This op-ed by GQR Senior Advisor and professor of political science at the University of Washington, Christopher S. Parker, was originally published by The Washington Post on August 10, 2020.
From abolition to the present, enlightened Whites have often been willing allies to the Black freedom struggle, sometimes to great effect. But recent events suggest the partnership might have run its course, with two potentially devastating consequences: the Black Lives Matter movement failing, at least for now, to achieve its potential, and the reelection of President Trump.
If White people truly want to be effective allies to the freedom struggle, they need to quickly move away from center stage. Otherwise a generational opportunity could be lost over well-intentioned but misguided “help” from antifa activists, walls of moms and practitioners of naked yoga.
The murder of George Floyd in May appears to have reinvigorated the on-and-off relationship between the Black community and its White allies. Indeed, in the wake of the blue-on-Black violence that took place in Minneapolis, public support for Black Lives Matter has increased dramatically. The share of Americans holding favorable views of the movement — 54 percent — is now 15 points higher than it was four years ago, with much of that gain coming in recent months.
That bump in support is welcome and important, but it won’t necessarily endure. Violence and vandalism at what have been billed as BLM protests — much of it carried out by Whites — could affect perceptions of the movement. There is a risk that the social-justice message will get drowned out by the chaos, with Trump benefiting in two ways.
By identifying antifa — the loose confederation of “progressives” committed to anti-fascist counter-activism — as the source of mayhem, Trump can distract the public from his bungling of the U.S. response to covid-19. And he can use any chaos to boost his flagging prospects in November by portraying himself as a law-and-order president. One need only examine Richard Nixon’s campaign in ’68 for an example of the latter.
This is not what effective White allyship looks like.
For an example of that, consider the link forged during the Civil War between the men of the United States Colored Troops and some in the White officer corps of the USCT and Union Army. The valiant service of Black troops compelled some of these White officers to testify before Congress on behalf of radical Reconstruction. Black agency took center stage, with Whites in a supporting role. One hundred years later, history repeated itself during Freedom Summer. In 1964, at the behest of a coalition of the major civil rights organizations, approximately 1,000 college students from the “North” — most of them White — volunteered to register Black Mississippians to vote.
Over this span of our history, Black political theorists, from Frederick Douglass to Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) and beyond, have considered — and often disagreed about — the proper role of White supporters. But there was consensus on the key point: The Black community must unambiguously take the lead in its liberation. Agency is essential. Otherwise, claims to post-liberation autonomy — of any kind — may be called into question.
That’s true of this moment as well. It scarcely matters that many of Trump’s claims about the protests are not credible. The point is that White people have been enabling Trump’s strategy by drawing the spotlight away from the real issues. They have allowed themselves to be used to justify the presence of federal law enforcement, and can be blamed for any conflict that ensues.
Absent the provocations of antifa and others, Black and brown activists could avail themselves of the playbook adopted by their forebears in the face of government violence. When Black nonviolence was met by redneck hostility in the South in the early ’60s, the result was the ratification of the most significant civil rights legislation since the Civil Rights Act of 1875: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
No one wants a repeat of such attacks. But with today’s demand for change centered on Black resolve, genuine systemic reforms — including reparations — could be achievable. Such a movement would go a long way toward at last moving America away from the Herrenvolk democracy it’s been from the beginning — one in which real democracy is restricted to those identifying as White.
To be clear, Black people appreciate the sentiments of the mothers, veterans and others who have taken to the streets in support of nonviolent protesters. But now our White allies should heed the advice of Carmichael and others and retreat to their own communities to educate other Whites on the evils associated with discrimination. For, as they say, racism is a problem best solved by White people — they’re the ones who created it.
In a moment aimed at uprooting systemic racism root and branch, having White supporters take a step back will go a long way toward achieving our collective goals, ultimately moving the country ever closer to that elusive “more perfect union.”