The partisan condemnation of white supremacy that has taken shape during the Trump era has reduced anti-racist critique to political theater.
This week, in the wake of the brutal El Paso mass murder, an astonished nation bore witness to the ghastly spectacle of a racist president going through the motions to “condemn” white supremacy. The president’s cynical disavowal of white supremacy comes on the heels of revelations about the white supremacist and xenophobic views of Patrick Crusius, the shooter who drove hundreds of miles to murder at least 20 people in Texas. The fact that Cruscius identified himself as a Trump supporter increased pressure on Trump from Democrats and Republicans to publicly condemn white supremacy.
To say that Trump’s rhetorical distancing strains credulity would be a considerable understatement. If Trump’s white supremacist agenda was not already sufficiently clear to the public after his obscene attacks on the Central Park Five, his racist birther campaign against a sitting president of color, his selection of a white nationalist enthusiast as his chief strategist and his decision to launch his presidential campaign on a xenophobic and racist platform slurring Mexican men as “rapists” and “criminals”, we have observed a steady stream of racist screed and dangerous policies flowing from the White House for several years. From his description of neo-Nazis as “very fine people” to his description of African and Caribbean nations as “shit hole countries” to his white supremacist attacks on congresswomen of color, it must be clear to even the most casual of observers that Trump’s “condemnation” of white supremacy” amounts to little more than empty political posturing.
Of course, it is better to live in a world where the president mouths words rebuking white supremacy rather than a world in which the president withholds such condemnation. But it would be far better to live in a world where that same president does not aggressively engage in white supremacist rhetoric and practice. We who genuinely wish to build an anti-racist society would very much like to have a president who is not a white supremacist–not a president who makes a mockery of basic decency and common sense by aggressively promoting racist ideas and policies even as he very belatedly and reluctantly aims to distance himself from his own politics.
But beyond Trump’s performative disavowal of an ideology that has consumed him for the entirety of his public life, there is an even more widespread and disingenuous form of performative “anti-racism” engulfing our public sphere. In the wake of Trump’s election, we have seen a growing number of politicians purporting to condemn white supremacy while also upholding policies, practices and rhetoric which have maintained white (male) power from one generation to the next. Ironically, such political theater threatens to reduce white supremacy to a superficial slogan–a kind of political propaganda of performative ‘wokeness’ — that obscures the true scope of white supremacy as a foundational system of power. It is simply not possible to condemn white supremacy without acknowledging that our nation was made possible through violent white supremacist plunder, colonial genocide and the horrors of chattel slavery.Trump did not invent white supremacy. The European colonizers, enslavers, capitalists and criminals from which our nation’s founders descended did.
It is clear that Trump and his enablers (a long list which includes the media itself) have played a central role in radicalizing white supremacists. But the partisan condemnation of white supremacy that has taken shape during the Trump era has reduced anti-racist critique to political theater. For many Democrats and some progressives, white supremacy has become little more than a partisan football—reductively conflated with “Trumpism.” Relatedly, commentators across the ideological spectrum tend to associate white supremacist terror with overt forms of violence like mass shootings or ideological extremism, as in the various manifestos left behind by the murderers architects of the El Paso and Charleston massacres. But these same commentators often fail to see white supremacist extremism in the genocidal policies of presidents like Andrew Jackson or the system of terror that subjected generations of African Americans to unprecedented forms of brutality and oppression. Still fewer understand white supremacy as baked into a system of capitalist exploitation that reduced human beings to chattel and removed sovereign indigenous people from their homelands for the purpose of enriching and empowering Europeans.
The hyperfocus on Trump as the embodiment of white supremacy occludes the white supremacist forest for the MAGA trees. Real anti-racism requires condemning not merely the low-hanging fruit of white supremacy’s most obvious and repugnant manifestations, but also the broad, insidious system of power that continues to link resources, wealth, health and even one’s life-span to being socially recognized as white. We must condemn white supremacy right down the root–and that root includes the on-going violence of settler colonialism, racial capitalism and the systemic dispossession of people racialized as “non-white”. The crisis that we face is not just that our country’s foundational principles were explicitly white supremacist, xenophobic and violently oppressive toward indigenous people, African Americans and other people of color. It’s that these principles have been maintained, institutionalized, and normalized for generations across party lines. What is needed now is a non-partisan and frank reckoning with the dehumanizing reach of white supremacy in our culture, economy, politics and media. As we grapple with the lingering legacies of the past, we share a collective and individual responsibility for combating the everyday forms racial oppression that pervade and degrade our lives—and resolving to build a truly anti-racist future.
Crystal M. Fleming, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies and Associate Faculty, Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, SUNY Stony Brook.