In the early 1990s, when researcher and activist Loretta Ross was monitoring the White supremacist movement for the Center for Democratic Renewal, a national anti-Ku Klux Klan network, she realized that most fight-the-Right organizations were neglecting a crucial part of the picture: the role of gender. Months after Ross released a report in 1992 documenting the overlaps between the White supremacist and anti-abortion movements, the first abortion provider was shot. With a few exceptions, including PRA founder Jean Hardisty, and organizers and writers Suzanne Pharr and Mab Segrest, Ross said, few were paying attention.
“I’ve always regretted that I didn’t have more power at the time to convince the fight-the-Right organizations to take gender more seriously,” said Ross. Today, almost 30 years later, Ross said, that’s no longer the case. “We now have a bench,” said Ross. That is, a critical mass of researchers and activists, as well as a body of research and literature probing this intersection from multiple angles: from the role that White women have played in propping up segregation, to how family planning discussions that center on population fears can facilitate abuse of women of color’s rights, to how anti-abortion activists co-opt the language of anti-racism to castigate reproductive choice.
In November 2018, Ross and PRA convened a diverse group of activists, researchers, and scholars at the Blue Mountain Center, in upstate New York, for a wide-ranging conversation about this relationship, to build off each other’s work, and consider strategies to fight back.
“This retreat was about bringing together people who did opposition research on the anti-abortion movement, the White supremacist movement, the anti-LGBTQ movement, and on and on,” said Ross, “so that we could recognize that we’re fighting the same people but we’re encountering different strategic and tactical choices making them look like they’re differentiated movements.”
“The stakes are way too high for us not to be looking at those intersections,” added former PRA research director Zeina Zaatari, a co-organizer of the retreat, “because it means that our movements continue to be more divided and our ability to really transform the system that we live under, of White supremacy, is constantly weakened.”
PRA interviewed a number of the participants on what that relationship is, why it matters today, and what we should do next.
PRA: How do you see the relationship between gender and White supremacy in your own work?
Kenyon Farrow, writer and activist focused on criminal justice, economic justice and HIV/AIDS issues: White supremacy has always depended on notions of gender. When you think about the formation of White supremacy, there was already an idea of the inherent value, normalcy, and correctness of White bodies. That also structured how physical bodies of Black people and non-White people, down to their genitalia, and their own notions of gender and identity, were inappropriate and not as correct as the White, European dominant ways of being. So I always say to people that, on some level, White supremacy defines what kind of man or what kind of woman you are, based on the racial hierarchy through White supremacy.
DuVergne Gaines, director of the Feminist Majority Foundation’s National Clinic Access Project: White supremacists and violent anti-abortion extremists are almost always one and the same, whether we’re talking about the Army of God; the sovereign citizen movements; or militias, current and past, that have members that were actively involved in the most egregious acts of violence against reproductive health care providers. The antisemitism that we saw [at the Tree of Life mass shooting] is so closely connected to the vein that runs through the violent anti-abortion extremist movement, which has been very antisemitic since the very beginning. These are also the same groups that have managed to co-opt sacred movements like Civil Rights or Abolition, or use terms like the Holocaust—one of the major groups is “Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust.” The appropriation of these terms is so disgusting and widespread. But I don’t think that we’re making the connection between the violent anti-abortion movement and White supremacists in terms of gender and White supremacy.
Betsy Hartmann, professor emeritus of development studies, author of The America Syndrome: Apocalypse, War, and Our Call to Greatness: I’ve been very concerned about the way Malthusian framings of population issues—the belief that overpopulation is spiraling out of control, creating scarcity of food, water, or other resources—plays out on the bodies of women of color, by trying to reduce their fertility. I’m concerned about how that ideology has been used very strategically by right-wing nativist groups to try to woo liberal environmentalists, by appealing to overpopulation arguments about immigrants. I think this is a way to get liberals and even many people on the Left to accept that it’s okay to control other people’s fertility for the greater good, or the good of the planet, and to not see the consequences of that kind of thinking in terms of women’s bodies: which women’s bodies are being targeted, historical policies of population control, and even current policies of population control, which unfortunately is very much alive and well, despite it being cloaked in the discourse of women’s rights. Convincing liberals and Leftists or pulling them into these kind of apocalyptic discourses, often based on colonial and racist tropes, doesn’t cause White supremacy. But it helps keep it alive, keeps people from seeing their own internal racism, and keeps people from having international solidarity with groups that they should have solidarity with.
Elizabeth Gillespie McRae, author of Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy: Historically, we have constructed White supremacy as a masculine kind of political expression: the violent actions of lynching and the Klan, or electoral politics that have been dominated by men—the George Wallaces and the Ross Barnetts of the world. I’m interested in how constructions of motherhood and womanhood have been used, particularly by White women, to further the politics of White supremacy.
