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9.6: Social Change and Resistance

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    "We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice," spoke Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a 1968 speech. The U.S. past, and predictably the future, is characterized by a struggle over justice, perhaps to be understood as a pendulum swing between civil rights and white supremacy as shown in Figure 6.6.1. This section details the experiences of white Americans on both pendulum extremes, ending with the suggestion of anti-racism and antidotes to white supremacy potentially ushering in a future of justice.

    The Pendulum swing in the U.S. from White Supremacy to Civil Rights
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Pendulum swing in the U.S., ranging from Civil Rights to White Supremacy. (Diagram created by Jonas Oware)

    Abolition of Slavery vs. Confederacy

    Many white Americans joined the abolition movement to resist against and end slavery in the U.S.; thus, abolition was a reform movement to alter the entire society. Sisters Angelina and Sarah Grimke, who converted to the Quaker religion after growing up in a Southern slave-holding family, were amongst the first white women to join the cause, traveling on the anti-slavery lecture circuit. A founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society, Irish American journalist William Lloyd Garrison published the anti-slavery newspaper,The Liberator, beginning in 1831 and printed until the 13th Amendment was passed, abolishing slavery. Dissatisfied with mainstream pacifist abolition efforts, Kansan John Brown led radical, armed efforts to end slavery. Though he was hanged for his organizing of the liberation and rebellion of enslaved Blacks, his efforts ultimately inspired the Civil War.

    Resisting the end of slavery, the confederate side of the Civil War was led by General Robert E. Lee who commanded the Virginia Army until it surrendered to the Union in 1865, ending the Civil War. Modern day displays of confederate flags, particularly in Southern states, began with segregationists such as South Carolinian politician Strom Thurmond who opposed the mainstream Civil Rights Movement. Many monuments memorializing the confederacy and ultimately supporting white supremacy have been removed following the nationwide protests against the killing of George Floyd in 2020; however, President Trump has resisted calls to change the names of confederate bases and the confederate flag in an apparent attempt to honor the confederacy. The decision to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee in Virginia is currently stalled in the courts.

    The Confederate Battle Flag
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Confederate Battle Flag. (CC BY-NC 2.0; J. Stephen Conn via Flickr)

    Civil Rights Movement vs. Segregationists

    Viola Liuzu. Andrew Goodman. Michael Schwerner. Reverend James Reeb. These are the names of white individuals who responded to Southern calls to join the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, another reform movement with the intent to desegregate the nation and afford all Americans the right to vote, particularly African Americans. Italian American housewife, Viola Liuzu, participated in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March led by Dr. Martin Luther King, jr.; while traveling in a carpool following the successful march, she was shot and killed by Ku Klux Klan members in a pursuing car. Participating in the 1964 Freedom Summer campaign to register African American voters in Mississipi, Jewish American activists Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were abducted with Black activist James Cheney as they traveled in their car. Their buried bodies were discovered a few months later, and the local police department and Ku Klux Klan were involved in the incident. A member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, of which Dr. Martin Luther King, jr. was a leader, Universalist Unitarian Reverend James Reeb joined the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965 only to be beaten to death. Countless African Americans were involved in the Civil Rights Movement - as we were many unknown white Americans. Their efforts combined culminated in the 1965 Voting Rights Act signed into law by President Lyndon Baines Johnson; this legislation outlawed discrimination in voting which was one of the major goals of the movement during the 1960s.

    "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." Alabama Governor George Wallace uttered these words at his inauguration speech in 1963. Clearly his words conveyed his resistance to a changing America. Similarly, the Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham, Alabama authorized unleashing police attack dogs and fire hoses on peaceful protestors; such scenes were projected on the nightly news and drew numbers of appalled northerners into the south to join the Civil Rights Movement. He also refused police protection of the Freedom Riders who were challenged racial segregation on interstate buses, and he allowed Ku Klux Klan members to beat and torment the Riders. Another segregationist, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus in 1957 ordered the national guard to prevent the desegregation of schools following the 1954 Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education decision which outlawed segregated schools. President Eisenhower reversed this decision and ordered the Guard to support integration efforts in allowing the Little Rock Nine African American students to attend the public school, though they experienced brutal physical and emotional abuse during that tense year.

