On Racism and How to Fight It: Schlossberg, BBQ Becky, and Left Praxis
Videos like those of “BBQ Becky” and Aaron Schlossberg provide a brilliant vantage point into the ways everyday racism functions at the current conjuncture. In these videos, the interplay between white individuals (of middle class background), the police, and the way race is iterated is telling of the current discursive formations in an embattled America made even more brazen by a Trump presidency.
But there exists alongside the increasing documentation of white backlash a variety of increasingly visible debates and criticisms against “postmodern” and “identity politics” from the left. This was perhaps best epitomized by the rise of the Dirtbag Left. In Episode 40 of the Dead Pundits Society, Amber A’Lee Frost claims that this new cultural formation implied “an impious, unsanctimonious [sic.] gravitation towards class politics and politics of legitimate social justice. meaning not language policing or micro aggression or this kind of campus-created-pseudo-left subculture. Something actually organic […. that describes] a group of people who reject liberal pieties and instead gravitated towards the intent and concrete, material politics of our time and place […] Socialists.”
In that same interview, Angela Nagle (author of Kill All Normies) explains that 4Chan and Reddit, sites that housed practices that were originally hailed by some academics to be hallmarks of a new vanguard counter-culture, have now become identified as the misogynist, racist antechambers of American proto-fascism they often are. Frost interrupts Nagle to emphasize her view of academic knowledge production: “How fucking… What an inditement it is that it… only academics thought, ‘Oh, this is so cool and subversive.’ The least cool people in the world thinks that this is cool and subversive. . . Only the postmodern academy . . . would look at these fucking nerds online and say, ‘Wow! What rebels!'”
While there is much to be said about the often dominant practices found at the grassroots, the rhetorical formulation that Frost develops leaves one with a distinct unease. Borrowing from Stuart Hall, there is clear signaling that if we go too far down that particular road, whom do we discover keeping us company but – of course – the Trumpistas and Petersonites, the alt-right, the anti-“globalists” who seem (whisper it not too loud) to be saying rather similar things about the Left. What is latent in Frost’s wholesale disdain of “postmodern academia” is a tense anti-intellctualism that conflates the voice of some for the voice of all. This is, again, not to say, that there is not a truth at play in Frost’s view or that, in attempting to articulate an oppositional position, that that road is not in-and-of itself slippery and tricky due to the dominant ways we formulate our problems (to be clear: I don’t think Frost or any of her cohort or audience are actually trying to find themselves in the company mentioned above). The question is, how do we theorize the issue and how do we act on it?
No doubt, since the Great Recession and especially in the interregnum its generated, fractions of the left have attempted to articulate a critique against dominant political practices at the grassroots that get uniformly wrapped in the signifier of “identity politics.” And within such loudening discourses is a latent call to abandon the “cultural or discursive turn” and simultaneously proposes to develop a new organizing culture (ironic, I know) that returns to questions of economics and politics as such.
But understanding discourse and culture are central to understanding racism. And if racism is something that saturates social relations, then we have to come to terms with the necessity of developing a strategy for addressing it. And while there is a critical need to address the limits of practiced identity politics, how we do so matters greatly, or we run the risk of promoting a politics very against the socialist horizon. In this regard, BBQ Becky and Aaron Schlossberg point to how necessary targeting discourse is at our conjuncture, and how we must do so in a manner quite distinct from the currently dominant practices operating at the grassroots.
Race, Culture, and Power: An Obstacle and a Target
For racists like Schlossberg and BBQ Becky, both ICE and the police function as on-demand ghostbusters. That’s called institutional, structural racism when there are state apparatuses that can be deployed to terrorize racialized groups at a moment’s notice.
It’s one thing if an individual is racist, it’s another if there are entire sets of private and state institutions that back that racism up with repression. That’s what we see at play in both the Schlossberg and #BBQBecky incidents.
Racism isn’t just a matter of individuals, it’s a matter of power and the way it’s housed in institutions and structures (that are always of a historical nature), informing practices and operations that constitute our everyday lives.
Racism is discursive in the way that both Schlossberg and BBQ Becky read the behavior and actions of others through the frame of their racial signifiers (language or skin color) and then can call upon material structures that enforce domination and repression.
A third element is at play in this. The way such individuals come to engage in white supremacy through calling on these structures, is in the way people come to consume the messages of cultural products (like films, books, and news reports, for example) that may be themselves laced with racism. It is through productions of culture and knowledge that people come to *know* the other and may come to feel threatened.
