Beyond the Spectacle: New Abolitionists Speak Out

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by John Garvey & Noel Ignatiev
PM Press

Our initial reaction to the Rachel Dolezal story was: what’s the big deal? America has always been a land of shape shifters, and if she isn’t stopped for ”driving while black” or followed while shopping, and if her sons are not targeted by cops, then how is she different from the politician who is Italian on Columbus Day and Irish on Saint Patrick’s Day?

However, the more we saw the wolves circling around, the more we came to sympathize with her. By way of example, Matt Lauer on The Today Show kept badgering her with the question, “Are you Caucasian?”-- ignoring her insistence that it was more complicated than that. We’re inclined to think that judgments about her actions and explanations are mostly a matter for discussion among her immediate family members (specifically, her son and her adopted brother), her friends, perhaps her students at Eastern Washington University and her political associates. This is, as Craig Wilder observed, a “local” story. We’re not going to say much more about our views about Ms. Dolezal but we do want to examine the surrounding social and political contexts. Like others, we have been struck by the extent to which the whole discussion has been reduced to a spectacle and how little of it has been informed by perspectives grounded in history or coherent thinking. It has become commonplace to describe race as socially constructed (although clearly people like Matt Lauer have not yet heard the news). The corollary, usually forgotten, to the claim that race is socially constructed is that it can be socially dissolved.

We’re going to approach the issues from the perspective we developed as the cofounders of Race Traitor: Journal of the New Abolitionism, which was published from 1993 to 2005. Our aim was to abolish the white race, by disrupting the institutions and practices that reproduce it (for example, the criminal justice system, the educational system, the labor market and the healthcare system). To do that, we sought to enlist people nominally classified as white who defied white rules so strenuously that they jeopardized their ability to draw upon the privileges of whiteness—people who might be called race traitors—thereby contributing to the birth of a new community.

We were aware that even those who step out of being white in one situation can hardly avoid stepping back in later, if for no reason other than the assumptions of others (unless, like John Brown, they have the good fortune to be hung before that can happen). Many of the people commonly called whites who feel that the definition does not fit them have been told all their lives that they are crazy; some of them have been made crazy. One of our goals in publishing Race Traitor was to reach out to these dissidents, to let them know they were not alone. We confess that had Rachel Dolezal submitted an account of her life, we probably would have published it—not without reservations. But that’s what politics is about—provisional arguments, not repetitions of the same old ones.

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