Become a Patreon!


Excerpted From: John A. Powell and Eloy Toppin, Jr., Uprooting Authoritarianism: Deconstructing the Stories Behind Narrow Identities and Building a Society of Belonging, 11 Columbia Journal of Race and Law 1 (January 2021) (264 Footnotes) (Full Document)


PowellandToppin02Now more than ever, it is important to move toward a society of belonging where every life is truly valued, where differences are seen as strengths, and no one is left to suffer outside of the circle of human concern. The world that we instead inhabit is one where nations and people are fearful of difference, increasingly xenophobic, and where lives are valued differently depending on skin color, nationality, ethnicity, and religion. The need for belonging has become all the more urgent in the face of rising ethno-nationalism and authoritarianism around the globe.

In the United States and elsewhere, these phenomena have surged forward at alarming rates. Countries like the United Kingdom, France, and Hungary have elected or flirted with the election of far-right, authoritarian leaders. Across Europe, in Poland and Austria, anti-immigrant nationalist parties are securing blocs of parliamentary power. Demagogic leaders like Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Narendra Modi in India strategically incite social divisions and inflame nationalist sentiment to consolidate and maintain influence and control. Currently, over fifty-three percent of the world lives under authoritarian leadership not including Brazil and the United States. Over one third of nations have walls. The retreat of democratic institutions and norms currently underway is cause for great concern.

In the United States, a rightward surge is underway as the country is in a period of extreme fracturing. To our closest allies and to our neighbors, our divisions appear insuperable. Canadian author Stephen Marche writes in his essay, “America's Next Civil War,” that “there is very much a red America and a blue America. They occupy different societies with different values” and because of the instability this deep divide creates, Canada should disentangle its fate with that of the United States.

Much attention and analysis has gone into understanding not only deep division, but the underlying forces animating authoritarianism and what can be done to mitigate its effects. The predominant discourse around this phenomenon, however, has operated in an incomplete fashion. It has opted for an explanation decontextualized of identity construction and intergroup dynamics. The literature undertheorizes the social conditions created when a society's in-group constitutes itself around the idea that it has the right to dominate the rest of the population and the strong desire this creates for individuals to be a part of and build their identities around membership in that group. This claim to the entitlement to dominate varies across contexts and can be built upon race, religion, ethnicity, gender, or other characteristics used to form exclusive group membership. However, in the West, and in the United States in particular, the in-group forms around the aggressive guardianship of whiteness and the presumptions to domination that it claims. Attachment to this group and the tending to identity it performs lie at the heart of authoritarianism in this setting.

Understanding this central aspect will determine the strength of the response to this destructive force and whether or not society can root it out. Namely, attempting to thwart authoritarianism without unseating whiteness may suppress the force of authoritarianism temporarily but will leave the underlying causes at the center of authoritarian surges intact. Accommodating authoritarian sensibilities, as mainstream analyses of authoritarianism call for, demands an unjust exclusion of marginalized identities or suppression of characteristics that make them different. While it is true that people are innately sensitive to difference and that people who tend toward authoritarian reaction are more likely to perceive difference as threatening, it is also true that much of what people understand as differences are socially constructed. Dominant identities like whiteness are constructed when differences are given social meaning and labeled as inferior. Doing so makes affiliation with people who have these “inferior” qualities particularly abhorrent to people within the dominant identity group who have a heightened sensitivity to difference. Suggesting that people who are “othered” as marginal and inferior either erase their differences through assimilation or have their membership within society restricted and regulated is misguided because it naturalizes the social construction of dominant identities and ignores the often-violent forms the construction process takes.