My thesis is that White women are segregation’s constant gardeners. They both produce and are caretakers of racial segregation in various iterations, particularly in four areas:
- In social and public welfare, where White women used those roles and the dictates of their positions to build White supremacy into the progressive-era state;
- In public education, which in the Jim Crow South meant creating a kind of Jim Crow citizenship, so that generation after generation would learn histories that celebrated a version of the nation’s past that elevated White folks and that erased Black achievement;
- In electoral politics, particularly in the South of the 1920s-‘50s, where White Southern women were some of the first deserters of the Democratic Party, encouraging the Democratic South to vote for a Republican president because of the steps that both Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman had taken to dismantle racial segregation;
- And in Jim Crow storytelling: the ways they tell public stories and shape public narratives that support a larger system of White supremacist politics, like their national crusade against the United Nations, and its multicultural, human rights education, which they cast as an international intrusion on national sovereignty and on family autonomy.
Suzanne Pharr, activist and longtime member of the Women’s Project in Arkansas: White supremacy is a particular methodology of authoritarianism that builds in Whiteness to the capacity to control people and to control them for economic means, or societal means, for every level of society, and to narrow the lives of people by that kind of control.
I think what you see in the South is a combination of extraordinary male supremacy blending with White supremacy. Because there was already tremendous abuse of women and poor people, the introduction of slavery made it this extraordinary form of oppression. There was fear and danger in the lives of all women, but particularly Black women, in that time, with the constant threat of sexual violence, and the end of your life. To have that so ingrained in the way power and money was produced has had a long, long effect, and made it fertile ground for continuing to grow that. But it also has made it fertile ground for tremendous resistance. I think that’s why you see the extraordinary power of Black women in the South—that rising up that comes out of having been tested by fire, becoming a stronger steel, a stronger metal. And I think the intensity of that experience and carrying that experience within the culture, in terms of analysis and action, has been the great gift in this century to movement work.
Loretta Ross, co-founder of SisterSong, the National Woman of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, co-author of Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organizing for Reproductive Justice: First of all, we have to look at the relationship between gender and White supremacy by examining the doctrine of blood politics. The Far Right really does believe that they’re a mythical Aryan race, and so to maintain the purity of their blood, they have to contain the behaviors of their women. That’s the doctrinal basis from which their strategies emanate. One of the things they popularized is an antisemitic claim that Jewish doctors are responsible for genocide of the White race through abortion. They also claim that White people are at risk of racial extinction, and so the only way to repair that is either to increase the White population—which they are trying to do with coerced and forced breeding of White women—and also to reduce the non-White population. They do that not only with violence but through policy, through immigration restrictions, and now through their discussion of repealing the 14th Amendment, which granted birthright citizenship to African Americans and immigrants. So we have a strategy that intersects gender and White supremacy very clearly.
In 1994 I was one of 12 Black women that created the reproductive justice framework. African-American women were constantly engaged in a struggle against population control and eugenics, which is what brings us into conversations about White supremacy. We have to fight equally hard for the right to have the kids that we want to have; and then once we have our children, our children are blamed for every ill in American society, including the mortgage crisis; so then we have to fight for the third tenant: the right to raise our children with dignity in safe and healthy environments. So that’s reproductive justice: the right to have a kid, not have a kid, to raise your kid.
Mab Segrest, co-founder of Southerners on New Ground and North Carolinians Against Racist and Religious Violence, author of Memoir of a Race Traitor: Oppressions around gender and women’s roles are as old as humans, whereas race is a particular construct that’s very close to 500 years of colonialism. Yet racism—because it was sped by the genocide of indigenous people, by the transatlantic slave trade and plantation system, and the continuing afterlife of slavery in this country—has had a trajectory that dominates the American narrative. And yet under it, inside it, on top of it, and always, there are these questions of gender relationships, of constructions of male and female, masculinity and femininity. We’ve been able to pull back, over my lifetime, and get a clearer sense of their webbed roots, which is now called intersectionality: how they all really are working together, how the factors that constitute our reality is the entanglement of these forces.
Monica Simpson, executive director of SisterSong, the National Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective: Gender and White supremacy are inextricably linked; you can’t talk about one without talking about the other. When we think about reproductive justice, we think about the human right to have the children that we want; to not have children—to end those pregnancies or to prevent pregnancies with dignity, without shame; and to have the children that we have in healthy and safe environments. Ultimately it’s about the human right to bodily autonomy.
