America’s rising white nationalism calls for a new type of civil rights leadership

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In the months following the election of Donald Trump, the US has witnessed levels of racial conflict unseen in decades. White supremacist rallies have increased in cities across the country and hate crimes are on the rise (pdf). The resurgence of white nationalism is in part a backlash to the successes of the racial justice movement, which has seemingly emboldened white nationalists to come out of the shadows and advance an opposition narrative that aims to build support for their views.

White nationalism is not new in our nation’s history. What is new is how the Trump presidency has elevated white anxiety and resentment into mainstream political and social circles. Today, increasing numbers of white people see themselves as disenfranchised in their own country, fearful of wage stagnation and economic insecurity, and angry about what they perceive as reverse racism. A recent National Public Radio poll found that a majority of whites believe black and other people of color have a leg up on them, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary.

 Backlash, anxiety, and resentment have plunged us into a crucial moment in our national struggle on race.  This backlash, anxiety, and resentment have plunged us into a crucial moment in our national struggle on race. We are at a time now when new forms of leadership are required to build on the progress of recent years and continue moving toward the ideals of opportunity, fairness, and dignity for all. Leaders today need to understand the historical and structural dimensions of the racial tensions at play. Perhaps even more so than in the past, they need the vision and skills to lead in collaborative, inclusive ways that build deep and sustained commitment across diverse communities towards dismantling racial hatred, bias, and discrimination.

We are seeing that work unfold in the new generation of civil rights leaders who are leading the charge to combat anti-black racism. They are calling for a real conversation about race and anti-black sentiment and actions. Through street protests, court actions, and advocating for policy change, national groups such as Black Lives Matter and Color of Change are illuminating how our country’s past informs our actions today—not just from the threat to black men, women, and children at the hands of the police, but also how that history relates to the discriminatory treatment of young undocumented immigrants, Muslims, transgender communities, and other groups.

 Eliminating anti-black racism is not the sole responsibility of black people.  Yes, conditions for black people in America have gotten better in some ways. For one, we no longer have the institutionalized apartheid of Jim Crow. Yet, every indicator of health and well-being shows that black Americans fare much worse than other populations. For example, US Census data (paywall) show that income for black people decreased between 2000 and 2016 while white, Asian and Latinx households made modest gains.

How can racial justice finally prevail? Eliminating anti-black racism centrally requires black leadership. But it is not the sole responsibility of black people; it requires effort from all of us.

Consider these examples:

Rasheedah Phillips is an attorney working to prevent displacement of black communities in Philadelphia. Dallas Goldstooth is a Dakota Sioux activist and comedian whose organizes native communities to stand for climate justice through the national Indigenous Environmental Network. Favianna Rodriguez, an Afro-Peruvian immigrant, challenges anti-Blackness, especially in the Latinx community, through art that tells new stories of freedom, solidarity, and our shared humanity. And Christopher Petrella, a first-generation college graduate, teaches American studies at Bates College and trains young people to understand our country’s racial history more deeply.

Leaders like these are hungry for the opportunity to share strategies and develop and implement new solutions. Absorbed in the day-to-day demands of struggles for justice, they often don’t have support for learning and forward-thinking reflection. But history suggests that when such supports exist, they can help to catalyze movements that are greater than the sum of their parts.

The example of Highlander Research and Education Center, founded in the early 1930s, is illustrative. It brought white and black people together for training on leadership and non-violent desegregation strategies. Civil rights leaders like John Lewis and Rosa Parks drew support for their fight for equality and representation from this training. The opportunity to build a collective analysis and strategy helped them take advantage of the historical moment to press for more powerful change.

In keeping with this legacy, Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity (AFRE) this week named Rasheedah, Dallas, Favianna, Christopher, and 25 others, as fellows in our first cohort. AFRE is a unique partnership of six leading organizations—Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity (BOLD), the Center for Community Change, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Nelson Mandela Foundation, and the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at University of California, Berkeley—and Columbia University, where our US offices are based.

Our program is one of six Atlantic Fellows programs, which together will create a global community of leaders to improve societies around the world. The program is funded by The Atlantic Philanthropies, which will invest over $600 million, alongside other partner organizations and governments, to support the work of this global community of Atlantic Fellows over the next two decades, and beyond. This investment—in both the Atlantic Fellows and the institutions that will support and nurture them—is the foundation’s final and biggest investment ever.

AFRE’s goal is to create a space for today’s leaders working to dismantle anti-black racism. By bringing together activists, lawyers, academics, artists, and others, we aim to provide them with the time and space to step back for reflection, to envision and build a future anchored by the ideals of equity and inclusion.

One of the risks of calling out bias in today’s environment is to be accused of identity politics and divisiveness in return. Yet, this new generation of civil rights leaders is engaged in identity politics, and rightly so.

Their work challenges us to recognize how the narratives, policies, and institutions of our society work to systematically advantage some and disadvantage others. It is not divisive to point out the reality that to become the nation we aspire to be, we must uproot anti-black racism, and we must nurture the leadership that supports these goals.

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