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Defeating ‘White Rage’: An Anti-Racist Call to Action!

Lydia Pelot-Hobbs
Date Published: 
January 1, 2010

Since Obama’s inauguration, the right wing has mounted a major campaign to de-legitimize his administration. The past six months have seen tens of thousands of white protesters mobilized across the US, through so called “tea parties” fueled by right-wing radio and TV personalities. At a time when many working class communities are feeling the effects of the economic crisis and seeing sharp rises in unemployment and job loss—protests against the stimulus package and healthcare reform have brought with them a severe anti-black and anti-immigrant backlash, painting Barack Obama as “foreign-born,” “socialist,” and “fascist.”

This “white rage” directed at Obama, further complicates many of our progressive movements’ relationships to an administration which is still advancing several policies that are in direct conflict with our vision of a more peaceful and equitable world—the additional troop surge in Afghanistan being the latest. The reality is that many of the Obama administration’s own policies still very much reinforce the pillars of white supremacy, and that for all of the excitement surrounding his historic campaign and the defeat of McCain and Palin, Obama governs from the center, not the left.

This leaves us in the difficult situation of responding to the rise of racist white populism, while still holding Obama accountable for his administration’s policies regarding racism and imperialism.

History repeats

The proliferation of “we want our country back” signs at right-wing protests speaks to the deeper issues at play as white Americans fear the changing racial demographics across the US and the accompanying threats to white supremacy. These fears can be witnessed by the increases in racial violence in communities of color over the last year, such as the hanging of nooses outside the New Orleans African American Museum this past October.

Such responses are not new in US history. Every time we have witnessed a change in the racial order, white people have responded with violence. It was after the fall of the Confederacy and the beginning of Reconstruction that the Ku Klux Klan was founded. Desegregation was met across the US with white mob violence. Now, at another critical juncture, thousands of white people throughout the country are fighting to maintain the white supremacist status quo, in spite of the fact that at this moment of economic crisis many of the policies they are protesting would materially benefit their own lives. As has happened before, key sectors of white folks are choosing to align with the right against their own economic interests to secure the power of racial privilege.

While we know that large segments of the white population here in the US do not share these racist sentiments, the necessary response from white anti-racists has been conspicuously lacking. While, a campaign of a national Latino-led online network, effectively organized for the resignation of CNN’s Lou Dobbs for his virulent anti-immigrant tirades, there has not been a comparable campaign organized by a network of white anti-racist organizations and individuals. As these events have played out in recent months, activists and communities of color have been increasingly asking, “Where is the white Left?” “What are white anti-racists doing?” and “When are white folks going to step up?”

Call to action

Hearing many of these questions, several white anti-racist activists started talking together about forming a coordinated national response in early September. Initiated out of the South, the call surged through the white anti-racist activist community. From an initial group of 20, over 120 white organizers representing various organizations, institutions, and regions have gotten involved in this critical conversation. Coordination on this scale has rarely been seen in the history of white anti-racism here in the US.

Central to this network has been to model the very anti-racist principles it is calling on other folks to commit to and act on. A fundamental aspect of that has involved being accountable to communities and activists of color. To that end, people involved in this project shared the emergence of the network and the statement throughout the writing process with activists of color for feedback. As white folks move forward in anti-racist activism, accountability to communities of color must continue to be essential in our work.

Thus far, much of the work of this network has centered on developing a public, white anti-racist statement naming the racial fears and white supremacist tactics at play against Obama and communities of color across the US. According to Pam McMichael, Director of the Highlander Research and Education Center the statement “is a message from white people taking on our responsibility to respond to white supremacy and to support broader multiracial organizing.” It has been important for the statement to be strong and clear in its anti-racist message, as well as being accessible to white people often not reached by the Left. McMichael hopes it can be a starting point for “conversations with [white] people who don’t necessarily consider themselves activists but maybe campaigned and/or voted for Obama, who are seeing this stuff and themselves saying, ‘Wow this is racist.’ This is an important opportunity to name what is going on and contribute to changing the national discourse.”

Still, a public statement cannot and should not be an end in itself; it needs to be a spark for further white anti-racist organizing. Two primary goals will be to bring greater levels of strategic coordination among white anti-racists at a national level through the network, as well as strengthen local anti-racist organizing taking place in specific contexts.

The growth of this network has not been without its own challenges. The reality is that what might work for organizing white folks in Chicago does not necessarily translate in Durham, North Carolina. Discussions on the national level have kept the network grounded in the local communities people are a part of. Moreover, acknowledging the differences has led to a shared desire for flexibility that makes the best use out of local knowledge and political contexts. Differing experiences can help build a stronger anti-racist movement as we share disappointments and successes.

Key questions

Over the course of this dialogue on different organizing approaches, some key questions have started to emerge, such as: Who exactly is our target? How broad is our reach? How will this push our pre-existing work forward? How do we reach out when the Left isn’t consolidated? When is the time for white people to organize in white communities? When and how do we work in multiracial coalitions? These questions have already moved white anti-racists forward in building a greater, united white anti-racist front.

While many questions remain, we must remember we cannot answer them until we go forward in this work. Whatever our own political challenges to Obama and US imperialism, we have to see this work as a crucial component. As the right continues to foster racial hatred and violence, it is white folks’ responsibility to counter these narratives and work to build a stronger and deeper multi-racial left in alliance with communities of color. Only through such dedication and labor can we hope to collectively create the change that so many of us dreamed of only a year ago.

Lydia Pelot-Hobbs is a white anti-racist organizer living in New Orleans. Currently she is involved in building the cooperative movement, creating intergenerational spiritual spaces committed to justice, and working on her Masters in Urban Studies.

To sign onto the “Statement of Commitment & Call To Action: Let’s Build a U.S. for All of US: No Room for Racism” and get more information about the White People Stepping Up Against Racism network go to