What the official narrative of US history should be, who gets to tell that history, and who the protagonists are have been recurring debates since the founding of the American republic, but they became especially important and heated in the aftermath of the Civil War—and they have been a defining feature of far-right politics ever since. At stake is the question of whose country this is and to whom this land and its future belongs.
In this special series of The Marc Steiner Show, co-hosted by Marc Steiner and Bill Fletcher Jr., we will examine the rise of the right in the US and beyond, we will explore the different tendencies and motivations fueling today’s surge in far-right politics, and we will engage with a range of critical voices who can help us understand how we got here and what we can do about it. In Episode Two of “Rise of the Right,” Marc and Bill are joined by Erica Smiley, Bill Gallegos, and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz to examine the central place that race, racial hierarchy, and the project of settler colonialism have held in far-right politics historically, and the role they play in driving far-right politics today.
Erica Smiley is a longtime organizer and movement leader, and she is the executive director of Jobs With Justice. Bill Gallegos is an activist who has been involved in the Chicano liberation and environmental justice movements for many years; he also served as the executive director for Communities for a Better Environment. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has been active in the international Indigenous movement for more than four decades and is known for her lifelong commitment to national and international social justice issues. She is the winner of the 2017 Lannan Cultural Freedom Prize and she has authored and edited many books, including An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States and Not “A Nation of Immigrants”: Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy, and a History of Erasure and Exclusion.
Tune in every Monday over the next month for new installments of this special series of The Marc Steiner Show on TRNN.
Pre-Production: Dwayne Gladden, Stephen Frank, Kayla Rivara, Maximillian Alvarez, Jocelyn Dombroski
Studio: Dwayne Gladden
Post-Production: Stephen Frank
Marc Steiner: Welcome to a special edition of series here on The Marc Steiner Show on The Real News examining the Rise of the Far Right. Here in the United States and across the globe, we’re going to see why this is happening and what to do about it. Joining me is co-host, longtime political labor activist, award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction, Bill Fletcher Jr. And today we begin a deeper dive into the shape, character, and historical influences of the contemporary far right.
As we discuss in episode one of this series, today’s far right didn’t come from just out of blue, from nowhere. But to understand the different historical iterations of the far right in the United States, we need to look deep into the historical foundations of the United States itself. Our focus today will be how the enslavement of Africans, the genocide of Indigenous people, the violent project of settler colonialism have defined this nation and how each have contributed to the emergent tendencies of the right wing and its extremism. We’re seeing it all right now in these tendencies we’ve seen throughout the course of US history. And we’ll discuss what we can do to stop the advancement of right-wing authoritarianism and build a more equitable world.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: The debate over what the official narrative of US history be, who gets to tell that history, and who the protagonists are has been a recurring theme since the founding of the Republic. But that debate became especially important and heated in the aftermath of the Civil War. At stake in this debate is a question as to whose country this is, or should be? To whom does this land and its future belong? When one goes deeper, one must ask about the history of settler colonialism, racial slavery for life, annexation, and class struggle. How do those each intersect, and why does the history associated with each become central to the core of the far right in the United States? If one looks at the major right-wing authoritarian mass movements throughout US history, themes connected to racial hierarchy and settler colonialism always emerge. In our contemporary era, first with the Tea Party and later Donald Trump, or even if one looks at the anti-vaxxer demonstrations since 2020, the issue of race seems to inevitably arise. Why?
Marc Steiner: And in today’s discussion, we’ll look at this question in particular. We [inaudible] understand the historic and contemporary relationship between race, settler colonialism, and the far right. We need to think about how this appeals to certain ideologies of race and settler colonialism. What they create and shape, and they’re guiding right-wing mass movements as they do. Now, before we get into this conversation today let’s just talk for a second here. And talk about the… I’ve always been interested, really interested in the roots between what we said right here about founding of this country, enslavement, genocide, and where we find ourselves right now. And what it is about this moment that’s allowed this eruption to take place.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: You know, it’s interesting, Marc. I was thinking about this after, in the context of our first episode. And there was this great book that came out of Tarso’s organization called Right-Wing Populism in America by Chip Berlet and Matthew Lyons.
Marc Steiner: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: Right?
Marc Steiner: Right, right, right.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: And one of the things that they do is that they situate the development of right-wing populism in settler colonialism, but then they talk about the importance of Andrew Jackson, president Andrew Jackson. That president Andrew Jackson is sort of, represents a critical moment in the development of this country. Because he was this anti-elitist white supremacist who basically takes on the rich in the name of the average white person – But at that point, really the average white man – And for right-wing movements ever since, it’s like he’s almost like the founding father.
And so you look at what he did and this interesting thing we’ve been seeing, Marc. This alleged anti-elitism that’s linked with white supremacy, male supremacy, things that we’ve been covering and will cover in the show. That’s what I think is fascinating, and that’s why history becomes so important. A correct understanding of the role of these different characters, what they actually did versus what the myths are. And that helps us better understand, where did these right-wing movements come from? And what are their objectives? Because, look, Andrew Jackson’s objective was very clear. A white republic, right? Racial slavery and the extermination or elimination of the First Nations.
Marc Steiner: And it’s interesting what Andrew Jackson also did. And it relates to this moment now in a very strange way. What he did was give white working class men the right to vote in America. That did not exist before.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Marc Steiner: And that’s part of what brought them into his fold. Part of what it brought them into the fold. But, so I wonder when you think about this movement now, that clearly at least to us and to some people, other people, is based deeply in racism and maintaining the power of white people in America. Supporting the most righting elements in the capitalist class and other places in this country. But doing it in a way I’ve not seen before. They’re doing it in a way that is subtle. They’re not being overt. They’re not using the N-word. They’re not calling these, they’re trying… They take on critical race theory.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: Right.
