As a social movement scholar and a sociologist of race, gender and class, it’s hard to know where to start in making sense of the 2016 Presidential Election results. Regardless of whether one agrees that this election was a referendum on racism, misogyny, homophobia and xenophobia, it is indisputable that this year, a populist message articulated in racist, misogynist, and xenophobic tones was a winning one.
One book that has captured my heart and mind, which I have been studying and teaching in my classes, is Paula Ioanide’s The Emotional Politics of Racism: How Feelings Trump Facts in an Era of Colorblindness. (This subtitle was selected long before the 2015 campaign season began, I trust.) This is not a traditional social movement book, but it helps to sort through many of the vexing challenges both activists and movement scholars face at this conjuncture. Ioanide asks and seeks to answer why a majority of the US public has been recruited to support policies that actually contradict their own material interests. Her conclusion: racist, misogynist and homonormative/phobic discourses, frames, myths and signifiers (see too: Racism without Racists) generated a set of anxieties and aspirations, what Sarah Ahmed calls emotional economies, that have been largely determinant of the political alignments of most people in the United States.
Of course many have demonstrated how working class and economically precarious whites have been recruited to side with dominant interests through racial dog-whistling. While it’s not the central take away that many glean from Michelle Alexander’s now canonical The New Jim Crow, she does a highly accessible job demonstrating how the work to turn whites against blacks who might otherwise craft solidarity through common class interests is as old as plantation politics and what she instructively terms the “the racial bribe.”
Yet we know that it was not working class whites that pushed the 2016 election over the brink. Rather it was all whites. The median Trump voter was in fact better off than was the median Clinton voter. The history of the Republican Party’s Southern Strategy, predicated on consolidating a possessive investment in whiteness in the US South, is also an important piece of the current political context.
What Ioanide presents that is helpful to sorting through all of this is the way that racialized and sexualized political alignments are not the provenance of the Republican Party, a given class of white folks, nor of a given region, but a key way in which US politics and policies have been organized on both sides of the aisle in all fifty states for the past several decades through emotional, pre-conscious and affective politics. In other words, this work has been done through feelings above and beyond the empirical facts.
So what does this have to do with social movements? A lot. Ioanide explores and articulates movement lessons throughout her book. One of the central take-aways is that a lack of emotional responsiveness makes folks unable to receive information that contradicts what they think they know and who they believe themselves to be. A similar notion has been articulated by the many curious if the new social media environment is deepening divides as US publics are recruited not just to different orientations and approaches, but to different sets of facts.
Drawing on the work of James Baldwin, Ioanide suggests that those engaged in a variety of movements- against racism, sexism, homophobia, prisons, current immigration policy, US interventionism abroad- are going to have to approach their work with compassion and courage. They are also going to have to tackle how the “American cultural context constantly encourages us to become emotionally, pre-consciously and institutionally invested in racism.” This demands we interrupt emotional as well as embodied alignments with dominance. (This is one reason why I have been suggesting more attention be paid to the embodied practices of social movements in general as well as the integral role of embodied practice to forging solidarity.)
The micro-politics of all of this should not be lost on the many of us who are gearing up for Thanksgiving table conversations in a national context marked by deep social rifts as well as familial, friend and community relationships that sometimes cut across political lines. Many of us approaching these conversations are white. Many of us consider ourselves aligned with, active in and/or generating scholarship around anti-racist struggle. And even so, we are all implicated in the emotional economies of racism.
I appreciate this resource from Standing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), which encourages whites to tackle these conversations regardless of whether we are speaking to other whites that voted how we did, who consider themselves actively anti-racist, who denounce racism, sexism and xenophobia… or not. Of note, SURJ encourages vulnerability and statements of feelings before entering into a battle of facts.
SURJ is in lockstep with the integral work being done by Black Lives Matter to hold us all accountable to racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic violence predicated upon the devaluation of black folks’ bodies and lives. (And let’s not forget that both of these movements, at least in their contemporary iteration, arose under an Obama presidency, demonstrating that these issues do not have partisan alliance). Both Black Lives Matter and SURJ are pushing on the emotional alignments that have allowed us to invest in racism. Both of these movements are demanding that all of us interrogate our complicity, conscious, intentional, or, more likely, not, in patriarchal white supremacy. To me, these movements appear to be one of the most promising vehicles for pulling us through what I experience to be a very dark time.