Moving Beyond Tests of Ally Purity

Over the past two weeks, or so, there has been a sea change in racial attitudes among European Americans due to the spate of police killing: including those of Breonna Taylor, Ahmuad Arbery, Dreason Reed, George Floyd, and most recently Rayshard Brooks. This has included a shift in the attitudes of even some “white” Republicans.

Indeed, much has changed in the two years since I wrote Killing African Americans: Police and Vigilante Violence as a Racial Control Mechanism. European Americans are now acknowledging, with the most straightforward language seen in this nation’s history, that America has always been racist, that its racial oppression continues and is systemically embedded in every fiber of its fabric, and that significant change must happen, now. And this has not just been talk; tens of thousands of them have taken to the streets to “walk the walk” while putting themselves at risk for potentially fatal COVID-19 infection and brutal police repression.

Now, while this is encouraging, we don’t know whether this is, to quote Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, going to be a mere “moment” or a sustainable “movement” that brings about systemic change. History tells us that: the poll numbers will not continue to rise, there will likely to a white backlash, and that, even if it wins significant change, when this phase of the movement is over systemic racism and racial oppression will remain, and there will still be lots of work to be done. In brief, racial oppression and the struggle against it will continue. One of the most interesting and, to me, disappointing recent developments is the amount of time and highly-emotional energy some African Americans have given in making the case that “white people” are not reliable allies and cannot be trusted. In some quarters there actually seems to be more focus on that “issue” than on the movement itself and the opportunity it brings to make black lives matter more.

While acknowledging that, based on historical facts, African Americans have good reason to be suspicious of Europeans American allies, to be angry about past betrayals, and to be weary of what is happening now, and what may happen in the future; I would like to explain why, knowing all this, I think that the focus on the genuineness and trustworthiness of “white” allies is not only a reactionary distraction from the serious business at hand; but is, in fact, not an “issue” at all.

Of course, coalitional politics has its problems. In my African Americans and Social Protest class at UConn I give specific examples of them like the pressure placed on John Lewis by European American political, union, and religious leaders to “moderate” the speech he gave as a SNCC leader at the March on Washington in 1963. I also stress in that class that, when entering into a coalition, the group that has the greatest stake in its success must be in total control of its leadership, goals, language, strategies, and tactics; and not allow allies to tamp down its militancy for any reason. So yes, having “white” allies, like any relationship, can entail problems.

But to me the question of whether we should have “white allies” is not really an issue. Why? First, not all European Americans who are involved in the current protests, and who are pushing for changes, are “allies.” As we have seen over and over again, some, are not allies because they don’t really care about issues like the pervasive, disproportionate, and persistent killings of African Americans, but are content to exploit the movement for their own, often assumed to be larger and more important, purposes. Others are not simply allies, in that they actually believe in what they are fighting for, through their protests and other means and would be out there in the streets and elsewhere even if there was not a single African American at their side. In brief, they are working to protect their own values and ideals; not just to help us.

But there is a more politically realistic reason for progressive African Americans not spending a lot of time searching for ally purity. That reason was articulated decades ago by the late Shirley Chisholm, an African American Congresswoman and presidential candidate, who made it clear that African Americans have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies . . . just permanent interests. Through that lens of such racial-political realism, therefore, it makes no difference whether “white” people who work toward our goals are friends or enemies, good or bad, trustworthy or untrustworthy; or whether our feelings toward them are love, hate, or indifference. What matters is how effective they are as a resource toward winning the changes we want and need. With that in mind our position is simple; we work with them when that works for us; we leave them along when it does not; period, end of discussion!   With this racial-political realist approach the question of whether or not we should have “white” allies is simply not an issue; and we can move on to focus our attention on the movement at hand.    

Noel A. Cazenave is Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut. He is currently writing a book titled, Kindness Wars: The History and Political Economy of Human Caring.    

Making Black Lives Matter

Once again, an unarmed young African-American man has been killed by the police under very questionable circumstances. That latest name added to that long and growing kill list is Stephon Clark; who was recently gunned down in his grandmother’s backyard in Sacramento, California by two police officers who fired at him twenty times. And once again the initial reports of what happened by police on the scene do not jive with video evidence.

