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Is the GOP "War on Woke" to Keep Racial & Queer Minorities “In Their Place?”
The next two or three election cycles will determine our nation’s fate: a more widespread democracy or the Russian-style fascism promoted by Trump and DeSantis. Stay tuned and stay woke!
Why are Republicans proudly waging a “War on Woke”? First, some background.
In 1938, Lead Belly sang a song about the “Scottsboro Boys,” a group of young Black men and boys who were falsely charged with rape and sentenced to the death penalty in Alabama in 1931. In the song, he talks about meeting the Scottsboro defendants, saying:
“I made this little song about down there. So I advise everybody, be a little careful when they go along through there — best stay woke, keep your eyes open.”
The phrase had a major revival in the Black community, as NBC News notes, in 2014 after Michael Brown was murdered by Ferguson, Missouri white police officer Darren Wilson. “Stay woke” meant “keep an eye out for white cops who want to kill you” and to stay alert to and aware of other aspects of structural racism in American society.
During the Trump administration, white supremacists began trashing the use of the word, eventually including within its scope the queer community as well as Black people. Today, when Republicans use the word as an epithet, they’re specifically referring to these minorities and people who defend their right to live safely and unmolested by bigots and racists.
Which brings us to the GOP “War on Woke.”
When I was growing up as a lower-middle-class white kid in the 1950s, both Black and queer people were either invisible, “bad guys” on TV and in movies, or essentially minstrels.
There was Liberace, Flip Wilson, and Sammy Davis Jr., but if you were white and watched American TV, listened to American radio, or read American newspapers you’d be forgiven if you didn’t even know gay, lesbian, or trans people existed and thought that Black people were content to live in “ghettos” where they’d periodically and for no discernible reason begin burning down their own neighborhoods.
Back then, much of the inability of non-white, non-cis minorities to break into the media was the result of explicit and lawful segregation and discrimination, although demographics were also at work. The country was overwhelmingly white, and that was the result of law and immigration policy.
The naturalization act of 1790 only allowed “white people” who had lived in this country two years to qualify for citizenship. In 1924 we began to allow immigration of non-whites as a result of the Johnson-Reed Act (which also created the Border Patrol), but at a rate that couldn’t exceed 2% of their ethnic population in this country as of the 1890 census.
It wasn’t until 1965, with a heavy push from Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, that Congress officially changed the law to make our immigration policy colorblind.
That law, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, is one that many Republicans and virtually the entire white supremacist movement in this country assert must be reversed, because it’s allowed people of color into America as immigrants.
The last thing Trump and his Bois want is racial or religious harmony in America. They thrive on hate and division, which the morbidly rich billionaires and big corporations behind them also appreciate because it takes the focus off issues of economic justice and the destruction of the middle class.
From 1965 to 2016, America rejected ethnonationalism and explicitly worked to become a truly multiracial, multi-religious society in which all persons are considered equal under the law. (Trump stopped pretty much all immigration from what he called “shithole countries” during his 4 years.)
The “browning of America” was led by that 1965 immigration law and bumped by Reagan’s “legalizing” around 4 million Hispanic immigrants; today more than half of the children born in America and those entering the earliest grades of elementary school are non-white.
As Jennifer Rubin pointed out this past weekend in The Washington Post, when Obama was elected in 2008 white Christians made up 54% of all Americans. Today they’re a mere 42%: the browning — and agnosticizing — of America is happening rapidly.
And Trump’s followers know it: it’s the main source of their angst. Of the people arrested for attacking our Capitol on January 6th, the vast majority mostly came from counties where white populations are decreasing relative to non-white populations.
Thus, when Josh Hawley, Donald Trump, or Ron DeSantis go off on “woke,” what they’re really complaining about is that America is in the midst of a relatively rapid transition from a white ethno-state (both in practice and in law) into a truly integrated, pluralistic society.
This is a challenging transition for any nation to make, as necessary as it is. Change at the rate of 2 or 3 percent a decade is hardly noticed, but the speed with which Black and queer faces are appearing in media and in power/influence positions in society today has shocked those white bigots who grew up on pre-2000 TV.
In reaction, they’re passing laws criminalizing drag or discussions of race or gender identity.
Hate-talk radio host Jesse Kelly told his listeners how to use the “groomer” slur to defend anti-queer legislation:
“Call them groomers and pedophiles if they oppose it. … Put THEM on the defensive. Make THEM afraid. Make THEM avoid talking about it. … You have the high ground. Use it to destroy your enemy.”
Other nations are grappling with racial and gender identity-based hate, particularly the previously nearly-all-white countries of Europe. Putin’s brutal war on Syrian rebels sent literally millions of brown-skinned Muslim refugees into European countries, causing a backlash that has reshaped politics in virtually every nation on the continent and elsewhere.
Victor Orbán has made straight white Christian ethnonationalism the cornerstone of his party’s rule in Hungary; Modi is promoting a Hindu state in India while clamping down on journalists and dissent; Bolsonaro had all but declared war on indigenous people in Brazil; both Sweden and Italy are now led by hard-right or near-fascist leaders entirely because of this issue of the speed of non-white immigration into their nations.
At least a dozen other democracies are on the verge of failing into ethnonationalism, with Russia daily stirring the pot via bots and trolls on social media in those nations’ languages.
This is one of the greatest political and philosophical challenges of our day: can humans rise above racism and religious intolerance to embrace a higher vision of our common humanity?
The GOP’s answer, much like Marine Le Pen’s in France and Putin’s in Russia, is, “No!”
They’re trying to use the power of the law — things like DeSantis’ “Don’t Say ‘Gay’” and “STOP WOKE” laws — to turn back the clock or at least keep racial and gender minorities “in their place.” The Florida governor, anxious to display his fascist chops, is now pushing for his “Don’t Say Gay” law to extend all the way through high school.
The only way they can succeed here in America — where white cis Christians still control the majority of economic and political power — is to turn our democracy into the same kind of “show of democracy” as in Russia and Hungary: a soft fascism ruled by a wealthy, white autocratic class.
Red states, particularly Georgia, Florida, and Texas, are moving rapidly in that direction.
Will Americans let this happen to our entire nation?
Dozens of states have already gone down this road, and multiple Republican-controlled states are right now withdrawing from the national ERIC voter database so they can engage in surreptitious purging of minorities from their voting rolls (since five Republicans on the Supreme Court legalized the practice in 2018).
On the other hand, people in these Red States are starting to wake up and push back, particularly in response to the GOP’s efforts to include white women among the groups they intend to tightly control by law.
For example, Disney just announced they’re explicitly defying DeSantis and his hatred of LGBTQ+ people by hosting the Out And Equal conference this September.
Over 5,000 people — including representatives of sponsors Apple, McDonald’s, Uber, Walmart, Hilton, Amazon, Boeing, Cracker Barrel, and John Deere — will show up to celebrate lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights and workplace sensitivity training.
In all probability, the next two or three election cycles will determine our nation’s fate: a more widespread democracy or the Russian-style fascism promoted by Donald Trump. Stay tuned, stay active, and stay woke!