This country is suffering from myriad crises at the moment: Trust (in government and each other), Faith (in our institutions, including voting), Health Care (during a pandemic), Opioids, Economic Inequality, the Culture War, Political Polarization, Police Violence, a Reckoning on Race, Global Climate (hurricanes and wildfires) and, of course, the biggest of all: the Truth Crisis. It’s overwhelming. You might say we’re afflicted by a crisis of crises.
But we need to add one more: We have a Labeling Crisis.
I realized this while editing Matt Baron’s letter last week in Viewpoints about an online commenter — a Muslim woman, which I didn’t know at the time — who labeled Village Trustee Dan Moroney, now a candidate for village president, a “white supremacist,” which might sound outrageous to anyone who equates white supremacists with white nationalists, the Ku Klux Klan, skinheads, and neo-Nazis. The latter four groups are abhorrent to most of us, but the label “white supremacist” has undergone some expansion in recent years. I resisted the term at first. In fact, I was downright defensive and felt unfairly labeled, but eventually I came around to accepting the notion that America is a culture built on the firm belief that white Americans are superior and Black Americans are inferior. A less strident label for this would be “white dominance” or “white privilege.”
It has always been so and continues to this day, in spite of noteworthy progress. White supremacy (or dominance) has come to mean that pretty much all white Americans — to varying degrees — contribute to perpetuating our white-dominant system. It’s true that many of us work — to varying degrees — to change an unjust system where whites are privileged and “superior” over and against people of color, who are treated as “inferior” and remain generally underprivileged.
But until white Americans finally abolish this two-tier system, we are all — to some degree — “complicit” in perpetuating a system of white supremacy. Though it is not of our making, it is definitely of our continuance. We sustain this system unconsciously, largely through our defensiveness and avoidance of the issue.
Few of us are intentional, deliberate white supremacists (or white dominators), and I know Dan Moroney just enough to believe he is not an intentional, deliberate supremacist. I hope he is working in his way to change that system by examining his own biases when he finds them, which is what I am also struggling to do — and it is a struggle.
Shaming him with a label, however, is like shooting a paint ball at someone else for a societal ill that, to some extent, we all suffer from. The “white supremacist” label has plenty of impact, but it doesn’t get us very far.
If you think Dan is not doing enough to change our white-dominant system in his capacity as a village trustee, you should certainly say so — preferably while providing examples. Maybe it will cause him to do some soul-searching — or not. But we’ll get further without the paintballs. As a reformed paintballer myself, I can attest to this.
The problem with labeling is that the terms are often inexact, confusing, and lead to wildly different interpretations. Those interpretations, we need to point out, are often evasive maneuvers, used by defensive whites to keep from facing the real, and uncomfortable, issues underlying the labels.
“Defund the Police,” for instance, is probably the worst slogan in the history of slogans. It is dramatic and grabs your attention, but it has a serious strategic weakness: It allows the opposition to misinterpret it, often intentionally, leading potential allies to clamp their hands over their ears and tune us out.
What “defunding police” really means is “reinventing policing,” i.e. taking the pressure off police so they can more effectively focus on their real mission — which remains to be redefined by the public they serve, especially people of color. But if we really mean “reinventing policing,” we should say so instead of hiding behind misleading labels.
Black Lives Matter is a far better slogan, but it ran into similar troubles. Defensive, evasive whites decided that it really meant “Black lives matter more than white lives.” As if that could ever happen. What it really means is “Black lives matter as much as white lives.” That’s too long for a slogan, though, which allows too many white Americans to dodge the real issue.
Socialism is another misleading label, thanks to decades of right-wing media propaganda. Conservatives hear “socialism” and have been conditioned to think “Lenin!” “Stalin!” “Castro!” “Chavez!” instead of public libraries, national parks, and universal health care. What socialism really means in this country is “Capitalism with a Conscience.” Conscientious Capitalism is a much better label than socialism.
Calling someone a “racist,” meanwhile, really means, “You have racism within you, just like the rest of us who grew up in this racist system. And your hidden biases at the moment are not so hidden.”
Our labels keep getting in the way of what we really mean. We should say what we mean instead of shooting paintballs. Labelism is a small but significant crisis.
I hope Dan Moroney is working to reduce whatever racism and white supremacy might lurk within him. I also hope he’s working to change our system of inequity. I hope the same is true of Matt Baron, who attached the “terrorism” label to Dan’s accuser, who is Muslim, which was definitely out of bounds. And it was my editing oversight in failing to flag that.
Obviously, I have more than enough work to do on myself before I start slapping labels on anyone.
The only label I want to earn is “antiracist” and I still have a long way to go.