Durban, South Africa, September 2001. I was walking through the huge exhibit hall as part of the World Conference Against Racism – a convening of thousands for racial justice worldwide. There in the midst of teach-ins and health educators and organizers stood a rather nervous crew of white South Africans. They were encouraging passersby to walk into their exhibit on how South Africa had been turned “upside down” by the ending of apartheid. The booth was built as a room with furniture bolted to the ceiling to underscore the point. In their mind, rule by a violent minority was “normal” and anything else was unfair, backward and dangerous.
Over the years, I have seen a lot of messaging drawing on this old frame of white supremacy as normal and democracy of the majority as dangerous. Oftentimes, it is couched in more subtle terms like thwarting “illegitimate voters” with voter suppression policies, or the need to address white “angst” about their “place” in the nation. 45 has recently trotted out an oldie but “goodie” from the confederate era arsenal of narratives, the story that anyone talking about race or advocating around race in any form are all the same regardless of relative privilege, power, tactics or values. It’s at the heart of his “many sides” message that equates violent advocacy for white supremacist rule with racial justice advocacy for representative and restorative democracy.
I call it #FakeFairness.
Fake fairness shows up in attempts to legitimize racism and white supremacy as a “fair” and equivalent “response” to racial justice. It underlies the twisted logic that the tragic violence in #Charlottesville represents one of “many sides” of a “legitimate” debate. Fake fairness did not start with 45. It has been a running national story for centuries, helping to dismantle affirmative action, slash public benefits and attack public education. It was used to frame civil rights organizers as “instigators” “stirring up racial violence”- I guess by peacefully demonstrating and getting beat up by the police. Yeah, right…
Fake fairness has plenty of contemporary examples like policies that ban books on racial justice such as Franz Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks alongside Hitler’s Mein Kampf by claiming both books advocate racial supremacy. A key part of the fake fairness strategy is to marginalize and trivialize long histories of oppression, violence and privilege undergirding present day power relations. Proponents know that the public’s grasp of this history is fundamental to public support for changing conditions. In fact, disappearing or revising this history helps to bolster the narrative that there is no racism – only inferior and culturally deficient people who cannot succeed. That is, unless they are white, then their failings are framed as the result of unfair policies that “privilege” unqualified people of color over them.
All’s fair in war. This sense of being under attack, most recently articulated in white supremacist chants of, “We will not be replaced!” is part of another long-standing story in American political discourse – that we are in a war. By invoking the war frame, the right triggers belief about war including the well-worn idiom, “All’s fair in love and war.” In war, you say what you want to, incur casualties (however unintended) because you supposedly have no choice. These are dire circumstances according to their narrative. The country is “lost.” And dire circumstances require dire action: basically, an all-out, guns blazing fight. This is another way fake fairness comes up as any and all acts to defend and advance white supremacy are cast as self defense, the ultimate ‘any act is fair’ scenario.
Much of the messaging defending 45’s pardon of former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio falls right in line with this narrative. They frame Arpaio as a loyal soldier who fought the good fight – not an extreme racist who used his authority to bully and discriminate against Latinx communities in violation of the law he was sworn to uphold. Arpaio’s conviction was deemed by 45 and his supporters as unfair and the pardon as making things right. It’s classic fake fairness.
So, what can we do about it?
Be clear that racist, incendiary speech is not protected. If the Supreme Court can rule that falsely shouting “Fire” in a crowded theater is not protected speech because it is likely to cause harm, then inciting others to engage in violent repression of the human rights of others should certainly not be protected. At all.
Keep historic and contemporary racism and white supremacy in the public conversation. Fake fairness thrives when there’s no historical context. Knowing the past is important to understanding how we got to the present. I know it’s hard to talk about and hard for many to hear but we will not be able to move forward without proper repair – reparations – of the deep and widespread impact of racism and white supremacy in this country. There are great public conversations going on about white privilege and how it works and it’s heartening to see that millions are taking part.
Be willing to advance authentic “fairness” solutions even if they might be currently unpopular. When you start to grasp that nearly all of this nation’s wealth came from the theft of indigenous land and enslavement and forced labor of millions of Africans and indigenous peoples, it changes your perception of the problem, and the solutions. It’s true that few of us expect that those who benefit from these systems will give up all of their gains, but there are policies that will start to address the deep economic divides this history created. It’s important to keep dropping these ideas in the public conversation in order to build public awareness and support. This is how it begins for any policy initiative. Think of the ideas you thought would never fly from the right but here they are at the center of today’s discourse. We have to keep building.
Keep exposing the “ironies” of defending the confederacy, the only entity that attempted to overthrow the US government and waged war on its residents. The fact that there are people who identify as American patriots and support confederate symbols and ideas speaks volumes about their values. We should expose these values for what they are – evidence of how deeply embedded white supremacy is in the fabric of this country and that these values and their symbols are not welcome in the America we hope to become.
Affirm our legacy of Reconstruction. More than 20 years ago, I had the great fortune of coming across the work of the brilliant and visionary legal scholar Peggy Cooper Davis. Davis has written some of the most important legal analysis that anyone concerned with the idea of law as justice will read. One important stream of her work is the game changing assertion that true constitutional “framer theory” would take us back to the men and women who helped frame the 19th century reconstructed constitution, not the so-called founding fathers of the 18th century. Essentially, it is a call to claim the legacy embodied in Reconstruction ideals – the forging of an America that affirms human rights, dignity and actually becomes a place where there is liberty and justice for all. Davis calls this the People’s narrative versus the Confederate narrative. There’s a lot more to say here and I encourage those who want to nerd out further to read this more recent paper on which she is lead author. Here’s an excerpt:
“Despite its persistent influence in constitutional discourse, the Confederate narrative rests on a distorted reading of our legal history and encourages a narrow understanding of the rights of constitutional personhood. We therefore advance what we call the People’s narrative. This more historically grounded account holds that Reconstruction changed the constitutional balance among Federal, State, and People power. Basic civil rights – including the mutually reinforcing rights to be accommodated in public places, to be educated, and to participate in the Nation’s political life – became privileges of the People, and the Federal government became the ultimate judge and protector of those rights.”
We don’t have to settle for racism. This country can do better and, yes, we are up to the task. Perhaps one of the most powerful narratives that helps hold white supremacy in place is the big NO; that racism is so normal, so hardwired into our beings that there is no way it will ever go away. It’s a great way of getting lots of people to do nothing. But we are the people of YES. We are organizers. We are changemakers. We are transformers. We are the bearers of hope and faith in the possibility that justice is not only possible, it is achievable, even inevitable.
This kind of faith is not easy. I draw inspiration from the true patriots I have had the honor of knowing in my life; people whose country hurt them deeply – tortured them, murdered their families, exiled them and more – but they still deeply love their land. Of course, this is more than a notion for the millions of people who have been grossly betrayed by this country. Yet, if we choose to stay, we will need to build hope that this country can be a place that we, all of us, can one day truly feel at home. Feeling at home, that sense of belonging is at the heart of what it means to feel free. And how can we sustain our work over time without believing we will get free? So, let’s help our folk imagine the end game; the juicy, delicious possibilities of freedom and let’s keep experimenting with ways to create local liberated zones that provide glimpses into the bold and loving future. #KeepWinning
RESOURCES FOR FURTHER EXPLORATION
Public Policies and Bold Ideas
Histories of white supremacy, racism and exploitation
On White Privilege and #WokeWhitePeople
On Imagining Our Future