Here's the real danger with the “to hell with Trump voters” argument

History teaches us that organizing white people for racial justice is possible... but that we’ve got no time to spare

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By 1957, Anne and Carl Braden had already been given more than enough reasons to give up on other white people. Three years previously, the couple had become regional and national pariahs due to their highly publicized sedition trial (their crime was helping a Black family, the Wades, buy a home in a segregated Louisville suburb; the “sedition” element was nothing but fluffed up Red Scare nonsense). Their careers were ruined. Friends and family (even other activists) deserted them. There were countless death threats. Carl spent months in prison. They lost all their money. Their children had to spend the bulk of their formative years with Anne’s parents. It’s not hyperbolic to say that they lost nearly everything at the hands of white bitterness, white stubbornness and white rage.

And yet.

When the dust cleared and the work of getting back on their feet was at least partially behind them, the Braden’s had a choice. Anne had a job offer with a supportive group of civil liberties lawyers in California. Instead, they not only stayed in the South but went deeper into its most reactionary communities. By the beginning of the 1960s, the Bradens had driven tens of thousands of miles across the former Confederacy, mobilizing white support for the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. They connected isolated integrationists in small towns across the region, rebuilding the Southern Conference Education Fund into a trusted ally for the SCLC and SNCC’s Alabama and Mississippi campaigns. They then launched a white student organizing movement which, in spite of intense levels of repression, would eventually bring thousands of white Southern students into freedom work. As the decade went on, they seeded economic justice and community aid campaigns across the Rural South and Appalachia.

Their work was phenomenally unsexy and often quite unsuccessful. For every heart and mind changed, thousands of others continued to stand on the side of hate. In fact, Anne Braden never succeeded in convincing her own parents of the righteousness of her efforts. And through it all, the repression and vitriol would only increase. Before long, Carl would find himself locked up again, this time thanks to HUAC and a Congressional contempt charge. Their office was raided. The death threats piled up. The strain on their family only increased.

And yet, they kept working. They kept organizing. They kept believing, as Anne put it, that “this new Black movement just made it so obvious that some whites had to catch up with this history… I knew white people were there somewhere, and we had to get to them.”

I’m about to talk about Tim Wise, but this isn’t really about him. There’s a broader trend here; he just has a large enough platform to make for a useful case study. Along with Robin Diangelo and Jane Elliott, Wise is one of our country’s most recognizable “white anti-racist” educators. He has racked up a hefty list of speaking appearances and media hits and Lists Of Important People to which he has been named. These days, he’s pretty fired up about Trump supporters. His is a pretty classic rendition of the broader “to hell with them” take (though with an above-average amount of tough-guy bravado and superfluous “Billy Joe Jim Bob” insults). Underneath the naked classism, though, his core argument is that, since presenting “facts [and] data” is insufficient to change people’s minds, the only alternative is that “they must be defeated. Without hesitation. Without Sentimentality. Without apology.”

Now, of course, there are plenty of situational moments where, in a world of limited resources, it makes sense to de-center white Trump voters. I’m glad that many are calling for the Democratic party to focus its legislative priority on the demands of Black, Brown and Indigenous communities. I’m excited that others are urging legacy media publications to stop sending their beat reporters to the same Pennsylvania diners. There are no shortage of zero-sum attention economy decisions to be made by activists, funders, writers and politicians and lots of good reasons for those folks to put much of their energy elsewhere.

Wise’s argument is befuddling though, not because there’s no case to be made for it, but who it’s coming from. How is it that, in the Year of Our Lord 2020, one of America’s most prominent “white anti-racist educators” is arguing, repeatedly, against any attempts to educate a broad swath of white people on anti-racism?

Wise would likely argue that he is more than happy to help deepen the commitment of sympathetic white people, but that he has found attempts to change more entrenched people’s minds to be Sisyphean. Let’s set aside for the moment the significant issue that, if Wise believes his job is to preach to the choir, it’s not clear how he justifies the need for his white voice when there are plenty of Black, Brown and Indigenous thinkers happy to address the already-converted. Even on its surface, however, his argument is worth unpacking.

On at least one level, Wise is correct: no serious organizer or educator believes that you can change anybody’s minds by arguing facts with them— doing so invariably causes a fight or flight mechanism from the other person. What is so confusing, then, is that rather than immersing himself in the grand tradition of organizers who HAVE changed hearts and minds (or, alternately in the social and cognitive psychology literature about what undergirds successful efforts to do so), Wise presents as being stubbornly uncurious about any efforts other than the ones he has already tried. His most recent Medium post climaxes with what is deployed as an unimpeachable closing argument. In it, he highlights an email exchange from 20 years ago with a staunch segregationist that, after some promising interludes, ended suddenly when his epistolary partner dropped some e-racism.

That’s all. That’s the knockout punch that one of America’s most prominent white anti-racist educators makes for not attempting to educate or organize tens of millions of white people on racism. A single unsuccessful email conversation.

This mental trap— the “to hell with them” anti-imaginative, anti-popular-education stance of would-be anti-racist white people— is much bigger than Wise. It is the activist water in which I’ve been swimming my entire adult life: a zeitgeisty obsession with winning rather than building that has been the enduring, albeit unintentional, legacy of the New Left. In fact, it’s these very mindsets that have killed a half-century of potentially promising white anti-racist organizing efforts before they could truly build momentum.