This Article begins with an outline of the common characterizations of authoritarianismas articulated by two of the leading academics on the phenomenon, behavioral economist and political psychologist Karen Stenner and New York University professor and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. The pair argues that certain people are naturally predisposed to desire authoritarian control in times of rapid change, as these periods of rapid change increase anxiety among this group. This Article critiques that perspective by offering that although Stenner and Haidt get much correct about the nature of authoritarians, their analysis lacks context on the socially determined interpretation of change. Not all change induces extreme anxiety. Here, we explore why certain populations are interpreted as a negative change that creates backlash and root that exploration in the process of othering, or building an in-group and identity around dominance, superiority, and exclusion.

In Part III, we attempt to incorporate this framework into intergroup dynamic theory and explain how the United States' dominant identity of whiteness shapes intergroup relations.

In Part IV, we illustrate how the debate over immigration policy is influenced by and filtered through this sense of white entitlement to dominance. Those situated within this paradigm, we show, do not necessarily see it as a force at work. This oversight leads to a misinterpretation of the immigration issue and erroneous policy prescriptions, in our view.

Part V explains in greater depth what we mean by “situated within this paradigm.” We hold that the Western notion of the self, or the liberal subject, as well as the basic Western social structure is not egalitarian but based on a hierarchical ordering of humanity. Whiteness is defined as existing at the top of the ordering and constitutes the dominant in-group, the rest of humanity being othered into lower rankings within the stratification. Because the liberal subject and the basic social structure are ideologically interpreted as egalitarian, the othering and stratification is not observed, constituting the paradigmatic blindness.

Part VI shows the consequences for society of constituting the self in this hierarchical manner, with a particular focus on globalization, neoliberalism, and polarization.

Part VII concludes with offerings on constructing a self that does not need to dominate or be a part of an in-group built around superiority and dominance. We also offer recommendations for all, but particularly for the social justice movement, around the work needed to move society in this direction--toward a just world where all belong.

[. . .]

We should be clear: we are not suggesting that there is not deep anxiety for conservative white males, nor are we suggesting their anxiety be ignored. Any path forward must include this group, but we should be equally clear that inclusive fairness and belonging cannot be built upon continued domination either by whiteness or by neoliberalism. As Brown states, “th[is] politics of [resentment] emerges from the historically dominant as they feel that dominance ebbing.” Whiteness and patriarchy provided the basis for dominance. But, it is also true that these forces serve as the basis for this group's dominance as well as domination, “as whiteness, especially, but also masculinity provides limited protection against the displacements and losses that forty years of neoliberalism have yielded for the working and middle classes.” In the building of a broad and inclusive “we,” this group cannot be excluded. There must be space even for the formerly dominant, as there needs to be recognition that the construction of in-group hierarchical identity involved their subjugation as well--as long as it is unequivocally clear that the broad and welcoming space created for this purpose and the co-constitution of a new “we” cannot in any way rely upon a need to dominate.

As the targets of oppression and the process of othering, there is an urgent role for people of color and other marginalized groups in overcoming the current social structure and advancing a new meta-narrative. People of color, women, the LGBTQ+ community, and the differently abled, along with their allies in the social justice movement, are not simply joining something that is already there--this group is contributing to a new future. The price of the ticket is not erasure but compassionate engagement and practice. People of different identities will not necessarily become the same, but the sameness and differences existing between different identities will be held together by belongingness and caring. The goal then is not to displace white people or any other dominant group experiencing rapid change with a new dominant group. The goal is to displace dominance. In its absence, social boundaries become more porous and identities become more multiple and fluid.

The stories and practices of a new narrative must have space for many “we's” and aspire toward no categorical other. The new stories must be an array of everyone's stories. These stories cannot just appeal to the head but must also engage the heart. One challenge is to put these stories into practice. This Article is a call for such practice recognizing that the grammar, institutions, and stories can borrow from the past but must be open to a new future where all belong.

john a. powell is the Director of the Othering & Belonging Institute and a Professor of Law, African American, and Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

Eloy Toppin, Jr. is a researcher and policy analyst at the Othering & Belonging Institute where he focuses mainly on housing justice and anti-displacement issues.

Become a Patreon!