Michael Hanchard, Chair and Gustave C. Kuemmerle Professor of Africana Studies and Director of the Marginalized Populations project, is a scholar in comparative politics with a focus in contemporary political theory, encompassing themes of nationalism, racism, xenophobia, and citizenship. His most recent book, The Spectre of Race: How Discrimination Haunts Western Democracy, won the 2019 Ralph J. Bunche Award from the American Political Science Association. Here, Hanchard participates in an OMNIA Q&A on the wave of protests and the fight for equal rights and protections following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other unarmed Black women and men across the country.
Do the recent protests differ from those of the past?
A striking aspect of the most recent uprisings in the U.S. in response to police violence is the extent of white youth involvement on the front lines of protest. In earlier periods of the Black freedom struggle, protest about issues such as police violence and domestic terror, Black women, men, and children bore the brunt of state violence. In the more contemporary moment, the so-called “Z” generation of people grew up in a much more desegregated society than their parents or grandparents. Many white anti-racist activists have joined forces with Black Lives Matter, feminist, LGBTQ, Indigenous, LatinX, as well as many other movements with an emphasis on intersectionality, or put differently, overlapping political and social concerns. This new reality has helped facilitate coalitions among people of various groups. The recent wave of senseless killings has finally awakened many white liberals to the fact that the current turmoil in the U.S. is not just about racist violence, but the very durability of U.S. democracy, and the limits of democracy’s horizons in the U.S.
The new generation of youth have been frustrated by the lack of federal response to the disparities in arrests, incarceration, and maiming and death of Black men and women in encounters with state and municipal police officers. The banality of many encounters between police and citizens—a traffic stop, someone allegedly attempting to pay for an item with a counterfeit $20 bill—helps foreground the disparities between Black, Brown, and white deaths at the hands—and knees—of police.
There are dimensions of the current political moment that underscore the transnational dimensions of neo-fascist, white supremacist movements, as well as their opposite, popular democratic movements trying to expand and deepen the practice of democracy, in the U.S. but also elsewhere. Transnational Black political circuitry links the Black freedom struggle in the U.S. to various parts of the world: Germany, Brazil, India, Britain, France, Italy, Canada, and many other locales. The anti-apartheid movement against South Africa; the Black Power movement that resonated with indigenous populations in Australia and New Zealand; in Latin America, Africa, the Caribbean and in several key sites: the events of 1968; as well as protests against the Vietnam war.
The new generation of youth have been frustrated by the lack of federal response to the disparities in arrests, incarceration, and maiming and death of Black men and women in encounters with state and municipal police officers.
Given this historical backdrop, we can begin to understand how the contemporary national anti-racist and anti-fascist networks expand into transnational networks, not only with the Black freedom struggle, but feminist, ecological, LGBTQ, indigenous and other movements across the globe. Certainly Afro-descendant populations in Germany, France, Brazil, have their own examples of violence and exploitation. Mobilization in these and other countries are not examples of mimicry, but of conjoining anti-racist struggle in multiple sites. This is what makes Black Lives Matter transnational, with the help of the technological advances in mass media.
There are some aspects of the current moment in the U.S. that resemble the interwar period between World War I and World War II in Europe, where industrialists and large landowners (The Po Valley in Italy for instance) helped weaponize the masses, pitting fascist citizens against non-fascist and anti-fascist ones. Fascist sympathizers helped provide surveillance, capture, murder, and torture of partisans opposed to the original fascist regime formation—Italy as well as the Third Reich.
Similarly, at any number of protests, whether in Charlottesville, Virginia, or here in Philadelphia, that there are cops on the street with very, very cozy relationships with vigilante groups, often standing watch as anti-racist protesters get pummeled. In addition, the now-mounting examples of whites in the U.S. who have falsely claimed to have been harmed by black women and men, evidence the confidence of white supremacy among certain segments of the white population. Many of these recorded encounters demonstrate how a segment of the white population behave as if they are extensions of state power and that the police will take their understanding of events as a truthful account of their interaction with a black person, or black persons.
With privileged access to governmental authority, with prejudiced citizens operating as the eyes and ears of the police, a critical question emerges; where does civil society begin and the realm of the state end? We have observed over the past several months in protest after protest that vigilante groups often have not only the support of the police, but courts—federal, state, and local. Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America, or Robert Paxton’s book The Anatomy of Fascism, both provide room for speculation of what contemporary fascism or neo-fascism could look like in the U.S. Both works suggest that a U.S. version of fascism is not going to be an exact replica of what occurred during the interwar period in Europe but might share certain characteristics of earlier European fascisms. I think we really need to think about what this means, not just for racism, but for democracy in the U.S., as delimited as it is.