    White Nationalism

    According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, white nationalist groups espouse white supremacist or white separatist ideologies, often focusing on the alleged inferiority of nonwhites. In an effort to preserve white supremacy and white power, white nationalist groups seek to stop immigration of people of color in the U.S. In their pursuit of white dominance, racism is a common denominator of white nationalist groups as is anti-semitism. (Further discussion of the contemporary white nationalist movement is provided in Chapter 11.5).

    By the 1920s and 1930s, anti-Semitism had become quite prominent among U.S. prejudices and was being preached by the Ku Klux Klan and other extreme racist groups. Also, because many of the political radicals and labor leaders of the time were Jewish immigrants, anti-Semitism became fused with a fear of Communism and other anti-capitalist doctrines. Some prominent Americans espoused anti-Semitic views, among them Henry Ford, the founder of Ford Motor Company; Charles Lindbergh, the aviator who was the first to fly solo across the Atlantic; and Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest with a popular radio show (Selzer, 1972). Anti-Semitism reached a peak before World War II and tapered off in the decades following the war, but it remains part of U.S. society (Anti-Defamation League, 2000). Anti-Semitism also has a prominent place in the ideologies of a variety of extremist groups that have emerged in recent years, including “skinheads” and various contemporary incarnations of the Ku Klux Klan.

    The white nationalist rhetoric in the U.S. is on the increase in 2020, and white nationalist groups range from the Ku Klux Klan to neo-Nazis to neo-Confederate to racist skinheads to Christian Identity. These groups use college campuses and the Internet as recruitment grounds. Two of the largest white supremacist organizations in 2020 have been the American Identity Movement and Patriot Front, though the former disbanded in November 2020 after it had just rebranded itself the previous year from the white nationalist group, Identity Evropa. Some white nationalist groups fear the "genocide" of the white race and pursue instead a white ethno-state and a return to a United States that pre-dated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Immigration Act of 1965 (Southern Poverty Law Center).

    Many of President Trump's words and actions resonate with these white nationalists, including his mantra "Build the Wall," his sympathetic response with the violence that followed the 2017 Unite the Right rally, and his support for the U.S. military bases named after confederate leaders. When given a chance during the 2020 Presidential debates with Biden, Trump refused, when questioned by the debate moderator if he would tell the Proud Boys, a right-wing organization, to "stand down;" Biden did so unapologetically whereas Trump told them to "stand by and stand back." Though, Trump has also condemned racism, speaking after the violent white supremacist shooting in El Paso, Texas in 2019. It must be noted that previous presidents have expressed sympathy for white supremacy, including Woodrow Wilson who was quoted as defending the Ku Klux Klan in D.W. Griffith's film, Birth of a Nation. Led by the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol (Washington, D.C.) represented the most dramatic display of white nationalism and domestic terrorism seen in modern times.

    Demonstration of the Proud Boys in Pittsboro
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): "Proud Boys in Pittsboro, North Carolina (2019 Oct)" wearing hats which read: Make American Great Again. (CC BY 2.0; Anthony Crider via Flickr)

    Population Changes

    The changing U.S. race-ethnic demographics inspire factions in the U.S. differently. While white supremacists consider the declining U.S. White population as a threat to white dominance and white supremacy, pluralists are encouraged by the changing demographics as by the year 2050 when the U.S. will not have a dominant numerical group but will rather be a majority people of color nation (further data presented in Chapters 1.6 and 12.5). As Figure 6.6.4 illustrates, the percentage of white only population is projected to decline by 2060 while the multiracial population (two or more races) is expected to increase, especially for the under 18 age group. The largest increases of the multiracial population include individuals with one white parent, the largest group being biracial Black-white children.

