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.