Guest Post: Cut Off White Supremacy At The Roots, Not The Branches
Growing up poor and white, I have firsthand experience with economic anxiety. My family lived paycheck to paycheck. I learned from watching my parents how to keep afloat during lean times: eat a can of corn for lunch, walk holes in cheap shoes to save gas, score basics at the dollar store. Being white, I had many opportunities available to me, despite my socioeconomic status. A handful of my childhood friends and neighbors fell prey to the politics of white supremacy and white nationalism. In my 20s, I came to some important realizations about the mechanics of white poverty.
The ideas seem appealing to poor white folks, because they shift blame off of the individual (YOU are responsible for your lack of opportunity) onto a target group (PEOPLE OF COLOR are responsible for your lack of opportunity). This initial shifting of blame softly opens the door to other tenets of white nationalism - the inferiority of POCs, the superiority of the white race, the desire for a white ethnostate, and the myth of white genocide. Instead of deconstructing the power structures that maintain intergenerational white poverty, white nationalism reinforces those structures and takes agency away from its adherents while promoting faux empowerment (whiteness as a virtue).
Political scientists and pundits trying to understand this political moment - this iteration of white nationalist politics (to say it’s a “resurgence” is erroneous, as it’s never gone away) continually miss the mark. They reach the conclusion that white supremacist ideology is the result of economic anxiety and that poor whites are supporting and voting for white supremacists in order to alleviate their collective anxiety. In reality, white supremacist ideology is the cause: it is the status quo, not some flashy new idea, and economic anxiety is a red herring: if political punditry is just focused on economics, the topics of racial animus and race-based power can be avoided altogether.
White supremacy is appealing to poor white folks because maintaining white power is in their best interest, whether they explicitly understand it or not. That’s the appeal made by white supremacists: you can have what you desire - what you DESERVE - if you maintain white power. This is fatally shortsighted and untenable. White supremacy strips away the humanity of “the enemy,” writes them out of the American story, and erases their profound contributions. The enemies in this scenario are always people of color. This is deeply ignorant and extremely cruel. White supremacy sows enmity to explain and subsequently create economic anxiety, social unrest, and racial violence.
In the state of Washington, this has taken on a new dimension - white supremacists are using established channels to promote their views and gain political power: Joey Gibson, leader of far-right group Patriot Prayer, is running for United States Senate in Washington against Maria Cantwell. James Allsup, a marcher in the Charlottesville Unite the Right protest, was recently elected to be Precinct Committee Officer for the GOP in Spokane. White supremacists are taking white fear and turning it into votes. It doesn’t help that Washington is already a magnet for white nationalism.
Recognizing that economic anxiety and broader white paranoia is caused and fueled by white supremacy is the first step. The next step is to counter the false narrative of white superiority. Folks working on this problem already know that it’s like climbing ivy - it has many shoots and when you cut off one, it just grows back. Start talking about the problems that are hurting our community - racial violence and anti-immigrant sentiments - and take concrete action. Recognize that economic anxiety IS a problem where we live and do what you can to combat poverty in our community and help vulnerable neighbors. Educate yourself and your family and friends about the visible signs of white supremacy. Make sure you’re not voting for white nationalists who look mainstream. It’s time to target the roots (white supremacy), not the branches.
Annie currently teaches social studies in Tacoma. She is interested in increasing civic engagement, elevating student voices in local and state politics, and empowering historically underrepresented and under-served students.