    The chart shows that the percentage of the white only population is projected to decline by 2060 while the multiracial population (two or more races) is expected to increase
    The chart shows that the percentage of the white only population is projected to decline by 2060 while the multiracial population (two or more races) is expected to increase, especially for the under 18 age group.  The largest increases of the multiracial population include individuals with one white parent, the largest group being biracial Black-white children.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Population Changes of white and Multiracial Population. (Charts by Jonas Oware with data from the U.S. Census Bureau)

    Anti-Racism, Abolition of Whiteness, Antidotes to White Supremacy & Allyship

    With the changing race-ethnic demographics in the U.S., another form of change has been expressed over the past decade: anti-racism and decentering whiteness.

    “The task for whites is to develop a positive white identity based on reality not on assumed superiority. In order to do that each person must become aware of his or her whiteness, accept it as personally and socially significant, and learn to feel good about it. Not in the sense of Klan members 'white pride' but in the context of a commitment to a just society" (Tatum, 2017, p. 94).

    Lady Justice with the scales of justice
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Lady Justice. (CC BY-SA 2.0; John via Flickr)

    As Ibram Kendi (2020) writes, the opposite of a racist is not a non-racist but rather an anti-racist, an individual who supports policies and ideas that produce racial equity between race-ethnic groups. Thus, acknowledging racist policies, practices, and ideas one may be knowingly or unknowingly supporting or participating in is an important first step in becoming an anti-racist. The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) posits that being anti-racist is different for white people than it is for people of color because for white people, being anti-racist evolves with their racial identity development. They must recognize and understand their privilege, work to change their internalized racism, and interrupt racism in their everyday life.

    Responding to Interpersonal Racism

    A commitment to being anti-racist manifests in our choices. When we encounter interpersonal racism, whether obvious or covert, there are ways to respond and interrupt it. Asking questions is a powerful tool to seek clarity or offer a new perspective. Below are some suggestions provided by NMAAHC to use in conversations when racist behavior occurs:

    • Seek clarity: “Tell me more about __________.”
    • Offer an alternative perspective: “Have you ever considered __________.”
    • Speak your truth: “I don’t see it the way you do. I see it as __________.”
    • Find common ground: “We don’t agree on __________ but we can agree on __________.”
    • Give yourself the time and space you need: “Could we revisit the conversation about __________ tomorrow.”
    • Set boundaries. “Please do not say __________ again to me or around me.

    In a different vein, Noel Ignatiev (1995) suggests that white working class people would need to reject whiteness, to abolish whiteness altogether. Ignatiev (1995) professed that if working class whites were to break with their false white skin privilege, the working class would unite in pursuit of a more just society. In Ignatiev's (1995) words: "Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity." In agreement to this treasonness, anti-racist educator Tim Wise promotes white individuals becoming active, anti-racist white allies, called racial justice allies in other writings. Wise, Ignatiev, and other anti-racists generally agree on the following three ingredients of anti-racism: race is a social construct which means it can be deconstructed; whiteness is a socio-political project which has no redemptive value, and whites must disrupt racial oppression by challenging racism in their everyday lives (Cabrera, 2012). These anti-racists promote the idea of white individuals become active, anti-racist white allies, called racial justice allies in other writings. In refusing whiteness, the opportunity for praxis arises, which Paolo Freire presented in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. To achieve praxis, lest they reproduce the exact oppression of white supremacy, it is paramount for white allies to work together with people of color to challenge racial oppression, likely following the lead of people of color who have had direct experience with oppression. With the Black Lives Matter protests which have erupted in this country following George Floyd's killing in 2020, the large numbers of young, white Americans joining the cause to disrupt systemic racism in our criminal justice system reflects praxis and anti-racism. These participants have developed praxis (Freire, 2000), seeing themselves as potential agents of social change, joining forces with people of color against racial oppression.