When we think about the rising rates of maternal mortality in this country and we see Black women dying at rates four times higher than White women in this country, we can’t talk about that without thinking about the ways in which White supremacy shows up in health care in general. We can think about that in so many other pieces of our work: abortion access and the lack of access to birth control; the criminalization of folks who are looking to make their own decisions and live their lives in the ways that they want to.
PRA: How has the Right used this intersection?
DuVergne Gaines: Anti-abortion groups have co-opted the ugly history of our country to try to say that abortion providers are part of the eugenics movement. This is part of the effort to call abortion a “Black genocide”—justifying their White supremacy through race-baiting or accusing the people who are trying to support access for all people of being racist and turning it on its head.
Dr. Barnett Slepian—the victim of one of the most egregious and disturbing assassinations in this country—was a Jewish physician in upstate New York who [in 1998] was killed in his kitchen by a sharpshooter, James Kopp, who was a member of the violent anti-abortion group Army of God. It was no mistake that Kopp was targeting that Jewish physician. And [anti-abortion leader] Mark Crutcher was intimately involved with defending Kopp, as part of his legal defense committee.
More than 20 years ago, Life Dynamics, the anti-abortion group led by Crutcher, sent a very antisemitic “bottom feeders” mailing to every single medical school in the country, to potential doctors. The mailing had a cartoon that said, “What would you do if you found yourself in a room with Hitler, Mussolini and an abortionist and you had a gun with only two bullets?” The answer was, “Shoot the abortionist twice,” and the accompanying cartoon had a grotesque caricature of a Jewish male doctor.
Crutcher continues to be involved with the mainstream anti-abortion extremist movement. He was involved with founding the Center for Medical Progress, which produced the smear videos against Planned Parenthood. And he continues to run a website that uses these postcards and cyber-postcards that can be sent anonymously to any physician or anyone in the United States. One of the postcards has this Jewish caricature of a physician in a KKK shroud. There are four or five others that hearken back to that “bottom feeders” mailing.
All that’s been whitewashed or completely ignored by the movement in terms of this deep connection between antisemitism and White supremacy and the promotion or advocacy of violence and dehumanizing of these physicians and health care providers.
Monica Simpson: We see lots of examples of how the Right has taken this intersection and used it for their benefit. Around 2010 we had billboards that hit the state of Georgia—then unfortunately went across the country—that read, “The most dangerous place for an African-American child is in the mother’s womb.” These images and billboards ran rampant in our communities and made us have to really stop and address: one, the shaming that was happening, of Black women in particular, shaming folks for their own decision making; and two, to think that this is part of a larger strategy of this right-wing force that we’re up against, that they are using really intentional strategies at this intersection to grab attention, to penetrate the hearts and minds of our communities, and to continue to keep us in a defensive posture—which is exhausting but also prohibits us from really moving proactively.
PRA: Do other intersections come into play when we think about gender and White supremacism?
Kenyon Farrow: There are a lot of ways this plays out in terms of sexuality and LGBTQ rights. For a long time, I was focused on the racial dynamics of the marriage equality argument, which relied very heavily on notions of what it meant to be an appropriate gay and lesbian citizen. I used to describe it as well-scrubbed White gays and lesbians who were making the case for same-sex marriage as “we’re just like you, White America!”—to the intended exclusion of people of color family configurations, whether they were queer or not.
Secondly when you look at gender, White supremacy, and HIV, it plays out in so many ways. Early on in the epidemic, it took women dying of AIDS to push groups like ACT UP to think about the ways in which the social safety net was being structured so that people could get access to Medicare and Medicaid. Or that the case definitions for what an AIDS diagnosis was did not include any of the things that women dying of AIDS suffered from. Even now we look at issues of access to medication, we still see these racial and regional gaps in who has access to treatment—particularly in the Deep South, where more than 50 percent of the people in the United States who have HIV live, mostly Black, and do not have proper access to treatment that we know actually saves people’s lives.
Betsy Hartmann: I see an important intersection with environmentalist movements. The women’s movement, women of color groups, the reproductive justice movement, and the environmental justice groups in the U.S. have done a great job in trying to dismantle the old population control ideology and practice. But nevertheless it persists, and Left and liberal environmentalism can buy into it by not looking deeply enough at the structural roots of environmental degradation and climate change. It’s easier to blame rising human numbers than to actually look at powerful corporations, governments, and militaries, and their role in land degradation, and of course fossil fuel’s role in climate change. There’s a whole discourse that blames climate change on overpopulation, as if poor women in Africa are causing climate change. But I think because population control and Malthusian ideology, especially in the policy realm, use numbers and demography strategically, it legitimizes it as if it’s scientific. And so it can be a form of scientific racism that people are not waking up to. You find many well-meaning, good environmentalists out on the frontlines that still have this overpopulation view.