How can we make sense of the pervasiveness, disproportionality, and persistence of such killings in a way that can help us make black lives matter? In my soon to be released Killing African Americans book I argue that to do so we must place them within the context of the long history of the use of violence in the United States to control African Americans — especially during those historical moments when we are perceived as getting out of our proper racial “place” such as after the abolition of slavery, the more recent white backlash to the successes of the civil rights movement in the late 1960s, and the still more recent racial backlash to the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first African American president which a couple years ago fueled the election of an overtly racist president, Donald J. Trump. Such killings function as a violence-centered racial control mechanism, which along with other violence-centered racial control mechanisms like the racially-targeted death penalty and mass incarceration, sustains today’s systemic racism; just as in the past the fatal violence associated with lynchings, the death penalty, and mass incarceration were deployed to preserve the racial control systems of slavery, peonage, and Jim Crow.

By examining those killings through such a political lens, it becomes clear why piecemeal criminal justice reforms do not, and cannot, work. Because they serve important economic, social status, and political functions for members of this nation’s dominant racial group they can only be seriously addressed through fundamental racial and economic changes. Such change can come only through African Americans and other people of goodwill mustering sufficient political pressure through social protests, economic boycotts, and other means to make it clear that those killings will no longer be allowed to happen with impunity. Viewing such violence through the lens of racial politics reveals that the ultimate–bottom line–reason the police and vigilantes kill so many African Americans is because they can; and the only way to stop them from doing so is by changing oppressive power-relationships. This means that both ameliorative and radical solutions to the problem, should focus on political and economic solutions; solutions that either stop the targeting of African Americans or ensure that there is sufficient accountability to prevent such killings from happening with impunity when they do. A good place to begin, of course, is by joining social movement organizations like the Black Lives Matter Global Network.

In Killing African Americans, I start by suggesting some ameliorative solutions. I present a list of some things I believe can be done to help reduce the number of police and vigilante killings of African Americans by making those responsible more accountable. That list includes: establishing local, state, and national data centers and archives for all police and vigilante killings; creating a legal defense hotline of pro-bono lawyers to advise people of their rights; monitoring the policies and pay-outs of companies that provide local governments with insurance that covers police misconduct; monitoring, and when possible, becoming involved in the negotiation of police union contracts to ensure that they don’t provide unreasonable protection for officers who use lethal force; monitoring and making public the records of the handling of local police and vigilante killings by mayors, police chiefs, prosecutors, and judges; and developing police and vigilante accountability political platforms to be endorsed by candidates for elected office at every branch and level of government.

Other possible actions are: distributing smart phone apps to advise those confronted by the police and vigilantes and to record those encounters on cloud-based servers; pressuring local police departments to establish civilian review boards; forcing state and local governments to appoint special prosecutors to handle all police killings; bringing lawsuits that challenge existing laws and court rulings regarding when the police may use lethal force; organizing neighborhood “Copwatch” groups to monitor police and vigilante activity, and petitioning the United Nations to investigate and monitor the persistence of the disproportionate police and vigilante killings of African Americans as a violation of our human rights and its anti-genocide pact.

Ultimately significant changes can come only through major transformations in U.S. racial and economic relations. To make that happen we can begin with: massive and sustained protests that disrupt every aspect of American life (e.g., work, politics, transportation, religious services, and sporting events); economic boycotts that target all economic activity in communities that tolerate the lack of police and vigilante accountability; and programs of non-cooperation including jury nullification, refusal to pay taxes, and the refusal to serve in the military. Such actions can also include general strikes and slowdowns in which African Americans and our supporters refrain from making our normal contributions to society (e.g., work and school); and when necessary, the establishment of armed militias for self-defense.

To sum up, both the cause of and the solution to these killings is captured in one word, power. And when it comes to how power relations are changed no one has said it better than Frederick Douglass: “power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
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Author note
Noel A Cazenave is Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut. His forthcoming book, Killing African Americans: Police and Vigilante Violence as a Racial Control Mechanism is scheduled to be released in June.

