In his inaugural address last week, President Joe Biden made it clear his administration will make defeating white supremacy — as well as the rise of political extremism and domestic terrorism — a priority for his presidency. But in order to do that, Americans must focus on defeating white supremacist structures without condemning white people.
That’s according to Berkeley African American studies professor john powell, who said, “We need a story that says, ‘No, this is a country for all of us.”
“When we reach out, as we should, and animate the voice of marginalized people of color, we also need to make sure we are holding a space for people who have organized around whiteness, not for whiteness itself, but for those people,” said powell, who is also the director of Berkeley’s Othering and Belonging Institute. “And that’s hard, because it means criticizing and sometimes condemning the practice of white supremacy, but at the same time holding on to the people that practice it.”
Berkeley News spoke with powell about what political leaders and everyday American citizens can do to help in the efforts to battle white supremacy, and the importance of making sure everyone is recognized in the process.
[This interview was edited for brevity and clarity]
Berkeley News: What does the country have to do, moving forward to defeat white supremacy?
john powell: I thought Biden’s speech on Inauguration Day was quite good, because he named it and called it white supremacy and not just racism. People are affected by their leaders and what they say.
White supremacy is an identity and a belief in the superiority of Western civilization that is sometimes a corollary, or independent, of the supremacy of white people to dominate and control.
I would start with what I call “short bridges” with people who are closer to us that we may have deep divisions with. It’s also important to, in a sense, attack white supremacy, but not attack white people. I think oftentimes those two things get conflated.
It’s more about the structural and institutional racist systems. In those systems, those ideas are actually animated and reproduced without the necessity of there being a racist person.
The people who embrace that system and ideology can be of any race.
We also have to create a better narrative where everyone, every group, can thrive and matter. We have to create policies and practices so we’re not pitting groups against each other. We have to care about all parts of the country — the city, suburbs and rural America, as well.
We can follow it up with policy that invests more in local communities. To say, “We’re going to invest in your schools, we’re going invest in you because you’re a part of this country.” But it doesn’t mean we’re not going to invest in Latinx communities. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to invest in Black communities. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to invest in Asian American communities. It means we’re going to invest in everybody.
But different groups will get different investments, because some groups are much further behind. How are we going to pay for that? Everybody has to pay their fair share.
There’s also an ontological threat that a lot of people are experiencing. It’s not just tied to an economic threat — Trump supporters are not just low-income and out of work people, they’re also middle-class professionals. It’s the fear that, as the country becomes more racially, economically, religiously and linguistically diverse, that, “I’m going to be replaced.” And that anxiety is normal.
We need a story that says, “No, this is a country for all of us.” And so, when we reach out, as we should, and animate the voice of marginalized people of color, we also need to make sure we are holding a space for people who have organized around whiteness — not for whiteness itself, but for those people.
And that’s hard, because it means criticizing and sometimes condemning the practice of white supremacy, but at the same time holding on to the people that practice it.
Recent polls find that white Americans have been the least engaged in trying to understand racial injustice issues in this country. How do you reach people who aren’t interested in supporting movements like Black Lives Matter and may even take offense at what these groups are protesting?
Rapid change creates anxiety.
It’s like a parent and a child. When a child falls down a couple of times before they cry, they look to their mother and father and say, “What does this mean? Should I be concerned about this?” And if the parents freak out, the kid freaks out. If the parents say, “Oh, you got a little blood on you, but get up, and you’ll be fine,” then they’ll be OK. In a sense, all of us are like that: We need to find that meaning in the change.
The country has a history of being afraid of Black people, and if you don’t know any Black people, if you live in suburban communities, I can see why you are afraid of Black people. You think of the police as doing this dangerous job. Whereas, if you are Black, when you think of the police you think they bring danger.
We live segregated lives and we live in different stories. And the question is: Who can hold those stories? We all can.
Lifting up Black people, lifting up Native people, lifting up Latinos and Asians, doesn’t mean we’re putting down white people. It does mean that there’s a history of this country being organized around white supremacy.