Accordingly, Schlossberg reads the markers of 1) spanish-speaking 2) brown people 3) working in a restaurant, and concludes they are 1) undocumented and 2) living off of his money as he pays for their welfare and their ability to be in the US, while simultaneously working just behind the camera’s lens, at the very end of his finger-pointing. No doubt, it is not because of the color of his skin that Schlossberg thinks and acts the way he does, but partially because of the meanings he decoded from cultural productions that told him those markers mean those things.
It is through productions of culture and knowledge that the “white man” weaves with these markers (skin color, language, etc.) “a thousand details, anecdotes, and stories” about the other, as Frantz Fanon says in Black Skin, White Masks. Now, I say the “white man” in quotations because it’s not just white people that are capable of reproducing and producing such “details, anecdotes, and stories” and acting upon them, but its in all communities where these discourses operate (see Do the Right Thing clip below). In this way, the grammar of racism is not only spoken vertically, but laterally as well.
In the Muck of Discourse
This is why culture is a terrain through which leftists must struggle. And I’m not even saying, “our strict focus must be to attack racist cultural products, be they personal, commercial, institutional etc.” (which should be part of a left strategy). I mean, even beyond that, culture (and racism) is still in operation within any terrain we are struggling. Not only does it function as a keystone to repression and domination, but it can subsume the discourses (the ideas and practices) that operate at the grassroots. It can prevent, block, and slow the articulation of solidarities if we don’t come up with strategies that address race, culture, and difference at large.
This is why culture *must* be addressed. We can’t ignore it, or will it away as some on the left would have us do. It saturates our lives. As Stuart Hall says, it serves “as a deep system of defense” – as “the outworks and trenches, the defensive positions” that protect material social relations that define our lives.
The question is, how do we do so? How do we address racism and contradictions at the level of the grassroots, in the spaces we are trying to organize? How do we fight racism with solidarity, as the Black Panthers said we should, when racism saturates the environment in which we struggle?
If racism operates through the triptych of culture (that encodes racist messages), structures and institutions (that house racist practices and born out of specific historical contexts and endure across time), and persons (that ultimately execute the action), then that means simultaneously attacking all three legs upon which such discourse stands.
When thinking about race and how to overcome it through a revolutionary praxis, a step to attacking these three legs is developing a struggle around and against a particular facet that maintains racism, be it low-wages, predatory lending schemes, policing, what have you. It is through struggle that encounters between persons are developed and relations transform both laterally among social sectors and vertically through institutions. No doubt, a struggle is only as good as the degree to which its capable of generating encounters between people and capturing those encounters, maintaining them through transformative vehicles that develop a permanent structural against the machinery of relations.
But these encounters are no doubt laced with potential pitfalls. Anyone who has attempted to organize outside (or even within) their social milieu knows how quickly a great conversation with someone not versed in left discourse can skid off the rails and enter a tricky terrain where racist (or gendered) opinions or slurs come into play.
A dominant practice within some circles of the left is to immediately call that slip into the terrain of racism out. But I’ve noted as an organizer, direct confrontations with the “accused,” especially in the presence of others (especially in the presence of others you’re trying to organize) turns out to alienate the “accused,” and sometimes shatters the very trust that is so necessary in developing movements. As the late Mark Fisher said, the ways in which people are sometimes “personally vilified and hounded” leaves a “residue [… of] witch-hunting moralism” that leads one to retreat from engagement for fear of attracting fire. Besides, we shouldn’t be surprised that individuals engage in these oppressive discourses if capitalist society stands precisely on these discourses and their generalized reproduction.
In this regard, the way we debate or address meanings and signifiers (themselves so tricky to define given their haphazard, contingent composition) in developing social encounters must be addressed.
No doubt, after becoming politicized I was calling shit out left and right. No one was spared the wrath of correction. Whether it was friends or family, I was burning up the discursive field.
But that wasn’t organizing. I ended up damaging a lot of relationships, relationships I held very dear, and hurting people I cared deeply for. And what changed? Not a lot, except I felt better about myself, which is hardly transformative or revolutionary. It’s self-gratifying.
The answer to the issue, of course, is not to let it slide either. But calling out is a practice, a response among many other possible tactics, and its deployment must be strategic. And to be strategic, we have to ask ourselves does the tactic bring us closer to our objective?