Marc Steiner: But they’re not doing it… They’re doing it in a way that is circuitous so it doesn’t feel or look like. They’re saying, we don’t need to learn about Black people and Indian people and Puerto Ricans and Mexicans in this country. Why? Right?
Bill Fletcher Jr.: Correct.
Marc Steiner: That’s why this is so insidious.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: Well, it is. I mean it’s interesting because if I were to sum up the problem, it’s that millions of white people have decided it doesn’t pay to be white anymore. That what they have seen from the 1940s on has been a reconfiguration of what the United States is. And they don’t like it. And they don’t like it particularly because of what happened beginning in the mid 1970s when the living standard of the average working person either plateaued or declined. So that the whole American dream, so-called, starts to evaporate. And in the beginning, people just deal with that by credit. More and more credit to sustain themselves. But at some point you need some sort of ideological explanation as to why is this happening? Why is it that this American dream… I’m told that the lives of my children are supposed to be better than mine, and that ain’t happening.
Why? And that’s where things that you and I have talked about before, the role of people like the Weyrichs, Paul Weyrich and Richard Viguerie and others who developed this, what was then called the New Right, in the late 1960s. They tap into this anger. The anger starts earlier. Obviously with the Goldwater election and the passage of the Voting Rights Act, Civil Rights Act. But by the 1970s there’s a problem and the right wing inserts itself. And in effect says to millions of white people, people of color used to be a cushion to save you from the hardship of capitalism. It ain’t happening.
Marc Steiner: And it’s right. And they’ve been very good at being able to put the blame on people of color and communities of color in this country, as opposed to where it really lives
Bill Fletcher Jr.: Precisely. Right. Because obviously they both… I mean, and it’s not simply, we’re not just simply talking about maniacal puppeteers at the top that are manipulating people. There’s like masses of people that are angry that they can’t get the American dream. And they made sacrifices to get the American dream. I don’t mean the sacrifices that we learned about in school. I mean the sacrifices in the sense of turning a deaf ear to atrocities happening around the world. Turning a deaf ear to various forms of oppression here. Believing that if they are good white people that the society will pay them back. And at a certain point that starts to happen less and less.
Not… it hasn’t been eliminated, because obviously we still have a clear differential in treatment between people, the so-called whites or Euro-Americans and people of color. But when you have the LeBron James and the Oprah Winfreys and the Bob Johnsons who got goo gobs of money, a lot of poor white people say, wait a minute. What’s wrong with this picture? And it’s then that these right-wing authoritarians are able to come in and point out. Yeah, you’re right. That should be for you. And that’s what I think that we have to really get at. And you’re not going to get at that, Marc, you’re not, we’re not going to be able to overcome that simply by appealing to the economic interests of poor whites. Whites are going to have to understand, working-class whites, that it really is in their material interest to fight this, fight racism. Because if they don’t, man, we’re toast.
Marc Steiner: We are toast. And before we introduce our guest here, I think we… It is the complexity of race and racism that plays into this as well. The deep complexity. I mean, I was thinking about how the rise of the right has been built for 50 years and organized and not as a unified organization, but they’ve organized across the country. And from the local level on. School boards and city councils and the rest. But it’s interesting, with the election of Barack Obama, what you saw was this body of white people, white Americans, who voted for him. And because the liberal establishment, because of the way it works in this country and Joe Biden is also doing the same thing that I think Barack Obama did in some ways, in a worse way, they don’t accomplish what people thought they were going to accomplish to help them with their lives.
And they saw I think in some weird racist way in our country that the embodiment of the future of this country was in a Black man named Barack Obama. So you saw almost 8 million people not vote again ever who voted for Barack, there were [inaudible] young people. And another equal amount who said, this is baloney, I’m voting for Trump. And so the racial dynamic is always at the heart of this, always at the heart of this. And that’s what I think, that’s what you have to understand kind of popularized in discussions to get through that.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: But let me give you a different analysis.
Marc Steiner: Oh, go ahead. Go, go.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: So I would say Biden’s doing a better job than Obama.
Marc Steiner: Okay.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: Oh yeah, absolutely. That part of the problem with Obama – Which goes beyond the scope of our show – Is that Obama acted as if he was going to be the adult in the room. And that by being the adult, he would force everyone else to be. He didn’t appreciate the political dynamics that were going on. But that’s for another show. That would be for another episode. But here is, see, I think that a lot of people voted for Obama, both for several reasons. One, anger with Bush, and a desire for change. Because Obama was very inspiring. Right. But also because there is a wish among millions of white people to get to a race blind, race neutral society.
Marc Steiner: Wants it so bad.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: That’s right.
Marc Steiner: Right.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: And that the election of a Black president would do it.
Marc Steiner: Right.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: Right. Now let’s look at when Obama’s numbers started to drop among white folks. When Skip Gates, a professor from Harvard, had to break into his house after coming back from China. And a neighbor called the police and Gates, Henry Lewis Gates, when he was arrested by the cops, Obama said sort of offhand that the Cambridge cops had been stupid. Immediately his poll numbers dropped. Immediately. And that was, that right there, that was a signal that by raising the issue of race, many whites thought Obama was being racist and that he was not turning out to be the person that they thought that they were electing.
In part because Obama was a changeling man. I mean he was what people wanted to see in him. The reason I said I think that Biden has done better is that Biden out of the gate moved on the infrastructure stuff and was really trying to push to Build Back Better. And had it not been for Manchin and Sinema that probably would’ve passed in 2021. Which Obama made the mistake of not pushing hard when he should have in 2009. So I think that some of the white folks that you’re talking about became dispirited.
