Racism and misogyny are essential tools wielded by the reigning class—and they’re fundamentally un-democratic.
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All societies function because the individuals within them share a set of assumptions about human behavior, from the banal to the monumental, many of which are not only unspoken but wholly invisible to those who hold them.
We discover and rediscover the truth of this with varying degrees of amusement and horror when assumptions are revealed to not be shared—from the realization that a neighbor has different ideas about how early is too early to mow a lawn, to the shock of learning that what’s polite at home will get your ass kicked abroad. The larger the assumption and the more powerful those who hold it, the more likely it is to remain invisible, shaping lives in the sense that air shapes lungs. And just as airborne particulates ravage lungs, often because of their invisibility, so too are lives ravaged—narrowed, immiserated, ended—by many of the assumptions that serve as a society’s unspoken building blocks.
At this point in the discussion, the American mind will likely turn to white supremacy, as well it should. American society, conceived and still controlled by the class of people that’s always benefited from the ravages of racism, functions not just according to the obvious dictates of bigotry but according to a secondary set of assumed truths that often remain unspoken in mainstream discourse, even as the ideology that undergirds them is increasingly revealed.
Take, for instance, how we talk about politics.
All ideologies of supremacy require a strict dichotomy. There are those to whom power inheres, and those who are, by nature, lesser than and must be dominated; rejection of the premise threatens the whole and requires strict policing. This dichotomy reflects what philosopher Simone de Beauvoir called “Subject” and “Other”: The Subject is fully rounded and capable of agency, the Other defined by and in contrast to the Subject, only able to act by reacting—that is: engaging primarily with and responding to the Subject, who acts freely.
The American conversation about politics functions within the assumed truths of white supremacy’s Subject-Other dichotomy, not just in the form of openly racist roadblocks placed before the concerns of non-white voters (an expression of white supremacy so visible as to be nearly blinding), but also in largely unchallenged notions like the existence of a “Latino vote,” or that the word “rural” means “white.”
Americans who aren’t white must first engage not only with overt racism but also with the roles and expectations white supremacy silently assigns them. No, there isn’t a uniform Latino voting bloc, let’s ask the Cubans who have been here for decades and the Tejanos who have been here always; no, “rural” isn’t a synonym for “white,” let’s ask Black farmers fighting systemic racism. In our two-party system, the terms of engagement are set by the party that’s animated by white supremacy, and everyone else must engage with and respond to it, first.
Which is not to say that there are no racist white Democrats—because there are and in droves—but there’s only one party wholly predicated on racism: Former President Donald Trump rose to political possibility among Republicans on the strength of the birther conspiracy; launched his successful presidential bid with anti-Mexican hate-speech; was elected with the giddy support of white supremacist organizations; spent his presidency promoting the interests of “very fine people” seeking a return to Jim Crow; and incited a violent insurrection intended to overturn American democracy and disenfranchise Black and brown voters. And perhaps more to the point, rather than disavow any of this, the GOP has doubled down. In the wake of Trump’s historic loss and in the midst of a pandemic that’s still claiming hundreds of American lives every day, Republicans are focused on voter suppression.
Yet in the face of this, American discourse doesn’t demand the GOP take up the mantle of small-d democracy or retire from the field—instead we demand, again and again, that Democrats throw themselves against the wall of Republican intransigence. If the social justice needle doesn’t move—if, for instance, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act founders on a Republican filibuster—Democrats, not Republicans, will be pilloried. The GOP as Subject, everyone else as Other.
But white supremacy, as foundational and pervasive as it is, isn’t the only supremacist ideology on which American society rests, the only source of assumed truths that shapes, narrows, and often ends human lives.
Misogyny is a supremacist ideology, too.
Misogyny also insists that there are some to whom power inheres, and some who are, by nature, lesser than and must be dominated. It, too, posits a Subject and an Other—indeed, it was this Subject and Other of which Simone de Beauvoir originally wrote. Rejection of the premise threatens the whole and requires strict policing.
This is what stood and still stands behind the moral panics about the role of women in society, from the specter of women gaining financial independence to women serving in office; from women flying planes or playing soccer to women controlling their sexual expression or reproductive organs. The patriarchy requires strict male supremacist division and has been or is threatened by all of that—as well as by the very existence of gay men, lesbians, bi, queer, and otherwise not cis-hetero humans. The visible existence of trans people brings the whole thing down.
If gender and sexuality are social constructs and not biologically determined binaries, if I can’t know at a glance if you’re dominant or dominated, the male supremacist ideology and power structure on which our society is built crumbles. Seen in that light, it becomes clear that efforts to undo marriage equality and legislation conceived to erase or punish trans folks aren’t rooted in “protecting” anyone, but in the imperative to maintain male supremacism. For men to be dominant it must be clear who and what a man is.
In the American context, misogyny is central to white supremacy’s ability to function. Women of any color have value only insofar as they serve and uphold white supremacy; white women are required to serve as tools of enforcement, both active and passive, whether in calling 9-1-1 on a Black man walking his dog, or serving as the dog-whistled “beneficiaries” of racist government policies. Consider the very different cases of, say, Mollie Tibbetts, a young white woman raped and killed in Iowa by a Mexican immigrant, and Heather Heyer, a young white woman killed by a white supremacist in Charlottesville. Try to guess which white woman’s death outraged the talking heads on Fox News. Then consider the case of Breonna Taylor.
It’s not enough to argue against the assumed truths that define American life; we must reject the entire framework outright. Democrats have to adopt the approach of Sen. Raphael Warnock, who last month said, “Folks keep asking what [Democrats] are going to do about the filibuster. I think they ought to ask my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, what are they going to do about voting rights?” We could pose another question: Folks keep asking what Democrats are going to do about new abortion restrictions. I think they ought to ask Republicans, when are they going to acknowledge women’s humanity?
Stop allowing those who dehumanize the vast majority of humanity to set the tone. Stop talking about “the Latino vote” and start talking about Latinx Americans who vote; stop saying “the heartland” when you mean “white America”—and stop saying “suburban moms” when you mean “white Republican women.” Insist on pulling that which is hidden into the light of day. Ideologies of supremacy are fundamentally anti-democratic; allowing misogyny and racism to frame our discourse and dictate our politics does violence to our every effort to form a more perfect union.
Our democracy is a fragile, barely born thing. If we aspire to genuine democracy—if we want American society to stop functioning as a white supremacist patriarchy—we must begin to be clear on which truths are self-evident and which are lies.
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