If that individual you are trying to organize is prone to saying something racist, then the organizer must consider the best possible strategy to address the issue over time (because transformation is always a process, never a moment) and measure that engagement with the needs of others. And sometimes, you as an individual aren’t the best person on the bench to be the messenger.
Let me draw an example that is entirely self-depreciating. I didn’t grow up in a politicized environment. I grew up where working-class and middle class suburbs of mixed racial composition met in Chula Vista, California. Growing up, I had experienced the threat of poverty and as I got older was subjected to racist episodes. But I wasn’t at all politicized. That came when I got to UCSD.
I arrived at UCSD in the winter of 2010, and during that quarter an incredibly racist event went down that’s immortalized under the title of the Compton Cookout. During this episode, a white fraternity held a party during black history month that invited persons to engage in racist (and gendered) stereotypes of everyday “ghetto” life through costumed performance. Within the subsequent sequence of events, a Charlie Hebdo-like student publication stood up for “free speech” and a noose had been found in Geisel library (a library named after Dr. Seuss who had himself produced a great many racist caricatures).
Between these two events, in the midst of the sequence, we had a discussion about the Compton Cookout in my Spanish for Spanish-speakers class (most of us were some hue of brown and came from conditions that made our Spanish uneasy and riddled with errors). The Teaching Assistant, an Andalusian woman, was very much trying to get us to participate in the protests and trying to promote an collective inquiry into the conditions that allow middle class white students to think its OK to put on such an event at such a time.
But when it was my turn to speak, I blocked these attempts with … racism.
“I get it. It’s racist. But honestly, I gotta put up with that shit every “Cinco de Mayo.” And where are black people then? They’re not protesting that.”
My remark received a number of yeah-he’s-got-a-point remarks. And just like that, I single-handedly undermined the transformative attempt of our TA.
Days later, another TA from the same department would approach me outside of the classroom and he told me that my remark was shortsighted and racist. Over the next year, he engaged with me and he was pivotal to my process of politicization. But why him and not the Spanish TA?
Because I looked up to him. I held his opinion in high regard because I knew when I met him, I want to be cool like him, smart like him, and sharp like him. And that’s because he was already kind of like me. He was chicano, and grew up in Mexicali/Calexico (not far from San Diego), and there was a similar experience of history and life that bound us together.
This made him the perfect messenger for me. Not the teacher from Spain. Not anyone else.
When we think of organizing spaces, we have to think in this kind of collective way and understand these intrapersonal, cultural dynamics that define our lives. We have to think as a team and think strategically.
Likewise, a dear friend of mine had lamented the growth of right-wing reaction in her native home state after the Trump election. As a someone from the rural countryside of that state, she felt the deep urge to go back and organize there. But as a trans woman, she knew there was a danger to that kind of exposure.
Indeed, one often hears in left spaces, “Why should I expose myself? It’s not my job to educate them.” But if not you, then who? And if there is indeed a certain danger, or even a discomfort, then we have to think about perhaps moving someone else in that position on the field. And that means we need a team. It is in this way that combatting structures cannot be an individual endeavor, and is thus essentially bound to the question of organization.
The degree to which we engage with the racism of others outside our circles depends on the capacities of an organization and the degree to which those others purposefully and belligerently participate in destructive and oppressive discourses.
Racist discourse operates, once more, through that triangle of articulations between knowledge/culture production – institutional practices/history – people. But we have to understand as well that the articulation between an individual’s words and practices is of a gradient nature. That is, it is the articulations between these three legs that matters most in the (re)production of racism, and these articulations can be strong or weak. Just because a person speaks a certain way doesn’t mean that its a genuine and pure reflection of their political articulation.
Case in point, my older brothers grew up in a different time and under a completely different cultural configuration and went to a working-class high school at the other end of the neighborhood we grew up in. And while they participated in more belligerently oppressive behavior in their youth, over time, as they’ve matured, their political behavior has moved considerably to the left – while simultaneously speaking the racist and gendered grammar they were socialized in.
It was that language that to me, made me think that they’d vote for a moderate republican presidential candidate. But when the primaries came, they voted for Bernie Sanders. My oldest brother expressly stated that one of the primary reasons he supported Sanders was because he felt that the burden of student debt is insufferable, and that it’s unfair that his daughter, who was accepted to law school (and will be the first female member of the family to not only get a degree but to become a lawyer), will have to struggle with that debt for decades to come. He then went on to say that he thought how unfair that is for everyone else that has kids and has to watch how their children’s attempts to escape precarity leaves them in an even more precarious position.