What role does institutional racism play when it comes to issues like police violence?
We must acknowledge that certain portions and segments of society have not experienced democracy in the same ways their white counterparts have. If you look at conditions in Black communities across the country and their relationship with a local police force—Ferguson, Missouri, is one example—one could argue that certain populations are living under what I have termed as authoritarian situations. The uprising in Ferguson was in response to years of frustration with living conditions in that city; Black citizens who don't have the rights of freedom of assembly and association and are subject to arbitrary domination which, for the philosopher Philipp Petit’s description, is anathema to republicanism and popular democracy.
The use of military tactics and weaponry upon U.S. citizens—whether from a local police force, the National Guard, or a segment of the U.S. armed forces—does have precedent, contrary to what several pundits in media outlets have argued. At Kent State in 1970, 13 unarmed Kent State University students were shot by the Ohio National Guard, with four killed and nine wounded. That same year, on May 4, 1970, at Jackson State [a historically Black university now called Jackson State University], local and state police opened fire on students, killing two and injuring 12. So, what some consider a precedent, like Lafayette Square, Washington, D.C., has at least two precursors noted just above. Then and now, such state mobilizations are attempts to silence—literally and figuratively—U.S. citizens practicing their right to assembly, dissent, and undertaking collective action in public space. President Dwight Eisenhower sent federal troops into Little Rock, Arkansas, to ensure Black students could be transported safely to and from school amidst a dense mob of white people violently opposed to racial desegregation.
How does the current political climate impact civil rights?
When Trump first took office, one of the earliest things he did was remove several white supremacist groups from the domestic terrorist watch list. And now he's placed ANTIFA on such a list. So, we've got this situation where people who are trying to uphold democratic practices are being criminalized. It is important to remember that fascism predates anti-fascism. Consider partisan resistance in Italy, Germany, Austria, France, and Belgium in the late 1920s and early 1930s. So-called partisan organizations opposed to fascist regimes were criminalized. People paid with their lives, or with torture and imprisonment. Once we lose any kind of moral, ethical, or political compass, then we have a situation where there's an absence of political and civic culture associated with participatory democracy, with a government and people committed to uphold the rule of law, to protect the most vulnerable. When one hears members of the Republican Party opining during the COVID-19 pandemic that the elderly and the poor—those who are more likely to have compromised immune systems—needed to serve as martyrs for the purportedly healthier segment of the population, we creep into advocacy for eugenics.
Once we lose any kind of moral, ethical or political compass, then we have a situation where there's an absence of political and civic culture associated with participatory democracy, with a government and people committed to uphold the rule of law, to protect the most vulnerable.
Historically, people who decry unequal economic, gendered and racial inequality, and the political situation in the U.S. have often been characterized as outside agitators by local white communities and the municipal police force. This was language of public officials like Bull Connor, the commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham, Alabama, and a symbol of violent resistance to racial equality into the 1960s. But when movements have national and international resonance, they can no longer be characterized as solely local movements, but transnational ones. One interesting rhetorical transformation is the use of the trope “outside agitators” no longer functions as it once did as a means of dismissing civil rights activists and their claims—as if the activists could not come up with a list of grievances on their own. Now we find the term often used to characterize the efforts of white nationalists to turn peaceful protest into violent protest and to stir up chaos, consistent with the rhetoric of someone like Steve Bannon.
What steps are needed to enact meaningful reform?
For too long much popular discussion of racism in the U.S. has focused on racism as acts of individuals. In the case of policing, some on the right would admit the existence of “a few bad apples” that need to be excised from police departments so that police departments can work properly—“like they used to.” But one of the things to keep in mind about the murder of George Floyd is that the police officers now charged with George Floyd’s murder were not all white, and in some sense can be viewed as an example of multiculturalism at its most cynical. The ethno-national, presumably racial composition of these police officers, did not alter the outcome.
Redistribution of resources normally allocated to police departments for militarization should be distributed according to a community’s needs. At the same time, there have been instances where local police officers have knelt down in front of protesters as a display of solidarity with the mass public. Interesting also are comments by retired and active military commanders about the state of the country and lack of leadership right now. The dynamic relationships between movements seeking radical change and those who want to preserve the status quo remind us that democracy, not just electoral but social and economic democracy, is something that often has to be fought over.