Earlier, I alluded to the immense, sloggy unsexiness of the Braden’s organizing efforts with SCEF. That wasn’t an anomaly. From the IWW and the CIO’s patient work bringing white workers on board for interracial organizing in the early 20th Century to the radical urban Appalachian movement fomented by JOIN in 1960s Chicago, organizing white people against white supremacy has always been a glacial affair. Its slowness is both a casualty of the power and intransigence of the forces it attempts to confront, but also of the simple reality that the quicker fix, pummel-them-with-facts alternative (as Wise IS correct in pointing out) doesn’t work. Effective white anti-racist organizing takes Braden-levels of tenacity. It’s a game of deep relationship building, long-term investment in communities and an abiding belief that every single white person possesses an underlying goodness buried beneath our own personal addiction to white supremacy.

The problem is that this inherent slowness, this requirement to actually love other white people and not to merely feel superior to them, requires an extremely different orientation than the instant gratification, self-righteous hero model that white leftists have been seduced by since the latter half of the 1960s. Experiments in white anti-racist community organizing such as JOIN didn’t fail; they were actually showing great promise before being defunded by New Left organizations like the SDS. They were deprioritized because they didn’t offer as much immediate “bang for the buck” as big anti-war demonstrations. Likewise, it’s not that the Bradens weren’t able to find promising potential recruits as they crisscrossed the rural South for the SCEF, it’s that it was hard to sustain the energy from a critical mass of younger activists when too many craved the cool cache of hanging around Black organizers but not slow, thankless work with other white people. As Anne Braden exclaimed more than once, the late 1960s white radicals who still stand as our activist forbears “just didn’t like white people! You can’t organize people if you don’t like them!”

When played out generationally, this perpetuates a vicious cycle. We fail to sustain long-term investment in white anti-racist organizing in Trump country and then tar and feather the residents of those places as being beyond salvation. Future generations of folks with big public platforms will then make a career off of being The Good White Anti-Racist White People while reiterating the message that we should all say “screw ‘em” to whatever the next generations Trumpers will be called. Thousands of left-leaning white people will get to prove their goodliness through their dearth of relationships with any of their “wrong-thinking” pale peers. We’ll all feel pretty damned good about ourselves. Nothing will change.

This past summer was a million years ago, but surely we still remember what it felt like to see Black Lives Matter protests popping up in unexpected places. White people were out in the streets! And not just the predictable streets! In the Havre, MT and Riverton, WY streets! In the Waukesha, WI and Harlan, KY streets!

Now that the election has passed and the predictable trove of exit poll data has been rolled out revealing continued white support for Trump, the smart anti-racist thing to do has been to write off everything that happened this summer as mere posturing, a rare bit of white sound and fury that, like all its predecessors, ended up signifying nothing. The message that Wise and others might give to those one-time marchers in Trump country is that their neighbors don’t deserve their energy or attention. They’re a lost cause. They voted the wrong way. They might as well have been curt in an email. Leave ‘em behind.

I didn’t have the pleasure of knowing Anne and Carl Braden. I didn’t have the pleasure of knowing Peggy Terry in Uptown Chicago. I didn’t have the pleasure of knowing Big Bill Haywood or Mother Jones or Virginia Durr or Myles Horton or Henry Wallace or any of the thousands of radical white justice educators and organizers and politicians whose names are lost to history. I do know that they loved justice even when it felt far away. I also know that they loved the potential of white people even when faced with the ugliness of whiteness in the present tense.

I can only imagine that if they were here today— tracing the ups and downs of the summer and fall— they wouldn’t publish smug jeremiads about writing off any single community. They’d get on the phone to lend a hand to lonely high school activists in Wyoming. They’d get in their car and provide support to beleaguered church groups in Kentucky. They’d get to organizing. They would do so knowing that there were no easy or quick victories when you’re up against the full weight of hundreds of years of white supremacy, but that merely means is that we have so little time to spare.

After all…

“…this new Black movement just made it so obvious that some whites had to catch up with this history… I knew white people were there somewhere, and we had to get to them.”

End notes:

  1. This piece borrows heavily from two powerhouse texts. Catherine Fosl’s Subversive Southerner: Anne Braden and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Cold War South and James Tracy and Amy Sonnie’s Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times. I can’t recommend both of them enough.

  2. If you would like to learn more about how to organize white communities for racial justice, I’m offering free* five-session training cohorts starting in January. Registration is currently open. You don’t have to be some superhero to do this work (in fact, would-be superheroes have a tendency to muck things up). It just takes average folks willing to try something a bit different.

  3. The asterisk next to “free” above is because I ask all participants to make a recurring donation (commensurate to their means) to a BIPOC-led activist group they admire. Other details on commitments and expectations can be found here.

  4. I’m fixing to devote next week’s newsletter to explaining my work and organizing model in more detail. While y’all have heard me talk about the Barnraisers Project, you deserve a fuller explanation for what I’m doing and how interested folks can support it and/or get involved (I also need some help, so bear with me asking for it directly).

  5. This week’s song: “We Shall Overcome” performed by Pete Seeger. Yes, it’s on the nose, but there’s a story here. The first time Anne Braden and Martin Luther King Jr. spent significant time together was at a Highlander Folk School training. King gave Braden a ride back to Alabama afterward and they really hit it off. One of their first conversations was about how moved they both were by this song. It had been performed at the training by Seeger and it was both activists’ first time hearing it. I love that story. It reminds me that everything that now seems culturally monolithic was at one point a novelty.