While I worry about swastika tattooed and Confederate flag waving white supremacists, at least I know exactly where they stand on the question of racial equality and reconciliation. We hold irreconcilable views on the past, present and future of our nation. We need not debate one another. We share nothing in common other than the pigment of our skin and the nation we inhabit. Though such people often do damage through violent acts of racism, they are not whom I most fear.
It is the secret agents and sympathizers of white supremacy that keep me up at night. Those who most concern me do not proclaim their sentiments so boldly. They argue for civility, even while sowing division. They defend the Constitution, even while attacking its equal protections. They give lip service to justice, even while chipping away at the rights of people of color.
It is family members, friends, acquaintances and neighbors with white supremacist sympathies that frighten me. They never use the N word, never blatantly attack people of color and never applaud the crazies – at least not in public. Yet time and again these people hint at a darker allegiance – one that supersedes any commitment to racial equity and national unity.
These people are the fifth column of white nationalism, blending into a multicultural society even while working for its demise. They are the pillars of white supremacy. They are talking heads on television, members of think tanks, politicians, business people and church leaders. They are truck drivers and teachers, airline pilots and grocery baggers. They exist in nearly every white family, business and organization, insinuating there is something deeply wrong with our country and that the problem is rooted in people of color. Ironically, when their thinly veiled racist assertions are challenged, they often accuse their challengers of reverse racism, offering themselves as the true victims of injustice.
Indeed, this propensity to claim reverse racism is one of the surest signs of their true sympathies. In pretending that any criticism of the assertions, beliefs or behaviors of white people is racist, they ignore and obscure vast and obvious disparities in power, wealth and status, implying an acceptance of systemic racism. For them, the problem in the United States does not reside in these inequities, but in those who identify them. Criticism of white people is motivated by hate, jealousy and resentment and not any legitimate complaint.
When Mr. Trump was recently asked by a black reporter if his use of nationalist language was divisive, he claimed her question was racist. What made her question racist had nothing to do with its appropriateness and everything to do with a black woman audaciously challenging his superiority. White supremacists recognized what he was doing and applauded. People of color found it familiar and gritted their teeth. Only white progressives debated the fairness of her question.
Make no mistake. Only white supremacist secret agents and sympathizers claim reverse racism. This tactic of accusing your victims of your propensities is time honored. Plantation owners accused blacks of being lazy while sipping mint juleps on their porches. White mobs accused blacks of being violent while gathering in courtyards to lynch them. White men maligned blacks as sexually deviant while raping black women and girls under their power. When white people claim racial victimization, they make a mockery of any commitment to justice.
They know the system is rigged in their favor. They like it that way. They are committed to defending their privilege, even while arguing it doesn’t exist. When they dispute the constitutionality of birthright citizenship, they are not defenders of originalism or advocates of legal immigration. What they defend is white dominance. When they argue for a reinterpretation of the 14th Amendment, don’t be confused. It was the Confederate rebellion that provoked the 14th and the KKK that most ardently opposed it.
Indeed, in highlighting and advocating for the white supremacist opposition to the 14th Amendment, Mr. Trump may have done progressives and people of color a favor. This Thanksgiving, ask your friends and family what they think about birthright citizenship. Those who defend it as central to the American experiment are your allies. Those who disparage the 14th Amendment as misinterpreted or outdated have outed themselves as white supremacist secret agents and sympathizers. You may not have the courage to challenge them, but at least you know their true colors.
If you do challenge them, ask if they realize such arguments have long been popular in Klan and white supremacy circles. Ask if that makes them uncomfortable. Ask how America would be better if we eliminated birthright citizenship. Ask who should now be eligible. Ask why now, when white people have the lowest birthrates in US history, that this is their priority. If they argue for some pure and original interpretation of the constitution, you will know them for who are. White supremacist secret agents and sympathizers always look back fondly on the racist origins of our nation.
When you encounter nostalgia for an America of the past, understand what it represents. Unless you are a white, there has never been a time in American history as good as it is now. There are few blacks, gays, Latinos, women of color, Native Americans, Asians, or Muslims nostalgic for the America of old. Such nostalgia is white privilege. Those who speak of better days in the past – if given the opportunity – would recreate its ugliness. They yearn for a time when minorities had no choice but to silently bear their oppression. Only white supremacist secret agents and sympathizers want to return to any point in America’s past.
Mr. Trump and his minions understood this dynamic. They intentionally crafted their “Make America Great Again” campaign knowing full well with whom it would most resonate. It was a call for all white supremacists – the neo-Nazi shock troops, the closeted racists and the white supremacist sympathizers to unite under one tent. That so few Republicans fled from that tent is evidence of how deeply embedded white supremacy is in our political system. That so many white progressives still argue for non-partisanship suggests how insidious white supremacy remains. Even those of us who oppose white supremacy are still susceptible to its allures. After all, in a white supremacist society, white progressives still benefit.
Today is not the day for less debate, less challenge and less exposure of our racial divides. Our country – like in the days prior to the Civil War – is divided for good reason. We face the same choice our ancestors did in 1860 and 1960. Will we be a nation committed to equality and justice for all or a nation where people of color are separate and unequal? We cannot allow ourselves to be swayed by arguments that diminish the seriousness of this moment.
As in past battles with white supremacy, we must identify our allies and our enemies. We cannot pretend there are good people on both sides. You are either a white person wrestling with your racism and privilege or you are not. Your goodness, in our present society, must be measured by this and this alone – are you committed to justice and equity for all. You cannot be a white supremacist secret agent or sympathizer and argue for your morality. Your heroes are not Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela. Your sympathies are with Hitler, George Wallace and David Duke. You are not a good person.
Maya Angelou famously wrote, “When someone tells you who they are, believe them.” It is time for us to believe those who reveal by word and action that their sympathies are with white supremacy. Whether they sit in the Oval Office or across from us as the Thanksgiving table, we can hope for their repentance, but – until that day – we must assume their intentions are for ill and not for good. We must recognize them for who they are and oppose them in every way.