“Illiberal”: The White Backlash Word

It did not take more than a day or two for there to emerge a white backlash against the spate of protests by African-American students on predominantly “white” college campuses like the University of Missouri and Yale University; including a rant by an apparent liberal on National Public Radio against what he saw as their “illiberal” behavior.

My google search found the adjective illiberal defined as “opposed to liberal principles, restricting freedom of thought or behavior” and “uncultured or unrefined.” White” conservatives and their allies condemn such protests as being indicative of a victim’s mentality. “White” moderates and those who think like them dismiss them as coming from people who are overly sensitive. And now the latest buzzword that initially appears to come from “white” liberals and those who accept their ways of thinking about racial conflict as a means toward progressive social change is that such actions are “illiberal.” What they all have in common is that they are all essentially “white” racial backlash frame responses to the expression of the pain born of the oppression of African-Americans.

Such white backlash is consistent with the “All Lives Matter” slogan dismissal of the “Black Lives Matter” movement; a movement which is now a driving force behind the campus protests.

In my Conceptualizing Racism book I discuss such racially-charged language battles between what I call linguistic racial accommodation and linguistic racial confrontation as well as what I refer to as the IPA Syndrome of groups that benefit from oppression. The letters IPA refer to the ignorance of not knowing; the privilege of not needing to know, and the arrogance of not wanting to know.

We see all of that in the attempt of some “white”–assumed to be–liberals to now use the word “illiberal” to silence African-American outrage at oppression just as their more conservative cousins have used the term “political correctness;” which more and more “white” moderates and liberals have come to accept. This emotionally-charged and paternalistic finger wagging behind the charge of illiberalism evokes the racist image of “black” savages who have invaded the hallowed “white,” and above all “civilized,” halls of academia; devoid of any real appreciation of and respect for its core values like freedom of speech and academic freedom.

But alas appearances are often deceiving. As it turns out the main driving force behind the concept of liberalism is not liberals, but their occasional racial allies; the extreme right wing. The “illiberal” concept is being pushed by political extremists who abhor the very words liberals and liberalism but now seem to want to seduce those who see themselves as liberals into a liberal/right-wing coalition against militant African-American social protest. At this coalition’s center is the extreme right-wing intellectual Dinesh D’Sousa who in 1998 published a book titled Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus. You may recall D’Sousa for his The End of Racism book which in the mid-1990s provided a racist cultural argument to justify white supremacy which complemented the biological argument made a year earlier by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve that was published by the same publisher.

This means that self-identified liberals who might find themselves attracted to the concept of illiberalism should be aware of this part of the concept’s history and how it is being used by the right-wing who ordinarily detest the very word liberal to form an unholy racial alliance against the legitimate aspirations of African Americans and other racially oppressed peoples. But there is still more ignorance, privilege, and arrogance to the use of the word “illiberal” as an ideology to beat back African-American protest than even that.

The term illiberal arrogantly assumes that all progressive African Americans are–indeed all left-leaning African Americans can aspire to be politically–is liberals. It assumes that like “white” liberals we are conflict-aversive and ultimately committed to sustaining the status quo by simply making minor tweaks to the system for it to function more smoothly.

It also arrogantly disallows the possibility that there is an African-American Left politics that dares to venture beyond whiteness and an intellectually, ethically, and politically shallow, multi-cultural/diversity framed liberalism. Now here is the racial bottom line, if you will. For progressive African Americans the best response to being labelled “illiberal” is to reject the label and framing of liberalism altogether by beginning a new conversation with the simple question that shatters the presumptuousness of white racial arrogance by simply asking. “And what makes you believe I am a liberal?”

Noel A. Cazenave is Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut. His forthcoming book, Conceptualizing Racism: Breaking the Chains of Racially Accommodative Language, is to be released this month. His current book project is tentatively titled, Killing African Americans: Police and Vigilante Violence as a Racial Control Mechanism and he plans to teach a course on the same topic at UConn next fall.

“Black Lives Matter” versus “All Lives Matter”: Latest Racial Battle over Language

Once again America is embroiled in a racial shouting match. We cannot even agree on how to talk about our latest racial crisis: the seemingly daily police and vigilante killings of unarmed African Americans.

