By Eric K. Ward
“You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” ~Angela Davis
I will always remember where I was at the moment I said this thought out loud: I think we may have won.
It was in the conservative West Hills of Portland, on the white flight side of the county line where those who want to enjoy proximity to city culture aren’t burdened by city taxes. My fiancé and I were on our way to visit her parents, good people with conservative values whose skin color varies considerably from mine.
On our way we saw about 20 elementary school kids marching down the street to their school, each carrying handmade Black Lives Matter signs, chanting Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter! Their parents were there behind them, not a sign of embarrassment, proud of their children. There might have been two kids of color in the bunch. Keep in mind, this is in the midst of a pandemic when kids aren’t in school and parents aren’t gathering. Jessica was in tears as we pulled into her parents’ house, a Black Lives Matter sign in the yard of the conservative Christian neighbors across the street.
Later, driving back down the hill, we saw that the kids had posted their signs on the fence around the school facing the main drag. I turned to Jessica and said, “I think we’ve actually won.”
It’s not as if I’m naive about what’s at stake. I remain deeply concerned about rising authoritarianism at the federal level and far-right paramilitary activity in cities and small towns. I believe these trends will only get stronger as we approach the election, an election that will likely deliver intensified chaos and backlash regardless of the results. I know that the seismic shifts reflected in public opinion polls (“Never before in the history of modern polling has the country expressed such widespread agreement on racism’s pervasiveness in policing, and in society at large,” The New York Times) may not translate into votes cast in private.
But we can’t let these dangers blind us to the signs of change, real change, in the 13 weeks since George Floyd’s murder propelled the Movement for Black Lives onto the global stage. Legislation that carries his name. Changes in police practice. Resources shifted by institutions from the National Football League to local philanthropy. Nearly 60 confederate symbols removed including by the cultural icon NASCAR. The list goes on, met by the tears and cheers of those who have already waited too long, and the side-eye of skepticism from those focused on all that has yet to change.
But those kids. Those white children in that conservative neighborhood. The same thing happening in communities across the country. That’s our future. That’s part of our victory, right there.
It doesn’t mean we stand down or slow down. But we might want to start acting like winners.
Despite all the very real dangers and decades of hard work and struggle ahead, I believe that the challenge is no longer one of winning. It’s about managing space and time. Our job now is to create and hold enough time and space for the generation coming up, the generation that does not dispute Black Lives Matter, to get its chance.
The problem is, we keep acting as if we haven’t won. We’ve been acting as if we’re in the last ten minutes of a basketball game where we’re the ones who are 30 points down. When you consider the long arc of 528 years of white supremacy in the Americas since Christopher Columbus set foot on this continent, it’s actually white supremacy that’s 30 points down.
When you’re the ones who are up by 30 points with just minutes left on the clock, what do you do? Do you try to double the point spread and humiliate the other side? No, you run the clock out. You manage the time and manage the court in such a way that doesn’t imperil your victory, but also doesn’t annihilate your opponents.
Humiliation, annihilation, dehumanization — that’s their game, not ours. At least I hope so.
Audre Lorde famously warned us that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.
We need to get clear: burn-shit-down is the emotional center of white supremacy. Burn shit down is what began on the eastern shores of this land in 1492. Burn shit down is what 250 years of chattel slavery and 100 years of Jim Crow did to Black lives, and what keeps women and LGBTQ folx still unable to have sovereignty over their bodies and lives.
We should be angry. I understand the anger. As I’ve written before, I understand the rage. But the tear-everything-down tirades that come across my news feed these days make me wonder: have we absorbed the white supremacist mindset that this is the answer to almost everything?
On the third anniversary of Unite the Right in Charlottesville, with 35 million Americans thrown out of work in just five months; civil protesters beaten, shot at, gassed, and run over daily on the streets of America; one out of every 1,250 Black Americans killed by COVID-19; 95 days ’til an election that will set the course of this country for generations — and my phone is blowing up with an “open letter to progressives” signed by dozens of movement organizations taking down another organization.
I’m not saying that criticism is never warranted or legitimate — just as there are many justifiable critiques of those now leading the Democratic ticket for president.
But is tearing shit down what we need to be doing with our movement time and resources right now? Right here, right now, is this internal call-out the critical fight to have? What does the fixation on ideological purity do for the children sitting in U.S. immigration detention jail cells, the Black folks lying prematurely on their deathbeds, the millions losing their jobs, homes, and small businesses? How does our disdain for the centrism of the candidates at the top of the ticket help any of the people who need the knee of the Trump administration to get off their neck, right now?
Ideological purity doesn’t envision any alternatives. When ideological purity becomes the most important thing, what are we signaling to the majority of Americans who are looking for something different right now, who are never going to adopt our ideology — but mostly agree with us when it comes to values? What does it bode for our capacity to bring people along to a truly inclusive vision of reality when we devote so much energy towards splintering an already-small sector of progressive activists with purity tests?
We haven’t lost. But we may be at risk of losing our way.
If white nationalism and white supremacy evaporated overnight, what would we do? It’s time to start acting like we’re the hosts of this big party called inclusive democracy, not the outcasts who didn’t get invited. To make it plain, winners are responsible for building a new center.
What would it look like to put a moratorium on the tear-it-down mindset and put more energy into build-it-up? What would it look like if we made the shift from winning the war, to winning the peace?
History is full of awful examples of what happens to humiliated losers. And a few good examples of winning the peace, of creating time and space to form a new center.
When you uproot a family from the life they have known and put them into a new space, you have to give them time to adjust. To go through their homesickness, their sadness that they don’t know anyone on this new block, that it’s all so unfamiliar. You help them through it by showing them a little hospitality, bringing them into the warmth of how it all could be.
That’s what Jessica and I have tried to do with our conservative friends and family. They oppose the actions of the current president now because they had time to come to it on their own. We made sure not to push their backs up against the wall. We gave them time and space. And in the end, it didn’t take that long, nor did we have to betray any of our values.
It’s been three months since I wrote Authoritarian State or Inclusive Democracy? 21 Things We Can Do Right Now. In that essay, and in many of my writings since, I warned: The attempt to create an inclusive American democracy is now on a precipice. Words and actions carry real consequences that could drive us over the edge and to a point of no return.
We could still lose the fight to white nationalism, still end up with an authoritarian state. I worry that we could improve the odds of that if we don’t learn how to manage this time and space equation. If we don’t give folks a chance to stretch into this moment. If we don’t start caring more about winning the peace than we do about winning the war.
If we can’t perceive that we have won, the ways that we’re acting right now could bring about terrible consequences and conditions that will make it harder for the next generation.
Democracy is on the march in America. Democracy is getting it done in the streets, everyday. The left has significantly shifted where the fulcrum sits in the balancing act of the United States. Now it’s time to build a new center, to take ourselves seriously around inclusion. “To act as if it were possible to radically transform the world.” To act as if we already have.
Eric K. Ward is Executive Director of Western States Center.