This month’s post, the second in Teacher-Scholar-Activist and Spark’s 12-part series “A Year of Activism: Perspectives on the 2020 U.S. Elections,” comes from James Chase Sanchez (Middlebury College). In his post, James addresses the need for anti-racist strategies to come to the fore in the upcoming presidential election.
In the coming months, this series will feature critical perspectives on the elections, issues related to them, and thoughts about how scholar-activists (teachers and students) can intervene. We encourage readers to share these posts and to discuss the ideas with people in your communities, classrooms, and workplaces.
Liz Lane & Don Unger, Managing Editors—Spark
Darin Jensen, Editor—Teacher, Scholar, Activist
White Supremacy, Anti-Racism, and the U.S. Presidency
By James Chase Sanchez
“It is often said that Trump has no real ideology, which is not true—his ideology is white supremacy, in all its truculent and sanctimonious power.” –Ta-Nehisi Coates
White supremacy has always been embedded within the White House.
From the “founding fathers” disregarding people of color as citizens, to the original Birth of a Nation screening at the White House in 1915 (the first film ever broadcast there), to Trump-era politics inciting racial violence, white supremacy—or the feelings and actions that promote white superiority and racial hierarchies—has persisted.
Yet, Trump’s rhetoric and his White House feel different.
Trump’s white supremacy feels more overt, and, of course, more immediate.
Much has been made about the Trump presidency’s explicit white supremacy. Trump has defended white supremacists who held a rally in Charlottesville. He employs well-known white supremacists, such as Stephen Miller and formerly Steve Bannon. He enacts white supremacist policies that separate Brown families on the border and enforces what many call a “white supremacist immigration policy.” Many cultural critics, including Ta-Nehisi Coates and Charles Blow, have referred to Trump as the first openly white supremacist president. The list goes on and on. Even well-known racist organizations, such as the Ku Klux Klan, claim that their organization has been revitalized thanks to Trump and his racist rhetoric. For many people around the country, there is no doubt what Trump represents, and this is why his presidency causes us so much pain.
What can we do? Many of us deal with this inner turmoil on a daily basis: we see a terrible world in front of us, something we want to help change, but we have no idea where to begin. Though there aren’t many concrete solutions, there are answers we should consider. It’s the same thing I tell students at Middlebury College anytime they want to fight for change but are caught in despair: we need to promulgate. In their textbook, The Rhetoric of Agitation and Control, Bowers et al. state, “Promulgation is a strategy where agitators publicly proclaim their goals, and it includes tactics designed to win public support for the agitators’ position….Promulgation is the stage when agitators attempt to recruit the members necessary to mount a successful movement” (23). In a seemingly endless fight against white supremacy, we need to promulgate anti-racism as an answer to our problems.
In the face of overt white supremacy, white supremacy that is endangering our democracy even as it has always shaped our character as a nation, we have to make anti-racism be seen, heard, and felt. So often, it is easy to stay on the sidelines and say nothing. We can let others decide our direction. Different people can command the ship. Yet, that’s what gets us into this problem in the first place. So many of us have been quiet in the face of racism. We have seen our friends, our loved ones, our family do and say racist things, and we have stayed out of it. Maybe we thought this was a way of maintaining peace. Maybe we thought that by saying something we would add more heartache. Maybe…a lot of things. But, that’s not how we should react. We are complicit in keeping racism intact when we are quiet; by saying nothing, we allow racist ideologies to control the people dear to us, to diminish their experience of the world and of others. But preventing the small heartache might prepare us for a greater loss. We need to risk those small heartaches if we want to avoid a greater loss in November.
2020 needs to be the year of proactive anti-racism.
We need to openly identify as anti-racist. This means consistently telling friends, family, and others that we actively practice anti-racism, and it means pushing against normative, racist structures. In his book How to be an Antiracist, Ibrham Kendi writes, “One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist. There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.’ The claim of ‘not racist’ neutrality is a mask for racism” (9). We need people to see that anti-racism is a position, and it is resolute; it is something every single being should strive for. And this begins with publicly acknowledging what we stand for and why.
Yet, for many, race and racism are nonstarters. People want to be polite by not mentioning race or even when they hear something racist. Why start a fight with loved ones if it won’t lead anywhere? But by publicly promoting anti-racism in our own communities, we let people know that we will confront them when they say something racist. We won’t let anything slide. And we must handle these conversations with love and care, not anger and spite. Though there is no guarantee that our communities will treat us well when we challenge them, we must illustrate that anti-racism is about caring for each other.
And this helps get conversations about anti-racism—conversations that often only exist in rarified spaces within the academy or online—into the mainstream: into our social spaces and even into our homes.
Most people, I hope and truly believe, want to be anti-racist. Yet contemporary discourse in this country makes many conservatives feel that most of the time they are the ones being called racist. Conservatives often say that the label “racist” is used as an ad hominem attack and often completely shut down or troll when said descriptions are applied to their arguments.
We have to try to move past this.
