Privilege in activism: avoiding white monopolization

Criminal is an eclectic, short-form true crime podcast, part of the Radiotopia network of eclectic, short-form podcasts. It’s genuinely a great listen, usually dealing with stories that are local, often in a historical context. The most recent episode, “The Finger”, deals with a white Oregon man who tested the limits of free speech protection by giving every cop he sees the bird.

This episode highlights something that I think is important, if we wish to have healthy social justice activism. The question of how white people fit into Black Lives Matter as a structure is not new- the White Panther Party is proof of that. What “The Finger” represents is a deep double-standard where authorities criminalize speech for marginalized groups, but are indifferent when coming from traditionally dominant ones.

If I decided to flip off every police officer I saw, there would be some consequences. My car would get pulled over more. Small infractions like jaywalking or speeding could get me fined. A cop might even yell at me and be confrontational. And though I can’t say this for sure, I’m relatively confident that I would not suffer bodily harm for my choices. This applies to acts of protest in general. The same action has a fundamentally different meaning depending on who does it. For me, the consequences are real, but limited. For a black person, someone LGBT-identified or undocumented, people have been killed for much less than The Finger.

Recently I read a 2010 paper titled “The achievement gap and the discipline gap: two sides of the same coin?” (PDF). A section talks about how white and black students are disciplined for different acts, despite similar levels of misbehavior.

reasons for referring White students tended to be for causes that were more objectively observable (smoking, vandalism, leaving without permission, obscene language), whereas office referrals for Black students were more likely to occur in response to behaviors (loitering, disrespect, threat, excessive noise) that appear to be more subjective in nature.

The arrest of Sandra Bland was similar to this– based on subjective judgement about “attitude” and “disrespect.” Her minor traffic offense was inflated- despite white drivers doing a similar maneuver all the time. Similar actions, but vastly different consequences.

So that gets back to privilege and protest. I have space that others do not- I can get away with more provocative and militant tactics. The police are more likely to issue warnings before physical confrontation. Authority figures divulge more information around me because they don’t automatically assume I oppose them. This means people with privilege can be the most provocative, visible members of the movement. In the process, it diverts attention away from communities that are under attack by the state.

That’s unfortunate and counterproductive, because one of the most powerful aspects of Black Lives Matter is how dangerous it is to publicly confront the police as a black person in the United States. I can flip The Finger and curse out a police officer, but it doesn’t carry the same meaning.

One line of thought is weaponizing privilege. That is, people with privilege should exploit it to fight for social justice. My critique of white supremacy, the theory assumes, has special meaning because it is a critique of one’s own identity. But at the same time, it feels like things are going in the wrong direction. Privilege used for noble purposes is still fundamentally unjust, and its use cements it within society.

A counter, which after a year and a half around BLM, is that white, male allies are taking leadership positions within the movement when they weaponize privilege. I think that does happen, and I have witnessed it.

Ultimately, I feel my actions should exist within the democratic framework of a movement. That is, not unilaterally using my advantages, but rather offering it as an option should others feel it can be used in some way. White people have a tendency to make decisions personally, and then seek retroactive approval. That’s dangerous and undermines social justice movements. Marginalized groups should have their autonomy acknowledged and respected.

So I choose not to give cops The Finger, because most people cannot. It is important to respect how dangerous activism can be for certain groups of people, and not casually antagonize just because I can get away with it.

Bernie Sanders and the Graveyard of Social Movements

In the final hours before the Iowa caucuses, it’s productive to take a step back and look at the Democratic presidential primary from a structural perspective.

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Sanders at a rally in Charleston, South Carolina. August 2015.

American presidential campaigns used to be managed exclusively by machine bosses. There were no democratic primary elections- there was a convention, the candidate was often a compromise made in a smoke-filled room. Money and patronage were divvied among those who could mobilize resources. Popular participation did play a role, but party leadership counted for a lot- and much of the mobilization was under political machines controlled by said bosses.

