Deplorable Politics

please stop conflating liberal electoral politics with radical movement politics

In a recent opinion piece, Vann R. Newkirk II starts with Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” comment in order to eventually argue “Civility is not the highest moral imperative — especially in response to perceived injustices”

Throughout his argument, Newkirk rightly points out how recent calls for civility are burdensome to people of color: they preclude the political use of shame, and work to suppress honest and necessary expressions of frustration and rage.

In the aggregate, though, these calls for civility threaten to impose a burden on people of color. If calling out racism is largely counterproductive, using a systemic definition like white supremacy is also unacceptable, and stigmatizing or shaming those who espouse racist beliefs is self-defeating, what tools remain? The only form of productive debate that people of color can engage in, it seems, is the gentle persuasion of white people who may or may not hold retrograde views.
…Sometimes the goal of argument is to vent. Sometimes it is to simply tell the truth. Sometimes it’s just to loudly proclaim one’s own humanity. … Civil discussions with people who themselves may have already breached the bounds of civility are difficult.
One way around that difficulty for marginalized folks is abandoning civility. The labels of racism and bigotry can impose a social cost on bigoted actions, policy preferences, or speech, regardless of whether hearts or minds are changed. Stigma can be useful.

But weirdly, this argument about the value people of color derive from calling out racism is also used to argue why Clinton’s “call out” was a good idea. I know we were all confused after watching Clinton dabbing on Ellen DeGeneres’s show, but (psssst…) she’s a white woman.

This seeming inconsistency is patched over by arguing that Clinton was creating “social incentives” to not be bigoted. Clinton was deploying shame on behalf of people of color, not herself. But only a sentence later, Newkirk weakens this argument into

She was not intending to convince Trump supporters to not be bigoted, but to draw people who see themselves as opposed to bigotry into her corner.

So, was Clinton deploying shame and stigma — these critically important tools for people of color — in the name of fighting racism, or in her own name? Is there a difference?

Shortly after that, Newkirk returns to the more salient theme of value to people of color, now engaged in radical social movements.

…calling out racism aids its victims in understanding the powers at play in their own lives, and is the foundation of solidarity for many people of color. There is a reason why movements like the civil-rights movement and Black Lives Matter that have had dramatic impacts on the course of American history have developed around rather vivid and unflinching call-outs of white supremacy and racism, even leveled against their own white members.


A canonical example of shame deployed by the modern Civil Rights/Black Lives Matter movement was Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford’s interruption of Bernie Sanders’ Seattle speech. In conjunction with the Netroots Nation interruption, this action was credited with pushing the Sanders campaign to more explicitly address racism. The politics here were clear. As Marissa later wrote

That fight revealed what is true about race in America: that we are embroiled in the white supremacy of our past and in many ways unwilling to address the crisis we now find ourselves in. By bringing to the public our attempt at resistance against the seemingly progressive forces that oppress us, we called the entire system into question. By going after the left, we moved the needle on what was considered racist, helped raise the stakes around what it means to believe in justice.

Regardless of what you think about them, these are radical, movement politics.

When Hillary Clinton said

“You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that.”

Clinton was not interested in moving “the needle on what was considered racist.” She was trying to “draw people who see themselves as opposed to bigotry into her corner.” She was doing electoral politics.

Note the distance from zero to Clinton and Clinton to Trump. Which is larger?

One way pundits chose to defend this statement was to double down on its factual accuracy. For instance, Jamelle Bouie cited this Reuters poll/study (see image)

In keeping with Bouie and Newkirk’s arguments, YES. Viewing blacks as less intelligent than whites is fucking white supremacy. That is a 100% accurate use of the term. “Oh, I mean, I’m not a nazi, I just believe white people are smarter, less lazy, more polite, and less criminal than black people.” Of course that’s fucking white supremacy. Thank you Kevin Drum, for writing one of the stupidest takes in this whole charade.

BUT LOOK AT THE FUCKING CHART. There’s an awful lot of white supremacists supporting Clinton, aren’t there? How do you square that with a strategy of solidifying your base by appealing to their better natures? One way is to understand that when Clinton calls Trump’s supporters racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic deplorables, she’s giving all of the racist as fuck white Democrats a pass. They all get into the club. They’re with her.

This deployment of shame is in many ways the exact opposite political usage of BLM protestors. Rather than force white liberals (and progressive Bernie supporters) to examine their own racism, Clinton’s brand of shame gives them a safety blanket. Rather than a black activist speaking truth to power, we get a white politician speaking half-truths from power.

That pundits continue to help Clinton co-opt the movement for black lives after she’s lost the election is actively harmful, to both electoral and radical politics. Black radicals need the tools of white shame to be sharp, for all of the reasons Newkirk argues. But this is especially true, and especially effective when they stick it to their liberal allies. To take just one issue, a lot of the worst police departments in this country are in large Democrat controlled cities. We will not get any change until a lot of milquetoast Democratic liberals in those cities (in and out of elected office) get their feet held to the fire.

And the Democrats need to win a lot of seats back at the state level. A LOT OF SEATS. It’s so bad that people are seriously considering whether Republicans might gain enough power to amend the constitution. If we want to strategize honestly about white supremacy in electoral politics, sooner or later that’ll mean figuring out how to enlist a lot of white supremacists to the Democratic banner. (see above chart) The majority of states where Dems need to win seats are places where Democratic politics are necessarily compromised, making this reality only more salient. If I get to make a choice, I say we compromise on divisive forms of anti-racist rhetoric (particularly coming out of the mouths of white politicians) rather than compromise on anti-racist policy. But y’know. We can keep reinforcing this Maginot Line instead.

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