A condensed version of this opinion piece was published on BET.com on October 5, 2020.
These are hard times for Black America. Black communities are disproportionately devastated by COVID-19 – one in 500 of us is projected to die from the virus by January 1 – along with police violence and criminalization, wage inequities, healthcare disparities, environmental toxins, and hate crimes.
This is a moment in our centuries-long struggle for racial equity in which we face more than these manifestations of persistent, structural white supremacy. The other threat facing us today goes beyond anti-Black racial bias. Our entire democratic system is under attack from the white nationalist movement.
White nationalism, which emerged as a backlash to the 1960s civil rights movement, descends from white supremacy. It is not a system like white supremacy but rather, a social movement committed to overthrowing the US government to establish a whites-only nation. Its supporters seek to build political power to achieve that ideological vision by implementing extreme racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic policies.
The gains we are achieving against white supremacy in this year’s uprising for racial justice are critically important. But the world needs to understand that these hard-fought gains on their own won’t slow down the white nationalist movement unless we take white nationalism on directly.
So once again, it’s up to us, Black America. We need to expand our leadership role from protesting white supremacy to leading the fight against the white nationalist movement as well.
White supremacy has created the conditions we’re protesting now. White nationalism seeks to exploit those conditions. With Trump increasingly desperate to stem his deteriorating popularity – and refusing outright to condemn white supremacy and telling the white nationalist Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” – Black America needs to get ready.
An unintended consequence of the robust movement in support of Black lives over the past six months, is that backlash has intensified: the white nationalist movement has been galvanized. The desire to accelerate what’s happening now into a full-blown civil war is super-charging the chat rooms of white nationalist organizers and their paramilitary wing.
We cannot allow ourselves to be deterred or intimidated. Instead, we need to prepare for a further increase in anti-Black hate crimes, police misconduct, and armed vigilante actions. We need to be seen as the leaders in the movement to counter authoritarianism and hate violence.
Black community leaders and those who support them are making headway on white supremacy. Since George Floyd’s murder, Black America has created one of the largest referendums on racism that has occurred since the 1960s. Black community leaders continue to mobilize the nation in a Black-led, multi-racial solidarity movement. If we make this a referendum on white nationalism too, we could turn the tide.
This means strengthening our understanding of authoritarian and anti-democratic movements both outside and inside our community. And it means debunking the myths that we carry, too.
One myth we’re not exempt from is the myth of race itself. Far too many Americans – including African Americans – believe that race is biologically determined. The truth is, dividing and defining us by “race” is a social construction. The idea that so many Black Americans accept a biological definition of race is a sign of the influence of white nationalist thinking on all of us.
Another myth we need to contend with is that authoritarian, far-right movements exist only outside the Black community. BIPOC membership in far right groups like the Proud Boys is minimal, to be sure – and certainly non-existent in openly white supremacist sectors of the far right. But there are some from BIPOC communities who are attracted to white-led authoritarian groups, and these few are featured prominently in those organizations’ efforts to be seen as less extreme. Just as the African American community is diverse in ancestry and national origin, skin color, geographic locales, education and occupation – so too, we are diverse ideologically.
Of greater importance, we need to acknowledge there are racial supremacist movements within our communities, groups whose ideologies include tenets of racially-based hatred. It’s critically important to distinguish those groups that espouse Black supremacy or advocate for nationalism based on race – we could call that Black Racial Nationalism – from Black separatism.
In the past, SPLC’s Year in Hate Report has defined the Black Separatist movement as “a reaction to centuries of institutionalized white supremacy in America. Black separatists believe the answer to white racism is to form separate institutions – or even a separate nation – for Black people.” The 2019 report acknowledged: “As in years past, Black separatists had no influence on mainstream politics or policy, unlike the white nationalist movement. Despite a few incidents that garnered national news attention, these groups continued to operate on the fringe of society, and as a reaction to institutionalized white supremacy.”
Notwithstanding this distinction, the Year in Hate report historically listed “Black Separatist” organizations side by side with Racist Skinheads, Neo-Nazis, and other categories of hate groups. In 2020, this is changing. SPLC will continue to monitor and report on Black extremist groups that advocate race-based violence, are antisemitic or anti-LGBT, and that seek to impose the view that Black people are the biblical “chosen people” of God. We need to wrestle with these forms of intolerance within the Black community – and to draw a clear moral line against violence and public policy based on notions of racial supremacy, regardless of its origins.
The third myth we need to unpack is how we view white nationalists. The popular depiction is of poor, uneducated, alienated victims of society, who are driven by economic pressures to assert white racial superiority. While there may be some adherents of white nationalist ideology who fit that stereotype, we have to understand that the white nationalist movement also consists of think tanks, elected officials, members of law enforcement and the military, and others who are in no way disenfranchised from institutional power. It’s not that economic pressures are irrelevant – it’s that they aren’t causal. Economic concerns provide permission for people to act on their anti-Black bias. They don't create anti-Black bias; they merely organize it in order to build political power.
Once we understand and let go of these myths, we can see clearly that our task is to build broad-based multi-racial alliances while being clear about the special position that Black and Indigenous people hold: the faces at the bottom of the well as Dr. Derrick Bell described us.
We are of the diaspora – a rich, diverse community. To strengthen our response and leadership in this moment we have to close the door on antisemitism, misogyny, xenophobia, Islamophobia, homophobia, and transphobia within our communities. These are wedge issues that weaken our power while strengthening the power of the authoritarian paramilitary movements aiming for us all.
Centuries of Black struggle and Black multi-issue movement-building have won the liberties that are now in peril. Past victories cracked open the door for other liberation movements. Our leadership is what has brought America closest to becoming its best self.
White nationalism now puts us at risk of losing everything our parents, grandparents, and their grandparents fought to win. Black people built this country – that is an indisputable fact. Our people have always been central to upholding American ideals, to defeating hate violence, from chattel slavery to the Confederacy to Jim Crow. This is our moment. We cannot allow centuries of Black American sacrifice to die in the current backlash.
The United States is our democracy, Black America. No one else is going to protect our hard-fought victories from white nationalism.
Black community leaders are building a 21st century civil rights movement, just like we built the great liberation and civil rights movements of the 19th and 20th centuries.
We can do this. We don’t make this statement lightly. We recognize how much you have accomplished, Black America, and the cost incurred, over the past four years; and in particular, over the last six months, how far you have brought this country forward.
Join us for The Far Right: Exposing Anti-Blackness, a three-part virtual convening about the challenges facing Black communities amidst a rising and increasingly violence white nationalist movement, designed to explore concrete ways we can fight back against white nationalism and rising authoritarianism today and post-election.
Lecia Brooks is Chief of Staff for the Southern Poverty Law Center and a participant in Western States Center’s Leadership Initiative to Combat Antisemitism. Eric K. Ward is a Senior Fellow with SPLC and Race Forward and Executive Director of Western States Center.
Photo by Daniel Leal-Olivas/Getty Images