Marc Steiner: Oh, absolutely.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: Right. And that’s one of the reasons, Marc, I keep coming back to, that you can’t avoid a discussion of race. That doesn’t mean that you go to all these poor white people and you hold that up in their face. But it’s like, we’ve got to show people that there is a material interest in dealing with this.
Marc Steiner: So tell me real quick as we introduce the guest here, because that’ll be one of the first things you talk about.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: We’re going to introduce the guest or should we just keep going? I mean…
Marc Steiner: We’re going to get, we already get [inaudible].
Bill Fletcher Jr.: Okay. All right. If you say so.
Marc Steiner: I think that’s something that you really care about and that we both care about. But I know you want to raise with our guests, which is critical race theory.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: That’s right.
Marc Steiner: And how that plays into this.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: Well there’s a theme in US history of US history. And it’s really interesting about the way US history is constantly rewritten. So for example, at the end of Reconstruction, in the period that’s sometimes called the Redemption, the counterrevolution of property as Du Bois [crosstalk] called it.
Marc Steiner: [crosstalk] Called it.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: – In the South. There was a reanalysis of US history to portray Reconstruction as corrupt, as a period when Black folks were running wild, Black men were chasing white women. The whole nine yards. And then as the Piece de Resistance, right, was the film Birth of a Nation. Shown by president Woodrow Wilson in the White House, him giving his blessings. So you have this reexamination of US history with a white supremacist lens. And it was Du Bois, WEB Du Bois who in 1935 comes out with the Black Reconstruction in America. The definitive… Certainly at the time and I’d say probably to this day, repudiation –
Marc Steiner: Yes.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: Of the white supremacist analysis of what was going on in Reconstruction. So what Du Bois understood was that whoever controls history controls society. And he engaged in that debate. And from that point on, there was more work that was done – Not that it wasn’t done before – In terms of reestablishing what’s happened in US history. And certainly by the ’60s and ’70s we started thinking not just about the US but around the world. The right wing has moved to counterrevolution. And that’s included an attack on the narrative. And now essentially saying that a discussion of race in any real terms is prohibited. Again, if you control the narrative and you control history, you control society.
Marc Steiner: And let’s see what our guests have to say about all this.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: Sounds like a plan.
Marc Steiner: And you can lead off on that. So we’re going to jump into our guests here. We have Erica Smiley, who is a longtime organizer and a movement leader, and is the executive director of Jobs with Justice. And we’re joined by Bill Gallegos, who is a long-time activist in the Chicano liberation and environmental justice movements, and served as the executive director of Communities for a Better Environment. And rounding out our panel is Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz who’s a historian, a writer, activist, author of numerous books including An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. One of my favorites actually. And panel, welcome. Bill?
Bill Fletcher Jr.: Thank you, the three of you, for joining us. It’s very, very special, very important. An honor. I want to jump into this, looking at the far right and issues of race and settler colonialism, the history of this country, by asking you how does the battle around alleged critical race theory, how does that fit in with the objectives of today’s far right? Where’s this come from? And whoever would like to start is fine, but I’d like to hear from all of you. Go ahead Smiley, I see you look like you’re ready to jump out of the gate.
Erica Smiley: I mean it’s like a, on the one hand it’s a distraction. It’s a thing that the far right has consistently done to undermine and delegitimize public institutions including schools. And to do it in a way that ultimately makes them the, or positions them as the front institution for people of color and particularly Black people. I mean we see the same thing within the union movement where union busters will basically say that the union is for Black workers and use that to erode white workers and others from uniting around their shared interests against a common employer. So I think that’s definitely a big part of it from where I’m sitting. And I think the interests who are ultimately funding some of these things and funding this big fight against critical race theory, which is completely overblown, they aren’t even defining it for what it actually is. They aren’t talking about intersections. They’re really just talking about trying to undermine actual facts of history. They’re doing it in a way that they ultimately will gain, make some gain from undermining and closing down the public institutions, I think.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: Thank you, Roxanne, what are you thinking?
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Well, I do think they don’t know what they’re talking about using the terminology. But I do think that they have been informed. I mean the people who started it. That it’s about a structural, in the structure, that critical race theory is about the structure of, well, I call it colonialism, but racism within the founding of the United States and its pre life as colonies. And of course the institution of slavery and settler colonialism. So I think that that’s what they fear, is people understanding that it’s not just about saying the N-word and acting in a sometimes very naive, racist way or saying certain things and then feeling ashamed or being shamed or reacting against that. That it’s an individual issue.
I think actually when people learn that it’s structural, they can pull themselves as individuals away from that and look at it and say, I don’t want to be a part of that. And so I do think they fear it. Legitimately, they know it’s dangerous for people to have in their hands. And fortunately, because they’re denying it, everyone’s going out and looking at least at the Wikipedia definition of it, which isn’t bad. If you read it, it’s pretty good. So it may be backfiring, I think, with a younger generation. Having come of age in the 1950s during the Cold War, McCarthyism, and anti-communism, I got so interested in communism I became a communist.
Erica Smiley: Can I chime in there before Bill speaks? Because I feel like Roxanne made a really good point too. There is the structural issue, particularly of those who are really behind and blowing this up in a way, making it a much bigger issue than it might be for your average person. And I think it is true that it’s backfiring with some of the younger generation. But I also think that there is a real fear amongst some working-class white communities that they are being displaced. Whatever that means, whatever that looks like, whether it’s immigration, whether it’s critical race theory, whether it’s social services. I mean, we saw the same thing during the integration movement in public schools in the ’50s and ’60s, that there’s a displacement and that playing on that fear is really strategic. And in fact, it got Youngkin elected governor in Virginia. Playing on this idea that we don’t want things to change and that somehow parents should have control of that is very much at the heart of this attack on critical race theory in schools.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: Bill.
