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Responding to the Twin Pandemics of COVID-19 and Racial Injustice

Arts and Humanities in a Time of Crisis

Image courtesy of Mayra Sierra-Rivera '20, Studio art major

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The Capitol Siege and the Contested Space of Anti-Racism

by Tony Hazard

On Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday, just days after her father, the 45th President of the United States, incited his followers to engage in a murderous armed insurrection on the US Capitol building on January 6th, Ivanka Trump tweeted this quotation of Dr. King: “I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.”

Screenshot of Ivanka Trumps tweet

But she wasn’t alone. Other Trump acolytes lauded Dr. King on Twitter as well, including longtime Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, Senators Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul, White House Press Secretaries Kaleigh McCannany and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Representative Matt Gaetz, and Fox News host Laura Ingraham. No matter how brazen Trump had been since the Birther fiasco, this group of his supporters, including the 127 Republicans in Congress whose votes refusing to certify the Electoral College results signaled agreement with the conspiracy theories that fueled the January 6th coup attempt, somehow reconciled their white supremacist proclivities with the legacy of Dr. King via tweet.   

To be sure, these invocations of King had nothing to do with King, or resistance to the white supremacy ushered in four centuries ago in the colonies of Virginia and New Amsterdam. What these lawmakers and members of the Trump following spoke to were their own fantasies of what Dr. King’s memory should be, and what their desires of anti-racism are. The radical anti-war democratic socialist who sought to restructure US society is nowhere to be found in this version of King.  

As was the case in the corporate funding, design, and completion of the Dr. King Memorial on the National Mall in 2011, “the collective memory of Dr. King is a valuable prize in a discursive, political contest.” More broadly, Kevin Bruyneel argues, “King’s body politic has become central to how the U.S. population tells the story of the nation’s racial history.” At the close of Donald Trump’s presidency, members of his following deployed Dr. King as a consensual, patriotic figure who successfully ushered in a post-racial era due to his “peaceful” protests. Klan members bombing his home, FBI harassment, and a white assassin’s bullet don’t fit neatly into this version of King.  

2020 will undoubtedly be remembered by history as the final year of the Trump presidency and the year of COVID-19, but in a US context it should also be remembered as the year of the anti-racist reading list. The proliferation of such lists (and virtual events) emerged throughout the year following the grizzly murders of unarmed Black people by police officers and white vigilantes. The central thrust of this literature spotlights interpersonal and structural racism, the necessity of white folks interrogating their own whiteness, and embracing philosophical positions and policies that reduce racial inequity. Book sales confirm the enormous appetite for anti-racism scholarship, which is a good thing for some. But anti-racism isn’t new, and in fact anti-racism does not go “against the flow of this country’s history,” as Ibram Kendi posits in his best seller.

The late Herbert Aptheker demonstrated nearly thirty years ago that anti-racism has always been a central element of the political culture and social fabric of this country. Radical abolitionists Harriet Tubman and John Brown were anti-racists. The US Congress enacted anti-racist legislation during Reconstruction. Throughout US history individuals and institutions have successfully exorcised elements of systemic racism. Yes, anti-racism is an ongoing process, and yes, as Kendi reminds us, “we can be a racist one minute and an antiracist the next.” Fair enough. 

But what is urgently necessary in this moment of anti-racist reading lists, white supremacist presidents, and seemingly hypocritical tweets from his followers, is a  reminder that anti-racism is a contested political space in which various stakeholders articulate and enact their vision of anti-racism to buttress their political and economic goals. Anti-racism is, in and of itself, uneven and contradictory. The Constitutional amendment abolishing chattel slavery contains the exceptions clause for criminality. President Roosevelt justified fighting a war against Nazi Germany with a segregated military. Ivanka Trump invokes Dr. King’s human rights critique of racialized capitalism days after her father incites a racist mob to overthrow the US government.  

In the final analysis, white supremacy embraces, flaunts, and thrives in its own hypocrisy. White supremacy makes genocide a holiday. White supremacy makes a crime against humanity a global economy. White supremacy makes racists presidents. It should come as no surprise then, that white supremacy embraces anti-racism when it needs to, to ensure its own survival. 

For those seeking justice and liberation, anti-racism is a highly problematic tool. It’s not the goal.

Tony Hazard is Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies at Santa Clara University. His work explores connections between the history of anthropology, constructions of race, and the Black Freedom Movement. He is the author of Postwar Anti-Racism: The United States, UNESCO, and “Race,” 1945-1968 (2012) and Boasians at War: Anthropology, Race, and World War II (2020).