Dim, energized chatter filled the Casa Loma Room on Friday as groups of students, faculty and community members enjoyed refreshments and anticipated a keynote address by feminist activist (and more recently, associate professor at Hampshire College) Loretta Ross. The event accompanied the tenth annual Women, Gender and Sexuality Student Conference held on campus the following day.
From the moment people began filing in and throughout her presentation, Ross sat in a large armchair at the center of the stage.
Co-founder and National Coordinator of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, Ross is a lifetime advocate for human rights. She helped coin the term “reproductive justice” alongside other African American women in 1994. She describes the term as a framework that calls not only for abortion rights, but also the right to have the children that black women want to have without being subject to population control and to raise children in a safe and healthy environment.
Her speech to the university community centered around “White Supremacy in the Age of Trump,” which is also the title of the course she instructs at Hampshire College. She announced the objective in her speech is to diagnose and define the problem of white supremacy in its current form under the Trump administration, then offer a solution to the problem.
Ross questioned a large portion of the population whom she said had suddenly discovered the white supremacist movement when Donald Trump won the 2016 election on November 9.
“Don’t y’all feel like a whole lot of people suddenly woke up?” Ross said. “Like this election was an alarm clock for white fragility or something? And we’re like, ‘wait a moment people.’ White supremacy didn’t arrive in America with Donald Trump. White supremacy is why there IS an America.”
She reminded her audience of the expulsion and murder of Native Americans from their homeland by a newly founded America, and the slave trade that involved stealing Africans to North America to use them for labor and profit. Today, Ross describes white supremacy as a “totalizing system of ideas” that affects all of society. She explained that a white person may or may not be a white supremacist just as a person of color may or may not be one. In other words, “it’s not a race of people, it’s a body of ideas” that includes Christian nationalism, xenophobia, hatred of immigrants, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, nativism and more.
One of its manifestations, Ross continued, is an attack on democracy by Trump’s voters in what she calls a “fascist moment.”
“Do you know the majority of Trump voters think its O.K. to do away with democracy?” Ross said. “They are in support- they’re jealous of Putin! They think we should have Trump for life as president!”
Ross didn’t offer evidence of this majority seeking to deconstruct the country’s democratic system or presidential term limits, or that they’re envious of the Kremlin – though it is true that Trump has repeatedly praised Putin and seemingly joked about abolishing term limits à la China’s President Xi Jinping.
As explanation for the Trump voters whom she claims are staging an assault on democracy, she called upon projections that white people will soon be a minority in the United States to support her argument.
“Basically [white supremacists] are demographically doomed,” Ross said. “And so how are they responding to that? Well first of all, they know that when the majority of voters are no longer white then they can’t depend on those voters to support white privilege or white supremacy. So what do they do? ‘Let’s deconstruct the voting system!’ You think its an accident that we have this massive multi-state attack on voting rights taking place right now? That they have gerrymandered the districts so that the politicians choose their voters instead of the voters choosing their politicians?”
Her analysis of voting rights has garnered support in recent years. Some on the political left have called out Republicans for enacting restrictive voter identification bills and voter purges in certain states as a method of reducing turnout – which some have argued favors Republicans.
In addition, Ross called out the Trump administration for their “fake news” crusade that complicates media consumption for people seeking factual reporting,
“Once you convince them all that it’s all fake then it doesn’t matter what [they] do,” Ross said.
She asserted that white supremacists seek to deconstruct the judiciary system (a claim she did not corroborate with evidence, though Trump’s administration has made a concerted, often secret, effort to construct a more conservative Supreme Court). Finally, she expressed deep concern about the growing conservative push for a constitutional convention.
“Right now it takes thirty-four states to call for a constitutional convention,” Ross said. “And Republicans now control thirty-two state legislatures. They’re only two states away from opening up the U.S. constitution to re-decide who is an American citizen, who should get voting rights as American citizen, whether or not life begins [at conception], whether or not we should respect international treaties that we’ve made with other countries, whether or not we should just have a divided America with a white Aryan homeland over here and a Jewish state over here and a black state down here and all this kind of stuff. This is what these bozos are actually discussing!”
But despite these warnings, she gave a case to the audience that the Trump presidency is not all doom-and-gloom for anti-racist activists. In fact, she called the president “the gift that keeps on giving,” due to one unexpected side effect of his election.
“What [Trump] has assuredly done, perhaps unintentionally, [is] totally splinter white solidarity,” Ross said. “Because I’m far less concerned about the white folks who voted for him than the ones who didn’t.”
Ross expressed excitement over how activists can “take advantage of this historical moment” in which she claims white support for white supremacy has been cut “damn-near fifty-fifty” for the first time in her lifetime.
“This is an opportunity to demonstrate if its possible to organize white people to defeat white supremacy,” said Ross. “And I think it’s not only possible, but it’s necessary. ‘Cause white supremacy was created by white people, so of course it’s going to take white people to deconstruct it! We didn’t create this shit.”
She declared it her mission to actively organize white people against white supremacy, which is one of the reasons she decided to teach a course at Hampshire College. She wants to inform “the children of the one percent” about white supremacy under the current president.
“When I teach these young people,” Ross said. “The first thing that they say to me is how pissed off they are. Because all this information had been denied to them in the past. We’re not talking about underprivileged schools coming from Baltimore, right? We’re talking about kids whose parents pay fifty thousand dollars a year for them to go to high school who are robbed of a real education. So of course they’re pissed off.”
She told her audience that her students had believed the work of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Act marked the end of the Civil Rights movement, and that these students’ outrage are the result of being “brainwashed” by consumerism.
“The scariest thing happening right now [to] the Trump administration is not Stormy Daniels,” Ross said. “It’s those kids in Parkland. ‘Cause they had hoped that they had drugged these kids to sleep with consumerism. With craziness. With ‘weapons of mass distraction,’ they call them.”
Ross offers her full support to this young, awakening political consciousness, promising to participate in the March for Our Lives protest in Washington D.C. However, her solution to combating white supremacy is not to utilized those who have already found themselves on “our side;” her plan is to “call in” those who have contributed, knowingly or not, to white supremacy.
“I discovered in myself the capacity to work with people who have been in the klan, and the Aryan nations,” Ross said. “People who have done horrible things. And of course my forty/fifty years in the women’s movement means that I’ve always had conversations with what I call my ‘problematic white women allies.’ So I’m adding my bodies of experience together to say ‘I’ve learned how to call people in instead of calling people out.’”
Indeed, Ross has learned to interact with people whom she would be justified in despising. Besides klansmen, she told her audience of her open dialogues with incarcerated black men who have been convicted of rape and murder (Ross being a rape survivor herself, this seemed particularly brave). She plans to use this knowledge to write a book entitled “Calling in the Calling Out Culture,” and calls for others on the political left to join her in her efforts to open a dialogue with those whom most of civilized society openly condemn and the everyday person ignorant of the effects of white supremacy–like her students at Hampshire College.
Ross closed her speech by asking her audience to join her on a “human rights revolution,” invoking the last sermon of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that encompasses everything from women’s rights to environmental justice to transgender rights to education justice and so on.
“Teaching human rights is as radical as teaching slaves how to read,” Ross said. “You don’t know what they’re going to do with it, but you’re damn glad they know how.”
Photo contributed by Redlands Bulldog photographer, Kristyn Paez.