Bill Gallegos: I think so much of United States racial capitalism, it rests on a number of different pillars. Of course one of them is the power of the state and the military and the other is its economic power. But a big part of it is the mythology. There’s a white mythology about the origins of this country, about the creation of its institutions, about what constitutes progress. Who are its heroes and sheroes? And I think that’s a very critical element of what holds the system in place. And so from the very first days when oppressed people of color began demanding a study of our reality, our history, our culture, all of the facets of our studies programs, they’d been under attack. From day one. Then it was actually practically a war at San Francisco State in the fight for Third World Studies.
And I think there’s a reason for that. It’s not just cultural. I think it’s because it’s very central to the underpinning of the socioeconomic system. So we know that this socioeconomic system, you can’t understand it without understanding US racial history. The structure of our agricultural system, industrial agriculture. The creation of the transportation infrastructure. The extractive infrastructure that fuels this economy. Its labor forces. So I think that what holds this in place is the element of white supremacy and white privilege. And so I think this attack on ethnic studies, their labeling of critical race theory, the attack on an effort to undo this white mythology is coming together with this feeling of displacement. That there are just too many of them and I can’t go anywhere and I don’t understand the languages on the signs. I mean there’s this kind of crazy stuff that just continually erupted but is now organized into a very potent social force. And I think we have to meet it with an even more potent and more relentless social force to demand the dismantling of white mythology and the teaching of truth.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: Just let me just pick up on one aspect of what you’re saying and what Smiley was raising. This issue of fear of white replacement or fear of white genocide. I remember when I first started hearing about this, I thought someone was joking with me. I thought it was some sort of perverse joke. And now what we see is not just in the United States, but we see in South Africa, we see in Europe, we see in Canada and a number of other places, this far right movement and a central thread seems to be this idea of fear of replacement. And I’m trying to look at what is the material basis for this fear? I mean, what exactly are they saying when they’re saying that and what’s the resonance?
Erica Smiley: Well I think just building a little bit on what Bill and Roxanne said, I think that it’s actually a fear of loss of power. And I think that’s real and objective for some of the people who are in power, particularly the economic 1%, the top of the top who are benefiting off of all of our labor. That’s certainly true. But I think for your average working white person or poor white person, there’s been this perception that at the very least, even if you’re struggling, you have more power than those folks over there. Or you should have more power than those folks historically. And I think there’s something really to that. And I agree with Bill, it’s not just cultural, but it comes out in those ways. Just the threat of having to say Happy Holidays versus Merry Christmas sends certain people into a panic, into a frenzy.
And I think that there’s a practical basis to understanding that if the new majority, as many on the left have started talking about in the last decade, doesn’t look like them, then they have a legit worry that they would then lose power. I think the problem for the left and for progressive movements around the world is assuming that the far right needs a majority to rule. And in fact, they’ve shown over history that they have no problem building structures that allow for the tyranny of the minority, especially here in the United States as a case study. And so that fear in some ways is just continuing to build the case for those types of what they would call checks and balances that curb the interest of the majority, whether it’s in their interest or not.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: I was very troubled in the 1980s and 1990s when my left comrades seemed to… They developed this demographic theory for our future at why we would win that they knew, were very well aware that white power existed, and that they were a problem. I mean we were very aware of that in the 1980s with the fascist skinheads that brought about the Antifa to fight against them. But there was a thing where we would come to outnumber them. So a tremendous support for immigration. I was very wary of it because it seemed to me just in my experience and observations, and also growing up a Southern Baptist in rural Oklahoma, that what had happened is that with the 1965 immigration law that did open up to greater numbers of third world people, mainly brain draining those countries. There was this thing of hiding a white power.
This was a part of the whole competition with communism, because this was definitely Cuba and the Soviet Union was using this to discredit the United States. The televised [blooding] of Black civil rights, nonviolent people. This is all over the world. And it wasn’t propaganda, it was true, but they were doing everything they could to counter that. This idea of being able to whiten nonwhite people, that is, Americanize them. So I think that we’re seeing that it’s still mostly white people. But like the Proud Boys, the head of Proud Boys is a Black Cuban immigrant. And a lot of these organizations, that they actually are very open. I don’t think they get too many comers.
But I do think that this is a part of the paranoia of white genocide, was the loss of power. But even very poor white people without any kind of economic power have this… Whiteness is actually a commodity, probably the most valued commodity that white people have, that they can, at some point, make it. And that’s now, that illusion has faded. And without a really powerful working class movement or something that could educate people, which we had for a couple of different times, to educate people, or a party like the Communist Party did back in the ’30s and all. It just went its own way and found its own way to, which is just extreme white nationalism. And at first, it was on the periphery with the really crazy theories that people didn’t take that seriously. Oh, they’re just ridiculous people. But we see that they have really built up this power. So I think there hasn’t, on the left, there hasn’t been enough notice, noting what was going on, that I noticed because some of them were my relatives. I knew that it didn’t work to some one on one.
I mean, sometimes it did work on one to one, but it wasn’t enough. It had to be, in our movements, we had to be at least getting the, stealing the young white people, that I used to say. We have to take them and reeducate them. Which I feel like is what I got done to me when I found people who really changed me. So I think we have to look at our own responsibility, and on the left, how we’ve done things and not dealt with this in the past. As well as analyzing the actual pretty scary situation.
