person getting a license at the DMV, an immigrant family building a new home on the edge of town. They see women getting elected to the City Council and a black man make it all the way to the White House. The only explanation for this has to be that the system has been corrupted. The pluralism he wasn’t really concerned about before has tipped too far in the other direction, he concludes. It’s been rigged somehow against “men like me.”
Of course, the system has been rigged but not solely against “men like them.” That system, capitalism, is inherently rigged against all working and middle class people, especially those who aren’t straight, white, American, Christian men, since the beginning. Capitalists fueled 20th century imperialism, created the blowback we call international terrorism, crushed indigenous efforts at democracy and replaced them with dictatorships, and generated the waves of asylum-seekers we see today. It also created and destroyed the middle class across the US in a never-ending cycle of growth, consumption, and destruction. Over time, even the capitalists diversified their ranks. It’s much harder to organize a revolt when a couple of people from every group have a stake in the status quo.
But there’s been no one talking to these men about that for a very long time. There’s a reason for that, too. The only groups that might—trade unionists, socialists, communists, anarchists, abolitionists—were attacked, driven underground, sanitized, disorganized, and all but defeated by capitalists and their enablers.
Instead, these men make sense of their condition by listening to white supremacists, men’s rights activists, homophobic and misogynist church leaders, xenophobes who dominate talk radio and television airwaves. These thought leaders may make them uncomfortable at first, but they are the only ones providing a comprehensive rationale for the cultural and economic changes being experienced. The reason your factory closed, the reason your son is gay, the reason you got disciplined at work for the comment you made about that women, the reason you can’t afford college for your kid or that surgery for your knee. They explain everything that’s happened and link it all together into a nice, neat, compelling theory.
It goes something like this. “They” –black people, immigrants, women, LGBTQ people, radical leftists, non-Americans, Muslims—have stolen the country. They’ve perverted our schools, entertainment, politics, and workplaces. They are exercising payback against us for things done in the past, things contemporary white men believe they’re neither responsible for nor benefit from. But how could these “inferior” people have thwarted the Superior Man? They had to have had help. That’s where the Jews come in.
There are almost 2,000 years of history written by white Christian men casting Jews as an immoral and untrustworthy people. Their reading of the Bible says that it was Jewish people who betrayed Jesus to the Romans. Their ignorant reading of history suggests Jews plotted to infiltrate the global finance and entertainment industries. It works out perfectly. The fallen condition of the white, American, Christian man is not because he isn’t superior, but because his ancient nemesis, the Jewish people, have facilitated it. It was Jewish organizers that made the Civil Rights movement and sexual revolution mainstream, they believe. It was Jewish businesspeople who funded Hollywood’s campaign to promote violence and homosexuality to our kids, they think. It was a Jewish billionaire, they’re convinced, who funded Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and the immigrant “caravan.”
All of it is pure fiction, but so compelling is this explanation that it isn’t believed only by white men. Like a folk tale, parts of it are reinterpreted and retold across cultures both domestically and abroad. That’s why, for example, when the right-wing Proud Boys assaulted people on the streets of NYC earlier this month, not every Proud Boy was white. Proud Boys are first and foremost an organization for men, and plenty of non-white men organize their identities around masculinity before all else.
White Supremacy’s Divisions and Local Political Power
I worked on a mayoral campaign in Chicago in 2015. The race was between a progressive County Commissioner, Chuy Garcia, and an incumbent centrist Mayor, Rahm Emanuel. Garcia was Mexican. A lot of the voters were black.
As we knocked on doors in a predominantly black neighborhood, I encountered two men leaving leaflets at the doors ahead of us. The leaflets were written to appear as if they came from the Garcia campaign. The stock photos showed only Mexican-Americans alongside declarations like, “Mexicans work better” and “The Hardworkers.”
I chased down the two men to see where they got these leaflets. Both were wearing city employee ID badges, refused to talk, and ran off.
The goal here was obvious. In Chicago, working class black and Latinx people have long been pitted against each other politically and economically. As wealth disparity ballooned, so did that tension. One black voter I talked to about Chuy said, “Why would I vote for him? He’s going to give jobs to his people.” Clearly, Emanuel’s team understood that maintaining their grip on the city required fanning these flames, and they were perfectly willing to do it.
Here in DC, a rare place in America where black culture and political power were ascendant, power-holders are capitalizing on the tension that comes with gentrification and having the White Supremacist-in-Chief as a neighbor.
For some time now, a diverse cast of capitalists has been getting rich displacing poor black and brown residents by the tens of thousands. Longtime, working class black residents are fighting to get some of what they’re owed from the newfound prosperity of the city they built. Terrified at the prospect of poor people and their allies governing, however, the capitalists and their preferred officials have recently started fueling a whisper campaign that blames Jews and leftists—“caustic” “outsiders” with a “national agenda”—for the losses suffered by born-and-raised black residents.
Meanwhile, those same officials quietly encourage newer white residents to see themselves as potential victims. They’re encouraged to call police on black people for existing in their own neighborhoods so that we don’t go “back to the bad old days.” They’re encouraged to support a corrupted school system that favors white residents and warned that efforts at accountability or equity will, you guessed it, bring us “back to the bad old days.” Some white residents don’t need encouragement, happy to impose their ideas on neighborhoods with limited effort to understand what came before them.
While working and middle class black and white residents fight over what it means to be a legitimate resident of the District, those who actually wield power can gild the city with ease.
To be clear, the rhetoric and tactics being used in Chicago and DC can’t be called white male supremacy. But they’re worth noting, because the groups they’re being used to delegitimize locally are some of the same ones fascists want to eliminate nationally. Capitalists are skilled at exploiting the taxonomies created by white supremacy to get the results they want.
