Common interests and the experience of oppression

October 29, 2018

Leela Yellesetty and Tess Carter respond to the discussion at SW about their article on how support for Trump and the right can exist among those facing oppression.

WE ARE glad to see that our article (“Are white women to blame for Kavanaugh?”) has provoked such thoughtful debate and engagement in response to it.

This is an extremely complex and multifaceted topic which deserves far more elaboration than one article can provide. In fact, our original draft included a section exploring why so many white women voted for Trump, which unfortunately needed to be cut for length.

We agree with most of the points raised by Jamie Hadel (“Moving from blame to anti-racism”), particularly that the frame of “blame white women or not?” is not particularly helpful. Our intent was certainly not to downplay or excuse the hold of racist ideas on large sections of white women and men. In retrospect, our argument could have been formulated in a different way to make this clearer.

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That said, even if we reject the framing of “Are white women to blame?” we’re not quite as sure as Jamie that it “is not the question that the movement demands of us to ask.” In fact, this is a question that is posed to us within the movement regularly, in various ways, and we need to take apart the different arguments and politics underlying this question.

One argument is about whether our movements can rely on voting for Democrats to further our interests, which Alexis Grenell obviously takes as a given, but so do countless activists and radicalizing people we work with.

The other argument is that all white women share a common material interest in upholding white supremacy (note that this is a distinct question from whether they embrace white supremacy). If this is true, then we have no hope of building solidarity.

We argue that there is a polarization caused, at root, by profoundly an unequal and crisis-prone system, which has meant a hardening of racist (and sexist) ideas among a section of white women, while another section is radicalizing to the left and open to anti-racist arguments and action.

In order to marginalize the former and strengthen the latter, we need to be able to counter arguments that white women have no place in our movement, while also understanding the very real barriers that racism places on our efforts to build solidarity.

WITHOUT ACKNOWLEDGING this reality, some socialists can fall into the trap of taking a reductionist approach to questions of oppression.

Readers’ Views welcomes our readers' contributions to discussion and debate about articles we've published and questions facing the left. Opinions expressed in these contributions don't necessarily reflect those of SW.

We believe the basis for solidarity is based on common interests — as Jamie put it, not against a particular individual or group of culprits — but against a capitalist system that thrives on exploitation and oppression. But having common interests does not mean we all share the same experiences or suffer to the same degree under this system.

A movement that does not acknowledge this — and that does not actively champion the interests of the most oppressed and challenge the prejudices of the relatively privileged — is doomed to failure. It is, after all, the very real material differences in life experiences that make oppression such an effective tool for maintaining capitalist rule.

For these reasons, we cannot agree with the characterization of the 2016 election results as having nothing to do with sexism towards Hillary Clinton, as Jeff Melton put it in his Readers’ View (see “Views in brief”).

We, of course, do agree that there were many other factors, not least of which was her neoliberal politics, which offered nothing to working people. However, there’s no reason to think that frustration with the effects of neoliberalism can’t be channeled into misogyny (and racism, too, of course).

Anyone following that election will recall numerous sexist attacks launched at Clinton, from subtle to nasty (it’s not as though Trump and his supporters limited themselves to a principled critique of her economic policies).

While it is unclear that lower white male support for Clinton made the decisive difference in the results, it is true that she fared worse than Obama among this demographic, but slightly better among white women (though of course she won neither group).

Polling most definitely shows a correlation between sexist attitudes and support for Trump — attitudes that are, of course, still quite widespread in our society. There is no reason to downplay this fact. Even if we disagree with her politics, we can and should defend Clinton against sexist attacks — because they legitimize misogyny against all women and weaken our fight against it.

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