Bill Gallegos: Right. I think this disappearance thing, I don’t think it’s totally new. I think it’s out there a lot more now. But back in the day, the John Birch Society says that Chicanos are going to take the Southwest, they’re going to take back Northern Mexico. And then what the hell are we going to do? This virulent opposition to interracial marriage and miscegenation. This kind of thing that the white race is going to be eliminated very much has a historical element that goes with the imposition of their white, their system of white privilege and white supremacy. And so I think that’s always been there. I think the more recent fear, though, and I think what has really, really, really sparked this reaction as we’re seeing it is, one, is that, Trump was elected and it really enabled and expanded this social movement.
But I think the Black Lives Matter movement scared the shit out of these folks. I think it just terrified them. And it gave them a sense when they saw that it was 25 million people out there supporting the Black Lives Matter struggle. I think that sent them, we got one signal of invigoration and power and freedom for a minute. But the signal that was sent to them is that it’s all going to come tumbling down. Protect our suburbs, protect our school systems, protect our holidays. They felt that the whole structure was starting to crumble in front of them. And I think that’s, on our side, it invigorated a movement on their side. I think it sparked an increased sense of fear of a loss of privilege.
They don’t consider it privilege. They consider it a loss of entitled power that they’ve earned. But I think they really feel like those structures are under attack. They always got access to credit. They could always live where they wanted. They could always get the good jobs. They could always be in the media. They could always – All of those things. And now they felt like that whole system was crumpling in a way that it hadn’t before. And I think Trump, he vocalized it. He said it. He brought the fear out into the open and made it a good thing.
Marc Steiner: So I’m really curious to kind of take this a little step further. I mean I think that we’re in a really strange juncture at this moment in society. And what we call the right in its larger amorphous sense, not the far right, but just this larger sense of the right in our country, which is a good 46% of the country. Most of it white, but not all of it white. And to me this is not an accident this moment is happening. And when you look at Reconstruction and Reconstruction was destroyed because in part, in part, besides being the power of formerly enslaved people that were coming to the fore, there were also coalitions throughout the South between poor whites and newly freed Black people. And that was real fear in the hearts of many.
Then the same thing is happening now, it seems to me when you have everything from the 1940s, returning Black veterans, building the civil rights movement through the ’50s and ’60s. SNCC, the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Panthers, the Black Liberation Movement. And also the forward motion economically of so many people in communities of color around this country that began this kind of wave of this right-wing backlash that began organizing in the early ’70s, organizing seriously over the last 50 years.
To the point now where they are a power even though they are a minority in the sense of numbers of people in this country who believe that. And you’re also seeing the Black Lives Matter movement, the people in the streets. Never before in the history of this country have there been more white people saying no to racism. So all that breeds fear on the right. So I’m curious what the three of you think is what that means in terms of what you do, how you deal with that reality. Because the people on the left, broader spectrum of folks who are progressive, broader spectrum of folks who think of themselves as liberal but open minded, can never get their act together and get along. And always manage to split. So the question when you see what’s this force, this racist, authoritarian force looming, how do you respond to that? How do we respond to that?
Erica Smiley: I’m glad you raised it, Marc. Because it’s true. It’s true. When you hear some progressives talk about it, you would think that every white person in the country is opposed. And in fact, we have the largest numbers of support, like you said, of people who are very explicitly against racism. And I think there are a couple of dynamics that are happening. So the first one is that the progressive movement in the US, and particularly how our movement has been so, I guess, nonprofitized, is that even a verb? I don’t know, but how the movement itself –
Marc Steiner: It is now if it’s not, so go ahead.
Erica Smiley: Let’s make it, let’s make it a verb. I’ll be Mary J. Blige, [crosstalk] nonprofitized and hateration. But I think just given the dynamics of our movement today, there’s this divide, there’s kind of like an elitism amongst progressives. Like the right isn’t all wrong when they criticize the left as being kind of snobby. And even in some of the best meetings that I’ve been in some of the best spaces, there’s a notion that you can’t talk to those working-class white people over there. And I actually live in a place – I’m from North Carolina. I live in Ocean County, New Jersey, where it’s very conservative. It’s very white. It’s like 93% white in my town. And some of the most transformational experiences have come from workers, white workers, who have been in relationship with Black and Brown workers.
I had a guy who doesn’t necessarily say the right things all the time. He definitely doesn’t follow all the political correct rules or whatever. But after being in a meeting with Black workers on social security, came home and did a meeting with his members on structural racism. So I think that the progressive movement in the country and the left has not necessarily done the best job of actually engaging white people. Because you can’t fight racism just in the cities. You have to also talk about racism in places that are majority white or where white people are. There’s real value in that. So that’s on. And I think Roxanne actually hit on some of this earlier when she talked about the history. Because I think historically unions and other working-class organizations, left organizations, played this role, actively did this in a way that wasn’t just about focusing on the urban centers or where people assume the majority of people of color are.
Meanwhile, I want to also challenge that a little bit, because the majority of Black people in the country are still in the South and many are rural, but that’s a whole other stream. But I think there’s a real, there’s a real missing, there’s a real reason that unions have historically been called the schools of democracy. You know, not to quote [inaudible] Sinyai’s book, but there’s a real reason for that. That’s where some of these ideas have been tested and challenged, where white workers have been in relationship with workers of color, sometimes contentious, but really important and transformational relationships. And where people have been able to talk about these things in a way that it’s not just about saying the right thing, but ultimately about doing the right thing. And I think that’s part of, when I talk about our movement having been nonprofitized, sometimes the emphasis is much more on the messaging than the actual strategy itself. And that’s certainly been a weakness on our side.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: I want to go back to something that a couple of you raised. The character of the far right today when it comes to race. When I was growing up, the idea that there could be a Black member of the KKK was simply inconceivable. And I think about the various organizations in the Southwest that moved against Indigenous people or against Chicanos. And it was sort of pretty clear, but in the more recent era, something seems to be happening where you have this very odd inclusion. Not across the board. But this inclusion of people of color, like in the Proud Boys and in other groups where you’ll have senior leaders who are of color. And I have some thinking about what’s behind that, but I wanted to put it to you because it seems like it’s a different kind of right than we were dealing with. I don’t mean that it’s a better right or a more understanding right. But it’s different somehow. And what is that about, as far as the three of you are concerned?