All that has really happened since the 19th century convention-based system is that there are now primary elections. Of course that’s a big addition to the process, but the old forces haven’t been replaced. Party elites still try as much as possible to make the primary elections a coronation process; they also have the advantage that those with the most party loyalty are the main electorate. Thus even in a competitive race like 2008, the party structure was not threatened. A couple people got mad and said they wouldn’t vote for Obama, but otherwise unity was quick and very few people in power changed ideology as a result.

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Lance Selfa on the role of the Democrats since the 19th century (The Democrats: A Critical History, Haymarket Books, 2008)

 

This is a meandering way of getting to the relationship of Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Party. As Matt Karp writes today, the inner core of the Party has been nearly unanimous in endorsing Clinton, or at least not endorsing Sanders. Even second and third-tier primary candidates of elections past got at least a small handful of national figures, even if they never polled in the double digits.

Sanders is far from the first major candidate that the leading cadre have despised. The Democrats did have a chance to move leftward (to essentially the social-democratic politics that Sanders triumphs) in the late 60s and early 70s, but conflict with the conservative establishment caused so much chaos that there was little time to, ya know, campaign and win elections. If you’re wondering whether the Party will ever embrace a truly different direction, ask whether the people that control it would benefit from higher corporate taxes, more regulation, and eliminating industries like private health insurance.

So the institution doesn’t like him because of his politics. A factor that I’ve yet to see someone articulate clearly is an issue for both officials and primary voters. Bernie Sanders is not a Democrat and has never been one. I’ve run into plenty of people for whom party identification is a core part of their personal identity. They are Democrats. Their parents and grandparents, going back to the New Deal, were Democrats. Partisanship has an ideological component, but it also has the same nationalist substitute you get with sports teams and Kirk v. Picard. The instant Sanders decided to run as a Democrat he entered foreign turf that he doesn’t fit into well.

If history is our guide, the Sanders movement is not going to fundamentally change the structure. My stance on the Party has been consistent to the point that friends are surprised when someone else invokes it- “the graveyard of social movements.” The radicalism of groups since the 19th century has been neutered to the point that once the most militant of working class organizations run away from any genuine progressive politics. Clinton, who has never supported a $15/hr minimum wage, won the endorsement of the SEIU. Currently, their signature campaign is Fight for 15. Much of labor has been so institutionalized that its leadership will choose party loyalty, even if it undermines fast food workers who have lost their jobs advocating for $15.

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From Mike Flugennock: sinkers.org/stage/?p=1707

So as this primary season begins, the question of change needs to be separated. Can Bernie Sanders win despite near-universal Party opposition? Maybe, I don’t know. My concern is that even if he wins, the Party is not the vehicle to achieve progressive change. We have seen how much a President can be handcuffed by Congress- the opposition, yes, but also within the delegation.

I’ve seen people make the argument that Clinton v. Sanders is a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party. I don’t buy that interpretation (Don’t Believe the Hype!), nor any analysis that says the Party is destined to end up at this or that ideology. The best predictor of the future is the past, and the Democratic Party has been around for about two hundred years now. American party politics has flipped multiple times, but the Democrats were never radicals. When the Democrats fought in the 1890s over the Pullman strike, a Democratic president overrode a Democratic governor to crush it. Attempts to form a progressive, radical opposition has never lasted. Odds are that the Democratic Party will continue doing what it’s been doing, with no substantial change.

It is good to see more independent organizations liked National Nurses United bucking the trend of contradicting policy goals and endorsements. In their last post about the Sanders campaign before the caucuses, a nurse going door-to-door said:

We talked about what it means to have someone who is a champion, but also has a movement behind him. You have to have both to achieve change.

She’s right. You need both. But is that movement to come from a Party run by his opponents and funded by many of the same heinous corporations that fund the Republicans? Perhaps these buried organizations need to rise from the dead.

Because despite claims to the contrary, I think people power still has some life left in this country.