    Shirt design with the words abolish whiteness
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Abolish whiteness. (Design created by Jakobi Oware)

    In the previous Section 9.5, characteristics of white supremacy culture in our workplaces (or other organizations) were presented. As explained by Jones and Okun (2001), antidotes to these characteristics may take the form of the following examples:

    Table \(\PageIndex{7}\): Antidotes to white supremacy. Created by Janét Hund (Adapted from Jones & Okun, 2001).
    Characteristics of white supremacy Antidotes to white supremacy
    perfectionism always speak to the things that went well before offering constructive feedback
    urgency leadership which understands that things take longer than anyone expects
    defensiveness understand the link between defensiveness and fear
    quantity over quality learn to recognize those times when you need to get off the agenda in order to address people's underlying concerns
    worship of the written word take the time to analyze how people inside and outside the organization get and share information
    only one right way work on developing the ability to notice when people do things differently and how those different ways might improve your approach
    paternalism include people who are affected by decisions in the decision-making
    either/or thinking notice when people are simplifying complex issues, particularly when the stakes seem high or an urgent decision needs to be made
    power hoarding understand that change is inevitable and challenges to your leadership can be healthy and productive
    fear of open conflict don't require those who raise hard issues to raise them in acceptable ways, especially if you are using the ways in which issues are raised as an excuse not to address the issues being raised
    individualism evaluate people based on their ability to work as part of a team to accomplish shared goals
    progress is bigger/more create Seventh Generation thinking by asking how the actions of the group now will affect people seven generations from now
    objectivity assume that everybody has a valid point and your job is to understand what that point is
    right to comfort those with power understand that discomfort is at the root of all growth and learning

    In a move to interrupt the connection that whiteness has with dominance, perhaps whiteness could redeem itself by breaking decisively with that history of oppression. As asked in Whiteness - Sociology of Race - iResearchNet (2020), could whiteness not be reinvented by such means as practical measures of redistribution and thoroughgoing racial democratization? After all, there have been many anti-racist whites. Since history has not ended, the final judgment on such questions has yet to be rendered.

    Becoming an Ally

    "An ally is any person that actively promotes and aspires to advance the culture of inclusion through intentional, positive and conscious efforts that benefit people as a whole" (Atcheson, 2018). Becoming an actionable ally is different than being a performative ally. The latter is for show, and the former is putting your words into action. Sheree Atcheson (2018) explains the following reflect an actionable ally:

    • Lift others up by advocating,
    • Share growth opportunities with others,
    • Not view venting as a personal attack,
    • Recognize systematic inequalities and realize impact of microaggressions,
    • Believe underrepresented people’s experiences, and
    • Most importantly – listen, support, self-reflect & change.

    In the Winter 2020 Black Minds Matter webinar, the speakers suggested that to become a true ally is akin to committing social or professional suicide, as allyship means one is willing to put the interests of others above one's self-interests. Pause and reflect on that.

    Thinking Sociologically

    Layla F. Saad penned the Me & White Supremacy Workbook (2018) to provide a 28-day self-reflection for individuals holding white privilege to consider their involvement and complicity with white supremacy. Saad (2018) writes, "I often ask myself, 'What would the world look like without white supremacy?' We may not live long enough to know. However, if the rise and fall of empires is any clue, white supremacy doesn’t have much time left" (pg. 2). The book is intended to make the reader uncomfortable as they discover and dismantle their "inner white supremacy and internalised racism" (Saad, 2018, p. 22).

    Would you consider taking Saad's 28-day challenge of self-reflection to consider your complicity with white supremacy? Why or why not?

    Saad (2018) suggests the premise for this reflection is to ultimately become a better ancestor for those who come after us. Do you agree or disagree that this type of self-reflection can potentially improve our future?

    Key Takeaways

    • U.S. history has been characterized by pendulum swings between civil rights and white supremacy.
    • Historically and in our contemporary society, white nationalism has existed to support and maintain white supremacy and white power.
    • The declining white population conjures up different meanings for white supremacists versus for pluralists.
    • The final point of this chapter is to consider the role of anti-racism, abolition of whiteness, antidotes to white supremacy, and allyship as ways to transcend white privilege and white supremacy.

    Contributors and Attributions