Soft Supremacy: When “Liking” Love Is Not Enough

We learned last week that Trump the Enabler doesn’t need Steve Bannon at his side in order to spew white nationalist tripe. Throwing more fuel onto an already raging fire, Trump gave new vigor to alt-history notions of Lost Cause nobility.

Dog whistles, delivered via Twitter, and the dogs keep coming, often on a specious “free speech” pretext.

The Left’s response to all this, especially among religious progressives, has mainly been to proclaim at rallies and in vigils and e-blasts and tweets that love is the antidote to hate, that love conquers hate, that love “wins,” etc. President Obama’s tweet of the Mandela quote on teaching love to those who have learned to hate set new “like” records for Twitter.

No one disputes that love wins—or that love can win—in the broadest sense. I certainly do not. But I’m worried that if merely invoking love is the best we can do, we won’t serve ourselves and our country as well as we might at a critical juncture.

As many Black pundits and activists have been pointing out, we have arrived at a real moment of truth for white people, specifically for white liberals, many of whom seemed fairly oblivious to the ugly reality of persistent white supremacy until Charlottesville exploded.

White leaders’ newly urgent expression of love, their belated calls for brotherhood, etc., too often partake of what Times columnist Charles Blow pinpointed with devastating accuracy as “passive white supremacy”:

The position of opposing racial cruelty can operate in much the same way as opposition to animal cruelty — people do it not because they deem the objects of that cruelty their equals, but rather because they cannot countenance the idea of inflicting pain and suffering on helpless and innocent creatures. But even here, the comparison cleaves, because suffering black people are judged to have courted their own suffering through a cascade of poor choices.

This is passive white supremacy, soft white supremacy, the kind divorced from hatred. It is permissible because it’s inconspicuous. But this soft white supremacy is more deadly, exponentially, than Nazis with tiki torches.

That’s a lot for white liberals to take in, but I honestly don’t think that would-be white allies–white faith allies in particular–can be effective or even honorable in this moment unless we take it in fully.

Love as form of pity is not just condescending; it reinforces privilege. That note of pity for the sufferings of Black America can often be heard in the purification rituals that white liberals invariably engage in in the wake of new atrocities like Charlottesville: the florid public confession of our sins of commission and omission, the high-minded declarations, the talk of providing protective circles in the face of storm troopers and hooded terrorists.

I want to say—and say lovingly—to my fellow white progressives that just showing up, showing your solidarity, can sometimes be useful, but it is not a strategy. Those lofty declarations and public confessions of sin may make us feel better, but they are not strategic.

And if we want to talk about love in a useful way, can we please at least acquaint ourselves with King’s notion of dynamic love: a love that reckons with power, love that analyzes and understands power, and love that builds power to make structural change?

I’m hearing lots of talk in white liberal circles about drawing a “moral bright line” against the Nazis, KKK, and other haters. I suggest that we draw for ourselves another kind of moral bright line that commits us to active and ongoing and strategic opposition to the power centers that oppress Black people and brown people and working class white people alike, albeit in different ways and albeit by cleverly using race itself to maintain and reinforce economic and political domination.

Yes, that’s right: even at this point of crisis, I’m proposing that would-be white allies study how real power works. Pay attention to Robert Mercer, not Steven Bannon. Get a clue about the white working class rather than consigning all non-elite whites to a “deplorables” basket.  Joan Williams’ brilliant short book, White Working Class, would be a good place to start.

And here’s why: we will never realize King’s “revolution of values” in this country without overthrowing the rule of wealth—the corporate state—that lies at the heart of all social violence (not to mention apocalyptic violence against Earth itself). And we will never overthrow the plutocrats or put an end to plantation capitalism without Black freedom fighters and white working class insurgents working and organizing side by side.

As prime beneficiaries of the corporate state, white liberals have always winced and withdrawn in the past when the question of deep-level structural change has been called. This moment calls the question yet again.

Are we just going to blather on about love and understanding, or are we going join love to justice in engaging the powers for real?

Whatever we do, let’s not deceive ourselves that “all you need is love” is an adequate anthem for this toxic time in public life.