On the Truth and Importance of “I Told You So”

As millions more become politically engaged in these dark times, there has been a fair amount of Columbusing (discovering what was already there). “This is the beginning of a movement” or “first they came for the immigrants and we said not today.”

It is not the beginning, many black, latinx, native, LGBTQIA activists have been here for decades. And we are on at least the third line of that poem, because first they came for (Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Requia Boyd, Eric Garner, Devin Diamond and the many transgender Americans murdered and ignored, the victims of the Burge Chicago torture site, etc) and we didn’t speak, because we didn’t live in Ferguson or Cleveland or Chicago, we weren’t black and trans, we weren’t in prison or jail. We haven’t spoken, we haven’t truly fought, and we are all complicit.

Celebrating one’s entry into a house that already existed, as if you built it is erasure of efforts of activists who’ve been building at great personal cost for decades, and those already there have been justifiably upset. The messages sometimes take the form of “What took you so long?” and “We’ve been here for years,” and “I told you so.” While I agree with the content of these messages, I also see that they can be counterproductive. The resistance needs all these people, let’s keep coaxing them to more engagement, more marches, more action, more politics. There is lots of work to be done, and reminding us that we don’t really belong because we just got here is going to make it easy for us to return to apathy at the first sign of victory.

obama sign

But even as I want us to carefully nurture and develop a new generation of (yes, white) activists, I hope we don’t brush aside these “I told you so’s.” I hope we can see that what may seem like resentment is a defense of a crucial, central tenet of this movement. If we are truly joining a movement, we must recognize what that movement is up against and where our opposition gets its strength.

Just as this cannot just be a movement that starts against Trump, it cannot end with Trump either. Trump is just one radical and extreme success in the long history of another quite successful movement. That movement is not the shady right wing billionaire families, although they have certainly contributed to its new ascendance. That movement is not the Republican Party in Congress, although it has been entirely captured in a way unprecedented in the modern era.

I suppose we could call this movement a lot of different things, but the label I choose is “white supremacy.” And we new (white) activists must recognize that the opposition is not our President or even his administration, but the movement that made his rise possible. Not just his family’s wealth enabled by racist housing policies in the early 20th century, but his ability to spout racist nonsense conspiracy theories on television for years in the 21st century. Not just his election but the racist gerrymandering, voter suppression laws and the various structural consequences of the historical victories of white supremacy that gave him an edge for victory.

We must fight not just our President’s dark vision of crime and American carnage, but we must also recognize that our own quiet question on whether that elementary school is really “safe” continues to endorse a separate and unequal society. A short-sighted political focus on the white working class in the Midwest pivoting to Trump ignores the massive disparities that empower white supremacy, not just as a force that fuels and emboldens extremists in the Republican Party, but a force against which the Democratic Party knows it can’t win. For example, differential mortality (black people die sooner) is a result of health disparities. These differential mortality rates affect electoral outcomes. A recent study estimated that differential mortality, but would have resulted in nearly 1 million more Democratic votes in 2004, which would not have changed the Presidential result, but could have changed many local elections. Of course there are other examples for other inequalities (wealth, incarceration), we must realize that just as racist attitudes thrive when people live separately, white supremacist political power thrives in a separate and unequal society.

Let me close with this: Some progress is real. The election of Barack Obama happened and represented progress. But at key moments, Obama, just as Lincoln, had to promise not to fight white supremacy. As Sandy Darity and Tressie McMillan Cottom remind us, he kept that promise. He might protest that the constraints of his job and American electoral politics meant he couldn’t. Whether coincidence or reaction, his rise coincided with a new ascendance of unapologetic public white supremacy and empowering of white nationalists within the Republican Party.

So, as one of my activist heroes @prisonculture often says, we need to pick our lanes and fight, whether it be FightFor15, or Medicare4All, canvassing for your local democratic congressperson or calling to oppose a new abhorrent executive order. But let’s also keep our eyes on the prize: a civil society where the institutions fulfill the promises our well-intentioned white leaders have made in the past, where we American patriots ensure that our republic is not separate, but indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. This can only be done by recognizing and joining to fight the movement that has turned back these enlightened aspirations at every turn: white supremacy.