Erica Smiley: No, that, but this is spot on, Bill. Because in, I think, and I’m sorry, maybe it was either Bill or Roxanne who said this. But there is a whitening that’s happening. Now it’s coming out different because I think that many on the right recognize that they won’t be relevant if they just explicitly focus on white communities. And that’s not true across the board, there are still some who are very plenty exclusive, but you have your Marco Rubios of the world saying that they want the Republican Party to be the party of the multiracial working class. Sending memo after memo to the RNC, outlining a multiracial strategy to get workers. And particularly targeting Black men in some regions. Particularly under the Trump administration where we saw Black men and Latino men seen as potential bases for the right and for the Republican Party.
I do think it’s qualitatively different based on the moment we live in, but it’s not necessarily a new strategy. I mean, I think historically we saw how Irish men, for example, were whitened in a way that created divisions in the working class that made it very difficult. The legacy of the building trades is based in large part in that, in the Northeast and other places. So I think there is something that is happening where there’s an understanding of some of the changing demographics, but also an understanding that if they’re able to co-opt some of those. And I’m talking about the strategist, right. And Marco Rubio is a strategist. There’s an understanding that if they’re able to pull some of that in, then they’ll be able to create enough of a coalition to counter what they see as inevitably a multiracial democratic movement that they’re trying to get ahead of.
And I think the last thing I would say to that is that when I think about the Rubio statement, which you can imagine is triggering to the nth degree, and is working in some circles in terms of what party or what political position represents the interest of workers in this moment. And not just white workers. It’s frustrating because I feel like we’ve also lost sense of the fact that some of the most fascist institutions in the world, including the Nazi Party, which is the one that I think most people in this country would point to, started as workers’ parties. It was the German Workers’ Party for like 18 months before it became the Nazi Party. And so I actually think that it’s a real threat. We haven’t necessarily seen it in the US in the same way, but I would argue that it’s on the same arch as some of those historic movements on the right.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: I’ve been working on Christian nationalism. And this is where I think the right-wing movement has suppressed a lot, very carefully suppressed a lot of their racism that hasn’t gone away, or certainly their white supremacy. But they do know, politically at least, they can’t really make it without inclusion. And that’s not new either. I found in this last book I did about the processing of immigrants and Americanizing them that we have to keep our attention on the nationalism part of white nationalism and Christian nationalism. Christian nationalism is looking for dominion. They want to control the country. They make no bones about it anymore. And they’ve largely succeeded, if you’ve noticed. And there’s also a breakdown between Catholics and Protestants. There are now Catholic evangelicals and Protestant evangelicals, and Amy Coney Barrett is an example of that. This very right-wing Christian organization she belongs to is both Catholic and Protestant and worked very hard to have people of color involved, [and] women.
So I think we have to deal with that when we’re… That’s why I’m looking into Christian nationalism, because I think it has brought to the right wing something that they didn’t have. And that is a moral stance. If you notice the Jan. 6 videos, in almost every frame there’s some kind of Christian symbolism. There’s the cross of course, but there’s also, you see Orthodox symbols, you see the, well, lots and lots of crosses and people with crosses hanging off of them. And whether they’re sincere about it or not, the right wing is finding this useful. And then we also have this massive, massive evangelical movement that’s been going on in Latin America since the 1980s. Bolsonaro is an evangelical in Brazil. And of course the famous one was the Guatemalan evangelical who carried out the genocide against the K’iche’ Mayans in 1981 and ’82.
So many of the immigrants who are coming in, many of them from the South, from Central America and even Mexico are evangelicals. This is one way they become Americanized and accepted. So they’re vulnerable to it. No one wants to really deal with religion in the United States. It has a history in the United States, these white Great Awakenings that always followed a period of tremendous bloody hand-to-hand genocide against Indians. The first one during the Jackson era. And these… We’re in that now. We’re in a Great Awakening period now, and it started in the 1950s. So I think we, this is so fundamental. This is one quarter of the adult population of the United States now call themselves evangelicals.
Bill Gallegos: Just on the question of white folks in this struggle. I think there’s a number of factors, I think, that affect both that sector of the population and also the fact that a number of people of color are being drawn to the far right. So I think first of all, on the latter thing, European Anglo colonizers have always used that. They used Indian troops to help suppress anticolonial uprisings. Moroccan troops and Indian troops here to fight against other Indigenous peoples. That’s always been I think a part of their strategy. And the divide and conquer, that’s always been there. But I think the other thing is that we talk about the weakness of the left, the decline of the left from where it was at one time in the late ’70s and the ’60s and so on. Black Panther Party and the Red Guards and a whole number of other organizations that were really oppressed people of color revolutionaries.
Anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist many of them socialists and communists. The decline of the left has also been, there’s been a decline of oppressed people of color on the left. And that’s affected not just our communities. Not just our communities. Because I know when I was coming up as a young activist, I could join 10 organizations. I mean they were all out there and it was just a place to go and get educated and get an experience. We don’t have that nearly to the same degree now. And I think that’s affected both oppressed people of color movements as well as white folks. I think the second thing is that we have to look at it’s true that there’s, I think there’s a bunch of folks that are going to go down.