Fascist Violence and Economic Power
White supremacy doesn’t just put whites at the top. It organizes what it sees as “inferior” peoples into “bad, worse, worst” categories.
As our economy fails to provide what people need to live, our climate becomes a literal and figurative pressure cooker, and our political system fails to offer avenues to resolve these issues, white supremacy and capitalism encourage everyone to see only one way to preserve their piece of the pie: eliminate the ones below you. It reassures people that their deteriorated condition is not a result of being betrayed by wealthy people who look like them but of being cheated by working class people who don’t look them.
Values like democracy, non-violence, pluralism, and equality are only useful to capital holders so long as they broaden the market. While capitalists have tried to absorb America’s growing diversity, they haven’t been able to stem intensifying calls to “share the wealth” that have come with it. Faced with the prospect of forfeiting their fortunes, they’ve made clear that they will work with any political system that allows them to stay rich.
When Brazil elected a new, openly-fascist President this weekend, Canada’s CBC News described it like this: “Brazil’s new president elect, Jair Bolsonaro, is a right-winger who leans towards more open markets. This could mean fresh opportunities for Canadian companies looking to invest in the resource-rich country.”
It’s the same reason the markets, while volatile, have reached new heights under President Trump. He’s an immature, cartoon version of a fascist but a fascist nonetheless. The market might wince when Trump imprisons children, builds prisoner camps, bans Muslims, targets trans people, revokes native-born citizenship, weakens unions, or promotes the assault of women and reporters, but it will rebound and soar when it sees no long-term threat to the bottom line.
Fascism presents new opportunities to make money, and that’s all that matters. Karl Radek, an early 20th century communist leader, put it concisely: “Fascism is the iron hoop that holds together the collapsing barrel of capitalism.”
What makes it so easy for white men to translate their sense of misfortune into mass violence is that our political and economic systems give them plenty of room to do it. They are less likely to be suspected by police for a whole host of reasons, including that plenty of officers subscribe to these theories. They are less likely to be reported by their neighbors. When they are, they are less likely to be charged with a crime or face the highest penalties. They are less likely to run into obstacles accessing or carrying weapons. They are more likely to have enjoyed some economic or social success in life and thus more likely to perceive a greater injury when they lose it.
Introduce people who live with these privileges to a conspiracy theory of domination by easy-to-access “others,” and their violence is no longer seen by them as unthinkable or too risky but heroic and necessary.
What We Can Do About It
As we mourn the lives stolen this past week, we can’t let ourselves be taken with the idea that these acts are merely incidents of hate perpetrated by isolated, deranged people whipped up by a mean President. They are part of a current of white supremacy that is strengthening right now. These attacks are already happening more frequently and with more intensity. The tension they create benefits those with real power by keeping the fight between races, genders, and nationalities.
We can’t succeed in confronting this unless we are willing to acknowledge what it is and where it’s headed. Then, we have to avoid panic and focus on what is to be done right now:
- We have to do what we can to block more fascists and supremacists from ascending at the ballot box. That will require campaigns to speak directly to people’s urgent material needs and to offer bold solutions. It will require compromise toward the left¸not toward the centrists that demand we “work together” with and behave civilly toward fascists.
- We have to stop the fascists that are already in power. That will require direct action to protect our neighbors, civil disobedience in the halls of power, confrontation where the power-holders live and eat.
- We have to seize as much power as possible from those who wield it amorally. That will require organizing unions in our workplaces and tenant groups in our buildings, occupying administrative buildings on campuses, and creating our own independent spaces to educate and support each other.
If you didn’t realize it before, there are sides now. There are competing ideas of how our cities, our states, our countries, our world should look in 50 years. One is a world in which mostly-wealthy, mostly-white, mostly-Christian, mostly-male, mostly-straight men and those willing to go along with them control all resources, exercise all judgment, and wield all power. It’s the world we have lived in for centuries but on steroids.
The other is the world we all say we want, that we’ve glimpsed in moments over the last century. It’s the one where individuals and communities are liberated, where they enjoy the world’s bounties equitably. Those who can give more, give more. Those who need more, get more. All are free to pursue the good life, and we confront challenges together, democratically. To get the former, we only need to sit still. To get the latter, we have to stop fascism and rebuild our communities with justice at their center.
The good news? There are plenty of groups in DC who understand this way better than I do, and they’re already doing the work:
- On the electoral front: groups like Jews United for Justice, DC for Democracy, MDC DSA, DC NOW, and others are trying to elect people at the Local level who actually want to protect neighbors against fascism and champion policies that put more money into the hands of working class residents.
- On the direct action front: Black Lives Matter DC, SURJ, the Stop Police TerrorProject, BYP100, Sanctuary DMV, MDC DSA, No Justice No Pride, and others are putting their bodies and resources on the line to protect themselves and their neighbors, to force accountability, and stop the worst and most violent policies at the local and federal level.
- On the seizing power front: #HUResist, the Latino Economic Development Center, ONE DC, Empower DC, Justice First, DC Jobs with Justice, several unions that a part of the Metro Labor Council, and others have occupied buildings, coordinated rent and labor strikes, organized workplaces, and built independent spaces for people to collaborate.
If you haven’t yet, join one of these groups or support their work. As fascism intensifies, we all need to be part of communities where we can channel our pain and rage, hope and optimism into effective, collective action.
A note: I intentionally do not link out to sources on the white supremacist episodes or arguments, because I’m not going to facilitate people going down those rabbit holes.