This language battle was evident last spring after a group of students expressed both their concern about racial incidents at the University of Connecticut and their solidarity with the growing Black Lives Matter movement by painting “Racism at Storrs” and “Black Lives Matter” on the opposite sides of the campus “Spirit Rock” designated for student expression.

UConn Spirit Rock

(Image source)

Unfortunately, it did not take long for someone to paint over the words racism and Black to express their view that there is no racism on campus and that only color-blind language that declares “All Lives Matter” is allowed there. That language battle is reminiscent of the one anti-racists won on the same campus in the mid-1990s over whether the word “White” would be allowed in the title of the White Racism course I have taught there ever since.

What was especially sad about the most recent UConn battle over words, some two decades later, was how many European Americans, both on and off campus, supported that All Lives Matter brush over as they refused to acknowledge the simple fact that African Americans, in particular, are facing what seems to be an epidemic of killings by European-American men, both in and out of uniform. Think about it. The legitimate concerns of African Americans were literally painted over!

Driven by racism-evasive politics, the whitewashing of this nation’s serious racial crisis has also been thrust onto the national presidential campaign. Hillary Clinton was criticized for the same insensitivity by also framing the issue as one of All Lives Matter. Later, after declaring that “All Lives Matter,” Martin O’Malley–another candidate for the Democratic Party nomination for president–was shouted down by African-American protestors who accused him of being indifferent to their racism-specific concern. And still more recently protestors went after Republican primary candidate Jeb Bush after he glibly denounced O’Malley’s apology as yet another example of “political correctness.”

Unfortunately, the emergence of the “All Lives Matter” slogan is much more than yet another example of color-blind ideology run amok. It officially marked the beginning of the white backlash against the Black Lives Movement that conservative media like Fox News and Republican presidential candidates like Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, and Donald Trump increasingly use to fuel their racism-driven ratings and campaigns.

This is of course nothing new: words matter in both exposing American racism and in keeping it hidden. When European Americans refer to the nation’s race relations problem they typically use vague, obfuscating, and misdirecting terms like race, the race issue, and minorities where-as African Americans and other people of color are more likely to deploy words like racism and the racially oppressed. In my recently completed study of how the social sciences in the United States mirror the larger society’s racial language I document a constant battle between what I refer to as the linguistic racial accommodation enforced by the nation’s white power structure and the linguistic racial confrontation pushed forward, whenever they can, by the racially oppressed. I found that the use of racially accommodative language like framing the nation’s systemic racism problem as its “Negro problem” or of one of simply the prejudice of a few racially-bigoted outliers is the usual state of affairs and that only when there is a successful challenge to the racial status quo is the language of the racially oppressed forced into the national discourse.

That was certainly the case in the late 1960s after civil unrest broke out in scores of American cities when a presidential commission actually identified “white racism” as this nation’s major problem. Fast forward to not long ago, nearly a half century later, when in response to Black Lives Matter protests Democratic presidential primary candidate Bernie Sanders–with the help of a recently hired African-American press secretary aligned with that movement– released the most explicit “racism and racial justice” presidential platform in American history. Sander’s platform outlines his position not only on the physical violence African Americans endure but also on the political, legal, and economic violence we face daily.

It remains to be seen how long our current racial language battle will last and what will come of it. But there is growing evidence that African Americans and other racially oppressed people will no longer allow our concerns about systemic racism to be painted over by not only conservatives but by racism-evasive progressives who attempt to promote their own legitimate concerns by whitewashing those that are specific to us. Hopefully while this battle continues it will fuel an honest discussion of one of this nation’s most important social problems; one which includes a large and robust conceptualization of systemic racism which enables us to move beyond specious debates like “who is a racist?” and whether, by some strange logic, a movement that insists that “black” lives matter in the face of what appears to be an open hunting season on African Americans by angry white men with guns somehow implies that “white” lives don’t.

Noel A. Cazenave is Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut. His forthcoming book, Conceptualizing Racism: Breaking the Chains of Racially Accommodative Language, will be released in November. His current book project is tentatively titled, Killing African Americans: Police and Vigilante Violence as a Racial Control Mechanism.