Against Multiracial Authoritarianism

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas visits Stetson University Law School (Flickr: Stetson University)

Concluding her stunning essay on the racist and sexist representations of Anita Hill’s testimony against Clarence Thomas as he alighted to the US Supreme Court, literary scholar Wahneema Lubiano asked “What is a black politics—absent class and/or gender specificity?” Across several publications in the 1990s, Lubiano was one of several critical commentators attuned to the problems of Black conservatism. Numerically small but highly visible, Black conservatives were highly popular among an increasingly revanchist right.

They seem to have found their standard bearer in Clarence Thomas, a man who, in addition to being credibly accused of sexual harassment, spent his career blunting calls to redress collective harm and upholding arch-conservative interpretations of the law from a “state’s rights” approach to social welfare but a punitive approach to criminal justice, reproductive rights, and much else. Thomas gave establishment Republicans a chance to rally on behalf of a Black man. Like other Black conservatives of recent vintage, Thomas speaks through his self-identity as a Black man; after all, he famously defended himself against charges of sexual harassment by claiming to be subject to a “high-tech lynching.” On June 21, Thomas filed a lonely dissent in a rare Supreme Court ruling that found a lower court engaged in racist discrimination against a man sentenced to death, arguing that the court should abandon its 1987 prohibition against racial discrimination in jury selection.

As Lubiano recognized the danger in 1991, reactionary class and gender politics were essential pivots for the rise of a multiracial political Right—one that operated both institutionally and at the grassroots, pushing the country (and indeed the world) into the terrifying landscape of borderland concentration camps, untrammeled corporate influence over elections, a full-frontal assault on voting rights, restricted sexual and reproductive freedom, and lawmakers who court militia support to avoid even voting on legislation they dislike (particularly if it involves confronting climate change). In 1994, not long after Thomas took his seat on the Court, a group of antiracist and feminist activists diagnosed this political milieu as “the anti-democratic right[,] . . . a growing coalition of well-funded reactionary political activists working with authoritarian religious zealots to define what it means to be an American in narrow, spiteful, and exclusionary terms.”

While the anti-democratic right is a white-dominated effort that promotes a segregationist political economy, it is a multiracial authoritarian milieu. As Daniel Martinez HoSang and Joseph Lowndes document in their new book, Producers, Parasites, Patriots: Race and the New Right-Wing Politics of Precarity, the contemporary right-wing seeks to refashion our understanding of race, class, and the state. Many on the far-right “have integrated civic-nationalist and racial-nationalist discourses in ways that have openly facilitated the participation of some people of color in these movements” (110). While many of these figures—Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, say, or YouTube personalities Diamond and Silk—are performatively silly to the point of ridicule, their influence is no laughing matter. They mobilize a script of “multicultural right-wing populism” that upholds African Americans as “law-abiding citizens preyed upon by undocumented immigrants—even through the use of the same scripts of criminality and incorrigibility that have fueled Black mass incarceration” (111). And as HoSang and Lowndes’s analysis of Mia Love, Tim Scott, and Allen West show, some Black Republicans have pushed an extremist hyper-capitalism without becoming cartoonish mockeries.

As with Thomas almost three decades ago, the contemporary right speaks through a patriarchal nationalism that recuperates the Civil Rights Movement legacy of heroism into a neoliberal vision of personal economic success. Its vision is male-dominated and cruelly individualist. Several right-wing groups that are often described as white nationalist—such as the street-fighting gangs Proud Boys and its Pacific Northwestern equivalent in Patriot Prayer—are self-consciously multiracial and anti-left. “Performed as patriarchal traditionalism, online ultra-misogyny, or street-brawling bravado, masculinity bridges racial difference for populist, fascist, and even white-nationalist politics,” claim HoSang and Lowndes (104). As independent scholar Matthew Lyons has shown elsewhere, patriarchy is a central pillar of a right-wing politics that seeks the upward distribution of wealth and the downward distribution of misery.

Understanding the anti-democratic right as a force of multiracial authoritarianism requires greater attention to what HoSang and Lowndes describe as the shifting “labor of race.” “Race continues to structure the terms of political identity, mobilization, and responses to economic vulnerability, though in ways quite distinct from the dominant patterns of the post-World War II era” (16). Thus, we get commentators attacking overwhelmingly white public sector unions in Wisconsin or the white rural poor of Appalachia and elsewhere using the same racist tropes that have historically been reserved for Black people. Such producerist scolding of poor white people does not negate that Black, Brown, and indigenous communities remain hardest hit and most squarely targeted by the New Gilded Age. As “automation, the predominance of the finance and technological sectors, deregulation, tax cuts, capital mobility and flight, and the diversion of public funds from education and social services to policing and prisons have made tens of millions of white households newly vulnerable to economic crisis . . . whiteness no longer guarantees the same form of material security and even social identity, rendering its future far less stable than its recent past” (53).

Though its forms may be at times surprising, race will continue to function as leitmotif of un-freedom. Whether “in the form of neoliberal multiculturalism, far-right authoritarianism, or claims about cultural and genetic fitness—[race] will continue to be pressed into service by those who wish to solidify and extend the extreme political and economic hierarchies that foster human misery and planetary destruction” (168). Now more than ever, an antiracist politics is the basis for a project of universal freedom against the totalizing un-freedom of the right-wing. Producers, Parasites, Patriots asks that we sharpen our minds and our tools for the battles ahead: the enemies we face uphold a political whiteness yet seek to recruit those Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Indigenous people whose rejection of a crumbling liberal social order that never served them can be mobilized toward entrepreneurial and cruel ends of domination.

We will need, they write, “dexterity in our own analysis and action” to confront the multiracial authoritarianism of the anti-democratic right. Yet the fundamental principle remains unchanged. “The only anchor,” they advise, “should be our commitment to emancipation” (168). Although their discussion of emancipation is left more implied than explained in the book, it includes “[r]esisting state violence, reversing privatization, reclaiming the public realm, and advancing democratic control of public institutions” (18). Let us renew that emancipatory spirit—define it, explain it, and fight for it. For as current events reveal in gruesome detail, our lives depend on it.

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Dan Berger

Dan Berger is an associate professor of comparative ethnic studies at the University of Washington Bothell. He is the author of several books including Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era, which won the 2015 James A. Rawley Prize from the Organization of American Historians. His latest book, coauthored with Toussaint Losier, is Rethinking the American Prison Movement. Follow him on Twitter @dnbrgr.

Comments on “Against Multiracial Authoritarianism

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    Dear Mr. Berger,
    I’m reading your fine, disturbing article on multiracial conservatism and would like to know the source of the following quotation: “the anti-democratic right[,] . . . a growing coalition of well-funded reactionary political activists working with authoritarian religious zealots to define what it means to be an American in narrow, spiteful, and exclusionary terms.”
    Thank you very much for your work and attention,
    Ben Gantcher

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