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Time for White Allies to Move Past Perfunctory Activism

A local chapter of Black Lives Matter tells white allies to put up or shut up.
Counter-protesters demonstrate during a White Lives Matter rally on October 28th, 2017, in Shelbyville, Tennessee.

Counter-protesters demonstrate during a White Lives Matter rally on October 28th, 2017, in Shelbyville, Tennessee.

"It is white America who invited them in, and it is white America who has the responsibility to see them out."

That was Black Lives Matter Nashville, offering a statement about why the group decided not to participate in counter-protests against two "White Lives Matter" rallies held in Tennessee last Saturday, one in Shelbyville and the other in Murfreesboro. In a sense, it might be easy to wave aside the two rallies as insignificant, at least on optics: In both instances, the counter-protesters' numbers trounced those of the white supremacists, and the day ended without a devastating repeat of the tragedy that struck Charlottesville, Virginia, in August. Rather than roil the towns, the rallies didn't do much more than flash and fizzle, suggesting: See, racists have no place here.

But don't they? As BLM Nashville pointed out, while counter-protests are important, it's equally important for "any counter-protest ... to discuss the myriad ways black people are disproportionately and negatively impacted by the systemic policies that undergird this country." The group's statement is a needful check against platitudinous activism with a blinkered focus on the needs-no-explanation bigotry parading through the streets: A true counter-protest would also decry less-visible forms of racism.

Most important, BLM Nashville added that these rallies are "times for white people to step up."

This response recalls a sentiment I've heard repeatedly, particularly among black Americans in the painful months since the 2016 presidential election: that the onus of confronting racism, whether overt or more insidious, shouldn't fall solely on the marginalized group. (As the writer Roxane Gay put it at a racial justice conference I attended a few days after the election: "I'm done with ally-ship. I'm done with people who allow themselves the distance of ally-ship.") BLM Nashville's challenge to its white allies illustrates how an anti-racist group can eliminate the usual distance afforded well-meaning people by prodding these same people to tussle, explicitly, with the existential dangers looming over black lives.

Of course, the group isn't advocating that anyone stop protesting indefinitely; the unblushing display of white-nationalist sympathies in America's public spaces has become too routine, and too real, for that. The deeper point is that black people have been defying white supremacy for as long as we've been scraping for even a modicum of equality—which is to say, since America's first days of human bondage—and every white person who doesn't put in the same degree of work to grapple with racism, of all kinds, reinforces it. The awfulness of the news has become normal. Perfunctory activism mustn't.