Mab Segrest: Sexuality is such a powerful force, such a non-rational force, such a sometimes overpowering force. It can be a very scary force if you’re in a very fundamentalist culture that tells you that sex is sinful and you can go to Hell. So as queers we were able to see up close both the terrors of Christian hegemony—fed by these fears and myths about people’s sexuality—as the Radical Right made abortion and homosexuality into its two issues to draw in evangelical Christian voters.
For those of us on the Left of the queer movement, we also saw all of this intersectionally, and saw how the Right was shaping these scapegoating campaigns that would divide us from each other and just throw a big cloud of mystification over what was actually happening with the economy and the development of authoritarian government. So even though there were moments and movements of division that would pit Black Christians against gay people, we saw the connections. I could see how the person in the White Patriot Party, who had harassed and threatened a Black person who applied to be a sergeant in a prison, two years later shot to death three guys that they thought were gay. So it was many of the same actors in the same larger ideology.
PRA: How did the stakes feel now compared to other times?
Kenyon Farrow: The stakes right now feel higher than they ever have in my lifetime. After Obama’s election, with Sarah Palin and the rise of the Tea Party, I actually thought a lot of things that we’re seeing now were going to happen on a much faster scale. It took a little bit longer, but this idea that the government, health care, and social safety net infrastructure have been taken over by immigrants and undeserving poor Black people became such a predominant narrative that Trump becoming a candidate makes perfect sense. I think what we’re seeing now in terms of naked violence and hostility to Black and brown people is a result of that period. But I think the stakes, in terms of preventing things from getting even worse and potentially catastrophic, feels like a battle that we all have to be engaged in full on at this point.
DuVergne Gaines: I think the stakes right now are incredibly high. We’re seeing a moment of mass incarceration, not only of communities of color but immigrant communities, and also this crawling out—from underneath the places we wanted to believe didn’t exist but always have—of overtly racist groups and their patronage at the very highest level of government. In 2015, we had the single most violent moment in anti-abortion extremist history with the shooting in Colorado Springs. And then you have these shootings, whether it’s the Charleston shooting or the synagogue shooting. And lest we forget the fact that we expect Roe v. Wade as we know it to be overturned. People are literally talking about a “post-Roe world.” That criminalization of abortion is right in front of us now. And I think that’s a terrifying prospect—the way it’s encouraged this violent wing and encouraged many to cross that line and feel comfortable doing so. We’re seeing clinic invasions. We’re seeing death threats on the Internet and through social media outlets at unprecedented levels, in the thousands. It’s almost impossible to keep track of it’s so prevalent and it seems inevitable: the violence and the fact that it likely will increase. So the stakes are extremely high.
Betsy Hartmann: That’s a good question and a hard one to answer. In the apocalypse mindset you often think the thing you’re living through right now portends the end of the world. I easily slip into that. I’ve been trying to think that there have been other really bad times, like the War on Terror and the War on Iraq, the Reagan era and the nuclear era, when we thought the world really might end in the Cold War.
But today I would say that I feel incipient fascism is more possible. I feel the risk of fascism, not just in the United States but in right-wing populist movements around the planet, is very high right now. Of course there’s always been weak systems of democratic governance and voter suppression, especially in the South, but we’re seeing such a destabilization right now, and a president who really is all about stirring up hate: hate against immigrants, people of color, and women. We’ve had presidents who relied on the politics of fear. And certainly George Bush, Jr., also relied on anti-Islamic fear. But the way it’s playing out right now, I think we have to be extremely worried about incipient fascism and also whether the arming of the right-wing will turn into a stronger paramilitary movement. I don’t know. But now is the time to stop it.
Elizabeth McRae: One of the shifts in the way that White segregationist women organized in the late ‘60s is, when they realized they were losing the legislative and legal battle for legal segregation, they shifted to this colorblind rhetoric. So instead of trying to organize people around segregation, they emphasized constitutionalism, or talked about family values and the erosion of the nuclear family. I think one of the lessons for today is to be really careful about how we understand the political language that’s being employed and to understand that something that may appear colorblind on the surface has deep roots in this sort of segregationist and White supremacist politics. After Charlottesville and Unite the Right, White men have become the focus again. And certainly those actions need to be understood and considered. But we also have to be cautious to not miss the ways that, in more subtle or less violent ways, White supremacist politics is also being reproduced by White women working in the same kinds of capacities that the women in my book were. We’re at a moment that’s pretty horrifying, and so the tendency for us to look at the violence and miss the other ways it’s reproduced is pretty tempting.
