The brutal death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police has ignited protests across the United States, and the murder charges for the responsible officers are just the beginning. These insurgencies are a call to dismantle the police and the white power structures which are the root cause of this murder.
Such resistance is even more compelling with the resurgence of white nationalism accompanying Donald Trump’s presidency. Former police officer Derek Chauvin, who was videoed kneeling on Floyd’s neck, has a troubling history of brutality while on duty.
Trump himself used this as an opportunity to not only further stoke racial divisions but move the country closer to authoritarian rule. He called the protesters “thugs” and threatened them with state violence, declaring on Twitter that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
….These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen. Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 29, 2020
Yet another racist threat is just as systemic and insidious: the “soft white power” of so-called “moderate” Democrats and their elite allies. They represent a dangerous form of white privilege and violence that is cloaked in the language of inclusion and allyship.
Even more dangerously, they similarly use the oppression and dehumanization of non-whites in the US and around the world to their political advantage and to undermine freedom and democracy.
The Threat of Soft White Power
There was always the risk that these tragic events and the rebellion they inspired would fall victim to a mainstream narrative of “evil Republicans” versus “good Democrats.” The enemies would be a “few bad apple” cops and their Republican political backers. And indeed, the increasingly fascist language deployed by Trump makes the need to create a united democratic front again far-right authoritarianism necessary and urgent.
However, such an alliance cannot ignore the danger of mainstream political liberalism, which has been complicit in creating and perpetuating this systemic racism and racialized violence.
As is usual during periods of uprisings, many on the left have appealed to the wisdom of Martin Luther King Jr., who famously proclaimed that “a riot is the language of the unheard.”
Equally timely – though not nearly as quoted – were his words condemning “white moderates.” In 1963, he warned that black American’s “great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice…”
In the present day, the threat of “white moderates” has transformed into a potent form of “soft white power.” Conventionally, “soft power” refers to the use of culture and diplomacy for reinforcing an existing status quo. Similarly, “soft white power” represents the exploitation of “anti-racist” discourses for ironically reinforcing racial inequities, exploitation, and repression.
It is the cultural and political appropriation of the civil rights movement and struggles for reinforcing a racist status quo. Take a moment to consider who mainstream Liberals celebrate.
They hold up as anti-racist champions people like Hillary Clinton, who helped bomb and overthrow governments of poorer countries filled mostly with non-whites. Or Joe Biden, who supported segregation in the 1970s and then spent the 1980s and 1990s as a key architect of the “War on Drugs” and “War on Crime” that has led to the mass incarceration of mostly non-white and poor people.
It is precisely through their appeals to a “fairer America” and “racial justice” that they are able to be such effective champions of strengthening white power structures in their actions.
The Danger of ‘Moderate’ Authoritarianism
It is tempting and, to an extent, understandable to dismiss the threat of “soft white power” as an acceptable “lesser evil” to the more explicit and extreme forms of right-wing racism. However, to do so misses how deeply and fundamentally these “harder” and “softer” types of racism rely on each other to reproduce and expand white power nationally and globally.
At its heart, white power centers on the premise that some people matter and others are disposable. This is reflected in the rise of the “prison industrial complex” which refers to economic and political elites profiting from mass incarceration – especially of black and brown people.
The evidence is increasingly clear that the imprisonment of non-whites is acceptable if it benefits those in power or makes white populations feel more comfortable. Indeed, since 1980 the US prison population has exploded from approximately 500,000 to over 2.2 million, and while the US only represents 5 percent of the global population, the country has 21 percent of its total prisoners internationally.
Moreover, this trend toward locking people is far from color blind. African Americans are imprisoned at five times the rate of whites and African American women twice as much as white women. The prison population would fall by 40 percent if African Americans and Hispanics were imprisoned at the same rate as whites.
These racist power relations at home potently combine with the “military-industrial complex” abroad. Here, the death and impoverishment of poor non-whites is deemed as acceptable collateral damage for protecting corporate profits and US global hegemony.
Similar to the ways that both Democrats and Republicans cynically use discourses of “democracy” to justify present-day military interventions, so too are Liberals willing to draw upon the language of “anti-racism” to reinforce police power and mass incarceration.
The support of such moderates reflects an all too prevalent “white gaze” within middle to upper-class white communities where they are not merely supported based on a rational understanding of what is politically possible but as genuine advocates of inclusion and progress themselves.
In doing so, this culturally “normalizes” the “hard white power” of domestic policing and military intervention so fundamental to sustaining racial inequality at home and abroad. It allows for white people generally and especially those from economically advantaged backgrounds to feel good about themselves and society rather than undertaking serious critical reflection or systemic critique.
The Democratic Struggle Against White Power
Yet there are increasing signs that this once though unassailable “soft white power” is beginning to weaken.
As a telling prelude to this latest uprising, Democratic nominee Biden was criticized for claiming that, “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.” Following George Floyd’s death, several prominent black voices are directly challenging this “liberal” white privilege.
CNN’s media commentator Van Jones claimed that,
“It’s not the racist white person who is in the Ku Klux Klan that we have to worry about. It’s the white, liberal Hillary Clinton supporter walking her dog in Central Park who would tell you right now, ‘Oh I don’t see race, race is no big deal to me, I see all people the same, I give to charities,’ but the minute she sees a black man who she does not respect, or who she has a slight thought against, she weaponized race like she had been trained by the Aryan Nation.”
Many who are actually concerned about and struggling for racial justice are increasingly “fed up” with false “moderate” allies. A danger though is that the very real threat of fascism posed by Trump will allow us to ignore the threat of “soft white power.”
Now is not the time to propose mere cosmetic reforms to the system but rather engage transformative policies that would fundamentally challenge and destroy the US’ existing authoritarian institutions. The rebellion sparked by George Floyd’s killing has already led to renewed calls to defund the police and reimagine public safety.
What is needed to stop fascism in its tracks are concrete proposals and actions to dismantle the racialized and class-based authoritarian structures in the US.
This reveals the importance of dismantling both “soft” and “hard” white power from the ground up. Taking up the cultural banner of civil rights while trampling on it in practice must be seen not only as a betrayal of the cause but an extreme and dangerous form of “white privilege” that reinforces authoritarianism and indirectly contributes to the rise of fascism.
When you normalize racism at the very top and justify it as an acceptable “lesser evil,” you perpetuate the stain on the soul of the nation and put all our freedoms in danger.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.