Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (November 1995)
How do you get 500 Grand Rapidians out to demonstrate against injustice? Invite the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) to town.
As someone who has helped organize public resistance to numerous forms of injustice in the area, I was delighted that so many people would publicly articulate their disgust for the Klan. However, I am concerned about how people view racism within this geographical arena called “America.” There was certainly no homogenous group of people who came “to see” the 10 member traveling Klan show and although I do not want to dismiss anyone’s motives for being there, I believe it is important to question those motives in the context of a system that, in the words of Black feminist scholar bell hooks, “is built on White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy.”
I was there to tape the event, in order to show it on GRTV. With the camera’s aid I was able to talk to people about why they were there. Most people simply said they were opposed to the Klan, but some admitted that they just wanted to see and hear what the Klan had to say. I asked several people if they would come out to protest the systemic racism of the people who wear black robes. Most people did not respond, or just gave me a strange look as if to say, “what are you talking about?” Some Black members of the crowd did say that that was indeed the question to ask. Unfortunately, I did not hear the local corporate media ask that question. They covered the rally as if it were a sporting event, reporting numbers of people on both sides and giving a play-by-play description of how it went. The Grand Rapids Press gave most of its printed space to what Klan leader Thomas Robb had to say as well as what police chief Hagarty felt about how “professional” his officers were and how they “took an awful lot of stuff.”
Some African Americans there were clearly expressing their rage against a White Supremacist organization, while others demonstrated because they were disappointed that the local Black groups, specifically the NAACP, decided to ignore the Klan’s presence. Refusing to give the Klan an audience is a good strategy, but it can be stifling to the need for the articulation and understanding of rage against White Supremacy, especially from Blacks. In her most recent book, Killing Rage: Ending Racism, bell hooks says “As long as black rage continues to be represented as always and only evil and destructive, we lack a vision of militancy that is necessary for transformative revolutionary action.” Most White people probably didn’t have a problem with yelling by Black people at the Klan rally; indeed many joined in, possibly to show their “sympathy” for Black rage. But this is easy to do at a Klan rally. Would the same White crowd publicly stand in solidarity if and when the Black community demonstrates against the elimination of affirmative action, ghettoization of the Black community, or the racist nature of the so-called “war on drugs”? My guess is no. It is quite easy to hate the Klan, but it is another thing to confront institutional racism, the type of racism that gives me, a White male, certain privileges and perks in this society. In most instances Black rage is quickly dismissed or marginalized. Here bell hooks observers, “It is useful for white supremacist capitalist patriarchy to make all black rage appear pathological rather than identify the structure wherein that rage surfaces.” People who viewed the rally on TV would also probably dismiss the rage of both Black and White demonstrators because of their superficial display of rage; throwing cans, eggs, and adolescent insults at the Klansmen.
An even larger contingent of White folks in the crowd seemed to be there as spectators. Reflective of political culture in the USA, these people came as spectators, to watch not only the Klansmen but also the more active members of the crowd, as if they were anticipating, even hoping for some ugly confrontation. The police presence only added to the Hollywood-like nature of the day. Cops on the roof tops, cops in the street, cops with riot gear, and the chief perched up near the County building overlooking the whole event like a Roman emperor who gives hand signals that will give the go for state sponsored brutality. The mystique of this event was like some weird rendition of a Mortal Kombat video game without all the blood, but with the consequences being far more reaching and far more devastating, and all to real.
Our failure to see systemic racism clearly reflects how many of us in this society culturally perceive race and racism. We have simply personalized it, so if they are not saying anything racist, or doing something that can easily be labeled racist, they believe they are not racist. In addition, if we listen to say Black music and root for Black athletes, then we are not really racist because we “are enjoying part of Black culture.” That, some Black scholars would say, is because it is now more acceptable to embrace Blackness, simply because it is a commodity, not because if reflects the beauty of Black heritage. White people can then listen to inspiring Black jazz, but not give a damn about Black liberation struggles. bell hooks has this insight into how people are socialized about race in this country: “By socializing white and black citizens in the United States to think of racism in personal terms, individuals could think of it as having more to do with inherent prejudicial feelings than with a consciously mapped-out strategy of domination that is being systematically maintained.”
This perception of racism is reflected in how people view the Klan. People think that the Klan exists as a group in opposition to the present forms of racial relations in this country. That may be the case to some degree, but by and large the Klan simply reflects the White Supremacist structure of the United States in an overt fashion. Looking at the history of the Klan one can see that, as Michael Novick, author of White Lies, White Power, says that “They (the Klan) exist as a supplement to the armed power of the sate, available to be used when rulers and the state find it necessary.” According to Novick, more lynchings have taken place in this country when Klan activity have been low or non-existent. When Black resistance movements have surfaced and organized, the White power structure gives the Klan full license to operate. The Klan then can be easily blamed for current racist policies or attacks, even though during the civil rights years, it was local, state, and federal government policies that prevented Blacks from achieving any kind of equality.
Now we are in a period of backlash against civil rights gains, where it is clear that local, state, and federal policies are attempting to dismantle those gains. The Klan now has a better climate in which to recruit, feeding off structurally racist sentiments but they are not needed to create terror against minority or immigrant communities. Government policies, the corporate war against workers, and media pundits do a fine job of that. This growth period is beneficial for the Klan, because it will give them an opportunity to strategize and organize for the future when the White power structure will need them to undermine Black and minority liberation struggles. Until we understand the role of the Klan in history and the nature of structural racism in this country, our rage will either be misdirected or we will see racism as not being “our” problem.
To confront and challenge the present notions and realities of racism in this country it is essential that we educate ourselves. We cannot claim racial understanding if we do not listen to the voices of people who are the targets of racism. We cannot claim a commitment to racial justice if we do not invest in those struggles and stand in solidarity with people of color. This of course means that we have to acknowledge and relinquish some of our positions of privilege that exist under the present power structures. Lastly, as bell hooks says, “we must begin to engage in a counter hegemonic race talk that is fiercely and passionately calling for change.”