The “Appropriate Time” is Now: White Liberals and the Politics of Solidarity

By David J. Leonard

Rally organizer Robby Stern, center, yells over Marissa Johnson, left, and Mara Jacqueline Willaford, right, as Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders looks on from behind after stepping away from the microphone. ELAINE THOMPSON/AP

Over the last year (and of course over many decades and centuries), there have been reoccurring (& always condemning) questions from white liberals regarding protests from black activists: is it effective; does it alienate; will it facilitate change? One of the common themes continues to be white policing (so much policing of black bodies from the state and from those who claim to have marched with King, against Apartheid, for civil rights) of when and where it is appropriate to protest:

  • Football games, off-limits;
  • On the basketball floor, not OK;
  • From black women scholars on twitter, unprofessional and counter productive.
  • At Netroots and now at a Bernie Sanders rally, counter productive and inappropriate.

Bernie’s Respectability Police

Look no further than a recent piece from Hamilton Nolan, who called the protest in Seattle “stupid,” admonishing Black Lives Matters activists not to “Don’t Piss on Your Best Friend.” Questioning their motives and tactics, Nolan takes aim that the “appropriateness” of “targeting” Sanders given his “progressive” politics. Never mind the legitimate questions about his racial politics, and whether his work is progressive and transformative, which remains unclear for now:

Many on the left find it hard to come out and say “this was stupid,” because they support both Bernie Sanders and the Black Lives Matter movement. That is a misperception of the political landscape. Believing that a small group of angry young protesters did something that was not well thought out need not make you feel guilty or racist; rash and counterproductive things are what young people do. Screaming Bernie Sanders offstage is dumb because you support Black Lives Matter. For those perceptive enough to separate pretty slogans from actual policy prescriptions, it is clear that Bernie Sanders is the candidate most aligned with the group’s values. Stifling his voice only helps his opponents. Go shout at someone who deserves it.

First, he should read Aliza Garza’s recent statements on what whites can do to support the BlackLivesMatter. Second, the paternalism and patronizing tone is only matched by Nolan’s never ending rhetoric about appropriateness.

He’s not alone. Twitter, Facebook, and the comment section is filled with “Why Sanders” and “Shouldn’t allies be embraced not rejected.” Imani Gandy, in a brilliant piece, summarizes the reactionary Bernie white populism in the aftermath of the rally in Seattle.

“Why are you alienating allies?”

“Don’t you know how much Bernie cares for you?”

“What’s wrong with you people?”

“Hillary would be worse!”

“What are you going to do, vote for Donald Trump?”

“Why won’t you ever be satisfied?”

“You’re doing it all wrong!”

“You’re going to make us quit caring about Black lives if you don’t shape up and act the way we want you to.”

Most Black voters want the answer to one question: What is Sanders’ plan to address the police brutality crisis in the Black community?

And the answer to that question is never: “Bernie marched with Dr. King.

Yet that seems to be the answer given by many of Sanders’ supporters on social media.

As she makes clear, accountability is not rejection. Expecting answers is neither intrusive nor rude, especially in a moment of white supremacist violence and police terror (yes, that is every moment of America’s history). The retort to “blame the victim” to focus on “tone” and “tactics” is not just “disrespectful” to Black Lives Matters and organizers working on the ground but is what racism looks like.

Even the defenders of the protests that note, sure “they were “aggressive, intrusive, inconsiderate, rude and indiscriminate” and “disrespectful” but “that black people deal with must be like every day, everywhere from history textbooks to courtrooms, job interviews to pop culture” rely on false equivalences.

Rightful Rage

Confronting racist violence, white supremacist terror – whether on stage, at the ballot box, in the streets – is not “disrespectful” or “rude.” The rage is righteous, a fact that cannot be said of those angered that they didn’t get to hear Bernie speak or that didn’t get to shop in “peace.” As Audre Lorde (HT Kimberly Foster) notes, “Anger is loaded with information and energy.”

And to describe these moments as a lesson to white liberals, as to what communities of color have endured for centuries, is white privilege personified in that anti-black racism is violence not “rude”; it is dehumanizing not “intrusive;” it is entrenched and systemic not “indiscriminate.”

Claims about the inconvenience and rudeness of Black protest have extended into many spaces. Shutting down freeways and bridges has been deemed unacceptable. Protests during Christmas shopping, at the theater, at the Opera, on colleges campuses and universities, and any other place where white lives are inconvenienced are deemed not only inappropriate but ineffective since the “strategies” are alienating “allies.”