They’re going to go down with the system, they will fight it to the end. There’s a number, not a significant number that will be on our side, and a number of people that are going to sit it out from the white community. They’re just going to sit it out. But we’ve seen it ourselves. We’ve seen the white folks that came out to support the Black Lives Matter movement. The people that came out to support the anti-pipeline struggles and caravans and material support, body support to support the Indigenous, who were defending the water and the land. We’ve seen that of people that went down to the border when they were putting children in cages. So we’ve seen that and I’ve seen it just in my own experience as we were fighting for the right of campesinos to organize. I saw white folks out there standing with us, standing up to the goons that the Teamsters brought in. The Hell’s Angels and everybody else.
So I think we’ve seen that. And just, I know I make a lot of references to the 1984 and 1988 Jesse Jackson campaign. I was at events where Jesse was talking to displaced white workers, people who had been laid off in Youngstown and the Rust belt. And he said, who do you think sent your factories over to Singapore and to Tiquana and to the non-union South? Who do you think shut them down? Mrs. Rosales in Los Angeles? Mr. Smith in Harlem? And those white workers, they responded to that. They responded to that, and those white farmers who were repossessing their farms? Jesse said it. Who’s doing this to you? It is not those immigrants that are cutting the lawns and picking our crops. Those are not the folks that are taking your farms away. So I think we have to reclaim a lot of that and also reclaim the optimism that he displayed in doing that.
He didn’t just say, write these people off. I’m just going to go to the Black and Brown folks. He took it out there. So I think that gives us a sense that our own historical experience tells us that folks can be won over. I think it mainly falls on white organizers to do that. We got our hands full with our own folks, but I think white folks do it with the message that fighting for racial justice is a class demand. It’s not a special demand of folks. It is a class, it’s the demand of the whole working class, which has now become a majority of women and majority of people of color anyway. So I think that’s part of it. I think the other part of it is that with the decline of the left, I think there has, I mean, something that has never stopped is the intense socialization of everyone in this country from the time you’re a child.
When you watch television, when you go to the movies, when you go to school, the white mythology is drilled into us and it has an impact on oppressed people too. No doubt about it. I know when I was growing up in Colorado, we also, we were Spanish, hoping that we weren’t going to get slapped in the face for speaking Spanish on the school grounds. It didn’t make any difference. Once they heard your name was Martinez or whatever you were a dirty Mexican. But there was that idea that the heroes we learned about, the people who had invented things, the people who had developed the economy, they were all white. So we thought that’s what we need to try to be. We need to try to be like them.
So with the decline of the left, so the left kind of, you know, it was Corky Gonzales and people like that helped me say, damn, my family story was something to be proud of. Fighting for the, as my family were coal miners, we lost our land, ended up in the coal mines, fighting against the Rockefellers.
So we learned those stories that I would hear when I go to [inaudible] family members. All those [inaudible] they would hear about our family. I realized it was part of a struggle of a people. It was a part of our resistance. So it began to break down the mythology that I had assimilated. And I think this happens to a lot of folks. So I think to me, it is not surprising that some of these folks are jumping into it. I can prove myself if I join the Proud Boys. I’ll go with the minutemen down to the border and take my gun. I think that it’s not particularly surprising, but I think it also indicates that the left needs to do more.
We’re not organizing the way we should and the big part of what holds us back is we’re divided all over the damn place. To me, that is our Achilles heel, is that the continued sectarianism, the continued failure of folks who share a lot of common ground to come together so we can increase our capacity to do the kind of organizing and education that’s necessary. And I think if not, we’re going to just be wringing our hands. Gee, I don’t know why Pablo [Gallego] joined the Oath Keepers. Because we didn’t reach out to Pablo and engage them and struggle with them and organize them.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: Got it.
Marc Steiner: Yeah. I mean, I think that last point you made was really very critical. I think all the time that how the right has organized in this country the last 50 years is they learned it from us. They learned it from the trade unions. They learned it from the Civil Rights Movement. They learned it from the grassroots movements, organizing communities, which is what they’re doing very effectively. Let’s just close out with this. I’m interested in this, in perspective on this. That what we’re seeing from the right wing now, what they’re doing, maybe to the people in this discussion, is blatantly racist.
Changing the voting laws, the rhetoric they use without ever using racial derogatory terms that are blatant. Without using a blatant word when you criticize critical race theory, any of that. I mean it’s a much slicker way of doing things. Threatening the future of democracy and threatening the future of America. So, and you were just talking about organizing, Bill, and the critical nature of that. So I’m just curious, given that racism, overt or subtle, is part, part, of the heart of this right-wing insurgency in America that is on the verge of seizing power through state governments, local governments, Congress, courts, and more. So how do you all think we begin to organize, especially around the issue of race and racism, to confront what’s in front of us? It may be the majority of white people in America who think that, but there’s a huge plurality of white people who do not think that way. I’m just curious what we all think about what that, what all that means, what that step [crosstalk] –
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Well Marc, I think we should really drop the language of race and racism and make it clear it’s white supremacy. What is the usefulness of emphasizing race? For one thing, the first thing that pops in people’s heads is of course Black and white. And so we leave out the whole aspect of colonialism and settler colonialism and what created this country as it is, including chattel slavery. So I think as we see this move to at least have token parents of people of color in these organizations and movements and in the crowd. I know Trump and his stadium speeches always pointed out, had behind him, has behind him, and he’s still doing it, he always has some Brown and Black faces. So I do think that we have to deal with white supremacy that people can join. They can become white supremacists, because it’s a whole bundle of things.