He then probably turned around and sprinkled the ‘b’ bomb over his typical banter because he always does.
There should be no doubt: if one feels discomfort or any form of threat in engaging, or if one is simply too tired, then it makes little sense to engage. But what remains true is that for the vast majority of people outside our political circles, there remains the task of encounter, engagement, and organization. Because this is part of the problem: that the vast, vast majority of people today just haven’t engaged in democratic life, procedures, and processes outside of the severely limited ballot triangle of television – dinner table / workplace – ballot box. And that takes getting used to. Because leaving the private sphere for the agora or the forum shouldn’t be a return to high school dynamics (like we even see on the left especially in the twitter sphere). But that means generating a democratic space with democratic procedures where we can come together, stay together, struggle together through difference. And it is and will be hard because that kind of life doesn’t exist. The material reality is quite, quite distinct.
But this is why we can’t look at organizing as a project of individuals, but as a project of collectives and vehicles. I may not be in the mood to dedicatedly engage with the other today, but someone from my organization and allies must. It is in this division and sharing of labor among many that the capacity to change becomes possible.
Calling out or calling in – these are tactics, means of casting light on the damage others are causing, and should not be deployed as the only tool of engagement. When calling out becomes systematic, constant, and omnipresent, we can indeed speak of a “counter” culture of policing and surveillance that – of course – results in alienation, isolation, and the failure to transform.
As organizers – not as individuals going about our everyday life – we have to turn to the variety of tactics and strategies we excavate and uncover through a continual process of engagement with each other and with structures of power.
The answer however cannot be to retreat from an engagement with racism. Any serious and committed socialist must recognize that the (re)production of race (and difference in general) stands at the very heart of capitalism.
Towards a New Political Praxis
The development of antiracist praxis has to be fundamental to any serious socialist organizing effort and that means tackling it head on in the spaces we operate. And of course that ground is rife with contradictions, some of these discourses that have become so dominant at the grassroots are severely distorted and of a historical nature that need to be reconsidered.
Both Salar Mohandesi and Asad Haider have done an incredible job in shedding much needed light on the damaging practices that have surged out of the discourse of identity politics, without falling in the trap that some of our other comrades have.
The work of both organizers highlight that while the Combahee River Collective (CRC) who coined the term “identity politics.” They repeatedly assure that the CRC was right to demand that socialist politics take up seriously the question of race and gender. And they agree that while the way people experience daily life under structures of power says a lot about how power operates, it doesn’t say it all.
No doubt, concurrent to the dominance of what has come to be termed “identity politics,” a tendency to defer ultimate decision or say to the most oppressed individual in the room has also become common sense. And if that most oppressed individual isn’t in the room, the very ability to conduct politics is put to question. As if to say, we don’t need analysis or reason, all we need is the experience of the most oppressed person in the room, and the path to collective liberation will shine before us.
But this premise, while coming from a good place, is experientially false. Let me draw an example.
In November 2014, following the acquittal of Darren Wilson in the open-air murder of Michael Brown, I received a text at around 4:30 in the morning telling me that the Black Student Union at UCSD was going to block the 5-Freeway. Now a TA myself, and an elected Head Steward of UAW 2865 graduate student union, I got up and went, prepared to do whatever the BSU asked in order to build solidarity.
So we went. We blocked the freeway. And things got heated.
While we blocked the freeway, Tyree Landrum, a black worker on his way to work, got aggressive and attacked one of the BSU members. In the news, he remarked how much he feared losing his job, how much he feared being able to feed his children. He explained that he felt, “‘confused, frustrated, and completely angry,’” describing himself as an ‘“everyday person’” who was trying to do the right thing.
This shook the contingent of protesting students to the core. Some of us were shocked that exactly the subject that #BLM targeted was physically aggressive towards a #BLM protest. He was clearly the most oppressed and he took the side of the police? Why did this happen?
In his lecture called Rethinking Base and Superstructure, Hall critiques the kind of class reductionism that often riddles Marxian texts where “[t]he objective position of a class in the social relations of productions assigns it a particular view of the world and particular material interests.” But what about those who do not see the world according to their structural position? Well, then they are understood to be a living a false consciousness, something that Hall finds distasteful. Rather, Hall argues that people choose their ideological position according to how well it allows them to grasp and define their experience – no matter how impartial.
