In Defense of Multiracial Solidarity As A Response to Global Crisis
The threat and spread of COVID-19 has shed a light on the complex ways in which power and privilege impact people’s lives. Particularly, the politics of disposability have laid bare the complicated relationship that so-called privileged people have to violent states and systems forcing many to question what it means to be safe and protected during times of crisis.
Given the harmful ways that global injustice, state violence, and systemic inequity impact billions of lives every day, ‘crisis’ can arguably be the only way to describe life as we know it, to describe all of human history. Policy makers and legislators have relied on domination, violence, and insidious forms of social control to ensure the perpetuation of a status quo that favors the rich for millennia. As a result, a class of chronically disenfranchised people on which those in power depend has remained a sociocultural staple even if our names for that class of people has changed over time.
From “poor people” to “at risk,” “slaves” to “the marginalized,” most people who are chronically disenfranchised and dispossessed — of land, freedom, protection — come from families with a history of oppression. Regardless of their race. While it’s certainly true that certain racial and ethnic groups — particularly people who are Black, Brown, Indigenous, and/or Jewish — are disproportionately impacted by chronic disenfranchisement or structural violence, non-white people are not the only ones who are continuously tossed aside as trash by the government.
In the preface to Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz urged that people evaluate “the role of “poor whites,” “white trash,” “rednecks,” “crackers,” “hillbillies,” descendants of the original landless or land poor settlers, the ones that kept moving westward with the United States, squatters sent to fight the native inhabitants“ in the context of the rapid development of industrial capitalism in the United States. Like Dunbar-Ortiz, a growing number of scholars have highlighted the complex history of white people around the world against the backdrop of ever-evolving conceptions of race and identity.
In a 2016 CSPAN interview, American historian and author of White Trash: The 400 Year Untold History of Class in America Nancy Isenberg argued that people “often lose sight of the fact that land, or being landless, is possibly the most important definition in our history of whether you have civic value, whether you can have economic independence.” In an era of rampant gentrification in the United States, Germany, the Netherlands, Brazil, and all over the worlds issues related to displacement and dispossession of land speak to centuries of imperialism and colonialism that left countless nations divided in terms of haves and have nots. The violent slaughter and displacement of people indigenous to the Americas, of course, being a prime example.
In Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power, authors Amy Sonnie and James Tracy traced a history of global migration as it relates to class struggle to contextualize movement-building by white people who “understood that ending racism was not a threat or an act of charity, but a part of gaining their own freedom.” Angela Davis praised the book and said that it “[challenges] the Left not to ignore white America.”
Relatedly, during a 2018 Berlin conference, Planetary Utopias — Hope, Desire, Imaginaries in a Post-Colonial World, Davis discussed “barriers to developing solidarity and hyperempathy” with people of all races who have been part of the ongoing freedom struggle for centuries. She encouraged everyone to acknowledge that people of all races participate in the oppressive apparatus and emphasized the importance of critiquing harmful ideologies instead of further damaging relationships with other groups of oppressed people.
Decades earlier, the Black Panther Party embraced the solidarity and hyperempathy of which Davis spoke when they joined forces with the Young Patriots — poor, left-wing, white migrants from the Appalachian region — and other multiracial activist groups in an effort to fight back against monsters that were “grinding up the flesh and spitting out the blood of the poor and oppressed people.” Their “rainbow coalition” sought to unite Black-led organizing with radical activism that brought together people from various backgrounds who had one main thing in common: chronic disenfranchisement. An uprising of the disposable class.
In the time of COVID-19, the disposable class — a.k.a. essential workers and other people who are at risk of losing their homes, jobs, and most importantly their lives — is at the mercy of a government more concerned with profit and the perpetuation of the status quo than it is with people’s well-being. Elections taking place around the world reveal that representatives, more often than not, cater to the needs of the elite instead of their marginalized constituents of all races.
Medical professionals are dying while pop-up morgues house more corpses than cities can handle. Public transit workers are dying while other essential workers depend on reliable transportation. The “homework gap” is on full display as schools switch to remote learning models while overworked and underpaid teachers struggle to keep up. Farmers, domestic workers, and retail and hospitality specialists who don’t have the option to work from home risk their lives, and the lives of their families, every day to do their essential work.
Now, more people than ever are at risk of being labeled disposable by the government. But, it’s important to keep in mind that even before COVID-19, wealth separated the protected from the trash. Some of us were just closer to the incinerator. Now, we are watching what happens when public health policy dissolves into biopolitical waste management, further abandoning chronically disenfranchised people around the world while bailing out corporate entities and protecting big business. Even with a handful of progressive politicians at the local levels of government, direct action at the level of the people, all people, is necessary to build a strong opposition to the status quo.
In 2016 feminist philosopher Linda Martín Alcoff told the LA Review of Books that “any kind of move forward on class dimensions is going to have to figure out how to create that coalition across racial differences, and that means addressing racism, but it also means thinking about how white people are a part of that coalition.” We need to recognize and see each other through our own eyes — while unlearning toxic ways of viewing and judging one another — and hearts instead of through the colonial lens of the state. Part of the project of dismantling oppressive systems requires that we avoid reproducing the same behaviors and ideas of the forces we’re fighting against. In order to avoid that, embracing solidarity and hyperempathy is a good first step.