Loretta Ross: It’s dangerous to ask a Black person how we feel about the stakes right now, because we have a different history of engaging with this experiment called democracy. We have a wry saying in the Black community: “At times like these, it’s always been times like these.” But I’m concerned that we could squander an opportunity to see how many White people have woken up and have split with White supremacy, if we fail to consolidate and appreciate the gift that Trump has given us—that he has broken White solidarity. Our job is to make it a permanent split. So that the 47 percent who didn’t vote for him don’t drift backwards because we neglected to seize the strategic opportunity.
One of the problems, and I hope this doesn’t sound too cynical, is people who are just newly awakened to the threat of the deconstruction of democracy are not the best qualified to lead the resistance. We’re dealing with an entire Left that’s into fascism-denial, when we’ve been like Chicken Little, forever saying, “They’re coming, they’re coming,” up against a lot of disbelief of the White Left saying that we were overstating the case. Well they’re here now. There’s a real question of whether the White Left will be humble enough to recognize the errors they made in underestimating the nature of the threat. And whether they’re prepared to accept that it is the people who are most vulnerable and most threatened who need to lead this struggle.
Mab Segrest: The stakes are higher now than they’ve been in my lifetime. I can’t say they are higher now than they were in 1850 or 1830 for Black people who were in slavery. I think there were no higher stakes than that. But that ideology really has never gone away and in fact even though Confederates lost the war and surrendered, they won the peace in about four or five years. After Reconstruction they were able to reestablish White hegemony by other means and we’ve never broken that paradigm.
I think most people who have been paying attention for a while, and a lot of people who haven’t, are quite alarmed. But the other alarming thing is the diametrically different way people in this country view the same set of incidents. What can galvanize and alarm me and my community doesn’t count on the other side. It reminds me of the 1850s.
Monica Simpson: I think we’re at a very urgent moment, for us to really dig deep and to think creatively, strategically, and intentionally about this intersection and the ways it shows up in our campaigns and our activism and organizing. Because it is true that our opposition has been at this strategy for a minute and really moving hard and fast on it. That means we have to move faster and harder in order to pull that people power together to be able to combat the forces around this.
The beautiful thing is that so much of our work, especially in reproductive justice, because it is so intersectional, because it is a movement that has been rooted in the human rights frame, we’re poised for this. We’re ready for this.
PRA: What’s the way forward?
Kenyon Farrow: We have to keep fighting. And one of the things that I have been hopeful about is that around the country people have mobilized early. From the inauguration on, people have really increased their demonstrations of outrage. I also think that people working from different tactics has been important: having people run for office; grassroots base-building; thinking about media, particularly social media, where we’re seeing real Orwellian distortion campaigns, whether they’re domestic or come from international actors trying to create more chaos to destabilize the U.S. right now, all of the things that people are doing from different vantage points are going to be increasingly important.
Elizabeth McRae: The defunding of public education began to escalate in the aftermath of the Brown decision. And so investing in public education is a way that we can counter some of the Jim Crow storytelling. We—folks that are not for a White supremacist politics—also need to reach out to White women and men who’ve been schooled in segregationist politics for so long that it seems natural, and begin to denaturalize that. [KJ6]In ways, some communities on the Left have done that, but on the Right there’s still that reproductive aspect that needs an intervention.
Loretta Ross: Perhaps because I’m really invested in weakening the opposition as well as strengthening our side, I’m doing a lot of work on trying to help people live Whiteness differently. Whiteness that’s not in support of White supremacy but is also not paralyzed by useless White guilt and the savior complex. I’d really like to see a redefinition of what White womanhood is: that White women have the right to self-determine how their bodies get used, and they don’t have to be at the service of the settler colonial state anymore. I don’t know if it’s going to work, but I know it’s necessary, because if people of color could defeat White supremacy, it would be gone. It’s going to take White people working with people of color to defeat White supremacy.
Suzanne Pharr: I think we’re on the rise. Are we doing great in terms of policies? No, the policies are beating the hell out of us. But I think we have within us the power to move in a big way. It’s simply a matter of organizing. And for me, who usually does doom and gloom, that is kind of amazing. But I believe it to be true. If you mapped all of those progressive forces—from the Civil Rights movement, and those who followed the Civil Rights road, the women’s movement, the issues around environment—if you take all of those voices that we call progressive, that’s a very large number. In a collective sense it’s an unorganized number. But if you could gather all of those forces together, and figure out how we can align ourselves in a certain direction—not all to be doing the same thing, not all to be following the same path, but all looking in the same direction—I think that’s what movement is. When you get this critical mass of people looking in the same direction and moving in that direction in all their various ways.