What is often at play in identity politics is a similar kind of reductionism, but along lines of race. And this is evident in the bewilderment that a black worker would be so mad that students blocked his way to work and thus threatened his very existence.
Such reductionism, that avoids the level of analysis and deferring “truth” to the level of the experiential is not unlike early experiments in workers’ inquiry, especially those of the Johnson-Forester Tendency. In an attempt to find out how workers themselves experience life under capitalism, to find the “working class viewpoint,” and to show that socialism was “already there” and “waiting to be born,” CLR James had encouraged Phil Singer, a New Jersey autoworker, to write about his experiences as a worker. As Salar Mohandesi and Asad Haider observe, Singer’s book, The American Worker, while groundbreaking, ended up becoming deployed and idealized as an “untenable overgeneralization” that operated as a mouthpiece for all workers everywhere.
Indeed, this same dynamic of untenable overgeneralization, of deductive reductionism in which a single component speaks is somehow capable of speaking for an entire multitude, is exactly what is at play with discourses of identity politics at the grassroots level. Concurring with Mohandesi, “in an ironic reversal, what once began as a critique of reductionism within socialist movements has now fallen into the same conceptual error.”
Asad Haider, in his newly released book Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump, draws a curious translation that has occured from the theory of intersectionality to the practice and the grassroots level. That is, he notes that Kimberlé Crenshaw’s original usage of the term was “intersectionality” was meant to draw a criticism against the ways legal frameworks demand that plaintiffs of discrimination must choose a either racial or sexual discrimination and not both, in difference to the ways power relations actually exist – in combination.
At the grassroots however, Haider notes that “intersectionality” has generalized the condition of the plaintiff by “equating political practice with the demand of restitution for an injury, inviting the construction of baroque and unnavigable intersections consisting of the litany of different identities to which a given person might belong.” He continues:
Those whose identity is inscribed with the most intersecting lines can claim the status of most injured, and are therefore awarded, in the juridical framework to which politics is now reduced, both discursive and institutional protection. This protected status implies neither the political subjectivity that can come from organizing autonomously, nor the solidarity that is required for coalitions that can engage in successful political action.
It is this process of finding “the most injured” in the room that leads to perverse games of oppression olympics across grassroots assemblies and that paralyze movement building if a certain idealistic quota is not met. At the same time, it assumes that if we find that “most injured” individual, they will have the adequate personal knowledge to know the way forward.
But as we’ve seen, we can’t look to the color of people’s skin and hope to find a ready ally or comrade. Unfortunately, these are forged not found. And that foundry can only come through organizing, developing encounters, and struggling for transformation.
What is evident is that a new practice is desperately needed, distinct from those that call to abandon culture and discourse, and from the weak analysis that comes to define the grassroots level of identity politics. That is, we want a different culture of practice that demands an analysis of culture. This new culture of practice must accept that we can’t privilege individual experiences and hope that they abandon the necessity of analysis and strategy. At the same time, if we don’t address difference and the way it is central to the (re)production of capitalism, we end up privileging the white experience as the universal. To this end, I would repeat something particularly valuable from Stuart Hall once more,
When you look at capitalism, all these different processes are functioning together, not because they are the same, but because they are different and because they are articulated together. This suggests a radically different conception of how things fit together into a unified structure from the notion of an expressive totality found in Marx’s earlier formulations. This is a structural totality in which the different bits are unevenly, even contradictorily, related to one another. It is a totality in which each of the different practices has its own given level of determinateness.
As Marx said regarding the antagonism that was developed between English and Irish workers, it’s (re)production and deployment, was “the secret… by which the capitalist class maintains its power.” So the answer cannot be to ignore the ways people participate in its reproduction. It must be directly targeted. However, that everyday folk casually and consistently engage in and reproduce the life world of these structures cannot shock us if we also understand them to be necessary to the production and reproduction of capitalism. These reproductions are of course gradient in force and may entail a strong or weak articulation with structures and cultures in the way they’re acted upon. The question, however, is not, how do we show those we intend to organize (with) how terrible they are? Rather, how do we work across difference in order to develop the unity, articulations, and strength necessary to transform structures?
There are no ready or easy answers. This is a question of strategy, which necessarily entails an understanding of the relations of force at a particular conjuncture and the ways these operate in a discursive topography. In other words, experience can’t save us now. But analysis and practice can.