Here’s the latest: in the past four or five days I’ve been seeing all these stickers, on stop signs and telephone poles and the concrete walls surrounding parking lots, that say “wake up, white people.” I’ve seen these stickers like six separate times in less than a week, uptown, downtown, in mid-city: all over. In places I go pretty frequently.
Wow, was my original reaction, because I thought it was saying something like, “look around, white folks, at all the racist horribleness that’s happening in this city; your life might be starting to achieve some semblance of intactness or it might not, but now more than ever we need to be working together to rebuild this city with justice for everyone; we need to prioritize the right of return for so many African American families who still haven’t made it back; we need to be thinking critically about all this Crime hysteria that’s been happening lately and engage on real levels about things like poverty and desperation, which influence crime rates and which exist in this city in record levels these days; we need to put our hearts and souls into fighting racism within ourselves and our communities if we ever want this city to get it together…” Lots to get out of one bumper sticker, but, you know, I guess I was being optimistic.
Well. Was I ever off-base.
I got curious yesterday when I saw one of these stickers, (on a telephone pole kind of by TwiRoPa on Tchoupitoulas, if anyone’s interested), right above another sticker in the exact same font that said “David Duke for mayor.”
For anyone who needs some schooling on why that’s important, you can check out this Wikipedia page that has some basic outlines of David Duke’s history as a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Currently he self-identifies as a “white nationalist” and is well known, among other things, for his attempts to civilize the image of the Klan (business suits instead of long white robes—I know that makes me respect the Klan a lot more), and his connections with Louisiana state politics, including a governor’s runoff race in 1991 which he lost to Edwin Edwards, a known crook, by a large margin. (Edwards’ win was significantly impacted by committed creative anti-racist organizing that crossed ideology and organizational lines and opened up vast spaces, especially in New Orleans, for crucial dialogue and action about race in many diverse corners of the city, which of course is another really important part of that history.)
So anyway, I started wondering if maybe these little stickers were telling people something other than to take a serious and critical look at racism in our community, and I googled “wake up white people” and found out (also on Wikipedia, by the way—where would we be without them?) that it’s actually a “memorable quote” of another noted Klan leader, Daniel Carver, who is evidently both an Imperial Wizard and a Grand Dragon in the Klan, and who makes a living doing “odd jobs” including selling racist knicknacks out of a post-office box in Oakwood, Georgia.
The Klan, right here, where we’re living and working and struggling, right under our very noses. I feel indignant. And I know, on so many levels, that that’s not the point, but there it is, my righteous outrage at the brazenness of it.
I don’t want to think I’m one of those people who’s shocked to find out that the Klan is alive and well and working hard in my neighborhood, but I guess, on some level, that I am. And I know that it’s not like the Klan just arrived here from out of nowhere, that actually the Klan has a long history continuing into the present era in south Louisiana and New Orleans too; for example that David Duke’s more “respectable” organization, the National Association for the Advancement of White People (NAAWP, oh, yes they did) had a pretty big gathering here in 2004 on the 50th anniversary of the Brown V. Board of Education decision where, I recently learned (yes, also on Wikipedia), far-right groups signed a document called the New Orleans Protocols, which pledged to reduce infighting and factionalization between what are referred to as “racialist” groups.
And I know that you don’t need the Klan to have racism in your neighborhood, that pretty blatant racism, for example, is behind some of the scarier crime-fighting initiatives that have come up in recent months (like a Faubourg Marigny neighborhood association’s push to install cameras throughout the neighborhood and give out whistles for (mostly white) residents to use if they see a “suspicious” person walking by; or the recent memos circulated to (mostly white) French Quarter business owners by BlackHawk, a private security company, explaining that they would be more effective crime fighters than the NOPD since they didn’t have to worry about pesky anti-profiling laws). And I know that structural racism, insidious and hard to define as it may be, is a significant part of the reason why so many African-American New Orleans residents haven’t gotten home yet, and why so many Black and Latino people in this city have to move mountains to get healthcare, or an education for their children, and how that’s not only in this city but everywhere, but that here the stakes are so much higher; that the dissolution of the African-American community here in New Orleans means nothing less than that we’re losing our very backbone.
And I know that really, fighting racism doesn’t mean being like, “oh my Gosh, the Klan! Let’s get ‘em and then our problem will be solved,” and that in some cases focusing on groups like the Klan can actually take away from the more pervasive racism that’s all around us and make it seem like racism comes from different, crazy people who don’t do things normal or respectable people would do. And that really we need to be consciously building communities of justice and resistance that transform our hearts and souls and keep us connected to each other and committed to each other in a way that affirms each of our humanity.
I know. And still, the Klan is scary.
Scariest to me is that the Klan being out and visible means that vicious racialized hatred is suddenly legitimized as part of the discussion. It shifts public discourse so dramatically that coded conversations about “the criminal element” and “what goes on in public housing” become moderate and civilized by comparison. Which means that folks who are working from a justice-centered perspective have that much more ground to cover in order to meet folks even a little bit halfway. It means folks committed to social justice have to spend time and energy fighting these blatantly racist messages instead of doing all the other important work we’re already too under-resourced to do. It’s also scary that the visibility of these messages capitalizes on white fear and stress and anger at a time when we’re all feeling desperate and need an outlet or at least an explanation for those feelings. For anyone working for social justice, and specifically anti-racist white folks, this cuts into our organizing base in a way that is concrete and significant.
The hardest thing about the obvious blatant presence of folks like the Klan, though, is what we do about it. I still believe that putting all our eggs in one basket to go up against groups like the Klan won’t build justice or even solve the problem of racism, and that we need to continue prioritizing accountable, base-building, community-building, relationship building work at the grassroots level in a strategic push toward broad and diverse movements for racial justice that include large numbers of people. And yet, I think challenging direct racism, even when it takes away concrete energy and resources that we could be putting in other directions, is absolutely necessary, even if only to affirm that it’s unacceptable and has no place in our community. (That’s part of the reason why this post is so long! ☺ I think also, for me, it’s reminded me to recommit myself to take a longer and deeper look at history, to maintain my curiosity about things I don’t know about, and to remember the limitations of my own understanding and to look for complexities even when the world appears benign to me.
Finally, I want to remember that hate groups succeed only where there’s room for them to do so. And that for all of us who are committed to building justice-centered outlets for people’s rage and sadness and stress and desperation, that now’s the time to be even more creative, and inspiring, and loving and joyous and visible in that work. And to remember to give props to all the folks in our community and beyond who are building that culture day by day, like the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond, the Ashe' Cultural Arts Center, the INCITE! Women's Health and Justice Initiative, the Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association, Safe Streets/Strong Communities, the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, European Dissent, and so many others in New Orleans alone.
And at least for me, that especially when things are sad and stressful and hard and hopeless, fighting for justice is the best protection against a hardened heart.