The expected racist march was set to start. A large, multiracial crowd that included students, townspeople, curious young folks, and armed law enforcement had been steadily growing in size, waiting for events to unfold. Although it was a sunny, warm day, the atmosphere sent a signal of high alert. Nobody was quite sure what was going to happen. Crowds this large of blacks and whites together were not a common sight in this small Southern city, and the folks of color were not sure how the white people around them would react if things turned ugly.
Then suddenly, the march began, and just as suddenly, it ended. The antiracist crowd was too large, too vocal, and too angry. A black teenager hurled a brick, and it struck paydirt. The Ku Klux Klansmen were herded into police vans and scuttled off the street to safety. We’d won.
This was not Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, but Tallahassee, Florida in 1977. Forty years ago. Little, it seems, has changed. In Tallahassee, as in Charlottesville, the racist march was legal: It had a permit from the city, and the local American Civil Liberties Union defended its right to free speech. As in Charlottesville, the size of the opposition crowd led the police to force the marchers to forgo their planned parade route, for their own safety. But there were also some key differences.
In Charlottesville, the racists came out packing, with major weapons and shields. They felt no need to wear hoods to hide their identities: They could reasonably count on protection from the White House. Although the police cut short the Unite the Right March, they did not curtail the confrontation it set off, but let it play out, resulting in the killing of Heather Heyer when a neo-Nazi marcher crashed his car into a crowd of counterdemonstrators.
Today, the chant of “You will not replace us” signals that we are in a new historical moment, providing new fears and motivations to legitimate lynch mobs.
We have to understand that some of the best breeding grounds for right-wing extremism are beleaguered constituencies.
The events of Aug. 11-12 in Charlottesville have thrust forward two major challenges for social-justice activists across the country, particularly for white antiracists.
First, how should we respond to the public expression of racist hatred? And second, how can we compete more effectively for the working-class whites that this new array of white supremacist groups is trying to recruit?
I helped to organize the counter-rally in Tallahassee, despite being admonished by liberal friends to let the Klan exercise its rights to free speech. A host of local ministers and town leaders also argued that people opposed to the Klan should just stay away, that our presence would only augment the publicity they sought, and could endanger lives.
But neither the Klan nor today’s “alt-right” neo-Nazis are simply exercising free speech. Their events, websites and rallies are organizing drives designed to recruit followers, raise funds and excite their base. Their displays of armed power are designed to dominate the public sphere through threats and intimidation. Their memes and slogans aim to build a movement that will violently curtail the free speech of all those they hate. They are opposed not merely to our ideas, but to our very presence in “their” country.
We cannot cede the public square, even for a single day.
Getting Out of Our Comfort Zones
The second challenge is more difficult, for it calls on us to think beyond resistance and move outside of the comfortable circles of people with shared experiences and values. We have to understand that some of the best breeding grounds for right-wing extremism are beleaguered constituencies. Many are seeking solutions for their lack of economic and social success, and would have much to gain by allying themselves with working-class people of color to press demands for living-wage jobs, healthcare and free college education for their children.
But we also need to understand that they are also seeking a sense of belonging, a connection to something bigger than themselves and relief from the alienation and isolation that the mass societies of contemporary capitalism create. Identities are often avenues for community. The ability to build a diverse social infrastructure that will redress alienation is a difficult task, not one that we should smugly believe has already been accomplished.
“The first issue is how their current thought process is being reinforced, Mathew Fransen-Marsh, a young working-class friend from rural Pennsylvania, writes. “They’re being told by the ‘alt-right’ that the left is trying to take everything from them, exclude them from things and make them second-class citizens. They reinforce these mantras by pointing out exclusionary terms and legislation, making it seem like they’re being ostracized as the enemy. They literally convinced people that people saying ‘black lives matter’ were trying to state that only black lives matter. They use the typical emotional weaknesses of the average person to make them hateful and angry toward a group looking for equality. They use this to chip away, piece by piece, until they can pull these people in and convince them that they are their only allies. You see it every day.
“I know, because I used to fall victim to the common tactics they use, and only education helped me to realize the backward ‘logic’ I was being fed. I’ve been working on my family with such things because they used to hold such views, but it’s likely I’ll never get any of them to truly change their views, much less strangers.”
Mathew’s pessimism is belied by his own story of personal change. His “education” came in part from participating in a labor struggle in the hospital where he worked in the dietary department. A sense of belonging is just the sort of feeling that a union campaign can engender. People can learn to build trust and fellowship despite having different backgrounds and experiences. They learn to let each other speak and to listen more carefully to what everyone in the group says. Union success requires cooperation, and the daily practices that cooperation requires engender a bond.
Movements against identity-based forms of injustice — such as racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and so on — face special difficulties in creating unity and trust among activists, simply because not everyone involved is targeted or affected in the same way.
The police are likely to respond more harshly toward nonwhites than toward whites, and the differences in our experiences produce some significant differences in our knowledge base. That cannot be swept under the rug in the name of an abstract unity, a shared commitment to justice or inclusion. Thus, in movements against identity-based forms of injustice, it can be hard to create the kind of social bonds that are strong enough to withstand the opposition’s subtle ideological maneuvers, as well as its physical threats. But we have to find ways to create a sense of belonging for all of those who suffer, for all of those willing to take a stand, for as many as we can.
The white-nationalist groups are offering a club where whites can belong, but only like-minded whites. Whites who disagree will be bullied, punched, kicked and killed. We need to make sure such whites know another world is possible, a world that will include them.
Linda Martín Alcoff is a professor of philosophy at the City University of New York and author of The Future of Whiteness (Polity 2015).
Photo: BOOTS ON THE GROUND: Counter-protesters challenge white nationalists who gathered at a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville’s Emancipation Park on Aug. 12. Credit: Karla Ann Coté.