We’ve got to come to terms with that.
Whose job is it to explain these nuances to people who don’t agree or understand them?
In this effort, I don’t believe anyone should be on the sidelines. This is not just a struggle for Black people, but I think Black people have a particular role to play.
Some people of color might say, “That’s not my job” and “Why should I show concern for white people?” I would say, “It’s not your job, but it is the job of the country, and we’re trying to create a world where everybody belongs.”
So, we’ve got to get better at that. We have to really think about creating a society where we have the capacity to lift up injustices, to lift up problems, but also to do it in a way that we actually hold onto the humanity of everyone.
How do we still hold white supremacist institutions and structures accountable without making white people feel excluded?
There’s a South African term “Sawubona,” which means: I see you. I value you. You are important to me.
Everybody needs to be recognized. And the reality is there are a lot of white people who don’t have much power. Yet, they may still organize around white supremacy.
I spoke in rural Alabama about the Affordable Care Act to an all-white community that I believe supported Trump. And I was there to talk to them about changing the laws in Alabama so that they could extend the Affordable Care Act to Alabama. Most of them were against it, and they saw this act as something for Black and Latinx people, not for them.
Instead of talking about why this is needed in those communities, I asked them about their own lives: Had any of them been turned away from insurance because they lost a job? Did any of them have their children not covered because of preexisting conditions? Did any of them have a doctor order a prescription, but the insurance company said no?
I had them stand up each time I asked a question that applied to them. They had around 600 people there, and after three or four questions — everybody was standing up.
People got really animated, and they were yelling and said, “F— insurance companies,” and I said, “These are the problems that the Affordable Care Act is trying to solve.”
They really thought it was socialism, and they didn’t even know what it was. How did they come to that decision? They didn’t read the act, they had some leaders tell them that this was socialism or communism without even knowing what socialism or communism really was either.
I then explained to them each and every one of the problems we identified is worst in the Black and Latinx community. I didn’t lose one person in the conversation after that — but I had to make space for them to be part of the story.
When you have political leaders feeding misinformation to the public that causes more divisions, and gives people a sense of recognition by spreading falsehoods — for example, all these people think the election was fraudulent because former president Trump said it was — how can we unite as a country?
Moving forward, this is a huge problem, but we can address it. I talk a lot about bridging between our divisions, and you don’t bridge with the most difficult person or group, you start with short bridges.
And as we get better at talking about our differences, we’ll learn. You can’t make someone come along, but you can create a space where they can come along where we can be hard and critical on structures, but soft on people.
If someone says they’re against immigration, I’m happy to talk about their pain. “How did you get there? Talk to me about your truth,” instead of saying, “You’re stupid for believing that.” If I come to you and say, “I don’t see you, you’re invisible,” and say you’re stupid — that pushes you further away.
We know how to do this at a certain level. It’s hard to take this to a national level without help from leaders and help from structures themselves. It’s not impossible, but it’s harder to hate up close. When we connect with each other and create the conditions to support people coming together with a shared humanity, more often than not it works.
When people’s stories are recognized, it does something: It creates a possibility.
What can individuals do on a local level to help fight white supremacy?
I would say start where you are.
It’s a hard task, because all the structures move us in one direction, so it’s like we’re swimming against the current, and it can get exhausting. But as soon as we relax, we start going downstream again. So, we have to eventually change the current. But in the meantime, there are things we can begin to do.
I have a neighbor across the street living in a fancy house who was saying, “OK, I see how we accumulate wealth. How can I sell my house to a person of color?” Well, now the legal constraints always make these things hard, but the fact he’s asking, and the fact that he’s interrogating the passing of wealth and privilege on to his next generation to me is a big step.
I would also like to see some more deliberate efforts, like creating spaces for people to connect. I was actually talking to a number of restaurant owners about having tables where they’d give a five percent discount to sit at a table with a stranger. They’re doing that already in Israel and other communities.
Our connectedness is fragile, but so is our hatred.