Young “White Activism”

Patrick Velasquez, Ph.D.

Patrick Velasquez, Ph.D.

During the past week I have seen several African Americans on television, including the twenty-first century stepin fetchit, Stephen “Screaming” A. Smith on ESPN, express their admiration for the white people that have joined protests over the murder of George Floyd. They also describe this white “activism” as a cause for optimism regarding the possibility of positive change toward more racial equity in Amerika. Interesting.

I often say that there are few advantages to getting older. Aging is tough! But one advantage I have over some others is a longer historical perspective. I remember marching in Colorado in the 1970’s against racism toward Chicano communities. I had the honor of speaking at a rally for Jesse Jackson in the 1980’s when he was running for the U.S. presidency. Thousands attended the rally. In all my experiences with protests and rallies during the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, I saw white folks participating.

It seemed that young whites lead most of the protests against U.S. imperialism in Viet Nam in those days. Four young white people lost their lives when they were murdered by National Guard troops in Ohio in 1970. In those days it seemed like structures in the U.S. would never be the same, and when Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, I felt that a new era had come and could never be reversed. Young whites seemed to have rejected the racism, classism, and sexism of the previous generations.

Fast forward to the early 1990’s. I’m working at UCSD and I’m attending a protest against racism in the Price Center with a couple of other Chicano staff members that were of my generation. One of them asked, “Hey, whatever happened to all those young white activists that were protesting twenty years ago?” My other colleague responded, “Well, they cut their hair, the dudes shaved their beards, they all put on business suits, and their parents found them good jobs. Now, they’re part of the same establishment against which they protested.”

With this perspective, I find it hard to be optimistic about young “white activism.” White culture in the U.S. can be described as simply “capitalism,” and a fundamental dimension of Amerikan capitalism is an emphasis on styles, trends, and fads. Why buy a new car or new clothes if the old ones still function unless its to keep up with the styles? This fuels capitalism. How many of these young whites are out in the streets because it seems like the trendy thing being done by their friends? And we can certainly talk about all the young and older whites that are undercover white supremacists trying to incite violence at protests to discredit the movement for change.

I hope I’m wrong in this analysis but I doubt it.

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