It’s, well, for one thing, Christianity. And we have to talk about capitalism more and how… What happens with the decadence of capitalism. And I don’t know, I think the left finds it impossible, in my experience. And I don’t know, the Red Nation has been working at this, of understanding settler colonialism and what it does to people’s minds and how anyone can become a settler if they obey these guidelines of being a settler. I do think anti-Black racism in the United States is a major component of that. Of being accepted as a settler and not just an immigrant. I do think that African Americans who are descended from slavery, not so much African immigrants or even Haitians or Caribbeans, but in the United States are always considered contingent citizens. The whole sense of contingency in citizenship, make people want to embrace whatever it is that allows them for their children just to be normal and not bullied and not demeaned.
So it’s a package of things that the left has dealt with. They’ve also always dealt with the working class as if it’s the European working class rather than people who are seeking property. This is the element to get union wage to be able to have property. And that’s not like French working class or working class in even European countries. So settler colonialism is more important even than whiteness to understand what we’re dealing with and the aspirations of people to be a part of that, to have property, something of their own, and the individualism that goes with that. So I don’t think we’ve done a very good job on the left at creating a true analysis, looking at the reality of what the United States is. Not some abstraction.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: So Bill, you were going to say something.
Bill Gallegos: Yeah. I just want to say that I don’t disagree with Roxanne, but I do think we have to make race and white supremacy and white settler colonialism central to all the work that we do. And I’ll start off with just, it’s not an apocryphal example, but it is an example. I work largely in the environmental justice movement now, and in California we had a program started under Arnold Schwarzenegger, of all people. It’s called A Million Solar Roofs. California was going to put a million solar panels on the roofs throughout California. And they just recently celebrated that they put up about 1.4 million solar panels in California. Now nobody’s going to say that’s a bad thing. More solar panels are better. The funny thing is, emissions have increased. Of every kind. Greenhouse gas emissions, first of all, which contribute to climate change. But everything else that goes with it, benzene and [inaudible], the things that are more immediately harmful to the environment.
Now, why did that happen when we put up almost a million and a half solar roofs? Well where did they put them? They put them in the burbs and in the wealthy white communities. Where does the pollution come from? The oil refineries, the rail yards, the freeways, the manufacturing plants, the power plants. Where are those located? In oppressed communities of color.
So it illustrates – And we tried to make this point to our allies from the Sierra Club and National Resource Defense Council in the more white majority, big environmental organizations – If we want to be successful, we have to address questions of environmental racism. They have to be central to our project. Otherwise, the things that you want to save the planet are not going to happen. Standing Rock proved that. there’s so many examples. And you look at every area of life, whether it’s education, democracy, media, culture, credit, land ownership. If we don’t make race and the fight for racial justice central to that, we will not win. And all of our history demonstrates that over and over and over again. The labor movement, when it had the chance to organize the South, took a pass. And where are we now with the organizing of labor in the South? They had a chance to organize Black folks and white folks in the South and they took a pass.
So I think we need to look at this, and I think in a very different way, and I want to just throw something out that’s a little bit off from what we’ve been talking about. But I think it’s the important… Because Marc you mention, how the right kind of co-opted a lot of our tactics and they, of course, they had a shitload of money to back them up. And –
Marc Steiner: They had that.
Bill Gallegos: A lot of political clout and think tanks and all that. But I want to just put in a big plug for the strategic importance of art and culture to our project. I think we’ve got to find a way to reach people here and here. And I’m thinking about back in the day, what influenced me? The [inaudible], Bob Marley, all the great cultural activism. Amiri Baraka. All of the great cultural activists, John Trudell and so many others that have just reached a ton of folks that we could never reach through our traditional organizing.
And I think we have to see this as a strategic component and put resources into it. We can’t just ask folks to come out and play for nothing. We can’t just ask artists to donate their work for the cause and not provide the resources for them to be able to sustain themselves. I think this is a critical element that also reaches a multiracial audience. Especially the young folks that we need to be reaching. I think we need to new… I can’t stand reggaeton, but millions and millions of young working class people love reggaeton. So we got to find a way to connect with the progressive reggaetonistas and utilize that to help us in the project that we’re trying to stand up against. Because I feel like the danger is the institutionalization of apartheid in this country. If they’re successful in instituting all of these voter suppression and voting rights laws, it’s going to affect everything.
Labor rights, women’s rights, civil rights, all of that is going to be impacted if they take control of the electoral process in the way that they’re trying to do. And I think they know. Whether they’re going to disappear or we’re going to be the majority will make no difference. It will be like South Africa. It will be like Israel, where there will be white minority rule, and it will be institutionalized. So I think if I was going to say that, what’s the number one thing that we need to be focusing on, it’s the defense of democracy right now. And I think that’s something that would appeal to working class people, the multiracial working class people right now. Because the mythology that’s been promoted has been very one-sided and it’s not the kind of democracy that we feel is most substantive, but it does mean something. It’s not nothing. And oppressed people have fought to expand it and to enrich it. And I think that does reach a lot of folks. I think it is something that resonates with people, even in a way that the climate change issue doesn’t.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: On –
Marc Steiner: Well said, Bill.
Bill Fletcher Jr.: It was well said. On that note, we want to thank you very much for joining us for this episode of this program and very honored that you chose to spend your time with us.
Marc Steiner: And I want to thank you all for watching and listening here today and with my co-host, Bill Fletcher Jr. And I want to thank the folks here at The Real News: Kayla Rivera and Dwayne Gladden, Stephen Frank for making this broadcast possible as well as getting it out there. Reminding you all to write to me, I’ll share it with Bill, at email@example.com, your thoughts and ideas on what you heard and saw today. And we’ll continue this series, and episodes around the rise of the right and what we have to do and how we confront it. It’ll be coming out to you every week so stay tuned for all of those coming up. And I’m Marc Steiner for Bill Fletcher here at The Real News on The Marc Steiner Show. Thank you for joining us. Take care, stay involved, be talking soon.