This begins with some acknowledgment of our own: we all have racist tendencies. I was raised in one of the most notoriously racist towns in Texas and have been writing about white supremacy, racism, and anti-racism for years now, and I still have racist tendencies. Anti-black racism is systemic and institutionalized, and the tendencies we develop from engaging in this system and these institutions don’t disappear overnight. We have to persistently fight them, and acknowledging this process to other people is a step in combating the “not all conservatives” or “not all white people” platitudes that often follow conversations about race and politics. We have to show the ways that racism affects us all.
In considering this strategy, it is also important to frame the upcoming elections as a referendum on racism in the United States. We want to tell society that a vote for the Democratic candidate is a vote for anti-racism, while a vote for Trump is a vote for racism. This isn’t about policies as much as it is about the perception of Trump as a person. I debate people about Trump and racism ad nauseam on social media (because I am a masochist, I guess) and am constantly surprised by how much they gloss over his racism and other acts of bigotry. But if we can change this conversation from being about political affiliation to being about what is right and what is wrong on an everyday basis, then we have a chance.
Of course, this is all great in theory and seems very impractical. I wholeheartedly agree.
But, this is what at stake in this election—a President who will keep openly fanning the flames of racism in the United States versus a Democratic candidate who we might bend against those flames (of course, some are more anti-racist than others, but that’s an entirely different blog). This approach won’t change everything, but it can change some people.
Recently, students in my “Race, Rhetoric, and Protest” course wanted to put together a protest of solidarity in support of increasing staff wages. We talked about how important it was to get the message out to students, faculty, and administration that staff wages were an issue that needed to be addressed, and the protest they organized drew in over 200 students, staff, and faculty and focused intently on why this is a problem and what administration could do to fix the problem.
After the protest, one student asked me, “Will this change anything?”
I honestly didn’t know, but I told him it might. And if it didn’t, we would escalate past the promulgating stage.
While writing this blog post I received good news: Middlebury’s Human Resource Office sent an email telling all Middlebury community members that staff wages had been increased (with some caveats). It may not be the full solution that students and staff want, but it’s a start.
Returning to my argument about Trump’s white supremacy and our need to promulgate anti-racism in this election cycle: we might think it seems pointless; we might not want to organize; we might not want to put in the effort if it leads nowhere. But, we never know how our actions might affect others.
Every protest and act for change looks like a failure until it succeeds. We have to dare to seek change even when the odds are stacked against us.
James Chase Sanchez is an assistant professor of writing and rhetoric at Middlebury College in Vermont. He teaches courses on cultural rhetorics, public memory, and race and protest and has published in College Composition and Communication, Pedagogy, Present Tense, and Journal of Contemporary Rhetoric. He recently produced a documentary, Man on Fire, which won an International Documentary Association Award in 2017 and premiered on PBS as a part of Independent Lens in 2018.
Blow, Charles M. “The Rot you Smell is a Racist Potus.” The New York Times, 28 Jul. 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/28/opinion/trump-racist-baltimore.html.
Bowers, John W. et al. The Rhetoric of Agitation and Control 3rd ed. Waveland P, 2009.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “Donald Trump is the First White President.” The Atlantic, Oct. 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/10/the-first-white-president-ta-nehisi-coates/537909/.
Eaton, Joshua. “Exclusive: Steve Bannon Candidly Talks about Race and Gender in Deleted Documentary Scene.” Think Progress, 4 Jun. 2019. https://thinkprogress.org/exclusive-steve-bannon-admits-that-he-doesnt-believe-in-racism-in-deleted-documentary-scene-the-brink-alison-klayman-af804f5c3308/.
Gore, D’Angelo. “More Family Separation Spin.” FactCheck.org, 10 Apr. 2019. https://www.factcheck.org/2019/04/more-family-separation-spin/.
Hayden, Michael Edison. “Stephen Miller’s Affinity for White Nationalism Revealed in Leaked Emails.” SPLC, 12 Nov. 2019. https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2019/11/12/stephen-millers-affinity-white-nationalism-revealed-leaked-emails?gclid=CjwKCAiAuK3vBRBOEiwA1IMhusH_Uip87MxEQv2IJYmeZ8qtxXOWWvjP24MlcTUkKaU3CW9YcJeqNBoC57YQAvD_BwE.
Kendi, Ibram X. How to be an Antiracist. One World, 2019.
@MiddCampus. “The college’s Human Resource Office announced in an all-school email this morning it will grant pay increases to “certain employees who hold benefits-eligible entry-level positions,” many of whom work in Facilities and Dining Services. (1/3).” Twitter, 7 Jan. 2019. https://twitter.com/middcampus/status/1214609394283040769.
Politico Staff. “Full Text: Trump’s Comments on White Supremacists, ‘Alt-Left’ in Charlottesville.” Politico, 15 Aug. 2017. https://www.politico.com/story/2017/08/15/full-text-trump-comments-white-supremacists-alt-left-transcript-241662.
Shugerman, Emily. “KKK Leader Claims Hate Group has Grown at Record Pace since Trump became President.” Independent, 23 Aug. 2017. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/kkk-trump-membership-rise-grown-record-pace-says-leader-chris-barker-a7905811.html.
Srikantiah, Jayashir, and Shirin Sinnar. “White Nationalism as Immigration Policy.” Stanford Law Review, March 2019. https://www.stanfordlawreview.org/online/white-nationalism-as-immigration-policy/.