History Ain’t Just the Past, But The Present

This is, of course, is nothing new and is the personification of white entitlement and white privilege. The history of white populism (check out Robert Allen’s book Reluctant Reformers) is one of white “progressives” using the black community, for its intellectual and protest labor, to advance their own causes, all while preserving a system of racial inequality and violence. The history of the civil rights movement is rife with examples where white “liberals” from Kennedy to white members of SNCC questioned the appropriateness and utility of tactics. Never mind, those who questioned why “protest” in Nashville given that it is not like Montgomery, or those who challenged black youth for embracing tactics of direct action at lunch counters, libraries, pools, beaches, department stores, and wherever Jim Crow showed its violence face.

Maybe it’s time for a collective reading group that starts with King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Given white America’s adoration of Dr. King (minus his position on affirmative action, war, reparations and countless more), maybe his words will prompt a reality check.

“I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say ‘wait.’”

The message is clear: wait for the right moment, for the right location, for the right audience, for the right tactic, for the right city, for the time when _________ (the action doesn’t make white America uncomfortable or force white progressives to look in mirror).

The Problems with Allies

The totality of reactions demonstrate the problems with “ally discourse” which focuses on an “identity” rather than doing the work (ht @prisonculture). It becomes less about risks and engaging in transformative action and more about one’s progressive card that can be neither taken away nor challenged. “I won’t settle for allies that scold us for opinions or ‘tone’ they don’t like,” writes Kimberly Foster. “Allies who bristle at earnest criticism from the members of the community they desire to serve hurt us more than they help.” As Dante Berry notes,

I don’t like the term ally. It’s too passive and doesn’t provide a sense of risk equal to the level of risks black folks experience every single day. Black folks are never safe, so it’s important for white co-conspirators or comrades to think about the level of comfort — safety — that is assumed to them by sitting on the sidelines and not actively engaging in the movement for black lives because it seems “too risky.” I want comrades who will show up when I’m most vulnerable and be in active solidarity with my struggle as a person in a black body and take some risks, because I’m putting my life out on the line every single day.

The defensiveness and policing concerning protests of Sanders, Netroots and elsewhere highlights how discussions of “allies” are not merely academic exercises but rather ones that impact organization, movements, and the individuals involved.

Being an accomplice means putting justice first. It means being, as noted by Mervyn Marcano, “complicit in dismantling racist structures by taking risks.”

If your support for a movement begins and ends with whether or not YOU approve of the tactics, whether or not YOU are inconvenienced by the protests, YOU are part of the problem. Such actions are not those of “allies,” “accomplices” or “comrades.”

If YOU demand “respectability” and that Black activists do everything to make sure YOU are not “offended, alienated, frightened or overtly challenged” YOU are not only an obstacle to racial justice but living and breathing the ideologies of white privilege and anti-black racism.

If YOUR LIFE, YOUR white bubble of football games and political rallies, Christmas shopping and rush hour, takes precedent over Black Lives, over justice, over accountability, and over movements for change, YOU are not just part of the problem, indicative of the system of white supremacist violence, but YOU ARE the problem.

To be an accomplice requires putting oneself in the street; if you are griping that you didn’t get to hear Bernie and didn’t get home in time to watch Rachel Maddow because protestors blocked the freeway, YOU need to have several seats on the ground. Maybe you can then join the protests and put BlackLives in front of your own for ONCE. That is what we must do as accomplices.


DavidLeonardDavid J. Leonard is Associate Professor and chair in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman.  With a BA in Black Studies from University of California, Santa Barbara, and a Master’s and Ph.D. from University of California, Berkeley, he has dedicated his career to interdisciplinary scholarship, transformative teaching, and research that underscores the continued significance of race within popular culture, the structures of politics, and society at large. Dr. Leonard’s work explores, documents, and illustrates the various manifestations of the narrative, ideological, and financial commodification of black bodies within popular media all while highlighting the dominant frames that facilitate, fuel, and in turn generated through the broader discursive field

He is the author of Screens Fade to Black: Contemporary African American Cinema and  After Artest: Race and the assault on blackness . Leonard is a regular contributor to NewBlackMan, Chronicle of Higher Education, Feminist Wire, Huffington Post, and Urban Cusp.  He is a past contributor to EbonySlam, Loop21, The Nation, and The Starting Five.  He is a regular contributor to Huffington Post Live

Follow him on twitter drdavidjleonard

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